PR in the UK, or: Do you want 80 UKIP MPs?

The UK now has a Conservative majority government, after a night where the SNP took over Scotland, the Liberal Democrats self-combusted, Labour did poorly, and the Greens and UKIP barely made a dent in the Commons.

However, looking over the votes cast tells a different story. When comparing only the larger and non-nationalist parties, and looking at how many votes it took to get an MP elected, the imbalance is stark:

  • UKIP (624 candidates): 3,875,409 votes per seat
  • Green Party (568): 1,154,562
  • Liberal Democrat (631): 299,983
  • Labour (631): 40,258
  • Conservative (647): 34,292

Unsurprisingly, calls for proportional representation have now erupted, and for the first time the ‘left’ is joined by the ‘right’, given that UKIP amassed a third of the votes the Conservatives did, but the latter party got 331 times as many MPs. (The Greens did ‘better’, in getting a single MP on about an eighth of the Labour vote, which returned 232 MPs.)

However, there’s also considerable push-back against the idea of proportional representation, not least people saying: But do you really want 80 UKIP MPs? Of course not. My political leanings are progressive, not extremist Tory. But I recognise that they are my political leanings, and not those of an entire country. I feel it’s absurd over a million votes returned just one Green MP, but it’s actually more unfair all those people who voted UKIP have barely any representation in the Commons.

The ‘80 UKIP MPs’ argument also supposes British people would vote in exactly the same way under a PR system, which no-one knows for sure. Certainly, people would be less likely to vote tactically, and there’d be no safe seats. But even if PR did return that number of UKIP MPs, better the UK is mature enough to own its politics and who supports whom, rather than attempting to sweep it under the carpet — especially if trends continue. Although many small-party voters are now disillusioned, what if they double down in 2020? How will the UK look if the Conservatives and Labour between them amass 16 million votes and 85 per cent of the seats, but UKIP and the Greens get half as many votes, but still only a few seats between them?

The narrative surrounding various other aspects of PR is also troubling. I keep hearing the argument was laid to rest when we got a referendum on PR, but we never had that. In 2011, we were offered the choice of the status quo or switching to Alternative Vote, described by some as a “miserable little compromise”. AV is not a proportional system — it essentially assist the third party at the minor expense of others. At the time, the Liberal Democrats would have benefitted slightly; now, UKIP would. In either case, the result would not be proportional.

Additionally, many argue PR would wreck the constituency link, but that doesn’t necessarily have to happen. Electoral systems like AMS retain such links, and the UK could have reform where MPs for the Commons were returned on a fairly tight regional basis, for example by county rather than region. (The latter is currently how MEPs are elected, and would perhaps be an option should the Lords be replaced by an elected senate.)

The final issue is that coalitions are inherently unstable, apparently. If we were to head down the PR route, a majority government would be extremely unlikely in the UK. (But if it did happen, it would be because the majority of the country actually voted for the party in power, unlike now, when just over a third of voters — and under a quarter of the electorate — backed the Conservatives.) The thing is, I don’t see Nordic countries descending into chaos because of their proportional systems, and Germany seems to be doing quite well, despite electing its parliament in this manner.

Still, with the Conservatives in power now and Labour still presumably reckoning it can again win a majority in 2020, I doubt we’ll see any electoral reform happen. Far better to bang on about fairness while ensuring most votes fundamentally don’t matter, and gamble on winning those few that do. Politics: British style. Partying like it’s 1899 in 2015.

May 11, 2015. Read more in: Politics


General Election 2015: what I discovered from reading all of the party manifestos

This year’s general election in the UK is a crapshoot. The outdated voting system — combined with the rise of UKIP and the SNP, the curveball of the Greens, and general anger at the coalition — makes the result impossible to predict. Plenty of people call themselves undecided voters, but just as many fall back to habit, voting for parties they assume speak for them. I’d largely made up my mind how to vote, but decided to read the manifestos of all of the main parties with candidates in Great Britain (as in, England, Scotland and Wales). The results were insightful and frequently surprising.

