The Uncomfortable Truth about Notre Dame

The devastating fire at Notre Dame cathedral has generated unexpected headlines following the revelation that $600m has been pledged by Philanthropists to rebuild the cathedral within 24 hours of the fire breaking out.

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Why we need a change in recall petitions

UPDATED: 5 March 2018

This week twelve Members of Parliament resigned from their party, eleven of them forming the newly designated ‘The Independent Group.’ Other MPs had previously resigned the party’s whip in Parliament, mainly to vote contrary to the party’s stance on Brexit, as was the case with Frank Field (formerly Labour) and Stephen Lloyd (formerly Liberal Democrat). These resignations were notable not just for the sheer volume, but additionally because the MPs indicated that they were not prepared to bring their change of political allegiance back to their electors by contesting a by-election.

Photo by Elliott Stallion on Unsplash
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Means, ends, and motivations

Those wondering where the expression ‘a week is a long time in politics’ comes from need look no further than the last week. Post party conference season commnetators were talking about a Conservative government lasting until at least 2025 and it seemed that David Cameron was untouchable. It took one week for that comfortable assumption to be challenged, through opposition to the government’s policy to reduce working tax credits – a scheme introduced by Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, which was intended to effectively re-imburse low waged workers from the tax that they pay, and incentivise being in work rather than relying upon benefits. After the massive plaudits for the ‘Living Wage’ announcement in his emergency Budget, George Osbourne has instead faced accusations that he’s taking money from those in society who need it most.

To comment on this emotive topic, I felt it was best to refer to an excellent book that I had the good fortune to buy for £1.00 in a Kindle sale – easily the best pound I have spent on a book:

Blunders

The Blunders of our Governments is well worth reading, because it is a rigorous and academic study of mistakes made by British governments of all complexions, and hence is largely free of partisan bias. It lays in mercilessly to Conservative administrative blunders such as the Poll Tax, but doesn’t spare the rod for Labour administrations either. Chapter Ten indeed devotes attention to the very topic under present discussion – tax credits. Whatever impact the policy may have had (and the authors do recognise that it had some impact on relieving poverty), the chapter nevertheless observes the following:

  • The system was needlessly complicated, and often caused intolerable and unncecessary stress to poor and vulnerable people by overpaying the benefit, then demanding repayment in one lump sum.
  • By the spring of 2007, HMRC had: “in effect given up on clawing back more than £2 billion (my emphasis) it had overpaid claimants.”
  • The Parliamentary Ombudsman had reviewed 393 complaints about the system in 2006-7, of which 74% were fully or partially upheld.
  • Independent commentators (which I may say include left-wingers Polly Toynbee and Tottenham MP David Lammy) said that for all of the good done, the policy had been “an administrative nightmare” and ultimately no more than “a sticking plaster.”

The rest of the chapter (and the book) is well worth the investment, so I would encourage you to read it for yourself. As we debate the impact of tax credits however, it is entirely reasonable to make one clear point: just because a policy appears on the surface to leave a section of society better or worse off, does not mean either that the policy necessarily will have that impact, nor that the motivation behind the policy is misplaced.

One of my core convictions regarding politics is that we’re not divided in our aspirations for what we want government to achieve – only in our beliefs as to how those aspirations are to be achieved. It is entirely counterproductive to believe, as sadly significant numbers on the left do, that anyone who proposes a different policy to you must be pathologically committed to the oppression of the less fortunate.

The present debate on the future of tax credits broadly reflects something that authors note – that governments don’t always get it right; not through malicious malintent, but because all of us are subject to human error, or on occasion the necessity to choose a course of action where the best course is not evident beforehand. That the Conservative Party dare challenge the Chancellor on this is far from a sign of weakness, nor is it conclusive proof that the policy is flawed. It shows a party so determined to do right that it will listen to dissent, recognise the right motivation, and assess if the means really will achieve the ends. Conservatives are motivated by a society where families have the dignity and security of regular work, where welfare is (as most Labour moderates would agree) as it is meant to be – a safety net rather than a foundation, and where there is no need for tax credits because only those who can afford to pay tax do so.

