Archive: Make My Vote Count

Yes to fairer votes

It will come as little surprise to long-time readers of this blog that I will be voting yes in the alternative vote referendum on Thursday. But now that the focus of this blog is less on politics, I haven’t actually written much about it. With just a few days to go, until polling day, I have decided that now is the time.

The deceptive claims of the No to AV campaign have been comprehensively taken apart umpteen times elsewhere, I am sure. But one section of the No to AV leaflet particularly irritated me.

No to AV finish line

It shows a group of four runners crossing a finish line on a running track. A big arrow points to the trailing runner who appears to cross the finish line in fourth place: “The winner under AV”. The message? “Awooga! AV is unfair because the loser wins!”

I don’t know a great deal about athletics, but I am pretty sure that there is a fixed finish line. The first person to complete the set distance wins the race. It might be 100 metres. In this photograph here, it is the man in blue who ran 100 metres first.

But what is the distance in a voting system? I have tried to work out what it is under first past the post, but I cannot tell. Here are some examples from last year’s UK General Election. Can you see where the finish line is?

2010 UK parliamentary election result for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath

It is pretty clear in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, where I used to live. With 64.5% of the vote, a clear majority were in favour of the Labour candidate.

2010 UK parliamentary election result for Dundee East

In my neighbouring constituency of Dundee East it is somewhat less clear. No party received a majority of the votes. Second-placed Labour took 33.3% of the vote. But the winning SNP took 37.8%. It’s not very cool. The SNP might not be what the majority of voters wanted.

Anyway, we have narrowed the first past the post winning threshold down to something between 33.3% and 37.8%.

2010 UK parliamentary election result for Argyll and Bute

But looking at the results for Argyll and Bute, the “finish line” analogy becomes really confusing. The first-placed Lib Dems took only 31.6% of the votes. But Labour had 33.3% of the votes in Dundee East, and came only second there.

In first past the post, the finish line changes position. In fact, there is no finish line. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get a majority of the votes. Theoretically you could get an extremely low share of the vote, far from a majority, yet still win under first past the post.

So which is the system where the loser can win?

Alternative vote sets a threshold where candidates must aim to gain the support of the majority of voters. A candidate is not deemed to be the winner until he crosses the finish line, which is unambiguously 50%.

(It is theoretically possible for a candidate to win under alternative vote without crossing that threshold — but only in unusual circumstances and after all other options have been exhausted.)

Alternative vote may not be perfect (although the perfect voting system doesn’t exist anyway). But it is a whole lot more desirable than the current rotten system.

No doubt, election night was a very disappointing one for me. I was involved in the Liberal Democrat campaign in Dunfermline, and I attended the count.

There was disappointment in Dunfermline — but we always expected it to be very difficult to hang on there. So while it was very disappointing to lose in Dunfermline, I was, in a way, braced for it.

The national story was, however, different. I first heard news about the exit poll at about 22.10. I was crestfallen, but hoped that the poll was wrong. By the time I emerged from the count just after 2am, it was clear that nationally the picture was pretty bleak for the Liberal Democrats.

It was a real blow given that there was so much to be hopeful about during the campaign. Even though the Lib Dems had clearly fallen back to third place in the opinion polls in the last week of the campaign, it was still a very strong third place in comparison to what the Lib Dems will have been expecting before the first televised Prime Ministerial debate.

Even taking into account the perverse voting system used in Westminster elections, I thought a good result would be more than 80 seats, and I was expecting some sort of gain at the very least. For the Lib Dems to actually lose seats absolutely shocked me.

Voters have crude tools to send out complex messages

It is clear that lots of people voted for complicated tactical reasons on polling day. From what I have heard, it was clear on the doorsteps in Dunfermline on Thursday that even hard Lib Dems were switching to Labour on the last day.

Even among voters for whom the Lib Dems are their first choice, it seems as though waking up on Thursday with David Cameron’s posh face on the front page all of the Conservative-supporting newspapers calibrated people’s minds back to the old-fashioned mindset that an election is a two-way contest between the Conservatives and Labour.

That is why the opinion polls in the run-up to the general election came out with such a different message to the final exit poll. Essentially the polls ask two different questions. When you are asked about the general election before polling day, you tend to think of it in more abstract terms. People think about their genuine favourite.

But for some people standing in the polling station holding the stubby pencil under the spotlight, it all seems a bit different. Voters aren’t stupid. They know that the voting system really makes the contest a fight between Labour and the Conservatives. So many people were voting on the issue of who they disliked least between David Cameron and Gordon Brown, rather than who was their favourite candidate on the ballot paper.

That is certainly what happened in Dunfermline and West Fife. Labour’s leaflets made much of the fact that the general election was a contest between Labour and the Conservatives. Despite the personal popularity of Willie Rennie, the SNP’s voters shifted en masse to Labour.

Willie Rennie’s share of the vote went down only slightly, from 35.8% to 35.1% on a much higher turnout. But the SNP collapsed — going from 21.0% in 2006 to just 10.6% on Thursday. Nationalists switched to Labour to send an anti-Tory message.

It seems as though the picture was the same across the country, with tactical voting winning out. The swings were all over the shop across the country, as voters attempted to send out a complex message with only the crude tool of the inadequate first past the post voting system available to them.

Electoral reform must now be at the top of the agenda

This is why electoral reform is essential. It is not just about the fact that the parties’ share of the seats bears little relation to the share of the votes. It is that it fundamentally alters the behaviour of voters, forcing them to vote for what they don’t want more than what they do want. Voters must at least be given the opportunity to express more than one preference.

It is no surprise that the big story of the day has been about the demonstrations for electoral reform. With a result like this, and a hung parliament, there has never been a better chance to change the voting system. It now must be the top priority. We must not allow it to be swept under the carpet once again, as Labour did in 1997.

But there are bigger hurdles to negotiate than just the voting system. It has become clear to me in the past couple of days that major cultural change is also required.

Many people have a poisonous obsession with “strong government”. Strong government is not what is needed. In fact, strong government is dangerous government. For some reason, the idea that someone can just push through their policies without having to seek the agreement of others is not really on. Why cross-party support is supposed to be a bad thing is beyond me.

Clegg correct to consider Conservative coalition

Then we come to the hoo-ha over the potential that the Lib Dems might reach an agreement with the Conservatives. I find it most odd that Liberal Democrat voters, who are in favour of some form of proportional representation, should be getting into a flap about this.

