How to tell when a reform wouldn’t really change a thing

When Tories support it. Wholeheartedly.

Gosh, that didn’t take long, did it?

What is the Party Line on AV?

I’ve just watched Danny Alexander on BBC News, clearly stonewalling because he didn’t have a clear yes or no to give to the question of whether we would be in favour of AV (in the absence of STV, obviously). If any more of our representatives are on news programmes tonight, can the party please provide them with a yes or a no on this question? I really almost don’t care what the answer is, but we look absolutely pathetic if we don’t know what we are thinking on one of our hobby horse subjects.

Take Back Power

Nick Clegg has today launched a rather exciting campaign, Take Back Power. I really do hope it takes off; it frankly pisses all over David Cameron’s pledge to “give serious consideration to” a few half-measures. Nick’s plan includes:

1. Commitment to accept Kelly expenses reform in full
2. Recall power for MPs suspended for misconduct
3. House of Lords reform
4. Party funding reform
5. Fixed term Parliaments
6. Enabling legislation for a referendum on AV+
7. Changes to House of Commons procedure to reduce executive power

You can sign the petition to support the campaign here.

OK, so I have my reservations about point 6, but compared to the other two party plans, this is by far and away the best chance to clean up our discredited system. Forget trying to use your vote in the european elections to register your anger with Westminster. Get involved with a campaign directly about the issue at hand. It might not be as immediately satisfying, but it’ll get more done.

Tory Smears On PR

…or, Why We Have To Talk Specifics.

A few people, eg. Costigan Quist, Mark Thomson and Neil Stockley, have been arguing for a consensual, compromising stance, most likely involving accepting the Jenkins Commission suggestion of AV+ instead of our preferred solution of STV. Jennie Rigg and Alex Foster offer a more divisive approach, and I would like to add my voice to theirs. Let me tell you why.

It has become obvious why being vague about what we are supporting will not work over the last week. The Tories, opposed as they are to the principle that every person’s vote should count for something, have been lining up to smear the movement that has been picking up momentum over the last week. There are three specific lines that I would like to respond to.

1. PR takes power away from people and vests it in party hierarchies.

A lie.

This is an accusation which is quite justly levelled at a certain subset of PR systems: closed party list systems, such as the one that is used for the Euro elections in the UK. The parties choose the order of the list, and the top candidate is virtually guaranteed to be elected, as long as they’re standing for a vaguely well supported party. Or, to put it another way, a safe seat! One that is even more in the gift of party patronage than safe seats at the moment! Similarly, since AV+ requires there to be top-up lists, the same problem applies to Alan Johnson’s favoured solution. Not only that, but AV+ doesn’t even get rid of safe seats on a constituency level. As Jennie quite rightly points out, safe seats are a pretty key feature of what we want to get rid of. It is the link from the immediate crisis to this specific reform, made off the back of Mark’s excellent analysis (with a little help from yours truly).

STV, on the other hand, puts as much power into the hands of the people as possible. In effect, it rolls the Tories’ proposed open primaries and the general election into one, and throws in proportionality as a bit of a bonus. David Cameron is being straight-forwardly deceptive in making the argument he made today. He knows he is, he knows what we favour (or at least, he ought to), and, as Millennium argues, if this electoral reform thing gets rolling, then he would be an absolute hypocrite not to get on board with any Lib Dem efforts to favour STV, not AV+.

2. The Lib Dems just want PR because they want to always be in government.

A ridiculous line, and one which pre-supposes a parliament which looks more or less like the one we have now after a reform designed specifically to ensure that it does not. In making this claim, the Tories (or anyone else) are assuming that under the new system, the Lib Dems are still the only other main party in the Commons after the Tories and Labour. Why? It seems to me pretty likely that we could see, at the very least, UKIP and Green MPs under most systems of PR, certainly including the ones that we favour. Assuming Scotland remained part of the UK, you’d also likely have a sizeable nationalist contingent. Plenty of people to form a coalition with, even if the few BNP members elected were (rightly) so toxic that nobody wanted to form a coalition of any sort with them.

