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This redrawn electoral map defies common sense – 17 Jan 2011

This redrawn electoral map defies common sense – 17 Jan 2011

Posted on 17 January 2011 by admin

A bill that would reduce the number of MPs and change constituency boundaries deserves a good going-over in the Lords

The government really only has itself to blame for the problems its parliamentary voting system and constituencies bill has been encountering in the House of Lords. As its name suggests, the bill combines two separate enterprises and provides both for a referendum on changing the voting system to the alternative vote and measures to “reduce and equalise” the number of MPs. The problem is that the AV referendum is legislatively pretty straightforward and – once the Conservatives had signed up to it in the coalition agreement – not very controversial. But the idea of reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and rewriting the rules by which parliamentary constituencies are drawn up is legislatively complicated and deeply controversial. Yoking together a simple, time-sensitive measure like the referendum and a complicated proposal like the boundary changes was asking for trouble.

The “reduce and equalise” policy deserves intense scrutiny. The all-party political and constitutional reform select committee expressed its “regret that it is being pushed through parliament in a manner that limits both legislative and external scrutiny of its impact”:

“While we agree there may be a case for reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600, the government has singularly failed to make it. We recommend the government assesses and, if possible, mitigate through amendments, the likely impact of the wholesale redrawing of constituency boundaries on grassroots politics.”

In terms of reducing numbers of MPs, the government has plucked a number from the air rather than starting with an assessment of what MPs do and how many of them are needed to do it. The workload of MPs within Westminster has gone up considerably over the years, particularly since the select committee system was created in 1979. There are now 467 places on the committees that run the business of the house and scrutinise the executive. Particularly if the number of ministers and PPS posts remains the same, there will be fewer people to hold the government to account.MPs also work harder than ever in their constituencies. In the 1960s MPs received about 15 letters a week; now it is 300, plus huge numbers of emails. By September, newly elected MPs were saying they had already received 20,000 emails to their parliamentary address.

The standard of constituency service that electors expect has gone up steadily, and the evidence shows that MPs who have good reputations for constituency work do well electorally (such as Grant Shapps, Tim Farron and Gisela Stuart). The number of people they represent has gone up steadily – from 55,000 electors in 1950 to 70,000 now and 76,000 under the new rules.

Nor are the British over-represented. The Commons is a bit larger than some other legislative chambers, but then it does different things. Unlike the US House, or the French national assembly, it staffs the executive. In many other countries, like the US, Australia and Germany, there is a tier of state legislatures below the federal level, and in most other countries there are more councillors with more powers than in the United Kingdom. The chamber that is very large by international standards is the House of Lords, which the government is busy making even bigger by packing it with supporters.

The new boundary rules, as I have written at length elsewhere, are likely to produce a complicated and flawed new political map of Britain. The government’s insistence on constituencies being a maximum of 5% away from the average size of 76,000 electors means that county boundaries will be crossed, local government wards split between parliamentary constituencies, and seats drawn up in defiance of community identity and sometimes of common sense.

There is no alternative, if the government bill is unamended, to a seat straddling between part of the Isle of Wight and part of Hampshire – “Southsea and Ryde” most likely. Cornwall is up in arms about a seat crossing the border with Devon. The bill has an indifferent, un-conservative attitude to local identity and community in the interests of centralised arithmetic rationalism.

It is also, in its effect, the most extreme uniformity imposed on any national legislature’s seats. Even in the United States and Australia, two countries with strong “equalisation” systems, only around 90% of seats fit into the 5% band that the government intends to cram 99.5% of parliamentary seats. The Boundary Commission for England already manages better overall equalisation than is achieved in Australia.

The government could allow a few more special cases (like the Isle of Wight, Cornwall, Argyll and northwest Wales), and tolerate 10% variation around the average size, which would prevent most of the silly consequences of the 5% limit such as split wards and cross county seats. Some account could also be taken of seats where the population (all of whom are entitled to the MP’s representative service) is hugely larger than the registered electorate, as it is in much of inner London. We would still have parliamentary constituencies that are pretty much as equal in size to those of the US House of Representatives, which should satisfy the government’s demand for equalising seats.

The government has failed to take any account of the reasoned comments of several parliamentary select committees (so much for improving the balance of power between legislature and executive) and has insisted blindly on its own extreme proposals. It is notable that the government backbenchers in the Lords have been nearly completely silent. This may be because they know the government has lost the argument, or less charitably because they are not prepared to scrutinise their own government’s measure. Debating and amending bills in these circumstances is precisely what the House of Lords is for, and by giving this bill a thorough going-over the Labour Lords are acting in the best traditions of their house.

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Conservatives must not redraw the map (5 Oct 2009)

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Conservatives must not redraw the map (5 Oct 2009)

Posted on 05 October 2009 by admin

Eric Pickles has proposed reducing the number of MPs. But ‘equalising’ the size of constituencies is a deeply flawed policy

In his speech to the Conservative party conference today, Eric Pickles claimed to stand for “fair votes”. He did not mean an end to the first past the post system that gives all the power on the basis of under 40% of the vote and ignores votes cast outside the marginal seats. What he meant was a policy of cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 585 and a promise that “we will make all constituencies equal in voting size”. This would be accomplished in time for the general election after 2010.

