Tag Archive | "electoral system"

All Change

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All Change

Posted on 22 September 2011 by admin

Take care when assessing the impact of boundary changes on the next election, cautions Lewis Baston

When the Boundary Commission for England published its initial proposals earlier this month, there was a lot of information to absorb quickly. Some aficionados and anoraks (including myself) were intrigued by how they approached the task and phenomena like cross-county and ‘tri-borough’ constituencies. MPs were naturally obsessed with local details. But everyone wanted to know what the implications would be for each of the political parties.

Figures estimating the partisan effect of boundary changes should always be taken with a pinch of salt, as there are different methods which all have their advantages and disadvantages, but which can produce different results. There is no absolutely reliable data, and one has to use local election results, with various tweaks and adjustments, to guess. A number of interesting constituencies would be incredibly close on the boundary changes, to the extent that it is pretty much impossible to ‘call’ them reliably – for example, the new Abingdon and Oxford North might or might not have gone Tory rather than Liberal Democrat in 2010 but it is very debatable. The best method for estimating the notional results of new constituencies is that used by the indefatigable Plymouth duo of Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, but it is arduous, does not produce quick results, and even then is sometimes off-beam.

The Guardian produced some rough workings of the partisan effect of the changes, which ‘feel’ about right looking at the results as a whole: the Conservatives down six seats, Labour down 14, the Liberal Democrats down 10 and the Greens down one seat. This is towards the upper end of what the Conservatives might have hoped for from the process, although Anthony Wells of UK Polling Report has produced some workings which are a bit worse for Labour. Allowing for the other three nations, overall changes would be Conservatives down 10, Labour down 22, Liberal Democrats down 13 and others down five. In terms of the composition of parliament, this would mean 296 Conservatives – just short of an overall majority that would require 301 seats. The changes therefore, if one re-runs the 2010 election, put the Conservatives significantly nearer the winning post but do not carry them over the threshold to a majority.

However, it is important to realise that the next election will not be a re-run of 2010. This point is utterly obvious, but often seems lost in discussions about boundary changes. We are not dealing simply with new boundaries, but with a combination of new boundaries, a new political situation and the responses of individual MPs to the boundary changes. The more interesting question about the boundaries is what happens if there is a modest-sized swing to Labour at the next election. The current polling average of Labour 40 per cent, Conservatives 36 and Liberal Democrats 11, translates into something like a Labour majority of 40-50. Under the new boundaries this would unquestionably be lower, although exactly how much lower will depend on how many Conservative and Liberal Democrat seats are marginal enough for Labour to swing over in the next election. A four-point lead is enough for Labour to scrape a majority, probably, but not enough for a comfortable win like 2005 (when the party’s lead in vote share was three per cent). The Conservatives still need a lead of eight per cent or so to win an overall majority – less than on the previous boundaries but still a considerable margin. Of themselves, the boundary changes still leave another hung parliament looking a fairly likely result in 2015 – although if the Liberal Democrat vote slumps the size of ‘hung parliament territory’ shrinks accordingly, whatever the boundaries.

Boundary changes also pose constituency-level challenges. While adverse changes to marginal Labour seats are worrying for individual incumbents, these are sometimes an (effectively disguised) stroke of good fortune for the party as a whole. Halifax, for instance, is flipped from Labour to Conservative under the new boundaries, but Linda Riordan remains its Labour MP. A good incumbent should be able to get themselves known, campaign hard and attract support in new areas. If there is any national swing to Labour, and if incumbents do the work, then places like Halifax should be Labour ‘gains’ in 2015. In the 2010 election boundary changes made Joan Ryan’s Enfield North seat notionally Tory, but she managed to damp down the swing to 0.7 per cent compared to neighbouring seats with actual Tory MPs which swung by between six and eight per cent.

If there is a national swing to Labour, and if incumbents do half as much better than the national trend as Ryan did in 2010, boundary changes are survivable. Enfield North, incidentally, is probably flipped back to Labour in the latest set of boundary changes but will be harder to win back than the raw figures suggest because it now has a first-term Tory MP.

