Friday, April 29, 2011

AV is not PR so WTF?


  It is now looking almost certain that next week's referendum will lead to a defeat of the Alternative Vote.  Not many people will lose any sleep over this since not many people are interested in electoral reform, and even fewer are proponents of AV.  But I fear that this will be a disaster for those seeking to reform our political system.   We can say goodbye to fair voting for a generation at least. 

    The Conservative leader, David Cameron, played it brilliantly, seducing the LIberal Democrats into coalition by offering them a referendum on an electoral system that isn't proportional representation, but would give the Liberal Democrats a few more seats. Now that the naive LibDems have been caught in the trap, they have turned nasty, behaving like bad losers, threatening court action against their detractors.  How ludicrous they look. How vain and petty.  It was their own intellectual dishonesty that got them into this mess.  


.   I feel genuinely angry about this - not just at the absurd claims made by the No campaign about “letting in the BNP” and other alarmist nonsense. But at the dishonesty at the heart of the Yes campaign led by the Liberal Democrats   As Nick Clegg said himself, in a quote that may become his political epitaph, AV is a “miserable little compromise”.  Indeed, and it’s miserable that the LibDems have accepted it, not because they believe in it, but because it will probably lead to more Liberal Democrat MPs being elected.
    But as Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University has pointed out, had the 1997 or 2001 elections been fought on AV, the result would if anything have been more disproportional.  In ‘97, Tony Blair won a 167 seat majority on 44% of the popular vote, a grotesque distortion of the true result.  If AV could actually lead to an even more unfair result, you wonder what point there is in voting for it.  The Yes campaign responds that, while it isn’t ideal, the Alternative Vote is at least proportional in single constituencies.  Voters rank the candidates from one to four,  or however many are standing, in terms of their preference.  If no candidate has a majority of the vote on the initial ballot, the bottom candidate is dumped and his or her second preference votes are distributed among the remaining candidates.   This goes on until one candidate emerges with 50% of the vote. This is arguably fairer than the present system where a candidate can win on a minority of the votes cast. 

   However, the problem arises when there are 650 seats.  Then the AV system fails to guarantee what, for my money, is the only purpose of electoral reform: to ensure that the parties’ representation in parliament broadly reflects the number of votes cast for them in the election.   Prime Ministers like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair used their unassailable majorities to pursue their own narrow-minded and destructive obsessions.  That gave us the industrial recessions of the 1980s, plus Mrs Thatcher’s poll tax,  and allowed Tony Blair to launch an illegal war in Iraq.  Had it not been for his inflated majority,  we would not have invaded Baghdad in 2003, because parliament would have voted against it,  and tens of thousands of lives would have been saved.  FPTP encourages  megalomania in Number Ten because it allows Prime Ministers to ignore parliament altogether if they want. 

   Only a system of fair votes can prevent this happening - a system such as the Additional Member System that elects MSPs to the Holyrood parliament.  AMS ensures that the composition of the parliament reflects the wishes of the voters.  But it also addresses one of the criticisms of other forms of PR, like the Single Transferrable Vote, that they break the link between the elected member and the geographical constituency.   AMS does this by having two votes: one in the 73 Scottish constituencies using FPTP, and another based on 8 regional lists of party candidates lists.  Using a mathematical formula called the “d’Hondt method”, the regional votes are redistributed in such as way as to supply additional members to each region to balance out the unfairnesses that arise from First Past The Post.  Simple. 

    Well, not really - but it is a creditable system that has served Scotland well.  It has prevented one party dominating Holyrood on the basis of a minority vote.  But more importantly, it has ensured that minority parties and independent candidates can gain representation. Now, some critics of PR say this is undesirable because it might allow nasty parties like the BNP to gain respectability. But this objection if fundamentally undemocratic. Better to expose these parties to the light of public scrutiny and political accountability, than let them fester in extra-parliamentary obscurity. 

   There is a kind of electoral Darwinism with PR which ensures that only relatively able politicians and parties survive. In 2003,  fed up with the big party monopoly, Scottish voters returned 7 Scottish Socialist and 6 Green MSS, as well as a senior citizens MSP and the redoubtable Margo Macdonald.  Unable to cope with the  exposure, the SSP collapsed into internal division and acrimony, its leader ending up in prison for perjury.  But the Greens are still in there fighting the good fight, as is Margo Macdonald, a national treasure and one of the most distinctive and influential voices in Scottish public life.  

   The other criticism of PR is that it leads to coalition and government by compromise.  But sometimes compromise, or rather collective decision making, is the best way.  And coalition isn’t inevitable.  The SNP minority government in Holyrood has been more effective than its coalition predecessors. PR has forced MSS  not just to vote on party lines, but to engage in serious detailed negotiation over annual budgets.  All MSPs are important, and they all have to exercise their consciences on a regular basis.  First Past the Post does the opposite: it allows legions of timeserving MPs with safe seats to hang around parliament at the beck and call of their party whips. Prime Ministers in Westminster treat MPs with indifference or contempt because they are not afraid of them.  

