Category Archives: Election

The best arguments for and against AV

The public ‘debate’ on the referendum for the alternative vote has been shameful. Red herring and dishonest arguments have been pushed by both sides. I’d have rather they kept the debate on the following terms:

The best case for the YES Campaign

  • Today it is common for an individual MP to be elected with a minority of the vote in their constituency. This ‘sounds’ undemocratic. AV keeps the model of an MP representing an individual constituency (which is a good feature of our system) but means that they will have had a positive vote from over 50% of valid votes counted*. It allows those of us who have tactically voted for years under the existing system to now vote with our hearts and know our votes will be counted. That ‘sounds’ more democratic.
*yes, because you don’t have to rank everyone on the paper the number of votes that constitute 50% of the valid vote will get smaller each round as some people decide they couldn’t vote for anyone else on the paper beyond those they have – so 50% of valid votes in a round may be less than 50% of the total vote. yawn. It is still a clearer mandate than winning with a fringe agenda with 20.1% over four other moderate candidates who people struggled to choose between each polling 19.8%.

The best case for the NO Campaign.
  • Just because something ‘sounds’ more democratic in theory, does not mean it will ‘be’ more democratic in action. It is reasonable to assume that AV would result in Coalitions being more common. True, not to the extent that full PR would, but the case can still be made: If you like parties to be judged against their manifesto pledges then post-general election Coalition negotiations can be a nasty surprise. Ask a Lib Dem who is horrified by the new level of tuition fees or a Tory who is horrified by this very referendum. In reality, we already operate broad coalitions WITHIN our main parties. Labour had diverse views such as George Galloway and Tony Blair together for decades, the Tories had Tebbit and Chris Patten together for an age. The parties had their debates before the election and had a transparent process to put together their policies before presenting them to the nation ahead of the vote., You are clear what you are going to get if x,y or z wins. As a party member you would even have been able to have some influence and input to the process of policy formation. Coalitions BETWEEN parties instead lead to Government programs being put together in a smoke-filled room contrary to anything the electorate thought they were going to get. The deal brokers may not be the cuddly types at the center but may just as likley be the parties at the margins – the nutters. Anything that increases the likelihood of that kind of policy formation is less democratic than what what FPTP has delivered for most of our history.

Everything else – the gumpf about cost, simplicity, one person’s vote being counted more times than anothers etc. etc. is just bullshit frankly. As it happens I’m persuaded by the NO argument above as a case against full PR, but not quite as a case against AV. I think AV would be a small, incremental improvement to our voting system, and I don’t think we’g get a glut of coalitions at all. I voted YES already by post. However, I fully expect the NO vote to win – the YES campaign have had their chance to make their case in the face of a terrible NO campaign. They didn’t up their game, if/when they lose they need only look at themselves, I’ll not lose sleep.

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The Best AV Poster Award….

…. in a very sorry field, goes to the YES campaign for this effort:

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Oldham & Saddleworth Result: Thoughts

So that’s that then*. A solid result for Labour.  A hold with an increased majority. I think the result was about as expected – you could, I suppose, argue the Tories did slightly worse and Lib Dems slightly better than expected – if that is correct then it is a function of:

  • The Conservative CCHQ seemed to do no more than the bare minimum to support their candidate – there is suspicion that a tactical decision was taken not to allow a result that would undermine Clegg and this meant not fighting too hard. I’m sure there will be some angst between the grass-roots and the tacticians in the Party about this over the coming weeks.
  • Partly as a result of the above, and partly regardless, many Tories will have tactically voted Lib Dem this time around. Clearly not enough to compensate those switching Lib Dem to Labour.
  • The turnout was down but I would expect this to be spread evenly between the parties.

All in – no real news. Easily a good enough result to keep Ed knockers in the party on the leash, but not quite good enough that they wont still be straining on it.  As by-election swings go it is pretty undramatic.

