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.
This diagram graphically represents the size of our daily spending on servicing our debt in comparison with our daily spend on other areas. It is a sobering reminder ahead of today’s budget of why eliminating the structural deficit must be a priority. The depressing thing is that controlling the deficit will not change the daily interest on the existing debt – it’ll just stop it getting bigger and bigger. We’re going to be paying for the party in the 90s for a long, long time to come.
Today there has been an alarming headline that 1.6 million children in the UK live in ‘severe poverty’. Examples of the reportage can be seen at the BBC and Guardian. Every now and again a news stat sets off a little alarm bell in my head. This was one of those times – according to the Office of National Statistics there are somewhere around 12.1 million children in the UK (2000 census, I suspect little variation since then). So according to today’s reports approximately 13% of children in the UK must live in ‘severe poverty’. That little alarm in my mind was making a coughing noise which only thinly disguised the words ‘bull-shit’. I usually go off on one when pointing out the rotten state the UK was left in after 13 years of Labour but even with blue-tinted specs on I would never claim that they left us with 13% of all kids living in ‘severe poverty’. This figure needed some sniffing.
The original report is from Save the Children. It can be downloaded here. It’s pretty hard to find how they technically defined ‘severe poverty’ for their ‘research’. After a bit of digging it turns out they define it as those living in households with incomes of less than 50% of the UK median income (disregarding housing costs). A median single income in the UK is circa. £20k. I have no idea how they then use their methodology to ‘disregard’ housing costs – but the top and bottom is that a couple with two kids who, after housing costs are paid, have an income of £12.5k a year are classed as in ‘severe poverty’.
When you look at the methodology the metric they use is not about poverty – it’s a about income distribution. Without wishing to belittle the quest for more equitable income distribution- I can’t help but think that such loose use of language cheapens the words ‘severe poverty’ and so insults those millions in the world (including in the UK) who, very literally, do not know where their next meal is coming from. We could have a very important national debate about income disparity and this data could be used to support the case of those who believe the gap is too wide – however to hijack the language ‘severe poverty’ is a distraction from all that is valid in that debate.
Now don’t get me wrong: that couple with those two kids on that income are going to have a horrible time. The report does do a good job of highlighting the very real issues they face. I am also under no illusion that genuine severe poverty exists in this country – the kind were parents go and beg on the street to feed their children – I see some of this here in Birmingham. Some stories that happen right now in my City would make you weep – but to say ‘severe poverty’ is anything other than at the very margins of our society is a fantasy. To suggest, as the words they have chosen do, that 13% of all children live in squalid, desperate circumstances is ludicrous. By overstating it, all Save the Children have done is muddle two debates and distract some focus from tackling those very real cases that do blight our society.
Let’s face it: Ed Balls was to Gordon Brown as Laurel was to Hardy. His return will no doubt lead to ‘another fine mess’. This surprise reshuffle does change the calculus of Labour’s electability. When Ed Milliband decided not to appoint Balls to the role in October it was a deliberate and calculated move. It was possibly the only truly leader-like think young Ed has done since he got the gig. The reasoning at the time was surely:
- You would not want someone so intimately connected with the entire economic calamity facing this country back on point for economic policy
- You could not want someone who has had an insider view (and leading role) in using the office of Chancellor to undermine and oust a previous leader, sitting there ready for another metaphoric stab.
Well, nothings changed. Those reasons still stand. Yet here Balls is. He’s got the job he craved from the moment he realised he was out-of-the game for the last leadership shot, and young Ed will be feeling his breath on his neck from here-on-in.
To give him his due Balls is a bruiser. A political big-beast. From today George Osborne will be looking forward to his turns in Parliament with a tummy rumble. Balls knows his stats and figures and will not be easy to trip up. Worse, he’s more than capable of scoring some points through sheer statistical battery. But that’s all just fluff in the Westminster village. Balls fundamentally is the living, breathing embodiment of the leftish or centre-leftish vision of Big Government/Big State/Spend and Tax Labour. As Shadow Chancellor he will push them more so. Even with all the current national woes, when push comes to shove that positioning is simply electoral poison. The ‘squeezed middle’ – the people who count – the very people who switched to Labour in 97 and switched away from them in 2010 – those floating voters just don’t drift in that direction.
And that is the reel rub for Labour. The one man on the Labour front bench who could appeal to that ‘thinking middle’ was Alan Johnson. He was simply impossible to dislike. Even though he was struggling to catch-up with his brief, even though he talked rot – people, even me, warmed to him. For a politician that curious ‘nice bloke’ charisma is the X-factor stuff. It is priceless political alchemy. Blair had it. Johnson had it. Brown didn’t. Balls doesn’t. And so the Labour party is a weaker party this evening.
As I say, for reasons I cannot put my finger on I like Alan Johnson despite his politics. I have no idea why he has stepped down. I wish him well and sincerely hope that whatever the personal issues are they are the kind that can be put right and have a happy ending by making this move.
Happy New Year. Or is it? The reality is that 2011 is going to be pretty miserable for the whole country. Any honeymoon period for the Coalition (if there was one) is up. The reality of austerity measures are kicking-in. Turning the economy is like turning an oil tanker. Things will get worse before they get better. We will see more public sector redundancies, we will see more cuts to other services, the VAT rise will trickle to the till, we wont see pay rises in the private sector, even the employed will feel -and actually be in real terms – poorer this April than April two years ago. Health and education reforms will spook the Unions. Protest will spread.
