David Cameron hearts archaic voting systems

Over here in the United Kingdom, the creaking FPTP (First-Past-The-Post) system of voting still operates; voters in general elections are forced to nominate only their most-preferred candidate, a solitary smudge in a box. It’s easy to see how such a system can result in fairly undemocratic results in tussles between more than two serious candidates: as the number of serious candidates in a ballot increases, FPTP forces a serious division of the vote, ultimately delivering victory to candidates with potentially only a minority proportion of overall electoral support. It is a system that decisively favours larger, more-established parties at the expense of smaller ones, and it is not surprising in this context that the Liberal Democrats made electoral reform one of the cornerstones of their campaign in the May 2010 UK general election.

The begrudging promise of a referendum on the alternative vote or “AV” system of preferential voting reportedly sealed the Coalition deal for David Cameron’s Conservatives with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats in the election aftermath. The referendum, which is to be held on Thursday 5th May 2011 as a kind of royal wedding after-party for psephologists, will cast the two Coalition partners decisively against each other in what looks set to be an intriguing political tussle. From an Australian perspective it is particularly intriguing, because as the anointed international standard-bearers for preferential voting, Westminster-style, it looks like we will be stuck in the crossfire for the duration of the debate!

The first serious volleys were fired late last week, when Nick Clegg and David Cameron set out their opening arguments for voting for and against AV, respectively. David Cameron made special mention of the Australian example several times in his speech launching the “No” campaign. His approach? Never let a good argument get in the way of a good slur:

When it comes to our democracy, Britain shouldn’t have to settle for anyone’s second choice.

And this argument that no one really wants it, it’s as true abroad as it is at home.

Only three countries use AV for national elections: Fiji, Australia and Papua New Guinea.

In Australia, six in ten voters want to return to the system we have – first past the post.

This is both sleight of hand and an egregious slight; playing on the relative size and remoteness of all three countries mentioned, and slimily “hiding” Australia in passing between Fiji and PNG. What really are you saying about Fiji and Papua New Guinea, Prime Minister, by being so careful to mention them first, and last? They are the countries you want people to remember and associate with AV, aren’t they? I’d also be interested in hearing the basis for the “six in ten” figure mentioned. Does anybody seriously believe that there is any realistic popular support whatsoever for a regression back to FPTP in Australia?

The British Prime Minister also takes the time to explain why preferential voting is the reason for the relatively high number of safe seats in Australia (?) and furthermore, why it is to blame for “obliterating minor parties” down under. Evidently nobody told him about the rise and rise of the Greens, or the notable success of independents and minor parties in recent years, in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

He goes on to trash Australia’s electoral system, calling out the fact that it took seventeen days for a government to be formed at the last federal poll, and noting that on voting day ”voters are lectured at polling stations by party apparatchiks with ‘How to Vote’ cards.”. I’m not necessarily a fan of “how-to-vote” shenanigans outside polling booths, but it is a nonsense to describe the process as “lecturing”; in practice, it is little more than froth and colour. It is also disingenuous of Cameron to spin the speed of confirming the last federal election result as indicative of what happens in preferential voting systems generally. September 2010 was hardly exemplary of recent federal election results in Australia – practically all of which were decided with brutal speed and on the night (indeed, called by Antony Green a few hours after the close of polls, quite frequently).

I’d like to think that the Prime Minister isn’t going to take this rubbishing of Australia’s electoral system lying down. She might start by making gentle mention of that most thoroughly democratic of British institutions, the House of Lords.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

Nick Clegg, progressivism, and New, New Labour

Nick Clegg, latter-day UK Deputy Prime Minister and the parliamentary leader of the Liberal Democrats, is in the thick of some truly interesting times in British politics. Coalition life has been generally smooth for him and his party since the May 6th election, but it is also proving politically disfiguring, particularly if recent polls are to be believed.. He and the Liberal Democrats are at grave risk of being cast betwixt and between the fashionable, small-l liberalism of their philosophical cloth and the considerably less fashionable fiscal brutality being spearheaded by Chancellor George Osborne. In recent months, whatever it is that the Liberal Democrats believe seems to have been subsumed by this war that their senior Coalition partners are waging on the national debt. Are the billions of dollars of mooted public sector cuts really a function of necessity given the fiscal climate, or are they more just an expression of the Conservative Party’s base political wants after a decade in the political wilderness? It would be naive to suggest that there is not a bit of both in play.

On Tuesday last week, Clegg delivered the Hugo Young lecture at Kings Place in London, at the invitation of The Guardian. In the lecture, Clegg grapples with the question of what it means to be “progressive” in today’s political environment. We can hardly be surprised that he has spent some time considering this topic; this is a question that threatens the very identity of the Liberal Democrats as a party. Can the Liberal Democrats really still be thought of as “progressive”, locked as they are in a kind of Faustian pact with the Tories?