   But of course, the AMS system is not on offer in the referendum.  We are stuck with lousy AV.  Perhaps it will be a “baby step” towards real PR, but I have my doubts.  If I do vote for it, it will be with thumb and forefinger fixed firmly to my nose. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

From the killing fields of Cambodia to the meatball marinara.

From the killing fields if Cambodia to the perilous platforms of Glasgow Central Station, Iain Gray has demonstrated how not to win an election campaign.  It was the image that will define the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election campaign.  Pursued by anti-cuts protesters, the Scottish Labour leader fearlessly retreated into a Subway sandwich bar, before being evac'd by taxi to a Labour mobile field hospital where medics conducted emergency surgery on his wounded ego.  Labour made things even worse by putting out  that line about Iain Gray's war-zone experiences  "Teaching in Mozambique during a bloody civil war... doing aid work in Rwanda 2 months after the genocide etc".  But the first rule about being bold is not to boast about it. The second is not to get others to boast about it on your behalf. 

     The  meatball marinara massacre was the nadir of the Scottish Labour campaign, leaving Iain Gray looking as accident-prone as Gordon Brown last May. The manifesto launch  was beset by fire alarm and lashing rain.  The former Labour MP, Dennis Canavan, and the Labourite actor Brian Cox, then came out in support of Alex Salmond for First Minister.     The press rubbished Iain Gray's give-away manifesto, with its promises to reward every special interest, public sector union and lobby group in the land at a time of unprecedented public spending restraint.  

  Indeed, you couldn't help feeling a smidgeon of sympathy for Mr Gray being barracked for cuts in spending when his manifesto was promising precisely the reverse.  Labour  tried to conduct their campaign as if they were fighting the Tories in Westminster, rather than the SNP in Holyrood.   Like the killing fields of Cambodia, this is rather remote from the Scottish electoral reality.  Mind you, I believe there was mileage in the "fight the Tories" strategy, had it been effectively deployed.   Similarly, the fact that his promise to "abolish" youth unemployment is almost certainly unachievable  is beside the point.  It's what many voters want to hear right now with nearly one in five young people out of work.  Maybe, in the final week of the campaign, this approach may swing the polls back toward Labour, at least marginally. Not that it will do Mr Gray a lot of good. Throwing away a ten point opinion poll lead during an election campaign is simply unacceptable and unforgiveable.  There is no way he should remain leader after this debacle.  

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Tommy Sheridan to the Sun - is anyone NOT backing the SNP?

   From imprisoned Trotskyite, Tommy Sheridan, to the Sun newspaper.  From bisexual hollywood star, Alan Cumming, to David Murray of Rangers Football Club.   The  Alex Salmond supporters club continues to throw up ever more bizarre alliances.    None of it means anything of course since celebrity endorsements can be counterproductive.  They antagonise as many people as they energise - unless you are Sir Sean Connery, of course, who is more national monument than celebrity.  

    What does mean something is momentum, impetus, drive - that sense of being in command of events which is Alex Salmond’s stock in trade.  No one wants to be linked right now to the Labour leader Iain Gray - who attempted to relaunch his faltering campaign yesterday - because he just doesn’t have it.    It’s not even clear that many Labour politicians want to be associated with Mr Gray right now, following reports that prominent frontbenchers like Andy Kerr and Jackie Baillie are fighting for their seats in the face of the SNP’s astonishing opinion poll advance.  

  For his part, the UK Labour leader, Ed Miliband, seems to have decided not to poke his nose into the campaign - if you'll excuse the pun.  The former Chancellor, Alastair Darling,  was sighted a couple of weeks ago, but there have been remarkably few high profile Labour poiticians on the stump. Apart from Gordon Brown - and that is one celebrity endorsement that Iain Gray could have done without right now.  Westminster Labour figures, like Ian Davidson,  Douglas Alexander et al,  appear to have been called on to take a low profiile in the Holyrood campaign so far for reasons that are not obvious. 

    There have been consistent complaints from Labour MPs that they have either not been asked or have been positively discouraged from taking part in the great battle against the Nats.  Now, presumably this is because Iain Gray is wanting to show that he is his own man, leading a distinctly Scottish Labour Party, and that the days when Scottish leaders took instruction from "London Labour" are gone.  Certainly, the Scottish Labour manifesto is not one that you could have imagined any UK leader of recent times endorsing, with its rejection of university tuition fees and its promise to create a quarter of a million jobs.    But it seems odd that, when the main plank of Labour's Scottish campaign is that "The Tories are back", and that only Labour can stop the Condem cuts, that the MPs on Labour's Westminster front line have not been prominent in the campaign. 

    Of course, things have deteriorated so far in the Scottish Labour campaign that Iain Gray is now attacked almost whatever he does.  If he called for a raft of Labour MPs to come and help, he would be accused of making a desperate and undignified bid to get Westminster to save him from Salmond. If he hadn't tried to raise the stakes on independence this week in his "relaunch" speech - which he was going to make anyway - he'd have been accused of ignoring Alex Salmond's number one policy weakness.  

