Say “Yes” to AV!

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My reason for supporting AV is simple: it would create a fairer system of government that Britain deserves.

After weeks of haggling, Parliament finally passed the necessary legislation to set the stage for a referendum on changing the voting system for Britain’s general elections this coming May. A “Yes” vote would abandon the current “first past the post” (FPTP) system and adopt the “alternative vote” (AV). Both the “Yes” and “No” camps have now begun to campaign for their sides. I throw my weight—whatever its worth—behind the “Yes” camp.

There are many points of contention between the camps—how much AV would cost, whether people would understand, who in the world use it, whether it will boost or kill small parties etc. My support for AV is based solely on the belief that that would create a fairer and more contestable political system.

The current FPTP system allows electors to pick just one candidate on the ballot paper, and whoever gets the most votes wins. Simple and effective—but is it fair? British Members of Parliament serve two purposes: on a constituency level they represent the people in central Government, holding it to account; on a national level, the numbers of MPs from one party determine whether that party can form a Government.

In principle, in a constituency with three main contesting parties, under FPTP, a candidate needs to win only 34% of the vote to represent that constituency. Multiply that nationally, the winning party will not need anything close to a majority of votes to form a Government to raise our taxes, make our laws or take us to war. In 2005 Labour won 62% of seats with only 41% of the vote. Supporters of FPTP argue quite rightly that the current system allows strong Governments to be formed, but democracy is about building representative Governments, not strong ones.

AV would change that. It would allow voters to rank candidates by order of preference, and the winning candidate must garner at least 50% of the votes. More people’s votes must be counted to find a winner, rather than the 34% in the example given above. It would end the system where, for example, a Labour candidate in a constituency with an inner-city population greater than the suburban or rural population can ignore the latter’s preferences, because the suburban and rural second-preference votes can now also count against Labour. It would mean that every candidate must work harder to persuade people to vote for them, even as a second choice.

Supporters of FPTP fret that the chances of creating hung Parliaments are greater under AV, but that’s not a disaster. Politics, especially national politics, shouldn’t be about one party that hasn’t achieved a majority imposing its agenda on people who didn’t vote for it. In fact, we value compromise and consensus between stakeholders in all our social relationships—family, friends, couples. Why should national politics be any different?

FPTP supporters say that AV won’t bring the change it is intended, but stagnation in popular participation in national politics is partly due to apathetic voting culture encouraged by FPTP. Winning AV won’t change that overnight, but it would be the first step for people to re-engage with national politics. After all, it is the former that the latter is supposed to serve.

And now, you can make it happen, by voting “Yes” on 5 May.

Click for more information about the “Yes” and “No” camps.

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I hereby sentence you to vote at the next election

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European Court of Human Rights

"I hereby order you to give your inmates the vote!"

The row over giving prisoners the right to vote is about two separate issues, and Britain should comply with the Court’s ruling.

Last evening the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for a motion urging the Government to defy the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling on giving prisoners the vote. The issue has triggered a heated debate, at least in Westminster village, on two separate matters – whether convicted prisoners deserve the privilege/right to vote and whether the unelected supranational court in Strasbourg can issue such a decree in defiance of the will of the nation’s elected representatives. Some Eurosceptics have even seized on the chance to call for the withdrawal of the UK from the European Convention of Human Rights, the treaty that will celebrate its diamond jubilee in 2018 and is the legal basis of the Court. The rest of the country, of course, is too absorbed in other matters, such as potential cuts to local councils, to care, but I will comment on it anyway.

Unusually for me, I don’t have a “clear” answer, at least to the first debate, the principle of allowing prisoners to vote. Both sides of the argument have equally valid points. Prisoners, by breaking their imaginary contract with society, have certain rights withdrawn from them, mainly personal liberty, and with good reason. On the other hand, they are human beings too, and certain rights apply regardless, such as the right to equal treatment and the right to a fair trial. Should the right to vote constitute part of that bundle of suspended rights?

Clearly, there is a case for either side, and I remain undecided. The only thing I will say regarding that is that although a prisoner is currently living with reduced rights, most will eventually be released into society, their right to vote will one day be restored. With that in mind, it is certainly right to prepare prisoners with the capability to participate in democratic society, perhaps having elected prisoners representatives to represent the interests of inmates in the prison (not sure if this happens now).

