Saturday 25 June 2016

British democracy: the problem and the cure.

In the previous post I have argued that what we need to do to repair our democracy is to reform the electoral system.  That will be no surprise, coming from a convinced Liberal/Liberal Democrat of fifty years' standing.

Whilst we scratch our heads to wonder  why the majority of the electorate has chosen to ignore the advice of the overwhelming bulk of the establishment, I think our electoral system  gives part of the explanation, for two reasons.

 First, for the overwhelming majority of us, a referendum is the one opportunity we have to make our votes count.  I have voted in every UK election since 1959, except for 1979, when I wasn't in the country.  Yet my vote has never once helped to elect an MP.  Maybe you'll say that's because I choose to help build up a minority party rather than go for a winner, but much the same applies to supporters of the two biggest parties in their safe seats.

Less dedicated voters in the Labour heartland, where they "weigh the vote," feel that it's not all that important to turn out as Labour will win anyway.  And the same goes for Tories in the true-blue Shires.  So if you want to exercise your frustration and "get rid of them", you haven't a chance,  except in a few marginals.  But a referendum is the one opportunity for everyone to "kick them in the teeth."

Secondly, the electoral system explains why the party faithful, especially Labour, who had a relatively united leadership, failed to obey their parties' call.  Given a rock-solid marginal, it is easy for a party to parachute in a favoured acolyte from the centre.  He or she will do routine welfare work, attend a few social events, visit a few schools, but rely on the messages from the centre to communicate the party's principles and policies.

 There will be exceptions, of course, but I suspect this is largely what has happened to Labour in Scotland - the electorate have been taken for granted for too long. and found, in the SNP, a way to hit back. Having had. and continuing to have,  their fling they were happy to to listen to the experts and vote "Remain." In Labour's heartlands in the North East and South Wales the electorate have chosen "Leave" as a method of expressing their own protest.

Poor Jeremy Corbyn is being blamed for failing to inspire his voters, but they are really protesting about years of neglect. What on earth,  to take just one example,  did Tony Blair have in common with the people of Sedgefield?

So, once again, part of the solution is to introduce proportional representation  by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies.  This system gives maximum choice to the electors We can not only choose between the parties, but between different wings of each party, every vote counts and has to be fought for. Sitting MPs as well as other candidates can take little for granted, but have to work hard to explain the party's  principles, beliefs and policies, and at the same time understand the concerns of the voters.

By this two way process politicians should be enabled to lead and take their voters with them.


Friday 24 June 2016

No more referendums

I wrote this piece last night in the expectation of a narrow win for "Remain."  I post it as written then to show that the case against referendums is not one of sour grapes, but applies even if what I think of as the" right side" had won. Post result comments are in italics.

Whew, saved by a whisker. Sadly the reverse

The major lesson to be learned from this squalid campaign is that never again should an important issue be subject to a referendum.

As Geoffrey Wheatcroft reminds us, when Churchill wanted to prolong the life of the wartime parliament by referendum, his deputy, Clement Attlee, squashed the idea.  "I could not, he said, " consent to the introduction  into our national life of a device so alien to our traditions as a referendum."

Quite right too.

