Saturday, 3 August 2019

A Remain Alliance in Wales? #RemainAlliance



In the wake of the fantastic win for the Welsh Liberal Democrats in Brecon & Radnorshire, there has been much talk of the effect on that election of the 'Remain Alliance'. There is no doubt that the Green Party and Plaid Cymru standing down helped, but we should be careful about reading too much into it. There are great claims circulating that 'it was that wot won it', so to speak, but I think that's in no way certain at all.

Firstly, it should be noted that neither party has been a significant factor in elections in that constituency - even in 2015 and 2017, when the Lib Dems were at their lowest ebb electorally and in the polls, they only managed to poll a couple of thousand votes between them. When the Lib Dems were winning, their combined vote wasn't really far over the one thousand mark at best. It is true to say, of course, that this time around the Lib Dem majority ended up 'only' being that kind of figure, but in the context of that election and the way that other party votes were being crushed by tactical voting, it's entirely possible that their combined vote would have been down in the hundreds anyway. And we don't actually know that all of those potential votes transferred straight across to the Lib Dems.

We need to be clear about what really happened with this 'Remain Alliance'. Two parties who had no hope of winning, and barely any hope of even holding their deposit, stood down. As a result a contest that was neck and neck, and could have gone either way, ended up with a Lib Dem majority of over a thousand. It almost certainly helped, but we certainly can't say for sure that it made a difference to the result. What we can be fairly certain about is that those Green and Plaid votes weren't in themselves anywhere near being the most significant factor in overturning a previous Conservative majority of 8000 or so (although the very fact of having a 'Remain Alliance' itself may well have attracted additional votes, especially from normally Labour-supporting Remainers).

There are many different variables in any election (and this one even more so, given the context of the former MP and Tory candidate and his conviction), and I'm not about to go into all of them, but while the 'Remain Alliance' idea was helpful, it would be unfair to characterise it as the main factor that caused the swing and the result. It would by unfair to say that the Lib Dems there owe everything to Plaid and the Greens (although that may be how those parties would like to portray it, of course). That said, we also need to note what might have been the effect of a 'Leave Alliance' between the Conservative and Brexit parties on the result (and this is a fairly 'balanced' seat in that sense, having voted roughly in line with the UK-wide result in the referendum).

Now, when it comes to a wider 'Remain Alliance' for a future General Election in Wales, I guess all this sounds like I'm trying to minimise its importance and head off down a negative path towards the idea. Not at all, actually. Quite the opposite. Brecon & Radnorshire is a seat where one of the 'Remain' parties was not only clearly first among them all, but was already in a good position to have a serious chance of winning the seat regardless of what the other parties did. That's relatively unusual in Wales. There are a few other seats that could be said to be like that, but across much of the country it is more a case of those parties wondering which, if any, might hold their deposit, and which, if any, might even get themselves into a decent third place place.

At this point, for non-Wales-based readers, I should perhaps point out something here. Wales is probably the most 'competitive' political environment of any part of Britain. Unlike England, we have a major 'nationalist' party in Plaid Cymru. Unlike Scotland, the Brexit Party (as it is now, as it was with UKIP previously), is actually a serious electoral force and prospect. To put it bluntly, despite the apparent dominance of Labour for the last century or so, we simply have more viable parties here who could potentially win seats, or at least significant numbers of votes. That context does matter.

Since (and even in advance of, including in the European Elections) the Brecon & Radnorshire election, there has been lots of talk about a 'Remain Alliance'. Feelings are running high on both sides of that argument, but we do need to be careful to understand the Welsh context properly. I'm a Liberal, a Liberal Democrat, and a pro-European, of course. I see many similar people, especially across the border, hailing the 'Remain Alliance' idea and heaping praise on Plaid Cymru as if they had handed us a seat we'd otherwise have lost heavily by standing aside. As I've just outlined, that isn't quite the case. Many of them don't really seem to understand Plaid as a party, and their (slightly strange) internal alliance of Civic Secessionists, outright (screaming) Nationalists, and disaffected 'Old Labour' Socialists.

Many also don't seem to understand quite how recently they converted to being a 'Remain' party. I was a candidate in the 2017 General Election, and sat in hustings talking about having a new referendum on the terms of the deal with my counterparts from Plaid, UKIP (then - now Brexit Party) and Labour (the Conservative candidate didn't bother to turn up). I was firmly in a minority of one - the Plaid Cymru policy then was very firmly 'respect the result of the referendum (albeit to have a 'Soft Brexit'), and that didn't change for quite some time afterwards (if I remember rightly, they didn't fully come around to a 'Peoples Vote' supportive position until they changed leader in September 2018). Plaid Cymru are not the SNP - they haven't been anywhere near an openly 'Remain' party throughout this process at all.

That means, I think, that we have to be very careful in forming an alliance for Remain with a party that might not be quite as fully and deeply committed to it as some people seem to think. I suspect that is a large part of what lies behind some of the apparent reluctance in Wales to dive headlong into such a deal. There are other factors, of course, including local ones (especially in the one seat that has a history as a Lib Dem/Plaid Cymru marginal, where there has certainly been, shall we say, some 'bitterness' between the two in the past (and there are many factors involved in that)). As a Liberal, I certainly don't see Plaid as being 'close natural allies' to the Lib Dems just because we seem to currently support the same line on the biggest issue of the day, or because we both oppose the dominance of the 'big two' created by our broken electoral system, or even because I am (as I've made no secret about) what some might call a little 'indy curious' myself (I'm not going to go into explanations of that issue here, but suffice to say it's certainly not because I'm any kind of narrow-minded 'Nationalist'!). I'm a Liberal. They are not (in general, or by policy) Liberals.

Again it sounds like I'm being negative about the 'Remain alliance' idea. I'm not. If we are going to go down that road, though, we have to do it with our eyes fully open. We have to have a firm agreement about exactly what we mean, and what we are agreeing about. We can't have any kind of informal approach of standing aside for each other without having set out why we are doing so and what we are agreeing to work together to achieve. We can't fall into the trap of 'my enemy's enemy is my friend', even in these strange political times - vaguely agreeing on a single issue, no matter how big, is not enough to form the basis and entirety of a situation where some political parties stand aside for others in different seats. We need clarity, and we need 'rules' set in stone about what we're fighting for, and what we'll then do if we gain some success. Even more so when we are dealing with a party that hasn't really shown any great length of commitment to that 'cause'.

We could, of course, just take the approach of 'locally' standing aside in those seats where one of the parties looks like they have a serious chance of winning. But what would be the point? In the context of the coming election being dominated by that one issue, 'tactial' voting really ought to be able to do that job for us all anyway (if the parties involved are any good at campaigning). It won't help us win, or be competitive, as an 'alliance' in as many seats as we potentially could be, and we'd still end up tearing each other apart publicly in the media because we're still fighting each other everywhere else (and that could damage the prospect of attracting each others' votes as an 'alliance' where we have stood aside, too - people are less likely to vote for a party that they see constantly attacking their own preferred party).

So what is the alternative? A full deal where we take the 40 seats in Wales and split them up between ourselves to maximise the potential 'Remain' vote? Is that realistic? Well, there are some obvious problems. One leaps out immediately - neither Plaid or the Lib Dems will surrender in Ceredigion, where they are actually fighting each other for the seat (with both having a realistic chance of success). It is, I think, possible for us to 'agree to disigree' on that one, though, and it might even be possible to have an agreement where the local parties involved agree to at least keep everything as 'civil' as possible so as not to disrupt cooperation elsewhere. Other than that one, why not? Why not actually try to change politics for good by doing something truly extraordinary in these extraordinary times. If we're not going to change it now, we never will.

What would be the 'end game', though? That's what we need to ask ourselves at this point. Nobody wants to put themselves in a position where they abandon completely the idea of campaigning locally in an election that they might not win (because it might help them to improve their situation for future elections), and nobody wants to rob their local electorate of the chance to vote for their party, and rightly so. In a democracy, everyone should be able to vote for the party or individual that they most agree with. The problem we come to, though, is that our democracy and electoral system is itself almost entirely broken and dysfunctional. It forces us to think the unthinkable about having to do such things in order to have any chance of ever overcoming the protected and privileged position of the 'big two' parties. This wouldn't be a choice any of us involved in democratic campaigning would willingly want to make, but one that is force upon us by the challenges we face.

That being the case, I see no point in a one off 'Remain Alliance' for the sake of the Brexit issue alone. Like Brexit itself, it wouldn't actually solve the real problem even if it was successful. Again, though, I'm not being negative towards the idea. It's just that I think we need to get it right if we're going to do it. For me, it would have to be about something more than Brexit alone - it has to be be a starting point to address the real issues, and as I've said before the real 'game changer' on that is electoral reform. If a 'Remain Alliance' is to happen, it has to also be every bit as firmly and prominently about the electoral system, and changing it to ensure that we never, ever need to go down this road of alliances and swapping standing aside in order to stand a chance of overcoming the inherent disadvantages handed to us by the system. It has to also be about Proportional Representation, or there is just no point in doing it. Without that, we'll end up here again at some point - talking about trying to do an extremely difficult deal with people we generally disagree with in order to achieve something against the wishes of the 'big two' parties.

