An open letter to Richard Drax MP, Con. South Dorset
Dear Mr Drax
I wrote to you some time ago to ask you your views on the subject. It was clear that you were then unprepared to countenance any change from First Past the Post, though I found your reasons unconvincing. The fact that the majority of MPs agree with you would seem to be due to the fact that it suits their convenience rather than that it is good for the governance of Britain. This is immoral. Therefore, and in the light of recent events, I ask you whether you are prepared to reconsider.
When in 2013 Mr Cameron promised a referendum on Europe, he should immediately have commissioned a study on what Brexit would mean. He should then have stressed what is still the statutory position that referenda are only advisory. Nevertheless he should have brought forward legislation to amend the fixed term parliaments act to provide that in the event of a convincing Brexit vote, a general election would then be called. Mr Cameron’s dereliction of duty has created the biggest constitutional crisis since 1688.
Having established the people’s view on Europe it would have been far better, rather than rushing for the exit, to have sought allies amongst those countries who have become Eurosceptic, and fought either to secure reform that is fair to all (rather than just in the UK’s interest) or to force a break up of the EU. The way we are going about it is guaranteed to make us enemies and the country will suffer.
Now we have the situation in which the vote is regarded politically as more legitimate than any decision made by a government elected with just 37% of the vote and 25% of those who could have voted. The referendum trumps parliament, but the people have no chance to change their minds. All this implies that First Past the Post is not fit for purpose. Our democracy such as it was is shattered.
Mr Cameron’s poor judgement is just one example of the increasing ineptitude of governments of both stripes. This is largely hubris. For example ministers seem to have given up seeking evidence to support their decisions, or evaluate their effects. Also decisions seem to be made for presentational purposes. The whole truth is rarely told, and the mainstream media (including the BBC) are content to parrot what the government says when they are not simply trying to stir up hatred.
British prime ministers have too much power and as Lord Acton said, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. One major reason for this is that too many MPs put loyalty to their party ahead of loyalty to constituents or to their country. This is not surprising as in ‘safe’ seats the MP owes his or her seat to the local party rather than voters, and PPSs and junior ministers are chosen more for their party loyalty than for their ability.
One MP who has not sold her soul to the party is Dr Sarah Wollaston (Con., Totnes), who was selected to fight the 2010 election in an open primary. A bold experiment by Cameron, but she asked too many questions and so it has not been repeated. Recently as Chair of the Health Select Committee she had the temerity to challenge the government’s story of NHS funding. Good for her; that is the kind of MP we want. She has suggested more open primaries, and an open and proper selection procedure for PPSs. Needless to say this will not happen while we retain First Past the Post.
My solution is a voting system which is both more proportional than First Past the Post and also gives voters the chance to consider other qualities than the candidates’ party. Single Transferable Vote is the obvious choice. For example, South Dorset, West Dorset and North Dorset might be merged into one constituency returning three MPs. It would be likely on past showing for two Conservatives and one of another party (or possible an independent) to be elected. It would be in the interests of the Conservative Party to field three candidates and so Conservative voters would have some choice of which candidates they prefer.
The conurbation of Bournemouth and Poole might be one constituency returning a number of MPs.
David Smith, [address supplied]
Christians try to engage with government over a number of public issues, but must often be frustrated by dumb government decisions.
On its website the Joint Public Issues Team (formed by several non established Christian churches) has posted a document entitled, “Faith in Politics: Preparing Churches for The General Election 2015”
In the section ‘Constitution and Democracy’, there is one significant omission, namely any mention of reform of the House of Commons or the way in which MPs are elected. I find this odd as it is the dominant chamber and is the body that gives the Prime Minister her enormous power. The authors appear to have assumed that now most MPs have adopted the ‘settled view’ that the existing First Past the Post ,(FPTP) voting system be retained, reform was off the agenda. I argue that this is too timid a view. Of course the document was written before an election in which the relative numbers of MPs from each party elected differed widely from the relative numbers of votes cast, but it could do with updating in view of renewed interest in voting reform. A Conservative government was elected with just 37% of the vote or just under 25% of those who could have voted. But it is not just that most of us did not want them, but also that under FPTP party loyalty ensures that there is virtually no check on the Prime Minister’s power.