The case against referendums has been clearly borne out by this campaign.                                                                                                                                                                                                                        
  1. It is difficult to compose a neutral question.  A "Yes/No" question tends to get answers biassed towards "Yes." In this campaign the "Outers" got the best option, with "Leave," which sounds               rather more dynamic and decisive than the more staid "Remain."  However, we Remainers had the benefit of being first on the ballot paper, an advantageous position.
  2. Most  issues are not susceptible to just too options. In this case there were a range of options. Do we wish to stay in with full access to the market, reduced access, or no access at all?  There are many more permutations.
  3. It is difficult to decide which bodies should officially lead each side, or the various options.  "Leave" had a serious problem with this, and attempted to exclude the main progenitor of the exercise - a ridiculous position.
  4. It is difficult to guarantee equal funding for the arguments.  The £9m of public money used to  argue the government's case was hotly disputed.
  5. And it is certainly difficult to guarantee fair coverage from the media.  Much of the press was  biassed by reason of the whims of their proprietors rather than the evidence, and the BBC fell into the trap of given "equal coverage" to both sides of the case, however slender was the evidence to support  one or other of the views (see earlier post, point B)
  6. There is no effective legal method of challenging downright lies, which can be persisted in ad nauseam.
  7. The reason for resorting to a referendum  is usually cowardice by a government afraid to take the responsibility for a decision, or, as in this case (and the 1975 referendum on the same topic) to resolve divisions within a party (though in 1975 it was the Labour Party.)
  8. Voters tend to vote on something other than the question on the ballot paper - normally to give a kick in the teeth to the government (French and Irish rejections of the Lisbon Treaty). In this case a significant proportion of the "Leave" vote was undoubtedly a gesture against immigration.  Some of the "Remain" vote could be a sympathy vote in reaction to the death of Jo Cox
  9. Referendums do not settle things "once and for all."  It would be nice to think that Farage, Johnson et al would fade into obscurity, but the cancer will go on, nurtured by them or their successors, unless and until we scrap the use of referendums in Britain. I suppose Farage might now fade away, but Johnson could be raised to even greater glory.
  10. (Added 11th July, to make it a round number).  Whatever the "Leave" campaign, and the much misled "Leave voters," might like to think  about it, the much cited "sovereignty" which we have regained resides legally not with "the people" but with "the Crown in Parliament."  Hence it would be perfectly legal, and fully constitutional, for parliament to ignore the referendum verdict and fail to activate Article 50 which would trigger the leaving process.  In other words, any referendum in Britain is purely advisory.  Since this was not stated at all before or during this referendum campaign, -indeed the reverse: Cameron repeatedly stressed that there would be no going back in the event of a majority for "Leave," -  those who voted for leaving would with justification regard it as a betrayal if parliament were to take, or rather fail to take, this action now.
What, then, do we do?

We are a representative democracy.  The answer is to improve the quality and range of representation by making the system more democratic.  Our present electoral system has  given an over-all majority  to a party supported by barely a quarter of those entitled to vote.  The representatives are selected by the parties rather than the people, and only in a minority of marginal constituencies do the people have any real choice.

Proportional representation by single transferable vote in multi-menber constituencies is the best method of guaranteeing representatives of the quality and with the range of views  to make decisions on our behalf, which is what we elect them, and pay them, to do.

And if they don't make the decisions we like, we can get rid of them - an option of which "Leave" are very keen, but which is almost impossible in the 80% of single member constituencies which are presently "safe seats."

Thursday 23 June 2016

Pre-result musings

By banging on and on about their "long-term economic plan" the Tories managed to win last year's  General Election, regardless of the fact that their "plan" was a) wrong-headed and b) effectively abandoned after the first two years.  That goes to show that you can fool, if not all the people, most of us, if you keep churning out the same old mantra.and the media dutifully report it.

Unfortunately the "Leave" side have had the most effective mantra in this referendum campaign -"Take control" -of our borders, and of our laws.  We have, of course, already got control of our borders  over people from the non-EU world, from where most of our immigrants come, and only about 13% of our laws are to comply with the EU - and most of those are for our benefit (employment rights,clean rivers and beaches,  environmental protection, to avert climate change).

The other clever ruse by Leave is to put about the idea that they are the ones with confidence in Britain and that we Remainers are talking our country down - not capable of surviving on our own.  Maturity is, of course, the opposite  - co-operating and working with others, not sulking alone like a teenager in the isolation of his/her bedroom.

Leave also bang on about having to obey decisions by "unelected judges."  Since when, apart from the Lord Chancellor (a highly anomalous position) have we British elected our judges?