Ironically, the one system likely to produce the outcome being suggested by this talking point is the one supported by Alan Johnson, AV+. As Lewis Baston noted in a report on AV (pdf) for the Electoral Reform Society,

…life under AV is fairly comfortable for Liberal Democrats. All their incumbent MPs are likely to find their seats safer than under FPTP, and change to proportionality would destabilise this comfortable position. AV also suits Lib Dem campaigning techniques quite well, and the party could reasonably look forward to faster electoral progress than under FPTP in its target constituencies because acquiring second preferences is easier than acquiring tactical votes.

It’s easy enough to see how this works: for the most part, it’s reasonable to assume that both Tory and Labour voters would put the Lib Dems preferentially higher than Labour or the Tories, respectively. In even vaguely close seats, this would give us a real advantage. It also favours centre parties, and does very little to represent smaller, more niche parties like the Greens or UKIP. If AV (or even AV+) was the system we were advocating, then there would be a lot of truth in the criticism that the Lib Dems just wanted to be in power all the time. As Baston remarked,

It would be understandable if the party settled for AV for a – perhaps lengthy – ‘transitional period’ or ‘national conversation’ rather than move quickly into a more thoroughgoing electoral reform.

It would indeed, and it is to the party’s credit that it has continued to favour STV and not AV, when, as Jennie mentioned,

thanks to Chris Rennard, our party is actually best geared up to fighting FPTP elections, and would likely LOSE seats if STV came in.

To see this point, just imagine how many of our campaigning techniques (eg. bar charts) would translate to a proper proportional system like STV. But anyway, the main point is, we should not be the only significant presence after the main two parties under STV (and that’s assuming that none of the existing main parties undergo splits or rapid transformations under the new system, which is a game for another time..).

3. PR results in chaos and deals made in smoke-filled rooms.

OK, this one is a bit more difficult, because basically it’s true, coalitions must be formed under PR systems, more or less whatever you do. You can still give a government a solid mandate, by having an election for the Prime Minister separately, and tasking them with forming a government, but yes, there will either be a search for coalition partners, or a minority government will have to reach across the aisle for support on individual planks of its programme.

But look at it this way. Politics, the art of the possible, is about coalitions of interests. Always has been, always will be. New Labour is not a natural, cohesive grouping of people; died in the wool trade unionists would rather not be in a party with Peter Mandelson if they could help it. Nor, for that matter, would some of the more foaming eurosceptic types in the Tory party want to be in a party with Ken Clarke. Sometimes, the economic/social liberal distinction rears its head in our own fair party. The point is, FPTP doesn’t eliminate coalitions, not really; it just makes people form coalitions before running for election, not after. The political parties are the coalitions, and often the wheelings and dealings are much more murky than they might be under PR. The oft-quoted example is the scrap between Blairites and Brownites which characterised much of the current Labour government’s term. How open and transparent was the process which led to most of the policy ennacted over the last ten years?

Under PR, the negotiations are much more open, in that at least we know what each party wants, the news can report on the negotiations (most of the information would likely be leaked from somewhere), and we can see what comes out the other end and draw our own conclusions about what went on. If we don’t like the result, crucially, we can vote next time to change the balance of power within that coalition, without kicking that coalition out of power. Under the coalition that was New Labour, we had no such option. STV, uniquely, even lets you do this within parties, by favouring, say, proper Old Labour types over Blue Labour candidates. Under FPTP, change in parties often takes a very long time, and its direction is completely uncontrollable by the electorate.

So, three lazy lines against PR, and three responses. But what do we notice about each of the responses? Crucially, in order to defend the principle of electoral reform from the self-interested, complacent opposition of the Tories, we are going to have to be specific about which system we are talking about. And if we don’t speak up for STV now, we are going to be lumbered with a system which is much more open to criticism from those who oppose any form of PR.

It’s all very well saying the Tories have nothing to do with it, but at some point, if we want this to go forward, we are going to have to make an argument to the people and win a referendum on the matter. The Labour grassroots don’t much care for electoral reform, so campaigning on the ground for reform is going to fall largely to us. It is perfectly reasonable to throw everything we can at making sure we can fight on our own terms, for the system we actually believe in.

The New Mood For Change

Alix wants us all to have a mass debate about reform.

Oh, go on then. Here’s my starter for ten.