It seems like a straightforward equation. If you want proportional representation, you expect to need coalitions to form a government (or have a minority government). This means potentially having to work with parties that you may not agree with. It’s called compromise. We need to be grown up enough to accept it.

In this instance, it has always been made clear by Nick Clegg that he would talk first to the party that had the most seats in the House of Commons. That is the Conservative party, and it is right that he should explore the option.

The alternative option of propping up Gordon Brown, a deeply unpopular Prime Minister whose party made significant losses on Thursday, would in turn expose the Lib Dems to accusations of being undemocratic. It would also make them deeply unpopular among non-Labour voters.

Not only that, but the arithmetic doesn’t really add up. Labour plus the Lib Dems wouldn’t have enough seats, so you need to throw in some other parties too. There is talk about bringing in the SNP and Plaid Cymru and other yet smaller parties. But it seems like some desperate scraping of the rusty barrel.

Liberal Democrats — and the electorate as a whole — should be mature about this situation. True, the Lib Dems should not just join up with the Tories unless they make significant concessions — and electoral reform must be at the very top of the agenda. But the option should always be considered.

Otherwise, the Lib Dems risk becoming a mere appendage of the Labour party. That is what has happened in the Scottish Parliament, with the result that they have become completely impotent; an electoral irrelevance. If you think the Lib Dems should only ever consider talking to Labour, then you would probably be better off joining the Labour party. The Lib Dems need to be brave and flex their muscles, otherwise they will become Labour’s lapdog.

The Liberal Democrats is not just a “left wing” party. It is a liberal party. But Labour has a fundamentally illiberal ideology. While there are many areas of agreement between the two parties, Labour is also the party of ID cards, illegal wars, points-based immigration systems and biometic anal probes (I may have made one of those up).

While it is true that the Conservatives can happily outpace Labour in an authoritarianism competition, the Conservative party does at least have a liberal wing, the sort which simply does not exist in the Labour party. So a liberal party should not be frightened of teaming up with the Tories, as long as their more authoritarian elements can be reined in.

While it is clear that the Conservatives are the one party in Westminster most opposed to electoral reform, they are at least principled in their opposition. Labour changes its mind based on its self-interest. If they genuinely wanted to change the voting system, they had 13 years in which to do it — but they didn’t.

Labour’s “support” for electoral reform is hollow and opportunistic. Lallands Peat Worrier makes the point that a big fat zero of Labour’s MSPs supported the idea of using proportional representation for Westminster elections when the Scottish Parliament voted on the issue just a few weeks ago.

This is a big opportunity to make electoral reform actually happen and to make the potential of a government led by the nasty party significantly less nasty. If nothing else, Lib Dem supporters should be much more open to it — if only to prove the point that coalitions can work after all. It just requires the maturity to let it happen.

The Europe-wide picture

The consensus seems to be that, Europe-wide, it was a good election for the centre-right. It certainly seems as though the governing centre-left parties have taken a bit of a battering, while voters seem content with centre-right governments.

Those of a socialist persuasion may well feel disgruntled. In the midst of an economic crisis which they say was caused by the excesses of capitalism, voters seem to have lost faith in socialist parties’ ability to deal with it. The far left also took a knock. On the other hand, the Green grouping is the one grouping (aside from non-aligned) to have increased its representation in the European Parliament.

Interestingly, despite the fact that apathy was the clear winner of the election across the EU, the main Eurosceptic grouping was almost totally wiped off the map, with the exception of Ukip. Perhaps domestic issues are the cause of this. But if 2004 was the breakthrough year for Eurosceptic parties (which led to the formation of the Independence / Democracy group), 2009 was the bump back to earth. As thing stand (and no doubt they will try to woo more MEPs on board), Ukip alone now account for almost two thirds of the grouping.

The main UK parties

The UK-only picture was rosier for Ukip, but only slightly. This year will be remembered for the fact that they finished 2nd ahead of Labour. But they would be deluding themselves if they believed this was because of a rise in support. Their increase in the share of the vote was a pretty titchy 0.3 percentage points. Indeed, they gained fewer votes than in 2004, and got just one extra MEP despite the huge collapse in trust of the major Westminster parties.

In a lot of ways, the UK picture as a whole is surprisingly static. Yes, there was a massive drop in support for Labour. But none of the major parties were in a position to capitalise, so everyone apart from Labour just shuffled up a bit. In the circumstances, the Conservatives ought to be pretty miffed that they lost votes and increased their vote share by just 1 percentage point. It doesn’t exactly look like a party with the momentum to take a Westminster landslide.

The Lib Dems, who arguably weren’t hurt nearly as much as Labour and the Tories by the expenses scandal, managed to reduce their share of the vote, which almost no other party did. Of course Labour’s share decreased. Plaid Cymru’s UK-wide share decreased, but their Wales-only share went up. The only other party to reduce its share of the vote was the Scottish Socialist Party, which has cemented its place in history by being consigned to it.

The BNP

The BNP made a different kind of history by winning two seats, which became the story of the election. It was probably inevitable that people would “blame” proportional representation for this. But the simple fact is that PR doesn’t vote fascists in — fascist voters do.

6.8% is not an inconsiderable share. Almost a million voters decided to put their cross next to the BNP on the ballot paper, and they didn’t do so by accident. Gerrymandering them out of existence will only exacerbate the problem.

That’s not to say that the closed party list system used for European Elections isn’t flawed, because it is — deeply so. But the corrupt First Past the Post system would only further increase the anger that people feel at being disenfranchised by the political system.

In a lot of ways, the BNP’s “success” is pretty unremarkable. In 2004 they were the sixth most successful party. This year, they were still the sixth most successful party. In the region where Nick Griffin won his seat, the North West, the BNP actually got fewer votes than in 2004.

The BNP only got seats because Labour’s collapse was so dramatic, and those former Labour votes went to a large variety of smaller parties. 11.3% of votes went to parties that weren’t among the top eight, compared to 8.3% that went to other parties in 2004 (and that was in the days of a relatively strong Respect party).

The BNP didn’t gain seats because they caught up with those in front. They gained seats because others joined the queue behind them. Despite still having five people in front of them, the BNP effectively moved closer to the front in relation to the entire queue — just because more people joined behind them.

