Archive | December, 2005

Waffle is a weapon (21 Dec 2005)

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Waffle is a weapon (21 Dec 2005)

Posted on 21 December 2005 by admin

Before I dipped my toe into the fetid waters of the US Congress for last week’s blog posts, I hadn’t realised quite how convoluted the US legislative process could be, and how the whole process was not just bureaucratic and complex but deliberately obscure. The point was brought home by a comment in the previous thread House of Horrors which in turn pointed to a revealing Rolling Stone article about it.

When something is impenetrable and obscure, that is often not because you the reader are stupid or it is at too advanced a level, it is often because the perpetrator of the waffle is trying to hide something. An academic variant, common among people who style themselves as postmodernists, is to surround an argument with clouds of verbiage that disguises the content-free, banal or simply wrong assertions that are being made. Clarity, rationalism and enlightenment go together. As Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s brilliant book, Intellectual Impostures says:

At a time when superstitions, obscurantism and nationalist and religious fanaticism are spreading in many parts of the world – including the ‘developed’ West – it is irresponsible, to say the least, to treat with such casualness what has historically been the principal defence against these follies, namely a rational vision of the world.

The offences of postmodernism against clarity are as nothing compared to the US legislative process, which seems almost designed for the rulers of the House majority to benefit favoured groups such as the rich, and their donors, by hiding provisions in dark corners of the legislation. Legislation is often given a cheesy, sloganising title (like the PATRIOT Act). Or merged with completely irrelevant legislation, like putting Arctic oil drilling in the same bill that enables defence spending. Or packed with what is called ‘pork’ – essentially legalised legislative bribery for representatives’ districts or special interests. Votes on this sort of thing provides source material for mendacious campaign commercials – to object to the Alaska drilling you must risk a sliming by paid ads in the local media claiming you wanted to leave US soldiers to face the dangers of Iraq without Kevlar or boots. No doubt companies with a commercial interest in the Alaska drillng would be keen to fund such commercials. Just go and read the Rolling Stone piece. And also see the luxurious life that can be lived if you are inside the machine, for instance the millionaire lifestyle of Tom DeLay, courtesy of his donors.

Britain still has much to recommend it, in that parliamentary procedures are, while sometimes complicated, at least honest and not as obscure as in the US (or governance of the EU, which also has a clarity problem). It would be a shame if electoral reform, or House of Lords reform, led to a situation where effective decisions could take place in the dark of a partisan special committee meeting at a scarcely advertised time in the bowels of a parliamentary building.

But this is a worry for electoral reformers. Talking in detail about alternative electoral systems arouses some instinctive hackles among the public, who suspect (often with good reason) that every time a public figure dives off into technicalities, someone somewhere is being conned. Many people seem unprepared to trust in a process they can’t understand – but this isn’t a problem in Denmark where the system is of baffling, baroque complexity. Perhaps the Danes have more reason to trust their governing classes.

However, there really are some questions where the answer really isn’t that simple. The reaction of getting bored and turning away often enables insiders or special interests to get away with writing the small print to suit themselves. Opinion research tells us that one of the the only good things about FPTP is that most people feel they understand it. But as the US example shows, FPTP can be an enemy of clarity further along the line. Perhaps people would understand government as a whole more if policies emerged from discussion rather than coming down from a Cabinet whose internal workings are usually off-limits? Just a thought. Reform is anti-waffle – for clarity, fairness and honesty, if not always simplicity. It’s just difficult to find a way of putting it. And before I go all waffly myself, I’ll stop.

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The wit and wisdom of Otto von Bismarck (14 Dec 2005)

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The wit and wisdom of Otto von Bismarck (14 Dec 2005)

Posted on 14 December 2005 by admin

I am currently trying to write a post about the use of obfuscation and confusion as a political weapon, and found myself reminded of Bismarck’s celebrated statement that

To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making.

It’s not to be found in writing anywhere in Bismarck’s papers, but various versions of the quote have circulated since. I hadn’t realised that Bismarck had also delivered a number of other statements of wry, cynical Realpolitik. He’s like a 19th Century H.L. Mencken, with the added advantage of a powerful land army.

