Thursday, 6 January 2011

On electoral systems, and as dull as it seems

So I return to trying to blog after several months and my first post is half an essay about electoral reform. I’m such a huge geek. Sorry.

On a side point, it's great to be in the Labour Party at the moment if you're interested in electoral reform -- as the only major political party without a set position there's actual debate, and this is a Good Thing if you're a politics debate. I'm not talking just about debate among those who actually have much power either, but rather at all levels. It's interesting how on this issue there's genuine and open disagreement and debate that I don't think would exist if the party had a set line. This isn't necessarily because people feel they are not allowed to disagree openly if the party had an official line: rather because it's all too easy for people with a political affiliation, no matter how lowly or low-profile their position in the party, to fall back on the party line as a default. They don't mean to, but to do so is just natural psychology.

I'm not going to try to set out any kind of exhaustive argument as to why I think AV is preferable to FPTP. This is because as a certified amateur philosopher, it's not my job to actually come to any useful conclusions on anything. My skills lie mainly in making fine and dull but possibly useful distinctions, so this I will do.

There are four broad kinds of reasons why people can like electoral systems: they can like that they produce certain kinds of results -- solid majorities, or coalitions, for instance; there can be benefits based on way it encourages those elected to behave –- that they fight for a particular locality, or that they try appeal to a broad range of people, for instance; they can like that the results are proportional; and they can like that a system is clearly understood by the public.

Now the first kind of reason is a complicated category, and perhaps something I’ll revisit in a later post. I think to some extent they’re very different kinds of arguments to the others in that they’re dependent upon assumptions of voting patterns as well as the structure of the electoral system. For example, somebody who is for a system of PR may present an argument about the damage that very large majorities can cause. Presumably, then, they would change their mind in the situation where voting patterns were such that PR actually granted larger majorities than other systems (ie where one party is overwhelmingly popular, but has a dreadful distribution of votes). This is a very different kind of argument to the one that presents proportionality as good in itself. Anyway, I will possibly write about these more at some other time because they’re very interesting.

Nor am I going to talk about the second kind of reason. Frankly they’re just too complicated. How politicians act is pretty inscrutable at the best of times, let alone when considering what would happen in hypothetical electoral systems.

The third and fourth kind of reasons are stalwarts in electoral reform debates, and two varieties of them are being used to criticise AV at the moment.

Some point to the larger majorities that Labour would likely have got under AV in the 1997 and 2001 elections (somewhere between 213 and 245 compared to the actual result of 196 in 1997, for example). I understand the reluctance that those who favour a more or less proportional syste, have for voting for a system that can produce results appearing even more disproportionate. But it’s important to note an assumption made in this particular argument that isn't made explicit.

The key to this is to note that the major losers from a switch to AV in 1997 would have been the Conservatives. The reason for this is that while a significant portion of the population still voted Conservative in 1997, on the whole those who didn’t really really didn't want them in government. They wouldn’t have picked up many second preferences at all, and in Wales and Scotland they would have been a lot of people who put them fourth or lower.

When we say that a system is proportional we mean that there is a relatively straightforward relationship between what the voters voted for and what they got. But “what the voters voted for” is, of course, dependant on the ways in which they are allowed to vote. If you compare a result only to what first preferences were you’ll get a different level of “proportionality” than if you compare it to first and second preferences, and different again for first, second and third, and so on.

To judge proportionality by looking only at people’s first preferences were (ie who they voted for in 1997) is to make an assumption that first preferences are what matters when proportionality is at stake. It is, then, to make an implicit judgement in favour of systems like FPTP over multiple preference systems like AV.

When people say that AV would produce less proportional results in 1997, what they mean is that it is less in proportion to what people’s first preferences were. But is this really a surprise? Isn’t the whole point of AV that it’s not just first preferences that count?

The take home message is that proportionality isn’t as simple as it looks. Don’t let those who argue that AV produces more disproportionate results than FPTP get away with it – by assuming the primacy of first preferences they’re begging the question!

