Saturday, April 30, 2011

Not voting in the referendum? What's the worst that could happen, eh?

Right, first ignore all that guff from the YES and NO campaigns about MPs working harder, losers winning, 50% to win, some people getting more votes than others, safe seats, Australian surveys, swing voters, more coalitions, 1951, the BNP, £250m, more choice, Papua New Guinea, blah blah blah blah...

Well maybe don't ignore that stuff completely: there are nuggets of good arguments in there. But they're oversimplified and oversold.

But if you want to know why it's not cool to miss the referendum, you need to understand what's wrong with the current voting system, First Past The Post (FPTP).

The best account I've found is by Dan Snow. It's 3 minutes long. You can afford 3 minutes, no?

Or to sum up Dan's point in a picture:

FPTP gives you coffee when 70% of you would prefer to go down the pub
(Sorry, I don't who created this picture. I'll credit them when I find out.)

So the problem is:
Under the current voting system a candidate is often elected even though most people prefer a different candidate.

So what? Why does this matter?

There are two reasons why this matters:
  1. It means that, over time, people get more and more disillusioned with democracy. Why bother participating in a democracy if it's common for the person elected as your MP to be less popular than one of the other candidates?
  2. In order to try to beat this problem, we've learned to vote tactically: "Don't vote for The Green Man (even though you prefer that pub). That's a wasted vote. You'll just let the Coffee Shop win." And so it is often rational to vote for a party that is not your first choice. Our votes are an attempt to second-guess how others will vote, to try to stop the candidate we hate. We're not free to vote for the candidate we really want, and so this again breeds disillusionment.
Our current crop of politicians have been successful under the existing voting system. Why should they want to change it?

Your current MP might be great. If so, you're lucky, and I can see why you might not care too much about changing the voting system.

But if you've ever wondered why so many people say "politicians are all the same", "they never listen", and "they're just in it for themselves", ask yourself whether this disillusionment with democracy is good for the country.

AV isn't perfect by any means, but it's better than FPTP. And if you don't vote for change on 5 May, it'll be no use complaining about "our awful politicians" ever again.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Coalition with the Devil

I'm really starting to really appreciate the Coalition.

Not especially for what it's doing. (Although I'm not knocking the pupil premium, the higher income tax threshold, higher Capital Gains Tax, the restoration of the earnings link for pensions, and the Great Repeal Bill)

More for what it's not doing.

A minority Conservatives government would have been able to win Commons votes thanks to the sizable authoritarian cohorts within the Labour ranks. Whatever the 2010 Conservative manifesto might have said, who knows what right-wing initiatives would have sprung up by now? A renaissance for ID cards, PFI and the DE Act? New and worse kinds of imprisonment without trial and control orders? Upfront university tuition fees? The enfeebling of local government? Another illegal war? Secret support for torture?

Of course Labour could have chosen to play silly politics by opposing all Tory bills on principle, good or bad. But if one believes (as I do) that this particular Labour tendency is motivated more by honest conviction rather than by low politics, it's quite likely that such initiatives, originated under a Labour government, would by now be becoming embedded under a minority Tory government.

Instead, the Coalition is constantly forcing the Conservatives to negotiate formally with the Liberal Democrats rather than making deals with the Labour authoritarian tendency.

This is such a good thing.

Of course this liberal moderating influence of the Liberal Democrats is making the Conservative Party a better party than it would otherwise be. That's good for the country. Not so good for the electoral prospects of the Lib Dems in 2015. And not as good for Labour in 2015 as it could otherwise be. No wonder Coalition upsets the tribalists.

But what are the limits of this? Should, for example, the Social Democrat Party of Germany have joined a Coalition with Hitler in the 1930s, to act as a "moderating influence"? No, obviously not.

So there are bound to be circumstances in which a shared programme for Government, mutual trust and effective inter-party communication are impossible to develop. Labour wasn't ready for Coalition in 2010, for instance. But provided the conditions are propitious, Coalitions can help minimise the chances of parties energetically pursuing sudden and under-considered brainwaves.

Coalition with the Devil? No. But Coalition with Occasionally Redeemable Sinners - that'll do me.