On the whole I support the Chancellor’s aspiration to wean the country off tax credits. While I recognise the very real pain of the potential short term cost, I believe it is both better for society and administratively most efficient that we should pay less tax on higher incomes, rather than to have our taxes recycled back to us through HMRC. Not only does it remove the unnecessary, expensive and inefficient administrative burden the authors of the book highlight, it also coincides with two basic principles – you should not pay tax beyond your means to pay, and if you are capable of supporting yourself through work, then you should not need to rely upon state support just to get by.

We must value life – and protect the vulnerable

This week former palliative care nurse Gill Pharaoh took her own life at the age of 75 at an assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland, despite being in reasonable health, not wishing to face the same struggles of old age she had witnessed in working life. When I started this blog, one of the aims I had in mind was to set out my own perspective on the political issues faced by our nation. This post was originally written in response to an entirely different story over a month before news broke regarding this case, but in view of the debate over euthanasia that Gill Pharaoh’s story has started, it feels appropriate to add my voice to the debate.

A bill on so-called ‘Assisted Dying’ was tabled by former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer last year, and despite defeat is set to be reintroduced. At present it is illegal for a medical practitioner to assist a person in taking their own life, and (for good reasons) no family wishes to be the test case into whether the state would prosecute a family member who assisted their relation in taking their life.

The debate is heavily influenced by the fact that Belgium has not only legalised euthanasia for elderly citizens who have a terminal or debilitating illness, but has removed the age restriction entirely, thus making it possible for children with serious illnesses to undergo the same treatment. It means that we do not have to speculate on hypothetical scenarios, but have actual instances from real life to attempt to understand the very real pain, difficulty, and discomfort this issue brings.

I was provoked to write this particular post off the back of a news article, reporting that a 24 year old woman suffering from severe depression and suicidal thoughts was to be recommended for euthanasia by Belgian doctors. While we should of course take care to thoroughly research the news report for factual accuracy, this case struck a powerful chord with me for the implications, if it is true.

Last Easter, my GP diagnosed me with persistent low mood, and borderline depression. It was a crucial step forward for me, as I had not grasped exactly how mental illness worked – that it isn’t purely due to your circumstances, and that it does have a very real physical impact on your health and energy levels. Knowing that I was vulnerable to low mood has enabled me to know that what I feel from time to time isn’t the normal me, and to have coping strategies. I got through that time, and still do, with the love and support and encouragement of my family, my friends, and my church.

What was also crucial however, is that there was no doubt in the minds of the NHS practitioners that they could help me, and wanted to help me. My first assessment was over the telephone, and the immediate reaction of the GP was “We should definitely get you in for a proper examination – you sound like you need help.” From that point on there was clarity and support – a clear explanation of what options were open to me, and a recommendation and referral to a specialist unit (Oxfordshire Mind) who offered specific treatment for the symptoms I was facing.

During the process, they also asked questions that startled me at the time, but make clear sense with hindsight. I was asked if I had considered harming myself or others, had actually harmed myself or others, or had considered taking my own life. It is a tragic truth that for many who need this service, all of these are practical possibilities. And I am thankful that as I worked through this, the motivation of the medical practitioners was to value life – to offer hope to those who were feeling hopeless. I had black days then, and still sometimes have days which feel hopeless – I know what it is like to feel vulnerable. And it very much frightens me to imagine someone like me not being encouraged that life is worth living in the same circumstance.

I appreciate that euthanasia is a highly emotive and sensitive topic, and we do not do the persons most directly involved in the consequences of the debate any justice when we retreat to bipolar platitudes. But as the debate returns to Parliament in our nation, I would begin the debate by saying that no legislation can ever be permitted in this country that would disadvantage the vulnerable. If the recent Belgian case is true, it is not merely an appalling and shocking abuse of human rights, but a gross perversion of the medical profession. Mental illness can be as much a physical affliction as any debilitating disease, but there is absolutely no way a patient suffering from a mental illness can be deemed in a right state of mind to take such a decision. I know from my own experience that the thoughts I have thought in my darkest moments make absolutely no sense when the dark cloud lifts – and our motivation must always be passionately and determinedly to value life – the most basic human right of all.

