Who Won The Week (16 February 2020)

I have Fandango to thank for this title – he has been posting regularly on this subject from his west-coast-USA vantage point. I am interested in current affairs too, and normally have some nonsense or other to spout about one of the UK’s topical news stories. So, I like to join in. Maybe there’s something in your world that you’d like to post about?

I follow some Irish feeds, so I had my eyes set on the Irish General Election last weekend, and was pleasantly surprised that Sinn Féin did so well. Because of this, Sinn Féin are my winners.

Ireland has been carved up between two centre-right parties, ever since independence a hundred years ago. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Sinn Féin grew out of the old Irish Republican Army, which fought for independence, and grew in prominence during the conflict in Northern Ireland. At the start, they had a simple policy of wanting a united, independent Ireland, but as they have become a bigger political force, they have developed policies in every area – things like housing, education, healthcare – with a broadly left-wing slant. The type of political party which everybody else of us takes for granted. So I welcome them, as a breath of fresh air to the process.

I talked about a month ago about Irish politics, the intricacies of Northern Ireland. As you might imagine being an all-Ireland party, Sinn Féin have a presence there too. In fact, during the recent UK General Election they won 7 seats. So you have this kinda perverse situation where a bunch of people who want nothing to do with the UK … are sitting in the UK’s parliament.

Except that … they don’t! They don’t take their seats.

The reason? Well, in order to take their seat in the UK Parliament, every MP had to swear an oath of allegiance to the UK’s queen. As a party whose whole ethos is to be independent from the UK, Sinn Féin’s MPs won’t do it. So they elect not to take their seats at all.

I must admitthat if I voted for somebody to represent me, I would at the very least expect them to … represent me! But I can see Sinn Féin’s point. Other MPs have, in the past, paid lip service to this oath, by crossing their fingers or some other such childishness, but I can see why Sinn Féin won’t go there, on a point of principle.

But it does raise an interesting question. Should an MPs allegiance be to our queeen, or should it be to their constituents, the taxpayers who pay their wages?

Fortunately they face no such constraints in Ireland, and last week they became the largest party, in terms of the popular vote. So my winner, this week, is Mary Lou McDonald and her party. They received 24½%, the largest share of the many Irish parties.

[I don’t fully understand the Irish system, but this “only” translates to 37 seats in Ireland’s 160-seat parliament, the same number of seats as the second-placed Fianna Fáil party (even though they received more votes). Mathematically speaking, that doesn’t quite add up. But as I see political systems around the world, it is not uncommon to see a country’s popular vote getting stitched up by its political system, which was generally been built to suit the main parties. So, even when those main parties lose popularity, it is hard for anybody else to join the party.]

The election result is resonates in the UK too, where some people are prone just to dismiss Sinn Féin as terrorists, because of its role opposing the UK’s occupation of Northern Ireland. A quarter of Irish voters, not only do they not see Sinn Féin as terrorists, but they see them as the party most fit to govern their country.

The three “big” parties, between them, received around 70% of the popular vote. Fourth were the Greens, at about 10%. There then followed a host of smaller parties – I think I counted twelve of them, some who won seats, others who didn’t. Lastly there were twenty successful independent candidates, so the independent voice still has a role in Irish politics.

Although Sinn Féin came first overall, the numbers mean that they probably won’t get a chance to form a government. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael both said, pre-election, that they would not enter a coalition with Sinn Féin. That’s not really surprising, because they are at different ends of the spectrum. And if they join forces, they can keep Sinn Féin out. But who knows? They might change their minds, now that the results are in and they have a whiff of power? Some horses to be traded!

Mary Lou McDonald

Who Won The Week (9 February 2020)

I have Fandango to thank for this title – he has been posting regularly on this subject from his west-coast-USA vantage point. I am interested in current affairs too, and normally have some nonsense or other to spout about one of the UK’s topical news stories. So, I like to join in. Maybe there’s something in your world that you’d like to post about?