It's been interesting that, while delivering the Remain leaflets, of the occasional conversations I've had with householders, usually in their gardens, the older ones, when asked, have, rather shiftily sometimes, said they were Outers.  But the young were almost universally enthusiastic for "In."

I think "In"  will prevail, but, after the outpourings of nice things said about my MP, Jo Cox, and her beliefs - love, support, compassion, for "my neighbour and my neighbour's neighbour" - I find it depressing that nearly half the electors will vote for "Out."

As Michael Meadowcroft argues in the previous post, we pay a high price for our free press.   On his blog "Mainly Macro" (18th June) Oxford professor Simon Wren-Lewis a detailed account of how much of the red-top press poison the debate.

Tuesday 21 June 2016

Why won't they listen to the experts?

Why are so many people ignoring expert opinion?

When this question was raised, principally in relation to economists and the consequences of being in or out of the EU, but also more broadly, my friend Michael Meadowcroft penned the following comments, which I think are very perceptive:

[A] A great part of the problem is that the vast majority of economists - and of academics in other professions - are not politicians and do not understand the issues of judgement required in achieving objectives. This is often apparent in the language used, which has to be "translated" in order to be politically relevant. Where Keynes gained was that he was very much aware of the realm of politics, partly because he was brought up in a political home (for instance, his mother was a long- term Cambridge City Councillor) and was also actively involved in the Liberal party and in the reality of international conferences with the necessity of finding solutions to huge political problems.

[B] We pay a very high price for the freedom of the Press. In the current referendum "debate" The Sun, Daily Express and Daily Mail are simply propaganda sheets for the Leave campaign. They publish nothing whatever favourable to Remain. Of course, the majority of political animals - myself included - very rarely see these papers and so are unaware of how awful they are. The BBC falls into a different trap - it mistakes "balance" for equal coverage. Thus, if a hundred experts in a particular field are for Remain and only five for Leave it still gives equal coverage. One idealogical economist, such as Patrick Minford, is given equal coverage to a dozen distinguished economists pro-Remain.

[C] The Leave campaign continually attacks the messenger rather than the message, so that the Governor of the Bank of England is attacked for making illegitimate statements and for past economic predictions being shown to be fallible, and other respected institutions are said to be biased because they have funding from Remain sources, etc etc.

[D] There are stupid decisions on, say, electoral registration that affect the result. For instance, denying 16 and 17 year olds the vote, even though they had the vote in the Scottish referendum. The decision to move to individual registration (from household registration) was highly flawed. It is a classic case of what is right in principle being politically flawed. It is legitimately expedient to stay with a system that registers far more individuals than relying on individuals. In some areas it has reduced registration by 10% - and this cannot possibly be a consequence of unqualified individuals being wrongly included under the former system. It particularly affects students where all those living in university accommodation were automatically registered by their "landlord", and, in theory, in multiple-occupied houses by the landlord.

[E] Finally, as I've explained before, the whole referendum process is susceptible to being hijacked by populist views, skilfully manipulated, which pay no regard to facts.

It's a mountain for rational opinion to climb!

Saturday 18 June 2016

Murder of our MP

Until now my home town of Birstall was known (famous would be too strong a word) for being the birthplace of the celebrated 18th century scientist, Joseph Priestley, who did pioneering work on electricity, discovered oxygen and, for the benefit of schoolchildren world-wide, the erasing properties of rubber and how to put fizz into drinks. Our other main claim to be of interest was that Charlotte Bronte visited our late Elizabethan manor house, Oakwell Hall, and used it as the model for "Fieldhead" in her novel Shirley.

Sadly, since 16th June 2016 people will now associate Birstall with the murder of our promising and principled Member of Parliament, Jo Cox, outside our library.

Nothing said now can possibly ease the grieving of her family, friends, and those who knew and worked with her.  However the praise lavished on her by almost all the media, as a dedicated, enthusiastic, warm and knowledgeable campaigner for the under-privileged, not only in this country but in the poorer parts of the world, could do something to dispel the generally held view of our politicians as unprincipled, all alike, and "only in it for themselves."   There are in truth many exceptions, and Jo Cox was clearly one of them.