The other argument in favour of FPTP as opposed to AV is clearly of the fourth kind I described above, in that it’s about public understanding of the electoral system. They argue that with FPTP people readily understand how it was that the candidate who won did so: they got more votes than anyone else. This argument ignores that there is more than one facet to public understanding. It’s undoubtedly important that the public understand how we get from a pile of ballot papers to a candidate and eventually to a Government. But it’s more important that the public readily understand how to get what they want out of an election, how to make the most of their vote. If the public don’t understand how they need to vote to get what they want there really is no point in democracy.

The primary problem with FPTP in this regard is that there is barely a single constituency where supporters of one major party or other shouldn’t consider voting tactically since their own first preference has no realistic chance of winning. The level of analysis required by voters in order to make the best use of their vote in this case is absurd. You need knowledge of previous election results, how this could have changed in the past few years, and how likely other voters in your constituency are to vote tactically themselves.

The ability of AV to eliminate the need to vote tactically is such a huge step forward in clarity that, for me, it more than compensates for the added complexity in calculating the result. Oh, and those who argue that less intellectually able or less politically interested voters won’t be able to rank candidates are seriously underestimating the public. In any case, the worst case scenario is that candidates at the top of ballots receive a slight benefit from the tendency to rank from top to bottom among candidates that aren’t differentiated in the voter’s mind.

So the second take-home message is that the clarity of voting systems in the public understanding is more complicated that it first seems: it’s not just important that the public understand how the system works, but (primarily) important that they understand how it is best used.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

A spot on the fairness lawn

I guess that if I'm arguing that Labour's electoral success depends on parking our tanks on the "fairness" lawn, I'd better attempt to expand a little...

It is in the welfare system and the provision of social housing that the issue needs to be addressed most urgently. There's plenty of good reasons why it is in these areas that those who see themselves as playing by the rules are going to be most resentful about their lot.

The most obvious is that as a result of our historically stupid decisions about how to build and locate social housing, those who are most likely to be directly affected by these areas of policy (the disadvantaged to averagely wealthy) will often be living together in an insular community with poor connections and amenities -- a breeding ground for rumours and resentment. Those C2s who see themselves as playing by the rules will be living next door to those that they perceive as getting the rewards from the state that they do not deserve.

The second is that it the most visible aspect of the state -- as opposed to the school or the hospital, which have some separation from government in the perception -- and the very bread and butter of Government and of life. They are concerns at the bottom of Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs, perhaps making them susceptible to the kind of gut instinct morality that we're concerned with here. I can't, for example, see the same feelings being aroused by the fact that everybody has access to museums no matter how much they may not deserve this.

The big issue (one which I will return to) is how to balance the fairness agenda with the need not to bolt to the right wing and not to bankrupt the country. It is balancing the competing ideals of a welfare and housing system according to need and one according to entitlement due to previous or current behaviour, all the while promoting equality. No biggie, then...

I think conditionality of benefits, and the refinement of the existing policies and messages about them, is a route to this end, and I don't think should be a dirty word in lefty discussion. What is more, the conditions should be seen to be beneficial to both the individual and to society at large. This need not be the same as workfare, and when I've had a few cups of tea and some quiet time to think about things some more, I'll try to explain why.

Monday, 17 May 2010

A natural at rebelling in opposition

I am a child of New Labour. I was 10 years old when Tony Blair became Prime Minister, and I have only the vaguest memories of the Major years. Most of my gut instincts about the Tory Government of 1979-1997 come from my brief anecdotes or recounts of my parents' experiences of that time. I've only really been properly politically conscious for the past four years or so, awoken by a university where almost all the students were apathetic, right-wing, raving lefties and/or liberal democrats.

Being a small-c conservative, in the sense that I am used to defending decisions and policies of The Powers That Be, has been my political apprenticeship: Tuition fees -- It's only right that we students pay our share! Selling off the gold at low prices -- But they made billions from the 3G auction! Alienation of the proletariat by lack of ownership of the means of production -- What the hell are you on about?!