There is good reason why we should bear this in mind as the Euthanasia Bill returns to Parliament. Several MPs who voted to legalise abortion in the UK in 1968 (including Margaret Thatcher) regretted their decision many years later – not because they thought their logic was wrong at the time, but because they did not believe that abortion would become as widespread as it subsequently turned out. I am opposed to the ending of life on principle, but even more than that, I think it would be a grave disjustice if our legislators passed a law that meant the life of a vulnerable person was now in very real danger.

Unpacking the Emergency Budget

I am highly unlikely to have the time on Wednesday to unpack the Chancellor’s so called ‘Emergency’ Budget, so I thought I’d give a few runners and riders ahead of the inevitable media storm that is due to be unleashed.

First, a brief note for those wondering why we have an emergency budget in the first place. The short answer is that we effectively have a change of government – the Chancellor’s budget from March was put forward by the Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition. A clear Conservative majority has enabled George Osborne to put forward the proposals set out in the Conservative manifesto, which includes the commitment to further spending restraint. As you may recall, the election campaign narrative was essentially between the Conservatives saying we need to get spending under control, the progressive parties saying that austerity doesn’t work, and the Lib Dems saying you want to land somewhere in the middle. The Chancellor will now spell out exactly what spending restraint will look like.

Secondly, let’s be wise as we untangle the subsequent media narrative. The Conservative MPs will be the best briefed – the government will ensure they have the little snippets of good news to include in their personal statements welcoming the budget. Opposition MPs obviously have no idea what the government is proposing to do, but that won’t stop them preparing statements to be released the minute Harriet Harman rises to her feet to oppose the Budget George Osborne has just presented. It also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict what the opposition’s objections will be:

Labour will insist that the Budget is for the rich, not the poor; that the cuts go too far and too deep; and will insist that valued public services (especially the NHS) have been put at risk by government under-investment.

The SNP (whom we must remember and acknowledge are now the third party in Parliament) will decry ‘Tory austerity’; claim that Scotland never voted for their budget; and threaten that if the Budget goes through, it will only increase the calls for Scottish independence.

The Lib Dems meanwhile will have a clear narrative already worked out – they will take the credit for any increase in the threshold at which one begins to pay income tax, and will highlight in general terms that the budget would not have been as severe if the nation had voted for another coalition.

The other parties meanwhile have their own interests – the Northern Irish parties and Plaid Cymru will be interested in specific investment to their regions, while the Greens will take an even stronger line than Labour in opposing austerity.

I mention this to warn well in advance that we’re not going to get anything constructive from the immediate reaction on social media. The opposition parties will have released their statements before they have even heard the Budget, much less taken the time to digest it and work through the detail and consequences. They have worked out their party narrative and will put this first. It is a little discouraging that this is the case, but we shouldn’t be surprised that they are not welcoming the Budget with open arms – they are called ‘the Opposition’ with good reason!

That said – you will get some thoughtful responses, because a good number of politicians are not politicos, but instead are good public servants, who will care about the detail, and care about the impact on their constituency specifically, and the country generally. It will also be fascinating to see the leadership contenders in Labour and the Lib Dems also set out their distinct responses to the Budget – how crucial could this be, especially with the final (potentially decisive) ballots being cast in the Liberal Democrat Leadership Election?

You will also see opposition on specific policies from some Conservative backbenchers. This will inevitably be portrayed as early evidence that David Cameron will not be able to manage his small majority in the House of Commons. I completely disagree – one of the things that I am most proud of in the Conservative party, is that debate is not stifled. While we obviously aim to be right first time, we are human enough to recognise our own humanity – our capacity to make less optimal choices whether they were previously evident or not. I think it should be celebrated, not decried, that backbenchers have the means to hold the government accountable for the budget put forward, and celebrated all the more when the government listens and takes note. That the government allows their backbenchers such freedom is far from a sign of weakness – it is a reassuring sign that the governing party is capable of providing strong government that is restrained by the concerns of their backbenchers – which seems to me an optimal balance between a government empowered for action, and protecting the rights of individuals.