When you say you agree to a thing in principle you mean that you have not the slightest intention of carrying it out in practice.

Referendum on electoral reform in the first term, anyone? As for

There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children, and the United States of America.

… oh, you don’t need me to comment on that one, do you?

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Dual (duel?) candidacy (9 Dec 2005)

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Dual (duel?) candidacy (9 Dec 2005)

Posted on 09 December 2005 by admin

The Wales White Paper announces the government’s intention to end what is known as dual candidacy for the Welsh Assembly. Dual candidacy is an issue that comes up when you have two different routes into the legislature, as in MMP (AMS) systems. Should, or should not, people be allowed to stand as candidates in both a single member district and on the party’s list?

The populist argument says no – that candidates who failed at constituency level should not have a ‘back door’ into parliament. In Wales it has become known as the ‘Clwyd West question’ because in that constituency three of the four defeated candidates popped up as Assembly Members because they were also on the lists.

Peter Hain, in his capacity as Secretary of State for Wales, agrees. (The link takes you to the uncorrected transcript of evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons, scroll down to Q241 and following.)

Hain has often been a constructive thinker on electoral issues, and has done much to promote discussion of the electoral system within the Labour Party. But on this occasion he is wrong, some of his arguments to the Committee were extremely weak and his remarks were marred by rudeness.

The least defensible part of Hain’s evidence was his rude response to the work of two academics who had researched the use of MMP abroad, which was personally discourteous and also inaccurate.

Peter Hain was presented with the finding from two academics that the only system similar to the one he proposed had been used in pre-Orange revolution Ukraine, and why that was the most appropriate model for Wales. Hain replied:

It is not, and indeed the two academics are wrong because I researched this very carefully. The issue of dual candidacy is one that has proved controversial in many other jurisdictions that have introduced additional member systems, and there are not many that have. This is a fairly unusual system. For example, it was considered by New Zealand’s independent commission on electoral systems and two Canadian Provinces that are planning to introduce the additional member systems and are committed to banning dual candidacy. I draw from that that in those British-type parliamentary systems, New Zealand and specifically in Canada, they are committed to doing this. The somewhat gratuitous reference to Ukraine is wrong, and I suggest the academics get better researchers in the future, similar to the ones I have got.

The reference to New Zealand is flat-out wrong. In 2001 their Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry (yes, a government that held an open review into their electoral system!) in New Zealand was very firm about dual candidacy – in support of the idea.

The committee was unanimous in its view that dual candidacies should continue. Members saw the placement of candidates as an issue for parties to determine. Committee members also considered the alternative would impact unreasonably on small parties who may not be able to field candidates in all electorates. Committee members agreed that parties must have the flexibility to decide where and how members will be placed as either electorate candidates, or on the list, or both. There may be very good reasons for a party’s decision in this regard. The committee also considered that the impact of a prohibition on dual candidacies on smaller parties would be unacceptable. This could be seen as restricting their ability to participate in the democratic process.

There was much more concern in the early years of MMP in New Zealand about the position of MPs elected on party lists who subsequently defect from the party. This led to legislation in 2001 banning party-jumping by list MPs. I might return to the issue of party-jumping among list MPs in due course. The committee’s recommendation on dual candidacy was wholeheartedly endorsed by the New Zealand government, who agreed that a ban would interfere in the proper functions of parties in candidate selection and be an unreasonable imposition on small parties.

While it is true that recent Canadian proposals have included bans on dual candidacy, it is not generally regarded as a problem in most countries – the Canadian debate on MMP may have been influenced by the entirely artificial fuss about the system in Wales. AMS is far from an unusual system, either. It has been used since the 1940s in Germany, and was adopted by several countries in the 1990s (there are fashions in electoral systems as in other things) such as Italy, Japan, Hungary (in a complex variant) and New Zealand.

Dual candidacy is just one of the wrinkles and anomalies with AMS systems – STV is a lot tidier in that there is only one route in. Some countries seem to manage just fine with AMS – presumably because, unlike in Wales and Scotland, some thought has gone into the role and purpose of the list members. Another issue is the partisan split. In other countries (including Scotland) all parties have some list representatives, while in Wales a Labour executive draws its support exclusively from Labour constituency members. This then leads to a temptation, into which Hain has unfortunately fallen, to delegitimise the opposition members (mainly from the lists).

