Tag Archive | "liberal democrat"

The Inverclyde by-election: business as usual for Scottish voters

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The Inverclyde by-election: business as usual for Scottish voters

Posted on 01 July 2011 by admin

Labour’s result in the Inverclyde by-election (30 June 2011) was an impressive electoral performance, particularly coming so soon after Scottish Labour’s humiliation at the hands of the SNP in the Scottish Parliament elections in May. The principal Scottish Parliament constituency in the area, Greenock & Inverclyde, saw Labour squeak to a 511-vote majority over the SNP in the election in May, while the SNP won the other local constituency (Renfrewshire North and West). The result in the area covered by the Inverclyde Westminster seat was probably nearly a tie between Labour and SNP.  For Labour to win by 5,838 votes (20.8 per cent) in June marks a considerable recovery.

Many observers, myself included, had expected a much closer result than this or perhaps an SNP victory, and Labour had been pessimistic during the campaign. This was as much because of the historical pattern than the timing of the by-election in the afterglow of the SNP’s sweeping Holyrood victory. By-elections in working class, hitherto ‘safe’ Labour seats in Scotland tend to become straight contests between Labour and the SNP, and the SNP enjoys a large swing. This has happened almost regardless of the political climate. Some huge swings have happened despite Labour generally riding high at the time (Monklands East, Hamilton South), as well as at low ebbs (Glasgow East). The very biggest in the last 30 years, Glasgow Govan in 1988, came when Labour was in a disheartened and divided condition a year after it did well in Scotland despite losing the election nationally. Inverclyde therefore should be particularly pleasing for Labour and Ed Miliband.

The Liberal Democrat vote in Inverclyde was humiliatingly low, but it was part of the general pattern of collapse where an election becomes a two-way contest between Labour and the SNP. With the exception of Paisley South in 1997 (and even more Dunfermline & West Fife in 2006 when the Lib Dems started a clear second to Labour), the party loses its deposit in these circumstances.  Inverclyde is worse than most of them for the party because it is the only place where the Lib Dems had much of a presence beforehand. They controlled the local authority before 2007, and Greenock was a very rare place with a working-class Liberal history. They ran Labour fairly close in 1970, despite Menzies Campbell withdrawing as candidate because the election clashed with his wedding. In 1983 a Liberal candidate (A.J. Blair) also polled well, with over 36 per cent of the vote.

Inverclyde illustrates two facts about Scottish voters. They favour left-of-centre government, and they are pragmatic and intelligent about how they achieve it. Apparently enormous electoral changes like Labour’s victory in 2010 and the SNP landslide in 2011 are reflections of these basic attitudes, and Inverclyde confirms that Scots’ voting choices are very dependent on the context. The Westminster village seems to have decided that Labour is doing badly in opposition, but voters in Inverclyde clearly do not think so – if they did, they would have delivered a shock to the system like the voters of Govan did in 1988. Labour, in Scotland and in Westminster, can take a great deal of comfort from the result – but would be foolish to conclude from it that the voters are having second thoughts about their emphatic support for the SNP’s Scottish government.

Link to original post at Democratic Audit Blog

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The proposed constituency boundary changes will hurt the Liberal Democrats and not help the Tories much either

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The proposed constituency boundary changes will hurt the Liberal Democrats and not help the Tories much either

Posted on 15 June 2011 by admin

With the conclusion of the AV referendum last month, focus now turns to one of the few certain electoral reforms that this parliament will contain; the redrawing of constituency boundaries, and the reduction of the number of seats by 50 to 600. Presenting recent research by Democratic Audit, Lewis Baston finds that the Liberal Democrats will suffer the most by far, and Labour and the Conservatives will suffer very similar seat reductions.

The two most striking findings of the recently released Democratic Audit model of the boundary changes were the damage it inflicted on the Liberal Democrats, and the relatively even pattern of losses between Labour and Conservative. These findings caused a certain amount of surprise in politics and the media, but they are fairly predictable from the point of view of political science, leaving aside the detail of the projection.