   One long-standing but alienated former Labour activist put it to me yesterday that he was beginning to feel really sorry for Iain Gray.  Perhaps that's the way forward.  A celebrity campaign of sympathy endorsements along the lines of "I'm not voting Labour, but I do feel sorry for Iain".  Come on people.  It's time to Save the Gray

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Even the SNP don't believe their polling numbers.

     Opinion polls don't get much more sensational than today's  YouGov poll in Scotland on Sunday.  It suggests that the SNP's lead over Labour has bumped from 2% to 13% in the constituency vote in only a week.  This is quite astonishing, and indicates that the Ipsos/Mori poll last week. which showed Alex Salmond's party surging ahead by 11% over Labour,  was no rogue.  On the regional list vote, the SNP lead has also rocketed from 2% to 10% according to YouGov.   These really are epic numbers.  I can't think of any British election in modern times where there has been such a dramatic turnaround in the course of an election campaign, let alone in only ten days.  Labour had been ten points ahead of the SNP in the poll of polls for most of the last year.  

   Perhaps, indeed, it is too good to be true.  Scotland on Sunday seemed to be a little wary of its own poll and rather downplayed the story, confining it to a brief side bar on page one.   There has been a stunned silence from most of the political parties, and even the SNP are advising caution.  The Nationalists believe that their actual lead is much less than the recent polls have been indicating, and they are starting to worry about complacency among party worker ten days before polling day.

     Certainly, all polls are subject to sampling peculiarities and can often exaggerate small movements in opinion.  Just think back to the general election in May 2010 when the Liberal Democrats forged ahead of Labour after Nick Clegg's TV outing.  Polls should always be taken, but not inhaled.  But I think there's every indication that the polls on voting intentions are simply reflecting the long held view of the Scottish voters that Alex Salmond is the best choice as First Minister.  His personal ratings have hardly changed in four years.  Iain Gray was never a runner in the leadership race, and since there is very little in terms of policy to differentiate the two parties, it is hardly surprising that the national polls  are now swinging to the SNP.  Certainly,   Labour have offered no compelling reason why Scots should change horses in Bute House.   This is one of the most sophisticated electorates in the world, long experienced in the arts of tactical voting.  Scottish voters have no difficulty, splitting their ticket, and  voting Labour in Westminster while backing the SNP in Holyrood.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Can Alex Salmond be stopped?

      They think it's all over.  Chattering Scotland has already held the Holyrood election in its head, and Alex Salmond has won.  The bookies have slashed the odds on an SNP victory.  Labour are already fighting amongst themselves about whom to blame.  Unionists are vainly hoping that the royal wedding might somehow upset the Nationalist bandwagon. Perhaps an outbreak of Britishness will waken Scots from their slumbers, and remind them that  Alex Salmond wants to tear the British national family apart.  Some hope. It will take more than a few street parties and commemorative mugs to halt this nationalist advance.  Momentum is everything and Salmond has got it all right now. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sectarianism: it starts in the home and is perpetuated in the classroom.

  Well, someone has to say it.  Religious sectarianism in Scotland will never fully be eradicated while religious apartheid is written into the state education system.  So long as children grow  up to define themselves as Catholic or Protestant, in segregated schools, and associate predominantly with their own kind, then the old antagonisms and rivalries will remain. I have great respect for Catholic schools and their high educational standards -  which cause so many non-believers try to send their children there, the Liberal leader Nick Clegg being one.   However, they do discriminate on grounds of religion, and there’s no getting away from that. 

  Now, I know this line of thinking will outrage many of my Catholic friends, practising or lapsed, who believe that religious schools are a defence AGAINST sectarianism, Protestant sectarianism, rather than the cause of it.    And of course, Catholic schools don’t cause letter bombs. It is from the darker recesses of Protestant Unionism, that come the death threats and the street violence. The nail bombs sent to Neil Lennon, lawyer Paul McBride and Trish Godman, the former Labour MSP, were probably assembled by paramilitary elements in one of the stagnant pools of Loyalist Orangism that still linger in the housing estates of West Central Scotland.  Aye, and not only in the housing estates, but in some of the best addresses in Glasgow, in certain golf clubs and legal chambers. 

      Scotland’s half million Catholics rightly feel that they have been, and continue to be, victims of discrimination -  from their exclusion from succession to the throne to harsh treatment by football authorities.  It is to the eternal shame of my own grandfather’s generation of Clyde shipyard workers that Catholics generally did not get jobs in the major yards.  However,  the worst forms of discrimination, in council house waiting lists, in the workplace, in policing and the justice system, are surely a thing of he past. 

    Moreover, we live in a predominantly secular society.  Sectarian violence is a bizarre anachronism - how many of the bigots who chant religious sectarian songs at old firm matches understand the theological distinction between consubstantiation and transubstantiation?  This is tribalism - it is communal violence based on a barely comprehended historic identity.   But the identity has a basis in religion and is rooted in the separation at five years old between Catholics and Protestants.