Nonetheless, any attempts to ignore or belittle the BNP’s success, or to gerrymander it away, should be condemned. It is important to understand why people would come to vote for a fascist party, because that is the best way of defeating the ideology.

Luckily, YouGov have done a good job at finding out (more detail here). And — surprise surprise — it seems that BNP voters are mostly racist. That rather undermines the idea that people voted for the BNP just as a protest vote. With so many potential protest parties, why choose BNP? I guess they were at the top of many ballot papers, but that oughtn’t gain them so many votes. No, people vote for the BNP mostly because they are racists.

In difficult economic circumstances, people often turn to fascism. It is totally misguided to do so though. One potential plus side of the BNP gaining a couple of MEPs is the fact that the spotlight will now be shone on them, and people will see just how rotten their ideology is.


I will look at the Scottish results in a separate article

Continued from yesterday’s article. The Guardian’s New Politics supplement (PDF link) is the basis for this article.

MPs’ pay

I am not averse to MPs being paid a good salary, but I think the current balance is too high. Aditya Chakrabortty says that MPs’ salaries puts them in the top 5% of single earners. Meanwhile, a recent article on the BBC website shows that when you add MPs’ expenses to their salary, an MP’s household earns more than 96% of UK households — assuming the MP’s partner doesn’t work.

This means that fundamentally MPs have little empathy for what the experience of common people are. Given that it is supposed to be the House of Commons, it doesn’t seem quite right.

I’m not sure that a formal link with average earnings would be appropriate. And, as Jenni Russell notes, you wouldn’t want pay to be too low so that particularly able candidates were dissuaded from running. But something a bit more in line with the rest of us would be more ideal, and would probably improve MPs’ image no end too.

Jenni Russell suggests that an MP’s salary should be raised, and allowances cut. There may be something in this, but we wouldn’t want such a system to be unfair to those who live particularly far away from Westminster. That would affect Scotland in particular.

MPs’ hours

Anne Perkins argues that recent reductions in MPs’ hours have reduced the amount of scrutiny government plans receive. She suggests that MPs should therefore have shorter holidays. I’m not so sure. Perhaps we could have the government actually doing less. Given the trail of destruction Labour has left behind, I’d find it difficult to argue against the idea that less government is better than more bad government.

The executive

I completely agree that the Parliament is not strong enough in relation to the government, so I would fully support moves to alter the balance. I am not sure about the detail of some of Martin Kettle’s ideas. Electoral reform would hopefully be enough as it would automatically bring more scrutiny to the government by forcing it to engage more with opposition politicians.

Party whips

David Hencke starts off by saying, “The whips are essential to the running of an efficient political process in the sense that elected governments need to push policies through parliament.” But why should governments be allowed to push policies through parliament? Policies should be accepted because the MPs are convinced that they are the right policies, not because of the arm-twisting tactics of political party elites. The existence of whips is an insult to representative democracy.

Select committees

Michael White’s point is related to the role of party whips, and he notes that committees would be vastly improved if they weren’t so heavily controlled by keeping party rebels out. I also like Michael White’s point about “ministerialitis”.

Political parties

I am not opposed to the concept of political parties. For instance, you can at least be fairly sure that if someone has managed to become a candidate for a major party, they are not a complete loon. You (usually) can’t know that much about an independent. (Any word on who Duncan Robertson is yet?) They also reduce the cost of information for the voters, because you can have a fairly good idea of what a candidate’s broad position is if they are aligned with a particular party.

But I do think that political parties are too strong. Many of the other reforms mentioned above — particularly the power of the party whips, and introducing the right kind of electoral reform — would rein their powers in to the right level.

Party funding

I agree with Seumas Milne that state funding of political parties should not be considered at all. I wouldn’t necessarily agree that political parties’ expenditure should be capped. If they can raise the money, let them spend it. From what I read, it’s not as though political parties’ coffers are exactly overflowing at the moment anyway. Limiting personal donations may be a good idea, and bringing more transparency to more large-scale donations seems sensible.

Communications

Andrew Sparrow’s points about television footage chime with me. The restrictions on TV footage of Parliament do baffle me, particularly the ban on uploading content to YouTube. Proceedings should be seen by as many people as possible, and that means using channels like YouTube.

His idea of allowing journalists to blog from the press gallery is also a good idea which I see no harm in. I also like the idea of providing a press centre for bloggers — though I would say that, wouldn’t I?

MPs’ staff

There is a bit of a pongy whiff about MPs hiring relatives as staff members. In some cases I think it would be sensible though. It does remove the risk that the person you’re hiring isn’t up to the job, because you already know about them. I wouldn’t be in favour of an outright ban.

The press

Ian Aitken’s main point — that the press needs to step up to the plate and scrutinise politicians more — is difficult to disagree with in principle. It’ll be tricky to proceed with though, with the press facing such an uncertain future.

Conclusion

There are lots of interesting ideas for reform floating around at the moment, and I don’t agree with all of them. There are some really tricky issues which have no easy answer, such as House of Lords reform.

I think a careful look at a few big areas could go a long way towards meeting a couple of major goals:

  1. Restoring trust in politics
  2. Strengthening parliament and backbench MPs in relation to the government

MPs’ pay is obviously a huge issue just now, but the jury is out on exactly how this should be reformed. Some are arguing that MPs should be paid more, but that won’t be a popular option in the current climate.

I certainly think the role of political parties should be seriously considered. There are suggestions about the way they are funded. The role of the party whips is also something which should be seriously looked at.

Most of all, adopting a decent electoral system — preferably Single Transferable Vote — will deal with a lot of the problems facing politics in the UK. Voters would feel that they had more of a say, and Parliament would be strengthened in relation to the government.

The crisis currently facing politics in the UK is massive. Citizens feel detached from the political process and trust in politicians is rock-bottom. It’s been widely noted that this is a perfect opportunity to reform the rotten system.

I only want to briefly cover the main ideas for reform, so I will use The Guardian’s “A New Politics” supplement (PDF link) as the basis for this article. It gives a good overview of the most common suggestions for political reform in the UK.

One thing before I start though. Ten years ago in Scotland, when the Scottish Parliament was set up, there was a lot of talk about what the “new politics” would look like. I think it’s fair to say that most of us have been disappointed with what the political elites came up with.

On with The Guardian’s suggestions.

