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.

Respect agenda, RIP

I must take issue with one or two of the things Jeff has said in relation to the coalition's (frankly outrageous) decision to hold the AV referendum on the same day as the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections next May. Firstly, AV is categorically not a "more proportional voting system". In some circumstances, it might produce a slightly more proportional outcome, in other circumstances a slightly less proportional outcome - that's all totally random chance. AV is every bit as much a non-proportional, majoritarian voting system as the one we currently have. I'll probably still hold my nose and vote for it, though, because it does at least remove one of the other problems thrown up by first-past-the-post - namely the tyranny of having to choose between a tactical vote for a candidate you don't support, and an honest vote for your favoured candidate that might prove catastrophically counter-productive. The classic example is the support for Ralph Nader in 2000 that effectively handed George W Bush the US presidency - under AV, those voters could simply have ranked Nader 1st, Gore 2nd, and all would have been right with the world.

As for the referendum date itself, the problem is not so much that there was insufficient consultation (ie. none at all), it's that the coalition would even contemplate such an unjustifiable move in the first place. The Liberal Democrats have already ridden roughshod over the central findings of the Gould Report by agreeing to schedule the next Westminster general election for the same day as the 2015 Holyrood poll, and now the 2011 election is to be compromised in much the same way. Remember Gould's words? The interests of the voters were at every stage "treated as an afterthought". Funny how history repeats itself with such depressing rapidity. The first sign of a potential electoral advantage for the Liberal Democrats and the integrity of the electoral process is instantly deemed disposable yet again.

Presumably the calculation is that Scottish and Welsh voters are particularly likely to vote for AV, and therefore an especially high turnout in those countries will assist the cause. The price will be that the devolved elections become hopelessly muddled up with a UK-wide issue, with the London parties receiving far more than their fair share of coverage during the campaign period. And what do you want to bet that the broadcasters are already itching to hold a series of ninety-minute UK-wide "Referendum Debates" in the run-up to polling, with perhaps Nick Clegg and David Miliband being pitted against David Cameron and A N Other? Back in April, Lady Smith said one of the problems with the SNP's legal challenge was that it came too late. I suggest they lodge their papers very, very early this time.

Time for football to adopt the 'penalty try' principle

It seems fairly obvious that the penalty for any foul play or cheating in sport should at the very least seek to restore the status quo of what would have been the case had the cheating not occurred. A red card and a penalty kick was all very well tonight, but it didn't win Ghana the game, which is what would have happened - with absolute certainty - if Suárez hadn't deliberately stuck his hand out to prevent a goal.

Rugby has a rule for precisely such circumstances, empowering the referee to award a full try rather than just a penalty if he is satisfied a try would definitely have been scored but for the transgression. In football, such a clear-cut scenario would only occur very occasionally - but the events of tonight show that such a rule is nevertheless desperately needed, otherwise there's an obvious incentive for players to cheat in certain circumstances. No handball from Suárez = certain defeat for Uruguay. Handball from Suárez = a chance of victory.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Would a Murray loss send the Mirror homewards tae think again?

On the morning of Andy Murray's date with destiny (or the latest one) it's hard not to be impressed by the Mirror's unashamed desperation in its attempts to recast Andy Murray not merely as a True Brit, but as one of Merrie England's very own sons! In an article entitled 'Flower of England', the paper explains -

"Andy Murray may support "anyone but England" in the football but new research reveals his roots lie south of the border.

As the Scots tennis ace powered into the Wimbledon semi-final, genealogy experts traced his roots to England.

Website has discovered Andy's maternal grandmother was born to English parents from York and Berwick-upon-Tweed."

Hmmm. Would that, by any chance, be the same English granny that Murray has repeatedly said he is so fond of, and referred to at length in a newspaper article to try to defuse the synthetic outrage over "anyone but England" when the likes of the Mirror first started to witter on about it? What astonishing discoveries will this crack team of historical investigators turn up next - that there was a wee bit of a stooshie in Europe between the years 1939 and 1945?

The other obvious question is how the Mirror will react when Nadal extinguishes Murray's dream later today (pessimism keeps me sane). Will they reveal that further research has been urgently carried out, and it transpires that three of Murray's grandparents are, in fact, not English?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Did they share, or shaft?

Well done to Liberal Burblings for pointing out an amazing historical fact that I kind-of-knew but had never really crystallised in my mind - that Winston Churchill served two terms as Prime Minister without ever receiving a proper popular mandate. He in fact fought three general elections as Tory leader and on each and every occasion was defeated in the popular vote by Labour. His first term of office during wartime was made possible by the Tory majority he inherited from Chamberlain (and indeed which Chamberlain had earlier inherited from Baldwin), while he had the quirks of the electoral system to thank for his 'win' in the 1951 election.