If I can find a spare evening I will venture a few thoughts on the policy detail of the Budget. Without seeing the detail however, I will welcome a trend which I hope will be clear – that the government is committed to both eliminating our immediate spending deficit and then reducing (and ideally eliminating) our national debt. While the detail remains to be worked out, our biggest commitment has to be to live within our means, and not to lumber future generations with our unpaid debts.

Continuing the Electoral Reform debate

After a longer delay than I was planning, I’m now replying to some feedback I was given on my previous post on electoral change.

Firstly, it was suggested that while the party that wins the most votes might ‘lose’ to a coalition of smaller parties, it could only do so where it either voluntarily refuses to work with those parties (essentially ‘opting out’ of government), or else the smaller parties decline to deal with the largest party because they have chosen to work with each other – if you like, akin to the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru agreeing to be an ‘anti-austerity’ bloc in the 2015 election.

I think the first argument is somewhat unlikely – parties pursue their policy agenda, which means pursuing and holding on to power. The examples of Ted Heath in 1974 and Gordon Brown in 2010 (to a lesser extent also James Callaghan and John Major while actually in office) show that parties try by whatever means possible to maintain their hold on office.The whole point of PR is to ensure seats gained broadly reflect votes cast, thus (theoretically) giving the largest party the strongest hand for coalition negotiations.That is to say – we can discount the former because parties will always seek by whatever means to take power. Because of this, the second point is actually a major point in favour of FPTP. If the largest party cannot command the confidence of Parliament, due to the smaller parties effectively operating as one bloc, FPTP concentrates the voters minds on the choice between a government and an opposition, and makes it easier to replace a governing coalition with an alternative.

I would also briefly take this point to add that electoral systems are not just a means of turning votes into seats – the electoral system also influences the type of party politics that emerges. The Liberal/SDP alliance did not break through in the 1980s because FPTP encourages two party competition; in contrast, PR has been used in the following contexts with the following results:

  • List PR for European elections allowed UKIP to emerge as a major party in the mid 00s
  • The Additional Member System in Scotland established the SNP as the principal opposition to Labour in Scotland.
  • Single-Transferable-Vote in Northern Ireland has mapped the move from moderate to extreme parties, while showing that the sectarian divide has ot changed at all.

That is to say – the type of electoral system you choose influences the type of political party competition you get. So to acknowledge a different question on whether electoral change could take place at other levels – that is precisely the problem with changing at one level but not all levels – PR at local levels would encourage the proliferation of smaller parties and interest groups. FPTP is ultimately lots of small interest groups gathering into big formal coalitions (the major parties) – requiring them to decide together how to govern in the national interest.

I’d like to finally acknowledge one aspect of Jonathan Chaplin’s initial post that was also raised, and I did not quite do justice to – the role of Parliament as a debating chamber as well as a legislature.The example given was the Scottish Tories – they have held a pretty consistent 15% vote share since 1999 and not moved much since, but PR in Scotland enables them to win a representative voice in the Scottish Parliament. It is worth repeating that electoral choice reflects what one prioritises in an electoral system – so prioritising each party having a ‘voice’ in proportional strength to their votes would of course mean one would favour PR.

I think however this is to massively overstate the importance of representation compared to other political channels. Part of the reason for being involved in major parties is to make your voice heard in those parties. In the recently published book Those Who Show Up, the example is given of a Christian activist who became involved with the Liberal Democrats, and through her involvement the party ended up adopting what ought to have been their flagship policy – raising the threshold at which one begins paying income tax (a policy so popular that the other parties have adopted it!). Parties are not the only medium of being heard, and speaking in Parliament isn’t necessarily the best way to make yourself heard. I do not deny that representation is important insomuch as it lends respectability to a party, but representation is not the be-all-and-end-all. To revisit the Scottish Tories, while they have been consistently represented since 1999, one has to ask whether the system really works for them given that the prospect of the Tories being invited to govern in Scotland (barring major cultural change) is practically zero, thus negating their capacity to implement their policy agenda.

