The growing cracks in the coalition. By Dr Matthew Ashton

Cracks are already starting to appear within the coalition

Cracks are already starting to appear within the coalition

With only a day to go before the referendum vote the campaigning has grown increasingly heated. Cracks have started to emerge within the coalition as Liberal Democrat Ministers have exchanged strong words with their Conservative allies over the arguments both for and against AV. Chris Huhne in particular has been extremely vocal in expressing his disquiet at the No campaign’s tactics. This has led some commentators to question the long term viability of the coalition and whether we could be facing an election in the next few months.

Some have argued that these disagreements are largely cosmetic; an electoral ploy to try to create a sense of difference between the parties in the run up to the elections. I’m not sure I buy this as Nick Clegg and the other members of the Liberal elite will get most of the blame from the grassroots if the referendum is defeated (which looks increasingly likely). Therefore I can see how their frustrations might be boiling over at the moment.

However I can’t see the coalition breaking up at this point as neither party wants an election right at the moment. The Liberals are doing so badly in the polls they’d face electoral oblivion, while the Conservatives would probably lose to Labour. Therefore it’s in both their interests to keep the coalition going for as long as necessary. Also the Liberal Democrats are far too useful for the Conservatives at the moment as a ‘flak’ jacket. With regards to all the unpopular decisions the coalition has made recently, the Liberal Democrats have found themselves getting most of the negative press attention and the blame.  A good example would be the rise in tuition fees. Almost all of the students’ anger seems to be directed at the Liberal Democrat MPs who they feel have betrayed them, leaving the Conservatives relatively unscathed. Equally Nick Clegg has been having a much harder time of it in the press then David Cameron. In a similar fashion both Conservatives and Liberals are expected to do badly in tomorrow’s elections. However the majority of attention will be placed on how badly Clegg’s party does allowing the Conservative’s a free pass.

From Cameron’s point of view I think it will better suit his purposes to keep the coalition going until he feels that he can win an election on his own. At which point I wouldn’t be surprised if he finds a reason to break with Clegg and strike independently. After all, if this referendum campaign has taught us anything, it’s that politics isn’t always fair.

Dr Matthew Ashton
Nottingham Trent University
To contact Dr Ashton please call 0115 848 8785 or email matt.wallace@ntu.ac.uk

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What should supporters of proportional representation do? By Professor Lawrence Wilde

The referendum reflects a real sickness at the heart of the British political system, whereby the political parties stitch up deals with little or no reference to what their members want or what the voters consider important. At the general election, only the Labour Party promised a referendum on the introduction of the Alternative Vote system. How did the Labour Party arrive at this policy? There was no widespread open debate within the party on this subject, and indeed all the old democratic structures within the party had long since been destroyed by Tony Blair. Rather it was a leadership manoeuvre, designed to make things harder for the Tories, on the understanding that, under AV, Liberal voters were more likely to prefer Labour candidates to Tories as their second choice. It was the same sort of opportunism that went into the Jenkins Report of 1998, which suggested AV with a small top up. If implemented, the Liberal Democrats would have every chance of holding the balance of power indefinitely, but small parties would be excluded. Roy Jenkins just happened to be Liberal Democrat, but we were still expected to respect the report as ‘independent’.

But hold on, Labour actually lost the election, so why are we having the referendum? The Liberals promised a ‘fairer’ system, but stated a preference for the single-transferable vote, which is a fully proportional system I would be delighted to vote for. However, because they are junior partners in a coalition, the Liberals have had to compromise by supporting AV, which is less threatening to the Conservatives. The Conservatives, naturally, as long-term beneficiaries of first-past-the post, are totally opposed to proportional representation. A PR system would put them in real danger of losing seats to parties like UKIP and the BNP. So, we are having a referendum for a voting system devised by leaders for entirely opportunistic reasons, with no reference to any mass movements or popular clamour. The ones who are really passionate about voting systems, the supporters of proportional representation, find themselves left out in the cold.