As the Guardian noted recently, Rahm Emmanuel’s view that one shouldn’t waste a good crisis is every bit as applicable to our current political crisis as it was to the credit crunch. But even for a crisis as big as the one in which we find ourselves, there is too much possible reform being touted to sensibly address it all. It is going to be necessary to pick and choose our immediate priorities.

My thinking on this subject starts with this thought: I wonder whether this might be a “bottoming out” of cynicism in politics. Let’s not kid ourselves, this isn’t a storm that has blown in from nowhere, wrecking once-sound edifices in one fell swoop. The public has been fed up with politics for some time now, and in particular, the growing sense that politicians are “all the same” has been increasingly poisonous to people’s will to engage. It needn’t be its current incarnation, “all the same, just in it for the money”, it has also been “all the same, hardly a policy difference between them”, “all the same, promise everything, deliver nothing” and “all the same, it’s all spin and lies”. This crisis, I suspect, has been so quickly seized upon as the time to clean up politics more widely because it happened at about the right time. The downward trajectory of public faith in politics has been on such a prolonged downward trend that, had it continued much further, the system would have become completely untenable. People sense that – and by that, I mean political people who think about these things.

If we are to make appropriate use of the reform momentum, any reforms must not stifle the appetite for further reforms. They should be things that have an obvious benefit, and are perceptible to the public in as short a time as possible. If people sense that all that is happening is technocratic faffing, it will not have the desired effect of nurturing any green shoots of optimism that might have appeared.

For a start, what the public wants, anecdotally and from polling data, is for more heads to roll. Every party should be quite trigger happy with the deselection process before the next election, and appropriate investigations should take place into those cases which look to have been fraudulent. If other reforms feel like a substitute for these actions, they will only make people more cynical. As has been noted elsewhere, it’s quite difficult for the Lib Dems to lead on this, because none of our MPs have done anything heinous enough to warrant the kind of synthetic fury with which David Cameron has greeted revelations of moat cleaning and duck islands. Nonetheless, some movement has been welcome; Lord Rennard’s announcement today is timely, and it’d probably help if a few MPs stood down at the next election.

But assuming we manage to get past this first, most important, most basic (and lets face it, least interesting) first step, what next? The sense that things are not simply going to carry on as normal will only be challenged by something that people care about. Secondary legislation, for instance, is all very well, but if the reform is to something you have to explain what it is first, it’s not going to get anyone all that excited.

Of course, the obvious thing to reform is the interface between the political system and the public: voting. It might not surprise anyone to hear a Lib Dem call for electoral reform, but it really is the most obvious reform here. We have been banging on about this for so long, precisely because it is one of the most effective things we can do to hand power back to people, which is exactly what they want. The Lib Dem preferred solution is STV in multi-member constituencies, for well rehearsed reasons that I won’t go over in tedious detail here.

(Incidentally, while we’re at it: we should under no circumstances change to any kind of messy, bodge job like the Jenkins Report-recommended AV+ system. It would only give reform a bad name, and stop any recovery in participation in the democratic process in its tracks.)

The Conservatives, so far, have advanced open primaries as a way to re-invigorate democracy. Well, OK, I can see how someone could have watched the US elections and decided that some primaries would make life exciting, but can we really see it being quite as interesting when it’s the contest for Labour candidate for Colchester? Having said that, if a move to STV is as effective as I hope it would be in getting people more involved, then I might just imagine open primaries attracting enough attention to be worth doing for constituencies that are rather bigger than those we have at the moment. That, though, would be a secondary reform. STV would remove safe seats (so long as parties cannot deliberately limit the number of people who can stand for them in a given constituency), and with it the sense that a vote can be “wasted”.

The other thing which would force the political class to engage with the public more is reform of political party funding. Personally, I’m in favour of state funding of political parties, for the simple reason that it removes the issue of people with more money to spare having more influence. I’m not dogmatic about that, and other solutions might help. Limits on donations would be a start.

An elected House of Lords is, of course, right, but somehow it doesn’t seem like the biggest priority right now. Yes, there’ve been scandals about peers taking cash for ammendments, but there already are rules against that, and they’ve suffered the consequences. The Lords is, frankly, not the biggest problem we have with our legislature at the moment.

