Polygonic

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

Arithmetic shocker: Majority oppose Conservatives

Smack my gob. A revealing CBC investigation has exposed an electoral arithmetical travesty, hitherto unseen. Apparently, only two-fifths of Canadians support key CPC policies, whilst a clear majority of people oppose them and don’t want them implemented.

Key Conservative policies lack clear support

A majority of Canadians don’t support corporate tax cuts and are opposed to buying the F-35 fighter jets, two major pieces of the Conservative government’s plan for the country, a new poll suggests.

In a new poll conducted for CBC News following the May 2 federal election, 53 per cent of people surveyed said they were opposed to dropping the corporate tax rate from 16.5 per cent to 15 per cent. About two-fifths — 39 per cent — agreed with the cut and eight per cent weren’t sure.

Just more than half — 52 per cent — said Canada should not go ahead with the purchase of 65 F-35 fighter jets, while 37 per cent polled said the government should buy the planes. Twelve per cent said they didn’t know.

So, roughly the same number of people who voted Conservative support Conservative policies. While roughly the same number of people who didn’t vote Conservative don’t support Conservative policies.

The mystery clearly doesn’t lie here. Indeed, there’s a weird relief in seeing that, in the absence of a sitting parliament, voters’ views haven’t done a lot of capricious shifting.

No, the mystery is why we tolerate a voting system that generates majority governments with less than 2/5 popular support.

I’d like to “blame Canada” and say, well, you got what you voted for. But you didn’t, did you?

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , ,

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.

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, , , , , ,

Farce majority

Do you ever take a swig of sour milk and say to yourself “Gawwww, goddammit this is awful!” And then you take another swig and say it again? And then you continue guzzling, grimacing, unable to stop yourself? Because if you do, I’ll bet you’re a fan of first-past-the-post.

New Brunswick’s new Premier, David Alward of the provincial Tories, has taken the legislature by 42 seats to the Liberals’ 13. Sounds like a drubbing, although the Tories had just 48.9% of the vote. Congrats to David on your tsunamic victory!

NB has 55 seats in its legislature, meaning that 48.9% Tory support led to 76.4% of the seats in the House. The Liberals, while certainly losing squarely, managed 34.4% popular support, handing them 23.6% of the seats. How many ways can we spell undemocratic?

This is a topical example of FPTP’s psychedelic mathematics, but it is not at all the most extreme example. What of it when Canada’s Greens take 6.8% of the popular vote in the 2008 federal election (just under one million people, or worth a city the size of Calgary), yet they win zero seats for their effort? What of the NDP effectively doubling the number of votes won by the Bloc Québécois in that same election, yet instead of being rewarded for their truly federal vision and their nationwide, 308-constituency campaign, they are indeed punished for it with fewer seats in the House?

This is all old news, I know. Yet, with each swallowing, the taste does not improve. The bulk of people generally tolerate our broken system through any blend of disinterest, confusion, or suspicion that people who talk electoral reform have a trick up their sleeve, and it’s probably some kind of socialistick thing. But surely it’s not a lefty weirdo partisan perspective to look at the electoral arithmetic under FPTP and conclude that the system is patently unfair.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , ,

Am I bovvered?

I’m beginning to wonder if Nick Clegg actually has a penchant for self-harm.

Nick Clegg: Coalition will go on even if electoral reform fails

Here is the man who co-pioneered Coalition Government in the UK, marching the Liberal Democrats into cabinet amidst great critical acclaim, and establishing, finally, that electoral reform would be put to the British people, and that a truly representative democratic system would emerge from the dreary status quo. Applause, excitement, huzzahs.

In a remarkable and unforgettable move back in May, in the midst of coalition negotiations, he even addressed a crowd of pro-electoral reform demonstrators, using a megaphone to promise he would not let them down.

How far we’ve come in three months. He seems unmoved in relinquishing every old Liberal Democrat devotion at the first opportunity – his approach offends his Parliamentary Party, it offends the Lib Dem local organisations, his own deputy leader, and most severely, his fragile base.

But to openly pontificate on whether or not electoral reform is really that big a deal after all…

“I wouldn’t have stood for the leadership of the Lib Dems if I thought the sole purpose in life was to change the electoral system.”

I don’t really think Clegg’s actually into self-harm. It’s more about a cackhanded strategy to appear, at all times, in control and happy as a pig in shit.