Cutting the number of MPs is a bit of easy populism, made even easier by the expenses scandal. It might not necessarily be a bad idea; the number of MPs should be determined by the need of constituents for representation and the needs of parliament to function well as an institution. However, the Conservative rationale is cost-cutting. It is doubtful that cutting the number of MPs will really make much of a saving in terms of public spending – after all, the same amount of constituency casework will just end up being done by fewer MPs. There is also the possibility that unless the number of ministerial jobs is sharply reduced, there will be more executive dominance of parliament than we have already.

The principle that constituencies should be more or less the same size is generally accepted. The issue is how much tolerance for variation from the average constituency size one allows, and how frequently the boundaries are redrawn. Currently, the Boundary Commission allows around 10% either side of the ideal (ie 63,000 to 77,000 electors) with a bigger margin for geographically difficult mountainous or island areas. The Conservatives are talking in terms of a rigid rule not allowing more than 5% either side of the new ideal figure (77,000 after the number of MPs has been cut). To keep within this limit, boundary reviews would have to become more frequent and proceed faster than the current, admittedly ridiculous, system where the boundaries coming into force in 2010 are based on electorate figures from February 2000.

Pickles appears to believe that the major cause of the pro-Labour bias in the electoral system evident in the 2005 election was variation in constituency size. This is factually untrue. Constituency size was a small component of the bias, but most arose from other factors such as low turnout in safe Labour seats. Labour’s vote is efficiently distributed, partly because of tactical voting in 1992 and partly through New Labour’s successful electoral strategy. It is quite possible that less tactical voting, Conservative targeting of marginal seats with Ashcroft money and Cameron’s appeal to “Middle England” could cause a lot of bias to unwind anyway in 2010.

The Conservative boundaries policy would require a rapid boundary review during the next parliament – the shortest recent review (1991-95) took four years, so the Boundary Commissions would have to have extra resources to accelerate the task. The new boundaries could not be subject to the same scrutiny at public inquiries that makes the current process so lengthy – there are simply not enough assistant commissioners (usually barristers) available to run the inquiries.

Inquiries of whatever sort involve taking evidence from political parties, community groups and local councils, and in arguing for the boundaries that suit them, a party needs to be well-organised and professional. By having a quick review after the election, the Conservatives must be hoping to go into the process well-funded and prepared and facing a demoralised and impoverished Labour party before it has regrouped. The Conservatives would also be at their peak in local government, and could use council submissions to back pro-Conservative boundary schemes.

It is unclear to what extent the Conservative policy will address the handful of hard cases that are often used in calls for equalising boundaries – the Western Isles seat, Na h-Eileanan an Iar, has five times fewer electors than the Isle of Wight. It is quite possible that these anomalies would survive under a Tory plan – the number of seats involved is small, and the alternatives (a seat spanning the Solent, for instance, combining bits of Portsmouth with towns on the Isle of Wight?) are geographically absurd.

The effect in other areas is, however, only slightly less ridiculous. The policy is going to face a huge backlash when people realise what it means. Equalising the size of each constituency will mean crossing county and ward boundaries and ripping up what remains of the traditional map of community representation. A bit of Cornwall would end up in a seat based on West Devon or Plymouth, whatever its residents thought about the matter, and angry voices would ring out in every public inquiry. This would be repeated time and again, because there would be frequent changes to keep constituencies within the 5% threshold.

This freedom to cross ward and county boundaries also increases the ability of well-prepared parties to manipulate the process. It is no coincidence that the worst gerrymandering in the developed world is for US Congressional seats, where there is a rigid requirement of arithmetic equality within 1% of the ideal population size within each state. Legislators draw preposterously biased lines on the map which make no sense according to any administrative, social or physical geography, as long as the right number of people are corralled together.

Although apparently fair, “reduce and equalise” is a badly flawed policy. As a supporter of proper electoral reform, I sometimes mischievously think it should go ahead because it might hasten the end of first past the post. That mystical link between MP and single member constituency will be broken up because a large number of MPs will represent constituencies that correspond to no local community identity, and whose boundaries will shift around every few years.

The fundamental problem is that it is impossible to produce one-size-fits-all single member seats while keeping natural communities together. Communities, as any conservative should know, come in different sizes. To achieve numerical equity and community identity requires multi-member seats, as with the flexible single transferable vote (STV) system used in Ireland. STV would enable one to keep community boundaries intact while putting representation on a more equal arithmetical footing. It would be tragic, and ironic, if in the pursuit of arithmetic perfection and a chimerical public spending cut a Conservative government created electoral units that would make the Heath-Walker local government map look popular.

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We need a better choice than AV (29 September 2009)

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We need a better choice than AV (29 September 2009)

Posted on 29 September 2009 by admin

Gordon Brown’s manifesto commitment to a referendum on the Alternative Vote is too little, too late for electoral reformers

Labour retains some shreds of its constitutional reform programme that was part of its appeal in 1997, and Gordon Brown’s speech at conference on Tuesday featured three significant promises on reform. We have the most detail on the longstanding policy of ending the absurdity of hereditary peers and introducing an elected second chamber. Another, the ability of electors to “recall” erring MPs by forcing an election, has also been trailed but is a minor and possibly dangerous concession to populism.