Another feature of boundary changes is that they will require a broader political and campaigning approach. Areas in ‘hopeless’ seats are often left organisationally derelict, and the same can happen of course in some ‘safe’ areas. When territory is moved from a hopeless area into a marginal, it will need to be brought quickly up to speed in terms of its organisation and campaign readiness. This is a stiff task. Chingford and Woodford Green may be a safe Tory seat, but Chingford and Edmonton is a crucial Labour-Tory marginal. The Chingford wards involved will need to get busy with gaining members, canvassing and persuading electors who may not have heard much from Labour locally before.

The subtleties of boundary changes will be particularly exercising the minds of Liberal Democrats. The party is particularly vulnerable to boundary changes because its majorities are on average smaller than Labour or Tory (12 per cent, rather than 18 to 19 per cent), and because they are usually surrounded by areas that do not vote Liberal Democrat. For instance, their seat in Burnley is shipwrecked because it is split and the larger part is combined with part of Hyndburn, where the Liberal Democrats are so weak that they hardly contest local elections. In the past, Liberal Democrat incumbents have sometimes been amazingly successful at coping with boundary changes, like Sarah Teather in 2010 or David Alton in 1983. This does require high-pressure campaigning, and it has also in the past relied on the fact that very few people would absolutely never consider voting Liberal Democrat, and therefore most people were open to persuasion. They will encounter more resistance when they try this trick in 2015.

The Boundary Commission for England report is far from definitive. There now starts a process of consultation, and some of these initial proposals look almost certain to be revised by the time final proposals emerge. For instance, it is difficult to see the infamous ‘Mersey Banks’ constituency surviving a consultation process. We will not know the definitive picture until 2013. There is also uncertainty over whether the House of Commons will approve whatever new boundaries emerge, although it would be foolish to assume that the changes will not take place. Even if they are approved, the new rules involve ‘permanent revolution’ – a new boundary review is supposed to start after the election and there will be another new set of constituencies for the 2020 election. This second review will be based on December 2015 electorate totals, which may be even more grossly inaccurate than the current ones because registration will become effectively voluntary by then. There is a formidable organisational, legislative and political task facing Labour, and the initial reports are only the first stage.

 Link to original article

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It’s Not All Over On Electoral Reform

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It’s Not All Over On Electoral Reform

Posted on 19 September 2011 by admin

The possibility of another hung parliament means there should be another chance to change our voting system, says Lewis Baston. First, the cause needs to stop being so insular

The May 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) was a humiliating defeat for electoral reform. By a majority of 68 per cent to 32 per cent, the  electorate voted No. Autumn 2011 may therefore seem an unlikely moment to be optimistic about the future prospects of changing the electoral  system, but I believe the prospects are bright, provided some hard lessons are learned from what happened in 2010-11.

My new book, Don’t Take No For An Answer, is about the future of electoral reform but also a backward look at the referendum when everything  went wrong. It is a blackly comic tale of duck houses, deathbed conversions, megaphones and the rise and fall of Nick Clegg, from zero to hero  and then down to negative territory within one strange British political year. The Yes campaign may have accused No of being dinosaurs, but was itself the campaign that was lumbering towards oblivion.

Winning on AV would have been a tough call even for the best campaign. Although a referendum is usually a demand from people who want  eform, the history of referendums shows that they tend to produce small-c conservative results. AV itself was famously a ‘miserable little  compromise’ that aroused little enthusiasm, and the campaign struggled unsuccessfully to define why the referendum was happening and what problems it would solve. The Liberal Democrats went, between the 2010 and the 2011 referendum, from contributing a quarter of the vote and
general goodwill to a tenth of the vote and huge amounts of scorn. Labour were divided and uncertain, and after some dithering the Conservatives heavily against.

The Yes campaign, disastrously, tried to make the referendum about ‘make your MP work harder’, probably the most misguided and stupid slogan found outside the world of price comparison websites. They were comprehensively beaten by an unsentimental, even ruthless No campaign, which still managed to be more genuinely pluralist than the supposed democracy advocates of Yes.

The optimism about the future is because there will be another opportunity, hopefully in better circumstances than in 2010-11. The question is  more whether the reform movement can change itself enough to win.

Changes in the geography of elections have meant that ‘hung parliament territory’ covers a large part of the spectrum of plausible election outcomes. To win outright  requires the Conservatives or Labour to win a lead of 90 or more seats over its rival, a target the Conservatives missed even when everything was working in their favour in 2010. While in 1964 Labour or the Tories could have won with a popular vote lead of less than 1 per cent, in 2010 the Tories needed a lead of 11 per cent and Labour a lead of 3 per cent to win outright. The numbers may look a bit different in
2015, mostly because we can anticipate fewer Lib Dems elected and very slightly because of the new boundaries that will come in. But both effects are likely to be less dramatic than many Tory or Labour partisans will be hoping.