Written constitution

For a while now, I have been sceptical of the desirability of a written constitution. I’m sceptical about rules in general. After all, it was rules that got us into this expenses mess in the first place. Politician after politician lined up to excuse their behaviour: “it was completely within the rules”. In many cases, their behaviour was in the rules. The overwhelming message to the voters was: screw the morals, I only care about the rules!

Think to yourself, why is murder taboo? It certainly isn’t because murder is against the law. It is because murder is absolutely abhorrent. You don’t need rules to tell you that. So what would a written constitution do? It might give people with dubious morals a set of loopholes they can exploit, with a ready-made excuse for their behaviour.

As for Timothy Garton Ash’s suggestion that every schoolchild should be taught about the importance of such a constitution, can we not leave that sort of cheesy crap to the Americans?

The monarchy

I am no monarchist, and I really wouldn’t mind if the monarchy was abolished. But who really believes that doing away with the Queen would restore trust in politicians? The Queen is probably the one person involved in the government that anyone has a modicum of respect for at the moment.

Electoral reform

As you may guess from my previous post, I have a strong interest in electoral reform. For several years I have felt that the voting system is the most important part of the system to get right.

For me, the First Past the Post voting system is the thing that stinks the most about Westminster. As I pointed out, it is the sort of system that allows a party to gain a thumping majority having gained the votes of just 16% of the population.

It also means the creation of safe seats, the modern equivalent of rotten boroughs, where voters are utterly neglected. Incidentally, there appears to be a correlation between the safeness of an MP’s seat and their likelihood of being implicated in the expenses scandal.

John Harris seems happy to settle for the Additional Member System currently used in the Scottish Parliament. But this system has enough problems to merit its own post. His other suggestion of Alternative Vote Plus is not ideal as it has the same problems as AMS, but with the added “bonus” of being rigged in favour of the larger parties and having a relatively low level of proportionality.

For me, little other than Single Transferable Vote will suffice. STV vastly reduces the number of safe seats and places more power into voters’ hands, and takes it away from the smoke-filled rooms of political parties. I am quite perturbed that John Harris neglected to mention STV at all.

Parliamentary protocol

Here, Hugh Muir seems most concerned with the quaint traditions such as Black Rod and “blather about “honourable” and “right honourable gentlemen”?” As with the monarchy, though, I see little harm in these things, and it really isn’t the issue at hand. I would certainly like to see a less stuffy approach though, and I think the Scottish Parliament has just about got the balance right on this sort of thing.

House of Lords

Jonathan Freedland wants an elected House of Lords above all else. But I think more elections and more elected politicians are the last thing we need. Of course the present system is unacceptable in many ways, but there is no denying that it has saved our skin a number of times by holding the government to account in ways which I doubt an elected House of Lords would ever be able to do.

One possibility would be for people to be appointed for a term at random, like doing jury service (this is also one of The Guardian’s separate sections, so I consider it further below). Perhaps it would be good for Lords to be appointed, but by a wider range of bodies, not just the Prime Minister.

Local government

Simon Jenkins suggests that MPs have a dual role, and they must do a lot of local work in their constituencies which would have been “unheard of 50 years ago”. He suggests that there should be local mayors to relieve MPs of these duties. Again, I would be reluctant to introduce more elected officials. Surely the answer is to strengthen the already-existing local authorities.

The speaker

I have no firm views on how the role should be reformed, but none of Jackie Ashley’s suggestions sound undesirable.

MP numbers

Given some of what I have written above, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I would be in favour of reducing the amount of MPs. 400-odd sounds about right to me. Again, the increased workload of each MP should in fact be absorbed by local government.

Representation

I would not be against attempts to increase, say, the number of female MPs. But stunts such as quotas have no place in a truly meritocratic system. Moreover, it is well known that voters tend to see such initiatives as an insult, and a backlash ensues. This is certainly not one way to restore faith in politics.

Direct democracy

Julian Glover says, “use the jury system as a model”. That is one suggestion for reform of the House of Lords, so I wouldn’t be totally opposed to that idea. I doubt many would be too keen on that idea though, and I don’t think I’d be up for taking five years out of my life either.

Mr Glover seems to think there is something fundamentally wrong with the concept of representative democracy, but I really do not think so. The role of such juries should be limited, and I wouldn’t give them much of a role in the House of Commons.


I will consider The Guardian’s other proposals tomorrow

Here it is: that post I’ve been sitting on for upwards of a year. Before I start, I am going to make a few introductory notes about what I do and don’t mean when I call democracy disturbing. I find that all too often debates about this subject are clouded by dogma, which leads to poor thinking and boilerplate arguments.

Before some cheesy person wheels out that Churchill quote about democracy being the worst system apart from all the other systems, yes of course I have heard it. And it is true. I am a democrat because I believe it brings about favourable conditions. For instance, there is the correlation between democratisation and higher GDP per capita. (Whether democracy is cause or effect does not matter. If the value of the higher GDP per capita is greater than the cost of democracy per head — as it almost certainly is — then democracy is a price worth paying.)

Furthermore, I should define more closely what I mean by democracy. Most of the flaws I will point out are actually problems with elections rather than democracy as a whole. Aspects of democracy such as civil liberties, human rights, freedom of speech, the rule of law, due process, and so on and so forth, are of course things that I am deeply supportive of. This will become clear in my first point.

I tackle the issue not from an anti-democratic perspective. Far from it. My problem is with the approach which sees democracy almost like a religion which ought not be questioned — what Bryan Caplan in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter called “democratic fundamentalists”:

Its purest expression is the cliché, attributed to failed 1928 presidential candidate Al Smith, that “All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy.” In other words, no matter what happens, the case for democracy remains untouched.

No case should remain untouched. That is why, for me, there is not enough scrutiny placed on democracy. There is a fear of investigating it, because the benefits of democracy are perceived to be so self-evident that anyone who stops to ask what the disadvantages are is instantly regarded as a fool. That must be dangerous. If we agree that the system is imperfect, the only way to improve the situation is to investigate it and have an awareness of what the problems are.

Just as a final point, much of my thinking in this area came about as a result of the research I did for my dissertation, which was about the “paradox of voting“. In case you want to read more about voting behaviour, I have uploaded my dissertation here.

Having got all of the caveats and explanations out of the way, it is time to move on to my five points.