Just over a week ago, the UK left the EU – I wanted to let the dust settle a bit before I commented. I have previously expressed that I wanted to leave, just because their level of “democracy” was not good enough, in my book. Frankly, if the EU is happy to let its commissioners and officials be appointed, then I wish them well, but their system is not for me. As far as I am concerned, though, what we have just done is to solve half of the problem, in that we have just one government instead of two. But we still have half of the job still to do, so our leaving was no more than a waypoint toward reforming the UK political landscape as well.

I always accepted that my view was unusual. Other people voted for Brexit for all sorts of different reasons – to control immigration, or to gain some illusion of sovreignty, but not me. I actually support immigration (I was once an immigrant myself in the USA) and we’ll see exactly how much sovreignty we have when we start negotiating agreements with other countries. So, I am used to being the only guy in the room to hold the views I hold. You guys probably already worked that one out 🙂.

Even in our recent election, our winner takes all voting system means that quite a low number of voters’ views are actually represented in Parliament. Where I live (Salisbury) the vote share of the winning candidate was 56%. Which eagle-eyed readers will realise, means that 44% of voters picked someone else, and if you happened to be one of those 44%, tough. Your views don’t count.

That’s where I live. Actually, as far as the UK goes, my situation is quite clear-cut. In the constituency of North East Fife (Scotland), in 2017, their representative was elected with just 33% of the vote share (there were several candidates who split the rest of the vote), just 2 votes clear of the second-place candidate.

The bottom line here is that I am dissatisfied with our system – to have a situation where more than two-thirds of people, their view is just discarded – it needs to be better. I’m quite open on what system we should use, but to my thinking it should be one which represents as close to 100% of voters as possible. I don’t think representing just 33%, or even 56%, comes anywhere close. People defend our system by saying that it gives decisive politics. Well, if you exclude more and more people from the process, sooner or later what you’re left with will be decisive, won’t it?

Anyway, at the risk of digressing, my winner of the week, this week, is … well … me! Because I read a report this week which told me that I am not as alone as I first thought. Enter the Centre for the Future of Democracy, from the University of Cambridge.

Data has been collected in various of the big “democracies” since the early 1970s, regarding people’s satisfaction with their system. And organisations like the Centre for the Future of Democracy came along to collate this data.

Okay, after the headline grabbed my attention, my very first question was how do you measure when someone’s satisfied or not? Apparently these guys have collated several surveys spanning the world’s foremost democracies, based ultimately on YouGov polling. In all, four million people took part over 25 countries. Globally, I don’t think 4 million is a whole lot of people but it gives a sense of how people – a cross-section, at least – are feeling.

The UK is one of those places where data exists going back all that time. Satisfaction with the system was quite low by the end of the Seventies (Winter of Discontent), but grew steadily throughut the Eighties and Nineties, to a peak in 2005, immediately before the crash. Since then, we just can’t get no satisfaction. It has all been downhill, and 2019 was the lowest yet. In 2019, 60% of UK respondents said that they were dissatisfied with the current system.

But this isn’t just the UK. The same trend is being seen in other large democracies such as the USA, Mexico, Brazil and Australia. All also at their lowest points yet. Two-thirds of voters were satisfied with US-flavoured democracy in 1995, but that too is now less that half. Other countries not doing so well include Spain and Japan.

It’s not all bad, though. There is a sweet spot in central Europe – countries singled out included Denmark, Switzerland, Norway and the Netherlands – where the political systems appear to be working for their voters. Same in parts of Asia, to a lesser extent.

You want better politics? You want to feel like your voice makes a difference? You’re not alone! As for so-called democracies, the report uses the word malaise. It’s maybe not the word I’d have chosen, but these are Cambridge academics, after all. So, call me big-headed if you like, but I won the week because I learned that there are lots of people who, like me, want better systems of government.

https://www.bennettinstitute.cam.ac.uk/news/global-dissatisfaction-democracy-record-high-new-c/

Patronage

We are hearing this morning about the outgoing prime minister’s honours list. An “honours list” is basically where somebody is made a knight, or a dame, say, courtesy of the prime minister.