Overall impact of boundary changes by party

The Liberal Democrats lose the most…

The Liberal Democrats will suffer severely in boundary changes. The model suggests 14 out of 57 seats will go. This harsh result stems from two factors common to most of their seats. They tend to have smaller majorities than Conservative or Labour MPs; the mean Liberal Democrat majority is 12.5 percentage points, about two-thirds the size of the other parties. This makes it less easy for them to withstand adverse boundary changes. The other is that they tend to represent yellow islands in a red or blue sea, rather than clump together. This means that in exchanging territory with neighbouring seats, Liberal Democrat seats will tend to acquire areas where the Liberal Democrat vote in 2010 was low. The model takes out several such island seats, such as Burnley, East Dunbartonshire, Mid Dorset & North Poole and Lewes.

However, Liberal Democrat incumbents have been able to survive radical and unhelpful boundary changes in the past – David Alton in 1983, Malcolm Bruce in 1997 and Sarah Teather in 2010 all managed to engineer huge swings from the ‘notional’ result in their altered seats. Local activism has succeeded in changing the way that voters in newly arriving areas see the contest and persuaded them that they can now vote Liberal Democrat with a good chance of winning (and conversely that by voting as they did previously they might ‘let in’ the main party they dislike more). However, the context may be different now. In past changes, only a tiny number of voters would be completely unwilling to ever vote Liberal Democrat, and therefore there were a lot of persuadable voters. There will now be far more people who will never consider voting Liberal Democrat. The party has succeeded in running up the down escalator in several boundary changes in the past, but it is harder now. A regime of permanent revolution in parliamentary boundaries such as that created by the 2011 Act is a difficult environment for Liberal Democrats, even beyond the particularly tricky election of 2015.

… but the Labour and Conservative losses are even

Net losses in seats for Labour and the Conservatives came out more or less even in the model, with Labour down 18 and the Conservatives down 15 overall (it was 17 and 16 respectively before a late tweak to the model in Warrington).

This finding, too, should not be very surprising for solid reasons of political science. Variation in constituency size is a very minor contributor to the pro-Labour bias in the electoral system. It should be expected that a neutrally-implemented measure altering the size of constituencies should therefore not do very much to alter the balance between Labour and Conservative. Constituency size was worth something like six seats in Labour’s favour in 2010, and seven against the Conservatives according to Rallings, Thrasher, Borisyuk and Johnston)

Even before looking further at any local detail, a net effect of 13 seats (11-12 when applied proportionally to a smaller House) is small beer. A lot of the existing bias stems from the over-representation of Wales – but cutting down Welsh seats then will probably have a disproportionate effect on the Welsh footholds the Conservatives currently enjoy, as they are mostly either marginal or obvious candidates for merger.  It should also be borne in mind that proportionately, Labour loses 7.0 per cent of its seats, while the Conservatives are down only 4.9 per cent. The scale of change in the Democratic Audit model is within the bands one might expect from first principles, allowing only for Welsh local factors.

Looking forward to 2015

The boundaries model is static – it assumes that everyone voted as they would have done in 2010. While the result and pattern of support in 2015 may resemble 2010 more than most people expect, there will be significant changes in electoral behaviour. It is impossible to predict what might happen in terms of the swing between Labour and Conservative.  But it is likely that the Liberal Democrat vote will fall, and that the SNP vote will rise, and that the regions of England will continue to polarise between a Labour north and a Conservative south. How the new boundaries translate the national swing and its local variations into seats is more important than what would have happened in 2010, but much harder to estimate.

The Democratic Audit model may not have changed the 2010 election result in any important way had the boundary changes been in place then, but it might look different in 2015. This is one of the reasons why the predictable chorus of ignorant people claiming it is an unduly pro-Labour map is wrong. It is not in Labour’s interests to maximise its notional number of seats in 2010, but to get the best result possible in seats when the national shares of the vote of Labour and Conservative are fairly close. This was the underpinning of Labour’s successful boundary review strategy in the 1990s. Labour would be best off creating Tory marginal seats – ideally ones with sitting Labour MPs to benefit from the incumbency effect!

It is difficult to be precise, but the Democratic Audit model appears to depopulate a vital area for Labour – seats with narrow Conservative majorities that would be susceptible to a small to medium sized pro-Labour swing. Of the 50 top target Tory seats for Labour on current boundaries (winnable with swings of up to 4 per cent), 15 would see Labour’s prospects improved, 17 would see the Conservatives strengthened instead, 14 would be unchanged or not significantly politically altered, and 4 would be abolished – a fairly even spread.