It is certainly not an abuse for candidates to stand in both list and constituencies – it is often a lifeline for smaller parties. Peter Hain would do well to read the New Zealand committee’s conclusions properly, and not use his position to take gratuitous shots at people who do research whose conclusions he doesn’t like.

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The Senate of Brobdingnag (6 Dec 2005)

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The Senate of Brobdingnag (6 Dec 2005)

Posted on 06 December 2005 by admin

The United States Senate is one of the most bizarre and unrepresentative legislative bodies in the democratic world – and I say this advisedly, coming from a country where a seat can be filled by an election among four people with hereditary titles who support a particular party.

Each of the 50 states of the US elects two Senators. The nation’s capital, the District of Columbia, cannot, probably because the idea of black people voting hasn’t caught on sufficiently among other legislators. Representation is unrelated to population, so that Wyoming has two Senators for its population of just under 500,000, and California has two Senators for its population of just under 34 million. The 15 per cent of the American people who live in the smallest states can command a Senate majority.

Senate malapportionment is a time bomb under American democracy.

The reasons that the Senate is such a problem are twofold. One is that it is an exceptionally powerful second chamber. The US Senate has effectively an equal role in the legislature to the House, and in some crucial areas it is actually more important. This makes it distinct from other malapportioned upper chambers in other parliaments (such as Australia and Germany), whose decisions can usually be overridden by the lower house eventually, as with our own dear House of Lords. The Senate can completely block a President’s nominations to the Supreme Court (and other courts), the Cabinet and other executive positions, and veto treaties. It can cut off government funds.

The second is that the bias in favour of small states has systematic consequences. The bulk of the ethnic minority population lives in larger states – California, Texas and Florida notably among them. It is not accidental that the number of black Senators in US history can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The small states – Wyoming, the two Dakotas, Montana, Vermont etc – are among the least ethnically diverse places in the US. They also lack urban areas, and tend towards social conservatism, distorting the entire agenda of US public policy and even judicial philosophy.

This quota system for white rural dwellers has delivered the Senate to the Republicans. The Democrats won the popular vote in Senate elections in 2000 (by 0.6%) and 2004 (by 4.8%) but the Republicans won in 2002 (by 4.1%). Cumulated, this is a 48.4% to 46.8% Democratic advantage. But instead of a thin Democratic lead the Republicans have a comfortable majority with 55 out of 100 seats. The Democrats are only viable as a Senate party because they have a number of popular individuals who can win election even in very conservative states, such as Senator Nelson of Nebraska or Dorgan of North Dakota. Republican strategy has been to make Senate contests ideological rather than personal in these states, and succeeded in knocking out the Democrats’ leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota in 2004.

It is going to get worse. Population projections show the majority of growth taking place in the large states, so that by 2050, according to Steven Hill of Fairvote in Fixing Elections, as few as 5 per cent of the American population may have majority power in the Senate. It should be a matter of some shame that, as Matthew Shugart comments, Robert Mugabe took a leaf out of the American book in devising his gerrymandered Senate.

It is quite possible that future Democratic Presidents would be able to govern only by the consent of an entrenched conservative Republican Senate, even if they had majority support from the electorate.

Senate reform is an even more daunting prospect than it is for the House. A constitutional amendment requires the support of two thirds of the Senate and three quarters of state legislatures, so the small states can veto changes that reduce their excessive power. Equal representation by state is written into the Constitution. One reform that would make the problem a little less sharp would be to elect both Senators from each state at the same time using 2-member STV. But this would probably still result in a situation where the two possible options for control would be a conservative Republican majority or a Democratic majority that would have to look very carefully after the interests of its incumbents in conservative states. It’s a potentially terrifying mess. Much of it results from an undue emphasis in the US Constitution on protecting minorities from majoritarian tyranny (Senate malapportionment, supermajority requirements for Constitutional amendment), that has now opened the way to the tyranny of a favoured minority.