As Lord Acton said, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Under our system the temptations are almost irresistible. The effects on the quality of government are:
Those in power make stupid mistakes through not looking at the evidence,
They use their position to benefit themselves, their friends, or their donors, and
They bend the truth to avoid disclosing bad news on the grounds that they are the best people to run the country and thus must on to power.
The best remedy is not to try to identify and punish the transgressors but to lessen the temptations. I think this something that Christians and those of other faiths should argue for. I believe that the adoption of the Single Transferable Vote system for electing MPs would help in this. This is the system that the Church of England has used in its synod elections some the 1920s. In a booklet entitled ‘An Ethical Case for Electoral Reform: A Christian Approach’, retired bishop Colin Buchanan expresses the wish that the C of E ‘preach what it practises’. I have written to Lambeth Palace suggesting that at least parishes be encouraged to discuss the matter but nothing has resulted from this. Perhaps the non established churches can afford to be braver.
I believe those of faith need to take a lead because most of those currently interested in politics have allegiance to some political party which gets in the way of radical thinking about reform. Polls indicate that most people support a fairer voting system but need motivating to do something about it.
For more information on voting reform refer to:
Christians speak out on a number of public issues such as inequality and the treatment of refugees. In so doing they are implicitly criticising government policy, although without naming names. They seem very shy however of commenting on the behaviour of those who make our laws. I argue that they should. Laws should be based on some sense of Justice and if our politicians lack that sense then we are in trouble; laws are likely to favour the powerful and oppress the rest of us.
99% of humanity recognises most of the Christians’ moral code (Note 1). in that we all know how we ought to behave although we dismally fail to do so. In spite of our failures it enables us to function most of the time as a harmonious society. Britain is nominally at least a democracy. This means there has to be a meaningly dialogue between our representatives and the rest of us. Without a common sense of morality that would surely be impossible.
In 2007 the journalist and commentator Peter Oborne documented the hollowing out of our democracy since the early 1980s (Note 2). Prior to then, the various institutions making up the old establishment were respected, thus providing valuable checks and balances. The new political class that has emerged from the wreckage has arrogantly asserted that they are morally superior to the rest of us – a judgement that few outside the ‘Westminster Bubble’ agree with. I see no indication that the Cameron governments did anything to reverse this process.
The Brexit vote has revealed deep divisions in society. Following the vote there has been a marked increase in the reported incidents of hate and violence. But it was not the referendum and the vote that caused the divisions. Britain has been deeply divided along economic, educational, social and geographical lines. A study published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that those who feel marginalised were most likely to vote for Brexit. (Note 3).
But why did the marginalised vote for something that is as likely to harm them as to benefit them; why take such a colossal risk? Some will have believed the line that immigration is the main problem and that only Brexir can address it. Others though have lost trust in an elite that has failed to look after them and tries to conceal the fact. The elite wanted us to remain in Europe so the marginalised voted for Brexit. Mrs May’s government has chosen to respect the vote without questions, and in consequence seems unassailable. The opposition is disunited, and so the Conservatives are able to implement policies that harm the majority. If, as the Brexit process goes forward, it becomes clear that most people will suffer significantly, then people will listen to demogogues, and we are likely to land with an inevitably inefficient populist dictatorship. The Brexit vote together with the Trump victory suggests that democracy will only flourish if politicians are more honest and acknowledge their mistakes.
I believe that most people going into politics start with high ideals. The trouble is that they face strong incentives always to vote the way the party wishes, no doubt justifying it to themselves by the thought that unless their party gains or retains power then they cannot implement any of their programme. They tend to believe that their party is right and that the main thing is to overcome the opposition in order to implement their policies. As Green MP Caroline Lucas noted when she first entered Parliament, many MPs when responding to the division bell, will not only not have heard the argument for and against the motion but may be unaware of what motion they are voting on. Some need to be physically pushed by the whips into the right lobby. Much debate in parliament thereby loses much of its point. The fine detail of parliamentary Bills is discussed in Public Bill committees which considers amendments. It is very rare for any amendment not supported by the government gets through. Select committees, which typically scrutinise the performance of government departments, produce some good reports but they rarely influence government policy. For the leadership, distracted as they are by lobbyists and party funders, gaining and retaining power becomes the goal rather than the means. Sound bytes, generated by ‘triangulation’ (Note 4) replace coherent and principled statements of policy.