But without any clear-cut philosophy or school of thought to fall upon (democracies around the world have different attitudes to the matter), the current debate has been framed as a conflict between the democratically elected national Government and the distant, unaccountable Court in Strasbourg. Popular power, or authority from above?

Solely on the conflict of Parliament vs. Court, I side with the Court, and I believe that the ruling should be followed as a matter of principle. The European Convention on Human Rights is the most powerful human rights legislation in the world to date, and while some are suspicious of its intrusiveness, especially when certain cases are highlighted by the media, many forget that this treaty came as a response to one of the most severe and systematic transgressions of human rights in modern European history – the second world war and the holocaust. Human rights abuses are still rife throughout Europe, especially in ex-communist bloc countries. If long-standing signatories to the Convention such as the UK demonstrate that even it doesn’t respect the Court, it will be impossible for younger members to learn to comply. They will also learn that human rights are applicable only when it is popular or convenient, not when it is right. That is certainly not the image that Britain wants to portray.

People who advocate the withdrawal of Britain from the Convention are taking their Eurosceptic folly into even greater absurdity. They bemoan that the faraway Court is not accountable to the British public, but that is a ridiculous contention. The whole point of having judicial independence is so that popular accountability doesn’t enter the equation. Courts are meant to uphold the law without fear or favour, not pander to whatever is popular at the time. If the focus of the argument is altered to have a sole domestic dimension, one could argue that no British judge is “accountable” to the public, since none of them have to face elections.

Secondly, even though the European Court of Human Rights is based in Strasbourg, the law that it is based on, and the people it serves, are very British, because Britain is willingly under the Court’s jurisdiction by being a party to the Convention. Arguing that a judgment of the Court is not valid because it is not based on British soil would be like saying that a court in London cannot rule on a matter that occurred in Kent, even though both places are subject to the same law and the presiding judges may come from outside Kent.

The House of Commons has understandably and legitimately expressed its opinion, but now is the time for the Government to do the right and proper thing by complying with the Court’s ruling, however “distasteful” it may be.

Educating Britain


What are we worth?

The Government is right to raise tuition fees, but the row masks a bigger problem with education in Britain.

Amidst riotous scenes in central London on Thursday, MPs voted narrowly to endorse the Government’s plans to triple the cap on tuition fees paid by English university students from £3,290 per annum to £9,000 from 2012.

The move, which is a watered-down version of the recommendations proposed by Lord Browne, the ex-boss of BP tasked to review university funding by Labour in 2009, has been controversial. In the past month students have staged demonstrations, sit-ins and occupations in schools and universities across the country, with a few incidences of violence. All in all, though, the decision is a wise one, on several accounts.

The idea of shifting the burden of tuition from the taxpayer to the student is not new. Labour first introduced tuition fees in 1998, at a level of £1,000, and replaced universal grants with student loans. It then tripled fees to £3,250 in 2007. Like a tax, once tuition fees were introduced, the rate could only go up. The coalition’s plans are simply continuing that trend, albeit with a big jump in figures (but then, tripling tuition fees is what Labour did in 2007).

The introduction of tuition fees reflects a shifting consensus on the taxpayer’s responsibility for funding higher education. With the number of university graduates increasing significantly in the past decade, the cost of funding them has grown exponentially too. Not only is it increasingly expensive, it represents an ever-growing transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. According to the BBC on average it costs £7,000 a year to provide someone with a university education, and £3,250 covers just about half of that. Most of the other half has to be coughed up by taxpayers, most of whom have not had the privilege of going to universities themselves. Is it fair to ask them to fund others to have that privilege? Graduates in general earn higher in their lifetimes than non-graduates, and it is quite perverse to ask the poor to pay for the richer-to-be.

