Category Archives: Electoral reform

Tories buy election

Democracy is a great system, except that those in power do their uttermost to subvert it, circumvent it, and twist it to their own ends, and quite often succeed.   Take the current state of play between the parties in Britain.   In March this year the Electoral Commission recommended there should be no increase in spending limits for candidates between now and the general election on 7 May.   It also proposed that there should be only an increase in spending of £2.9m for the ‘short’ 3-week campaign leading up to the election.   So what did the Tories do?   Ignoring the official recommendations of the Electoral Commission, they pushed through increases in permitted spending twice those proposed by the Commission.   This works hugely well for them because they have amassed an electoral war chest vastly greater than Labour’s, and will now be able to turn most of it to their own unilateral advantage.
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An air of unreality hangs over AV/local election results

It is tragic that the first opportunity for the electorate to decide on electoral reform was marred by three factors which leave the fundamental issue still unresolved.   First, it was the wrong option being posed: it’s not AV versus FPTP (First Past the Post).   It’s PR (some version of proportional representation) versus FPTP.   The reason we got served up with the wrong menu is that the LibDems tried to get a referendum on a PR option as a condition for the Coalition Agreement, but the Tories turned it down flat; AV was the miserable, irrelevant compromise.   Until there is a debate and a national vote on the real issue, PR v FPTP, this issue will not be settled.   Second, the Yes campaign in a contest of political football  never properly explained what AV is, or anyway not adequately when (from my experience in Oldham) three-quarters of the electors voted without understanding it.   And thirdly, the tactics of the No campaign were frankly disgraceful – lies, distractions, personalised vitriol, and disinformation on a frenzied scale.   Politicians now argue this matter is now decided for a generation; it certainly isn’t.
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Lies, lies and AV

As Polly Toynbee has so delightfully put it: Do you want choice in elections or do you want to kick Nick Clegg’s head in?   Whatever view you take, it’s pretty depressing that the first ever referendum on electoral reform should be marginalised by such tactial irrelevance.   Of course Clegg should be punished for netting shoals of votes with a promise of honesty in politics and then immediately breaking all his main pledges, but cutting off your nose to spite your face was never a brilliant way to make a point.   Besides, almost every allegation on AV foisted on the voters has been a lie – not a good way to conduct any public debate.   Here are just a few examples.
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One and a half cheers for AV

It’s difficult to get excited about the AV referendum.   It will probably be won not because of the merits of the AV system, not even because most people necessarily understand what it means, but because by 5 May the Tories, who are campaigning hard for a ‘no’ vote, will be very unpopular.   However, there are some good grounds for supporting AV.   It will be more democratic by requiring every elected MP to obtain more than 50% of the vote.   It will open up, just a teeny bit, the need to build a wider coalition than just maximising the party vote.   As Ed Miliband rightly said yesterday, it builds bridges rather than barriers between competing camps.
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The Social Democratic Solution