If what we are talking about, then, is a 'Remain and Reform Alliance' to deal with Brexit and fix our broken politics, that is an idea that I can get fully behind. Yes, it comes with all of the problems I have already mentioned and more, but doing that effectively just once really could mean that we never have to do it again - once we have a decent PR system in place, with transferable votes, the whole concept of 'tactical voting' as we know it comes to an end, along with the idea of 'you must vote for Party X to stand any chance of defeating Party Y here'. That itself presents challenges to all parties and the way they do the business of campaigning, of course, but that's a matter for each of them to address for themselves.

It's a risk, of course. Even with a proper agreement in place, realistically we're not just suddenly all going to be trusting each other, loving each other, and sending each other flowers. Is it worth it, though? What are the potential gains to be had? We have to compare possible outcomes, both 'best' and 'worst', against what would happen if we all just carry on as normal. And we really have to look at those from not only the point of view of achieving the Alliance aims themselves (which realistically may or may not happen), but from the point of view of what the effects are for the party and advancing our general political aims.

Looking first at 'best' outcomes for the party, in a realistic way. Is it going to give that 'alliance', and all of its parties, more seats? The answer to that is 'yes' - at best, it could well do. As in B&R, it's not just the sum of the parts in vote terms, but also the gains from the deal itself in terms of attracting voters that may otherwise have gone to whichever one of the 'big two' was the least worst option for the individual (not to mention votes from those fed up with the whole circus and not feeling like there's any prospect of shifting them). On a party basis, it could put the Lib Dems in with a real chance of winning back a seat like Montgomeryshire. On top of that, even if we don't win more seats, it could put us in contention for future elections by putting us in a very strong second place - that could happen not only in a potentially winnable seat like Mont, but also in some others too. Perhaps even some slightly surprising ones (given that we're not only dealing with the left/right, Labour/Tory situation of old, but also the remain/leave balance among the electorate). It could allow us to concentrate our 'local' resources (including some potentially otherwise lost deposits) into places where we wouldn't normally be in particularly strong contention in order to get ourselves into a position where we could be in future, and that could be a big gain (even though it isn't a seat gain). We could come out of this with a a few Welsh Lib Dem seats (up from none at the last election, don't forget), and also a few more seats where we're in a good position for development. It might not work, obviously, but also it might - there is, I would say, a decent chance that it could.

What would be the cost of that? Of course, it would mean 'sacrificing ourselves' in other places. Being in a realistic position to win a Westminster seat is not the only consideration for campaigning locally in General Elections. It is a massively important springboard for other things - campaigning in wards where we hope to be able to win future council seats, for example. What is also vitally important in Wales (and this is something that is absolutely key that some of the advocates of this idea outside Wales may not be fully grasping in their enthusiasm) is the development of votes for future Welsh Assembly election, particularly when it comes to winning Regional Seats (and it's why such an 'Alliance' could never be contemplated in a Welsh Assembly election - people are far less likely to vote for a party on the Regional list if they aren't standing in the constituency). In Wales, every vote matters in a way that it doesn't in England - to win Regional AMs, which is how the Lib Dems are most likely to win AMs, we need to cultivate and look after our votes in the deepest of 'black hole' areas. We need to get and keep our overall percentages up. We cannot afford the relentless targeting attitude that can prevail elsewhere. We really cannot afford to 'disappear' anywhere, and standing aside in a Westminster election would be a huge risk on that basis.

I do think that there is a way of mitigating that issue somewhat, though it probably wouldn't eliminate it altogether. If we aren't standing in some of our weakest areas, we aren't spending out deposit money. Not only could it allow us to use it and other campaigning resources elsewhere (and in many places our local parties cover more than one constituency, so it's not like local parties are necessarily thinking about giving away the money to others), it could also allow us to, for example, put out a leaflet (perhaps even a paid delivery leaflet to every household) in the seat where we have stood down. We could deliver a leaflet telling people that it is only for that one election, why we have stood down, and so on - not standing in a seat doesn't mean that we have to be completely invisible and do absolutely nothing (even if we avoid election expenses complications by doing it before and/or after the election). This is something that could be considered at a Welsh/Federal level too - it would be hugely important, and the cost of helping local parties in Wales to do it would be relatively small. In some places outside of target wards, such leaflets could effectively even represent a bigger 'campaign' for us than actually standing and working a ward or two normally would. Yes, it would probably mean not knocking doors in our future target wards in the way that we normally do, but then that also frees up resources that could be used elsewhere, and could help to win us other seats, so even that has pros as well as cons. I guess there is also the potential of having, as part of any deal, a leaflet delivered during the election campaign by those who are standing with statements from those who aren't - that would work both ways, obviously, and is something we'd have to consider in terms of merits or otherwise for all concerned. Not standing doesn't need to mean being invisible to the electorate as a party.

What happens if we dont do it at all? Well, for starters, all parties would lose that additional potential 'Remain Alliance' attraction, as well as losing votes from the other parties involved. We'd be sending a message that it's 'business as usual', rather than it being a 'moment in politics' where we really could be voting to change things. Overall, the result for the Lib Dems could all too easily be another wipe out as happened in 2017 - perhaps an improved situation in those handful of seats where we're already in a strong position, but not quite close enough to actually win any of them. That could mean losing Brecon & Radnorshire, and not only would that be really bad for the party, but it would be a really bad look for public perception and our future percentages with those Regional AM seats in mind. Following that great byelection win by being 'wiped out' a few months later could very well be a complete disaster for the party - we need to show in some way that it is part of a movement upwards, and the beginning of something, not a brief swan song on the road to our ultimate demise. It's really that important to our future, and the future of Liberalism in Wales as a viable political force, I think. Not entering a 'Remain Alliance' comes with significant risks too, especially for us. Of course, there are also risks for other parties - in the case of Plaid, they would be likely to be, and be seen as, going nowhere, and it could be worse for them if the tiny majority in Ceredigion was overturned (that would be good for us, obviously, but overall would make no change to the 'Remain' campaign - the 'Remain parties' overall being seen as 'going nowhere' ultimately does none of us, or what is our current common aim, any favours at all).

We really shouldn't see 'business as usual' as being the 'risk free' option, or even as being much of a 'lower risk' option at this point. The chances of the outcome of that being particularly for us, other parties, or the Remain cause are tiny. What we, as a party, have to weigh up are the risks to our local and Assembly vote against the potential gains and losses of doing nothing. And personally I think the 'Remain Alliance' comes out significantly ahead on that. Such an alliance offers the possibility of us making significant gains in our stronger areas (including possibly seat gains), set against the risk in other places of going backwards a step or two down a well-greased ladder that we're already fairly near the bottom of anyway - at worst it mostly probably leaves us pretty much where we have been sitting for the last couple of years. Not having such an alliance not only leaves us where we are, but pushing us backwards in some of our strongest areas and reversing the massively significant and symbolic gain we've just made in Brecon & Radnorshire. For me, that's a no brainer.

Of course, I know there are those who will say there should be no deal negotiated at a Wales or UK level, and that everything should be done by local parties. I agree on a general principle of localism, but we shouldn't allow ourselves to fall into the the trap of allowing that to become outright, blind parochialism, and that's a huge danger here. Of course local parties should be consulted and informed about the process, but there has to be wider coordination. And ultimately we shouldn't be so self-destructive as to allow the whole idea, with all its potential benefits to our party and the country, to be derailed by a local party who refuses to play ball because they think they might just win a council seat in a target ward in a few years time in a seat where they're likely to lose their deposit while only campaigning in that one target ward. Local parties have to think about their local situations, but as Liberals and Liberal Democrats they also have to think about the wider picture - to me, there is absolutely no point in watching the whole country go to hell in a handcart over brexit and permanently broken politics for the sake of winning a seat or two in a council chamber. I will make no apologies whatsoever for saying that the massive damage of Brexit, broken politcs and an effective hard right coup aided by an incompetent hard left opposition absolutely trumps the possibility of having a minor influence on bin collections, library opening hours and pothole repairs. Every single time. Those things are important, of course, but let's not lose our perspective.

There are also those who will say that we must maintain our Liberal ideological purity, and never support or be seen to supporting or assisting or working with anybody else who doesn't share them. Those who would only vote for a 'Liberal', no matter what. I am in favour of exploring the possibilities of this idea BECAUSE I am a Liberal, not despite it. For me, part of my ideological background is an understanding of the need for pragmatism, and the idea that it is generally better to get the imperfect solution actually done than sit on the sidelines bleating about how only perfection can possibly ever be acceptable while improving nothing at all for people (and watching my world burn around me in a bonfire of howling populism, isolationism and illiberal and irrational supremacism). Of course, I would under normal circumstances only ever vote for someone I believe to be a Liberal. These are not normal circumstances, though, and I would have no hesitation in 'lending' my vote to another party as part of a wider alliance for the greater good. I would regard my vote for them not just as something about mitigating the immediate crisis the UK faces, but also as a 'proxy' vote for returns elsewhere - my vote here for another translating into a vote that wins the Lib Dems a seat elsewhere in Wales that we wouldn't otherwise win. I would be biting my tongue somewhat while doing it, no doubt, but if the end result is an extra Lib Dem seat elsewhere (especially in Wales), and maybe even the chance of an end to the hundred year dominance of Labour locally in favour of a different party (even though that party isn't my own), I'd take that as a 'win'. Willingly.