But a more worrying problem about the value for money paid to fund university education is how devalued it has become. As said, the university population has expanded, but quantity does not mean quality. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international organisation made up of developed states, recently published its triennial report on the academic achievements of teenagers in its member states, including Britain. The report showed that improvements in Britain’s education standards have not kept up with improvements elsewhere, meaning that its position on the global league table has once again slipped, with difficulties especially in reading and numeracy. Below-average secondary school students do not suddenly become above-average university students—the increase in the university student population does not necessarily reflect a nation becoming smarter. Although a separate OECD study has stated that Britain spends less on higher education as a percentage of GDP compared with many other countries, it does not mean that simply splashing out more on students is the answer.

Critics of the Government’s plans fear that bright students from poorer backgrounds will be discouraged from applying to university because of the debt burden. It is a legitimate worry, although it is misplaced. First, tuition fees are not to be paid upfront. A graduate will only begin to repay fees when his or her income exceeds £21,000—a salary comfortable for most singletons (especially if outside London). Any outstanding debt will be erased in 30 years, meaning that there is a definite end to repayments. If a graduate from a low-income family continues to earn only a low income, he or she need not pay.

But I think the big obstacle stopping bright but poor students from going to university is culture rather than affordability. Going to university is a big investment in someone’s life, and what many poorer students seem to lack is proper guidance. A school with a traditionally low university-going rate is not likely to have in place a high-quality university counselling service, giving potential undergraduates good advice on applying. A historical lack of graduates in poorer neighbourhoods cannot make university sound like an attractive option. Therefore the Government’s schemes to actively promote the benefits of higher education, even though it is increasing fees, are welcome.

The problem of low university attendance from poorer communities is reflective of a bigger problem about the state of education in Britain. Although the Labour Government had thrown a lot of cash into education in the past 13 years, it has failed to yield results, as the disappointing OECD report shows. The issue is clearly not money, but attitudes and standards. Part of the fault lies with the currently disincentivising benefits system, which is already under a much needed overhaul. The Government’s belief that money is not everything, partly forced on it by the country’s large public deficit, is beginning to change the country’s view on education. The social status of teacher needs to be improved. Schools need to have more freedom to operate. The standards of education should be raised. Vocational training should once again occupy a greater place in lifelong learning, so that universities can be left to the truly academically gifted to enter, but without leaving non-graduates feeling marginalised.

Although not all of the Government’s plans for reforming the education sector are universally welcome, the courage it has shown to stand firm on its plans, especially in the face of irate protesters on its doorstep, may ultimately pave the way for a smarter, more prosperous Britain.

The Comprehensive Spending Review

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"It's easy! Cut your spending, dummy!"

So the axe finally has fallen. After a summer of multiple announcements of public expenditure cuts, the crescendo was reached this afternoon when Chancellor George Osborne delivered his statement on the comprehensive spending review to a packed House of Commons. Over the next four years, most government departments will be expected to reduce their budgets by an average of 19%. Health, which was ring-fenced, is only to receive a marginal increase in its budget. By the end of this Parliament, Britain’s structural deficit—the deficit that the government still runs even if the economy is operating at full capacity—should be eliminated. Together the spending review will fundamentally change how the British economy will be structured, possibly for many years to come.

Keynesian economists and the Labour party worry that contractionary fiscal policy at a time when private sector recovery has not been secured would dampen aggregate demand and trigger a double-dip recession. They have a point. This is especially since the normal engine to private sector-led recovery, the financial sector, is still not operating at full capacity yet. If the public sector is going to cut now, who will fund private sector recovery?

While the argument is valid, it misses a key point. Running public deficits may be important to stimulate economic recovery, but deficits do not finance themselves; money has to be borrowed from elsewhere. Partly to rescue the banks from failure, public sector borrowing has reached stratospheric heights, standing at more than 11% of Britain’s gross domestic product at the time of the Mr Osborne’s emergency Budget in June.

The Labour government was right to take decisive action to stabilise the banking sector, but it also created a problem by borrowing so much extra. Loans mean interest, and as Britain’s debt increased, so did its interest obligations. This year alone, £43 billion will be paid to financial institutions simply to service Britain’s debt. That amount is more than what the government spends on the police, housing and the environment, industry, or defence. Servicing debt represents a deadweight loss to the British economy, as the money is not spent to stimulate the economy. The more we borrow, the higher the debt interest, and the greater the deadweight loss to society. Therefore it makes much sense to rein in spending in order to reduce our borrowing.