*Full Result: Labour: 14,718 (42.1%) Lib Dems: 11,160 (31.9%) Conservatives: 4,481 (12.8%) UKIP: 2,029 (5.8%) BNP: 1,560 (4.5%) Green Party: 530 (1.5%) Monster Raving Loony Party: 145 (0.4%) English Democrats: 144 (0.4%) Pirate Party: 96 (0.2%) Bus Pass Elvis Party: 67 (0.1%)

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The Woolas Judgement: Good News For Our Democracy

That Phil Woolas will lose his seat (pending any last ditch legal challenge/judicial review) is sad news for the man himself but very good news for British democracy.

One of the things that struck me during my campaigning at the last general election was how little people seemed to care about the rules.  I documented my own astonishing experience here.  Electoral courts have been so few and far between that there has been no sense of consequence to deter people from bending the rules.   Bending quickly becomes breaking.  Consequences help focus the mind.  This judgement should focus the minds of many.

If any issue should be a cross-party issue it should be this.  The way we conduct ourselves at elections is core to our ability to lay claim to even be a ‘democracy’.  I’ll put my cynicism aside and take Harriet Harman’s rationale for dumping Woolas at face value and offer full support for her stance.  We follow the USA on many things but the drift to negative campaigning and attack ads is a road we should stop following –  all the more when attacks are based on tittle-tattle, rumour or downright lies.

Many of Woolas’ colleagues now say they feel he was hard-done-by and  worry that this judgement ‘could open the floodgates’.   Good.  Let the flood gates open.    The unfortunate truth is that had this not been a wafer-thin majority then the case would never have come before the Court.    Now that this precedent has been set it is my sincere hope that any future candidates who plays loose with the truth on the character of an opponent should be in fear of the result being annulled immaterial of the size of their majority.

Full respect to Lib Dem candidate Elwyn Watkin in risking all to bring this case.  He has done the country a great service.

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Ed Miliband and the Battle for the Centre Ground

British Politics is a curious thing.  Elections are won in the UK by convincing people who describe themselves as ‘of-the-centre’ to vote for you.  You don’t get committed right or left wingers as swing-voters.   The hardcore left will vote Labour.  The committed right will vote Tory.  At the extreme end of either party you may get some lefties who lose faith and run off to nutty Marxist outfits or righties sulking off to UKIP but the numbers lost at these fringes are nothing compared to the numbers to be won in the middle.

The problem both parties face is that their grassroot activists, by definition and nature, do not generally tend to sit in the centre.   They naturally wish to drag their party toward the relevant pole.  The challenge for an aspiring leader of either of the main British Parties (yup, I only count the two) is to –

  • a) Convince your party that you have the left/right credentials to protect and maintain the party’s core political compass
  • b) Convince the public that they needn’t fear the ‘common wisdom’ version of the downsides of a lurch to the left or right, i.e. fear crippling ‘Tax and Spend’ misery associated with a big left swing, or fear the brutality of an un-regulated free market leading to orphans-cleaning-chimneys-for-tuppence with an unchecked lurch to the right.

Blair was the master of this and that is why he won three elections despite Iraq.  Cameron got it.  Brown didn’t.  And that’s why we now have a blue PM. It’s a heck of a juggling act.  As I say in my philosophy page – although the battle for the centre ground usually gets characterised as one of competence over political difference there is real substance between how centre-right and a centre-left perspectives manifest themselves in actual policies.  Our Current coalition is proving that a Centre-Right government can still be very radical in approach – thank goodness they just about won over the centre this time around.

Back to Ed Miliband.  He’s won the Labour leadership.  Congratulations.  He’s cracked part (a) of the equation and convinced the party (I’ll put aside for now the dodgy way they do leadership elections).  The challenge for him now is cracking part (b) and carrying the public.

My guarded instinct at the moment is that he will not be able to.  As an active Conservative obviously I find that a good thing.  I watched his speech on the news last night and nothing about his body-language and delivery gave me any sense that he has the gravitas or charisma to project himself as a credible leader to those swing-voters.  He looked like a rabbit in headlights.  His awkward gawky/geeky style screams policy wonk rather than leader.