The Government has to accept this and hold its nerve. It cannot do what it needs to do and be popular in the immediate or short term. It needs, in the national interest, to do the right thing rather than the popular thing. With eyes wide-open it needs to understand that its popularity will fall this year and it needs to carry on regardless. The instinct and philosophy of this government is the right one. The challenge now is to be competent in delivery. The quicker we get the pain over, the quicker we start the recovery. If we start the recovery then the short-term unpopularity will dwindle and we have a fighting chance of re-election in 2015. Dither and spread the pain over the whole five years and even if the objective of shoring up the economy is met it will just gift the country back to Labour to mess up again.
Labour will blame the Coalition for the pain. They’ll say: “They’re in Government. We’re not. It is their choices, it is their fault” This is a bit like blaming a doctor for making you ill with chemo rather than the fags you only gave up six months earlier. Nevertheless, while the pain is there the public will buy their argument. The Coalition needs to see its program through and see it through quickly.
The lessons are there in History. Those who remember the 1981 budget may spot certain parallels with today. For the whole period between of 80 and 82 it was inconceivable that the Conservatives would be returned to power. Nerve was held. The budget worked. Britain, after the pain, prospered. Thatcher would have won even without the Falklands. But we must also learn from that period. Nobody would want to see the likes of the Brixton or Toxteth riots again. That’s why it is so crucial that we don’t just deliver on the miserable austerity side of the program – but also on the social side – IDS has made his case well for welfare reform – he needs to be allowed to now get on and deliver . This is the year to get moving. It’s also critical that we strike the right balance in the way we police inevitable protests. Get that wrong and the Government could doom itself.
So on that dour note, I say again: Happy New Year. Put the armour on, 2011 is going to Hurt.
Tim Montogomerie’s reflections on Iain’s Dale’s departure from the blog world got me thinking. Tim says the right previously enjoyed being in front on web campaigning but now risk falling behind if they haven’t already. He points particularly at ‘Movement Activism’. This surge in leftist web-based ‘movement activism’ is something I’ve only recently started to worry about. The Centre-Right (of which I count myself) tend to be quite individualistic beasts. We don’t need, nor wish, to be led. We don’t suffer fools gladly. Gather too many of us together and you typically get too many Chiefs and not enough Indians. Collaboration therefore tends to be loose, short , sharp and limited to specific issues. The discipline to slavishly follow a party line simply isn’t there outside of the General Election. Meanwhile the left are getting far better at that ‘discipline’ and all the while are starting to create a sense of being part of a real ‘movement’ for those who use the net to engage with them.
Does this matter? Up until very recently I would have argued it didn’t. Let’s face it, the people in the blogosphere endlessly retweeting the same political articles to each other would always have been died-in-the-wool supporters of whichever party regardless. The political blogosphere draws-in political anoraks like moths to a flame. The floating voters who matter simply give it a wide berth. My gut instinct was just to let the left get on with their ‘Slacktivism’. Those banal campaigns consisting of “click on this to express your rage at the cuts” or whatever. They’ve confused bleating into the ether with meaningful action. They’ve kidded themselves they’re doing good with empty gestures. My attitude has always been if it makes them feel worthy, they’re doing no harm so let them get on with it. Meanwhile, as they are retweeting each other, us grown-ups can go out and take real action to make our schools and hospitals or whatever else around us better.
Recently though, they seem to have reached a critical mass and realised that they were achieving little. They are finally making the giant leap to real ‘action’. Suddenly it is quite scary. We have a single line in Private Eye hinting in its usual mischievous style that ‘Vodaphone owe £6bn in tax’, and then via a web campaign this leads to real direct action on the streets. Not ‘action’ in the sense of working through the norms of society (investigative fact checking, lobbying, getting legislation etc.) but ‘direct action’ in the 1960s/70s “let’s have fun causing trouble” sense.
Folk self-select their fact sources from the internet – as they do with newspapers – to confirm their prejudices. People who read the Guardian will also tend to bookmark ‘Left Foot Forwards’, ‘UK Uncut’, ‘False Economy’, ‘The Other Taxpayers Alliance’ etc. You could make a similar self-selecting list for those who lean to the right. The thing is that those who lean to the left are, by nature, happier to run with the herd. Once a leftist feels part of ‘a movement’ they can be far more disciplined at toeing the party line. ‘Solidarity’ and ‘Unity’ have always been more crucial to the left than ‘free thinking’ and ‘reason’. Those who understand the power of all this seem to be gleefully manipulating it to edge the mainstream left even further left. Once they’ve got their new foot-soldiers engaged – which they are doing well – they can wreak havoc. That £6bn ‘tax-dodge’ figure for Vodaphone from Private Eye is a powerful example. Clearly it is a dodgy figure based in little more than tittle-tattle – and yet it is accepted as an absolute fact by a whole ‘movement’ to the point that people are willing to commit criminal damage in outrage. We have also seen the power of this ‘Movement Activism’ with the student protests.
I’m not sure what the proper response from the centre-right should be but I do know what the wrong response would be: The last thing we need is for the mainstream right to blindly drift further right as a anxious response to baiting. My idea of how politics should be conducted remains through the normal channels and ballot box – not by violent confrontations with leftist thugs having a jolly day out at a demonstration/riot. We are living in testing economic times. Testing economic times have always created an environment to radicalise people. New technology can be a real catalyst to that radicalisation process. We need to watch it and keep level heads.