In a general sense, I found it very clear how much of people’s perception of politics is warped by the media, but also how the actions of a small set of politicians doesn’t necessarily correlate with what a party claims to stand for. Arguments about how all parties are the same are impossible to support on actually reading their policies; while there’s no doubt the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are often seen fighting for a certain kind of middle-England voter, I wonder how much of that is down to the broken electoral system rather than what they actually believe in. Certainly, the manifestos showcase three very different parties — although not necessarily standing where you might expect.

What follows is my reaction to the manifestos for each party, in the order that I read them in.

UKIP‘s manifesto, to my surprise, wasn’t a kind of rambling embarrassment. The party wants to be seen as a properly mature political force, and the manifesto is evidence of that. My personal politics are at odds with much of what the party’s suggesting, but the document is some way from the ‘swivel-eyed loons’ label the media frequently paints the party with. That said, the party does retain some oddball thinking at times, such as banging on about British seaside holidays and funnelling money into saving such towns, and its overall stance on policy was, to my mind, coming from a fairly extreme Conservative viewpoint.

The SNP manifesto was broadly impressive, human, and positive. Whether the economic figures within are accurate, I couldn’t say, but there was a refreshing openness and humanity throughout, not least in displaying a candid position on potential post-election support. The party’s policies on the whole now appear to veer towards socialism, with a progressive bent that I’m sure plenty of people outside of Scotland would vote for. It’s easy to see why the party is on course to take a huge number of Scottish seats. Purely on the basis of the manifesto, ‘the SNP will destroy the UK’ alarmism seems misplaced. Like Plaid Cymru, the SNP’s long-standing aim is to usher in an independent country, but the manifesto goes to great lengths to say the party wants to be a positive influence on all of the UK.

The Conservative manifesto was in some ways a tougher read than the UKIP one, and it had strange ideas of its own, such as dredging up the A303 tunnel near Stonehenge as policy. It referred heavily to Labour and the mess the party left so often that it may as well have just added ‘REMEMBER: LABOUR IS EVIL’ as a footnote on every page. But I was nonetheless surprised with how caustic the manifesto was. In practically the same breath it talks about eliminating child poverty, it then says the party would lower the benefit cap by three grand. It talks about the BBC World Service being vital, yet elsewhere argues for the licence fee to be frozen. Education policy also seems positively Victorian, demanding core subjects include history or geography, but ignoring IT, creativity and social studies entirely. Elsewhere, there was a lot about rewarding people for work, but the policies on tax and benefits are more about rewarding the rich. If anything, I disliked this manifesto more than the UKIP one, and noted on Twitter that the Conservatives truly are the Selfish Bastards Party as we head into this election.

With Plaid Cymru, I was expecting the Welsh version of the SNP, but for some reason the spark just wasn’t there. I’m not sure why. Somehow, the Plaid Cymru manifesto seemed a little lacking in ambition, and it probably didn’t help later on when some of its big-hitter policies on devolution and train nationalisation are very similar to those in the Liberal Democrat and Labour manifestos. Still, the party’s broadly progressive aims were evident.

The big surprise for me was the mammoth Liberal Democrat manifesto, a 158-page document that looks like it’s been spat out from Microsoft Word. It’s a baffling read in many ways, not least because it’s for the most part really good. Policy-wise, it reads like a mix of new and old Labour, with largely socialist and well-meaning policies that I was hoping for (but often didn’t find) in Labour’s manifesto. It was the only manifesto that seemed truly savvy about the potential in digital and technology, and the UK’s role in that. However, it did also make me wonder why we don’t actually see this version of the Liberal Democrats anywhere. If the party in government was this party, it’d be polling in the 20s at least, not single figures. Maybe it is this party, but the media has hammered it; but the Liberal Democrat voting record suggests otherwise. Perhaps had we got a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010, things could have been very different.