It's only been in the past few months that I've realised that perhaps this small-c attitude, trusting that those in charge generally make the right decisions, is just a facet of my personality. Maybe I'm just the kind of person that makes a rubbish firebrand and an excellent school prefect (I can only, by the way, assume there was a conspiracy against me among the teachers of Porthcawl Comprehensive School. It is the only possible explanation. The only explanation.)

The only way to conclusively decide one way or another was to wait until the Labour Party were in opposition. Would I still roll my eyes at Any Questions audience members who rail against some supposedly inept and/or corrupt Minister or hopeless policy proposal? Or would I be shouting at my radio with them, condemning the Government for their failures and betrayals?

I think my answer has come. I have been watching much frothing at the mouth amongst political amateurs on facebook and political professionals in the media at the proposal that the dissolution of Parliament should require a super-majority of 55%. It's a travesty that rides roughshod over our constitution! It's a piece of cynical politicking to entrench the Tories/Liberal Democrats/Both/Neither in Government! etc. etc.

The policy seems, to me, to be none of these things. It is not changing the fact that a simple majority can support a no-confidence vote and bring down the government. It will require slightly more for Parliament to dissolve itself, which at the moment it has no power to do. These two things, the no-confidencing and fall of a government and the dissolution of Parliament, did use to be joined at the hip. In the days of two-party politics it is difficult to envisage a scenario when a government could fall and a new one be formed without a general election to alter the makeup of the House. This situation no longer holds: the post-election media coverage told us exhaustively and tediously that there were numerous possible governments that could be formed from the same parliament. Still, though, the same media commentators seem unable to understand that parliament and government are not the same thing.

This, more than anything else, has demonstrated how firmly the executive and the legislature are wedded and blurred in the culture of our country. Even some of our most politically aware citizens are, apparently, not able to tell the difference.

Or, perhaps, they just prefer being firebrands to school prefects...

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Creating wealth

I should preface this post with a warning and a good dose of pre-emptive humility: I am no economic theorist and have no formal training whatsoever in economics or the philosophy of economics. I write based on my own reflections, and am highly likely to be exceedingly wrong.

Every time that I hear somebody -- more often than not a Conservative politician -- claim or imply that the private sector is the creator of wealth it grates on me. The claim seems to assume a completely naïve idea of wealth, but seems to be widely held amongst a worrying number of people who are notionally in charge of our economy (and any brainless Tory-Clone Blog-Troll you care to pay attention to).

It’s a very tempting view on first thought. The thought process goes as follows: Everything that the public sector does, whether it is doctors doctoring, bureaucrats bureaucratising or MPs MPing, is paid for by the exchequer; the exchequer derives almost 100% of its money, ultimately, from the taxes that it takes; taxes are drawn from people and corporations through direct and indirect taxation; those taxes which come from people employed by the public sector can be ignored, as that is just the circulation of wealth and not its creation; therefore all of this wealth comes ultimately from the private sector, which must therefore create it.

Too often, leftists defend the work of the state by arguing that government spending is a pre-condition of private sector wealth creation. They say “Ahh, but without the Government’s roads Mr Tesco’s lorries couldn’t deliver their wonderful wealth to his wealth-creating stores!“ or “But Mr Goldman-Sachs relies on the profound wealth-creating knowledge of his highly-talented employees, some of whom (I’m sure…) attended state schools!“. This line of argument defends only a fairly minimal state, and a more fundamental defence needs to be made for the kind of state most progressive people want to see. Fortunately, you’ve only got to look at a couple of consequences of this theory of wealth to realise that things aren’t quite as they may seem.

Firstly, it would mean that there is literally no wealth at all in an entirely communist society, whose entire economy is public sector. Even if this is true in a gerrymandered and technical sense of “wealth”, it certainly isn’t true in any sense that the ordinary person would recognise.

Secondly, it would seem to imply that there is something fundamentally different going on economically when a private landlord rents out their property from when a council rents out theirs. I realise that a private landlord makes a profit whilst a council may turn a loss, but the point is that the profit comes from other people’s money and is not created by a landlord. Just because money didn’t go via Mr Osborne’s budget books doesn’t mean that the money going to the landlord wasn’t wealth “created” by somebody else.