Far from being lost for a generation, electoral reform may well be back on the agenda within ten years. Another hung parliament will give the Lib Dems leverage to reopen the issue, and will also provide more evidence that FPTP does not produce single party majorities with any reliability. The basic problems – unrepresentative results, governments lacking sufficient consent, low participation, MPs claiming exclusive rights to speak for constituencies despite a majority voting against them – will still be there. The real risk for electoral reformers is not that the issue will vanish, but that it will come around again and another opportunity will be wasted as humiliatingly as it was in 2010-11.

The electoral reform cause needs to be fought more intelligently and flexibly if another bear trap like the AV referendum is to be avoided. Despite the disappointing experience after the Jenkins Report in 1998, when the promised referendum was never delivered, another inquiry – with a guarantee of a referendum – may be better than a reform option cooked up as a Downing Street wheeze as it was in 2009, or a hasty coalition deal as in 2010. The history of referendums suggests that the case for change is usually only won after a national conversation has taken place and a
consensus position evolved, as with the Scottish referendum in 1997 and the Welsh referendum in 2011. The 2011 referendum campaign happened essentially from a cold start. In future, a citizen-led process to involve people other than the usual worthies in devising an alternative system may be the way forward.

Electoral reformers also have to take account of the genuine reservations that people have about change – part of the problem in 2011 is that there was insufficient understanding by the Yes campaign of why people might be unwilling to take a leap of faith, and why arguments about stable government and ‘tried and tested’ fall on receptive ears in troubled times. Trying to pretend that politics and partisanship are not important does not work, particularly on such an intrinsically political issue as the voting system. It was wrong, as a matter of fact and of political tactics,for Yes to
claim to be about ‘people v politicians’.

Between now and the next opportunity, the electoral reform cause has to reform itself – to stop being such an insular, self-satisfied little world. Burying the term ‘democracy sector’ would be a start. It needs to think more strategically about party and interest group politics. There are conversations to have with business, trade unions, and advocates for women, ethnic minorities and the poor. For the Liberal Democrats this should mean thinking about what to demand and how to play the cards they are dealt in a future hung parliament. The chances of getting a result
may be better with a longer run-up and a better proposition than in 2011. There are other reform demands such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV) for English local government.

The Labour Party should be doing its bit to learn lessons as well, and bear in mind that it has never won a majority in an election immediately following its ejection from power. In 1955, 1974 and 1983 the Labour vote fell in each case, with minority government in 1974 only made possible because the Tory vote fell even further. Labour modernisers should consider what a Labour electoral reform would look like, before any hasty talks in smoke-free rooms have to take place. Labour could also show a bit of reforming goodwill by supporting the government’s House of Lords
plan, which involves the coalition parties spending political capital to accomplish a long-term Labour objective.

The Conservatives got the result they wanted in the referendum, but in the long term they may suffer for it. AV would have enabled a soft electoral  pact with the Lib Dems and possibly several terms of power, albeit shared. FPTP is a chancy shot at a term or two of single party rule.

Reform proposals often come back stronger and better after an initial defeat. The devolution Scotland and Wales won in 1997 was much more than the half-baked proposals that lost (or in Scotland’s case won too narrowly) in 1979. Irish Home Rule was more radical, and came closer to victory, each time after the defeat of 1886.

Within six years of Lansbury’s defeat in the women’s suffrage by-election in 1912, women were voting.I look forward to something better than AV being on the agenda before long – and then winning.

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Boundary report – unsettling reading for MPs

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Boundary report – unsettling reading for MPs

Posted on 13 September 2011 by admin

Few English MPs will escape changes to their constituency borders in today’s Boundary Commission’s recommendations, writes political consultant Lewis Baston.

The Boundary Commission for England (BCE) report published today is unsettling reading for nearly all MPs, including those from the government benches who voted it through with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Few MPs will escape having changes made to their constituency boundaries, and a few will find their seats abolished, or changed so radically that they would have been defeated on the new boundaries in 2010. Some MPs will be pitched into fights against each other.

