Friday, 18 February 2011
As the debate on electoral reform starts to rage - or perhaps churn stodgily - I thought I might make a request. Could we - whatever our views on the Alternative Vote - take a moment to infuse this debate with rather more precision in language?
One of the central arguments against the first past the post system is that it is "unfair" on those who live in a seat where "a monkey with a blue/red (occasionally yellow) rosette could get elected". It is taken as established fact that, for example, a Conservative can't get elected in an Islington seat and a Labourite hasn't got a prayer in East Surrey.
But, actually, THAT'S NOT TRUE. It is currently highly unlikely that Labour will win East Surrey at the next general election - but that is emphatically not the same thing as it being systemically impossible.
This distinction is crucial. It might initially seem sloppy but trivial to fail to make it. In fact, that sloppiness could help trigger a change in the way we run elections. And whatever decision we take in May, it shouldn't be a sloppy one.
The factors which make a "safe" seat safe - demographic make-up, the size and efficiency of a party's activist base, the vigour with which an MP has worked to represent their constituents' interests over the years - these are wholly distinct from the system we use to elect MPs. They are not inherently unfair, and it is irresponsible and sloppy to assert that they are.
Such factors may and indeed do often present a formidable set of obstacles for a challenger, but so what? Whoever said politics is or should be easy?
Not Paddy Ashdown, who won Yeovil and helped keep it for the Lib Dems. Not Martin Bell or Richard Taylor, who won as independents. Not Caroline Lucas, who won a Brighton seat for the Greens (in no small part because she is so appealing personally).
Not, for that matter, Barack Obama, whose ascent to the US Presidency would have been impossible if he'd not dared to take on the established Clinton machine in the Democrat primaries. The odds seemed stacked against him. How did he do it? With a compelling narrative and inspired use of new media.
Not everyone can be like Barack - but they can pull their fingers out and say something attention-grabbing instead of just whinging that the system works against them. What they actually mean, if they dare to search their souls, is that the voters work against them.
Simply put, until a vote has been cast every vote is to play for. If people vote along predictable lines blame them, blame politicians, blame apathy - blame anything but the system. The system is very straightforward: each seat chooses someone to represent it, and then a bunch of MPs form a government, at the Queen's request.
Personally I think it works well. I don't want people to vote explicitly for parties rather than individuals, as that makes politicians more distant and unaccountable (their only challenge becomes persuading their party to place them high on the list). I think every MP should have a constituency and that this is preferable to making Parliament more accurately reflect how each party did in the national vote. I also think it's fatuous to take into account a voter's second, third and fourth choices.
These, however, are matters of opinion. They are already being well rehearsed, as are other important arguments (e.g. under AV, in a typical seat the second and third preferences of a BNP supporter would likely be counted when those of a Labour supporter would likely not be).
What is a matter of objective fact is that while there is such a thing as a safe seat, there is no such thing as a 100 per cent safe one. In other words, the system ensures that every single MP has reason to fear for their job security because every single MP can be removed - and a jolly good thing too.
It is for the politically intrepid to go out and win against the odds. Changing the system to make it easier for them through counting sloppy second preferences will do nothing to fix the malaise in our polity.
Thursday, 17 February 2011
I'm Having Dinner With This Man Tomorrow
Sunday, 13 February 2011
Monday, 7 February 2011
Up and down the country (BEFORE spending cuts have even kicked in) local governments are deciding to axe services - and yet central government is getting all the blame.
Councils have considerable control over budget priorities (they could, for example, fire all their chief executives, who for vast salaries do the job that council chairmen should be doing). But we are seeing - as it should always have been obvious that we would - that voters will always, always, ALWAYS expect Ministers to take ultimate responsibility.
It's almost as though localism doesn't and can't and never will work.