Which brings me to the last thing: the divide between parliament and the executive. Personally, I’d quite like an executive who aren’t necessarily drawn from the legislature (like the USA), but in the absence of that, could we just have an STV election for Prime Minister, with the leader of each party standing? That would remove some of the downside to PR systems that people always bang on about – the PM would have a strong mandate to lead, but they wouldn’t necessarily have an overall majority in parliament.

As I believe Simon Jenkins observed some time ago now, one of the biggest problems we have in the UK is that we get very worked up when we’re arguing about PR vs FPTP, because some people want a proportional legislature, and some people want a strong, decisive executive. Essentially, we’re talking at cross purposes. A single party executive and a proportional legislature would allow for both, albeit that the executive would have to build sufficient support for its legislation (no bad thing).

So, that’s more or less my programme of reforms:

1. In the immediate term, some heads must roll after due process.
2. We should move to multi-member constituency STV after a referendum at the next election. Failing that, the Tories’ open primaries plan wouldn’t be a terrible idea.
3. Political party funding should be reformed.
4. The business of the first parliament elected under STV should include wider constitutional reform, including what becomes of the Lords, and thoughts about reforms to the relationship between parliament and the executive. While they’re at it, they might as well write it all down, too.

Any questions?

Open Primaries: An Alternative Answer?

Looking at the Tory talking heads on the news this morning, it appears that, in an attempt to head off electoral reform at the pass, their response to the public wanting a way to chuck out their MP at the ballot box is…. open primaries, USA-style.

Well, it’d be a start. The difference between that and multi-member STV, of course, is that is retains the idea of a party safe seat, but it does indeed allow the public to chuck out one particular person. It’s not, actually, as bad an idea as AV+, which I think would just give electoral reform in general a bad name. But it’s not great. If this gained a bit of momentum, though, and turned into a wholesale debate, along party lines (Labour: AV+, Tory: Open Primaries, LibDems: Multi Member STV), then obviously we’d be in the right, but if it came down to it, we should probably support the Tories over Labour (assuming the policies I posit above, of course).

Beware Phantom Reformers

Polly Toynbee (no, wait, keep reading!) wrote a mostly-right article yesterday contributing to the effort to examine the link between the electoral system and the sense of entitlement and corruption that has been revealed at Westminster in the last two weeks. She quotes, towards the end of it, the evidence which Mark has noted of a relationship between an MP appearing in the Telegraph for their misdemeanors and their having a larger than average majority (ie. a safer seat). Incidentally, I have done some number crunching for Mark, which he writes up here.

One thing bothers me about Polly’s article, though. She writes:

Make Votes Count, the Electoral Reform Society, Compass, Unlock Democracy and an array of reformers of many kinds are now determined add a referendum to the next election. If not now, the Conservatives will ­certainly never offer one. Alan Johnson came out again yesterday for PR – ­reviving Roy Jenkins’s electoral plan that Blair shelved. Other Labour voices are breaking out. This will be the real test of each MP’s sincerity: will they clean up politics, or just brush the surface mud off the present system with a lick and a promise?

The Alan Johnson quote she refers to, by the way, comes from the Independent, where yesterday he said:

I believe that we need to overhaul the political system and that we should complete unfinished business by discussing again the Jenkins review and consulting the British people on proportional representation, which gives greater power to the electorate.

Now, lets just stop and think about this for a moment. If what Polly, Mark and I are suggesting is that, to quote Polly,

Seats where parties can run a donkey in a red or blue rosette breed complacency and tempt corruption. Nefarious practices thrive in any dark corners of politics unchecked by scrutiny or competition. Time for a constitutional revolution.

… then how does the Jenkins Report help us with this? The system it suggests, AV+, is, I would suggest, every bit as likely to produce safe seats. I’m not the only person to think so, either. It is widely thought to be one of the disadvantages of AV+ in comparison to STV; indeed, it seems likely that this is one of the reasons Jenkins suggested it in the first place – getting MPs to vote for STV would have been like getting turkeys to vote for Christmas.

So a wider movement towards electoral reform is a good thing, don’t get me wrong, but can we keep a wary eye on anyone who suggests reviving the Jenkins report is a solution to this current crisis. It isn’t. Safe seats must go, as Polly so rightly suggests. I hope, then, that she would argue against AV+ every bit as eloquently as she does against FPTP.