Are you happy with Tory cuts to public services and the VAT rise? Yes, yes, though I prefer to call these ideas “Liberal Democrat efficiencies.”
Are you happy with where you are in the polls? Couldn’t be happier. Polls are volatile, and that’s fine. Very happy. All part of the plan.
Would you be happy if you lost big-time at next years local elections? Oh, yes. Parties of government are prone to lose some support. I’d be upset if it didn’t happen, frankly. It will help us listen and learn.
Would you be happy if the most important policy ambition of your party, electoral reform, failed in the end? Pretty much, yes. No biggie. Lots of other ways to be useful, you know.

He knows, as we all know, that even should electoral reform make it to referendum and survive Tory rebel scuppers, that the public are more than likely to reject the reforms in their growing distaste for the Lib Dems themselves. It’s a tragedy unfolding in slow motion. But, rather than mitigate this disaster in advance, Clegg instead just wants to appear as though everything that happens is part of the Liberal Democrat masterplan.

He must be utterly deaf to the outrage in his party and across his broad (and shallow) support base – essentially, he appears to be giving up already. Perhaps Simon Hughes will lead the party putsch before May 2011 – I can’t see how it would hurt.

Filed under: Politics, UK, , , ,

That elusive majority

Following on from Jane Taber and John Wright in their suggestions yesterday (see the post below) that a bigger, more occidentally-oriented (hee) House of Commons could be the Secret Formula to unlocking future majority governments in Canada.

Eric at ThreeHundredEight has spent the time and crunched the numbers to dismantle the argument. Given where the new seats would be established (Alberta may be Big Sky Country, but B.C. and Suburban Toronto are Big Swing Country), a 338-seat House of Commons would not likely provide the bias to any big federalist party necessary for majority government. The new ridings, we can only speculate till they’ve been drawn up, would more than likely see a split across parties in a vein roughly similar to what we already see across English Canada.

So, federalist parties shouldn’t expect they’ll be able to thumb their noses at Québec and the Bloc, and still end up with majority government (not even getting into the dumbness of such a strategy for the obvious reasons – treating Québec, both its federalist and sovereigntist areas, as a vast graveyard of useless efforts – this is somehow good for unity?).

It’s very much worth reading the whole thing here:

New seats + ignore Quebec = majority?

So, is electoral reform on the agenda yet?

Filed under: Canada, Politics,

Lipstick on the electoral pig

The Globe’s Jane Taber is weighing in on electoral boundary reform today, arguing that adding new seats to provinces with growing populations – Ontario, B.C. and Alberta – will be the only solution to escaping the minority government deadlock.

The only solution – I suppose it is, if you take it as gospel that our electoral system is the fairest we could possibly have. That’s where she’s, sadly, missed the boat.

Une excerpt:

The key impediment to a majority is the Bloc’s strength in Quebec. Gilles Duceppe just celebrated 20 years as an MP and, were an election held today, would likely lead his party to a majority of seats in the province for the seventh straight time.

Mr. Wright is awaiting a bill introduced in the Commons in April that would create 30 new ridings, giving 18 seats to Ontario, seven to British Columbia and five to Alberta. What makes the legislation controversial is that no new seats will go to Quebec, which already has 75 in the House.

Controversial, in the sense that Québec is not advantaging by something that other provinces are. That’s not the direction our federation is supposed to tilt, is it?

But there is a point in what makes this a controversy: for example, Prince Edward Island is guaranteed four electoral ridings in the Constitution, despite the fact that all four of them combined barely have the same number of voters as an urban Toronto or Vancouver riding. That makes the Islanders four times more powerful at election-time than me.

Equally, if one were a strict egalitarian about these things, the federal ridings of Nunavut and the Western Arctic could be merged into a single, massive bi-territorial riding – it would be fairer in terms of population, as each riding as it is is pretty sparsely populated.

So, the federation isn’t allergic to “special cases.” In creating electoral districts, there’s this tacit balance between 1) districts of equal population, and 2) allowing some remote or “special” areas to retain territorial integrity, rather than be lumped into adjacent ridings like add-ons. Of course in the UK right now, the Coalition is pursuing boundary reform, and equally, remote areas of Scotland will likely retain their district sizes, despite it meaning they’ll be even more greatly over-represented.

The question in Quebec is, how shall the balance tilt? Is population equity trumping cultural and territorial specialness, and should it? Shouldn’t Quebec votes count for more, the Bloquistes are likely to argue, because we’re really rather special?