The Labour manifesto was perhaps the weirdest one. The others generally outline their policy in specific areas, but Labour’s lumps policies together under rather broader umbrellas like “Helping our families and communities to thrive” and “Providing world-class health and education services”. I imagine this was designed to make the manifesto more approachable, but it just comes across as a bit messy. And the same could be said for the policies in general. Unsurprisingly, Labour’s extremely strong on health, but it too often feels here like it’s hedging its bets — faffing about rail nationalisation, trying to convince people who might vote Conservative about Labour’s tough stance on immigration, and so on. Read the Labour and Conservative manifestos back to back and they are very clearly different beasts, but I too often felt Labour’s veered into being ‘Conservative Lite’ (while the Conservative one goes ‘Full Tory’ right from the get-go). Labour needs to be bold, whereas its manifesto practically admits it’s being unambitious. (Still, that beats caustic.)

Finally, the Green Party manifesto is a weighty tome in terms of word-count, and by far the most radical. The Greens aren’t so much ‘merely’ progressive as demanding an ambitious overhaul of society, from top to bottom. There are things within I took issue with (not least the party’s energy policy), but the majority of the ideas the party has are interesting and the arguments are mostly sound — and a long way from the ‘mad vegan’ label they get. Much like UKIP, the Greens have been branded as a kind of dangerous and extremist party; with UKIP, I just see the establishment in a different hue, but with the Greens, I see a threat to establishment thinking and dominance, which is presumably why newspapers and rival parties alike argue they are to be crushed.

Update. Here are the links to the manifestos: Conservative; Green Party; Labour; Liberal Democrat; Plaid Cymru; SNP; UKIP.

May 5, 2015. Read more in: Politics


UK government increases hypocrisy rating to 11

Inevitably, the UK government is now demanding snooping powers after the recent Paris attacks. The hypocrisy never fails to boggle the mind when it comes to technology and British people in power. They’ll slam ‘regimes’ for heavily censoring the internet while simultaneously arguing the internet should be censored by default in the UK; and now the argument is that the government should be able to access everyone’s digital communications, potentially stopping the use of anything it can’t access, despite the same government having previously criticised other countries for doing much the same thing.

Of course, our government and our police would never use these powers for anything other than good, right? (And it’s doubly baffling to see Labour doing what opposition parties do right now and opposing the government, regardless of what it’s saying. Labour’s history is peppered with ramming through similar legislation, and so I don’t believe for a second a majority Labour government in 2015 wouldn’t put into place similarly intrusive legislation.)

Still, it’s more ammo for election campaigns as we barrel towards May. Politicians must be seen to be doing something. Even better if it supposedly protects people from harm, even if the reality is rather different. Probably best if we ignore the fact more data isn’t terribly helpful if algorithms cannot rapidly extract critical information. And also probably best to ignore the Met placing journalists under close surveillance for, well, reasons.

January 13, 2015. Read more in: Politics, Technology

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UKIP reminds me of an election fought by schoolchildren—literally

As a child, I went to a well-meaning but mostly awful primary school. It was very modern, with a huge conservatory, fish pond and aviary, but the teaching staff and methods didn’t exactly set you up for a strong shot at success in secondary school. Our final year largely involved us spending an awful lot of time learning about the Hebrews from our ageing and ferociously religious battle-axe teacher, the net result being that most of us subsequently aced Religious Studies the following year, but had no idea how to properly punctuate in English.

The school was also very big on assemblies, having 200 or so kids sit on a hard dining room floor, mumbling some hymn or other while a teacher almost exploded with joy, hammering away at a piano. Occasionally, though, teachers would try something a bit different, and one day we were told we would be having an election.

Our class was split into groups, to form political parties. We were told we’d have to campaign, win over the electorate, and then the winners would be announced in a subsequent assembly.