That said, the reason I’m guarded is that if Labour are patient then there is plenty of time for him to grow into the role.   Cameron definitely enjoyed the extra few years to shift the lightweight tag after Brown bottled it in 2008.  Ed M. has similar time.  He also has the big benefit of being in opposition during a very rough economic period.  One thing he has over his brother is that he is not personally as tainted with the causes of these tough times – nobody in the public will have clocked him personally as a Labour ‘Top-Tabler’ during the last Government – and perception is more important than reality.  He can and will feign distance and a ‘new start’.

It will be an interesting few months as he tries to define himself to the electorate.  This is all about part B) in the equation.   For all the reasons above I suspect the Ed Miliband that emerges in this phase will be very different to the one that has just defined himself to the party.  He’s started with his interview in the Sunday Telegraph this morning.  Will the Union backers who gifted him the leadership allow him to play this game?  I doubt it.  But that’s the juggling act he now has to try and master- pander to the party and risk loosing the public, or pander to the public and risk loosing the party.  Who’d be a leader!

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Does Birmingham Need to Call in Independent Election Observers?

An account of day touring Birmingham’s polling booths – uncovering widespread irregularities – including rescuing a hapless Lib Dem – finding campaign literature inside polling booths – voters locked out of stations – people being ‘helped’ to vote – Do we need independent election monitors?

Back in 2004 the integrity of Birmingham’s democracy was famously questioned by a Judge who found electoral conduct which would, in his exact words, “disgrace a banana republic.”* Fast forward to the 2010 General Election and I found myself as the Agent for the Conservative Parliamentary candidate for Ladywood.  This is the same area that worried the judge six years earlier.  So, have things improved?  Well, – yes and no… they’ve started to solve the problem with postal votes, but things are getting worse at the polling stations.

So, let’s start with the polling stations.   I went to a sample of a dozen or so.  I was left wide-eyed with disbelief.  At every station which had ‘tellers’ (party activists) present there was a total disregard for the rules.  There is not supposed to be any campaign material within 100 meters of the entrance to a polling station.  This allows people to enter without fear or pressure.  In all the polling stations I saw there were activists aggressively handing out leaflets at the gates.  There was also campaign material (banners etc.) tied to the railings of the gates as people entered.  At the first polling station I went to there was a van with a full Labour logo on parked directly opposite the station entrance with a loud-speaker system on its roof.  It was literally broadcasting campaign messages into the polling station.  Any voter who wanted to get to the station could not enter without having literature hoist on them and verbal encouragement for particular candidates.  The leaflets were ‘helpful’ guides on how to vote – semi-official looking instructions to place an x in a particular box (with worked examples showing the candidates name and party logo).  Shockingly in two polling stations I found these leaflets had been left on the writing surface of the polling booths.  I’ll say that again – there was party campaign literature actually on display in the polling booths themselves.

I did speak with the Station Presiding Officers and they had all spoken with the activists at the entrances but had been ignored.  The police had been notified and attended but the activists had simply gone away when the police arrived and returned when they went.  In an earlier pre-election briefing the council had told me that the Police would have a dedicated single-point-of-contact to deal with any issues.  I decided ring them since the activists had such contempt for the Presiding Officer and I.   Not being a 999 matter I rang the police station directly.  I was on hold for over fifteen minutes without answer before I hung up.  I then tried the elections office at the council to report it – again I spent ten minutes on hold before I gave up waiting.  The activist army outside the polling station stayed put harassing arriving voters.

At the next station we found another gaggle of Labour activists handing out their material at the gates – cars were again parked opposite the entrance all with large Labour placards covering their windscreens on prominent display.  We went inside and found a Lib Dem activist actually handing out leaflets within the premises!  When challenged she broke down in tears.   According to her she had tried to position herself at the gates but had suffered such verbal abuse from the Labour activists that ‘she only felt safe inside the station’.  We offered her a lift to a ‘safe’ polling station.  ‘Rescuing’ an activist from another party was certainly the most surreal moment of the day.

