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Influential Elections (30 Nov 2005)

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Influential Elections (30 Nov 2005)

Posted on 30 November 2005 by admin

The Times has reported the results of a poll of political scientists about which elections since 1945 have been the most important. Nobody asked me, but I would have had to agree with the verdict that the top two were 1945 and 1979. Both set the course for a long period thereafter and shifted things ideologically.

However, it did prompt some less conventional thoughts.

How does one measure how influential and important an election has been? There is some room for saying that 1983 was incredibly influential, because there were three very different options then – a radical Labour government that would have disarmed and pulled out of Europe, a breakthrough by the Alliance, or the Thatcher project being placed on firm foundations. However, there was a sense that 1983 was not important, because it was a foregone conclusion. The same can be said for several other elections – probably 2005 and 1959, and definitely 2001, 1987 (although that election rescued Labour from being a third party), Oct 1974, 1966 and 1955. There have been other elections which although dramatic at the time, gave a sense that what they produced was essentially washed away by the tides of history because broader trends in politics and economics took over – 1970 and February 1974 for instance (although Feb 1974 did break up the Lab-Con duopoly in votes if not seats).

There is an argument that 1950 was a very important election. Labour won, but by a small majority (thanks to anti-Labour bias in the electoral system). Labour’s majority was so small that Attlee called another election, in October 1951, at about the worst possible time for the party, and the Conservatives came back to power. If Labour had won by, say, 40 seats, the party could have survived the rough economic times of 1950-51 and perhaps coasted to victory for the rest of the decade. The result would have been a greatly extended public sector, perhaps an earlier more liberal society – in effect, Britain would be more like Scandinavia than it became. There was a choice of futures and by giving an indecisive verdict in 1950 the electorate (and the electoral system) created the pattern for the next 30 years of the middle way between socialism and liberal capitalism.

1964 is perhaps overrated as a turning point – the Conservatives chose the wrong leader and could have won under Reggie Maudling. The Tories then did have an impressive argument that they could be the party of modernisation. 1964 was perhaps the mirror image of 1992 – what would Labour have looked like by 1969 after a defeat?

I think also that people tend to diminish the significance of 1997 too much. It has been consequential, in that the initial burst of constitutional reform was highly significant and did really change things from the previous government. Culturally it has also had important consequences.

If we had electoral reform, would there be decisive elections in the same way? It would depend on the system. Germany has had elections that mark decisive shifts (1998) or confirm party realignments (1983, 1969). But perhaps it would be harder to discern the consequences of particular elections. This may not be a bad thing, as rapid alternations in government between 1964 and 1979 did not produce particularly good results and those arose from relatively small changes in opinion being magnified by the system. And in any case, some of the great turning points are not actually punctuated by elections at all – like the Labour government’s turn against controls (1947), Suez, decolonisation, Europe, monetarism and Black Wednesday.

http://www.makemyvotecount.org.uk/blog/archives/2005/11/influential_ele.html

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The Original and Best (Nov 30 2005)

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The Original and Best (Nov 30 2005)

Posted on 30 November 2005 by admin

David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh have become a part of Britain’s fabled unwritten constitution. They have collaborated on studies of the last nine general elections (since February 1974), continuing a series that started with David Butler as the research assistant to the Nuffield study of 1945. I remember once a Conservative friend telling me that he asked his Central Office predecessor how frank he should be when Butler came for an interview. ‘Tell him everything, of course!’ was the instruction.

For a reflective, inside view of an election campaign, and detailed analysis of the results and the broad trends (produced at great speed for such an enterprise), Butler and Kavanagh have always been reliable (although now the field is much more crowded) and balanced. I’m looking forward to reading the latest version on 2005. We called it ‘the worst election ever’. I’m sure Butler and Kavanagh will provide much ammunition for this view.

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Re: Stolen Tory Votes – Peter Oborne, Spectator 6 August 2005 – (30 Aug 2005)

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Re: Stolen Tory Votes – Peter Oborne, Spectator 6 August 2005 – (30 Aug 2005)

Posted on 06 August 2005 by admin

There are a number of errors in Oborne’s article about the Parliamentary Boundary Commission. For a start, population and census data are not (unlike in the US) the basis for constituencies – the basis is registered electorate, which is different. Population would include people not on the electoral register for reason of foreign citizenship, age or under-registration (a serious problem particularly in the large cities, that was aggravated by the poll tax when the current boundaries were drawn up).

Neither is the requirement for the boundary commission to use out of date figures as big an issue as Oborne claims. If the boundary commission were to use the latest available figures, rather than the 2000 electoral register, three more counties would gain seats and three more would lose seats – not dramatic stuff, and worth only 6 to Labour’s majority rather than up to 20 as Oborne suggests.