Of the seats improved for Labour, 8 of them would be flipped to the party on the notional 2010 results, and therefore not available for gaining in 2015. Eight of the seats are also so much improved for the Tories that they would no longer count as marginals. This makes 20 seats taken out of Labour’s easiest target list. In exchange, four new targets result from Labour seats being flipped into being Tory marginals by boundary changes, and probably four previously safer Tory seats now made marginal. The number of Tory seats vulnerable to a pro-Labour swing of 4 per cent or so falls from 50 to 38. The hill Labour has to climb to get an overall majority is therefore steeper than it would be under existing boundaries, while it is probably a little easier for the Conservatives.

This was probably the intention of the more sophisticated Conservative supporters of this proposal – to put a finger on the scales a little by systematically adding bits of rural territory to marginal seats in towns outside the big metropolitan areas (e.g. Great Yarmouth, Harlow, Redditch, Stevenage, Lincoln, Stafford, Tamworth, Brighton, Dover – and indeed Bath and Southport…). They may have been less aware that there will be locations where increased size of seats might lead the Boundary Commission to create a core urban (Labour-inclined) seat rather than two increasingly Tory marginals (as for instance in Thanet and Norwich in the Democratic Audit model).

The Democratic Audit model illustrates the simple principle that altering something (constituency size) which is not much to do with the problem you are seeking to address (electoral bias) is unlikely to achieve your aim. It also illustrates some of the complexities in measuring the effects of boundary changes. It may superficially look a better outcome for Labour than expected, but there is a story below the headline numbers.

Link to original post with additional reader comments at LSE Politics Blog

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Supporters of the Liberal Democrats, Greens and UKIP should vote Yes to AV. For the Conservatives and Labour – the balance of advantage is much less clear

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Supporters of the Liberal Democrats, Greens and UKIP should vote Yes to AV. For the Conservatives and Labour – the balance of advantage is much less clear

Posted on 02 May 2011 by admin

The AV referendum campaign has produced some strange political alignments, more because of its perceived strategic consequences than the nature of the alternative electoral systems. Writing in a personal capacity, Lewis Baston finds that for some parties rational self-interest is clear: supporters of the Liberal Democrats, Greens and UK Independence Party should vote Yes on AV. For others –the Conservatives and Labour – the balance of advantage is much less clear, and may differ between different bits of the party. Arguably, looking only at rational self-interest, the Conservatives should be divided, rather than mostly for No.

How to make a partisan choice on AV

It is not unreasonable to examine the effect a change such as moving to the Alternative Vote will have on the fortunes of the parties. To do so is rational self-interest, but also more than that; its effects on party performance imply consequences for the range of economic, public policy and social outcomes towards which few people are neutral. Given that the difference in terms of democratic values between FPTP and AV is not large, it need not trump a medium-term partisan calculation. What one should ask of such calculations is that they should be rational.

For a Liberal Democrat, supporting AV is a no-brainer. The Liberal Democrats are (and even in 2015 can be expected to be) a fair-sized centre party. If a centre party has enough first-preference electoral support to come first or second (and therefore not be eliminated during the early stages of an AV count), it will tend to attract more transferred votes than its less centrist main competitor and therefore win more seats than it would otherwise. AV also suits the campaigning culture of the Liberal Democrats, in that the party is experienced in the techniques of attracting tactical votes and gathering local and personal credibility for individual candidates, and this is easily adapted to casting a net for second preferences. They tend to have more trouble winning votes in actual PR elections, like the European Parliament, London Assembly and devolved parliaments.

The SNP and Plaid Cymru are also capable of attracting transfers and would probably be helped by AV.

For Greens, Yes to AV is also logical. They are likely, whichever system is used, to hold their Brighton seat but not gain any more in the medium term. The benefits from AV would be in increasing the party’s overall share of the vote, because sympathisers could afford to give them a first preference without fear of letting in a hostile candidate. They would gain the credibility that goes with a significant vote share and encourage more voters to consider the option of voting Green. They would also encourage other candidates to adopt parts of the Green agenda in order to attract second preference votes from Greens, and give the Green Party itself more power in politics by giving and withholding endorsements for second place. For UKIP, AV probably helps for the same reasons as it helps the Greens. UKIP could influence the other parties, particularly the Conservatives, towards its objectives.