1. Democracy is not guaranteed to uphold freedoms

This is more or less a rehash of The Devil’s Kitchen’s post which I referred to yesterday. Above I said that “aspects such as civil liberties, human rights, freedom of speech, the rule of law, due process” are important. Arguably, these have all taken a battering by recent democratically elected governments.

Wave goodbye to your right to peacefully protest, have a fair trial and take photographs in public. Say hello to ID cards, the database state, endless reams of CCTV footage, mass DNA collection, control orders, detention without charge and extraordinary rendition. Thanks, democracy!

2. Tyranny of the minority

Most people are familiar with the concept of the tyranny of the majority. Thanks to the system of democracy adopted in this country, it doesn’t even take a majority to construct a tyranny. In the 2005 General Election, 9,562,122 people voted for Labour candidates. Assuming a population of 60 million, this translates to around 16% of the population.

The votes of this small percentage of the UK’s citizens has given the Labour Party 55% of the seats in the House of Commons, a majority of 67 seats. What gives the government the right to rule the country with such dominance? Not the people, that’s for sure. Only 16% of the people expressed a preference for the current government. In fact it is the way the system is constructed, and nothing else, which gives Labour its “legitimacy”.

That brings me neatly on to…

3. The system can’t be fixed

Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem states that there can be no voting system which will be able to fulfil a number of desirable criteria:

  • The Pareto principle — if everyone prefers x to y then y should not be elected
  • Anonymity — every voter should be treated equally
  • Neutrality — every candidate should be treated equally
  • Independence of irrelevant alternatives — the ability of x and y to win an election should not be affected by the entrance of a candidate z
  • Transitivity — if x is preferred to y and y is preferred to z then x should be preferred to z

Independence of irrelevant alternatives is the one that riles up proponents of electoral reform the most. Just think of Ralph Nader, or the farcical events of the 2002 French Presidential election. In this case, the voting system is far more important than the voters themselves. The fifth item on the list refers to Condorcet’s paradox, whereby attempts to find a winner of the election leads you on an endless circle.

We can argue among ourselves about which voting system should be adopted. But (and I’m not saying this will necessarily come as a surprise to anyone), you will never find a system that will please everyone. It will be a matter of choosing the least worst option, as every system has a fatal flaw of some kind. For what it’s worth, my preference is Single Transferable Vote — but that’s a matter for a different post in the future.

For more along these lines, read this post about a talk I attended a couple of years ago. It was given by economist Eric Maskin en route to collecting his Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. He had some very interesting views on electoral reform.

4. An individual vote is almost worthless

If you are concerned with affecting the course of history by having your say on major political issues, going to cast your vote in an election is more or less a complete waste of your time and energy. It is said that you are more likely to be killed on your way to the polling station than to actually cast the deciding vote.

The probability the the outcome of an election will hinge on your vote is minuscule. Even under the fanciful assumption that in a two candidate US Presidential election each other person is likely vote for either candidate with a probability of 0.5, the probability that your vote will be the deciding vote is 0.00006.

Yet the costs of voting are actually rather large. You have to spend time and possibly money learning about each of the candidates and their policies. The time and money spent travelling to the polling booth is not exactly negligible in the context of the minuscule probability of your vote actually meaning a damn thing.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that voting is wrong. People don’t vote because they believe it will affect the outcome. They vote because it makes them feel good. But the fact that you need to resort to non-instrumental incentives in order to justify the act of voting leaves wide open the possibility that people with bad motives (or motives with bad effects) are more likely to vote…

5. Many who do vote base their decision on prejudices

In his very interesting book The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan said that the fact that people vote can be explained by the fact that they like to hold certain political beliefs. Let’s call our voter a sheep. He may hold suboptimal opinions and support policies that would actually make him worse off. This might be due to social pressures, a sense of self-image or whatever. It is, after all, all too common to meet someone who votes Labour just because their dad did.

It is precisely because a person’s vote is so worthless that sheep are encouraged to vote. They like to go and vote because it makes them feel good, reaffirms to themselves their ideological loyalty and so on. But sheep never stop to think if the policies they support would make them worse off. They don’t have to because their vote doesn’t matter anyway. The cost of ideological loyalty is low. Indeed, the benefits of it are enough to outweigh the costs of voting.

Those who hold no strong ideological loyalties, and who may therefore be expected to enter the polling booth ready to judge fairly based on all of the information they have gathered, are actually far less likely to vote. This is because they feel no warm glow from the act of voting for their favoured party.

As such, the traits of voters are the sort of traits you would normally expect to find on a football terrace. They will trudge along to express their tribal feelings, and will keep on doing so even in the driving rain, even if their football team is rubbish and the game is low-quality.

One might say that the political party you support is rubbish and the state of politics just now is low-quality. Who wants to buy a season ticket? Is it not better to leave that sort of behaviour on the football terraces?

As for other aspects of the Glasgow East result, the collapse of the Lib Dems in particular can be put down to the fact that the two main parties are broadly centre-left. So Lib Dem voters will have been especially more willing to lend their vote to one of the main parties. Conservatives will be more wary of voting for anyone else, so this is why the Conservatives were able to move up to third place in a constituency which is otherwise not fertile ground for them.

The election has also seen the constant trotting-out of that old line about how Scotland is a desert land for the Conservative Party. That really annoys me because it is simply the biggest myth since Santa Claus. A lot of people, even in Scotland, believe it. Whenever I hear a Lib Dem coming out with it I feel like giving them a slap, because if the Tories are unpopular in Scotland what on earth does that make the Lib Dems??

Okay, so the Conservatives have very few MPs and in 1997 they had none. But that is simply because First Past the Post is so hopelessly skewed against them. Of course, the Conservatives support the FPTP system, so they get no sympathy from me on that front. But it is a fact that, if you look at the numbers for the country as a whole, the Conservatives are the third largest party in Scotland not just once in a while but over and over again.

In 2007, the Conservatives got 16.6% of the constituency vote compared to the Lib Dems’ 16.2%. In the regional vote (i.e. the fairer part, where people are less likely to vote tactically and more likely to vote for the party that they actually support), the Conservatives had 13.9% compared to the Lib Dem’s 11.3%.

The numbers were even more stark in 2003, with the Conservatives getting 15.5% in the regional vote compared to the Lib Dems’ 11.8%. In 1999, back in the days when the Tories had no MPs they were still ahead of the Lib Dems.