If an individual seeks power for its own sake it is a sign of self conceit, which to a Christian is the worst of the sins. Self conceit has unfortunate social consequences in that the individual will think of him or her self as infallible, which is never the case. Also self conceit is competitive by its very nature and will attract enemies. A little humility would surely improve the quality of government.
Many successful business men realise they are subject to the discipline of the market, and accept that they may have to abandon cherished beliefs and listen to advice. Under our current system, politicians do not face such clear discipline and are therefore subject to much greater temptation to succumb to Pride.
If we could reduce the temptation for politicians to behave badly we could expect better government, but how do we do this? One way is to change the voting system for the House of Commons. Currently the First Past the Post (FPTP) system is used. FPTP is usually criticised as being unfair to voters in that it is not proportional; many votes are simply wasted; and many voters feel they have to vote tactically (Note 5). Any proportional system would address these failings, and most campaigners are open minded about what system is chosen.
But I have a second objection to FPTP. It encourages MPs to behave badly. Firstly under FPTP most constituencies are ‘safe’ seats. Politicians have worked out that they only have to worry about swing voters in marginal constituencies. Using a technique known as ‘triangulation’, instead of promoting their full manifesto they focus on the narrow range of concerns raised by these key voters. Although effective, this is fundamentally dishonest. Any proportional system would make this much less effective. However any system based primarily on voting for a party rather than an individual generates excessive party loyalty, which prevents MPs identifying flaws in government policy, and allows ministers to yield to the influence of lobbyists or party funders rather than the grass roots. This leads me to support a particular system known as Single Transferable Vote (Note 6). Basically voters should be able to choose not just which party to support, but also which candidates of that party should be elected. This means that MPs loyalties would be more to their constituents and less to the party.
Other proposals for reform have been put forward but I find them less convincing (Note 7).
I have argued that the case for reform is essentially a moral argument. You do not have to be a Christian or indeed to follow any organised religion, to accept these arguments. I believe that Christians should nevertheless engage with this issue for the following reasons:
I am not asking them to criticise particular persons or parties, but instead to argue for incentives for all politicians to behave better.
Arguably Christians should be paying more attention to moral issues than non Christians
Far too few people currently think about how parliament and government should work. Many of those who do have strong party loyalties which I feel gets in the way. Christians could show a lead by lending some moral authority to the debate.
Someone needs to challenge the arrogant assumption by the majority of MPs that only they should determine how they are elected.
Many people criticise MPs for their expense claims and for in other ways using their office for personal benefit. However there are worse sins than that. The habitual mendacity of members of governments of either stripe, condoned by lazy and compliant media, does much to distort the democratic process. Furthermore their self conceit, leading as it does to serious mistakes and the quest for power for its own sake, leads to bad government. Reforms are needed to reduce temptation.
Note 1: excepting the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity (or Christian love), which Christians claim for themselves and are bestowed on humans during baptism.
Note 2: Peter Oborne, ‘The Triumph of the Political Class, Simon and Schuster, 2007
Note 4: Triangulation: a technique first used in the campaign to elect George W Bush in 2004. but then copied by Conservative and Labour in 2005. ‘Swing’ voters in marginal constituencies are identified, their particular concerns are identified and used to create ‘sound bytes’ as the main means of mass communication. A lively account of this is given in Chapter 14 of Peter Oborne’s book ‘The Triumph of the Poltical Class’ , published in 2007.