Yes, there are risks in doing this. Big risks. There are also big risks, and I would argue potentially bigger risks, involved in not doing it. If we're going to do it, we absolutely need to do it properly - with a proper Wales-wide agreement that maximises the potential for a positive outcomes for both the 'Remain and Reform Alliance' overall, and for my party overall (and as a party we would need to be concious of the need to work hard to mitigate the risks and potential disadvantages as much we possible can). A piecemeal kind of approach is not only likely to not be effective, but I think it probably maximises the risk at the same time - again, if we're going to do it, let's do it properly. I am an ideological Liberal, and this is inevitably a difficult choice to wrestle with, but ultimately I am not only willing to acknowledge the current extraordinary dangers and need to try something extraordinary in response, and the potential gains for the Welsh party overall outweighing the potentially losses for some areas (including my own), but I am also really not at all in favour of the concept of taking a bloody great axe to my own face on the grounds of some vague notions about nasal purity.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Allocation of Seats on Question Time #bbcqt



I've been having a think about BBC's 'Question Time' political debate program, and some of the problems it has had with panel selection over recent years in particular. The first thing to say is that this is not going to include an in-depth assessment of how many seats have been allocated to parties and individuals - others have done such work, but that isn't my focus here. This is about fixing the problem, rather than assessing exactly how the problem has come about and quantifying exactly what its effects have been.

On that point, though, I think it is sufficient to note that there have been many accusations about 'preferential treatment' towards certain outlooks, groups and individuals. There will some who will make such accusations on all sides, of course, and attempt to demonstrate them by their own assessments. The problem we have is that the show never seems to show us its 'workings out' in terms of exactly what criteria are being used to allocate seats and invite guests. I would hope that it has somethiing beyond 'gut feeling', but whenever asked or challenged on the issue it seems to respond with vague comments about 'a range of criteria', past election performance, current news-worthiness, and so on. They never actually seem to tell us 'this is the formula we use', and that is something that I think should be transparent. There is, after all, a duty to create 'balance', and if there is 'imbalance' people should be able to challenge it by looking at how it has all been worked out in the first place.

My answer to this issue, is to simple create my own set of criteria, and my own results according to those criteria, and let others judge for themselves (both about whether Question Time has got it anywhere near right, or whether I have got it anywhere near right!). I've gone down the road of creating a simple spreadsheet of quantifiable ways to judge the 'importance' of political parties in our UK electoral context, and allocate panel seats according to that.

Firstly, some assumptions that I've made. The average 'season' run of the show is about 40 episodes per year - it various by one or two in different years, but not by much more than that in recent times. Secondly, I've assumed that 4 of the 5 seats should generally be allocated to 'politicians', or party representatives. I realise that this isn't always the case, and that QT often includes two 'random guests' who are journalists, business people, and so on. I'm going to suggest that that is a problem for starters - we don't necessarily know their past or current party allegiance, and ultimately the show forms part of out public political debate between party positions and really ought to predominantly reflect that in being a place for politicians themselves to debate and be challenged (rather than providing a platform for journalists or 'historians' or whatever, with their own agendas and no public accountability). It really isn't 'balanced' to have three politicians reflecting three parties, and then (as seems to have been the case at times) have two others who clearly seem to broadly support two of those parties. Despite our flawed electoral system, we aren't actually a two-party state.

What I wanted to achieve was a simple 'seats per series' number for each party, based on their current influence and (reasonably quantifiable) popularity among the public. I think that's an entirely reasonable way to allocate seats - as much as I may support a 'smaller party', the 'bigger parties' should get more seats, because they have more influence and more support. That, I think, represents a reasonable 'balance' in reflecting reality, promoting scrutiny and avoiding any disproportionate 'promotion'. I also wanted it to include not only the Westminster picture, but a broader set of judgements of party influence throughout our system of democratic representation and legislative/administrative systems. That does cause a little difficulty in creating a set of figures that reflects, for example, influence within devolved institutions, but without allowing that to disproportionately allocate seats to parties that have less 'relevance' to a UK-wide audience (which meant my being a bit careful in choosing how, and how many, of the possible figures to include for devolved elections/representation, and how to balance that with areas that currently have no such institutions).

On that basis, I have settled on the following criteria:
Westminster influence/popularity:
1. Current seats in the House of Commons (to reflect current influence there, including 'defections' and so on, rather than just past electoral performance alone)
2. General Election Vote Share across the UK in 2017 (i.e. most recent, to reflect most recent Westminster electoral performance)
3. General Election Vote Share across the UK in 2015 (i.e. previous result, to balance any single election anomalies and allow for 'sudden dips' of parties that are still really relatively 'major players' in our political system)
4. Current seats in the House of Lords (not very 'democratic', I know, but it is a part of our legislative procedure, and is therefore an indication of 'influence' within the whole system)

EU influence/popularity:
5. Current seats in the European Parliament
6. European Election Vote Share across the UK in 2019
7. European Election Vote Share across the UK in 2014

Devolved institution influence/popularity:
8. Scottish Parliament (here I needed to include only one 'average' figure to avoid skewing the overall balances too far, and there are also two different sets of percentages in the electoral system for votes (constituency and region), so I did the following - average 'votes' between the two figures, then average that 'votes' figure with the percentage of current seats (again including defections, etc.).
9. Welsh Assembly (as with Scotland)
10. London Assembly (as with Scotland)
11. Northern Ireland Assembly (similar to above, but using just the 'first preference' percentage and 'current seats' figures)

Regional Counterbalance:
12. Here I had to counterbalance the devolved institutions by creating a figure for the regions of England (outside London). I did so by simply taking the regional vote share figure for the last General Election. That is imperfect, of course, in using figures already included in the overall General Election percentages, but I think a reasonable enough way to provide the balance I needed in the absence of separate regional elections.

A quick note here: if you really wanted to do this in a completely representative way, you would probably 'weight' all of these regional/national figures to population/electorate - for my purposes here I don't think that was really necessary, so I haven't done it.

Local Government influence/popularity:
13. Current Primary Authority Seats (I don't think it's necessary to include 'parish' type councils, since they tend not to be quite so 'party political', and those figures are harder to get hold of anyway)
14. Local Election Results (For England I have used the most recent three elections, both as a counterbalance to the other nations and because it reflects the balance of different seats coming up in different years, which isn't an issue for the 'all out' local elections elsewhere)

Current Opinion Polling (Westminster):
15. Up to date 'Poll of Polls' figure (in this instance I've used the 'Britain Elects' poll tracker, but there may be better options out there - I wanted to include polls to allow for any large popularity movements between elections, but without giving it too much weight in the final figures because polls aren't elections, and should not be treated as such)

An average of all of those figures gave me a 'percentage of seats' figure, which then gave me a number of seats per series (based on 40 shows, with 4 possible party seats per show).

I'll include a screenshot of the spreadsheet below, but the overall figures it gave me were these:

Conservative: 47 (so they should obviously be on every week)
Labour:45 (also every week)
Liberal Democrat: 13 (about once every three weeks)
SNP: 6 (every 7 weeks or so)
Green Party: 5 (about every 8 weeks)
Brexit Party: 5 (about every 8 weeks)
UKIP: 5 (about every 8 weeks)
DUP: 3
Sinn Fein: 3
Plaid Cymru: 2
UUP: 2
Alliance Party: 1
SDLP: 1
Change UK: 0



There's a few things to note about those figures. Firstly, this is 'number of seats', which for most will equate to 'number of shows', but there's an apparent problem for the two biggest parties in requiring more seats than there are shows in a year. I don't think that's a significant problem, though - the larger the party is, the more likely it is to be a 'broad church' with more than one view to be represented within it. Given their size and influence in the system, reflecting those different views within a party sometimes is a good thing. This has happened in the past on Question Time anyway, but this quantifies how often it should happen to create proportionality with other parties.

Secondly, Change UK have got a zero figure - they don't have enough popularity or influence to reach the threshold for getting a seat. There is an argument, which I accept, that they have MPs and were, for a time at least, 'news-worthy' enough to be given a seat at the table anyway. That's fair enough, I think, but that's very much 'A' seat, not a number of seats over a number of weeks, which runs the risk of inadvertently overstating their importance, influence and popularity. If they are going to get further seats, they should have to prove their relative importance by increasing seats, votes and/or poll ratings. It is not for Question Time to be a vehicle for 'promoting' 'new' parties, though some would argue that that is exactly what it has allowed itself to do in certain cases in the past (and indeed very recently).
 
Thirdly, I think the UKIP figure is particularly notable - they have just lost all of their MEPs, and they have no MPs, and nosediving ratings generally, but as a party that has been a big influence in the recent past I think it's entirely reasonable for them not to become instantly written out of the story. They may very well continue to decline, of course, and eventually disappear from the show, but I don't think that that is something that should be anticipated by the show itself - such anticipation would be the reverse of the 'new party promotion' issue, and would amount to inadvertently sealing their fate. That is certainly not the role of a public service broadcaster or its 'flagship' politics programming.