In fact, in 1997, that infamous year where the Tories were wiped out, the Conservatives had 17.51% of the votes in Scotland. The Lib Dems had a mere 12.98%.

I don’t like to point all this out because the Lib Dems are the party that I am most sympathetic to. But it really annoys me whenever I hear anyone bang on and on about how unpopular the Conservatives are in Scotland because it simply is. not. true.

And it especially annoys me when I hear it from a Lib Dem. Not only are the Lib Dems less popular than the Conservatives in Scotland, but Lib Dems of all people really ought to be aware that they should look beyond just the numbers of MPs and look to the overall share of the vote because of the unfairness of the FPTP system.

As for worries that a Conservative Government in Westminster will sour relations between Westminster and Holyrood and therefore bring us one closer to the break-up of the union — I’m afraid I don’t buy that one either.

The SNP and the Conservatives do not actually hate each other as much as you might think. In fact, sometimes I think they are actually quite cosy. Often, the SNP will rely on the help of the Conservatives to get legislation through the Scottish Parliament (particularly for as as long as the Lib Dems appear to be content to be little more than an appendage of the Labour Party).

Of course, the SNP always complained about the Tories in the 1980s and 1990s. As did Labour. But, of course, that was twenty years ago now. Today it’s 2008, and a very different political landscape.

The idea that the Conservatives didn’t have a mandate to govern Scotland caught like wildfire. It is silly though. In any country in the world you find similar geographical differences. It’s just a fact of life. For some reason, though, although they were keen to point it out when the Tories were in government, the SNP play down such geographical differences that occur within Scotland. Just take a look at the map. The yellow is almost all in rural areas, with relatively little SNP representation in the central belt. Do the SNP complain about that as well? Hmm, funny that.

The fact is that the SNP only complained about the Tories because it was to their electoral advantage to do so. Last year they removed from their constitution the barrier to forming a coalition with the Conservatives. That tells you what you need to know. I have even seen it suggested that, if the SNP hit their target of getting 20-odd Westminster seats, the Conservatives could form a coalition with the SNP and Plaid Cymru in the event of a hung parliament.

The SNP’s real enemies today are Labour, as anyone who has endured any recent election in Scotland will tell you. Trust me — an SNP Government in Holyrood will get on much, much better with the Conservatives in Westminster than they currently get on with Labour.

To the extent that the SNP’s current electoral popularity is due to pro-SNP (rather than anti-Labour) effects, it must be remembered that there is much more than independence at play. Does an SNP success in an election mean that Scotland has suddenly converted to the cause of independence? Of course not.

Firstly, support for independence is pretty low at the moment. According to the 2007 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (which I believe asks a question about independence every year), support for independence (PDF link) was lower than it had been since May 1997. Asked to choose between independence, devolution or getting rid of the Scottish Parliament altogether, just 23% plumped for independence.

The peak of support for independence was actually in September 1997 — ironically, also roughly when Labour were also at the height of their powers. Then, independence was favoured over devolution for, as far as I can tell, the only time in history. Over the preceding decade support for independence has flitted up and down but has been in a pronounced decline since 2005.

Another point to note is that this, the SNP’s most successful period ever, has come at a time when the SNP has played down its support for independence. Take the slogan it has used since last year’s election campaign. Instead of things like “Michty me, we’ll soon be free” and all that sort of thing, their slogan was: “It’s time.” Time for what? Time for bed? The SNP don’t say.

You have to admit, it is a fiendishly clever slogan. Classic dog whistle stuff. So SNP activists and hardened advocates for independence think it’s time for independence. Anti-Labour voters see it and think it’s time for a change, time to kick Labour out. In fact, it can mean whatever you want it to mean.

Crucially, the independence issue was not rammed down people’s throats by the SNP. Given the closeness of last year’s election, that could well have been what swung it for them.

You should also bear in mind that the SNP are very far away from being a single-issue party. A vote for the SNP is not necessarily a vote for independence, and often an SNP activist will be the first person to tell you this. For instance, Richard Leyton got this line from no less a person than Nicola Sturgeon.

Don’t want an independent Scotland? It doesn’t matter. The SNP have made it very clear that independence will only come after a referendum victory. In the meantime, there is a “national conversation” about independence where you can express your views if you so wish. In effect, the SNP have tried as hard as possible to divorce the independence issue from Scottish Parliament and Westminster elections. The debate over independence now runs separately.

So what explains the SNP’s success? It’s the policies stupid. It is conceivable that Fifers who voted for the SNP did so because they were enticed by their promise to abolish the bridge tolls. Students may have been attracted to their promise to “dump student debt”. And of course, the people who felt that there should be a change in government were always likely to vote SNP because they are the second largest party in Scotland, and the only party in a position to stand up to Labour.

It must also be said that Alex Salmond’s leadership has a lot to do with the SNP’s current success. Yes, he splits opinion. But like him or loathe him, you have to admit that he is a great politician. He is good orator and has the charisma and leadership qualities necessary. The only other Scottish leader that can compare to him in my book is Annabel Goldie, and even she is pretty colourless compared to Alex Salmond.

Particularly when you compare him to the likes of Nicol Stephen and Jack McConnell, who both look permanently nervous, Alex Salmond towers above everyone else in the Scottish Parliament. Wendy Alexander was no match for him either, particularly given the state of disarray Labour are in at the moment. With Alex Salmond at the helm, the SNP should expect an upswing in fortunes, especially since their leader at the 2003 Scottish Parliamentary election was the dull and ineffective John Swinney.

Back in Glasgow East, from what I gather, the issue of independence was not completely ignored, but it certainly did not form a major part of the campaign. Instead, it was presented as a contest where the electorate would pass judgement on the records of the Labour Government in Westminster and the SNP Government in Holyrood.

The SNP were also hugely advantaged by the fact that they were already in 2nd place in the constituency. If my theory about whichever party being in a position to beat Labour will win is correct, then it is no wonder the SNP did well while the Lib Dems tanked.

Most votes are wasted anyway, especially under the FPTP system. But a sure-fire way to waste your vote in Glasgow East was to vote for the Conservatives or the Lib Dems. Only hardened Tories and Lib Dems who despise Labour and the SNP equally will have voted for them (or, indeed, any of the other smaller parties).

In summary, I think that the SNP’s victory in Glasgow East means almost nothing for the union.