Note 5: Commonly identified defects in First Past the Post: see http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/first-past-the-post . An excellent account by retired bishop Colin Buchanan entitled ‘ An Ethical Case for Electoral Reform: A Christian Approach’, is published by Grove Books www.grovebooks.co.uk 2015
Note 6: Single Transferable Vote (STV): see http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/single-transferable-vote, A site devoted to STV is https://stvact.wordpress.com/
Note 7: Other remedies: In 2009 a local GP, Sarah Wollaston was selected as the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Totnes by open primary. That is to say that the local Conservative Association put forward a short list of possible candidates which all registered voters could vote for regardless of party. This was Cameron’s idea which has not subsequently been repeated. Sarah was elected and has been a conscientious back bencher and was subsequently made Chair of the Health select committee which has criticised the government on its less than candid statements about NHS funding. She had hoped to have had more access to ministers to advise them of problems with policy. She has suggested an extension of open primaries, but that is unlikely to happen. Parties would not see it to be in their interest and it would not be practical to try to force them to do it. She has also made suggestions about the ‘payroll vote’ see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/feb/10/creeping-patronage-house-commons-mps-whips
The Campaign for a Free Parliament (CFP) http://freeparliament.org.uk/ , which has been endorsed by Lord (Digby) Jones: The idea is to select independent candidates by open primary and aim to achieve a majority of such in parliament. In the Copeland by election their candidate got just 2.6% of the vote and it was not clear that he had been selected by open primary. Apart from that I believe parties are necessary in order to present competing visions of how the country should be run.
Nationwide customers should be aware that Flex Account debit cards are useless when traveling outside Europe as the Nationwide automatically blocks the first transaction in any country outside Europe and it is not always possible to phone them to get the account unblocked – for example the phone numbers quoted on debit cards are likely to be out of date, and we are not adequately warned of such changes.
You can inform Nationwide that you are traveling outside Europe but the automated fraud detection system ignores this. This is not the case with other banks. The Nationwide has persistently refused to say in writing whether all such transactions abroad are blocked or not, in spite of the fact that we are constantly told over the phone and in branches there is nothing to worry about – there are new algorithms. Our experience is sufficient to conclude that the first transaction in any country outside Europe will be blocked.
In the latest incident Nationwide’s message to the card holder was sent 12 and a half hours after the attempted transaction. It was a miracle he had enough cash, otherwise he would now be in a Miami jail having missed his flight home, he had to leave all his possessions with a restaurant while he found a bureau de change.
We ask as a minimum that the Nationwide admits publicly that using a debit card abroad is at best problematical, but we fail to see why their fraud detection algorithm cannot be altered so as to take note of what the customer has told them. We fail to see how this is unfair to some members as they claim. They are not listening.
Unlike the board of a bank which is at least answerable to its major shareholders, the Nationwide board, which is in theory answerable to members, would only listen if at least half of all members voted not to reappoint directors whose term had expired.
And by the way, prepaid money cards are not accepted by everyone; if you want to pay to change your flight details tough luck. You need another bank account or a credit card.
Many of those campaigning for voting reform are hoping for a ‘progressive alliance’ of parties committed to voting reform and fighting the next election on that platform. Sadly I am pessimistic about this. Certainly in Dorset it does not appear that activist feel unable to set aside their narrow party allegiances. Also in Canada where the Liberal Party under Justinc Trudeau won power promising voting reform are now backing off reform as they see that First Past the Post had helped them to power. Parliament as a whole has to be convinced that the public just not trust them, and that without reform Britain will become a populist dictatorship.
As a start we need a petition signed by at least ten million people. Impossible? Perhaps not – a government petition demanding “…a rule that if the remain or leave vote is less than 60% based [sic] a turnout less than 75% there should be another referendum”, attracted over four million votes. The government was able to ignore that. We need ten million people who understand WHY we need reform.
Britain faces unprecedented challenges in the 21st century; we need to be united not divided. Under First Past the Post governments keep control by dividing us, misleading us, and indoctrinating us. We need a government that listens, and educates in the sense of leading us to think about the issues. We need a voting system that does not merely ensure fair shares for parties, but puts people in control.
Reaching ten million people means seeking out people in whatever groups they meet Churches, WI, rotary, U3A, civic societies… It is going to be tough but let’s make it a New Year resolution to try. What are YOUR networks?
Facebook has added new tools to allow prevention of sharing of websites that are not approved of; at least that is claimed at http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2016-12-15/facebook-rolls-out-tools-curb-fake-news. The stated intention is to block out fake news which may mislead innocent readers. However such tools can, and I am sure will, be used to censor sites that try to tell the truth that ‘white listed’ mainstream sources avoid telling.
