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.Read More
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.Read more …
Britain wakes up in shock, and thanks to social media it does not take very long for that shock, dismay and disbelief to appear on our timelines. While the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States is shocking in itself, the shock is intensified because none of the opinion polls or commentators predicted it would happen. Some of us worried that a Trump win was possible, but few worried that it was likely.
This is probably the fifth big political shock in the last two years – following the surprisingly close Scottish referendum, the unexpected Conservative majority in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader, and the vote for Brexit in June this year. In such a time of shocks, convulsions and change, people are understandably nervous and unsettled – especially when you consider the personal character of individuals like Mr Trump. It will take time to process the sea change that lies ahead of us, but in an increasingly divided world, I wanted to venture a few ways we can react positively today:
1. Be generous in appreciating women today
The first point really shouldn’t need to be a point – but sadly it is not the given that it ought to be. While I don’t think Trump’s victory was mainly due to misogyny (though it definitely is a factor), it is hard to ignore the fact that he has an unacceptable and disrespectful attitude towards women, even before considering certain of the allegations that have been made against him. For Trump to defeat Clinton, who for all her flaws is an articulate, hardworking and intelligent woman, is not a reassuring message to women that they enjoy equal esteem with men. We cannot do much about the heart attitudes of others, but we can make a small difference today by going the extra mile to make the women we know feel valued and appreciated, and ensuring we make a lifetime habit of that appreciation.
2. Take the time to grieve
Yougov released some fascinating polling regarding Brexit this week, comparing the reaction of Remain voters to the five stages of grieving. I think it helpfully shows that an unexpected political result, while obviously not comparable to the loss of a loved one, is nevertheless a severe shock to the system. Recognising the shock (or indeed the hurt) is the first step to giving yourself the space to recover from that shock.
3. Do not be anxious
One of the biggest comforts but also biggest challenges of my Christian faith is the exhortation: “Do not worry.” Even though we can see the wisdom in the saying ‘Who of you, by worrying, can add a day to their life?’ we still find reasons to be anxious! Whatever challenges lie ahead (and I have no doubts under President Trump we will face many challenges) we gain nothing but ill health by worrying about it. Yes, we might have to deal with some bad things, but a more positive response is to take comfort in our incredible capacity to rise to meet adversity.
4. In time, ask what you can do for your country
Finally, we each need to ask what role we have to play. Across the whole of the world there is a growing disconnect between communities and individuals; a dissociation from one another that is bigger than this blog has space for. The one thing Trump’s victory has shown us, is that complaining about the problem, or shouting at the problem, is not going to make it go away. Many people voted for Trump for bad reasons, but many also voted because they are crying out for someone to hear them. If we are to belong to one another again, we need to learn to listen to one another again, to bear with our differences, and to ask what we can do for our communities. Only by modelling something better, can we deliver something better.
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:
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.
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.
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.
In the last two weeks Westminster and Holyrood have voted to go in two separate elections – the national Parliament voting against an SNP amendment to allow voters aged 16 and over to vote in the forthcoming EU referendum, and the Scottish Parliament voting to extend the franchise in all Scottish elections (ie. Scottish Parliament and Scottish local councils) to all aged 16 and over.
With the focus of electoral reformers largely focused on attempting to get rid of First-Past-the-Post, it is easy to overlook that the likes of the Electoral Reform Society have also been campaigning to lower the voting age to 16. The franchise has not been extended in such a manner since 1969, when the threshold was lowered from 21 to 18, and pro-reform campaigners largely focus on three main arguments:
- Young people are increasingly impacted by government decisions, therefore ought to have a say in their government.
- Young people are less likely to turn out to vote than older generations; introducing the vote while at school may encourage them to learn the habit of voting.
- The age of adulthood is rapidly being reduced – by 16 you can be married (or living as married), employed, living independently of your parents, and a parent.
On the face of it, it would appear an open and shut case to extend the franchise to those aged 16 and over. I however would like to approach from a slightly different angle, and ask the basic underlying question: “What entitles someone to the right to vote?”
Last week also saw the celebration of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and it served to remind us that the vote was not an automatic birthright. Parliament in the first instance was the reluctant recognition by the monarch that if he wanted to tax men of property to pay for his wars, then the men of property expected to be consulted on how the nation was run. The franchise was therefore established primarily on the basis of property, not birthright, and over time this clause was progressively weakened until the point it was eliminated entirely. The decision that all men were entitled to the vote paved the way for women to have the vote, and in time to remove the entitlement of special voting privileges – such as the so-called ‘university seats’ (voted for by graduates of Oxford and Cambridge). In summary therefore, the question of entitlement to vote has effectively moved from who is entitled to vote, to who is not entitled to vote – which aside of certain specific restrictions is determined solely by whether one is old enough.