What nonsense! By all means, give somebody an award based on merit, for public service. But what happens when you leave it to a prime minister? We’re already hearing reports that some of her party’s key donors are the recipients of some of the honours.

But on the grand scale of things, these honours are the tip of the iceberg, One of my criticisms, to do with the EU, is that the prime minister appoints the UK’s EU commissioners. Appoints. No election here – if they’re a pal of the prime minister, they get the job. Of course, this isn’t a fault of the EU, but of the UK system. It goes to show that there is as much about the UK that needs to change as there is about the EU.

Of course, all of these honours are nominally bestowed by the head of state, the queen, although she is invariably advised by her ministers. In that case, what is the point in the charade? Some of these awards are named “something something of the British Empire”. When was the last time you thought of a British Empire?

One of the defining features of a system is how well that system can evolve over time. Don’t you think it’s time we thought about the role of patronage in modern society?

Prorogued

So, at the end of today, the UK’s parliament will be suspended for five weeks. I wonder if we’ll hear anything about whether it is reasonable for somebody to close down parliament, whatever the reason? Be they Prime Minister, Head of State, whatever?

Isn’t it about time we had a constitution to fix all this stuff in stone and prevent individuals from tinkering with the process? We might want to think about elected officials being granted 4-5 weeks vacation, for a start, just like the rest of us.

Referendums

I was quite disappointed this morning. I was watching BBC Breakfast News, Labour’s Shadow Education Spokesman, Angela Rayner, was on. I’m not sure of her exact words or even the exact subject (though I can guess), but they are reported here. The thing which disappointed me was when she said, “I think we’ve had enough of referendums, don’t you?” An off-the-cuff remark, not part of her main point.

It did make me think. I mean a referendum delivers both a result (one way or the other), and an indication of how unanimous we are. If a referendum is 99% one way, then it is probably something we’d agree/disagree with little doubt. A result which is 50.1% vs. 49.9% is more contentious.

I’m happy to apply this to the Brexit referendum, which was 52:48 and which has proved pretty contentious, to say the least. That 48% of voters wished to remain part of the EU said to me that we should execute Brexit, of course, because >50% of voters wanted that, but that we should remain very close to them afterwards. At least until we deliberately decide to diverge in certain areas. Over time, divergence is inevitable. But for now, a very soft Brexit. “But I didn’t vote for a soft Brexit!” No, but just as you wanted a Hard Brexit, so 48% of your countrymen felt sufficiently strongly the other way that they didn’t want Brexit at all, so if you want to keep these people engaged in the process… And, of course, that is exactly how it has played out.

With the Brexit vote, I wouldn’t have complained if Cameron had stated up-front that a marginal vote, between 45% and 55% either way, say, would put the government at “action stations”, and another vote would be held a year later, say, to resolve the matter for good. But that should have been said from the moment the referendum was announced (or even before), and Cameron was complacent.  he didn’t think he could lose, so it didn’t matter to him. Furthermore, if “Remain” had won the vote 52:48, you could guarantee that the issue would never have seen the light of day again, so it’s not surprising that Leavers think as they do. And, it must be difficult for a Prime Minister whose whole ethos was first-past-the-post. Somebody who thinks that with 50% + 1 support, the rest don’t matter.

To call for a second referendum after the 2016 vote, by the way, is just sour grapes – I didn’t like the result so we should run the race again.People who voted to remain, and have not accepted the result, have tried a number of tactics since the 2016 referendum with the simple aim of halting Brexit, and calling for a second referendum is just the latest tactic along the way. No matter, for them, that a majority wanted it. That should tell us something about how devoted these people are to democracy.

But I don’t want this post to be about Brexit. The goal here is not to get a result, one way or the other, but to have as many people participate as possible. A referendum does, at least, give 45M voters a chance to express their wishes. A direct yea or nea, not through some representative who may or may not agree with them on the specific issue. And if you do things smartly, you can read more into the numbers than just the headline result. And if you ask the right questions, you can learn even more. I don’t think they need to be yes/no, for a start, although certainly some kind of closed list. You can’t use a referendum to ask an open-ended question. I’m sorry to harp on about it, but the 2016 Brexit referendum could have been used to ask us supplementary questions like whether we wanted to be a part of a customs union. Difficult questions at the time, but they would have removed all the supposition we’ve had since.