But is the zero hedge article itself a lie? One clue is that when last night (15 Dec 2016) I tried to share it on Facebook I was told it was not trusted and when I tried again I got in such a tangle that I had to get out of Facebook. So at least some of the tools that zero hedge allege exist, do in fact exist.
I reproduce the text of the zero hedge article below without warranting that it is true, but if it is it seems that Facebook itself will no longer be trusted for the dissemination of genuine news.
“One month after Facebook revealed a seven point plan to eradicate “fake news”, Mark Zuckerberg has made good on his promise to strip Facebook of fake news stories, starting with a tool that allows users to flag anything they consider a hoax, as well as features that tweak Facebook’s news algorithm and provide more restrictions on advertising.
Facebook’s 1.8 billion users will now be able to click the upper right-hand corner of the post to flag content as fake news.
The first problem, however, immediately emerges because as NBC notes, “legitimate news outlets won’t be able to be flagged”, which then begs the question who or what is considered “legitimate news outlets”, does it include the likes of NYTs and the WaPos, which during the runup to the election declared on a daily basis, that Trump has no chance of winning, which have since posted defamatory stories about so-called “Russian propaganda news sites”, admitting subsequently that their source data was incorrect, and which many consider to be the source of “fake news”.
Also, just who makes the determination what is considered “legitimate news outlets.”
In any case, flagged stories – which really means any story that a readers disagrees with – will then be reviewed by Facebook researchers and sent on to third-party fact-checking organizations for further verification — or marked as fake.
Here too, one wonders how much good will checking will take place considering that these “researchers” will be bombarded with tens of thousands of flagged articles daily, until it ultimately become a rote move to simply delete anything flagged as flase by enough disgruntled readers, before moving on to the next article, while in the process not touching the narrative spun by the liberal “legitimate news outlets”, the ones who would jump at the opportunity to have dinner with Podesta in hopes of becoming Hillary Clinton’s public relations arm.
“We believe in giving people a voice and that we cannot become arbiters of truth ourselves, so we’re approaching this problem carefully,” Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s vice president of News Feed, said in a blog post. So, what Facebook will do, is give the voice to all those others who praise any article they agree with, and slam and flag as “fake news” antyhing they disagree with. At least no book burning will be involved.
The Facebook VP promised that “we’ve focused our efforts on the worst of the worst, on the clear hoaxes spread by spammers for their own gain, and on engaging both our community and third party organizations.”
Not only that, but Facebook’s algorithm that decides what gets the most prominence in News Feed, will also be tweaked, one would assume to give more prominence to the abovementioned “legitimate news oulets”… such as WaPo and the NYT.
How will the algo determine if a story is potentially fake? If a story is being read but not shared, Mosseri said that may be a sign it’s misleading. Which in turn means that clickbait articles are about to explode at the expense of deep-though, long-read pieces which the current generation of Facebook readers has no time for.
“We’re going to test incorporating this signal into ranking, specifically for articles that are outliers, where people who read the article are significantly less likely to share it,” he said.
It gets better: the next step in Facebook’s plan to rid the site of fake news involves sending flagged stories to third-party fact-checking organizations, which include Snopes, Politifact, and Factcheck.org, which as the recent election showed, are just as biased as the so-called “fake news” sites, however they cover their partiality under the cloak of being objective, which they conflate with being “factual.”
A group of Facebook researchers will initially have the responsibility of sifting through flagged stories and determining which ones to send to the fact-checking organizations. If it’s determined to be fake, the story will be flagged as disputed and include a link explaining why.
Then the punishment: flagged stories can still be shared, but readers will be warned in advance, and they’ll be more likely to appear lower in News Feed. These stories also won’t be able to be promoted or turned into advertisements.
* * *
Facebook’s bottom-line argument for engaging in soft censorship? Money.
While Facebook hopes these tools will be helpful, they’re also aiming to hit purveyors of fake news where it hurts — the pocketbook.
“Spammers make money by masquerading as well-known news organizations, and posting hoaxes that get people to visit to their sites, which are often mostly ads,” Mosseri said.