The other announcement is a genuine surprise. The 2010 Labour manifesto will contain a promise to have a referendum early in the next parliament on one form of electoral reform, the Alternative Vote (AV). This is welcome, but can only be greeted by constitutional reformers with the very thinnest of smiles. AV is a weak reform, and the promise at this stage of something in the Labour manifesto reminds one of Hunter Thompson’s cruel simile of a candidate making promises “like a farmer with terminal cancer bargaining for a loan on next year’s crop”. Even if Labour’s malaise enters spontaneous remission and Brown is still Prime Minister a year from now, this is pretty mild fare.

The Alternative Vote (AV), which Gordon Brown has come to support, is a simple reform. The current system asks voters to mark an X by a single candidate (implicitly saying that the voter opposes the other candidates in equal measure). Under AV, voters choose their favourite candidate with a 1, next favourite with 2 and so on. If no candidate gets a majority of 1 votes, the 2 votes for the lowest-placed candidate are taken into account, and so on until someone gets to 50%. Nothing else changes – constituencies will be exactly the same.

AV is simply an accommodation of the present system to circumstances where two thirds of MPs are there despite a majority of their local voters having voted against them. The electorate clearly no longer believes that a choice of two parties is adequate. AV broadens political choice a bit, makes tactical voting much less significant, and encourages a more honest and pluralistic relationship between large and small parties. To win marginal seats under AV, a party will need to build bridges with supporters of local minority parties and not pretend to have all the answers.

Additionally, AV is probably the most extremist-proof electoral system ever devised, as – other than people who support the party – most voters will make sure the BNP is ranked last on their ballot.

AV is not perfect by any means. By the same token, it is still poor at including minority points of view (Australia has AV and a very rigid two-party system) and means almost as many safe seats as first past the post (FPTP). But overall, as I have argued elsewhere, the Alternative Vote is better than FPTP, and introducing it would be a big step forward.

A promise to legislate for AV would have been solid progress. A referendum on AV is a different, and much worse, proposition.

In principle, a referendum should offer a choice between two fundamentally different options. AV is another, rather better, species of majoritarian system that preserves safe seats and the monopoly on local representation enjoyed by each MP. It is only worth going to the people with a real choice – between a majoritarian system and one based on the idea of proportional representation and extending electoral choice.

This is, after all, what Labour offered in 1997 and what the Jenkins Commission came up with in 1998. In itself, the change from voting with an X to voting by ranking candidates 1, 2, 3 is a very small shift; and voters could be forgiven for asking why it’s necessary bother with a referendum.

Perhaps worse, the practical difficulties of winning an AV referendum look prohibitive. It is an arithmetical fact that to win a referendum needs 50% plus one vote. Under our current ridiculous system, a party only needs around 35% of the vote to form a majority government. Even in 1997, Labour did not have anything approaching 50%.

The party, in good pluralist fashion, realised that compromise was necessary to build referendum-winning alliances for devolution in Scotland and Wales. Where might the Labour party – or that part of it which likes the policy – find allies to win a referendum for AV in the face of predictable vitriol from the Conservatives and most of the media?

The Liberal Democrats will probably end up recommending a “Yes” vote, but will tick the “no publicity” box and avoid appearing on platforms with Labour ministers; the Greens and electoral reform campaigners will be dismissive, and civil society groups will not help. It could be made to seem like a Labour fix without actually helping the party much – a perverse outcome if ever there was one.

UKIP might be on-side, but they may be the only allies out there. “Vote yes, because Gordon Brown and Nigel Farage want you to” is not a compelling slogan. The risk is that, even if Labour scrape back in again, an AV referendum will fail, and take down with it any alternative to Tory hegemony that might be based on the support of only one potential elector in five.

There is still an opportunity to get something better. A referendum bill will need to go through parliament. The Liberal Democrats, if there were to be a hung parliament, would be in a position to press for a better outcome than AV – either adopting a proportional system, or handing the job of design of the system to a democratic Citizens’ Assembly rather than keeping it in Whitehall.

By calling for an AV referendum, Brown has at last gestured in the direction of a new politics and that is welcome, both for Labour and for reformers. It is more than the Conservatives will ever do and does establish a clear difference between the two big parties on democratising Westminster. But Brown would have better to offer a radical reform straight away and gain the credit for bold leadership and pluralism, rather than a messy compromise or a half-measure. The more radical option is also more likely to mobilise broad support and win the referendum. An AV referendum may smell like a win for constitutional reformers, but victory itself is still a long way further on from here.

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BNP’s Euro success should not shut door on voting reform (9 June 2009)

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BNP’s Euro success should not shut door on voting reform (9 June 2009)

Posted on 09 June 2009 by admin

The two electoral systems most widely discussed for Westminster are both less likely to elect extremists than first-past-the-post

As the dust settles on the county and European election results, one can take stock of what they mean for the parties and politics over the next year and in the long term.

The county elections are probably the more accurate measure of what might happen in the next general election, because they use the same electoral system and the considerations people have in mind when choosing their vote are more similar.