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Sarky Comment (6 Dec 2005)

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Sarky Comment (6 Dec 2005)

Posted on 06 December 2005 by admin

The Times noted today that the island of Sark, in the Channel Islands, is considering a radical electoral reform.

Yes, from 2006 one person one vote may be coming to the island, although – we don’t want to be hasty – it hasn’t been finalised. The challenge to the existing rules, that include Droit de Seigneur (relax, only over property sales), comes not so much from the forces of democracy as the forces of plutocracy, as the Barclay brothers challenged the current system before the Privy Council. The judicial role of the Privy Council is hardly more defensible, but there we are. Incidentally, the modern go-ahead Times is now so opposed to feudalism that it seems unable to spell the word correctly.

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House of Horrors (5 Dec 2005)

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House of Horrors (5 Dec 2005)

Posted on 05 December 2005 by admin

If you think the House of Commons is bad, you should take a look at the US House of Representatives. Its procedures are more boring and charmless and the quality of debate not infrequently worse – although a new low was set recently by a Republican representative (no service record) accusing a Democrat (decorated Marine veteran) of cowardice.

The House is also a sink of corruption, gerrymandering and unrepresentative elections.

The House is , relative to the Commons, a sink of corruption. A California congressman, Republican ‘Duke’ Cunnigham, resigned in disgrace last week after the evidence that he had was neck-deep in bribery from defence contractors. One particularly creative bung was that from a contractor who bought a house from Cunningham for $700,000 more than it was worth. And people in Britain complain about the whole Mandelson-Robinson thing… Although the first, Cunningham is not likely to be the last. The most powerful Congressman until recently, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, has had to step down after being indicted for money laundering in connection with a scheme to gerrymander Congressional district boundaries in Texas. DeLay is also a chum of ‘controversial’ lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose generosity to Republican Congressmen has been well known. Another member of the Republican leadership, Robert Ney, has been named in documents relating to Abramoff’s network. Through bullying tactics DeLay enforced a Republican monopoly among the most senior Washington lobbyists. Politics became a mixture of power-broking, mafia-style shakedowns and illicit cash.

As well as being tainted by corruption, the House Republican majority rests on gerrymandering. The Democrats narrowly won the popular vote for the House in 2004, with a 0.3% lead over the Republicans and a 2.5% swing since 2002, but the Republicans slightly increased their majority. The biggest contributor to this was the gerrymandering of the Texas seats, itself a result of a flow of money extorted from contributors by DeLay and his allies. The Democrats need a substantial national lead in order to recapture the House, or sweeping success in the very narrow field of truly competitive districts.

In a system where the balance between the parties is so close, and politics so brutal, this is a pretty inevitable consequence of letting politicians (state legislatures) draw the boundary lines. Those for Michigan and Pennsylvania are laughably biased to Republicans. The few states that do use impartial commissions are a minority, and two initiatives (California and Ohio) to take the power away from politicians failed last month. The majority in California (where the Democrats drew a biased map before 2002) saw no reason to disarm their gerrymandering potential, on the reasonable basis that Texas wasn’t going to be copying them any time soon. A redistricting reform would need a national approach, but it is hard to envisage such an agreement.

Gerrymandering is an increasingly sophisticated business, with specialist software and consultants in business to draw the most partisan boundaries possible. This is one aspect of the debate in Britain that worries me – are the Conservatives who propound equalisation in size deliberately or inadvertently opening the door to such abuses? In many states boundaries have produced safe, uncompetitive districts for both parties. Analysts estimate that of the 435 House seats, only about 27 are competitive. The rest are lopsided victories for one side or another, because of the basic partisan complexion of the district and the advantages of incumbency in terms of profile and, all-importantly, fundraising. In some areas American democracy is dying on its feet – in 2004 36 Republicans and 28 Democrats were unopposed by the other major party.

The electoral rules in many states make it extremely complicated for any third parties to even get registered and on the ballot – however unsatisfactory the Congressional Republicans or Democrats are, it is virtually impossible to get anyone else because of these high legal barriers to entry and of course the First Past the Post electoral system. Although most people dislike politicians as a species, and Congressmen in particular, there is a Soviet-style incumbent re-election rate of 98%.