“On the buying side we’ve eliminated the ability to spoof domains, which will reduce the prevalence of sites that pretend to be real publications. On the publisher side, we are analyzing publisher sites to detect where policy enforcement actions might be necessary,” he said.
As a reminder, the Fake News theme reached a boiling point days after the election, when Zuckerberg said it was “pretty crazy” to think fake news could have influenced the election and warned Facebook “must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth.” Less than two weeks later, with the issue still simmering, Zuckerberg shared a more detailed account of projects he said were already underway to thwart the spread of misinformation.
While the narrative has since shifted to fake news following the disastrous WaPo report on “Russian Propaganda” outlets, which ultimately crushed the credibility of its author, and has been replaced with the “Putin hacked the election” narrative, the quiet push to silence non-compliant voices continues.
Amusingly, the team at Facebook has made it clear they don’t want censorship on the site and that these new tools are just part of the evolving process of combating misinformation. And yet, crowdsourced censorship is precisely what Facebook has just unrolled.
Ultimately, what will end up happening is that One half of Facebook users will flag what they read by one half the media as fake, and vice versa, while millions of users will simply leave the now censorship endorsing social network out of disgust.
Because, while we admire Zuckerberg’s initiative, there is one tried and true way to avoid the all the “fake news” on Facebook:…”
The most popular proposal for the reform of parliament is to reform the voting system, but there is now a competing proposal – The Campaign for a Free Parliament (CFP) , http://freeparliament.org.uk/ ‘Free Parliament: a Campaign to Elect Indpendent MPs to Parliament’. It is funded by a reclusive Scottish multi-millionaire and endorsed by Lord Digby Jones.
On the 6 March 2016 the Independent reported, ‘A reclusive Scottish multi-millionaire industrialist, regarded as being on the right of UK politics, is the main money man behind the ambitious scheme to give £10,000 to 600 independents to fund an effective challenge to mainstream candidates in every constituency.’ http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/lord-digby-jones-millionaire-recluse-to-fund-disaffected-mps-in-the-next-general-election-a6915911.html . On 22 November a letter was sent to all MPs outlining CFP’s plans.
CFP aims to select an independent candidate for each constituency. There will be a national list of approved candidates who may then apply to a constituency for selection by open primary. Although they aim to replace general elections every five years with rolling elections, this can only happen when enough independent MPs are elected to get this enacted. Further, since (if they are successful) the bulk of such MPs will have been elected at a general election, complicated arrangements for retiring some early would be required. They do not say what the term of office of an MP would be once general elections are abolished.
If all MPs were independent then ministers (including the PM) would be elected by Parliament.
In the Tooting by election in June 2016 the seat was won by Labour with 55% of the vote – although the result may have been influenced by the murder of Jo Cox – whereas Zia Samadani, endorsed by CFP, attracted just 0.1% of the vote. CFP have work to do in convincing people to vote for an independent. The BBC did not even mention his name.
Their proposals do address some problems such as the fact that mainstream parties making very similar and undeliverable promises. They should lead to more competent and honest government. Issues would be debated in parliament on their merits. Lobbying would of course continue, but it would be much more open as lobbyists would have to reach all MPs. However the promoters of the scheme do not seem to recognise the case for genuinely socialist policies, nor that some pretty radical policies are needed if the human race is to survive the threats developing in the 21st century. There is no indication that they need to question the current model of capitalism.
CFP say, “Although it is open for the candidates to express their preferences on a range of policies, their focus should be on setting out their qualifications, personal skills and any notable achievements to date. We strongly believe that policies should be decided in the debating chamber rather than touted for votes. In any event, an independent MP will only ever be able to get a policy implemented if a majority of his colleagues support and prioritise it. That said it will be open for any MP to propose a policy.” The danger is that all successful candidates will tend to follow the current orthodoxy, whereas at times it needs challenging.
They are opposed to proportional representation, which of course makes no sense if most MPs are independant. However they make no mention of ranked choice voting which would make sense in their primaries. Nor have they thought about the possibility that a natural community might be divided on a vital issue, and that more than one view should be represented in Parliament. Elections could be by Single Transfereable Vote in multi member constituencies.
All in all CFP have not thought everything through, but their ideas are worthy of study.