Saturday, July 3, 2010

Iain Dale is the bringer of good news : size doesn't matter

I've just had an illuminating (well, in one sense) exchange with Iain Dale on Twitter. In a blog post this morning, he had set out his reasons for opposing STV (the voting system rather than the TV station) - in a nutshell, that it weakens the constituency link by creating large, multi-member constituencies. So I asked him if he wasn't similarly concerned about the Tory plans to cut the size of the House of Commons, which by definition will dilute the constituency link by increasing the size of constituencies. Somewhat to my astonishment, Dale flatly denied that the link would be diluted "at all", and insisted that only the multi-member v single-member point was of any relevance to the issue. I put it to him that a local councillor fairly obviously has a stronger link to the people he represents than an MP. This was Dale's reply -

"No. You could argue less, as most councillors are in three member wards"

Now, I must say it's somewhat startling to have been called "obtuse" and "desperate" by someone who is boneheadedly trying to hold the line that a politician representing a ward of only a few thousand people somehow has a weaker link to those he represents than a politician representing tens of thousands! The logic of Dale's extraordinary position is that it doesn't matter how large a constituency is, just so long as only one person is representing it. (He doesn't really believe that himself, incidentally, as evidenced by his apologetic aside "and we're only talking 10%", but taken literally that's his position.) Does anyone seriously believe that in a constituency of, say, 150,000 people, you'd receive better representation from one person than you could from three? I suspect Dale is essentially looking at the benefits of the constituency link from the top-down, rather than the bottom-up. It may very well be in the interests of an MP representing a huge constituency to continue to have exclusive "proprietorial rights" over all of his or her constituents, but I struggle to see how that can possibly be in the interests of those constituents.

Dale concluded the exchange by revealing just how fundamentally he misunderstands the nature of STV -

"What I object to are multi mamber constituencies where people vote for a party, not a candidate."

No problem. Under STV, in contrast to many PR systems, electors vote exclusively for candidates and not for political parties. Where it differs from first-past-the-post, however, is that voters have a choice of several different candidates from the same party - and the experience in Ireland shows that, when it really comes down to it, it doesn't make a lot of difference how much the party machines urge voters to rank candidates in a certain order. A particularly objectionable candidate will always be squeezed out - now, just how often does that ever happen under FPTP in an ultra-safe seat? Once in a blue moon. A Tory voter in Buckinghamshire who doesn't like the official Tory candidate has no alternative Tory candidate to turn to. The best feature of all about STV, though, is that a popular candidate dropped or sidelined by a party stands every chance of being elected as an independent, due to the low threshold required for success - so the best-laid plans of the party machines are thwarted at both ends. Again, this happens only very, very occasionally under FPTP.

So I say this to Iain Dale - if you mean what you say about wanting local representatives to be chosen by local people and not by party machines, be true to your convictions. Ditch your irrational support for FPTP, and embrace STV, which does exactly what you claim you want.


  1. In the three years since I've had a changeover of councillor I haven't seen her once. In fact I doubt if 99% of this ward could tell you who she is. The last one wasn't much better.

    At least my MP and MSP make an effort with their weekly columns in the 'three minute silence' etc. I'm interested in politics yet my councillor is unknown except I have taken the trouble to find out her name.

    Therefore I have to agree with Iain James.

  2. Subrosa, I'm absolutely convinced that 70-80% of people in this constituency couldn't name our (first-past-the-post) Labour MSP, and she's been in place since 1999. Any electoral system is going to turn up ineffective representatives. The difference under STV is that if the person you regard as your councillor is not up to much, you now have at least two other people elected from the ward to turn to, probably from more than one party. Under FPTP you'd just have had to lump it.

  3. I think this illustrates more than anything the futility of trying to have a sensible debate on a complicated subject using 140 characters.

  4. On that point I can probably agree. I've lost count of the number of times I've had to give up on what I really wanted to say because - maddeningly - I couldn't get it down to less than 150 or 160. So much for the tight character limit "promoting creativity"...

  5. S/R I understand you live in Scotland where we use STV to elect our local councils in multi-member wards (we certainly do in Dundee where I live in a four member ward and have a choice of Two Tories, one Labour and one SNP councillor). Can you not go and see one of the other ward councillors if you are unhappy with one? Is that not the point of STV as James makes clear? The councillor that is ineffective should as a consequence slip down the ranking on the ballot. That I think is one of the huge advantages of STV, it’s a very mature system that rewards work. But in order for it to work electors need to suspend their desire to slavishly vote for the party they have historically supported under FPTP. This I imagine will take time to evolve because we are all so used to FTPT and its adversarial winner takes all nature.

  6. James: I cannot agree more with what you say concerning STV and with what you say regarding people going to see their elected representatives (councillor V MP and add in MSP here in Scotland). One thing you find is that constituents are often confused as to who it is they need to go and see. But by and large the majority of problems people encounter are of a sufficiently parochial nature such as: roads, bins, noisy neighbours, planning, housing, education, dog mess etc etc that their concerns ought to be directed to their local councillor not their MP. These are local issues where a strong constituency link is admittedly vital. Where you might go instead to see your MP for say: health (in England, MSP in Scotland), benefits, immigration (I’m seriously beginning to rack my brain for things to add to this list whereas I could have gone on and on with the one above). These things as I see it are mostly a matter of national policy. I know I have not included law and order anywhere here but that is because in most matters concerning that we would go to the police not our MP unless it was the system itself that was at fault.

  7. There is certainly something badly wrong with a system that in over half the constituencies results in a no change situation; where often the chosen representative has far far fewer than 50% of the votes; where a government with a massive majority can be elected on something like 35% of the vote, and can use the whipping system to ensure its wishes (not necessarily its manifesto) become law, by the manipulation of the upper house of appointed and hereditary members, and where the head of state’s signature is a formality because she is hereditary too.

    Was there ever a western democracy that was less democratic?

  8. Munguin, I agree that a strong constituency link at councillor level is vital, and I'd even say that it's a very important thing at parliamentary level - but what Iain Dale doesn't seem to understand is that the strength of a constituency link doesn't hinge on a constituency only being represented by a single person - if anything, the reverse is true. I get the impression he hasn't even had the most cursory of looks at how STV actually operates in Ireland - there could hardly be a country in Europe where parliamentarians are more closely associated with the communities they represent.

    Tris - I suppose on the positive side the coalition are promising proper democratisation of the Lords (with PR) but, as ever, the proof the pudding is in the eating. The "grandfather clause" sounds more than a little ominous.

  9. I doubt James, if there will be anything substantial done about the Lords. I understand, however, that they do intend creating something in the order of 200 more of the blighters to claim expenses with no proof of expenditure...

    I'm sure that Cameclegg will excuse not doing anything much on the fact that Labour left them such a mess to clear up... which of course, despite having been hanging around parliament for the precious 5 years, they knew nothing about when they made their ‘democratization of the Lords’ manifesto promise.