The Keynesian argument isn’t completely dead yet, however. The government has pledged to protect many investment projects in infrastructure, research, sunrise industries, education and enterprise creation. Public sector job losses, projected to amount to half a million over the next four years, will be achieved mainly through natural wastage and unfilled vacancies. When money is tight, one should spend on what will be most likely to guarantee greater revenue in the future. 

Almost fortunately, the cuts are being implemented by a coalition government whose dominant party is ideologically inclined to have a smaller state*. The spending cuts match the natural ideology of the Conservatives: shrinking the state and encouraging the private sector, local government and civil society to take more of the burden of running the country. That will make implementing the whole package of reforms a smoother and more logical process. Reform in schools and the benefits systems and updating Britain’s defence capabilities to reflect the post-Cold War world should all eventually contribute to long-term reductions in public spending and more effective governance.

It won’t be a surprise to readers when I say that I feel that the broad direction of the government’s plan is right: debt over-accumulation is generally bad, and I am all for a smaller state in exchange for a larger private sector-led economy and volunteer-led society. In any case, I haven’t got much choice; credible or not, the coalition’s plans are the only ones on the table at the moment. For all its predictable protestations, the Labour party has yet to come up with any kind of updated proposal to sort out the economy and the public finances (the 19% spending cuts announced today are on par with Labour’s initial proposals of 20% anyway). Perhaps Alan Johnson is waiting for his copy of “Economics for Dummies” to arrive from Amazon. Britain now badly needs the opposition to get its act together. Let’s hope it gets it sooner rather than later.

* I don’t know why British politicians, including the Prime Minister, use “ideology” as if it’s a dirty word; it’s just a synonym for a set of principles, and nobody complains about government by principle. In fact, the years of state expansion under Labour have, I suspect, been in part driven by the socialist instinct of “Father knows best”. Under Labour, government grew by piecemeal, building up huge complexities and inefficiencies. It makes sense now to wield the shears to trim away the overgrown branches. After all, if a crisis doesn’t force us to take drastic action, what will?

Equalising power, or gerrymandering?

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"Mah vote is worth mair than yoors, sassenach."

Last night, the House of Commons voted by 328 to 269 to continue the process to pass the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. It will now enter its Committee stage to be scrutinised in detail.

As said yesterday, the Bill hopes to achieve two aims: pave the way for a referendum to change the way we elect MPs and reduce the number of MPs to 600 while equalising the number of people MPs represent. Today we will explore the second aim, which is as  controversial the first aim. Both sides of the debate have accused each other of trying to manipulate the electoral system to their advantage.

There are currently 650 Members of Parliament, the highest number ever. The Commons Chamber has long run out of space to seat everybody—there are only 427 seats available. But it is more than just overcrowding at the Grade 1 listed Palace of Westminster that is a concern. The House of Commons is currently larger than the US House of Representatives and Senate combined, the French Assemblée Naitonale and the German Bundestag. Is having so many MPs efficient, especially in the age of austerity?

But the real controversy lies with the implications of reducing the number of MPs, and not the reduction itself. Cutting the number of MPs means that constituency boundaries across the country will have to be redrawn, which would uproot the power base of certain parties depending on how the boundaries are redrawn. The Bill proposes to redraw them so as to equalise the number of people each MP represents.

According to the four Boundary Commissions, which are in charge of drawing the constituency boundaries, the Isle of Wight constituency in south England has more than 100,000 eligible voters, whereas Na h-Eileanan an Iar (the Outer Hebrides in west Scotland) has only about 20,000. In theory, this means that a vote cast in the Outer Hebrides is five times more powerful than a vote cast in the Isle of Wight. On the other hand, the MP for the Outer Hebrides would theoretically have less work than the MP for the Isle of Wight, and can therefore spend more time doing constituency work. That seems unfair, and isn’t it obvious that change is needed?