The county results point to the Conservatives being substantially ahead and in a position to win the next general election, although they have less of a margin of comfort than they did last year, when they were 43-23 ahead of Labour in national vote share, rather than this year’s 38-22. While Labour’s vote collapsed, the Conservative vote has been gently drifting downwards.

It is too easy to dismiss the Euro results as a freakish curiosity: while voters perhaps behave oddly in European parliament elections, the results can be consequential and indicative of future trends.

The 1979 European election produced a Conservative landslide, and the campaign was marked by ludicrous Labour infighting, a prelude to the divisions and disaster of the next four years. In 1984 Neil Kinnock proved that Labour was not dead, and in 1989 Labour inflicted Margaret Thatcher’s only defeat in a national election. It was the first pillar of her rule to crumble; a botched reshuffle, the resignation of the chancellor and a stalking-horse challenge followed by the end of the year – and in 1990 she was out.

The 1989 election was also interesting for the 15% of the vote for the Greens, and the Conservative tilt to Euroscepticism. In 1994, John Major did not do quite badly enough to trigger a leadership challenge. In 1999, the Conservatives’ win, and the vote for Ukip, helped take joining the euro off the agenda, and the low turnout and strong vote for smaller parties was a sign of what was to come, confirmed by the fragmentation of the vote and the weak performance by both main parties in 2004.

The 2009 European elections will surely be notable for more than confirmation of existing trends away from the two (or three) principal British political parties.

The pre-eminent fact is the astonishingly low Labour share of the national vote, at 15.8%. Winning at the last general election in 2005, with 36% of the British vote on a 61% turnout, showed that Labour was on thin ice. Euro 2009 may be an important point on a long-term declining trend in Labour’s vote and vote share that has only been briefly interrupted for decades (in 1966, 1997, and arguably 1992).

The working-class vote is decreasing and becoming less unionised, less cohesive, less loyal to a party and less inclined to turn out.

New Labour found a new, but fickle, group of voters to add to the declining existing Labour electorate, but accelerated the alienation of the old core vote. Now the New and Old Labour electorates are bleeding away at the same time and the remnant of Labour stands cruelly exposed, unable even to win a plurality in Wales.

It seems a particularly severe case of the malaise that has afflicted the centre-left in other EU countries, including France and Germany (although Spain’s socialist government did not do too badly against a poor economic backdrop). However, the saving grace for the left of British politics is that the Conservatives are winning by default rather than because of a surge in their own support.

The 2009 elections present a possible future for British politics in which the Conservatives enjoy a huge parliamentary majority with only 35-40% support from the voters and a progressive vote divided between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Greens, plus a more rightwing fringe vote split between Ukip and smaller parties, such as the English Democrats and the BNP.

This is, after all, what happened in a number of places last Thursday – including the former Labour county of Staffordshire, where the party is now fourth placed in seats, its three councillors outnumbered by four Lib Dems and four Ukip politicians, not to mention 49 Conservatives.

Labour is probably protected from such an extreme wipe-out at Westminster level because it has a number of very safe urban seats, which would withstand even huge swings, and the party’s Euro vote seemed to hold up a little better in some of these areas than it did in the counties.

The short-term reaction in some Labour circles, driven by an understandable dislike of the BNP, has been that the European results should end discussion of electoral reform for Westminster.

This would be a very short sighted approach. For a start, the systems most widely discussed for Westminster – namely the Alternative Vote (AV), and AV with a small proportional top-up as recommended by the Jenkins commission (AV+) – are both less likely to elect extremists than the present first-past-the-post system.

Other more proportional systems, such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV), create incentives for parties to campaign everywhere and not neglect areas; electors who feel ignored are vulnerable to the appeal of extremists.

It is notable that although there was disenchantment with the governments and traditional parties in Ireland and Malta, which use STV, in the European elections, the reaction did not produce a swing to extremism.

However, a longer term perspective would suggest that the next centre-left government after a Tory victory in 2010 might well not be a single-party Labour majority (and if it is, it might be based on a share of the vote too small to qualify as popular consent).

Electoral reform is more important than ever for the future of the centre-left in British politics because the progressive side will probably never again be marshalled behind a party as it was behind Labour in 1995-2003. Labour’s future needs to be plural and coalition-building, and electoral reform is a key part of that future.

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The perks of bonuses (16 February 2009)

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The perks of bonuses (16 February 2009)

Posted on 16 February 2009 by admin

Attacking bonuses earned by bankers is counterproductive: they need and deserve incentives to save the UK economy

Bonuses are supposed to be paid on the basis of the performance of the company (or in this instance, bank) and the employee in the previous year. This simple fact seems to escape the attention of a lot of people who talk about City pay. I know a little bit about it because, to coin a phrase, some of my best friends are bankers; take this declaration of interest into account by all means, but do not dismiss the argument for that reason.

Bonuses are convenient for employers because they do not create open-ended commitments or affect other payments such as, for instance, redundancy. Banks employ many people who are neither tellers at branches nor the executives who made all the errors, but whose trading and sales expertise can make a large difference to the fortunes of the institution. For most of these people, bonuses were neither windfalls nor tips, but actually served their purpose as incentives to work hard. Any fool can make money in a rising market, but it takes skill and commitment to make money when the going gets tough, and over-performing in a bad market is probably one of the most bonus-worthy achievements there is.