That is not to say that I think that the status quo will prevail. I think I am right when I say that all of the parties currently represented in the Scottish Parliament, and the largest parties that are not represented in the Scottish Parliament, all support some kind of increased devolution to varying degrees. That includes the Conservatives, who appear pretty open to the idea of the Scottish Parliament having some leverage over fiscal policy.

Even Labour, painted into a unionist corner by their opposition to the SNP, have toyed with the idea of fiscal autonomy. Mind you, that was under the leadership of Wendy Alexander, who seemed to be a bit of a loose cannon when it came to trying to tackle the issue of the constitution. Who knows what direction Labour will take under their new leader, but I suspect that they will find it difficult to maintain support unless the take the majority view that the Scottish Parliament should have a greater degree of fiscal autonomy.

All of this, though, is almost incidental to the success or otherwise of the SNP. Increased powers for the Scottish Parliament will not come about as a result of SNP success. It can come about as a result of the success of any party.

Well, I say “final thoughts”, but really I mean “first and only thoughts” because this is the first time I’ve actually managed to find the time and motivation to write about tomorrow’s Glasgow East by-election.

It’s difficult to know what I am hoping for. The party I am most sympathetic towards — the Lib Dems — has a pretty low chance of achieving anything meaningful. And let us face it, the only reason Glasgow East has interested people is because Labour have a chance of losing a safe seat to the SNP.

Watching the SNP and Labour battling for votes in Glasgow East is like watching the two biggest bullies at school trying to win a popularity contest. You don’t want either of them to win, but deep down inside you really like it when one messes it up, even if it gives the other guy an advantage.

It’s been quite fun to see, therefore, both parties messing it up a bit. Labour’s woes have been pretty well documented. The former MP, David Marshall, is involved in a slimy corruption scandal. He pocketed half a mill in office expenses when his office was his house and his office staff was his family — while representing the poorest constituency in the country. Yes, that sort of brass neck would make me feel ill as well!

Then the candidate Labour were going to put up for the by-election turned out also to be very possibly a corrupt bastard as well. And the two people who “stood against” him magically disappeared — presumably because they were never intended to have a chance of actually being Labour’s candidate.

So Margaret Curran was parachuted in. She is actually quite good, though the “fourth choice” jibes are pretty damaging. This also leaves “the Labour Party in the Scottish Parliament” in a bit of a pickle because she was going to be their leader. But that’s a worry for another day.

I said Margaret Curran is quite good. I meant that she comes across well on the telly. But of course since she is a Labour politician she is actually a honking liar. She said she’s lived in the east of Glasgow all her life, when in fact she has lived for years in a fancy house on the south side. And she mistook a 67-year-old Labour Party activist for a 93-year-old World War II hero “who looks not a day past 70, by the way”.

Not that the SNP’s candidate, John Mason, seems to be much better. In fact, he seems like the sort of person your mother warned you about. When asked about his views on an independence referendum, his answer was somewhat creepy.

When you ask someone to marry you, sometimes you have to persist.

Lovely.

John Mason also has a history of anti-English behaviour, demanding that a school remove England flags from a World Cup display. Given that the SNP is supposed to be trying to do away with the perceived anti-English element of the party — and does a good job of it, by and large — I am surprised that the SNP should give someone with these views a platform in an important by-election.

I don’t believe the SNP is an anti-English party per se (though undoubtedly many of its supporters are anti-English). But if they do not put a lid on this element more effectively might it become their Clause IV?

This is becoming a running theme of this blog, but I’ll say it again — you can’t blame people for not wanting to vote. And it looks like turnout will be very low in Glasgow East.

That is not just because the two front-running parties keep on fouling up. It is because of the decades of Labour neglect that have been inflicted on the area. Glasgow East is a part of the world that has been held by Labour since 1922. Yet it is in an utterly terrible shape.

The statistic about life expectancy in Glasgow East being roughly equal to that of the Gaza Strip is untrue. Life expectancy in Gaza is 71.01 years. In one part of the constituency, Calton, life expectancy is as low as 53.9 years. You can expect to live longer in Pyongyang than in Glasgow.

(Update: Bellgrove Belle pointed out in the comments that Calton is actually in the Glasgow Central constituency, not Glasgow East.)

It is staggering that this kind of poverty exists in the UK. And this is a seat that Labour have held for eight and a half decades straight. Labour is the party of the poor? If by that you mean they like there to be lots of poor people, then you are bang on.

You can blame the Conservatives all you want, but the fact is that in the 86 years Labour have represented the area, Labour have been in government for around 40 of them. And of course 11 of those have been the last 11 years. Given that it is such a poor area, you would have thought Labour would be eager to help them out. Given that Glasgow East is such a safe seat, where Labour have one of their most convincing mandates, you would think Labour would be eager and willing to repay their voters.

But no. As Fraser Nelson has shown, Glasgow East is the ultimate example of the utter failure of Labour and its policies.

Of course, it is also a shining example of the problems created by Labour’s best pal, the First Past the Post voting system. It was the very safeness of the seat that enabled Labour in the west of Scotland to become the arrogant, corrupt cesspit it became.

That is why David Marshall has absolutely no data on the voters of Glasgow East. He just didn’t care. It is the voters’ very loyalty that has meant that the Labour government has continued to ignore the area. “Not a marginal seat? Not a swing voter? Not interested.”

Given that these very voters are constantly lied to by the media and various other people that Labour is the only party that can act in the interests of the poor, it is no wonder that apathy is so widespread in Glasgow East. If I thought Labour — the party that’s been in charge since 1922 — was the best hope for change, I’d be pretty glum about it too.

The really depressing thing is that Labour will almost certainly win this election. That is partly because of the lies I’ve described in the above paragraph. Is it a cliché to say that a monkey in a red rosette would win in Glasgow East? That is the only conclusion you can come to when, time and time again, the voters keep on re-electing this bunch of failures that have done absolutely nothing for them. It is accurate to describe these kinds of seats in the west of Scotland as the modern equivalent of rotten boroughs.

As for the idea that Glasgow East’s voters will be confused between Margaret Curran and the SSP’s Frances Curran, thereby losing Labour some votes, I don’t buy that. The voters won’t be looking for the name ‘Curran’ on the ballot slip. They’ll be looking for the word ‘Labour’.