I think we can agree that the vote is not something you are immediately entitled to from the moment of your birth, and that there is a transitionary point at which one is deemed responsible enough to be entrusted with the vote.This is very well expressed in this excellent article by Julia Hartley-Brewer in the Telegraph. She points out that her eight-year-old daughter is more politically savvy than the average grown-up, but it is somewhat absurd to suggest she is entitled to vote!It is worth briefly asking if there were criteria other than age by which one could judge a person mature enough to vote.
While the neatest solution would be some sort of objective test by which a person proves they have sufficient command and understanding of the responsibility of voting that they can be entrusted with it, I could never support that. It would be ridiculously easy to set the bar too low or too high, or to introduce criteria into the test that have no right to be there, even if intended with the best intentions. We therefore use age as the determining factor for the same reason that there are age restrictions for other activities – while an imperfect measure, it is a means of ensuring that the person involved is mature enough to responsibly engage in the activity.
And that seems to be the greatest weakness in the argument for electoral reform – there is an arbitrary call to reduce the voting age without asking why a person should be entitled to or excluded from the electorate. The debate on the voting age is not as narrow as a debate on the electoral franchise. It is a debate about a bigger and much more significant issue – the age at which we ask our young people to accept the full responsibility that comes from being a mature adult. And the huge flaw in the call to reduce the voting age, is that it is not accompanied by calls to confer other adult ‘rights’ usually granted at 18. There is a good reason for that – under 18s are still children.
This statement is intended to be provocative, and every one of us can think of teenagers who are uncommonly mature for their age – but that’s rather the point. We are struck by a mature teenager (or even younger child) precisely because it is so unusual to see such maturity. I don’t think it does any of us any harm to swallow our pride and remember what we were like, even in our late teens. This is most obviously seen at universities – in between fresh-faced first years and a student’s final year a lot of maturing happens – surprising though it may seem, there really is a lifetime between those three or four years.
Don’t get me wrong – conferring responsibility is an important part of the process by which a child matures. The most beautiful description I have ever heard of parenting is “it is the act of progressively letting your child go.” It recognises that there is an equal risk of harm in giving your child too much freedom too soon, or not enough freedom quickly enough – but that the ultimate aim is for the child to become independent and able to successfully support themselves. On the face of it, this might sound like a good argument to let children vote earlier and learn the responsibility of their vote – why not have votes for even younger than 16? I would present two arguments however, as to why the franchise is best left at 18.
The first recognises that children are especially vulnerable to coercion, whether from parents or from peers. The problem here is not with children who have strong political convictions, who are protected by the secrecy of the ballot. The issue is for children who either have not yet developed the self-esteem to defend their choice, or those who have less interest in politics and are cajoled into voting a particular way. While this also applies to some over 18s too, they are less likely to be influenced as they are more likely to be living independently of their parents, nor are they in a hotbed environment like schools, where school elections demonstrate it is often popularity and forcefulness of character that carry the day, rather than issues. You only need to look at the example of the ‘Cybernats’ to imagine a scenario where schoolchildren are bullied into voting a certain way just to fit in. Regardless of the age you believe a person should be entitled to vote, I think it can be agreed that the action of voting should be an action to promote the maturity and independent decision-making of the voter. Giving the vote to children not yet ready to take that responsibility is not encouraging this – and arguably gives them a negative impression of the democratic process.
The second reason also pre-empts a reaction to the first point. “Of course you wouldn’t let young children vote,” you might say, “But 16 year olds are surely mature enough to take these decisions?” I therefore refer you back to the terms in which I have framed this debate – I think we can accept the point that voting should mark a transition to adult life with adult responsibilities. But the decision to lower the voting age is not consistent with lowering the age at which one can buy alcohol, or drive a car, or leave full-time education. Voting is a responsibility that ought to be tied to a transition to adulthood; and we should not be encouraging our young people to grow up too quickly.
Unlike the debate on changing our electoral system, I have very little patience for the appeals to give votes to 16 year olds. The reasoning for change has not been grounded in any kind of rigorous logic, nor does it merit the narrative of reform or justice that advocates for change have been using. It is my view that the age at which one is entitled to vote should be tied the age at which one is deemed ready for adult responsibilities – and that at this present moment there is no convincing argument that the age of adulthood should be lowered to 16.