Finally on that, it means I think that we have a reasonable way to decide what happens with parties that have significant representation in a particular part of the UK, but not across the UK as a whole. The SNP is the obvious example, but there are a number of such parties. To allow them to be over or under represented risks again setting a narrative about their influence and popularity that can translate to devolved elections (depending in some cases on how 'strong' and 'independent' a specific media sector within the devolved area has), and that really needs to be avoided. So, as we can see, the Scotland-only SNP gets, for example, less seats than the Britain-wide Lib Dems despite having more seats (but less votes in General Elections, and so on), but it does get a reasonable number of appearances such that it isn't being ignored or 'written out'. Likewise 'minor' Northern Ireland parties do get heard, but don't get 'promoted' unduly above one another, or compared with parties standing elsewhere.

Of course, these are just the parties that I have included. A real world version should include every party standing in UK elections anywhere - most others are never likely to get a seat, of course, but it is possible for a new 'regional' party to rise and become important somewhere. These figures should all be under constant review anyway - 'past election' statistics don't change until there's a new election, but things like 'current seats' and 'polls' will, so the whole thing can be update to ensure that the correct and updated balance is being maintained across a 40 show series. If a party gets a sudden election result or other boost (or disaster) part way through the year, that can and should be reflected.

So those are my figures for seat allocation. I don't give any guarantees regarding the accuracy of every one background statistics I've used, or that I've made no mistakes, or whatever - this is more about general methodology and its transparency than about producing a 'real world' set of figures. Taking them as nothing more than a not unreasonable 'guesstimate', though, I'll leave you to judge for yourselves how well Question Time is doing at reflecting the number of appearances that the various parties should really be getting.

There are a couple of other 'rules' I'd want to change to make it a better show, too. On panel selection, as well as the above numbers I'd include a simple rule that no individual can appear on more than one show per series. No matter what. Specific (if inadvertent) promotion of individuals and 'personality cults' should be a big no-no. I would also include a rule on primary party representation generally belonging to the party to be represented - the party provides the representative to appear. The only exception to this is in the case of a party having more than one representative on a show (as would happen here with Labour and Conservative parties) - in that instance it would be for the show to invite another party 'representative' to represent a contrasting view within the party (or its affiliated organisations - for example, a Labour affiliated Trade Unionist with a contrasting view to the Labour leadership might count as a 'Labour second seat' appearance).

Those party representatives should have some standing, so I'd introduce definite rules about that, too, that they must be either:
a) An elected representative (MP, MEP, Member of a Devolved Institution, or Primary Authority Councillor)
b) A Member of the House of Lords
c) A Party Leader or other Elected Official within the party (deputy leader, 'president', 'chair', etc.)
In addition, I would include a guideline that all parties should seek, wherever possible, to have their representatives over a series from a range of those sources (to get a broad view of parties as a whole, and to encourage the putting forward of MEPs and so on as well as just 'front bench' MPs and spokespeople).

The show does have to provide a balanced panel, and needs to make sure that that balance is created within each show, as far as possible, between left, right and centre, and in the current case between views on the biggest issue of the day (which happens to unusually cut across party lines in some parties). Again, it must reflect the debate, not set the agenda - it is unacceptable to decide, for example, that a particular option or opinion is 'not important enough' in the current debate to be included. My obvious example is Brexit, of course, and the way that panels have at times been apparently reasonably 'balanced' on a 'left/right' scale, but have involved no individual who wants to do anything other than implement their own version of Brexit. It is not for producers to decide that the matter of whether to leave the EU has been 'closed' by the referendum itself when it is clearly still a large part of public opinion and debate, or two decide that 'balance' is therefore at best represented by one single 'Remainer' facing four slightly different versions of 'Leaver'. That kind of issue is something that the panel selection really has to take very seriously. It's not always easy, of course, and it's not always possible to reach perfection of 'balance' on everything in every show, but it must be considered.

There is, of course, a final big 'elephant in the room' - the audience. Much has been said and written about the audience invitation and selection issues that the show has had over recent times. In a recent example, they seemed unable to find a single SNP-supporting member of an audience in Scotland, which clearly makes a bit of a nonsense of their supposed attempts to 'balance' the views within their audience. Also, there's the issue of suspected (by some) 'plants', invitations and encouragement going out to particular groups, on air comments being invited from known party activists, and so on. This is a significant problem for balanced debate - the whole discussion happens against a backdrop of the audience reaction and noise, and the studio audience reaction can colour the perception of the television audience at home. In such a popular show that could actually be influencing are entire national political debate, and that is really not acceptable. It's not just about getting 'balanced' questions and comments - it's about the public being allowed to make up their own minds on what is being said by all participants equally and without favour, without being influenced by particular audience reactions which may themselves be 'politically motivated' and 'unbalanced.

In the modern world, there is an answer to this. There is a way of allowing every panel member to put their view forward in which the audience at home are not being led in one direction or another by 'noises off'. There is no realistic way to 'balance' a studio audience - anyone who thinks this can be done is kidding themselves. You can do all the research you like in trying to invite or allocate tickets to the right people, but ultimately people can simple say they are one thing when they are really quite another (and I suspect that may be part of what's been going on). Once they are there and you are 'live', you can't stop them being what they really are.

The answer, I suggest, is to remove the studio audience altogether, and invite questions and comments 'live' via social media (to be put to the panel in the usual way and at the usual points in discussion by a second 'host' who is monitoring the social media channels, and able to filter comments for and against for 'balance' between views - you can't 'balance' a social media audience, of course, but then you don't actually need to!). This may sound extreme, I guess, but from personal experience I think it really works extremely well. I've attended a number of hustings, of course, which is all Question Time really is. As a candidate in 2017 I was involved as a panel member myself in a hustings, but one held as  'Facebook Live' event rather than having a 'live audience'. I have to say that I think it was a great way to do it - a host putting questions (and social media comments) to the candidates, but without the emotionally-charged, baying bearpit atmosphere that such events sometimes create (and sometimes in a very unbalanced way, depending entirely on which candidate has managed to 'flood' the audience with their own supporters). It simply allows each candidate to make their point, discuss, debate and be challenged in the usual way, but in a much fairer way to present to the wider audience, without some being cheered and others shouted down, or 'studio' audience reactions creating their own consequent viewing audience reactions.

Let the people at home judge for themselves, rather than putting in a studio audience that can't possibly be balanced in order to 'lead' the judgements for them.

So, to get back to the main point, I have now set out my basic methodology and criteria for deciding how many panel members from different parties should be selected to appear on Question Time. I don't claim any kind of perfection, but it is at least an attempt to produce something that is clear, transparent, and based on quantifiable factors. My question is whether Question Time will ever do the same.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

My thoughts on THAT Daenerys storyline #GameofThrones



I've not written a post about Game of Thrones before, but if you've read my bio it should come as no surprise that I'm a bit of a fan. The latest and penultimate episode, 'The Bells', has caused a great deal of controversy among (some) fans, and in my opinion quite wrongly. I think the ultimate direction of the character arc of Daenerys has been trailed right from the beginning.

To start off with, I'll make a very simple point - if you weren't expecting something like this, you weren't watching when Dickon Tarly got royally toasted!

This has always been her character - she is vengeful and vindictive, and she is utterly cold and ruthless in that. She always has been, almost from day one. The first piece of obvious evidence, I'd suggest, is the death of her brother at the hands of her husband. That was an obviously cruel death for her only (then known) kin, with whom she had spent her life, and to whom she had until then looked for guidance and 'command'. True, we all cheered - he was a total dick, and in the context of that world 'deserved everything he got', but witness her reaction. Utter cold disdain - no sign of any kind of sorrow or remorse over what was being done to him right in front of her.

This is a key moment in setting the character. She deals in absolutes - you are either her 'friend', in which case you are her obedient servant as Queen, or you are her 'enemy'. 'Betrayal' is similarly 'absolute' - once you have crossed that line, you are an enemy, and you are, in her mind, sentenced to death. Likewise with Dickon - no sense of mercy when it came to offing someone who had done nothing 'dishonourable' or 'wrong' other than being 'disloyal' to her in being 'loyal' to his own father. to call his punishment 'harsh' would be a massive understatement.

Again, we all cheered when slavers and unsullied creators were mercilessly treated, but that was always her instinct. 'Mercy' is something that she is capable of, as we know, but it only comes as a result of outside influence, not from Daenerys herself. That influence has to be from a close friend, and even then is a matter of reluctance on her part. Yes, she believes herself to be a 'champion' of slaves and the downtrodden - the Breaker of Chains - but has that ever really been the case, in any sense of genuine human generosity? She may believe so herself, but has it? In how many cases has it really, unconsciously on her part perhaps, about furthering her own ambition and position, and creating a whole bunch of new loyal servants for herself?