I was quite surprised therefore when at the start of the campaign political pundits based in London were confidently predicting an SNP win. I think they couldn’t imagine Labour winning any election in the kind of climate the Westminster Government finds itself in at the moment. But they didn’t count on the trusty voters of west central Scotland, who continue to vote Labour like a dirty old man who likes a good hard spanking.

It shows how out of touch the political pundits in London are with the rest of the UK. Since then, things have stabilised and received wisdom seems to point towards a Labour win, albeit with a hugely reduced majority.

Even though the SNP seem confident, I don’t see Labour losing. I think the SNP are making a big mistake by confidently predicting an “earthquake“. This will allow Labour to present a narrow majority (the most likely outcome) as a victory for them when it is anything but.

The fact that Labour’s victory is even in doubt is the real sign that Labour have failed. It shows that just now there is not really such a thing as a safe Labour seat. But the SNP have given them the perfect opportunity to bounce back.

What do I want to happen? Like I say, the choice between the SNP and Labour is a choice between shit and shite. I want neither party to win. I certainly want neither party to convincingly win.

As such, I want the result to be an extremely narrow Labour victory (1,000–500 votes or less). This would maximise the pain to both parties — Labour barely clinging on to what was one of their safest seats, while the SNP lose an election they predicted they would win. Fingers crossed!

Oh dear. SNP MSP Christopher Harvie has found himself in a spot of bother for comments he has made about Lockerbie and the Scottish yoof.

On getting to Lockerbie, I discovered that the place is a dump – it was Tescotown. It should really have a certain attraction of a rather sombre kind as a place where something terrible happened; there are, after all, places on the western front and that sort of thing that have such an attraction for families who have lost people there.

There are a few things about this paragraph that are a bit off for me. I might be completely right to say that Lockerbie is a dump. I have never been, but frankly it wouldn’t surprise me. There are plenty of dumps around the place, and Lockerbie isn’t exactly known for its beautiful beaches or rolling hills.

Jeff is right when he says that if Lockerbie is a dump, Christopher Harvie should be able to say so. It should not be exempt from analysis because of the fact that it is the scene of the country’s worst terrorist atrocity.

But here is the thing. Christopher Harvie seems to be saying that Lockerbie should be positioning itself as a potential tourist attraction to help rake in the money from fans of disasters. As Mushkush implies, the idea leaves a slightly sour taste in the mouth.

Following that he turns his guns on the much maligned youth of the country. They cannot get a second of peace from the establishment’s whining about the yoof.

They are a demographic that literally cannot win. If they spend too long indoors playing their Xboxes they are criticised for not getting enough exercise and causing an “OBESITY EPIDEMIC“.

If they do the opposite and dare to go outside to get some fresh air and happen to commit the heinous crime of wearing warm clothing they get called names like “hoodie” and “yob”. And everyone points at them and says, “Why are you standing on the street corner? It is so intimidating.” As though just standing around is intimidating.

If they are not on the corner but are standing in the vicinity of a shop some ridiculous person comes along and installs a discriminatory device that is deliberately designed to cause youths pain. And people wonder why today’s young people are disaffected.

Anyway, Mr Harvie has added himself to the long list of poshy snooty types criticising yoof fashions. You know, fair enough on that front. Some people do wear horrendous clothing. But why is he attacking Tom Hunter for it? I thought the SNP were meant to be aligning themselves as a pro-business party. But Christopher Harvie’s comments are about as anti-business as it gets.

It must also be said that the most immense fortune that has been made in Scotland in the past few years – that of Tom Hunter – has arisen from selling people what must be the ugliest clothes worn by anyone on the entire continent.

Tom Hunter is one of Scotland’s most successful businessmen. If Mr Harvie’s theory is true, then Mr Hunter has done the country’s people a great service–selling people clothes that they want. He spotted a gap in the market. It is what great businessmen do best. It should be celebrated. But Christopher Harvie just looks down his nose at it.

There are also echoes of this anti-business sentiment with his dismissal of Lockerbie as “Tescotown”. It is the most successful business in Britain, which makes it the butt of ill thought out jibes like this. What does it even mean to be a Tescotown anyway? My town has a Tesco as well–does that mean I should just go and top myself now?

Christopher Harvie Anyway, back to fashion. What clothing would Christopher Harvie prefer people to wear? Knickerbockers. Goodness me. Apparently his personal preference is for plus fours. And look at that awful check jacket. Holyrood Watcher rightly takes him to task.

For me, this whole issue highlights a problem with the electoral system currently in use for Scottish Parliament elections.

Christopher Harvie was the SNP’s candidate where I live in Kirkcaldy. During the campaign he began to get a bit of a reputation as a “mad professor” among some locals. From today’s comments it looks as though he earned that reputation.

Even Brian Taylor has used slightly colourful language on his blog to call Mr Harvie ‘The Nutty Professor‘. And according to Kezia Dugdale, “Rumour has it the SNP were waiting for an episode like this but were surprised it has taken so long.” In addition to Christine Grahame, it looks like the SNP has its second major loose cannon.

Prior to Mr Harvie’s campaign, I was considering voting for the SNP as an anti-Labour tactical vote (not that it would have done much good anyway). But I did not want to vote for Christopher Harvie. He lost in Kirkcaldy. Yet, today he is an MSP. He got in through the back door on the list vote.

No-one voted for him to win his seat. People only voted for the SNP as a party–or Alex Salmond For First Minister, as they were known on the ballot papers. What a shock those voters will have got, thinking they were voting for Alex Salmond and instead getting Christopher Harvie!

The problem with the list system is that it gives voters the minimum amount of power possible. Voters have no control over the candidates. Positions on the are determined internally within the parties. This makes the MSPs accountable not to the voters, but to internal party structures. This allows too many poor candidates become MSPs and fills the Parliament with lackeys. The Scottish Parliament needs a heavy dose of Single Transferable Vote to weed out these people.

One last thing. I really don’t get this quote from Jackie Baillie on Christopher Harvie’s comments.

“He represents a supposedly pro-European party but displays the worst kind of euro-phobia.”

He singled out Scotland’s youths for criticism, and said they were the worst in Europe! How this is supposed to be a display of Euro-phobia beats me.

Unfortunately, this does not tie in with my theory about the inadequate list MSPs. I have to conclude that Dumbarton is one of Scotland’s many Labour rotten boroughs.