I’ll conclude this post by adding that I really enjoy the debate on electoral change and hugely value the thoughts and comments so far – I will post my own thoughts on ways forward in the coming weeks. I think this isn’t a debate that will go away, or one the Conservatives would wisely ignore in victory – and it is undoubtedly better that one faces it when one has the chance to, on one’s own terms. If I could seek consensus on one point, it would be that the debate on electoral change is worth engaging with as we determine as a society what we most value in electoral outcomes – but that that there is a debate to be had, not a wrong to be made right.

What makes an electoral system ‘Fair’?

If the surprise that the Conservatives won a clear majority was the biggest story of the 2015 election, the demands for electoral reform the result has generated must surely be very high also. I suspect that even if you don’t usually follow politics closely, you will have seen features, principally advocated by the Electoral Reform Society, arguing that our present electoral system (popularly known as First-Past-the-Post) is no longer fit for purpose – their principal evidence from the 2015 results being the Greens and UKIP gaining 16% of the popular vote, but a mere 2 seats for their trouble – in contrast to the SNP gaining 56 seats on a relatively paltry 4.7%. This argument is amongst those being used to argue that the result is illegitimate, and not reflective of the wishes of the nation.

My interest was particularly piqued by this article by the Director of KLICE, Jonathan Chaplin, in which he makes a strong case that Christians ought to support electoral change (I purposefully use the term ‘change’ rather than ‘reform’ as the latter implies a necessarily positive connotation). The crux of his argument I repeat below:

Those who benefit from FPTP but oppose the principle of proportional representation are in effect displaying profound disrespect for the views of millions of their fellow citizens. They are saying: Your political convictions are worth less than mine; it matters less that your views on justice and the common good are represented to government than that mine are.

I have to make a confession – I am a complete geek when it comes to electoral systems. While at university they were the topic I most enjoyed researching, so to have the opportunity to talk at length on the subject is a labour of love for me! In 2011 I wrote a position paper on the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum in response to a similar argument that was made for electoral change – in that instance, Christian think-tank Ekklesia argued not only that Christians ought to vote to adopt AV, but that it was an essential part of the church seeking fairness in society. While my paper is sadly no longer available online, the essence of my argument is that there is no impartial criteria by which we can deem one system to be ‘fairer’ than another. There is only one demonstrably fair choice system – simple majority. But it is only fair for so long as there are two choices – and as we are painfully aware, choices are rarely binary!

In the academic literature on electoral systems, the commentators themselves recognise the debate between systems that primarily aim to elect a government (ie. majoritarian), and systems that primarily look to elect a representative assembly (ie. proportional). No academic argues that one is ‘fairer’ than another for a simple reason – it’s entirely subjective! If you believe that our representative body should broadly reflect the votes cast by the population as a whole, then any non-proportional system is by definition going to be ‘unfair.’ If you instead subscribe to the view that the electorate want to choose who governs them, then a system which could allow the party with the most votes and seats to ‘lose’ to a coalition of parties who individually polled less, but collectively form a majority, is intrinsically unfair.

As the case against FPTP is already being noisily articulated I feel no obligation to repeat it here. Instead I will venture a few thoughts in favour of the system, and which would give proponents of PR pause for thought.

In the first instance, PR doesn’t necessarily lead to fairer outcomes. A very recent example of this was seen in the 2013 German Bundestag elections. Angela Merkel’s CDU increased their vote share by a full 5% and by all accounts clearly won the election. Instead of continuing her coalition with the FDP (the German Liberals) however, she was forced into a coalition with the second largest party the SPD, as her coalition partners had failed to surpass the 5% threshold necessary to win PR seats. Given that the Alternative fur Deutschland (the German equivalent of UKIP) also polled just under 5%, that meant that almost 10% of the German electorate went unrepresented, and the Germans ended up with a Grand Coalition that they almost certainly did not vote for.