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.
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.
Incredible as it may seem, it was only four days ago that we received that exit poll; that stunning, improbable exit poll. Five minutes before the poll, you would have got quite fantastic odds from the bookmakers on Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, and Nigel Farage (sort of) resigning within the next 24 hours; the SNP failing to hold the balance of power; or of any party winning an overall majority (or on Paddy Ashdown eating his hat …)
I say this because the political picture has been utterly transformed by the Conservative victory, and has taken many by surprise. As the night unfolded I was reminded of the advice the pastor of my church gave when we prayed as a church for the Scottish Independence referendum last September: “Pray for the peace of Scottish people, because if the opinion polls are accurate, at least half the nation will wake up the next day deeply unhappy.” I watched the results, and was painfully aware that the result was not going to be palatable for many voters.
As a Conservative I was naturally delighted that the country voted for David Cameron to continue as Prime Minister with a clear majority. I was also however aware of the human story behind the election – while my party colleagues and I were celebrating, many very decent and hardworking public servants were losing their jobs in the brutal glare of the public eye, and many equally hard-working party supporters were utterly heartbroken by the results. Of course, no-one enters politics without recognising defeat is part of the business – it is why I admired Esther McVey recognising after her defeat in Wirral West that the rough and tumble of electioneering, and the pain of defeat, is all part of the political game. But it is also wise to recognise those hurting after the election, and I think there are two fitting responses to this.
The first is by those participating, and with the notable exception of George Galloway (and to a certain extent Nigel Farage) it is striking that most of those members who lost their seats did so with incredible grace. Those who lost recognised they had lost the challenge this time around, and conceded that it would be the next election before they can step up and make their case again. Whether you find yourself interested in politics or not, I would encourage you to watch Jim Murphy’s resignation speech – it was justifiably described by the BBC’s David Dimbleby on the Election Night coverage as a ‘model concession speech.’
The second is for us as participators in the democratic process – and I include myself in those who should listen and learn. There was a feature on the BBC three years ago that attributed our relative stability to a free press allowed to criticise and (especially) to satirise the government – not least through political cartoons. There is a challenge for all of us to model a response to the democratic process that is grace filled in every sense – not just for those defeated to follow the lead of defeated MPs in gracefully accepting the result, but for defenders of the government to bear with good grace the robust challenges that will come from those opposed to the new government.
This is an important challenge to get right – it does not benefit democracy for opponents of the government to suggest that the result is illegitimate or that the electorate were somehow duped – we all knew the rules of the game, and in this election more than any other the option for a progressive coalition was quite clearly put forward and not difficult to vote for. But equally, democracy is not benefited if defenders of the government become precious about criticism. Our democracy is made stronger where the opposition robustly hold the government accountable for their actions, and where advocates of the government are able to equally robustly defend the government’s record – for both, one hopes, with a reasonable amount of respect and decorum!
I posted just before the election that the hard work would begin on Friday morning. I absolutely stand by that. I want this Conservative government to deal with the big issues facing the country – not least to heal the rift that has developed between Scotland and the rest of the UK. While we have won the election, the Prime Minister would be unwise to ignore the 3.5 million voters who voted for UKIP, but received a single MP (my own thoughts shortly forthcoming), and while I voted Conservative because I believe their policies are the right policies to look after the material well being of the nation, I still anticipate that there will be a need for voters nationwide to express their desire for the kind of One Nation Conservatism that David Cameron spoke of in his victory speech, and ensure that the party provides the basis to improve the material conditions of the disadvantaged.
There is however a bigger challenge, and while I want my party to rise to it, it really requires the whole nation to rise to it. Many of you may have seen this article in the Independent, which offers one explanation why the opinion polls were so badly wrong. It speaks prophetically into where we have reached as a nation – some of us fearful to express an opinion lest we earn the vitriol of the radical left, and a third of the electorate so disengaged that they abstained from voting. The election was only one end point – it determined who governs us for the next five years. For all us, life after the election means modelling mature political debate – and in saying that I recognise my own need to be challenged by friends to ensure I live up to the standard I am urging us to. It means disagreeing while not being disagreeable; having the courage to applaud someone for holding true to their values even if you do not share them; and challenging anyone who adopts the attitude that a person’s political views make them the legitimate targets of threats or abuse.
I do not dispute that this will be hard work, but I fervently believe that modelling this kind of grace filled behaviour will have a transformative effect on the way our nation does politics.