The proposals implement the coalition government’s new policy on parliamentary boundaries which was enacted in February 2011. The government insisted that the total number of constituencies was reduced from 650 to 600, and that – with four exceptions – every seat had to be within 5 per cent of the average size. Size here is measured by the number of people on the electoral register as of December 2010.

Peculiar boundaries

While the legislation was highly controversial between the parties, the Boundary Commission itself is an impartial body which does not take party political consequences into account. It has to try to create units with the right number of electors that make some sort of sense on the ground, and given the constraints it generally does well.

However, the rules under which the commission has had to operate have created some very peculiar constituency boundaries in some areas, although in general they have tried hard to avoid unnecessary disruption.

Perhaps the strangest new seat is the unfamiliar Mersey Banks constituency, a sort of successor to Wirral South which contains a random piece of Widnes unconnected, even by a bridge, to the rest of the seat.

For Conservatives there is the tantalising possibility of a Tory member for Sedgefield (technically, Sedgefield and Yarm). Tony Blair’s old stronghold is radically altered and grouped with the areas which made the current Stockton South a Conservative gain in 2010.

Gloucester city centre becomes part of the Forest of Dean constituency, an idea that was greeted with dismay when I floated the prospect in a local newspaper.

Political consequences

While the Boundary Commission is neutral, most observers are keenly interested in the party political consequences. In general, the changes seem to help the Conservatives a bit relative to the other parties, but the effect is not dramatic. In some areas, such as West Yorkshire and east London, they will be probably be pleased but in others such as Derby and North Yorkshire there is a lot of disruption for no political gain.

The party that really suffers is the Liberal Democrats, because their seats tend to have smaller majorities and be yellow islands in a blue or red sea. The axe falls on a number of seats the Lib Dems currently hold, including expected losses like Carshalton & Wallington, and Burnley, but also surprises like Westmorland & Lonsdale held by party president Tim Farron and unhelpful alterations to seats including Chris Huhne’s Easleigh and John Leech’s Manchester Withington.

While Nick Clegg personally has little to fear in his redrawn Sheffield seat, the implications for the party are ugly – and we have not even seen what happens to the beleaguered Scottish Lib Dems yet.

More to come

Today is a very important step in the process of redrawing constituency boundaries, but it is far from the end of the road. There are Boundary Commissions for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which will publish their reports separately between now and January.

The proposals in all these reports, including England, are now open to consultation and there will be a number of local hearings to gather evidence about what people think about the proposed boundaries and the alternatives that will be offered by the main political parties.

The Boundary Commission is keen to hear from civic groups and ordinary people as well as the parties, whether they support or oppose its ideas, and invites responses through its website. It does sometimes revise its ideas and publishes new proposals.

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“Don’t Take No For An Answer: The 2011 Referendum and the Future of Electoral Reform”

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“Don’t Take No For An Answer: The 2011 Referendum and the Future of Electoral Reform”

Posted on 10 September 2011 by admin

Authors: Lewis Baston and Ken Ritchie

The May 2011 national referendum was only the second ever in the history of the United Kingdom. Those who had campaigned for decades for electoral reform were given, finally, a chance to make the case for change as the nation decided for or against the Alternative Vote (AV).

Yet, whilst opinion polls in the months before the vote showed the Yes campaign to have a small lead amongst the public, on polling day it was comprehensively defeated: more than two-thirds of voters opted instead to maintain the status quo. The Yes side won in only ten of 440 counting areas.

Don’t Take No For An Answer tells the story of that referendum, in all its blackly comic detail – from duck houses to deathbed conversions.

Yet it is not simply an historical account. It seeks to understand what went wrong for the Yes campaign, and why. It also looks to the future – how to ensure that electoral reform returns to the political agenda and how to run a reform campaign capable of success.

Don’t Take No For An Answer is an analysis of the mistakes made in the past. But it also contains a message of hope – that the chance for a referendum will come again and, this time, those in favour of reform will not take no for an answer.

Published on 16th September 2011 by Biteback Publishing

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Seeking Red Shoots

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Seeking Red Shoots

Posted on 01 April 2011 by admin

Making a comeback in previously Labour-free zones, rather than seizing back control of councils, could be the big story this May, says Lewis Baston

This year will see the fourth set of elections for the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly which Labour established in 1999. They will be seen as an important early test of Labour’s national recovery, despite the very different contexts of Welsh and Scottish politics. And, of course, this is also the big year of the four-year cycle for English local government elections. Nearly everywhere outside London will have elections, either for every council seat or ‘by thirds’.