By contrast, Angela Rayner is an MP.

At the last election, in my constituency, the winner, John Glen, received 58% of the vote. A high number – I’m in an ultra-safe Tory seat. But that still leaves 42% of people who voted against him. More if you include people who didn’t vote at all (turnout in Salisbury was only 74%, perhaps people felt that the result was such a foregone conclusion that there was no point in voting? Although I’d go more for spoiling my ballot, at least that can’t be mistaken for apathy).

The point is that a guy who gets 60% of the vote gets to make 100% of the decisions as he thinks fit. The other 40%….tough.

Take that a level higher. Glen is a Conservative. Nationally, 13,636,684 votes (42.4%). The Conservatives were the largest party, both in terms of votes and seats in parliament (in our system, the two numbers are different, don’t get me started!) so they got to choose the Prime Minister. There’s a little bit more to it than that, but, in a nutshell…

Just a few weeks ago, 2019, Boris Johnson was elected Conservative Party leader (and therefore Prime Minister). The Conservatives have their own rules for this. Basically, their MPs whittle the field to a final two, and their membership then elects the leader. The rules could be better, they could be worse, but they’re really for Conservatives to decide upon. In this final vote of the membership, Johnson received 92,153 votes (66.4%) against his opponent’s 46,656 (33.6%) votes.

So in somewhat fuzzy math, I admit, 66.4% of 42.4% chose the UK’s current Prime Minister. 42.4% of 66.4% is 28.2%. It’s fuzzy because one number refers to the proportion of total voters who voted Conservative, and the other number refer’s to Conservative Party members who voted for Johnson. But it’s not too much of a leap of faith.

My point is this – which would you rather have? A system where more than half of us make a decision, or one where a quarter of us decide? No brainer for me.

I appreciate that there is a difference between the broad-brush type of question you can ask in a referendum, and the detail that MPs sometimes have to apply. The former gives us a “direction of travel” only. But that’s good, as far as I can see. The public decides broad policy and Parliament fills in the details. I appreciate that we’re asking a politician’s role to change – the’re no longer wielding power overall, in terms of defining direction, but are more literal servants of the public. I don’t mind that one bit either. And frankly, Brexit is a very good example of the type of questions that we resolve – after that referendum, the role of politicians should have been to implement the decision as best as possible, not to squabble about whether the public made the right decision or not. But whenever I hear a Parliamentarian telling me how bad referendums are, I’m acutely aware that the process is actually taking power from their hands, and putting it in the hands of the voters. I’m happy that it isn’t referendums that they dislike, it’s loss of control.

Allegiance

I must admit that I don’t really have any strong beliefs on the unification of Ireland. I can certainly sympathise with past horrors committed by the British against the Irish, but that doesn’t realty translate to what the future should be. Actually, that’s not quite true. I believe that Northern Ireland should determine its own future.

As regards representation, I feel that NI’s citizens have the right to be represented, wherever they decide they belong. It particularly concerns me that in the current situation, Sinn Fein don’t represent their constituents’ interests in the UK parliament. I say this from a standpoint of very much sympathising with Sinn Fein’s existence, although I wouldn’t vote for them purely because they don’t take up their seats.

I know that SF not attending at Westminster is old hat. I also know that the problem they have is in swearing allegiance to the queen. The queen? I’m sorry, but this is my parliament. A UK voter. MPs should be swearing allegiance to their constituents, not to the head of state. So I can understand totally where SF are coming from.

My solution? Swear allegiance to the right people, and don’t give SF the excuse. Make sure that all the people of NI are represented in parliament.

A New Breed

One of the things that I’ve been encouraged by in the whole Brexit process is the level of engagement. We’re even at the point now where people are raising questions about the UK’s system – the role of parliament, the role of referendums etc.