For the interests of the BNP – if indeed there is a BNP in recognisable form for very much longer – AV is not an attractive system. They may get a few more first preferences than they currently get FPTP votes, but AV would make it extremely difficult for them to win any seats. It would also be less successful at using AV to influence the other parties, because a BNP endorsement of a second preference for one candidate would be likely to put off more voters than it would encourage (in London in 2008 Boris Johnson repudiated such a dubious BNP benediction). The BNP would be better off with FPTP (which allows it to win on 30 per cent of the vote when its opponents are divided) or PR (which represents minority parties), not AV.

Much of the Conservative Party has displayed a bafflingly intense hostility to AV, on the assumption that it would prevent them winning a majority. This is very doubtful indeed; looking back on the history of modelled AV election results, there would have been no election when a Conservative majority under FPTP would have disappeared under AV, with the possible exception of 1992. The Conservative Party has generally been a very adaptable creature – the secret of its success. Cameron has demonstrated considerable skill in adapting to the situation, as shown in his strategic brilliance after the 2010 election result. The Conservatives are in a position to benefit from AV and Cameron is probably the man to navigate a path to that point.

AV tends to help the side of politics which is divided between parties with overlapping sources of support, and – in contrast to most of the 20th Century – this is the centre right. The Tories could go into a 2015 AV election well placed to pick up second preference support from UKIP and Liberal Democrats voters and overturn Labour voting leads on first preferences. While the party in general should not fear AV, if one looks within the party the traditionalist right and Cameron’s opponents may have reason to fear an electoral system that takes Cameron even further out of their influence. The party may have to share power a bit more, and may need to tack a bit to the centre in order to pick up second preferences. The old right may prefer not to take the opportunities that AV provides, and take its chances with a core vote strategy under FPTP.

Another potential worry for some Conservatives (and others) would be that AV might weaken the Union, by representing in exaggerated form a centre-right majority in England and left-of-centre majorities in Wales and Scotland. A future centre-right government might have next to no representatives outside England because the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would be crushed by preference transfers in Wales and Scotland. Conversely, a Labour government could find itself dependent on lopsided majorities in Wales and Scotland to outvote a centre-right lead in England. Either scenario would put pressure on the constitutional settlement – perhaps another argument for an SNP Yes vote.

The range of interests and views within the Labour Party is, as it should be, varied, because the strategic situation is far from clear. In the short term, a narrow Yes may be best because of the ructions it will cause in the Conservative Party, but looking beyond that, things are more complicated. In the politics of the 1990s and 2000s, AV would have worked strongly in Labour’s favour, and a generation of Labour reformers is accustomed to thinking in terms of a ‘progressive majority’. This is not a permanent feature of politics – AV would probably have expressed conservative majorities in the 1950s and 1980s. It may well not be a feature of politics again for some time.

The Liberal Democrats have a co-ordinated political and communications strategy which reinforces Conservative messages and systematically disparages Labour; even in his 21 April ippr lecture, when he might have concentrated on persuading the undecided Labour vote, Nick Clegg could not resist the opportunity to make a strident partisan attack on Labour. The Liberal Democrats vote of 2015 will have absorbed five years of this and be broadly happy about it. Some polling in 2011 has started to show Liberal Democrats second preferences skewing towards the Conservatives, and that is only logical. Among the stupidest arguments for Yes – though less stupid than ‘Make Your MP Work Harder’ – is that it is in the self-interest of the Labour Party.


AV and the coalition

AV would solve a coalition management issue for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, in that they could run candidates in each constituency (satisfying their partisan activists) while campaigning on a more targeted basis and recommending second preferences for their coalition partner. AV can be the glue that keeps coalitions together and prevents realignments, as historically with the National and Liberal parties in Australia. The relationship between Tory and the Liberal Democrats in 2015 is much more vexed under FPTP; actually standing down in a constituency is a much more radical and controversial step than suggesting how second preferences might be used. FPTP might hasten a split in the Liberal Democrats and the emergence of a left-liberal element that could even reconstitute that fabled progressive majority and reactivating the push for electoral reform. How the true believer in electoral reform (or majoritarian rule) should vote is the subject of my next article.


