Polygonic

That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

NDP rising, but whither the seats?

The NDP is closing to within six points of the Tories, according to the latest Nanos. This potential political upheaval generates huge excitement, but it also provokes a big question: will the House of Commons reflect the popular vote at all?

There are obvious problems with making predictions based on uniform swing, but as an experiment, we can nevertheless get a picture of what the post-May 2 universe might look like – and, more importantly, we get a clear picture how First Past the Post distorts electoral results to favour region-dense parties over parties with broad, national appeal.

I’m using the Hill & Knowlton Predictor (since I’m finding it fun at the moment) and, to illustrate the point, I entered a prediction that shows the CPC and the NDP each receiving 34.0% of the popular vote. An exact tie. (I gave the LPC a dismal, but not unlikely, 21% of the vote. Greens get 5%, and Bloc holds onto 6%)

The predicted seat count would be a travesty. Despite a national tie in popular vote, the Conservatives would emerge with +/- 135 seats, while the NDP would capture +/- 87. That’s the seat count we might get with an exact tie in the popular vote. I mean, wow.

On the one hand, all us Orange Wave Surfers would probably be mostly exhilarated at the prospect of 87 New Democrat seats. But that exhilaration collapses when comparing the relative successes. A party like the Cons, with its depth in the West, would massively outgain the NDP, which draws support relatively evenly from coast to coast to coast.

This isn’t about splitting the leftist vote – it’s about an electoral system that does not remotely account for the popular will.

There is every reason to expect a result like this on Monday. New Democrats nationwide, assuming they can get out the vote in an effective way, are on track for record gains. But placing a very close second in a hundred ridings, or two hundred ridings, won’t mean a single new MP. Tens of thousands of Canadians’ votes, even hundreds of thousands of them, might have zero impact on the composition of the 41st Parliament.

Outrageous, no? But why isn’t electoral reform on the radar this election?

Partly because it’s still seen as a bit wonkish. Political nerds get excited by electoral reform discussions, and no one else. Partly, too, because anytime a politician proposes changing the system, voters smell a rat. What’ve you got up your sleeve, then? Add that to the prospect of renewed constitutional wrangling, and fine, no one dares go there.

But all that caution and disinterest could vanish if we get an abysmal result like the one predicted above. Electoral reform could work its way into the heart of how we work towards renewing our democracy.

The Brits will soon be heading to the polls, on 5 May, to vote in a referendum on abandoning First Past the Post, and adopting Alternative Vote, or Automatic Runoff. It’s seen as a small change, and not really full proportional representation. It does, though, strike a balance between keeping a House of Commons comprised of constituent MPs while also ensuring that no MP shows up to work without being secure in the knowledge that 50% of the constituency has offered an endorsement.

(As an aside – for now! – the British public is torn on the question – some polls indicate that voters will reject the change, but other polls have also had the yes and no camps tied in recent weeks.)

As regards the NDP’s chances on Monday, I am steeling myself for what I consider to be the worst likely scenario – huge NDP gains in the popular vote, but absolute robbery of the seats they deserve through a crude electoral system designed for the bipartisan Britain of yestercentury. Should we witness such a crime, here’s hoping it might at least provoke the requisite national outrage to create the conditions for a change.

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Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , , , ,

Common sense news-flash: Non-voters’ non-votes won’t be counted

The surreal mind-game seems to have wound down. And with that, a woot woot. Imagine this. The democratic chamber has overruled the undemocratic chamber (green with envy, Canada?)

MPs reject 40% threshold plan for the AV referendum

MPs have overturned a proposal to make a referendum on the Westminster voting system non-binding unless 40% of the electorate take part in the poll.

Peers backed the measure earlier this month but the Commons rejected the proposal by a majority of 70.

Cabinet Office minister Mark Harper said there was a “compelling” case for voters to make the final decision.

It’s fun reading about someone with the last name “Harper” taking the position that the unelected chamber should bow to the elected. Hee.

The referendum, slated for 5 May, now has a much better prospect of being staged at all, and of being a fair account of the democratic will. The battle for Alternative Vote supporters now is going to be to try to disassociate “Brand Electoral Reform” from the toxic “Brand Nick Clegg,” which will not be easy, nor fun. Many erstwhile supporters of the abolishment of first-past-the-post will now potentially use the referendum as an occasion to simply bludgeon the Lib Dems and rob them of their platform mantlepiece, sadly, which is going deep into cutting-off-nose-to-spite-face territory. Call the Lib Dems what names you will, people – this is your chance to enact one of their platform policies (ones which you voted for last year!), despite Clegg’s apparent Toryboy sycophancy.