So, to recap. You get into power and hustle money from sleazy lobbyists. This money serves to scare off potential competitors from running against you. If you do this well enough, you can even ensure that there is no contested election. The money can also be diverted to help your friends get control over the state legislature and tilt the system even further in your favour. If the voters don’t like it, tough… the system is so rigged that there is very little they can do about it, even if your opponents win the national popular vote.

I’ll tell you about the Senate tomorrow. It’s even more peculiar.

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House cleaning (5 Dec 2005)

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House cleaning (5 Dec 2005)

Posted on 05 December 2005 by admin

I’m rather proud of having started a little discussion in some serious American political science blogs (Matthew Shugart’s Fruits and Votes and Steven Taylor in Poliblog) about one idea for a minor but consequential electoral reform – the “Wyoming Rule”.

The Wyoming Rule would fix a minor bit of malapportionment, in that the base size for a Congressional district would be set at the population of the smallest entitled unit, which at the moment is the state of Wyoming. Instead of a fixed total of 435 (a ridiculously small number for a national legislature) there would be 568 or 569 members of the House. Taylor at PoliBlog has put up the numbers. The Wyoming Rule would also affect Electoral College entitlements in the Presidential election.

It’s minor, but it would allow an organic growth in the size of the House and do something to balance out the slight malapportionment in favour of small states. It’s also evidently fair and simple. However, it is vulnerable to the easy populist criticism of creating more politicians.

As well as the Wyoming Rule, if it were possible I would like to see redistricting rules nationalised and made independent of state legislatures. Criteria other than pure numerical equality within each state should be allowed for consideration.

Beyond this, a further step would be to relax ballot access for minor parties but at the same time introduce the Alternative Vote (known as Instant Runoff Voting in the US) for all Congressional seats.

But none of this would guarantee a representative Congress – because it would still have single member districts. Sometimes in the US there is a contorted attempt to produce proportional outcomes on one dimension from a non-proportional system, by drawing contrived ‘majority-minority’ districts to ensure that African-Americans and other minorities can win seats. Much better to have an actual proportional system in the first place. I would argue that STV in multi-member districts has advantages given the candidate-centred nature of American politics, but others would argue for MMP.

Anyone interested in electoral reform in the US should consult the website of the ERS’s sister organisation in the US, FairVote, who operate against even more forbidding odds than ourselves. Also the two blogs I’ve mentioned earlier in the post are venues for serious discussion of ideas about reform.

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If nobody hears a debate, has it happened? (2 Dec 2005)

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If nobody hears a debate, has it happened? (2 Dec 2005)

Posted on 02 December 2005 by admin

Sigh. Another week, another Conservative going on about the iniquities of the parliamentary boundaries. Despite repeated efforts to explain why it isn’t the solution to their problems, the Conservatives still seem to imagine that the electoral system is biased against them because the boundaries are unfair.

The latest entrant, John Maples, is an intelligent and experienced MP who takes the trouble to listen to evidence, so I have some hopes that the speech on his Ten Minute Rule Bill, the Parliamentary Constituencies (Equalisation) Bill, might be better informed than many other Conservative contributions to the discussion.

I hope Maples will note the importance of the distribution of the party’s vote, and differential turnout, in his remarks. I also hope that he will show awareness of some of the problems of equalising constituencies, in terms of frequent reviews and a lack of community identity with a seat. I hope against hope that someone in the debate will point out that the US House of Representatives features the most appalling gerrymandering, despite its seats being of equal size within each state.

But none of it matters – Ten Minute Rule Bills are futile mini-debates on legislation that goes no further. In any case, it’s discussed on Wednesday 7th December, right after David Cameron has had his first tilt at Tony Blair in Prime Minister’s Questions. The Chamber will be empty, apart from Mr Maples and someone who has annoyed the Labour whips and is being punished by having to speak in reply to Mr Maples. Everyone else will be marking Cameron out of ten for his performance in another futile parliamentary ritual. Pointless debates, media spin, misbegotten pseudo-reforms, the weekly joust… And it could be worse. We could be in America, home of equal-sized constituencies. I’ll show you into the House of Horrors next week.

Until then, Schönes Wochenende.

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