We tend to fall in to the trap of seeing things as 'black and white' ourselves, especially when it comes to a genre like fantasy. We are used to the idea that everyone is a 'goody' or a 'baddy', and if someone 'changes side' it's because they've always been a 'secret baddy' just waiting for the 'reveal' (and it's usually been pretty heavily trailed in advance). And the 'goodies' always win. That's the way that the whole genre has been set up since the days of The Hobbit, and it's what we are conditioned to expect. Game of Thrones has always been a little more complicated than that - 'goodies' do bad things, and 'baddies' do good things. OK, we assume that it's always in furtherance of their 'noble aims' or whatever, and we readily accept a bit of 'the ends justify the means', but there has always been a pattern of people appearing to shift from one side to the other, and of 'good people' losing to 'bad people'. There have been few constant 'hero' characters, and those that there are have been pretty flawed in terms of how consistently 'good' they are. And even those have often ended up dying horrible, and horribly 'unjust', deaths. Daenerys has always been presented to the viewer effectively as a 'goody' (but with some perhaps slightly tendencies), but has that ever really been the case?

Taking a brief look at a few of the other 'heroes', as much as we all, I'm sure, tend to cheer Arya Stark, she is basically a kid who has gone through some significant childhood trauma and come out on the other side as a cold-blooded (but highly trained) assassin. An assassin driven by revenge - revenge for wrongs done, of course, but are have those always been entirely fair reflections of the characters on her 'list'? Is she really the 'goody' we tend to think of her as? Can she be a 'baddy', but one who seems to be 'on our side'? We can see what happened with The Hound - was he really deserving of an assassination at her hands, or, as ended up happening, just being left to die in pain? Perhaps so, perhaps not - it's complicated, and perhaps her story arc has finally tilted in the opposite direction in 'The Bells' (but perhaps not - no doubt we shall find out in the finale). Let's be fair here - even ultimate 'goody hero' of the piece John Snur can be a bit executey at times - did he really need to hang a small child for his 'betrayal'? Maybe it's the Targaryan in him, but then again maybe it's a Stark thing - it's not like original 'goody' Ned Stark was averse to chopping heads off people who probably didn't really deserve to have their heads chopped off, just 'cos them's the rules. And then we have elderly ladies with clever age-defying necklaces, doing obviously 'baddy' things but then coming in to save the day at the end. And as for Jaime Lannister - he's been simultaneously bad and good almost from the beginning, and varied from one to the other depending on his circumstances and company at any given moment. And who knows which way Sansa is going to end up going!

Game of Thrones, as a complete story, doesn't deal in 'absolutes' of characters in the way we would normally expect from a simple fantasy tale. It's much more 'humanised', and characters are far more developed and complicated that that.

By know you'll probably be thinking about the blatantly obvious exception to the Daenarys absolute 'with me or against me' character - that of Jorah Mormont. He was a friend, then an enemy, then a friend again. He was the only one who betrayed her who was banished rather than killed, and he'd also been the only one who had really been able to get through to her with a strong moderating influence of 'mercy'. Other advisors like Tyrion and Varys have been able to moderate her to some extent, but probably by persuading her about where her self interest lies, rather than by persuading her over issues of 'right' and 'wrong'. They are (were!) clever men, able to manipulate - they weren't able to 'get inside her head' and 'touch her humanity' in the way that Jorah was (and take a look at the difference in fate when the line was crossed). He was, in a very real sense, her 'conscience' throughout. That is why his death was so critical to the story, to the Daenerys character arc, and to what happened at Kings Landing. Far more so, I would argue, than the death of Missandei - that was really all about Grey Worm and his development. For Daenerys it was more just about that being a 'final straw' that pushed her to where she was inevitably now going, having finally lost the voice of her conscience. The death of Jorah was the moment when her character became completely possessed and controlled by that cold, vicious, vindictive, ruthless side that we've always known was there.

She is now truly 'breaker of chains' - her own chains of moderation, conscience and humanity. From her perspective, pretty much everyone is now against her rather than with her (that's the absolute - the people of Kings Landing showed no signs of being on her side, so they were therefore her 'enemies' - there's no possible 'innocent' in between state), and she is going to take revenge on as many as she can until fear brings everyone to their knees, and makes everyone her 'loyal servant' and 'friend' (though that paranoia about betrayal will inevitably always be there, and she will never truly 'trust' again). And she'll do so in a totally cold-blooded way, because that is who she has always been.

There are those, of course, who are unwilling to accept the direction that things have taken as consistent with the characters and the past apparent direction of plot development. They have even signed a petition asking for the final season to be remade because of it - frankly, one of the more ludicrous things I've seen related to a TV show, but then the same has happened with people who can't accept similar nuance brought to the Star Wars franchise, and the character of Luke being a little more flawed than they thought (even though we've always known that he had such possible tendencies of 'fear and anger leading to the dark side' in his character (despite him coming back from the brink once again)). It just doesn't conform to their neat fantasy world view of simple 'goodies versus baddies'. They should always have been expecting it, though - it was always clearly on the cards, even if they preferred not to notice, and Game of Thrones has never shied away from doing things that were both a little unexpected and entirely shocking to the viewer. Those people are, in my opinion, completely wrong, of course.

Game of Thrones has, I think, genuinely been one of the greatest works ever brought to television. A bold claim, I know, but I believe a thoroughly justified one.Not simply because it's fantasy and I happen to be a fan of the genre, but because of its beautifully executed sense of drama on a human level through character development. That's a very rare thing generally, but even more so in genres like fantasy and science fiction. There are those who have dismissed it as a work because they've seen dragons and swords and even zombie-like things (not to mention blood and guts and boobs - there's plenty of that kind of stuff!), and fair enough it's not a genre that is going to appeal to everyone. It is so much more than that, though, from a 'serious dramatic arts' perspective. It's created and explored a set of characters and character inter-relationships in a way that has real depth and humanity, and without compromise to common viewer expectations of how our 'heroes' and 'villains' should be portrayed. That's incredibly unusual, and it's a real gem of such art. I could wax lyrical ( slightly pretentiously, no doubt!) about Shakespeare and the like here (I'm also a big fan of such drama), and the complexities and layers of characters like Hamlet and how they are developed over the course of a play, but suffice to say that it is rare to see that kind of level of deep character development executed over the course of eight seasons of any television drama, let along one where people are waving swords, riding dragons and casting the odd spell at each other (with their tits out, at times!). It really has been something special in the genre, and as a work of drama, and fully deserves the respect of the kind of 'serious drama' audience that might have been put off by the fantasy genre image. Yes, it is a bit dragony, and extremely sweary, and gratuitously violent, and contains a vast quantity of breasts and other bare human bits, but don't let all that put you off - it is also a genuinely great television drama.

As a slight tangential aside, just to finish off, I do find myself idly wondering whether there is some manifestation of real world political thinking going on here, among those who are really unable to accept how things are being tied up at the end of it all. Whether those people who are unable to accept the nuanced direction of previously only hinted possibility are the same kind of people who seem to struggle a little with such nuance of character and issue in the 'real world'. Is it the case, perhaps, that some people just really like to see things in 'black and white' and 'absolutes', and view politics in the same kind of way, setting up 'heroes' and 'villains', and then finding that some 'heroes' aren't really so consistently 'heroic' after all, disappointing them into a dramatic 'betrayal' from real life political 'goody' to 'baddy'? Does the same kind of thing even extend into the kind of political views they hold - lack of nuance, extreme and uncompromising 'one thing or the other', 'nothing in between', and even, Daenerys-like, 'enemy or friend'? I don't pretend to know, or to know how dissatisfaction with the current and final Game of Thrones season may correlate to political opinions, but it's an interesting thought. A question for someone's future politics student thesis, perhaps, if such a thing isn't being researched already!



PS. Yes, that photo is me sitting on the Iron Throne. *Spoilers* (sweety!)! Now there's a final episode plot twist you weren't expecting! Mwa-ha-ha-ha!

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Nick Boles, Deselection, and Proportional Representation



I've written about proportional representation before, but the recent issues surrounding deselection threats to Nick Boles (who last night quit the Conservative Party, of course) and Dominic Grieve have cemented still further my view that the answer to our political problems is Proportional Representation, and in particular Open List Single Transferable vote (STV). Of course, the issue of the proportionality of parliament compared with votes cast is a huge one, along with the issue of 'broad church' parties that are encouraged by our current First Past The Post system. It's not just that, though - Open List STV would not only give the public a real choice between parties, making every vote count for something as they don't now, but also give them the choice between the candidates being put forward by those parties. In these days of 'deselection' threats due to 'factionalism' within the two big political parties (as opposed to being due to incompetence, which almost never seems to happen), it could be key to really sorting out the way our whole system of government and legislation operates. I thought today might be a good day to explain why I believe this, and how such a system could work (partly also because I was discussing such things on social media yesterday).

Let's think about FPTP, and the common arguments in favour of the current system. Firstly, of course, is the idea it usually creates parliamentary majorities, and so 'strong and stable' governments. As we can see in parliament at the moment, though, this certainly isn't always the case, and when it isn't it tends to happen at critical moments when the public are unsure about something that's going on and how the big two parties are going to deal with it. So the weakest time for the system and the parliament it creates is right at the point when a stable government and/or parliamentary arithmetic would probably be most useful. When it does fail, as it has failed now, the tribalist instincts it creates and so deeply entrenches makes it that much harder to solve. Politicians and their parties are simply not used to working together across party lines - it goes against every instinct that they have built up over the years.