This Quebec specialness, of course, already manifests itself in taking full advantage of the electoral system to give the BQ a huge overrepresentation in the House. The FPTP electoral system is what really generates unrepresentative Parliaments, much more than untweaked riding boundaries.

You could give B.C. 50 more seats if you wanted – it wouldn’t go anywhere towards representing the popular vote any better. The Green Party will still come in third or fourth in every riding, which will still mean the same millions of supporters, but will also still mean the same zero representation in the House of Commons.

The Bloc will continue to poll well below the NDP and Greens nationally, yet will still scoop an obscenely disproportionately high number of seats. Tilting the balance of ridings westwards may, in the end, benefit the Liberals or Conservatives in their seemingly endless quests for majority government – but it won’t make Parliament more representative. I think if you’re going to risk the wrath of the Bloquistes and other advocates of Quebec rights-supremacy, which this reform inevitably will, then there should be a greater return than just polishing up our discredited electoral system.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , ,

Stirring the hot pot

Labour has several reasons to be furious these days. But, it has to be said, they’re being clever with that fury, and they’re doing it through dividing the Coalition Government anytime they can – now, by appearing to ally with Thatcherite Tory backbenchers.

Part of Labour’s fury comes from the proposition, to be put to the Commons in the Autumn, to combine the Commons vote on adopting a referendum on AV with the proposition to realign the electoral district boundaries. Such realignment will largely dissolve what is (let’s face it) a northern urban Labour bias, and create districts with greater population equity – but at the expense of lots of Labour safe seats. So, it’s understandable from Labour’s perspective that boundary realignment is a bad thing. But, in arguing that they want to disentangle the Commons vote on boundary reform from a Commons vote on the date of the electoral reform referendum, what exactly do they want to accomplish?

Separating the motion into two, and introducing a separate motion on electoral boundary reform, wouldn’t itself make a positive difference to Labour. An electoral boundary reform bill, alone, would (we think) pass in the Commons, no? The Lib Dems and Tories both express commitment to it. So is Labour’s motive to create obstacles for the 5 May referendum on voting reform?

I think yes – but their motives seem indirect here. There are Tories who don’t want the public to vote on AV at all, let alone on the 5th of May when turnout is likely to be high, due to the coincidence of local elections that day. Labour’s motives here are more murky. They are half-ambivalent and half-supportive of voting reform, and Labour no longer maintains any predetermined opposition to AV. David Miliband would apparently welcome it, if he were leader, which he is supposed to be soon.

So if it isn’t AV itself that Labour wants to scupper (though they might not mind if it is scuppered), what they really want to scupper is the Coalition itself. It’s just a brutal, wedge-driving, pot-stirring strategy: to generate early rifts in the Coalition, and to disenfranchise and disenlighten the Lib Dems over their solitary Big Win in this Coalition deal, which is the referendum itself.

If the referendum date were to be changed away from the local elections date, and referendum turnout was thus rather low, provoking people like Bernard Jenkin to then advocate that the result isn’t conclusive enough, then Clegg might be provoked to abandon the Coalition.

That would delight Labour, really. They must feel confident that they could precipitate an early election in 2011ish, if they pot-stir successfully enough between now and then. By next Spring, Labour will have a new leader, they’ll have the polling bounce that inevitably comes with that, and if the Lib Dems look disorientated and failed in not getting the AV vote on a day of their choosing, their wider support will be highly vulnerable. Labour is already hoovering up LD support, and it’s only July 2010.

So while Labour have direct political reasons to oppose boundary reform, perhaps they have only indirect political reasons to oppose the timing of an AV referendum. Their tactics of late appear to be designed only to frustrate the Lib Dems, to kick them while their base is trembling and weak, to drive wedges in the Happy Marriage, and to set up a future election scenario that’s a highly comfortable and traditional bipartisan race.

I’m hoping Clegg can pull this out of the fire… he’s already argued that a referendum on 5 May, coupled with local elections, would save the country £17 million. Which is more than will be saved by abolishing the UK Film Council, so it’s (in this new Age of Austerity) no mean sum. He may want to impress that upon Cameron, and get him (with some urgency) to ensure his backbenchers don’t indulge in Labour’s proposition to wreck the Coalition through wrecking the referendum.

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, , , ,