The semi-nationalised Lloyds Banking Group, created in January 2009 from Lloyds TSB and Halifax Bank of Scotland (HBOS) is in a particularly strange position. Shortly after the merger was announced, samizdat images started circulating around the City. Howard, star of Halifax’s television commercials, was depicted doing something unmentionable to the black horse of Lloyds. Lloyds is the one institution that did not fail itself but been dragged down by helping the whole sector, and the government, out of a tight spot by taking over HBOS, Lloyds TSB generated about £1.3bn in profits in 2008, compared to losses of £8.4bn at HBOS.

David Cameron declares that Lloyds staff should be restricted to a figure, £2,000 (which, after 41% ends up with the exchequer, amounts to £1,180), which he has plucked from the air. Cameron can probably afford to tip the waiter £2,000 after dinner, thanks to his inherited family wealth, estimated by the Sunday Times Rich List at over £30m. It seems perverse that regardless of individual performance, City workers should have their pay dictated by a preposterous political auction about who can be harshest to the wicked bankers. Meanwhile, taxation of inherited wealth appears to be on the way out.

I would not mind so much if this were a shift from market capitalism to egalitarian socialism – but this is more like a regression to feudalism. Politicians of all parties boasted for years until 2008 about the financial sector, and often led the calls for further deregulation, and now cover their own errors by lambasting the banks. Things went too far with excessive and guaranteed bonuses, but the tone of public discussion about the City has now become indiscriminate and nasty. If and when the bits are put back together we shall still need the City and its employees to put their skills to generating, rather than dissipating, earnings for Britain.

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Labour has designs on the City (7 February 2009)

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Labour has designs on the City (7 February 2009)

Posted on 07 February 2009 by admin

The 2009 City of London elections will, for the first time, be contested on a party basis. Does Labour stand a chance?

Labour launched its 2009 local government election campaign on 4 February. This was not a ridiculously early start for the county council elections in June – the elections for the common council of the City of London are in March. The date is not the only weird aspect to the City elections. It is a unique local authority, in that its 9,000 or so residents share the right to vote with businesses. Labour expanded the franchise in 2002 so that a certain number of City workers, as well as business owners, have the vote. The City has 25 wards, with old-fashioned names like Cordwainer and Candlewick, electing 100 members of the common council. Most of the resident population is concentrated in three wards, with the other 22 having mostly business voters.

City government is probably best described as a benevolent dictatorship. The City of London Corporation (CLC) is, despite its medieval pageantry and layers of tradition, a modern and efficient local authority which runs high quality local services and deals well with its extraordinary task of catering for about 300,000 workers who flood in and out every weekday as well as its small resident population. It also has several legacy roles such as landlord of social housing well outside its borders, and custodian of Hampstead Heath and Epping Forest, which are also by and large carried out with unobtrusive efficiency.

The CLC is at the centre of a quiet, discreet network of power and influence. It is taken very seriously nationally and internationally when it speaks on behalf of the financial sector – it was a crucial voice for the long-delayed Crossrail project, for instance. Despite the current woes of the financial sector, it still looms large in the calculations of the future of London and the British economy. However, a lot of the elected element of City government is opaque rather than transparent; some members of common council have but the most tenuous connection with the present life of the City, and old boy networks and Buggins’s turn play more of a part in City government than in most provincial backwaters. Despite having more “elected” representatives than anyone else in Britain, the inhabitants of the City face something of a democratic deficit.

The 2009 elections will be the first time that any City elections have been contested on a party basis. Up until now, candidates have stood as independents and very often, particularly in the business wards, there have not been contested elections at all. Labour’s six candidates are therefore making a little bit of history. Six people are obviously not enough to win control, but City of London Labour have produced a manifesto outlining their priorities, which are about enforcing the London living wage on City contractors, more environmentally friendly policies (the most visible outward sign of how much needs to be done being the lights blazing all night in City office towers), and more transparent governance. Having a manifesto is itself something of a new development in the politics of the City. The aim is influence, rather than power.

Do the City Labour candidates stand a chance? One might think that the City population consists entirely of wealthy bankers in their weekday pieds-a-terre, but as well as luxury flats there are some more ordinary flats and even a couple of pleasant local authority estates such as Golden Lane just north of the Barbican. In the 2008 mayoral elections, Ken Livingstone polled a creditable 32% of the City vote, to 48% for Boris Johnson, so there is clearly potential for a Labour vote in the residential wards. The business vote is more of an unknown quantity, and campaigning for votes among the nominated business franchise holders will be a new experience for political campaigners. But this will be one election campaign, at least, in which vituperative rhetoric against the sins of City fat cats is unlikely to play well.

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Beware hubris (7 November 2008)

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Beware hubris (7 November 2008)

Posted on 07 November 2008 by admin

Glenrothes was a triumph for Labour. But to call a general election now would be folly

Labour’s win in Glenrothes is astonishing, all the more so for being so unexpected. The Scottish National Party were confident and Labour nervous even as the polls closed.

There are several ways in which this election was extremely good for Labour. The party not only increased its share of the vote, a rare enough feat for a party in government, particularly in a seat it already holds. Labour’s share of the vote increased by 3.2 percentage points. But it actually polled a few hundred more votes in absolute terms than it did in 2005, because there was only a small fall in turnout. There is simply no way of spinning that into anything other than a triumph.