The problem for New Labour after Crewe is that there is a large and growing section of the population which is increasingly disenfranchised because it feels no party that is likely to be in power represents its interests and will tackle the deep-seated problems that now afflict Britain. And this is widely seen as applying across the board, not just about the odd issue.
The biggest problem facing Britain today is averting recession brought on by reckless bank lending exacerbated by the packaging of near-worthless mortgage assets into tradeable products. The government has pumped nearly £100bn into trying to unblock financial markets, but the underlying causes have not been tackled.
Structured investment vehicles, which spread the sub-prime mortgage contagion across the world, should require approval by a revamped Financial Services Authority to prevent their poison contaminating future markets. Credit agencies should no longer be paid by the companies whose creditworthiness they assess, as (amazingly) they now are. Banks should be required to hold robust capital reserves to discourage excessive lending driven by the out-of-control City bonus culture. Investment banks should be made separate from commercial banks.
But, sadly, New Labour is very unlikely to carry through these reforms because they conflict with its light-touch, deregulatory policy towards the financial markets and its commitment to City interests. Conservative policy would take deregulation even further.
Housing is where the credit crunch will strike hardest and where help is most needed. There are already 4 million applicants for council and housing association accommodation, plus 80,000 registered homeless. To prevent this huge pool of housing need expanding, houses at risk of repossession could be bought up by public authorities, their owners being converted to tenants until they are able to buy again. And to tackle the enormous lack of social affordable housing, housebuilders could be required to build at least 15% of their houses for this sector.
Yet neither New Labour nor Cameron’s Tories will envisage market intervention of this kind, whatever the housing misery. New labour proposes to build an extra 15,000 social houses a year by 2016 (though that is less than half of what is needed to clear the backlog), as well as providing an extra £200m now for housing (welcome, but little more than enough for 1,000 more houses), together with more shared equity (almost irrelevant to the core of housing deprivation today). The Conservatives have made clear they would build no new council housing at all. Both parties are obsessed with home ownership – fine if you can afford it, but for the quarter of the population who can’t, a cavalier dismissal of their needs.
Inequality, already extreme, is set to get worse. New Labour, originally relaxed about people becoming “filthy rich”, notoriously still celebrates wealth over fighting poverty, presiding over a quadrupling of the wealth of the top 1% since 1997. In a series of U-turns easing tax liabilities for the rich over inheritance tax, non-domicile status, capital gains tax for private equity, tax-haven loopholes, and now foreign earnings for multinationals, it has bent over backwards to accommodate the super-rich.
It has indeed also reduced child poverty by 600,000 over the last decade, but this remains stubbornly very high at nearly 3 million. The Conservatives, who tripled poverty and unemployment in the 1980s, can only be expected to build even further on this structure of deeply unequal Britain.
Flexible labour markets – a euphemism for unfettered hiring and firing – have scarcely changed since Thatcher steamrollered market power over employment rights. To our shame, the charter of fundamental rights, which all the other 26 EU states accepted without demur, is still blocked in the UK by New Labour. At last Gordon Brown’s legislative programme for next year is proposing increased rights for temporary and agency workers, but only subject to the agreement of the CBI. Against this background of New Labour concurrence with market forces the Tories are already talking of eroding basic employment protections still further.
The same picture applies across the whole political landscape. The privatisation of industry was forced through by Thatcher in the 1980s; New Labour has pushed through the privatisation of major areas of public service which even Thatcher drew back from. PFI, a variant of privatisation which offers poor value for money and compromises public expenditure for 30 years ahead, was developed by the Tories in the 1990s; it has now been extended by New Labour to over £100bn of public contracts, committed or planned.
The Tory war-cry “public sector bad, private sector good” has been underlined by New Labour in the light of the Northern Rock collapse, the Metronet scam on the London tube, the scotching of the Serious Fraud Office inquiry into alleged massive BAE corruption, the MRSA bug and contract hospital cleaning, and the loss of vast quantities of sensitive personal data by private contractors.
So in making a choice between New Labour and the Tories, the only two contenders with a chance of power, where’s the beef? At a conference I addressed a week ago, a man came up to me afterwards in despair: “After 20 years of Thatcher Toryism and 10 years of New Labour, all we’re offered is a return to Cameron. When are we going to be given an alternative we believe in?” That alternative is social democracy. New labour has taken us back a century to Edwardian-style inequality, the prewar dominance of private markets over public justice, and the centralisation of power in the hands of the financial, industrial and political elites, unprecedented since the 1930s.
Labour will not revive until it addresses the profound needs of Britain today rather than reinforcing a neoliberal paradigm which derives from the raw capitalism of its political opponents and which anyway has had its day and is now being buried under the chaos of the financial markets and the coming recession.
Social democracy has always been the answer to the failure of private markets, and so it will be again. It means a rebalancing of tax, income and wealth between poor and rich, a proper and necessary regulation of financial markets, a radical restoration of public accountability in parliament and throughout public life, a new and just settlement for civil liberties in society and for rights at work, and a fundamental reformulation of energy, environmental and climate change policies that can genuinely offer hope of human survival. It’s what a good half of Britain is desperately waiting for.