So, what should a supporter of PR do? Voting ‘Yes’ runs the risk of removing PR from the agenda for the foreseeable future, and denying representation to millions who would prefer to vote for small party alternatives to the big three. I note that the Greens recommend ‘Yes’, although when I looked at their website, the referendum did not feature prominently and was quite hard to find. This lack of enthusiasm reflects their desire for proper PR, but they must be hoping that AV could help them take advantage of any collapse of the Liberal vote at the next election. However, it is very doubtful that AV will lead to that sort of scenario. Voting ‘No’ would give the false impression of actually supporting the first-past the post system that gave us three terms of Thatcher and then Blair and the invasion of Iraq. Abstention should not be seen as an apathetic response, for a desperately low turnout would remind the political elites that there was never any popular demand for this particular referendum. And finally, turning up to vote and spoiling the paper by writing in ‘I want PR’ would also make the point, as spoiled papers are counted. It is unlikely that this would put PR on the political agenda for the next general election, but it would at least express immense frustration at the bogus choice on offer.

Professor Lawrence Wilde
Nottingham Trent University
To contact Professor Wilde please call 0115 848 8785 or email matt.wallace@ntu.ac.uk

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‘Fairer’ is not the same as ‘fair’! By Professor Lawrence Wilde

The proposed AV system offers only a partial remedy

Shortly after the announcement that the referendum on the voting system would take place on May 5, I received a phone call from the “Yes to AV” campaign asking for my support. They had plucked my number from the contact list of the “Make Votes Count” campaign, a movement of supporters of proportional representation that I had been associated with for many years. The caller assumed that I would want to help to get rid of our scandalously unfair first-past-the-post system, but I reminded him that the proposed Alternative Vote system was only slightly less unfair, and that, as a long-time supporter of proportional representation, I had little interest in this sham referendum which denies people the chance to choose a fair electoral system.

Of course ‘fair’ is a much abused word these days, but in the case of the voting system it is not a difficult concept. Representative democracy should produce a parliament that reflects the choices of the electorate, and, therefore, the seats won by the political parties should be proportionate to the votes won by them. At the last election, the Conservatives received 36 per cent of the vote but gained 47 per cent of the seats, while the Liberal Democrats received 23 per cent of the vote but won only eight per cent of seats. That clearly is not fair, but the proposed AV system offers only a partial remedy. It will ensure that the massive disproportion between and seats and votes enjoyed by the Conservative and Labour parties will not be quite so great, and it should provide the Liberal Democrats with more seats. What it will not do is provide representation for the millions of people who want to vote for parties other than the big three.

We don’t really know how large this potential vote is, since only proportional representation would give electors the opportunity to vote for parties that truly reflect their opinions. As it stands, the domination of party politics by the big three parties denies voters the opportunity to choose perfectly realisable alternatives. For example, under a properly proportional system, millions of voters may have voted for a party that suggested tackling the budget deficit primarily through increasing the standard rate of income tax, but this fair way of dealing with the aftermath of the financial crisis was simply not on offer. Or take the issue of pensions. For years we have been told that there is a consensus that we will all have to work to an older age before we can pick up our pensions, and electors are denied the opportunity to vote for perfectly credible alternatives.

A properly proportional system, such as the Alternative Member System used in Germany, or the single-transferable vote system used in Ireland, enables smaller parties to enter parliament and potentially join coalitions. In Germany, in addition to voting for constituency MPs, electors vote for a party, so that if a party obtains the minimum threshold of five per cent, it gains five per cent of the seats in parliament. In this system, the Greens and the Left party are represented, not just the big three of Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Free Democrats. In Ireland, lots of small parties and independents gain representation, and the much vaunted link between MP and voter is even stronger than our first-past the-post system. Under FPTP, voters are still likely to vote for the party they want to win, irrespective of the merits of the candidate. In Ireland for example, in a constituency in which three candidates are elected, you could vote for two members of your favoured party, but give your third preference to a candidate from another party. With candidates of the same party competing with one another for votes, there is a powerful incentive for them to be attentive to their constituents’ concerns.