The swing to the SNP was kept down to 5% in Glenrothes, even though in campaigning terms the party had thrown the kitchen sink at the constituency. A 5% swing might sound a reasonable result for the SNP until one looks at the party’s record in byelections. While the 22.6% swing in Glasgow East earlier this year was very high, 10% is usual. In contests between Labour and the SNP, there is a double-digit swing more or less whatever the political circumstances. This happened in Livingston in 2005, Paisley South in 1997, the two Paisley elections in 1990 and Falkirk West in 2000. The only previous occasion in recent years that the SNP has fallen short of a 10% swing in a two-party contest for a Labour seat was in Glasgow Anniesland, following the death of Donald Dewar in 2000. There are some similarities between that contest and this – it took place at almost exactly the same point in the parliament, during a Labour recovery from a low point (although 2000’s nadir around the fuel crisis was shallow and very short in comparison to the recent trough), and was prompted by the death of a well-respected local MP.

Another historical parallel reaches back a little further. The SNP dominated Scottish politics in the mid-1970s, surging in the two 1974 elections and scoring some impressive results in the 1977 district council elections, although the supply of byelections had dried up. When two Labour seats fell vacant in 1978, at Glasgow Garscadden and then at Hamilton, the SNP contested them vigorously but Labour easily fought off the competition, electing Donald Dewar and George Robertson to parliament.

While Glenrothes was an extremely good result for Labour, and for Gordon Brown, Labour should not be tempted by a quick general election. The campaign focused on the shortcomings of the SNP-run Fife council, which effectively put the SNP candidate and council leader Peter Grant on the defensive. A general election would focus discontent at the national level.

Fife also has a particular regard for Gordon Brown, a a local MP, and for people like Glenrothes’ new MP, Lindsay Roy. The result is extremely satisfying for him, and also for Sarah Brown – who seems to have decided after her turn at the party conference that she has a taste for political campaigning. However, it is fair to say that Fife’s warmth for the PM still runs ahead of the nation’s, even though Brown has recovered a lot of ground during the financial crisis.

While Fife council bore the brunt of the SNP’s new found and uncomfortable accountability, the Scottish government cannot escape some damage. While Alex Salmond’s government is not unpopular, exactly, the gloss has come off and the voters are in a more questioning mood about what it has delivered and where it is taking Scotland. For Salmond himself, there will be momentary embarrassment at having predicted an SNP victory and come a cropper, but confidence and swagger are part of his political persona and he can absorb being proved wrong every now and then.

The byelection, crucially, said nothing about how competitive the Conservatives are in their target seats in England and Wales, although it was more evidence that the Liberal Democrats’ strong vote in Scotland in 2005 will not be repeated next time. To call a general election now, when it is cold, dark and wet, the mood of the country is apprehensive, and the extent of Labour’s national recovery remains uncertain, would be folly. There is time to wait and see if the national polls improve further before the next feasible election date comes round in spring 2009. Labour should celebrate Glenrothes, and the palpable turning of the tide, but keep cool and not let election speculation run out of control, as they did in September 2007. Glenrothes reminded us that a Labour win at the election is possible (particularly if one counts being the largest party in a hung parliament as a win), but that is not to say it is probable.

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A little local difficulty (3 November 2008)

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A little local difficulty (3 November 2008)

Posted on 03 November 2008 by admin

Labour could win Glenrothes. Even defeat won’t see a nail in Brown’s political coffin

Anyone with a retentive political memory will recall that the Glenrothes byelection is supposed to be the killing blow to Gordon Brown’s ailing premiership, following Labour’s humiliation at the hands of the SNP in Glasgow East and the leadership speculation in July. The financial crisis and the conference season have removed this possibility from the agenda. Even another defeat, in this more serious and less frothy political climate, will not lead to Brown’s departure, and in reality it is doubtful that anything short of a truly awful result like a five-figure SNP majority, or third place, would have done so. The constituency is peculiarly unsuitable for a role as a national barometer.

The Glenrothes constituency is on the edge of one of the sharpest social and political divides of any rural area in Britain. Just to the east lies the soft agricultural, almost southern English-looking countryside of North East Fife, and towns such as academic St Andrews and the attractive fishing harbour of Anstruther. Glenrothes is where the rough, scarred landscape of the ex-coalfield of Central/West Fife begins. In East Fife, Menzies Campbell’s constituency, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are the main parties, with the SNP and Labour hardly relevant to the outcome and weak even at local government level. In Glenrothes the positions are reversed, with Labour and SNP dominant and the Lib Dems and Conservatives irrelevant (although they are fighting their own Lilliputian battle for third place). The tough mining towns and villages of Fife have a fierce collective, class-conscious tradition, typified by the Communist MP for West Fife from 1935 to 1950, Willie Gallacher. This area is now divided between the Westminster seats of Glenrothes and the Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath seat of the prime minister.

Glenrothes itself is a new town, designed around a short-lived coal mine but reinvented as a centre for communities that would otherwise have died with the exhaustion of the Fife coal seams, a replacement source of employment (in manufacturing and the council’s headquarters) and better housing. In recent years some of the pit villages and new housing around Markinch have attracted Edinburgh commuters, rather as the English new towns have grown into new upmarket suburbs.