In Scotland the aim is not for an overall majority, which is highly improbable because the electoral system is quite proportional, but for a clear lead in seats over the Scottish National party and a mandate to form a government either as a minority or as the clearly dominant force within a coalition. There have been extensive boundary changes for the Scottish parliament constituencies, making it harder to predict what might happen and where the crucial seats are. One is Glasgow Southside, where deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon for the SNP faces Labour councillor Stephen Curran in a seat with an estimated Labour majority in 2007 of 27 votes. Clackmannanshire and Dunblane is also a key Labour-SNP contest. South of Glasgow, boundary changes have made Eastwood a likely Conservative seat, but Labour has made big progress here – Jim Murphy has been the MP since 1997 – and could spring a surprise. The mixed new seat of Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale should be SNP, but has elements of support for all four main parties.

Labour’s target in Wales is a majority in the assembly, which polls indicate is very possible. The party needs five gains on 2007, although more are required if Labour loses list seats in compensation for constituency successes. Carmarthen West and Pembrokeshire South is possibly the most interesting seat, a three-way marginal where the winning Conservative and third-placed Plaid Cymru were separated by only 250 votes. After Nick Smith’s triumph in the Westminster election, Blaenau Gwent‘s assembly seat should return to the fold. The ‘clear red water’ in Wales over tuition fees may help in Cardiff Central, despite a large Liberal Democrat majority in 2007 – it is an ambitious target.

The 2007 elections, when this year’s English local government seats were last fought, were – though pretty bad for Labour – not the humiliating drubbing that the local polls were in 2008 and 2009. It is not until May 2012, when the councillors elected in 2008 will be up for re-election, that Labour will make huge gains in terms of control of authorities that elect by thirds. The story of the 2011 elections in many areas, particularly southern urban councils such as Southampton, Plymouth and Harlow, will be more about putting in solid foundations to take control next year than outright wins this year.

Labour recovered ground in some cities in 2010 (recapturing Liverpool and Coventry, for example), and those gains left the party only just short of overall control in authorities such as Leeds and Warrington – these should fall easily in 2011, as should Nick Clegg’s disaffected home patch, Sheffield. If polling and by-election evidence of a big Liberal Democrat collapse in the northern cities is borne out, Labour should be in the business of taking out its rivals’ northern flagship of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and, following a by-election win in March, seizing Burnley. It would take quite a sweep to win outright control of Hull, but Labour should at least deprive the Liberal Democrats of control there.

Against the Conservatives the potential pickings are slimmer, with the prize of Ipswich (a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition) being a hoped-for symbol of Labour recovery in eastern England; Lincoln should be a win as well.

In some ways the most interesting story for Labour will not be in terms of council control but in ‘red shoots’ popping up in areas where the party has been shut out of representation in recent years, an essential step to rebuilding Labour as a national party. Harriet Harman in particular has been tireless in urging Labour candidates to come forward even in difficult areas, and this should produce a scattering of surprising individual victories in hitherto barren territory. In 1996 Labour was running councils like St Edmundsbury and Cherwell. Re-establishing a presence would be a good start, and control is a realistic proposition in several of these councils – Waveney in Suffolk, Stockton-on-Tees and North Warwickshire all cover parliamentary marginals.

Labour should take several urban unitaries including Blackpool, although control in Brighton and Hove is very difficult because the Greens now win several formerly Labour wards. There are few areas where Labour is on the defensive in these elections, but among them is North Lincolnshire where the Conservatives are the main opposition. It would be an extremely good result if Labour were to bounce back from third in Northampton – but expect a few surprises once the polls close on 5 May.

Originally published 1 April 2011 Progress Online

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Pollwatch: Election campaign is now a war of movement rather than attrition (21 April 2010)

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Pollwatch: Election campaign is now a war of movement rather than attrition (21 April 2010)

Posted on 21 April 2010 by admin

The surge in support for the Lib Dems adds two element of huge uncertainty into the electoral equation

Although details vary between pollsters, the position on the eve of the second debate seems to be that the Conservatives and Lib Dems are fighting it out for first place, with support somewhere in the low 30% range.