Her husband Brendan Cox has called on us to : ". . .unite against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn't have a creed, race or religion. . ." and tells us that  "Jo believed in a better world and fought for it every day of her life."

Her belief that a better world is possible, supported by, among other things,  her dedicated work for Oxfam and her campaign for Britain to take in more refugee children from Syria,  are in stark contrast to the tawdry level to which the Referendum campaign has now sunk. In essence:-

  • the Remain campaign has distilled into the assertion that we should vote for "In" because that will make us  (not the poor of the world, nor the poorer parts of the EU, just us) even richer (and I'm not so sure how comprehensive that us is)
  • The Leave campaign has distilled into a demand that we vote for "Out" so that we can take control of our borders so as to keep out the foreigners.
Jo Cox was a beacon of light in this  miasma of misinformation, exaggeration and selfishness.  The progressive forces in Britain, Europe and the World have lost a doughty advocate.

Wednesday 15 June 2016

Corbyn gives the EU seven out of ten .

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's 7 out of 10 rating for the EU seems to me about right.    Even its most enthusiastic supporters don't rate the EU as perfect, but that makes it difficult to defend as, like a dog with a bone, the Brexit speakers worry and worry at the bits that aren't right.  The major  weak spots they identify a seem to be:

Sovereignty, or, as they skilfully phrase it, "taking back control."  Sure, we have to knuckle down and do as the EU says on certain issues, but these comprise only about 13% of our legislation.  And of the other 87% we can't always do as we like. As with most other nations, we are party to a web of commitments made with the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, NATO,  the Law of the Sea and innumerable international, multilateral and bilateral treaties and agreements.  We can't (or rather shouldn't) invade another country without a UN resolution; we can't, (or rather shouldn't) torture or arrange for the torture, of any human being. 

And of course it is a nonsense to say that EU regulations are made by "faceless bureaucrats" in Brussels.  They are all approved by the Council of Ministers, in which we have our  member,  and, today, approved by the European parliament, in which we have our share of members.

Red Tape.  It is difficult to define or quantify red tap, but someone has calculated that there's more of it comes from Westminster than from Brussels.  Some regulations, such as on which side of the road to drive, are obvious common since, and it is equally sensible to have limits on maximum speeds in certain areas. No one disagrees, although we don't all always obey.  Regulations to maintain or improve our environment, such as rules about the cleanness of beaches and rivers, to hold back climate change, reduce pollution of the air and sea, must surely be welcomed, and clearly require international co-operation.  Many of us welcome measures to protect the rights of workers, especially part-timers, agency workers and women.   Where we feel the regulations are unfair or unnecessary we have the chance to have our say.

The money. The Leave campaign now seems to have accepted that our contribution to the EU is nowhere near as much as it says on their bus.  I think I heard one of them quote £8bn a year on the radio yesterday.  This, after leaving, is no longer all to be spent on the NHS.  Farmers will continue to receive subsidies and  universities research grants as at present, and some of the £8bn will put to abolishing VAT on domestic fuel, There will even be £650m to help Yorkshire.

However,  those making these promises won't necessarily be the government making decisions even if there is a Brexit win.  Given their stripes, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that other tax cutting will be high on their agenda.  And given that our net contribution to the EU is only 0.6% of GDP, it only takes a 0.6% fall in GDP for that "extra" money to be wiped out, and a bigger fall will mean that we have cut of our nose to spite our face.