New town politics can be volatile and peculiar. Places like Basildon, Stevenage and Harlow started off as Labour, swung wildly to the Tories in Thatcher’s elections (home ownership and tax cuts were a potent appeal for predominantly skilled white working class communities) and then to Blair in 1997. Since then they have drifted back to the Tories, thanks in part to the new commuter estates, and in part to the long term trend Blair interrupted. In Scotland it is different, because no matter how enthusiastically the tenants bought their houses, the Conservative party was simply beyond the pale.

The Scottish new towns like Cumbernauld and Glenrothes have been fertile ground for the SNP when the party has been on an upward trend, although that vote slumps rapidly when the tide ebbs. There seems to be something about moving to a new town that encourages people to reassess traditional loyalties and think about politics in terms of consumer options and aspiration, although in Glenrothes this exists alongside a continuing broad attachment to socialism absent in England, except for Peterlee in the former Durham coalfield.

Constituencies like Glenrothes produce two sorts of result. One is typified by the 2005 Westminster election, a low point in the recent history of the SNP, in which Labour held Glenrothes with an apparently mountainous majority. The other sort happens when the SNP is surging: the Nationalists won the corresponding Fife Central seat in the 2007 Scottish Parliament election. Given that Labour, even though some ground has been made up since summer, are still not exactly popular, one should probably expect Glenrothes to be in one of its SNP moods. The SNP, in any case, are good at campaigning in by-elections, and their activists have flooded into Glenrothes fuelled by confidence and optimism. In the past, the SNP has achieved high swings against Labour even when Labour has been popular, as in Monklands East in 1994 and Hamilton South in 1999, and of course only a few months ago they won their triumph in Glasgow East.

Even so, nobody is quite taking an SNP victory for granted in Glenrothes. Unlike Glasgow East, the area is used to electoral competition and the local Labour party has not grown complacent on a monopoly of representation. The electors are more familiar with the good and bad points of both main parties and their arguments, and probably more resistant to the sort of collapse that took place in Glasgow. For the first time, the SNP has to defend a record in power. While at Holyrood where they are still fairly popular, the collapse of HBOS has left the party looking less relevant to the big issues. While the UK government could organise a massive bailout that (somewhat) stabilised the markets, the nagging thought that an independent Scotland could have been next behind Iceland in the queue at the door of the IMF must have occurred to voters.

However, Alex Salmond’s government is not the main focus for those looking for criticisms of the SNP, this honour instead goes to Fife council whose leader Peter Grant is the candidate. Council leaders have their strengths and weaknesses as by-election candidates. While they are often experienced local politicians who can avoid campaign blunders, they are also responsible for what the council does, a lot of which is inherently unpopular. If electors are looking to cast a protest vote, they have a choice of whom to protest against. Labour’s candidate, Lindsay Roy, is far from a professional politician, coming to the contest from his position as head of Kirkcaldy High School. In Fife, educators and education are traditionally treated with a respect that exceeds that given by most other communities. As in Glasgow East, it is a contest between two strong candidates.

There will be a large swing to the SNP compared with the baseline of 2005, of that there is no doubt. Until the financial crisis broke, it looked as if it was going to be easily big enough to swamp Labour, and informed comment suggested that if Glenrothes got close enough for a recount, that would be a pretty good showing for Labour. Now it does not seem impossible that Labour could cling on. If you had asked people at the start of 2008 which Scottish seats Labour would hate to defend in a by-election, Glenrothes would rank high on the list, while any assessment of the irreducible hard core of Labour constituencies would have included Glasgow East. As the American maxim goes, “All politics is local”, and one does not have to look much further than Fife to prove that.

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This watchdog can growl and maul (9 October 2008)

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This watchdog can growl and maul (9 October 2008)

Posted on 09 October 2008 by admin

Forensic accountancy is a difficult business but the Electoral Commission takes its investigative duties seriously

David Hencke and his investigative colleagues at the Guardian have a fine record of unearthing dubious and corrupt practices in British politics. The Conservative party has a longer but not so fine record of being less than transparent and clean in its finances. From the share it took from the sale of honours in the 1920s to the secretive “river companies” set up in the 1940s to channel funds to the massive donations from wealthy foreigners it accepted in the 1990s, it is not surprising that the arrangements over Constituency Campaigning Services (CCS) have attracted suspicion. But sometimes, as Freud observed, a cigar is just a cigar, and even with political finance sometimes a company is just a company.

Forensic accountancy is a difficult business, as I found out when I tried to unravel the business dealings of Reginald Maudling and John Poulson, but the Electoral Commission takes its investigative duties seriously. If the commission’s conclusion is that CCS charged commercial rates for its services, and therefore did not effectively donate to the Conservative party, it is incumbent on its critics to find solid evidence to the contrary.

It is hard to see how paying the going rate amounts to an abuse of the spending limits, or a donation to the party. Whatever the party pays has to be within the spending limits, and any free or discounted services must also be accounted for. Nor is CCS entirely exempt from transparency rules. As with other organisations made up mostly of party members, it must report donations to the commission, which publishes them on its website. In recent years, the Conservative party has tried to be punctilious about following the letter of the rules, in something of the spirit of a reformed alcoholic making long detours to avoid his former favourite pub.