That battle will be waged over the next few months. For now, at least, we can be glad that the referendum on the UK’s voting system won’t be subject to quicksand regulations that go beyond those which govern the election of MPs themselves. It’s a goose and ganders situation, which the HoC has cottoned onto. No good setting a precedent whereby turnout thresholds threaten to scupper the voices of active electors.

So, in conclusion – phew. For now.

Filed under: Politics, UK, , , , , , ,

Democratic experts in the house!

The House of Lords, that is.

I know, technically it’s an unelected chamber of dough-bellied pseudo-noblemen, prominent party donors, erstwhile celebrities, landowners, retired CEOs, corrupt media barons, and other millionaire chieftains of ill-gotten gains.

I know, yes, it resembles the Canadian Senate, if only the Canadian Senate were swollen four times the size and was packed with hereditary peers as well as legions of power-addled cronies of the political elite. And wearing wigs.

But, they know what democracy is all about. They’ve just defeated the government in the arena of electoral reform, pushing through a new requirement on May’s referendum on the Alternative Vote. Now, any potential “yes” vote will only be binding if 40% of the public take part.

Where did 40% come from? 40 might be a meaningful number in the Bible, but there’s nothing especially elegant or natural about how it relates to elections.

No, what we have here is an arbitrary obstacle thrust up to further discourage the prospect of real democratic reform, proposed in a somewhat cowardly fashion by Lord Rooker, who styles himself as an “Independent Labour” peer. So, this new spanner in the works of democratic reform isn’t officially coming from Labour’s high command – it’s just an independent! A free-spiriting Lord!

Perhaps it’s too much to wish Labour were genuinely enthusiastic and progressive on electoral reform, but at the very least, I wish they could be honest about where they stand, instead of smuggling their secret dedication to first-past-the-post into the debate via a nominally independent, unelected, silly-wigged Lord.

Turnout thresholds may appear to legitimise referendum results, but the appearance is false. Demanding a turnout threshold essentially means counting fictional votes non-cast by the non-voting. Anyone who doesn’t vote in May’s referendum is assumed to be a silent defender of the status quo, and are counted as such. Sure, it’s entirely likely many non-voters are content with the status quo. But, unless they’ve gone to the ballot box to explicitly say so, a democratic system shouldn’t move to assume what they think. As I’ve said before, non-votes are not votes. Nothings are not somethings.

If we had the same 40% turnout threshold on general elections, it would be quite a sight should an election fail to bring 40% of us to the ballot box – not an unlikely occurrence at some point in our lifetimes. Would it mean the election results would be annulled, and we would keep the previous government in place for a further five years? Or, how about 10?

In fact – what’s wrong with forty?

Filed under: Politics, UK, , , , , ,

How to count sweet nothings

Let’s bend our brains with an incredible logic-busting paradox.

In the UK, right now, we have Members of Parliament elected by just a plurality of votes. In fact, the great majority of them (431 out of 650) have less than 50% of the share of the vote in their constituency. That’s how it so often works in a first-past-the-post voting system with more than two parties competing.

And that figure doesn’t include voters who stay home! If you consider all the non-voters as essentially “non-supporters” of any candidate (considering non-voting to be, in essence, a vote against all), then there isn’t a single MP in the House of Commons who has the explicit support of 50% of the eligible voters in his/her constituency.

But of course, no one counts the “nothing” votes, because they were never actually cast. Right?

Now, consider this Mad Hatter logic.

The referendum on the Alternative Vote system is slated for next year, precisely in effort to ensure that every elected MP has the explicit support of at least half their constituents – this is secured through the AV’s automatic run-off. Bernard Jenkin, Conservative MP for Harwich and Essex North, doesn’t like the idea of a referendum on electoral reform, and he’s scheming to scupper it with a novel approach to how democracy works: count the non-votes.

After all, if someone didn’t vote for it, then it’s as good as voting against it! If voters don’t vote, it shows they don’t want what’s on offer, so let’s count that as a “no” vote. Not a “non-vote,” but a “vote for no.” Essentially, non-votes should become votes. Nothings can become somethings.

Jenkin proposes that 40% of the total electorate should vote yes in a referendum on electoral reform for it to pass. Even if a majority of voters vote yes, people staying home will count as voting no, which could well push the majority down (that’s what happened in Scotland in 1979, which employed Jenkin’s 40% of total rule. 51% of votes cast were for a devolved government, but there was only 64% turnout, so the “no” plus the “non” won the day. Scotland’s Parliament didn’t come into being for nearly 20 years after that).