Link to piece on original site

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Beware hubris (28 September 2008)

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Beware hubris (28 September 2008)

Posted on 28 September 2008 by admin

The Tories’ basic ideology is, if not bankrupt, trading under Chapter 11. Cameron may be safe, but his policies look vulnerable

The Conservatives have had a wonderful year since their last conference, when they deterred Gordon Brown from calling an election in November. Apart from the wobble of the past week – which is probably attributable to Labour’s usual post-conference bounce – the Tory vote has been hitting a stable and high level in the mid-40s since spring 2008. That’s well ahead of anything they’ve managed since 1988, and an election-winning position. David Cameron’s personal approval ratings are more variable, but on this measure as well there is no cause for complaint. Their local and London elections in May demonstrated real electoral progress. The party has also recorded its first byelection gain since 1982 in Crewe and Nantwich and seen off a Liberal Democrat challenge in Henley.

So what could possibly go wrong at Birmingham? Now the prospect of a Tory government is being taken so seriously, the Conservatives can expect a greater degree of scrutiny from the broadsheets. Another risk will be bandwagon-jumping from interest groups and lobbyists who wish to become on better terms with the potential next government. Conference will have a busier, more glossy and hectic feel than in the past, which will fuel the feeling that the Conservatives are on their way. The risk is of premature hubris.

Winning is a considerable benefit in the struggle for party unity. The 2006 conference, which was at the softest and most listening phase of Cameronism, saw some subtle displays of different priorities: tote bags bearing tax-cutting and anti-EU slogans were carried around conference. Last year’s conference became a festival of unity, despite sub-surface misgivings within the party, because of the pressure generated by the mishandling of the election announcement by Number 10. An imminent election concentrates minds. In 2008, the sense that they are on the way and the Cameron strategy is working will mean that there will not be much by way of public dissent. The party’s self-presentation has also shifted a bit to the right, with recent pronouncements on obesity and other issues rooted in a traditional Conservative emphasis on personal responsibility. The party has also rowed back from some previous proposals for reform or consensus, such as the composition of a revised Lords. This suggests confidence in their ability before long to implement an undiluted Conservative agenda.

However, there are still a few tensions. One is quite how far it is permissible to go in painting a negative picture of the state of Britain. Oppositions always have to judge whether they will be hurt by the allegation that they are “running down Britain”. Cameron’s frequent references to a “broken society”, while striking a responsive chord with mid-market newspapers, seems hyperbolic to many other commentators: it does not match up with the reality of life as it is mostly lived. The phrase was criticised by none other than the principal Conservative executive politician, Boris Johnson, who called it “piffle“, but it remains a Conservative campaign theme and no doubt we will hear it from Birmingham. The Cameron team has essentially absorbed the particular definition of “social justice” promoted by Iain Duncan Smith since 2003.

The Tories’ plans and policies are at a late but nowhere near final stage of evolution. They have, however, a more pithy overall narrative than the other two parties. Policy areas have been grouped into three “agendas”: giving people more opportunity and power over their lives; making families stronger and society more responsible; making Britain safer and greener. It is not a bad narrative, but the detail is lacking and where it is spelt out (as, ironically enough, over the promotion of apprenticeships) it is sometimes not that different from Labour’s. Like a lot of political rhetoric, the Tory slogans are banal. Who would say they were for giving people less opportunity and power over their lives, weaker families and a more irresponsible society, and a more dangerous and dirty Britain?

While the economic downturn has helped the Conservatives to achieve their current position of dominance, it also risks undermining their policies. The likely recession’s effect on public finances may make the sums cease to add up (if indeed they did to start with), and the priorities of the public shift during recessions (as Labour found when its policies, conceived in the boom of 1988-89, looked less appropriate in recessionary 1992). The oil price spike has also exposed some contradictions between different strands of Conservatism, with potentially different free market, environmentalist and populist responses. The Conservatives have gone for the populist “hard pressed motorist” line – a possible sign that Cameron’s initial emphasis on the environment has shallow roots.

Indeed, in some ways the financial crisis undermines non-interventionist ideology that has driven the party. They still have little coherent to say about how the key institutions of capitalism should work. Gordon Brown last week at least had the start of a narrative of how to respond to the crisis. The Tories’ basic ideology is, if not bankrupt, at least trading under Chapter 11, and they are vulnerable because of their inexperience.