My memory’s fuzzy on precisely what we were taught regarding the basics of politics, but my guess is not a lot. Instead, our ten- and eleven-year-old brains fired up, figuring out the best way to win. Each team’s tactics, it seemed, were very similar: make a load of promises and attempt to bribe the electorate. Breaktimes became a flurry of snacks (and, unless I’m misremembering, small amounts of money) being foisted on younger voters, while the promises became ever more elaborate. Post-PE showers (which, depressingly, the school didn’t offer)! A special pupils-only telephone (this was, note, 1986)! Longer break-times!

On election day, everyone got their chance to spell out their manifesto one final time, and sing a catchy election song, further ramming home the promises. Then it was time for the vote. Our party won, largely on the basis of making the most outlandish promises (although we were, it has to be said, not the best bribers—our baking skills didn’t match those of our rivals). Boom! Victory!

But any period of joy was short-lived when it suddenly became very clear we couldn’t fulfil anything we’d promised. Not only did we have no power, but the school didn’t have any extra money nor any interest in putting such promises into place. Time in the playground for a while involved attempting to placate angry voters, while our smug teacher helpfully noted that we were getting precisely what we deserved. We’d had a lesson in politics after all, and were learning the hard way.

In today’s British political landscape, I can’t help thinking that Nigel Farage and his UKIP chums were somehow taking notes the day of our election, but didn’t stick around for the aftermath. His party appears to simply suck up every policy the electorate responds negatively to, spin it and spit it out again. It’s the common-sense party, despite having no substance; and every attack on said lack of substance is waved away as some kind of coordinated smear campaign by a ‘LibLabCon’ cartel.

At tomorrow’s European elections, the party’s predicted to perform very well, despite frequent alarmingly racist comments from its members, outbursts that border on fascism, questionable activities regarding expenses, and the party leader disowning his own 2010 manifesto as “drivel”. I hope enough people vote for politicians who want to do better—and who can do better—but I’m fully expecting to be disappointed with a bunch of MEPs being elected who, if anything, have less political promise than children had that day at my old school.

May 21, 2014. Read more in: Politics

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Bank holidays don’t necessarily cost the economy anything

If you’re not British, you perhaps won’t know that the country currently has a government that is, to put it bluntly, rather toxic. It’s set about systematically dismantling the welfare state, including the NHS, and reducing taxes for anyone earning over £150,000, despite yelling “we’re all in it together”. The latest murmurs are that bank holidays are in the firing line, backed by reports arguing if bank holidays were scrapped, the UK would be £19 billion better off (BBC News).

These kinds of reports drive me nuts, because they are based on dry numbers and not how humans work and interact. Simply measuring the UK’s typical output and applying it to days off is simplistic in the extreme. This is because holidays give many people time to rest and recharge, and they enable people to do things together, thereby increasing morale. By removing holidays, productivity during some of the working days that would replace them would be lower, and that £19 billion would end up being a very optimistic figure. This is even more the case when you examine the losses that would impact the leisure industry if those in the UK by default had fewer days off.

Another argument in the same article, is merely to spread out the holidays throughout the year, because they’re currently mostly in the spring and summer:

[ Centre for Economics and Business Research founder Douglas McWilliams] said that by spreading out public holidays, rather than scrapping them, people would enjoy them more.

Spreading them out is certainly a better idea than scrapping them altogether, but why would people enjoy the holidays more if they were moved to less appealing times of the year? That the UK has most holidays in spring and summer is beneficial, because people can make better use of them. Move one from August to November and you just have people moping about on a day off, staring out the window at grey drizzle.

Before I became a freelancer, there were two things I steadfastly believed employers should never mess with: pay and holidays. Oddly, many employers do screw around with both, but those that don’t generally have more content staff. Whatever goes wrong at work, people at least know they have their days off and their pay cheques. The UK, though, now has a government that’s happily assaulting the incomes of more or less anyone who’s not hugely wealthy (Guardian), and I wonder if it’s only a matter of time before some halfwit Tory or Lib-Dem MP argues in front of the Commons that no-one really needs bank holidays anyway—before one of Parliament’s extended breaks, natch.

April 9, 2012. Read more in: Politics


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