What Jenkin doesn’t seem to want to consider is that, if we’d counted the non-votes in his constituency as votes “against” during May’s general election, then he himself wouldn’t have secured 40% of the vote there. He’d have only secured 32%, and he wouldn’t be an MP. In fact, his constituency wouldn’t have an MP.

But, while he’s considered to have “passed” the electoral test with 32% of votes and non-votes, he wants a higher democratic threshold to apply to a referendum, the subject of which is getting fair representation in parliament.

Jenkin’s proposal to count sweet nothings is, in essence, a voting reform. Next year’s referendum is on voting reform, so you can’t really undertake voting reform before you ask voters to vote on the reforms.

Take Back Parliament have usefully published a most excellent spreadsheet of all MPs in the country with their share of the vote, plus their share of the vote divided by total body of eligible voters in their constituency. It allows us to see which MPs would have actually made it to Westminster using Jenkin’s electoral threshold – we’d have just 35 MPs!

Come to think of it, that might appeal to David Cameron and friends.

Filed under: Politics, UK, , , ,

Cloaks, daggers, vested interests

Tests are coming fastly and furiously for the Ruling Coalition.

When the Lib Dems joined government, not two months ago, much unease and anxiety followed in yellow ranks. Are we getting the right deal, or are we being used in some strange way we’ve never been used before?

Many think the latter. A former leader has gone public, and all manner of signals indicate that party puritans don’t care for the compromises that Clegg has had to make in order to secure the one holy grail, the one policy meant to ensure greater Liberal influence in parliament from here on in – the referendum on electoral reform.

Without that promise of a referendum, there would be no Lib-Con coalition. This was the deal-breaker. In exchange, Clegg could swallow anything. He could swallow a VAT rise: like a snake (not that I see him as such, mind), he could extend his jaws to swallow just about every Conservative policy going in exchange for a deal on proportional representation, or something vaguely resembling it.

But no sooner was the announcement of a referendum date for the automatic run-off system announced (5 May 2011, if you’re wondering), and signs emerge that both of the established parties (Labour and the Tories, if you’re wondering) are in to quash it from the get-go.

Remember the negotiations that led to this government? Spooked by Clegg’s apparent partisan flirtatiousness, William Hague announced that, contrary to expectation, the Tories would concede to a referendum on the Alternative Vote – after all, why not let the people settle this argument?

Which people are these? The people in the 1922 Committee?

It is very clich├ęd to campaign on a “change” ticket, as the Tories did this year, and the hollowness of such a campaign is exposed by the power of vested interests, in both the Labour and Conservative parties. But, with both the Tories and Labour trying to appear as change-makers, it’s going to be difficult for them to go whole-hog anti-referendum. They have to appear willing to tolerate the possibility of real electoral reform. Skullduggery and obfuscation of the reforms will be subtle, backbench-led, and indirect.

This opposition is all bigger than Cameron – I don’t think he’s especially principled one way or the other on electoral reform. His speciality is speaking out of various sides of his mouth – he’ll do the minimum necessary to appease Liberals at one moment, but will be constantly prompted by the Thatcherite hawks in his coterie to change course whenever it’s politically feasible.

Here’s how I fear Clegg’s been screwed.

Cameron says to himself: “electoral reform” sounds zeitgeisty at election time, and Clegg was insistent upon it, ok, alright, let’s cope with that for now. But by mid-term or so, the public will have lost interest in things like ‘how elections work’ – the people will just be glad there isn’t another one soon.

By mid-term, we’ll have implicated them in loads of our horrifically unpopular policies – policies that especially outrage their base, and less so ours. They’ll be bleeding support to Labour, and into the ether, and the last thing they’ll want to do is walk out of the coalition and force an election. Great stuff. We can run the AV referendum aground with unreasonably high turnout thresholds, implementation red tape, and other thorny obstacles. What precisely will they be able to do about, chum?

If that is indeed Cameron’s thinking, then the Liberal Democrats will want to create space between themselves and the Tories soon. We haven’t seen them publicly disagree with the Bullingdon Boys on much of substance yet. This marriage will need to mature into allowing public disagreement on non-confidence issues, otherwise Clegg could well end up with a disillusioned base, tanking support, and an empowered 1922 Group who’ll get the wink from Cameron to kick electoral reform into the long grasses.

Filed under: Politics, UK, , , , , , , ,

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