However, while policy is somewhat difficult, Cameron’s position is extremely strong and he can stamp his authority on the party at this conference. Emerging from the conference season with polling numbers back in the mid-40s and their poll lead recovered would be enough to rally the party’s confidence.


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Fixed terms? No thanks (10 October 2007)

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Fixed terms? No thanks (10 October 2007)

Posted on 10 October 2007 by admin

They are not the answer – we need to start from proportional representation in order to move towards constitutional reform.

I don’t believe in fixed-term parliaments. I don’t believe in Father Christmas either. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that I think they are intrinsically bad ideas – either of them – but that I don’t believe they exist.

In reality there is a spectrum of possibilities between the present system that is in effect at the personal discretion of the prime minister, and the fully fixed terms that govern the electoral cycles for the US president and Congress. In the United States, the mandate for the executive is personal to the president and there are constitutionally defined rules of succession that govern those very rare mid-term changes in president. Congress is separately elected and cannot – short of impeachment – overthrow the executive.

The problem in Britain is that in a parliamentary system the executive is formed from the legislature and depends on its confidence for the continuance of government. It would be difficult, and not conducive to good government, if a parliament such as the one elected in February 1974 (in which even a combination of the Liberals with either Conservative or Labour would not have produced a majority) had been required to stay in office for four years at the mercy of Ulster unionists and Scottish nationalists. Sometimes things change during a parliament, with byelections, defections and radically different issues emerging mid-parliament that throw up new political alignments. While perhaps not a huge issue, a rigid timetable such as the one proposed by Sir Menzies Campbell would sometimes require elections to be held in inappropriate circumstances. I can well remember 2001, when a May election (after precisely four years) was planned but postponed for one month because of the foot and mouth outbreak – this would be impossible under the Liberal Democrat proposition.

Therefore there has to be some sort of escape clause to dissolve parliaments before the full term is up. Once one has conceded the principle of an escape clause, the difference between fixed-term parliaments and the current position is then merely a matter of degree and technique. It is very doubtful to what extent fixed terms can really be entrenched in UK law – short of writing a constitution it would be open to any future parliament to reverse a law or resolution for fixed terms or abolish any external structures set up to try to entrench a fixed-term rule.

As we have seen in the last few weeks, being ready to fight an early election is a matter of political machismo, and for an opposition to try to deny the government the ability to call an early poll would invite allegations of being, in Margaret Thatcher’s fine Lincolnshire word, “frit” – a much better way of putting it than the current vulgarity that is “bottled“. The demand for fixed terms is part of a wider tendency to try to take the politics out of politics, and steadily reduce the scope of decisions that can be taken by democratically accountable politicians and out-source it to rules and supposed non-political managers and experts. Some of the most preposterous, such as Conor Burns’s fit of the vapours at Conservative Home imagine that, shock horror, party politics wasn’t the main factor in election timing before that horrid Mr Brown did then didn’t want an election this year. The truth is that election timing is inherently political, determined by a range of political factors, and it is desirable – and actually inescapable – that the decision will be taken politically.

Germany has fixed term parliaments, but it is obviously possible to engineer an early election as in 1972, 1983 and 2005 even under the eyes of a constitutional court with powers distinct from legislature and executive. What we are actually missing is a head of state, with real political powers, who would be in a position to accept or deny a dissolution request, but the preservation of the monarchy requires that it be kept away from such highly political matters. An elected president would be more capable of withholding consent for dissolution than the monarch.

There is something to be said for giving the control over calling an election to the House of Commons itself, to reduce the remaining areas of royal prerogative a bit further and put parliament in charge, but one should be under no illusions as to what that would accomplish by way of regulating the timing of elections.

To come up with a workable solution seems to require radical constitutional change, such as separation of powers, a written constitution or the abolition of the monarchy. As part of a written constitutional settlement, a fixed term may not be a bad idea, but as a stand-alone reform it does not work and it should certainly not be first on the shopping list of desirable reforms. A better way of progressing would be to have a parliament elected by a more proportional electoral system. In a system in which coalition was the norm, election timing could be an aspect of the partnership agreement. First past the post is a major reason why governments will try to manipulate election timing (or, as in the 1950s and 1980s, manipulate the economy around a four-year electoral cycle) because the rewards for getting the timing right are so disproportionate. There would be less incentive to play games if parties got more or less the proportion of seats that their proportion of votes can justify.