Secondly, there is the oft mentioned link between politicians and constituencies - the idea that a Member of Parliament serves a particular place the people who live there (and has been directly elected by them. There is something to this, of course - people do need to be able to speak to, get help from, or lobby their local MP (or at least 'a' local MP - more of that shortly). However, that doesn't mean we have to be glued to a system of one MP to one small area. In Wales we have some Assembly Members elected on a 'Regional List' system - they serve a particular area and electorate, but just a larger one than a Constituency Member. This proves it can be done, and it only becomes any kind of a practical difficulty in extremely rural areas where there are no major centres of concentrated population. The reality, though, is that there are only really two areas of the UK where that could be considered a significant issue on the kind of scale that I'm going to go on to describe. Is it really reasonable to worry too much about those two areas (Mid & West Wales, and the Highlands & Islands of Scotland) ending up being slightly 'over-represented' as a result of needing to keep the geographical scale reasonably manageable? I would suggest not.

Thirdly there is the issue of 'small parties', and in particular 'extreme fringe parties' gaining seats in parliament. Under FPTP it's extremely hard for them to do so, because they have to concentrate large amounts of support in a very small area. the example of UKIP is the most obvious one, where they had significant electoral support in terms of votes, but spread around large areas, so they failed to win a single seat in parliament. Of course, there's a strong argument for saying that any party who gains votes should get seats accordingly, and UKIP should certainly have gained some when they were at their height (they were hardly 'fringe' in the sense of support base). However, there's also an argument for suggesting that collections of tiny extreme fringe parties could end up with disproportionate power in 'hung' parliaments, despite the overwhelming majority of people wanting them nowhere near government. I think there can be a reasonable balance struck between those two possible outcomes, such that seats do broadly reflect votes proportionally, but tiny fringe parties don't end up effectively gaining power through disproportionate leverage in a fractured parliament. Here it should, perhaps, be noted quite how much influence the DUP have ended up with in the current parliament when they have a tiny number of members elected by one particular community in the smallest part of the UK - clearly FPTP isn't exactly perfect in preventing such issues from occurring.

There are quite a number of obvious disadvantages to FPTP too - it creates disproportionate parliaments where seats barely reflect votes at all, most people are disenfranchised because they live in 'safe seats'. General Elections are actually decided by a small number of voters in a small number of 'marginal' seats, and most MPs get elected for life just by being selected, no matter how rubbish they may be. 'Safe seats' on its own is a huge, huge issue for democracy. I, for example, have voted in every election since I turned 18, but I've never lived in a place where my vote is likely to make any difference at all in a General Election - everywhere I have lived happened to be in very 'safe' Labour territory, so my vote might as well have been thrown straight in the bin. Those places will continue to vote Labour, because the overwhelming majority of people don't want the Conservatives in power - under FPTP it really becomes as simple as that. It also has a huge impact on the 'disconnect' between politicians and people - the dominant 'safe' party doesn't have to work for their position, and everyone knows that there's little point in trying to change that through voting for and/or contributing to other parties, so they become pretty much 'democratically dead' areas where 'on the ground' campaigning barely exists at all (even in local elections). I have never been able to influence the outcome of a General Election, and that is true for the vast majority of the electorate. The two party system FPTP creates also has a huge impact on the voting itself, and the pressure to vote 'negatively' one way to 'keep the others out'. I don't think any of that is satisfactory if you're going to call a country 'democratic'.

There is also an issue of 'representation', and being able to 'lobby' your MP. Everyone has the right to do so, of course, but how far you're going to get could depend on how much the MP in question happens to reflect your views. A lot of the time, the answer for many people is 'not at all'. You have one representative, and if their views are at odds with your views you're not going to get very far asking them to represent your views in parliament. Obviously all MPs should help all constituents in 'non-political' cases, but when it gets more political it becomes a problem that constituents have no alternative to go to. To return to my own example, I have always, as I said, been 'represented' by Labour MPs that I have never voted for, and that I disagree with on many issues. In particular, during periods of Labour government, if I wanted to 'lobby' them against something the government was doing I would have little chance of getting anywhere. The Iraq War was an obvious example of that - unless I happened to lived in a place where the MP was a 'rebel', I would have just got a letter back saying 'I hear what you say but I don't agree', and that would be that. In reality, many MPs and their staff are going to be spending a great deal of time responding to constituents in similar ways - I don't agree with you, so I'm not going to take your concerns any further. That's not great, I'd suggest, for a 'democracy' where everyone feels 'connected', 'invested' and 'involved'.

So let's look at some of the possible alternatives. Firstly, there is the idea of a truly and fully proportional system across the whole nation - where there is no geographical link at election time (though in some systems elected members can be 'allocated' to particular regions, which I think is a pretty awful way of achieving such a link). In effect, the whole country becomes one big 'constituency', people choose between parties (either by a preferential system or not), and those parties are awarded seats to allocate to their list of candidates. This is undoubtedly the best system in terms of creating a parliament where votes reflect seats, but as I've already mentioned the purity of that is not necessarily the only consideration. It's likely to create a fairly fractured parliament with lots of small parties who may end up with disproportionate influence, and it also means that there's no practical way of deciding between individual candidates (the ballot paper would be a bit big if we all had several thousand candidates to choose between!). That puts parties into absolute control of who gets elected, even more so than under FPTP - the public have no way of choosing between possible representatives, or of removing individual representatives that they think should be removed.

A word here about 'thresholds'. Every election under any system has a 'winning post' - a 'threshold' point at which someone wins a seat. Under FPTP, of course, that threshold is 'one vote more than the next candidate' - in some rare cases not even that, since a draw can happen (unlikely and usual, but it can and does, and then it's 'draw straws' time). Different systems obviously have different thresholds, and in the case of a fully proportional national list system it becomes very low - there are many seats to be allocated to one set of votes, so someone is going to get allocated a seat with only a very small percentage of votes cast. The likelihood is that a number of very small, and possibly very extreme 'fringe' parties, with end up getting a handful of seats that could give them the disproportionate amount of power that I mentioned earlier. It's a strictly proportional outcome, but not necessarily the best outcome overall for a practical parliament and government that can get things done.

Next on the list we have the 'Alternative Vote' system - the kind of system that we had a referendum about in 2011. All that essentially means is that the same constituencies apply as in FPTP, but voting is 'preferential' - in other words, instead of putting your 'X' in the box you number the candidates according to your preference. In this system the threshold becomes 50%. Counting involves a process of counting 'first preference', knocking out the candidate with the lowest number of votes and redistributing those votes according to second preference, and keeping going until someone has got 50% of the vote. It is an improvement over FPTP in a sense, because the winning candidate effectively has to have reasonable acceptability to at least some of the supporters of other parties. However, it still has many of the disadvantages of FPTP, without really gaining any of the advantages of a more proportional system. It would change the make up of parliament somewhat, but it wouldn't end the total dominance of the biggest parties, or the issue of most people feeling 'unrepresented' by a single MP that doesn't reflect their own views.

The reasons for that being chosen in 2011 rather than a more proportional system were practical ones - any form of PR would have been against the manifestos of both of the big parties, and would never have got through parliament to even get the referendum. AV, though, was in the Labour manifesto, so they were compelled to support it (I could speculate about their contributions during the referendum campaign, and how much they genuinely supported it, but that's not really the issue here). It would probably have ended up slightly more 'proportional' in some ways than FPTP almost by accident, but more importantly it would probably have kick-started a process that would have led to further changes (as the balance of parliament changed, and the public saw the potential advantages of further change to a better system). An opportunity missed, sadly, but still not a great system. It also leads to an issue that was often brought up during that referendum campaign - 'those with the most votes not winning'. That's not quite the case, obviously, but it does mean that the person who gets the most first preference votes could end up not winning the seat if others were able to gather more second or third preference votes than them. I see that as a good thing, personally, since candidates have to have some broad appeal, but it was painted (wrongly, in my opinion) by opponents as being 'confusing to people'. Personally, I think most people are perfectly capable of understanding such issues, and we already manage to use use more complicated systems anyway.

Which brings me to the 'Additional Member System', which is operated in the Welsh Assembly. This gives people two votes - a 'constituency' vote for an individual and a 'regional list' vote for a party. The constituency members are chosen by FPTP in the usual way, but then the regional list members 'top up' the overall seats to make them proportional (or as close to that as practically possible). Here the mathematical calculations do get ferociously complicated, because the overall regional proportionality has to be calculated to take into account both the votes cast for parties on the regional lists and the seats already won by FPTP in constituencies. This system has been in place in Wales for decades now, and to me that clearly invalidates any possible anti-PR arguments of 'it's too complicated' or 'people won't understand how it works'. If people can live with AMS, they can live with anything! The reality is that most people just accept that the system works, and go and cast their votes accordingly - in this case, almost nobody understands the actual mathematics behind it all, but it is available if anybody really wants to (and good luck to you if you do!).