I notice that the old “Make Votes Count” campaign has been transformed into “Yes to Fairer Votes – Yes to AV”. But ‘fairer’ is not the same as ‘fair’, and the proposed system will preserve the hold of the big three parties on parliament, denying voters the chance to choose meaningful alternatives. Only true proportional representation can renew our democracy.

Professor Lawrence Wilde
Nottingham Trent University
To contact Professor Wilde please call 0115 848 8785 or email matt.wallace@ntu.ac.uk

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The cult of celebrity over reasoned debate, by Dr Michael O’Neill

Is celebrity trumping gravitas?

The upcoming referendum is novel because it is the first occasion when the people are actually being consulted about that most important of issues: how we elect those who govern us. True, previous referendums have sought popular approval for various (and important) constitutional reforms (devolution in the territorial polities), or on the UK’s continued membership of the then EEC; but not, thus far, on the all-important ‘rules of the game’.

It is interesting – and perhaps depressing too – to look at how the competing campaigns are actually being conducted. The national conversation that we are entitled to expect as citizens of a mature democracy prior to making such a momentous choice is rather more one-sided, altogether more trivialised and top-down than it ought to be, given what is at stake. It is more than a little irritating to political purists to see how far this momentous choice is being dumbed down, at least in the prime-time media.

Perhaps this is inevitable, a sign of the times, celebrity trumping gravitas, with what the supposedly ‘great and the good’ says carrying greater weight than informed debate or sound and reasoned argument. The best that can be said for it is that at least showbiz is getting its own back on those tedious politicos, taking advantage of a rare opportunity to pay Westminster back in familiar currency for allowing Anne Widdecombe and other tiresome patricians for invading their prime-time turf. There is, after all, little to choose between a jejune tango and a vapid George VIth look-a-like stumbling (though admittedly not on this occasion stammering) his way through a not particularly convincing case for electoral reform!

So, the usual array of celebs is being rolled out by both sides. And underlying all of this is the depressing assumption that equates glitzy hype with informed comment. As if celebrity per se counts for something, is a substitute for proper discussion and reliable information.

This is a questionable assumption to say the least. What someone’s ability as an Olympic gold-medallist, an Oscar-winning thespian, or a slick stand-up comic has to do with making a good case for or against FPTP / AV is anyone’s guess. But it seems this is precisely what our political masters do think, or at least those of them running the referendum campaigns; that somehow the cult of celebrity counts for more than reasoned debate. Maybe the next stage in this dumbing down of politics is to recruit Bruce Forsyth to deliver the next budget…..now come to think of it…!

There is of course nothing new in this. The ancient forerunners of today’s ‘princes’ used to anaesthetise the masses with a mix of bread and circuses. The Romans honed the art of politics as bribery and deception the princes of Christendom went in for showy coronations, and latterly spurious claims to divinity. Even the ‘democratic age’ has indulged in occasional wars or opulent spectaculars (Royal weddings for instance) to distract, or otherwise deflect the attention of ‘the masses’ from actually thinking about ‘issues’.

But surely citizens of a mature democracy deserve something rather better than the present glib referendum circus? Of course, you can find more serious discussion if you actively seek it, from the frenetic blogosphere to late night spots on the less frequented channels. But this is not mainstream coverage.

Those for whom politics is just about one of the most serious human endeavours might have hoped for rather better from our politicians (and from the court jesters of the media who act as their chiders and cheerleaders) than this trivialised celebrity-fest. Is it too much to expect by now that they would exhibit just a tad more respect for, rather less contempt for the general intelligence? Apparently not!

So we can expect more of the same between now and referendum day. And this perhaps tells us as much about the state of our democratic culture as any learned treatise on ‘deliberative democracy’ or the socio-psychological dynamics of political motivation. If anything in this tiresome display makes the case for doing all we can to facilitate greater political engagement in our society, to widen what should by now be a meaningful ongoing national conversation about how we are governed, then all is not lost. This rather patronising and top-down referendum campaign might at least spur us on to better things in future. But, dear reader, don’t hold your breath!

