Polygonic

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

Let’s dream a bigger dream, Yes People

I like the Yes People. Who wouldn’t? They’ve got a fantastically daring vision, and they’re unafraid to upset the status quo in favour of creating a society that’s more just. They seem like builders. With all their zeal to engage the world as a blank slate rather than an inherited order, I think I’d like most Yes People quite a lot.

It’s just too bad the size of their dream is so small.

Building a new, independent state is no small feat, but it is a small, unradical and unprogressive dream. The Westphalian nation-state – really? An old-fogey fetish that fortifies and glorifies an ancient concept of ethnicity, defining itself against others, dividing itself from common cause across many nations? Why are Yes People, from Scotland to Quebec to Catalonia, so obsessed with gifting the world another thing as horrible as this?

It seems funny. Yes People express a fantastic, radical positivity about what politics ought to be, but the anachronistic solution of nationalism is just so poor. Recognising that the old order is corrupt and elitist and impossibly out of touch is one thing – the prospect of carving out a unique island of self-reliant justice, though, smells like something else.

Nationalism, but the good kind

The coincidence of nationalism and social democratic optimism has always seemed uncomfortable to me. Because to choose the former as a means of achieving the latter does suggest something contradictory, and a bit awful – that one people are actually inherently more just than another. That the borders once drawn up by monarchs, generals and ancient elites continue to be valid boundaries for whole ways of thinking and looking at the world. While Yes People are relentlessly progressive in some senses, they’re also basing the separatist project on the implicit assumption that those across the border aren’t capable partners in making a fairer world. We, the exclusive we, are fairer by design.

If that itself sounds unfair, I’d welcome the counterargument. To me, the big positive dream has to be bigger than drawing new lines between ourselves in the naive hope that our most familiar neighbours are fairer than the rest – the big positive dream is to say that borders themselves represent the worst of the old world, and that something more interdependent, and more social, and more purely civic can be built on top of the kingdoms of centuries gone by. Let’s get a dream going that we can all rally round, regardless of race, language or geography.

Dreaming bigger dreams

What are some examples? The big one that Yes People recognise is that Westminster itself is deeply, deeply flawed. I mean deeply. It’s upper house is a gaggle of unelected partisan hacks and millionaire donors. It seems to govern for the whole country on odd days and for London and the South East on even days. And, when political crises hit (like, the very Scottish referendum itself), it suddenly lurches planlessly into ad hoc distributions of powers, spraying them against the squeaky wheel in a mad, oily, last-minute panic. Let’s be honest – the Mother of All Parliaments is a letch and a dunce and it needs a good kick up the backside.

So a fairer, federal, devolved, de-Westminsterised country is in order. Let’s do it! We can federalise the country into English regions, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, each with regional authorities commanding meaty constitutional powers. We can decimate the Lords (not literally – we’re not monsters, after all) by cutting the upper house to a tenth of its size and ensuring all future members are elected by region – mixed-member constituencies, shall we? We can cut the Commons by half, too, since half their work will be run by the regions, and we could field out half the civil service to the regions as well. Bring authority as close to people as you can, draw it up in a written constitution, and proceed as a country that works as a proper, future-orientated democratic concert of powers – not as a chew-toy for the Bullingdon Club.

That kind of reform sounds like a big, mad,impossible dream. But a dream, I think, that’s suitably big for the energies of the Yes People.

Some think that the UK is just an irredeemable thing, and that carving ourselves into ethno-bits is the best approach for everyone. George Monbiot, in classic contrarian form, is one English advocate of Yes, though he too is dreaming the smaller dream. In wondering how a modern, independent Scotland might vote in a hypothetical referendum to join the UK, he says that no nation in any healthy condition would ever volunteer to cede power to a larger polity. I’m a social democratic pro-European, so I obviously think he’s missed a pretty big point. Just as I want the UK to stay together, I do want the UK to then also plunge more deeply into the European system – not because we’re a desperate country, and not because I like the EPP politics of Barroso and Juncker, but because Europe needs more social democrats. We’re obliged not to simply fold our arms, slink off and leave Brussels to it – and so I’d say the same to the Yes People. Get in. Muck about. Change things for the better, not the smaller.

If only CEOs were on the ballot…

My biggest fear about the big dreams of the Yes People is that the thrill of nationhood is the real driver, and that disenchantment with how the UK functions is just the cloth within which to couch a more basic, brute form of face-painted nationalism. Admittedly, there’s something a bit underwhelming about committing to long-haul constitutional reform of the UK, and indeed the whole of Europe, as compared with the sheer excitement of celebrating an Independence Day for its own sake.

But in a world where Toyota has more economic clout than the Czech Republic, Independence Days are increasingly expensive vanities. However unaccountable Westminster looks from here, transnational corporations are most certainly worse. Better off for people to pool our powers within a big, muscular, interdependent, multinational democracy than to cut ourselves into little bits – or it won’t just be the annoyances of a too-distant capital that will nudge at our local sensibilities, but the companies without capitals, able to bully and coerce the small states at will. United, as they say, we stand.

Going Real Proper-like Big

So, Yes People, let’s go bigger than Scotland. Let’s work to change the UK and the whole of the EU, as an active, confident member of each. Driving reform, forcing fairness, equality and investment in people, and pushing for a system that people are actually happy to vote for. Anyone who thinks it can’t be done, I hate to say, isn’t really a proper Yes Person at all.

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

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, , , ,

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