AMS isn't a 'bad' system, but I just think there's better available - it is fairly proportional (once it's all been calculated!), of course, and does maintain that constituency 'link'. How it's used in Wales, though, it does use a 'closed list' idea for regional members, so voters don't get a choice of which individuals will be allocated regional list seats (one could speculate, for example, that even UKIP voters in Mid & West Wales might have preferred a candidate other than the not exactly universally popular Neil Hamilton elected to the Assembly via the regional list vote, but they didn't get a say in that - it's vote UKIP or don't). It also has the advantage of giving people the chance to go to 'their' Assembly Member' and having more than one choice. I could visit my Labour constituency AM, or I could instead currently choose one of two Plaid Cymru AMs, or a Conservative AM, or a former-UKIP-now-independent AM (the fact that since 2016 I can no longer choose my Lib Dem regional AM is a source of great personal regret, of course). That does come with some perception issues, though - while all AMs are nominally equal, there are certainly those who regard 'Regional AMs' as being 'lesser' than 'Constituency AMs' because they weren't personally elected by voters but gained their seat through a party list.That two-tier issue is also one of what size of area each AM has to cover, which some having far bigger patches than others (though maybe less work per square mile, since most people probably go to their constituency AM first by default habit).

I've mentioned lists a couple of times now, so perhaps I ought to expand on that a little. Essentially, a 'list' is a group of candidates selected by their party for an election where more than one seat is being elected at the same time, and put into the party's order of preference. If there is no 'list', electors simple choose between individual candidates, and parties cannot express any preference about which of their candidates they'd like elected as the highest priority. Doing it that way also has the disadvantage of making ballot papers very confusing - if a Conservative Party voter wants to vote for all of the Conservative Party candidates, they have to search through all of the candidates (who may be listed alphabetically as now) to find them, and in a multi-seat election there could easily be 30 plus candidates to search through. They could be grouped together by party and listed alphabetically, but there is an issue then with people (unless they have a strong preference for individuals) naturally tending to vote for the one at the top first and working downwards - that gives an unfair advantage to a party candidate who happens to have a surname beginning with an early letter in the alphabet, and that person may not be the candidate that party members have expressed a preference for in their selection process. In other words, the first one elected may well not be the one the party has put forward thinking that they are the best candidate for the job.

There are two types of list, and how they work is fairly self-explanatory, but I'll spell it out briefly (as 'briefly' as I'm likely to do anything, anyway!). A 'Closed List'  means that the party selected their list and voters vote only for the party - who gets the seat is entirely up to the party, not the voter. Candidates put themselves forward for selection by their parties, and their parties allocate them a position on the list through whatever internal selection processes they have. Voters only get to tick/cross or put their preferences in a box next to the party name, and if the party wins a seat it goes to the top person on their list. There are a few possible advantages to this, since it means the seat belongs to the party not the individual - that means if an individual resigns their seat, the party gets to reallocate it without the need for a by-election. On the other hand if a member resigns from their party, they don't necessarily get removed from that seat, so the party has lost some of the representation that voters had given them (this is currently the case with several Assembly Members, most notably several of those elected under the UKIP banner). It also means that ballot papers are likely to be very simple even when there are lots of individual candidates. The big disadvantage is the one I mentioned in relation to Mr Hamilton in the Assembly. The public are even less able to shift a particular member that they don't like than they are under FPTP, and it's hard enough to do in that system. Voting out an individual means voting out an entire party, in effect, and not everyone wants to do that. It also means that if, for example, they want to vote Labour but for a 'Corbynite' candidate rather than a 'Blairite' one, they don't have that opportunity any more than they do now.

The other type of list, and the one I would advocate, is the 'Open List'. That works just like a 'Closed List' in the sense that the party selection process allocate their candidates a position on the list, but the names also appear on ballot papers with the public being able to vote for them (or not) individually in whatever order they like. That sounds like a ballot paper might get confusingly large, but actually it isn't - all of the candidates are grouped together by party, in the order that their party has chosen them. The best way to do it is really to have two sections to a ballot paper, such that people can chose to either vote for the party (as if it were a 'closed list', with their preferences then being counted as going to the list in order as allocated by the party), or if they prefer vote for individual candidates (if they don't like the order the party put their candidates in). That's not actually complicated at all for voters, as I shall try to illustrate in a moment.

Just before doing that, having now identified one part of my preferred electoral system, 'Open List', I'd better get to the other part, and explain how they operate together as a system. That would be the 'Single Transferable Vote' system, based on constituencies returning multiple members to parliament. To put it simply, rather than five of the current constituencies returning one member each, they would be grouped together into one larger constituency that returns five members. Those numbers are flexible, of course - you could group six together to return five members if you want to reduce the number of MPs, or you could base it on the 'new' constituencies proposed by the recent Boundary Commission review, or redraw the map entirely - the principle is the same, though. I chose five members deliberately - that is really, I think, where STV works best to give a real choice for electors while keeping the winning 'threshold' at a reasonable level. There's some possible flexibility there, too - some suggest that different constituencies could return different numbers to keep the geographical area down in more rural areas, though personally I don't think that's necessary (given the limited areas in the UK where that matters anyway, as I said earlier).

This system is 'preferential', and similar to the AV system in that electors rank the candidates by order of preference, and then the count proceeds by allocating a seat every time a candidate passes the threshold (reallocating any remaining votes for them by further preference), and knocking out the one with the lowest number of votes (reallocating their votes by next preference) when no candidate has reached the threshold for a seat. It is broadly 'proportional' to votes cast within each constituency, and therefore to a very large degree overall. The difference from a 'national proportional system' is that the threshold for gaining a seat effectively becomes higher (less seats per constituency, so a higher percentage threshold required to win one), so the very small (and possibly 'extreme' or 'fringe') parties won't get seats on a very small percentage of votes. That, for me, finds that 'balance' I spoke about between full proportionality and small groups gaining disproportionate power through fractured parliaments full of small groups. It also addresses the issue of 'extreme' parties to an extent in another way in being a preferential system, since such parties are, I'd suggest, less likely to pick up second or third (or more) preference votes from the supporters of other parties.

The main opposition to this system is often expressed as 'it's too complicated', of course. As I've already mentioned, I think that the current use of AMS in Wales renders that particular argument invalid - the voting is not much more complicated than counting from one to whatever number of preferences you might want to express (and a single 'X' can still be counted as a vote, if that's all someone wanted to do), and the technicalities of the count are less complicated than AMS anyway. Conceptually the count isn't difficult to understand for those who want to look into it, and the maths involved isn't really that complicated either (though I don't think it's necessary to go into the intimate details of it here). Yes, it does mean that the count itself is more complicated and time consuming than the current FPTP system, but I don't think that's a significant problem. Other places manage it well enough (indeed Northern Ireland manages it for its Assembly elections). What it could mean is an end to counting 'on the night', and tired people having to spend election day on their feet and concentrating for well over 24 hours before possibly driving home. That, I'd suggest, is would be a good thing - the public might have to wait a little longer for their results, but the current system can be highly dangerous to those involved. Starting counts at 9am the following day would be a huge improvement anyway.

So let's take a look at what a ballot paper for such an 'STV Open List' election might look like, just to illustrate the above points. My example is already at the top of this page, but I'll post it a bit bigger here:


As you can see, it has two rows - one for the parties, one for the candidates (in neat columns - ballot papers can be 'batch printed' so that the columns don't always appear in the same order, too, to avoid any potential advantage from being in any particular position). As it says, you can vote in one section or the other, but not both. You can either vote for the individual candidates, expressing your preferences from one to whatever, or you can vote for the party (in which case your preferences are taken as 1,2,3,4,5, in the order they are on the paper as selected by their party). That's it - not that complicated for voters, I'd suggest, and all they really need to understand about the count is that the five candidates with the most votes will get the five seats. 

Taking a slightly closer look at the example, if an elector just wanted to express a view that (for example) they really want to be represented by Labour, but that of the others they don't mind Plaid, and they think the Lib Dems are just about OK (or better than the alternatives, at least), all they need to do is use the top row, and put a Number '1' in the Labour box, '2' for Plaid, and '3' for Lib Dems - job done. Their votes will then be counted as the Labour candidates getting 1,2,3,4,5 in the order in which they appear (as selected by Labour), then similarly 6-10 for Plaid and 11-15 for the Lib Dem candidates. If, however, they want to express preferences for specific candidates, they obviously use the bottom half of the paper, and put their numbers in the boxes there.

Way back at the start of all this, you may remember (if you haven't yet lost the will to live!) that I mentioned Nick Boles, Dominic Grieve and 'Deselection' - that's where that bit starts to come in. It becomes much harder for any 'faction' within a party to seize complete control of their selection process, get their people into parliament, and get other particular party MPs out. Specifically in the example above, Mr 'Dominic Lawyer' (all names used are fictional, and any resemblance to any MPs or others living, dead or undead are entirely coincidental, of course) only appears as the fifth candidate in a list of five for his party. Now let's imagine that he has been a sitting MP, but that his own party has swung in a direction away from his views for whatever reason (including 'entryism'). Under the current system, such a change might means that he gets deselected and loses his seat, but under this system the chances are that there's still enough people in the local constituency party (in this now larger constituency, remember) that he would still be able to get on to the ballot paper, but just no longer in first place. Of course, the party list order is important, and generally the people at the top of the lists will be the most likely to get elected, but under these kind of circumstances a popular local MP or candidate could still be chosen by the public to represent them despite their lowly list position. That's the key point - the public are now in complete control not only of which party gets seats, but which people from which party. It is the public who will ultimately decide the balance in parliament not only between parties, but between 'factions' of parties (if such things exist). You can see the same thing illustrated by the Labour list in the example, with Mr Momentii and Mr Corbynite at the top and Mr Moderate and Mr Blairite at the bottom - it would be up to the public to decide the balance of 'Corbynites' and 'Blairites' (or whatever) that end up serving in parliament under the Labour banner. That's a whole new level of public control over the way that we are governed.