Immigration.  The leave campaign are anxious to assure us that their objections to immigration are not motivated by racism or xenophobia - perish the thought.  No, their worries are on pressure on the NHS and other public services, especially schools and (hardly still public) housing. However, none of their leaders have been prominent in the past  in demanding more  expenditure on schools or houses, nor, until very lately, on the NHS.  The dependence of the NHS and care homes for the elderly  on immigrant labour at all levels is ignored.  How my own life is made so much richer  and more comfortable by immigrants or is described in this earlier post.  Maybe yours is too.  Whether it is or not, world population movements are not going to stop, whether we're in our out of the EU.  International co-operation  on managing the movements humanely is clearly required (despite the EU's abject failure so far)

In my view the creation of the EU is the most exciting and far sighted civilising development in Europe in the past half-century.  I am saddened that my country was not an enthusiastic participant at the beginning, appeared to expect, even hope, that it would fail, then decided that we had better be in it rather than out.  Since then we have been semi-detached, grizzling,  members and I am amazed at the tolerance of the major founders in being so anxious to keep is in.

Leaving and sulking again on the sidelines, is, in my view, a cowardly and potentially  self-destructive option.  As Rafael Behr argues in today's Guardian: "When the leavers speak of 'taking control' they mean casting off from our continental harbour into the swell of unregulated global markets in a vessel crewed by Tory mutineers whose constance is scuttling governments not running them."

There are still, after half a century many imperfections in the EU, just as there are, after a many centuries, imperfections in the governance of the UK, but the progressive future is to remain within the Union and work with partners to iron them out.  Corbyn's 7 our of 10 amounts to 70%, which would get you first class honours in one of our universities, so it's really quite an attractive option.

Friday 10 June 2016

About Democracy

"Take back our democracy" is one of the major themes of the "Leave" campaign in our referendum on membership of the European Union.  So you would think they would be delighted when the deadline for voter registration was extended to enable  those frustrated by the crashing of the on-line registration system on Wednesday night to get on to the register.

Not at all. The Brexit obsessed Daily Express's headline yesterday screamed "Outrage at bid to rig EU vote."  I wonder who they think was outraged?  Surely anyone anxious to "take back our democracy" would be delighted to welcome  any measure designed to produce a more complete electoral register.

This is, of course, transparent hypocrisy.  The truth is that the overwhelming majority of the "late registerers" are young and overwhelmingly more likely to vote for "In" rather than "Out."  Had the boot been on the other foot the Express would be screaming for the registration deadline to be extended to the eleventh hour (which is, I believe, actually possible.  I wonder why we don't do it?)

In order to check the headline, which I glanced at briefly in the newsagent's (run by an Asian from Malawi) yesterday, I looked at the Express's website.  It is full of bile and luridly-described misinformation, mostly related to alleged dangers of immigration.  Sadly I suppose most of their readers believe it.

In a fascinating post on 9th June  Oxford economist Simon Wren-Lewis quotes someone called FlipChartRick who has analysed support for one side or the other by educational attainment.  The lead of Remain over Leave for graduates is over 75%, for those with "A" levels or equivalent over 15%, but for those whose highest attainment is GCSE (the 16+ "leaving certificate") -30%

By newspaper readership, as you'd expect for Guardian readers the Remain lead is over 75%, even for Times (a Murdoch paper) readers nearly 25%, but for Express readers more than  -50%.

In an article in the June edition of Prospect the philosopher A C Grayling asks us to "recall  the remark often misattributed to Winston Churchill about democracy; that the strongest argument against democracy  is five minutes of conversation with the average voter.  The reason is not far to seek : this notional being  is too likely to display paucity of information, short term views, self-interest, limited concern for unknown others, impatience with detail, and emotionally-based preferences  and antipathies  for this vague standpoint or that , and for this political personality or that."

Grayling goes on to say: "The deficits and dangers of direct democracy  are easy to describe, at their extreme: if we had daily knee-jerk referenda on topics of the day, bodies would likely be swinging from lampposts."

That is why I favour representative democracy (though our MPs are not entirely devoid of the failings Grayling describes for the above "notional being.")  Referendums (the preferred plural decided by our classically-educated civil servants for the 1975 referendum) should have no part in our democracy, and it is criminal culpability for Cameron to have gambling the future of our country in what has turned out to be a futile attempt to protect his party from despoliation by UKIP