The examples quoted by Oborne and most other critics of the boundary system – the small electorate in the Western Isles and the large electorate in the Isle of Wight – are not a consequence of the slow pace of the review. They are rare, long standing anomalies permitted by the ability of the boundary commission to take ‘special geographical circumstances’ into account. A few islands having rather too few or too many electors is not a threat to democracy. There is something to be said for making constituencies more rigorously equal-sized than they are at the moment, but advocates of this course have to accept that it would undermine one of those pillars of first-past-the-post (FPTP), namely that strong and stable link between MP and constituency. Frequent boundary changes would destabilise the link, as would the fact that many constituencies would cease to bear any relation to natural communities. Would people really prefer a seat such as ‘Southampton Central and Cowes’ to an oversized constituency covering the whole Isle of Wight?

Oborne says that ‘it would be an easy enough matter to change the basis of calculation to reflect votes cast rather than population.’ This, to put it bluntly, is bonkers. The number of votes cast in a constituency, and its relationship to the turnout in other constituencies, is not fixed. It will vary with each election and instantly throw the calculations out each time. If this bizarre suggestion were to be enacted would give rise to anomalies even greater than those under the current system. It is also dubious in principle, as it implicitly regards the non-voter as undeserving of representation. It amounts to a collective punishment of electors for low turnout (often the fault of the political system rather than the electors). It is an example, like the creation of constituencies that are not communities, of a suggestion made for the convenience of one group of politicians at the expense of what voters want from their local representatives.

There is no way of ensuring that FPTP produces equal treatment between two major parties. There are all sorts of reasons, including political geography, tactical voting (very important in the contrast between 1992 and 1997), the parties’ strategies, differential turnout, the distribution of each party’s vote, and – in a small way – boundary determination, which can affect the way FPTP works. Many of these factors work unpredictably. The only way of ensuring that there is a proportional relationship between votes and seats is to introduce a system of proportional representation – it really is that simple. Ferdinand Mount, and Keith Best of Conservative Action for Electoral Reform (CAER) are quite right to see PR, rather than tinkering with boundaries, as the solution.

http://www.makemyvotecount.org.uk/blog/archives/2005/08/peter_oborne_id.html

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Boundaries and Bias (18 May 2005)

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Boundaries and Bias (18 May 2005)

Posted on 18 May 2005 by admin

Some more entrants to the ‘nonsense about boundaries’ file from the Sunday Telegraph , Scotland on Sunday and their columnist Gerald Warner (who should probably lie down in a darkened room until the feelings go away).

I’ll leave the Scotland question for a later entry, but consider this fact. In 2005 the average English Conservative seat had 73,221 electors and the average English Labour seat had 67,671 electors. Shocking, says the chorus… but hang on. In 1979 the average English Conservative seat had 69,923 electors – and the average English Labour seat had 61,150. The boundaries were therefore much more biased in 1979 than 2005 (a difference of 14.3% rather than 8.2%). But the system as a whole operated much more fairly between the main parties in 1979 than it did in 2005.

To paraphrase that famous sign from the Little Rock campaign war room in 1992: It’s Not the Boundaries, Stupid.

If you want a system that rewards parties systematically in relation to the votes they obtain, you cannot guarantee this outcome under FPTP whatever the boundaries. You need a proportional system. It’s that simple.

http://www.makemyvotecount.org.uk/blog/archives/2005/05/boundaries_and.html

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Queen’s Speech (May 18 2005)

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Queen’s Speech (May 18 2005)

Posted on 18 May 2005 by admin

There were several proposed pieces of constitutional and electoral legislation in the Queen’s Speech – unfortunately no Representation of the People (Fairness) Bill, so the campaign goes on…

The government has responded to many of the concerns over vote fraud and the possible issues around the increase in postal voting, although its proposals could go further on issues such as individual registration. The proposed Electoral Administration Bill – and the stinging words of Richard Mawrey, the judge at the Birmingham Election Court, about ‘banana republic’ standards of democracy – are an overdue recognition of the risks in our under-policed electoral system. It imposes prison sentences for fraudulent handling of postal ballots, checkable signatures to verify the identity of voters, and bans the regrettable but widespread practice of having political parties handling postal vote applications.

Lords reform was also in prospect, but there will be yet another round of consultations and committee meetings on what must be the most over-analysed item on the constitutional agenda. Implementation of the admirable Richard report on the government of Wales also seems to face some hurdles, although more powers will be devolved to Cardiff.

Much of this seems welcome, as far as it goes, but for every ballot paper misused by fraudsters there are thousands that are casually thrown away by an unrepresentative system. Until this is addressed, we are still in banana republic territory, without even the saving grace of being a republic.

http://www.makemyvotecount.org.uk/blog/archives/2005/05/queens_speech.html

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Lines of Least Resistance (May 17 2005)

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Lines of Least Resistance (May 17 2005)

Posted on 17 May 2005 by admin

Everyone should be aware by now of how ridiculously unfair the election result proved to be.

However, there is a worrying tendency for some people, particularly on the Conservative side, to imagine that all that needs to be done is to jiggle around with the constituency boundaries a bit and that would produce a fair relationship between seats and votes between the big parties at least.

This, I’m afraid, is nonsense.

The reasons why it is nonsense are a bit complicated to go through in detail on a blog post, but an analysis piece should appear soon on the Electoral Reform Society website.