Whilst driving the Lib Dem to ‘safety’ we finally found a Police Officer.  The PC had pulled over campaigners for an independent local council candidate who the Lib Dem referred to as ‘The Somalian’.  They were in a car with a tannoy set-up and had been broadcasting ‘Please-Vote’ messages at volume whilst driving around the area.  The crazy thing here is that having finally found the police they were tackling the only activists who I had seen campaigning legally!  To be fair to the constable the driver didn’t have insurance – but the irony still shouldn’t be lost.   After a quick chat with the officer she contacted her control room to find out who the police single-point-of-contact for the election was. Nobody in the control room knew.  She agreed she would pop round to the polling station herself, but didn’t seem to have had any briefing whatever about what is or is not acceptable (or legal) by activists so I’m unsure what good she would be able to do.

Now, in case you think “so long as activists are outside the gates then anything goes” you need to know that there are defined rules about what people are allowed to do in the vicinity of a polling station.  A ‘teller’ is allowed to stand near to the entrance and ask voters their polling card number only.  This allows the more organised parties who have canvassed to check if the people that said they would support them have actually voted.  Towards the end of the day a Party with a decent teller operation can then chase up all its supporters who haven’t yet voted and if necessary offer them lifts to the polling booths.  The Electoral Commission has brought all the rules about tellers together in Appendix E of this document here.   It is several thousand words, so to pull out just the salient bits:

“3.3 Tellers should not display or distribute election material (e.g. billboards, posters, placards or pamphlets) on walls or around the polling place.  […]

[…]

3.5 Tellers must not attempt to induce, influence or persuade an elector how or whether to vote. Tellers cannot promote particular candidates or political parties. Their conduct must not give rise to allegations of undue influence, e.g. discussing voting intentions, party affiliations, a candidate’s history or party campaigns, or undertaking any other activity particularly associated with one particular party or candidate.”

Every time I showed activists these rules on May 6th they looked at me like I was from another planet.

My afternoon tour brought more of the same across the constituency.  The day’s most serious incident was when I left a polling station in north Ladywood.  I’d had a chat with the activists at the gate and politely made them aware of the rules – prompting the charade of a temporary withdrawal until I was out of sight.  As I got back into my car a young women tapped on my window.  “Are you something to do with the election?”  She explained she had seen me having a word with the others, and assumed I was someone ‘official’.  She wanted me to know that the polling agents in the station had insisted that when her mother, who spoke only little English, went into the polling station they escorted her to the booth and filled the mothers ballot paper for her. I’ll not name the party accused as this is anecdotal.  She was livid; “It’s just not right.  Some of them are my family, man – but they stole my mother’s vote and it aint right.”   When I retold that tale to people who lived in the area they were unsurprised and told me the practice was widespread.   If true, one has to wonder the level of training given to Station Presiding Officers to allow this –  I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised  – on the evidence of everything I had seen with my own eyes that day it is clear that very few of the people running our polling stations have even basic knowledge of what is and isn’t allowed.

The  answer to all the polling station issues  is to stop trying to police our elections on the cheap.  If our democracy matters – and I hope it does – then we should properly train the station presiding officers to run tighter ships within the station and have the Police available at the polling stations to quickly clamp down on any unacceptable behaviour outside.  I hope that the specific problems I saw were down to over-enthusiasm and ignorance by party activists rather than centrally co-ordinated misintent.  Regardless of whether it is cock-up or conspiracy being unable to guarantee our electorate can reach the ballot box without interference or pressure begins to chip away at the notion that our elections are ‘free and fair’.  The disregard for the rules must stop and only the Police have the clout to enforce them.  Even if putting a copper at every single polling station is unrealistic, we could still go a long way by prioritising the stations that have a history of issues – yes that means Ladywood would get far more Police attention – but if that is where the problem is, then this is where the solution is needed.

Let’s get onto postal votes.  This was where it went so wrong in 2004.  The good news here is that giant strides in the right direction have been made.  I was present at the electoral office when I saw a chap come in and try to register himself as a proxy for 16 postal votes – I’m pleased to report that he was politely but firmly told he could be proxy for no more than two unless they were immediate family.