Monday night’s ComRes Tory figure, which put them on 35%, would have been regarded as terrible 10 days ago but now almost seems like a good result for the Conservatives.

Labour seems narrowly but definitely in third at the moment, with support somewhere around 26-28%.

What is remarkable so far is Labour’s sangfroid in the face of this apparently disastrous situation, compared with the Conservatives’ obvious nerves. Part of this is of course the ludicrous first-past-the-post electoral system, which could still deliver Labour the most seats in this situation. But the dynamics of campaigns can be brutal when one falls into a consistent third, and it is possible that a spiral of decline could set in.

The bright side of the situation for Labour is that to win this election, something dramatic had to happen – if the campaign ground on as it had been, with the Tory lead falling slowly, Cameron would probably have just about won enough seats to form a minority government.

Now that it is a war of movement rather than attrition, anything can happen. And perversely, despite riding so low in the polls, there seems to have been a slight shift (including among Lib Dem voters) towards regarding a Labour-led government as being a good outcome of the election.

There are two elements of huge uncertainty in the equation. One is to what extent the Lib Dem surge is sustainable until polling day (although if they are still doing well next week, that should be reflected in the postal votes being cast and therefore the result).

This is simply imponderable, and depends on the perceived outcomes of the two debates, and whether the need for an interesting narrative to tell in the media will cause the overdone adulation of Nick Clegg to be replaced by another story – of battler Brown coming through, or Cameron keeping his nerve and steering safely to victory.

The other uncertainty is more measurable. A huge amount depends on who these new Lib Dems are. Several different versions are possible. In the surges of 1974 and 1983, the Labour vote collapsed in the party’s weaker seats, sending the Liberals and Alliance into good second places in a lot of Tory territory.

If this happens again (and is mirrored by a Tory collapse in their weaker seats in urban England) it could produce a lot of Lib Dem first places. On the other hand, if novelty is a big factor, the new Lib Dems may pop up in precisely the places where it can do them the least good – places where there has been little local campaigning activity of the sort that has built up the Lib Dem strongholds. They could add a lot of votes, but few seats.

Mori’s poll for the Standard suggests deep inroads into Labour demographic territory (public sector workers, northern England) that is probably more consistent with the second theory. We must await detailed polls of the marginal seats contested between Labour and Conservatives to get a sense of what is perhaps the crucial question – which of the two parties is losing most where it counts?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/apr/21/pollwatch-election-campaign-war

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Pollwatch: Election 2010 could be the death knell for first past the post (18 April 2010)

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Pollwatch: Election 2010 could be the death knell for first past the post (18 April 2010)

Posted on 18 April 2010 by admin

Electoral system could not long survive a perverse outcome in which first party comes third, and third comes first

Small-c conservatives often argue that before a reform is introduced it should be tested not only against normal operating conditions but also against unlikely possibilities, because these can produce unintended consequences.

The first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system is capable of spectacular malfunctions, particularly when there are more than two parties in contention for the lead. YouGov, ComRes and Bpix this weekend showed four-point spreads between first and third parties, and election outcomes that seemed extreme must now be considered.

The Bpix numbers for the Mail on Sunday (Lib Dems 32, Tories 31, Labour 28) would produce a bizarre result on uniform swing. The largest party in votes, the Lib Dems, would come third in seats with 120, and the smallest of the three main parties, Labour, would win the largest number of seats – 268. The Tories would have 230.

If we transpose the Conservative and Labour Bpix percentages, then despite the Lib Dems being the largest party on 32%, Labour with 31% would have 323 seats in parliament. While not quite an overall majority, it would be an effective majority given the Speaker’s neutrality and Sinn Féin MPs not participating.

The reason for these peculiar possibilities is to be found in geography. Labour is resilient to a falling national share because it has an efficiently distributed vote – a large number of low-turnout strongholds, competitive marginals and few votes in its high-turnout hopeless seats.

But because Lib Dem support is fairly evenly spread, it is hard for that party to translate broad increases in its share of the vote into seat gains, and the gains it does manage tend to come from the Conservatives.

The Lib Dems received respectable 20-30% losing shares in many constituencies in 2005, and a 10-point increase across the board would merely produce impressive 30-40% losing scores in most of these seats.

The electoral system could not survive a perverse outcome in which the first party comes third and the third party comes first – or one in which the second-placed party has an overall majority, despite the support of fewer than one voter in three. Either case would make Florida in 2000 look like a model of democracy. There would be a justified crisis of confidence in a political system that had produced such a travesty.