Well, not really. The Labour party is against this proposal, arguing that a further look into the numbers, for example taking into account voter turnout, shows that there is no bias in the way constituency boundaries are drawn, and any change in the system is but a Tory manipulation of the system. The Tories and Lib Dems retort that Labour’s objections stem from the fact that it will lose its current favourable electoral bias. They sneer that Labour is more concerned about its own electoral advantage rather than the fairness of the system.

Minority parties in the nation are also disapproving, as redrawing the boundaries and redistributing electorate sizes would reduce the number of MPs that their nations return to Parliament, even though currently, a vote from the nations generally have more “power” than a vote from England and the nations have, in addition to Parliament, their devolved assemblies.

It turns out that the Bill is a great revealer each party’s motives in ensuring that the system works “their” way. The Liberal Democrats will probably be the biggest winner if AV is adopted, as it is often the second preference for both Labour and Conservative voters. The Conservatives will gain if constituency boundaries are redrawn and electorate sizes equalised. Labour and the national parties protest because they think their power could be reduced in future elections.

So which system is fairer? Does anyone care? That word is only bandied about when there are benefits and advantages at stake. There are undoubtedly rights and wrongs in politics; it just so happens that they have to be aligned with benefits and disadvantages to be talked about.

Want to revolutionise the way we vote?

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A vote counter at work

"What do you mean I'm counting it the wrong way?"

Parliament began the new term by debating the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. If passed, the system of deciding who governs Britain could change forever. But how? Today’s and tomorrow’s posts attempt to explain.

On the first day Parliament returned from summer recess, it began debating the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. The Bill was a key demand for Liberal Democrats to join the Conservatives in coalition, and will be an important test of the strength of their partnership. If passed, the Bill would do two things. First, it would enable a referendum to be held on the future voting system for electing Members of Parliament. Secondly, it would reduce the number of constituencies from a record high of 650 to 600, and even out the number of people each MP is meant to represent. Let’s first look at the proposals for a referendum on the alternative vote.

The referendum, to be held next May alongside elections in all the four nations, will ask the electorate whether they want to replace the current “first-past-the-post” system of electing MPs with the “alternative vote” system.

First-past-the-post is very straightforward. It basically means “majority wins”: whoever receives the most votes wins the seat. However, many criticise it for its unfairness. if 51% of the electorate votes for Party A, and 49% Party B, Party A’s candidate can hardly claim to have won over the electorate. Choice is also limited, as many voters might have to opt for who they think will win, rather than who they hope will win, as process known as tactical voting (e.g. a Liberal Democrat-supporter votes Labour instead of Lib Dem because she wants to “keep the Tories out”, rather than truly wanting Labour to win).

The ultimate result of FPTP could be that the party that commands a majority in the House of Commons, which becoming the governing party, may be enjoying only very weak popular support. For example, after the 2005 election, Labour only took 35% of the popular vote, yet ended up with a 157-seat majority over the Conservatives, who won 32% of the vote.

A system of alternative vote would change how people cast their votes. Instead of picking one candidate, people will list candidates by preference: 1, 2 and 3. If a candidate gets more than 50% of first-preference votes (i.e. “1”s), he wins. But if that is not achieved, the candidate who holds the fewest “1” votes will be eliminated, and the second-preference votes (the “2”s)  of those ballots will be distributed among the remaining candidates. Eventually, a candidate will obtain more than 50% of the vote and win. This system is praised by some to be fairer, as the winner would have to have gained at least half of the electorate’s approval.

But the price of “fairness” could be to complicate the composition of Parliament. Majority governments will be harder to emerge, and more hung Parliaments will produce more coalitions. But the British people have now seen how a hung Parliament can work, and may decide that having them once in a while to keep party politics in check is beneficial. Of course, another drawback is to increase the workload of vote-counters on election night.

Of course, the AV system itself is not alien to Britain, as it and its variants are used to elect the party leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and the mayors of London and other cities. The Conservative party is against the proposal, but was forced to accept the referendum as part of the coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats. It is expected that Conservative MPs will vote the Bill through to allow the referendum to happen, but campaign against changing the system next May.

Tomorrow we will look at the other half of the Bill, which proposes to reduce the number of MPs and to “equalise” the size of constituencies.

Do you support the first-past-the-post, alternative vote, or another voting system? Let me know!

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