Ex-cabinet ministers such as Ken Clarke and Michael Portillo are both on record as saying that referendums are always a dumb idea. Presumably, they very much see a world where the public should only be interested in politics every five years, to elect their MP. Thereafter, they delegate all political issues to that MP, for the lifetime of the next Parliament. Doesn’t really satisfy me, because I want to be more hands-on than that.

So I think it’s a bit short-sighted. It’s not how I see things, anyway. Even for somebody who’d voted for their MP, you wouldn’t expect eye-to-eye agreement on every issue. In casting their vote, people select the person who, on balance, they judge to be the best candidate. And for someone who didn’t vote for their MP, even less of the above!

To get into specific issues, I’d be more than happy to give my opinion on a whole range of things. For example, as in the 2016 referendum. I don’t mean to dot the i’s and cross the t’s here, but to set a broad direction of travel. Do I want to be in or out of the EU, say. Should the UK maintain its nuclear deterrent? How much more tax would I be prepared to spend on education? For the most part, yes or no, but some issues where you present multiple choices. I suppose that, by implication, the best way for Parliament to elicit such responses is by referendum. So, rather than having a referendum once a generation, I’d have one every week until there was nothing left to discuss.

This does at least get rid on one criticism – the broad one that MPs are stupid and useless. Their defence would be that they were only doing what the UK public had told them to do.

So I’d be happy, then, to set a direction of travel. I then see a role for MPs, to take that direction of travel and to turn it into law. To worry about the nuts and bolts of how we implement something. Of course, at this point, I recognise that the public might specify two different directions of travel, which might make implementation of something impossible. I have ideas on this, but won’t go into them here.

The problem comes, of course, because that’s what our current breed of MPs are used to. They’re used to being elected, sure, but then on doing their own thing on an individual issue. They’re used to determining direction of travel, as well as implementing the detail. So, fundamentally, I’m talking about a different role for an MP – somebody who can take my broad instructions, and fill in the gaps.

I think there are implications to this approach. I think it was exemplified in the 2016 vote, but asking a very straightforward question does not necessarily get the clearest answer. Do you want to be in or out of the EU makes no mention of customs unions etc. – if we had have been asked about them, it would maybe have made subsequent policies easier to determine. You might argue that “out” means “out of everything”, but I don’t think it was particularly clear at the time, what everything was. In short, I think you need a good deal of skill when deciding exactly what question you want to ask.

Another implication, as I said, is that the public might contradict itself. I think there are ways of dealing with this, but we need at least to be aware of it.

Anyway, I don’t want to drone on about this subject. Suffice it to say that I think there is another way of doing things.

Getting Rid (of an MP)

Something I’m thinking about a lot right now. For members of both the Commons and the Lords, I think that there should be a mechanism for subjecting somebody for re-election should they behave sufficiently poorly. I’m clear that, for MPs certainly (as they are elected) the people who should judge “sufficiently poorly” are the electorate themselves, but I’m less clear about how such a mechanism would work.

Because the MP’s constituents should be involved in the process, I suppose a petition would be the way to go. But there’s a technical issue in making sure that somebody who signs the petition is actually a constituent. It’s difficult to get this 100%, even if you cross-check signitaries against the electoral register. But I suppose the safeguard is that the consequences of the petition would only be a by-election, in which the incumbent would be allowed to stand, so I suppose we can get past that one.

The other thing would be, how many voters would need to sign such a petition? It’s tempting to say that the answer to that is so many percent of the number of people who voted for the MP. Except, of course, we don’t know who those people are. If we say that 75% of voters is enough to trigger a no confidence petition, then what happens in a very marginal constituency, where maybe the winner only got 50.1% of the vote? There’s 49.9% from the get-go who might be persuaded to have no confidence in the MP, regardless of the MPs actual performance. If the threshold is 75% of the votes cast for the MP (or even 95%), then that becomes achievable pretty much automatically. In fact, even if you go over 100%, the numbers would skew, say, a very safe seat.

I think if you’re going to have a mechanism for getting rid of people, you still have a petition, but you may as well pluck the numbers out of thin air. You have to fall back and say that the worst consequence is that the incumbent MP faces a by-election.

Unless anybody has any better ideas?