Gordon Brown’s preferred reform of the alternative vote (AV) would help the Lib Dems win more seats under AV than FPTP. Rather than being unfairly penalised in a near-even, three-way split of votes, the Lib Dems would hit the jackpot. If three party politics is here to stay, Labour would be best advised to modify its position on AV, and go instead for a proportional system based on related principles, namely single transferable vote (STV) or AV-plus, which both involve multi-member constituencies. But the prime minister does not seem ready to get rid of single-member seats.

The Conservatives’ problem is potentially worse. Their atavistic love of FPTP could surely not survive such a refutation of the claim that it gives stability and a clear choice of government.

Even if a single-party government emerged on the basis of 32% support and a one-point lead – or deficit – in votes, it could not claim a “mandate” without provoking mocking laughter.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/apr/18/pollwatch-election-first-past-the-post

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Reading the Political Map (April 15 2010)

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Reading the Political Map (April 15 2010)

Posted on 15 April 2010 by admin

Westminster voting intention polls in Scotland show that remarkably little has changed since 2005, particularly in the gap between Labour and Conservative where there seems to be a swing of between 0 and 2 per cent. The principal difference seems to be a fairly strong swing from Lib Dem to SNP. What appears to be happening (although the reality is that movements in public opinion are always complex and flow in many directions between any two points) is that there is a floating centre-left vote in Scotland that has chosen differently in different elections. In 2005 the SNP was at a low ebb and the Lib Dems performed strongly with voters critical of Labour on Iraq and the apparent centre-right drift of UK Labour policy. In 2007 the SNP benefited, but in 2010 Labour seem to have rallied some of it and the SNP has also picked up.

In terms of seats, projecting the trends across Scotland shows only one seat changing hands since 2005 (other than Glasgow North East going from Speaker to Labour). This would be an SNP gain from Labour in the highly marginal Ochil & South Perthshire constituency.

However, swing is unlikely to be uniform and there may be changes during the election campaign. In particular, assuming that a drop from 23 per cent to 14 per cent for the Lib Dems in the Scotland polls will lead to a 9-point drop in their support everywhere will give wrong results. The Lib Dems tend to gain support during campaigns, and are also good at playing the First Past the Post electoral system to target the seats they need to win. It would be foolish to count them out in the marginals despite their apparently poor poll showing. One seat where they stand a very good chance is Dunfermline & West Fife, where they won the by-election in 2006; they are also strong contenders in Edinburgh South and not to be dismissed in a few others such as Edinburgh North & Leith, Aberdeen South and maybe Glasgow North (although they may have maxed out their appeal there  in 2005). On the other hand, they risk losing a couple, such as the Berwickshire seat and Argyll & Bute, which went to the Tories and SNP respectively in 2007.

Scotland would contribute no Tory gains at all on a uniform swing, even if the UK polls are correct and the Conservatives end up on the cusp of an overall majority. This would naturally have significant implications for Scotland’s place in a Tory Britain. At least, thanks to devolution, the Tories would not need to staff a full Scottish Office.

The Conservatives can hold out the hope that their Scottish MPs could fit into a taxi rather than a phone box, but the target of 11 Tory seats in Scotland is extremely wishful thinking. They have one highly realistic target (Dumfries & Galloway, although even there they face a canny local politician in Russell Brown) and a couple of seats where there is a Tory vote to be mobilised but where they start a long way behind or face other competition – Edinburgh South, after all, has Morningside and Fairmilehead within its boundaries, and there is also Stirling which sent Michael Forsyth to Parliament in 1983-97. They have some hope of ‘decapitation’ of two leading Scottish Labour figures, Jim Murphy in Renfrewshire East and Alistair Darling in Edinburgh South West, but neither looks likely at present. As well as Lib Dem Berwickshire, they might also try to sneak a win in an SNP seat such as Perth & North Perthshire.

The puzzle of the Westminster election is perhaps why the SNP are so poorly rewarded for a significant increase in their support since 2005. The problem for them is that their vote is fairly evenly spread in urban Scotland, so the main result is becoming a slightly better second to Labour across the Central Belt. They start from miles behind even in some seats where they performed well in the 2007 election, such as Falkirk and North Ayrshire. Other than Ochil, Dundee West and perhaps Kilmarnock & Loudoun, they need monster swings to get anywhere. They achieved such a swing in the by-election in Glasgow East in 2008, but the SNP has never before held a Westminster by-election gain from Labour and it would be surprising if Glasgow East did not revert to its usual Labour colours.