In brief, the reasons that the system is biased in Labour’s favour are not much to do with boundaries, more to do with intrinsic defects in the First Past the Post electoral system. FPTP rewards parties whose support is ‘lumpy’ – moderately high in some areas, low in others, as Labour’s has been in recent elections. It brutally punishes parties with a middling vote spread evenly across the country, the prime example of this being the Alliance vote of 25.4% in 1983 which netted only 23 seats. Anti-Tory tactical voting has distorted the electoral system against the Conservatives at every election since 1992.

Labour also benefit from ‘differential turnout’ – that turnout in safe Labour seats is low. If there had been full turnout, and the party shares of the vote in each constituency had been exactly the same as in the real 2005 election, the Labour lead would have been 2 points greater. The system ‘thought’ Labour led by 5 points, not 3. There’s nothing that changing the boundaries can do about this.

The forthcoming boundary review will do a bit towards improving the fairness of the electoral system, but not much – it will abolish a few seats in depopulated urban areas and create a few new rural and suburban seats. But on my estimates this would only reduce the Labour majority to 52, and still leave the Conservatives needing a lead as large as they achieved in 1987 to get a bare overall majority of 2. The Times suggests as much today.

Complaining about boundaries is the classic line of least resistance from those who have realised that there is something very wrong with the way our electoral system works, but who are not willing to grapple with what needs to be done.

http://www.makemyvotecount.org.uk/blog/archives/2005/05/lines_of_least.html

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Ask a silly question, get a silly answer (April 21 2005)

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Ask a silly question, get a silly answer (April 21 2005)

Posted on 21 April 2005 by admin

My colleague Paul Davies wrote a couple of days ago about these political surveys that purport to tell you how you should vote. Mary Ann Sieghart in today’s Times is similarly baffled by her experiences with these tests. In a spirit of scientific enquiry I find that I’m either a Green or a Conservative depending on which issues I’m thinking about on this survey; I’m a Liberal Democrat on this one’; and on this one my political position approximates that of the Dalai Lama!

The serious point, if there is one, is that it is very difficult to explain individual political choices even by such apparently rational criteria as the value statements these tests ask you to assess. The best explanation used to be inheritance – Butler and Stokes when they looked at this found that if both one’s parents voted for a party, you had something like an 80% chance of supporting that party too. It’s a bit more complicated now, and there are people whose position, like Paul’s, mine or Mary Ann Sieghart’s, that don’t map directly onto a party.

Ms Sieghart concludes her Times piece:

I can’t think how they came to their conclusions, but I shall have to ignore them anyway. My constituency is a marginal seat, which is a straight fight between Labour and the Tories. Voting for a minor party, even the Lib Dems, would be a pointless indulgence. I shall have to hold my nose and support one of the two main parties. But it looks as if no amount of ideological mapping will help.

But it is only the electoral system that forces her (and the rest of us) into such choices. In a PR system, perhaps a party could coalesce about Sieghart’s (perfectly consistent) centre-libertarian point of view. Perhaps under a multi-candidate system like STV the choice offered would be broad enough that one or more of the major parties would offer candidates that approximated her point of view. But even under STV I don’t expect the Dalai Lama to stand in my constituency any time soon – no system is that perfect, obviously.

http://www.makemyvotecount.org.uk/blog/archives/2005/04/my_colleague_pa.html

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Conservatives to cull MPs? (April 12 2005)

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Conservatives to cull MPs? (April 12 2005)

Posted on 12 April 2005 by admin

The Conservative Party manifesto published yesterday contained the promise:

As part of our drive for efficiency across Whitehall and Westminster, we will cut the number of MPs by 20 per cent.

This may or may not be a good idea – Britain does have more MPs per elector than many comparable countries, and there is no prima facie reason why 650-ish is necessarily better than 550-ish. Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie wrote a thoughtful piece about how it might be done last autumn. But…

Mr Howard said in an interview that “you have got to have a big bang” and that the Conservatives’ ambition was to achieve this in a single parliament.

Here we get into all sorts of trouble.

This pledge would require primary legislation, as the basis for the existing numbers is specified in several laws. The Boundary Commission will need to be instructed to work to the new rules, and its work vastly accelerated. The current review started in 2000, is still going on, and won’t be ready until the election after this one. To make the Commission work faster will need more money, and probably a change in the existing procedure that allows for local public inquiries to amend the details. It would be expensive and nearly impossible to get through in time; it would probably be a net increase in public spending over the next 5-8 years. And MPs tend to become very precious and prickly about the boundaries of their fiefdoms. And the last thing this large new corps of Tory MPs will want to do is vote themselves out of jobs. Mr Tyrie’s excellent paper proposed phasing in the reduction, for good reasons.

Is one being unduly cynical in thinking that Mr Howard’s ‘big bang’ version is merely a populist slogan the party would be horrified to have to implement should it gain power?

http://www.makemyvotecount.org.uk/blog/archives/2005/04/conservatives_t.html

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