What is the profound economic difference between the work done by a database assistant in a bank and a database assistant in the Department for Social Development, Inclusive Governance, and Societal Engineering? Is it just that there is somebody we can point to who profited from the actions of the former? In which case, why would that mean that the former helped “create” wealth whilst the latter used up the wealth created by somebody else?

The above view of wealth seems to rely on a misunderstanding of the -- though I cringe to use the “o” word in a blog -- ontology of wealth. It treats it like an object, or like water flowing from one pot to another, that if it exists in one pot must have been poured from another. Wealth isn’t like this: inasmuch as it is created, it is created only by our labours and exists only because we perceive it to. Our labours are not fundamentally different because the cheque is signed by Mr Osborne. The private sector does not create wealth which the public sector leeches onto. My suspicion is that the distinction between a wealth-creating private sector and a non-wealth-creating public sector is mostly an artificial one, convenient for those who want the state to do as little as possible in our society.

A stakeholder society

Since well before the election and Brown's decision to stand down, since we've felt defeat in our waters, Labour have been discussing need for a change of direction. Hopefully now that the inevitable has happened the discussion can start in earnest, without it having the appearance of a group of vultures circling over a dying animal...

One theme that has come up in almost every discussion about the future of the Labour Party is that we need to retake the ground of "fairness". We need to recognise that there is a difference — at least in common perception — between fairness and equality.

A recent Populous poll showed that 73% of C2s -- skilled manual workers -- agreed with the statement that "people who play by the rules always get a raw deal". Ok, so most of everybody agreed with that statement, but it seemed particularly resonant for that group.

The lesson we need to learn is that they are not complaining about an unequal society, but about a more immediate kind of unfairness and lack of natural justice in the way that the state and society operates.

The classic examples are of the “Jennie-down-the-road-got-pregnant-and-now-has-a-council-flat-but-I'm-working-and-have-less-money-than-her” kind, together with the distortions of what migrants from Eastern Europe are entitled to on our welfare state.

One route of satisfying this desire for a more immediate kind of fairness is to go down a route that is quite worryingly right-wing. This is the kind of approach Margaret Hodge was touching on when she talked about giving priority for social housing to locally born people. If it’s worth having a Labour Party at all we need to avoid this temptation.

If we want to regain popular support for a progressive (socio-economically equalising) state, we have to give as many people as possible a stake in it. The most enduring, popular and succesful Labour achievements have been universal provisions. Child Benefit, the NHS and Sure Start Centres are both fair (in the most immediate sense) and progressive, and the strength of support for Child Tax Credits derives not from the fact that it allowed hundreds of thousands of children to be brought out of poverty, but from the fact that so many of the population receive and value it.

The only viable kind of political movement is one that makes a larger proportion of the population the kind of person who benefits from its policies. Any other kind of politics will inevitably end, and will end more quickly the more succesful it is. This is why we cannot afford to back towards the politics of equalising above all else — it is an inevitably doomed approach.

This was why the politics of the Conservatives in the 1980's was popular. Its public message was that it was creating the property-owners that the Conservatives generally benefit. The fact that ordinary people were too busy telling Sid about the privatisation of BT to actually buy any shares themselves is not so important. What's important is that there was a harmony in its message: We are on the side of property-owners; we want more people to be property-owners.

Now this trick isn't so easy for the Labour party because we generally want to support the disadvantaged and we can't want more people to be disadvantaged. But unless we work out policies and messages that tap into this approach, we won't regain and keep the support of the people upon whom our electoral success depends.

A beginning in concrete

I don't remember what I believed two weeks ago. I don't write essays or letters or keep a diary, and I have a suspicion than this allows me to change my opinions all too often. If I want to be able to respect my own thoughts I need to be able to trust that there is, at least, a sensible line of thought running through my beliefs at different times.

Never again will I be able to avoid looking terribly foolish when I confidently predict something that doesn't come to pass...