The election in Scotland is therefore highly likely to confirm Labour’s dominance in Westminster representation, and see the Lib Dems, Tories and SNP chip away a marginal seat or two each on the basis of local factors. It may set up a rather awkward situation for Scotland, in which a UK Conservative government and a Scottish government run by the SNP have to work together, despite neither party having many MPs at Westminster.

http://www.scotlandvotes.com/blog/reading-the-political-map

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Poll position (Oct 1 2009)

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Poll position (Oct 1 2009)

Posted on 01 October 2009 by admin

The Tories are doing better in marginal seats than the national polls suggest, warns Lewis Baston

Even now, unbelievably, some Labour people seem to be complacent about the next general election. The argument goes that the Conservatives, because of electoral system bias against them, need to be 11-points clear of Labour in the national share of the vote to have a majority. This is true only if the swing is uniform, ie the same across the country. While uniform national swing is usually the best rule of thumb for translating poll figures into seats in the House of Commons, it is only an assumption, not a rule. For instance, Labour did significantly better in 2001 than uniform swing predicted because Labour MPs first elected in 1997 often boosted their majorities.

The local elections in June 2009 were a test of how far ahead the Tories really need to be to win an election. The ‘national equivalent vote’ of the parties (ie the local results translated into what they would mean in an election across the whole country) was, depending on whose projection you look at, the Conservatives on either 35% or 38% and Labour on 22% or 23%. This means a swing of 8% or 9% from Labour to Conservative, slightly more than the 7% they need to win a majority under the uniform swing assumption. Given that governments rarely repeat their worst mid-term performance in a general election, some people assume that an overall Conservative majority is unlikely.

The results in the key marginal constituencies where there were local elections in June should explode any such complacency. While the national swing appears to have been 8-9%, it is much higher in most of the marginals.

In the constituencies where more or less any swing will switch the seat to the Tories or LibDems, it seems about average – although 8% or 9% is easily enough to do the job. The ominous finding is from the constituencies where the Conservatives need a bit more of a swing to gain from Labour. In these cases the average swing is 13% or thereabouts, which would cut a swathe through Labour’s parliamentary representation. There were 61 Labour-held seats with county elections in June. Only four would have survived an election like the county elections. This is because the Conservatives seem to be getting the big swings where they need them.

In some of the target seats, the Conservatives are simply blowing Labour away – swings of 18% in South Ribble and 17% in Tamworth are extremely large by any comparison, and reflect a particular loss of support in areas where New Labour did particularly well in 1997. In others, Labour’s traditional vote has also melted away, as in Leicestershire North West where the BNP won what had been the safe Labour ward of Coalville, while the Conservatives have stood still or gained slightly. In this set of elections in the new towns, where Labour has done poorly for years in local elections, the swing may not appear quite so bad, but this often reflects the Conservatives losing votes to the right – UKIP, BNP and English Democrats – which might not help in general election conditions. Some coastal areas where Labour prospered in 1997 also have high swings – Dover, Morecambe and Waveney all have swings in the 15-16% bracket.

The Conservatives are not stupid in matters of political strategy, and know that they need either a 7%-plus national swing, or to do better in the marginals. They have focused their energies, campaigning messages and money (from Michael Ashcroft and elsewhere) on the marginals they need, and it seems to be paying dividends.

Local elections, although they are strong evidence, do not automatically reflect what would happen in a general election. People sometimes vote differently in local and national elections, and a different range of parties and candidates stand in each election. Turnout is also a lot lower, and the voters who stay at home in local elections but vote in general elections may not share the views of those who vote in council elections.

Labour needs to do two things in the short term – recover ground in the national polls, and raise its game in the marginal seats. In the longer term, Labour also needs to scrap an electoral system where pouring resources into a tiny number of seats can win party control over the government, and replace it with one where there is a genuine national dialogue.

Lewis Baston is from the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and author of Politico’s Guide to the General Election. To read the full research see here.

http://www.progressonline.org.uk/articles/article.asp?a=4735

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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.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/blog/2009/jun/09/bnp-voting-reform

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