At the postal count in Birmingham (which gets underway a week before polling day) there’s spawned a whole temporary industry checking every single ballot paper received to ensure that the envelope numbers and ballot paper numbers match –  all envelopes are passed through a scanner to check individual signatures and dates-of-birth against those held in the database.  Any which the computer software says may be suspect are removed for human adjudication.  I watched the adjudication and agreed with the call the official made every time.   This is a step forward – the old fraud where cheats would get themselves a copy of the ‘marked electoral register’ from the council to see who never votes and then send in false postal ballot papers from these apathetic voters is stopped by this system.  What the system will not stop is people from bullying or intimidating their family members or friends by demanding to inspect their postal ballot before they send it to ensure that “they have filled it in correctly”.   That is the downside of the postal voting – it needs to be balanced with the large number of people who work away from home in the week and for whom the availability of a postal vote stops them being disenfranchised.  The system isn’t perfect, but it now requires much greater effort and more willing co-conspirators if you wanted to pull off a major fraud.   I await the council to publish official figures but I would estimate from what I saw that about 10% of the postal votes received were rejected for various reasons.  It is sad to see how many people who went to the trouble of filling in the ballot paper then forget to sign the envelope and so waste their vote.

Back to the polling booths – One thing I did not observe myself, but is suggested to be widespread in the constituency is ‘personation’.  This is where someone simply claims to be someone else and votes on their behalf.  There is very, very little we can do about this as under current rules there is no power for the polling officials to demand any form of identification.   Obviously, an individual would be foolish to try and vote at the same station twice – but with scores of polling stations in each constituency, anyone who has seen the marked electoral register will know the names of people who usually do not vote.  It would not require great wit to do a tour of polling booths and vote scores of times.   An organised team could quickly wrack up hundreds of votes this way.  I make no claim that this happened in Ladywood in this election – I simply say that the lack of any system to prevent it allows rumours that it occurs to persist.

There is the well known saying that “opportunity creates the thief”.  So much of our electoral procedures are based on a very quaint British notion of trust.  British MPs showed in last year’s expenses debacle that even the supposedly honourable can be quick to take advantage of trust based systems.  Should we assume that there are no elements of the population who would take the opportunity to cheat if they could in the elections?  Of course not.  It is naive to assume it doesn’t go on.  Individual ballot boxes from certain stations in Ladywood apparently had turnout 20-30% higher than would have been expected.  This may be because a party had been incredibly successful in mustering the vote and a credit to them – or it may be that after the vote had closed an insider simply ticked off the remaining names on the register, filled in a whole load of ballot papers and stuffed the box.  We hope the former but we have too much trust and too few checks and balances to be certain.  Fraud could happen.

If all that wasn’t enough we also had one polling station at St Pauls Square which was so understaffed that around 100 people were denied the chance to vote at all despite having arrived in what should have been ample time, before the station closed at 10pm.  This was particularly irritating for our Party as it is one of the stations where we do well.  At least this incident has already attracted national media attention which prompted this report by the electoral commission here.

When you put everything together you do begin to imagine how an outside observer would view the proceedings.  As it happens there were some Observers present from Commonwealth countries across the UK.  The Kenyans were shocked that they see our ballot security as a lower standard than their own.  Well, they were looking at the orderly parts of the country – one wonders how much stronger their words would have been had they been in Ladywood.  Perhaps that is what is needed to raise our game?  It would be embarrassing to be lectured by Afghans or Iraqi’s on running a free and fair ballot – but if they observed what I observed they couldn’t objectively report faith in the result.

One thing I would stress is that for all the irregularities and potential for irregularities that I saw Shabana Mahmood’s majority is such that there is no doubt whatever in my mind that she was the rightful winner.  I’m confident she knew nothing of, and had no direct part in any dodgy activities by her activists.  Likewise her Lib Dem opponent.  I would also make no claim that there is any particular party worse than another in polling fraud or conduct.  Indeed I note that just up the road from me in Walsall three Tories have been charged with regards this election.

I would also not want to cast blame on Birmingham Council’s elections office.  They were courteous, professional and helpful throughout – they are constrained in scope by their minimal statutory powers and their available budget.

I have to say though that because of what I saw on May 6th if the result had been anywhere near close I would not feel confident it could be trusted. That can’t be right.  This is the United Kingdom in 2010.  If we value our democracy we have to tighten up procedures and we have to better police our polling booths and the security of the ballot boxes from end-to-end of the process – I understand that there would be a cost involved – but when you think of those who have died for our democracy then protecting their legacy has to be worth it.