This article appeared on 27 May in Comment is Free:

To referendum or not to referendum

The current debate about whether there should be a referendum on the proposed EU Reform Treaty isn’t really about the precise arguments for or against it at all. Rather it’s about people’s different conceptions of what the EU is about or what it’s for.
If you’re a Eurosceptic who thinks the EU should be a loose trading relationship with little or no political super-structure, you’ll support a referendum in the expectation that it will be lost, which might then open the way to leaving the EU and achieving the neo-conservative goal of closer alignment with the US.
However, the arguments actually used are that having an elected EU President for a 30-month term, creating an EU Foreign Minister in all but in name, making the EU a legal entity in certain contexts, and sacrificing the veto by the switch to QMV in 60 (mostly minor) policy areas constitutes a shift of power to Brussels – which it is – though whether it’s a significant shift is a fine judgement. It’s also argued too that Blair promised a referendum on the EU Constitution before the 2005 election (to keep the Murdoch press sweet) and that this Reform Treaty is almost the same– which it is – though it involves nothing like the leap in integration agreed in the Single European Act in 1986 and the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 when there were no referendums. And anyway Blair changed his position on having a referendum 6 times in his last 5 years as PM, so there’s plenty of evidence to quote for his supporting either side of the argument.
What drives the pro-referendum lobby therefore is not their ostensible claims, which are anyway not as strong as they pretend, but rather their underlying view of Europe and their hostility to any move towards even the slightest pooling of sovereignty, whatever the corresponding gains might be.
If you’re a Europhile, the argument will be that there’s no loss of power since Member States will still have to reach unanimous agreement over common policy objectives and a declaration confirms that foreign policy will remain under the control of Member States – though the declaration is not legally binding. It will also be argued that Britain retains an opt-in if it wishes to co-operate with other States in tackling such issues as terrorism and crime – though if Britain did opt-in to an agreement and then found that the final draft was unacceptable, it might not be able to opt out again.
Again therefore the anti-referendum lobby is equally motivated less by force of argument over the minutiae of the Treaty than by their underlying concept of Europe and their sense of Britain’s purpose within it. The key issue here then is how precisely that purpose is delineated.

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Objectives for the EU

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I think there are four key challenges now facing the EU. First, Europe’s economic problems cannot be solved with supply side reforms alone. Weak domestic demand in many cases, made worse by the constriction of the Stability and Growth Pact, should be tackled by setting up a counter cyclical European Recovery Fund and by developing ECOFIN as a real political counterpart to the European Central Bank.
Second, the EU’s response to the global economy should be smarter than simply posing a choice between liberalisation and protectionism. It should seek to stabilise exchange rates and prevent speculative capital flows from destabilising healthy economies through a Tobin tax. It should press for an international clearing union to smooth trade imbalances by requiring countries to recycle their surpluses to maintain global demand. And it should take the lead in benchmarking social and environmental standards into world trade rules.
Third, the EU should give its social model a more distinctive European form. To deal with collapsing corporate provision, it should set up a European social fund into which companies should contribute a proportion of their profits to meet at least some of the spending needed to guarantee security in retirement as well as providing at least minimum standards for a European childcare guarantee.
Fourth, it must democratise EU politics so as to enable Europeans to feel involved in a common political debate about their future. Maybe a new Preseident of the European Council should lead on Europe-wide elections so that electors voted more as Europeans.

One hundred percent it is!

Tonight’s vote today in favour of having an all elected chamber represents a huge step forward. It was good to see all the options where there would have been a majority appointed element being rejected so decisively.
Now we must have legislation to act on the will of the Commons – because we voted as we did to reflect the weight of public opinion, which wants a 21st century bicameral parliament, not a 19th century one. We have to see the government commit itself to a bill that will turn tonight’s vote into law and give us a properly elected second chamber, where the elections are run on an open list system and places on that list are decided by party members, not by party apparatchiks and the leadership.

One hundred percent

It is essential that House of Lords reform, being debated today and tomorrow in the Commons, ends with a clear decision to have a fully elected second chamber. Any extension of Prime Ministerial patronage, which is already far too pervasive and corrupting, over admissions to the Lords would reinforce the gross over centralisation of power which is one of the most damaging trends in Britain today. The power of the Prime Minister has grown, is still growing, and needs to be cut sharply back.