Political discretion over when elections are called is a non-problem. I have great respect for some of the people arguing for it, but I must part company with them on this one. It is the last, not the first, constitutional reform to consider.


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The mantles of Nye and Mac (28 June 2006)

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The mantles of Nye and Mac (28 June 2006)

Posted on 28 June 2006 by admin

The voters of Blaenau Gwent and Bromley are feeling neglected. Both Blair and Cameron could be embarrassed by Thursday’s byelections.

Voters in two constituencies – Bromley & Chislehurst and Blaenau Gwent – go to the polls on Thursday to fill two seats in the House of Commons and one in the National Assembly for Wales. It is hard to imagine two places with less in common. One is an affluent south-east London suburb, the other a gritty working class south Wales valley. One had a Conservative vote of 51% in 2005, the other a Conservative vote of 2%. When Bromley sent Harold Macmillan to parliament as prime minister, Blaenau Gwent (then called Ebbw Vale) elected Nye Bevan with thumping majorities. But both may have similar messages for the political parties this week.

Bromley & Chislehurst is a mixture of suburbs, some of them extremely plush. Birds of paradise can be seen among the trees in Sundridge Park, and Chislehurst Common is genuinely high-class. However, Bromley itself is a fairly standard-issue suburban town, and Bickley are the sort of place that Delboy and Rodney would have ended up if they really did become millionaires. Bromley’s Conservatism, like its late MP Eric Forth, tends to be of the brash, saloon bar variety rather than Cameron-style metropolitan gentility.

Perhaps the culture clash explains why the Conservative campaign in Bromley seems to have been accident-prone and unimpressive, a dinosaur compared to a lively and cheeky Liberal Democrat effort that has produced propaganda in the style of supermarket women’s magazines and local tabloid papers. However, the Conservatives start with such a massive majority, and such a hard-core Tory electorate, that it is almost impossible to see them losing – although the majority will probably disappoint their hopes at the start of the campaign. Labour’s strategic objectives in Bromley are to avoid coming fourth, behind Ukip’s Nigel Farage, and to save their deposit – despite coming second with a relatively respectable 22.2% in 2005. The bad national climate, the usual poor government performance in by-elections and a developing squeeze from the Lib Dems all militate against Labour retaining many votes – although they should manage to get their deposit back and are probably likely to come just ahead of Ukip.

Blaenau Gwent is a very unorthodox election. After decades of voting solidly Labour (from 1929 to 1992 the MP was either Nye Bevan or Michael Foot) it went Independent in 2005. Peter Law, the sitting Welsh assembly member, stood against the official Labour candidate because of the use of an all-women shortlist and won. This is not the first such electoral tremor in south Wales – in 1970 Merthyr Tydfil overrode the local Labour party’s deselection of its octogenarian MP, and in the first assembly election in 1999 even Islwyn fell to Plaid Cymru. On most occasions, Labour recovers quickly, largely because a vote for someone like Law is not seen as being “disloyal” to Labour. Ideas of community and Labour loyalty are deeply intertwined in Blaenau Gwent, but the loyalty is to an idea of Labour as movement and cause rather than necessarily what a Labour government does.

Candidates associated with Peter Law – his widow for the assembly vacancy and his agent for the Westminster seat – are standing in the by-elections. With Labour nationally at a low ebb, and a strong local socialist culture that tends to disapprove of the government from the left, what might have been an opportunity to proclaim a rare Labour gain seems to be fading. The better chance for Labour is probably the Westminster seat, although the UK government needs it less than the Welsh assembly government – which would remain a minority administration if Mrs Law holds the seat as an independent. The prospect of a non-Labour government in Cardiff after the May 2007 election would look that bit closer if the party loses out again in Blaenau Gwent.

These two constituencies, on the face of it Conservative and Labour heartland territory, show that in the right circumstances more or less any constituency is now capable of producing at least a warning, if not a shock result, for their natural party in a by-election. Perhaps it is disillusion and volatility. Perhaps, in this increasingly centrist, fuzzy new political world, the voices of the workers’ social clubs of Blaenau Gwent and the saloon bars of Bromley alike are feeling a bit neglected.


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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.


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