It also means, of course, that people can make their choices according to their own priorities, and not just between parties or the candidates of a preferred party. For example, someone who wanted to see more women in parliament could express preferences only for the female candidates, voting perhaps for Helen Non Confurmus (Lib Dem), Cally Jenna Trekker (Lib Dem), Karen Bliss (Greens), Megan Daffodil (Plaid), and so on. It also allows them to choose 'local' candidates, in the sense of particularity wanting someone from their own part of their now larger constituency rather than from 'the big city' or whatever (and because there are five seats up for grabs, if lots of people do that there's a decent chance of getting them elected - if they don't, voters have still been able to use other preferences towards others on the basis of party or whatever anyway).

Going back to the idea of combining current one member constituencies into one bigger one that proportionally elects multiple MPs, it means that the two parties would no longer be able to dominate everything in the same way. To cite an example in my area, currently all of the constituencies around what could broadly be called the Swansea Bay area (specifically the five constituencies of Gower, Swansea West, Swansea East, Neath and Aberavon) are represented by Labour MPs, and four of the five are very much 'safe seats'. That doesn't mean there aren't lots of voters for other parties, of course, who currently aren't represented at all. Even with voting pattern changes from a reduced need for tactical voting, you'd still probably end up with some Labour MPs, obviously, but it could be three Labour, one Conservative and one Plaid, or something - that's great for people having at least one MP who at least partially reflects their view (and that they may have voted for at least somewhere in their preferences). In more marginal areas the effect could be even more significant - it pretty much ends the current problem of constituency borders being a major deciding factor of which party wins (depending on which particular pockets of party support may be included and excluded), and larger constituencies means that they are inevitably mostly more 'mixed' in terms of 'urban' versus 'rural' and so on (so the chances of all representatives being from one 'side' of any such divide are much reduced).

The overall result means a whole new level of control for the public, and a whole new kind of make up of parliament. Unpopular or lazy MPs can be rejected in favour of other candidates from the same party, the public choose which part of which party gets elected, and so on. That would change everything in our political system - no more 'safe seats', no more 'entryism' or 'factionalism' able to unduly influence the balance of MPs, no more dominance of two big parties by encouraging the 'tactical vote' of 'vote for us or you'll be letting the ones you really don't like win', and so on. Our politics currently is more of a shambolic circus (and riddled, I'd suggest, with the incompetent, the self-interested, and the downright rubbish) than most of us will ever have seen before in our lifetimes, but we should be mindful that that potential has always been there, and it's never worked as a proper top-level democratic institution should. This, I think, is the change that we need.

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Brexit Indicative Votes Part 1 - What Now?



Last night parliament voted on a series of 'indicative' motions for Brexit. This morning there is, of course, much consternation at the fact that none of those gained a majority, but that was always going to be the case. Parties are split, parliament is split, and this 'part 1' vote was only the start of a process, where 'first preferences' were going to be expressed. Much of the coverage suggests that the votes don't move us any further forward, but I don't believe that that is the case at all. Actually, I think it moves us forward a great deal, and in an obvious direction.

The key to it is seeing the votes for what they were - first preferences on the basis of 'Vote For', 'Vote Against' and 'Abstain'. While no option gained a majority 'for', several options gained a majority of 'Votes Against'. That clearly shows that parliament as a whole finds those options to be unacceptable, so that should really knock them out of consideration. Those options were:

No deal exit on 12th April (160 For, 400 Against)
Malthouse Plan B - WTO terms (139 For, 422 Against)
EFTA and EEA membership (65 For, 377 Against) 

Those 3 options are really now 'dead'. Further to those, one other option was heavily voted against:

Labour's Brexit Plan (237 For, 307 Against)

That's perhaps unsurprising - as the only overtly 'party political' option on the table, it was always going to be the hardest for Conservatives in particular to express any kind of support for, and I would suggest that the numbers combined with the relative difficulty in attracting further votes mean that that option is now also effectively 'dead'.

Then we have to look at the remaining four options. Firstly:

Revoke Article 50 to avoid 'no deal' (184 For, 293 Against).

There's a high number of abstentions there, and that has to be considered. This is only really a 'last minute' option of Revoking A50 only if we're about to crash out, so it's not unlikely that some held their judgement on it until they could see how other options were going. It's not 'dead' in the sense of having a majority against, so effectively should remain 'on the table', but if something else gains a consensus to move forward it becomes largely irrelevant anyway.

Next we have:

Common Market 2.0 (188 For, 283 Against)

It seems unlikely that this could get over the line, but it did also have a large number of abstentions. This could still be considered an opinion for 'moderates' on both sides, and for the more 'remain-minded' MPs if other options like a Public Vote become ruled out. It has to stay 'on the table' for now, but isn't really showing signs of being the way forward that we need to find.

That leaves us with two final options:

Customs Union (264 For, 272 Against)
Public Confirmatory Vote: (268 For, 295 Against)

These were the clear 'winners' in the sense of not being voted against by a majority, being voted for by a significant number, and having a 'balance' between those that could potentially be overcome by shifting a relatively small number of MPs. What is also interesting about them, of course, is that they are not mutually exclusive.

Looking beyond positive votes, the pattern of abstentions for these is very interesting. The Customs Union option was neither supported nor rejected by most in the 'third parties' - the Lib Dems, SNP, etc. mostly abstained. Some of the people voting for that option, including its primary proposer Ken Clarke, abstained on the Public Vote option. That seems to me leaves us with a fairly obvious set of conditions for a negotiation to reach a consensus. If those 'third party' Public vote supporters could be persuaded to agree that their Public Vote could be 'Customs Union Brexit versus Remain', that could easily bring them around to lending support to that option on the condition that it is subject to that public vote. Then if the Customs Union supporters could be persuaded that their supported option were to become parliament's supported Brexit option, but on the condition of a public vote, you end up with a set of numbers that really should be able to form a majority.

Where does that leave others in the equation? That Customs Union Brexit is still quite a 'hard brexit' in some ways - it wouldn't be enough to satisfy most of the ERG hardliners, of course, but then the ERG don't actually have a majority in parliament. It has already demonstrated that it can gain the support of a significant number of people, and more parliamentary brexiters could come on board if they see that it is the only realistic brexit option left on the table. It isn't actually that far away from the Labour plan, of course - many of the additional elements in Labour's proposal are really more down to 'post brexit, transitional period negotiations' anyway, and that then takes us into the realms of what happens if there is a general election (with Labour potentially taking over those post-Brexit negotiations, if the initial Brexit has gone through parliament and happened). It's far too hard a brexit for any of the remainer types to accept, but if accepting it is the price of getting a 'People's Vote' I suspect that many would grudgingly accept and vote for it on that basis (I certainly would). I think they would be wise to do so rather than trying to swing behind CM2.0, and find themselves either with no chance of stopping Brexit or with a 'Remain versus CM2.0' confirmatory referendum that I suspect may be harder for them to win (though I might be wrong on that last point).

This all seems to me to be the fairly obvious way to try to build that parliamentary 'consensus', or at least majority, that we've been desperately lacking for so long. It won't fully satisfy anyone, of course, but at this point nothing will. We aren't in a place where we can simply revoke article 50 and forget about Brexit, it doesn't look like May's deal is going to pass, and there's a clear majority firmly opposed to 'no deal', so we have to deal with that reality and reach some kind of realistic compromise. Continuing stalemate is not an option.

Of course, it won't be easy -there will be PV supporters who just won't accept the possibility of 'supporting' Brexit in any sense, and there will be CU supporters who just won't accept having another referendum. Hopefully, though, there will be enough pragmatists on all sides who realise that we have to find some way out of this whole mess, and this now looks quite clearly to be the most realistic prospect in giving everyone at least some of what they want.  On one side they get to soften May's deal slightly and have a Public Vote to try to stop brexit altogether, and on the other they get a realistic chance of ultimately achieving brexit, and one that at least isn't too close to the EU by tying us into the Single Market. It's not perfect for anyone, of course, but that's compromise for you, and it does allow the UK to present a way forward to the EU to gain a longer extension and avoid inadvertently crashing out without a deal (rendering that 'Revoke A50' option redundant).

If that could get through parliament, it would then all come down to another referendum. This time, though, both outcomes can be clearly defined, and we can make it legally binding (so subject to being voided if the rules are significantly broken) and immediately actioned to provide some certainty about the future for people and business.

I hope that all sides in parliament, and all parties, will be looking seriously at the figures from last night and coming to a similar conclusion.