While it is not ideal that CCS does not have to publish its accounts, it is not the commission’s fault that the law fails to require it to do so. The government has the opportunity to tighten this up in its party funding bill.
Given the high profile of the Midlands Industrial Council (MIC) as CCS’s funder, it is easy to see why some think the money has been funnelled into the party, but the commission’s conclusion means that there could be other, potentially more entertaining possibilities. There would, after all, be a gentle irony if the prominent businessmen behind MIC had wasted so much money on keeping an unprofitable business afloat for the sake of party pride.

It is also unfair to blame the commission for the fact that the “cash for honours” affair did not result in any prosecutions. It was mainly focused on the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925, a notoriously sloppy piece of legislative drafting that has nothing to do with the commission. And perhaps nothing that bad happened in the first place. Simply labelling something “cash for honours” does not mean that a trade took place. The “cash for questions” affair at least had witnesses and hard evidence.

The Electoral Commission is in a difficult position, in that it has to rule on matters that are highly contentious, and often has to irritate one side or other of the political spectrum. It has to do so within the law as it stands; that is frustrating, perhaps, but it is up to parliament to amend the law. The commission is far from a toothless watchdog, as Hencke says. If anything, there is an argument that its teeth are too sharp. It can growl, by issuing advice, and maul, by referring situations to the police for further action, but it has not been given the power to give minor offenders an admonitory nip to the ankle. However, in the case of CCS, it seems that a growl was really all that the situation called for.

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Whistling in the wind (30 September 2008)

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Whistling in the wind (30 September 2008)

Posted on 30 September 2008 by admin

Labour’s plan to rewrite the Act of Succession is very small beer, but few Conservatives dare to entertain radical constitutional reform either

Electoral reform is a difficult sell at the Conservative party conference; promoting it sometimes seems like trying to sell Chelsea tractors at the Greens’ annual gathering. But there are some stirrings, and some new arguments about the constitution and elections are being heard at Birmingham. Tories who support proportional representation have in the past tended to be liberal in their general approach, but reform is finding some adherents among hard-edged right wingers such as Douglas Carswell, MP for Harwich since 2005 and one of the more interesting thinkers within the Tory party – one of the few MPs who can refer to Weber and Gramsci and sound as if he knows what he is talking about.

Representation in parliament is one of the last monopoly public services left. Carswell asked at an Electoral Reform Society fringe meeting in Birmingham why it was that in a world where people are used to shopping around, telephones and electricity had been made competitive, there was still a single supplier of representative services that you had to like or lump. In an environment where consumer choice is the dominant force, and people increasingly look at politics as consumers, why not have multi-member constituencies? Competition and choice improve standards. Lazy MPs, or those who did not represent the views of their constituents properly, would face internal competition, and there would be fewer barriers to new talent and new ideas coming forward. While Carswell is vague on which electoral system he favours with his multi-member seats, his vision is perfectly compatible with the long-term electoral reform goal of the Single Transferable Vote (STV). It is also part of Conservative history – after all, Disraeli introduced the three-member boroughs and the “limited vote” in 1867.

Carswell is very much a maverick Conservative, and he was joined on the ERS panel by more familiar Tory voices. Eleanor Laing represented the pleasant, moderate face of Tory partisanship and constitutional immobilism, and Bruce Anderson adopted his familiar role as the voice of candid reaction who frankly acknowledged the benefits of elective dictatorship – as long as it was the Conservative party doing the dictating.

I doubt that many opponents of the Conservatives would be unduly worried by the arguments of Laing or Anderson, but Carswell’s case would be unsettling. He uses reforming language to argue for quite radical Conservative projects – a more securely founded Conservative government would have the hegemony necessary to deal with the alleged progressive bias of the broadcast media, the civil service and the education system. Carswell also favours direct democracy and the right of recall. His embrace of change is based on more intellectual self-confidence than the old fashioned belief in grabbing the controls of the machinery of the centralised, elitist British state and making it serve Tory ends. New Conservative constitutional reformers can talk confidently about trusting the people, because they believe that the people ultimately agree with them. And left of centre constitutional reformers feel some anxiety that Carswell may be right about this. The interesting debate may end up being between radical Conservative direct democracy, and progressive reformers trying to define the acceptable limits of popular control.

Unfortunately, neither front bench seems interested. Labour’s increasing timidity about constitutional reform is sad indeed. From the radical change promised (and largely implemented) in 1997, the party now trumpets reforms such as changing the Act of Succession to make the first-born, rather than the first-born son, heir to the throne, as radical. This reform affects one, theoretical, person in perhaps 70 years’ time. The Conservatives are vaguely aware that the current electoral system is biased against them, but grumble in an entirely ill-informed fashion about constituency boundaries. Their main solution is to try to game the current system better than Labour by swamping marginal constituencies with Ashcroft money. It may work in the short term, but it is a cynical exercise in gaining and maintaining power on a minimum of public support that will ultimately do politics no good. It is a sign of how seductive the embrace of the Westminster establishment is that neither main party really intends to do much to shake up the power structure.

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