Dr Michael O’Neill
Nottingham Trent University
To contact Dr O’Neill please call 0115 848 8785 or email matt.wallace@ntu.ac.uk

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Who would benefit from the Alternative Voting System? By Dr Rose Gann

Two thirds of the 650 seats elected to Parliament are known as ‘safe seats’

Election to become a Member of Parliament currently works on the first past the post system (FPTP) in which the candidate with the greatest number of votes in any given constituency wins the seat and becomes the Member of Parliament.  However, there are several reasons why the FPTP system of electing candidates can be considered problematic from the point of view of ensuring the representation of different groups of society in Parliament.

As well as not actually requiring a majority of people to vote for a candidate in order for them to win, the FPTP system has also been criticised because it is very difficult for someone to be elected via the FPTP system as an Independent MP, i.e. as someone not representing one of the major political parties.  The current process has been dominated by a political party system in which voters are given the choice between two or three candidates representing the three main political parties – Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat.  In fact, two thirds of the 650 seats elected to Parliament are known as ‘safe seats’, i.e. they are in constituencies in which the major political parties can be very confident that they will win the largest number of votes and hence the seat in Parliament.

Therefore, it would appear that the current system is limiting the representation of different groups in Parliament because in order to stand a chance of being elected, prospective candidates have to first be selected by one of the main political parties. The interests of the political party and its ability to win in ‘safe seat’ constituencies can have an impact upon who the party selects as their candidate and this can have a damaging effect on widening representation by limiting the type and range of candidates standing for election.  Last year’s General Election saw an increase in candidates from middle class, well educated backgrounds being selected as candidates by political parties and going on to win Parliamentary seats.

So what impact will a change to AV have?
The short answer is that it’s unlikely to have a radical impact, but it could broaden representation to some extent.

In asking the voter to rank candidates in any given constituency in order of preference, voters can nominate as many preferences as they like, and it is only the candidate that secures a majority of 50% or more who is elected.  By definition, the act of being elected by a majority makes it a more representative system that FPTP, and by allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference, fewer votes are ‘wasted’.

AV also provides voters with more choice. In terms of increasing the representation of different groups in Parliament, the AV system will force candidates (and the political parties these candidates represent) to appeal to a broader section of the general public in any given constituency. It will not always be enough for candidates (and political parties) to assume that they will be able to win the largest number of votes as they will have to meet the 50% threshold. This should mean that prospective Parliamentary candidates will have to work harder to get elected as they have to garner support from more voters and possibly rely on the second and third preferences of voters to get elected. This could result in a more diverse range of Members of Parliament but this is by no means guaranteed.  To guarantee such diversity would require a much more fundamental change to the electoral system – such as the introduction of proportional representation (PR) – alongside changes to the processes through which candidates are selected to stand for election for Parliament.

Dr Rose Gann
Nottingham Trent University
To contact Dr Gann please call 0115 848 8785 or email matt.wallace@ntu.ac.uk

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What would be the impact of a ‘Yes’ vote? By Dr Joanna McKay

Unpopular Clegg could benefit from a win for the Yes campaign

Yesterday saw the campaigns of the Yes and No groups kick into high gear with David Cameron and Ed Miliband addressing the media. To show just how bi-partisan each campaign was they decided to appear with someone from an opposing political party. In Cameron’s case this meant John Reid – last seen terrorising the Home Office – while Miliband was ably supported by Vince Cable. The interesting thing here was that Nick Clegg was nowhere to be seen. The general political wisdom going around is that Clegg is now so unpopular that he’s being kept largely on the side-lines for fear that people use the referendum to show their displeasure at his behaviour. However, his position could change if the public vote ‘Yes’ on May 5.

It should be noted at this point that the impact of a ‘yes’ vote wouldn’t necessarily be that dramatic. As many academics and media pundits have pointed out, the Alternative Vote (AV) doesn’t produce a massively different result from First-Past-the-Post. The Liberal Democrats would do a bit better in elections, and coalitions would be slightly more common, but the overall character of the British political system would be largely unchanged. However, as the pro-AV camp likes to point out, MPs and candidates would (or at least should) feel the impact of such a change, especially those in hitherto safe seats.