* You can read the background to the ‘banana republic quote from this report in the Times Newspaper here.

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Out Of All Proportion – The Huge Surge in Support for PR

The British are a funny lot.  Currently there seems to be a parallel consensus that:

  • Our voting system last week produced the farce of secret smoke-filled room deals where people horse trade this-bit-and-that-bit of their manifesto for a seat at the big boys’ table.  This is vulgar, ‘undemocratic’ and a betrayal of what people actually voted for.
  • Therefore we need Proportional Representation to make it all ‘fair’ and so that people can get what they voted for.

It is absurd that there are so many people who agree with both statements despite their obvious mutual contradiction.  If you think  closed-door horse-trading stinks you cannot  be in favour of PR.  Under PR you would have that farce after every single election.  The key difference would be that the likes of Nick Griffin would also be in the room getting concessions aligned with his agenda before anyone could get on and govern.  Aside from the BNP (with 11 seats)  being the most extreme example, other people who would be able to hold the nation to ransom (had last weeks voting been under PR) would be UKIP (17 seats)  and the Greens (5 seats)*

The current First-Past-The-Post system does have flaws.  People say that Tories only favour the system because it favours them – well, that’s not true – think on this:  Labour got 34% of the vote in 2005 and 356 seats – (and there was no national outrage in favour of PR then!).  Whereas last week the Conservatives got 36% of the Vote but only 306 seats.    Whilst Labour were able to comfortably hold a five-year term with their 34%, frankly we’ll do well to even get through a year with our 36%.  The system, as is, is significantly weighted in Labour’s favour.  So why do the Tories support it?

My instincts remain that running a country by committee of people who can’t stand each other is a recipe for gridlock and failure.  The principal of our current representative democracy is sound – each area votes for an individual, if that area thinks he did a rotten job they can vote him or her out at the end of each term.  The link between a member and a constituency is a valuable part of our democracy which we would be foolish to throw away.  However, I do accept that it is an uncomfortable fact that very, very few MPs will actually have got more than 50% of their vote locally.

The more I think about it the more  the answer seems to be to concede that the Alternative Vote (AV) may be the way to go.  Under this system every candidate elected would have had a positive vote from over 50% of voters in their constituency (albeit not necessarily as first preference – but the voter at least had the chance to express their ‘true’ intention first – and then vote their next best option second knowing the second choice only counts if their first choice fails – it removes the need for ‘tactical’ voting, keeps the principal of constituencies and every voter knows that their vote mattered.   This gives the MP confidence in their mandate.  We also need to do more work to even up the size of constituencies to stop the system being so weighted in favour of any one party.  This coming Parliament will give us a chance to do that.

For those still demanding PR  perhaps there is a compromise through which it can be accommodated in part.  The obvious solution is to have PR in the Lords.  If we are to move to an elected second chamber then in this arena PR makes more sense.  There is no link between representatives and constituencies to break in the Lords.  Appointments to the upper house have always been about patronage so it isn’t a particular step backwards that people placed at the top of party lists are guaranteed their seats.  The one downside is that as a nation we’ve been served well from both less ‘party-political’  tribalism in the Lords and the existence of members who are genuinely apolitical.  Perhaps this could be balanced by mixing the available Lords seats with the vast majority being elected through PR – but supplemented by ‘apolitical’ members appointed on behalf of of key institutions – for instance  Senior Judges, University Vice-Chancellors, Heads of Key UK Faiths, Ex-leaders of the armed forces,  Local Government Leaders,  Science (perhaps appointed by the Royal Society), Heads of Royal Colleges of Surgery, Nursing etc.   I’m not sure if the supplementary idea could fly – it’s just an idea – but however we constitute the second chamber it would be a shame if we did lose the diversity of expertise we currently enjoy.

One thing does look certain – we seem set for some level of constitutional reform.  Given the proposals look to be for AV then I may be at odds with my party position and actually get out there and campaign for it.  Thank goodness that, despite the noise, PR for the commons no longer looks like it is on the table.

(*figures of likely seats under PR taken from Glyn Ley’s Blog)

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