It is an important question for Clegg and indeed the broader party and their supporters, and it will only become more important as the electoral cycle plods inexorably towards 2015. Clegg’s intellectual mechanism for dealing with the question and to defend his left flank is to divide “progressives” into two lumpen camps; “old progressives” and “new progressives”. Labour, of course, are cast off as embodying the “old progressive” cause, and the righteous Liberal Democrats hailed as the future of progressive politics in Britain:

The need to make choices is revealing an important divide between old progressives, who emphasise the power and spending of the central state, and new progressives, who focus on the power and freedom of citizens.

There’s some clear sleight of hand and over-simplification being employed here, particularly as Clegg goes on to define exactly what he perceives the differences between old and new progressives to be:

Old progressives are straightforwardly in favour of more state spending and activity.

Old and new progressives also take a different approach to tackling poverty and promoting fairness. Old progressives see a fair society as one in which households with income currently less than 60% of the median were to be, in Labour’s telling verb, “lifted” out of poverty.

For old progressives, reducing snapshot income inequality is the ultimate goal. For new progressives, reducing the barriers to mobility is.

New progressives want to reshape the tax base fundamentally, towards greater taxation of unearned wealth and pollution, rather than of people.

In essence, “old progressivism” just happens to be all the stereotypical centre-left viewpoints that one tends to associate with social democratic parties in the 1980’s. which Clegg projects onto modern Labour. “New progressivism” (in case you didn’t know), just happens to be all the middling, individual-centric rhetoric that Clegg no doubt perceives his party as uniformly believing in and Labour as uniformly opposing. “Political pluralism”? Why that’s conveniently a “new progressive” concept, exemplified, of course, by Clegg’s conservative coalition. Distilling this even further, we might well conclude that the Deputy Prime Minister is trying to cast himself as a Blairite, and position his party as a kind of “New, New Labour”, in league with the old enemy.

This theme is reflected by Clegg’s willingness in his speech to agree with Ed Miliband and Labour on values, but not on policy mechanisms for implementation. On the one hand, he expresses his agreement with Miliband’s recent observations that the United Kingdom is a “fundamentally unequal society” and that “for some people, the gap between the dreams that seem to be on offer and their ability to realize them is wider than it’s ever been before.” He goes on to scoff at Miliband’s attachment to the top 50p income tax rate, conveying all the while that he thinks that Labour’s heart is in the right place but its head is trapped in the past. It is a bold, but ultimately defensive stretch to the left, and a futile one while Clegg still has his stronger leg planted in David Cameron’s hack and slash Conservative camp.

Just where do these Liberal Democrats stand? If the Deputy Prime Minister is to be believed, they are sticking to the middle of the road come what may, and stand to be slowly crushed between the hulking semi-trailers of the major parties during the next five years. It is not good enough for Clegg to stand with the Tories whilst proffering the occasional olive branch to the left. The voters that matter to Clegg and his party are going to want to see something in the Lib Dems that distinguishes them from the Tories as this term rolls on; gentlemanly argreements with Ed Miliband on a few philosophical debating points aren’t going to cut it.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

Mating sloths, bovver boys and toffs

It’s a curious fact that the United Kingdom has, only in the last twenty-four hours, fielded its first ever televised election debate. Both locally and in the United States, debates between the key party leaders have been conducted during election campaigns for many years now. Historically, British Prime Ministers seem to have been rather reluctant to cede any of their billing as media “top dog” to their political opponents. The difference this time around is the devastating nature of the challenge facing Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who most people have written off in favour of David Cameron over the last few years. Of course, the other reason (antipodean chortle), is that perhaps the Brits are sometimes just a wee bit degenerate when it comes to political innovation. We have, after all, been directly electing our Senate for over a century now… whereas the House of Lords… anyway, let’s just not mention our shared head of state.

The debate outcome has been both interesting and unexpected – indeed it may serve to re-energise the election campaign for a lot of Britons. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, was also invited to participate in the debate, and most commentators seem to believe he stole the show. Clegg’s performance has reignited debate around the possibility of a hung parliament, should the Liberal Democrats perform well enough to capture a decisive number of seats in the May 6 election. Polling results following on from the debate and indeed the subsequent planned debates should be very interesting indeed. One presumes that Conservative and Labour Party boffins (particularly the former) will be just a little bit nervous about what could happen if Clegg manages to ride a wave of debate-driven popularity into the final days of the election campaign.

Even if it achieves nothing else, at least this whole TV debate lark has proven quite the novelty for UK political columnists, with a few notable exceptions. I think Jackie Ashley from the Guardian is being just a tad harsh, but Australian readers might find something a little familiar in this observation:

A tame, silent audience was confronted by three leaders, who rarely made eye contact and never let fly. No real humour, no surprises, nothing spontaneous at all. No doubt some interesting things were said towards the end. Nobody was still awake to hear them.

If this was a natural history programme, it was less carnivores tearing across the plain than hanging around for far too long, waiting for sloths to mate. The television negotiators must have been grinding their teeth with disappointment.

A disturbing use of imagery, yes, but somehow, so very apt.