Secondly, PR doesn’t usually lead to direct changes of government at the hands of the voters. Until Gerhard Schroeder won in the Red/Green landslide of 1998, most changes of government in Germany took place because the FDP switched their allegiance from the conservative CDU to the socialist SPD. It is not that it is impossible – simply that it is taken out of the hands of the voters because the decision to form a government is taken by the parties. The problem is compounded by the fact that PR encourages parties to chase a core vote to the exclusion of all else. Parties compartmentalise to reach their key voters and mirror their interests – which sounds great until you realise that the resultant governing coalitions become collective interest groups bartering for their narrow sectional interest. PR is used in my homeland of Northern Ireland, and it is striking that if you ignore party affiliation and simply classify members of the Assembly as Unionist, Nationalist, and non-aligned, the composition of the chamber doesn’t change at all. PR encourages parties and politicians to find an electoral niche and look after the interests of that niche.

The reason that is a problem was articulated by my earlier post in which I demonstrated that representatives don’t actually have much choice. It was striking to note that when commentators spoke of the new Conservative majority, it was observed ‘it is a smaller majority than the coalition.’ Note the term well – the coalition had a majority. Governments seek stability – stability comes through a secure majority that is able to pass the legislation they want, and block the legislation they don’t. With PR, you either have a highly unstable government (hardly desirable) or you have the exact same issue people have with FPTP – a majority government doing whatever they want. In his article Jonathan Chaplin contests that at least a majority government under PR has secured the votes of more than 50% of the electorate.  While potentially true (as no system is perfectly proportional) it does not address two concerns – voters are deprived of the opportunity to directly choose who governs them, and no party is encouraged to appeal beyond their natural base.

Let me stress that I am not saying that PR is intrinsically wrong – simply that every electoral system has its own problems. Nor would I say my case for FPTP is entirely based on trashing PR. As a Conservative I ought to favour PR – the present system favours Labour (who tend to win constituencies with smaller populations and a lower turnout), and PR would prevent them from being able to introduce radical programmes with less than majority support. And yet I support FPTP. One of the reasons for this I have alluded to – it encourages parties to seek beyond their natural base, which in practice means seeking the support of the moderate ‘undecideds’. However much voters may complain parties are too alike, there is something to be said that FPTP encourages parties to chase the moderate centre rather than a niche vote.

My final defence of FPTP relates directly to the 2015 election – at the end of the day, the electorate made a choice. It is with good reason I posted that, in my view, tactical voting does not exist – in actual fact there is no choice system that can completely eliminate the incentive for voters to vote for an alternative to their first preference. FPTP means that the voters consider the person representing their area, and whether or not they would support or oppose the government – and if they oppose the government, whether they would form part of the principal opposition party. It accurately captures the desire of the voter to punish the government for poor performance, or indeed to punish both large parties for poor performance!

I am not saying that FPTP is fairer – simply in my view that it is preferable to PR. I do however want to recognise two challenges that 2015 in particular flagged up. Firstly is that the SNP won almost every Scottish seat on 50% of the Scottish vote. It looks unfair, but the swing in those constituencies was astronomical – over 30%! Even if FPTP accentuated the result, something powerful is going on in Scottish politics, and fixating on the electoral system is not going to address that.

Then we have the Greens and UKIP – and especially UKIP’s astonishing 13% of the vote. Not since the SDP/Liberal alliance performance of 1983 has such a large vote had such a meagre return. While it is a concern, I think we must acknowledge two factors. The first is that the electorate was in complete flux – the Lib Dem vote collapsed and there was no way of knowing where it would go. For the first time in many years voters didn’t know whom was first or second in their area – which contributed to a higher number of ‘wasted’ votes. The second is there is a challenge for all the parties to re-energise the political process – turnout was still an unacceptable 66%, and party membership has been in freefall for decades. Voting for minor parties is not necessarily a reflection of a fractured electorate, but an urgent call for parties to re-engage with the electorate.

I could go on at length – and indeed I would love to have extended conversations on my pet subject! For now however I would conclude with this summary argument – it is absolutely right that we should debate our electoral system and not take it for granted, but let’s at least agree that no one system is objectively better or fairer than the others.