But the real impact of AV would be in showing that the British electoral system can be changed. A similar pattern can be seen with devolution back in the late 1990s. Then, the Conservatives frantically campaigned against it because they saw it as a door that once opened couldn’t be shut. In a way they were proven right as devolution has been an ongoing process since then and it’s still not clear whether it will lead to independence or whether it was instead of independence, but that’s a whole issue in itself. What many Conservatives fear is that AV will be seen as a stepping stone to full proportional representation. If this happens then the two party system that has dominated UK politics for the past two hundred years will be broken and Britain can look forward to more coalitions and most likely new political parties emerging.

From a strictly strategic perspective a ‘Yes’ vote would be very good for Clegg and bad for Cameron. Clegg would have his position as leader strengthened while Cameron would have to deal with his backbenchers who never wanted to have a referendum in the first place. Then, if the Conservatives do badly in the next general election, while the Liberal Democrats do well, the Tory grass-roots will directly blame Cameron for this. It would also be interesting to see what impact a ‘yes’ vote would have on Ed Miliband’s  position and popularity ratings. But what is clear is that even a ‘yes’ vote will leave a lot of politicians (and also normal people) unhappy, either because change has gone too far or because it hasn’t gone far enough.

Dr Joanna McKay and Dr Matthew Ashton
Nottingham Trent University
To contact Dr McKay or Dr Ashton please call 0115 848 8785 or email matt.wallace@ntu.ac.uk

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What makes a good electoral system? By Dr Joanna McKay

How we decide who governs us is perhaps the most salient question for any political system. Democratic elections are the best way we’ve found so far for choosing our leaders, and perhaps more importantly, are a vital mechanism for removing them from office at a later date. However, across the democratic world there is a great deal of disagreement as to what the best electoral system (i.e. The means of translating votes into seats in legislatures, and ultimately into executive positions) actually is.

Reviewing every single variation in this blog post would be impossible, so instead I’m going to try to offer up a few pointers as to what criteria should shape a good electoral system.

1) Fairness
Defining fairness is difficult as what’s considered fair is often subjective. I think most people would agree that any fair system would have to represent citizens equally, for instance everyone gets only one vote and these votes should all be worth the same. Fairness is important primarily because it helps create trust in the results of elections. If people don’t feel that the process is fair then they might not think that the elected government is legitimate. They might also decide not to participate in future elections.

2) Inclusiveness
Linked to this is the idea that a fair electoral system is one that the majority of people can take part in. In Britain there are certain people who are not allowed to vote  in elections, due to either having had their rights taken away (prisoners), not being of sound mind, or not being old enough (anyone under the age of eighteen). However, everyone else who is a citizen is allowed to participate and therefore to have a say in the policies that shape our nation.

3) Transparency
Like justice, democracy needs to be an open process so that people can trust the end result. The only caveat to this is the ballot itself which needs to take place in secret in order to protect people’s right to privacy when it comes to their political views.

4) Accountability
A good electoral system isn’t just about electing people but also about holding them to account. In Britain we currently only do this every four or five years when we hold a general election. That means that the elected representative can do pretty much as they like inbetween.

5) Stability
The final point is a practical one. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if you have the fairest, most transparent electoral system in the world, if it continually produces unstable governments that cannot govern. Italy used to be famed for the instability of its governments with constantly changing Prime Ministers. Likewise, the Weimar Republic ultimately collapsed due to instability partly caused by its electoral system. Many feel that one of the strengths of Britain’s current system is that it usually produces strong stable governments that can rule without coalitions. However, this does mean that it’s less representative than other systems.

The British public now have to decide which of these criteria matters most to them and whether First-Past-The-Post or the Alternative Vote will best deliver it.

Dr Joanna McKay
Nottingham Trent University
To contact Dr McKay please call 0115 848 8785 or email matt.wallace@ntu.ac.uk

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