Does any of this detract from the fact that Churchill was arguably Britain's most popular ever Prime Minister? Of course not. Such apparent contradictions are part and parcel of a parliamentary system in which the people elect a parliament, and the majority in parliament chooses the Prime Minister. Come to think of it, it's quite surprising that Labour didn't make more of the Churchill precedent when Gordon Brown was being taunted for being 'unelected', and when Cameron was cooking up his crazy (and thankfully now quietly dropped) plan to legislate to ensure that Prime Ministers cannot be removed mid-term without triggering an election.

By all means, if people want an elected executive, let's have one. But until that point, let's stop acting like we already have one when we don't. And, yes, I'm thinking of those 'Prime Ministerial Debates' that were no such thing. At the very least, we should have been informed in advance that the debates were going to function like the group stage of the Champions' League - ie. whoever finished third dropped down to a lower-tier competition and was then competing to become Deputy Prime Minister instead. Or maybe it was more like the notorious Robert Kilroy-Silk gameshow Shafted, in the sense that any two of the contestants could choose to gang up together and 'shaft' the other one. Either way - those debates didn't do what they said on the tin.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Forces of conservatism suffer defeat at Holyrood

During the election campaign Jim Murphy repeatedly asserted that the SNP usually "vote with the Tories" at Westminster, and offered that up as spurious "proof" that the SNP would prop up a Tory government in a hung parliament. The lie was of course comprehensively given to Murphy's claim when we did indeed end up with a hung parliament, and the SNP moved heaven and earth to try to avert a Tory government, while assorted senior Scottish Labour figures were busily helping to smooth David Cameron's path to Downing Street. Indeed, rarely has Tom Harris shown so much passion for anything that didn't involve the storage of innocent people's DNA or the demonisation of teenage mothers.

But what Murphy actually meant when he said the SNP voted with the Tories is that both parties voted against the Labour government quite a lot. A rather fatuous observation given that it's much easier for parties that have little in common to find themselves in the same voting lobby when they're voting against something rather than for something. Whether they like it or not, I suspect Labour will find themselves regularly "voting with the SNP" at Westminster over the next few years.

Tony Blair used to like to pretend that anyone who veered from the true Blairite path by voting against his government's programme could automatically be lumped together as "the forces of conservatism", regardless of whether they came from the right or left (indeed, he specifically name-checked the SNP and Plaid Cymru in that original deranged speech). More than a touch brazen, of course, because so much of New Labour's programme was deeply conservative and authoritarian. But with the Conservatives and Labour both in opposition in the Scottish parliament, it now gives us the opportunity to observe which way Labour jump when a clear-cut conservative/progressive dividing line comes up - ie. a vote on a progressive policy which, by opposing, you can only really be doing so for conservative reasons. What about today's vote in the Scottish Parliament on scrapping prison sentences of three months or less, for instance?

The issues could hardly be more clear-cut. Short-term prison sentences are expensive, ineffective, and indeed counter-productive because they lead to a high rate of reoffending. The alternatives to such sentences are tough, productive for the community, and rehabilitative. The only conceivable reasons for opposing such an obviously rational shift of emphasis in the justice system is a wish to pander to populist instincts, and a boneheaded attachment to the traditional belief that "prison works", regardless of evidence. Conservatism in a nutshell, in fact. No surprise, then, to discover that the Scottish Tories are on that side of the argument (in spite of Ken Clarke's intriguing musings). But what about Labour? Yep, you guessed it...

Still, rather refreshing to discover that there is a progressive majority in the Scottish Parliament, even if Labour are determined not to be part of it.

Ad hoc = disrespect

I'm glad to hear that common sense has prevailed, and the SNP have been given the seat on the Scottish Affairs Committee that would have been denied them had the new rules been strictly adhered to. However, I'm not sure the coalition should be allowed to take much credit for pursuing a "respect agenda" on this occasion. True respect would have entailed formally altering the Wright blueprint, which - whatever its general merits - is clearly totally inadequate in its treatment of smaller parties. In particular, it ought to have been a no-brainer that the composition of Scotland-specific or Wales-specific committees cannot just be crudely based on the composition of the Commons as a whole. Tossing the SNP the odd bone on a purely ad hoc basis simply isn't good enough.


The Scotsman on Jack McConnell's 'elevation' to the House of Lords -

"Within a few hours of his investiture the SNP were asking how Mr McConnell could remain an MSP and serve in the House of Lords? Central Scotland MSP Christina McKelvie said it went against the spirit of the Kelly recommendations on Standards in Public Life which call for the phasing out of dual mandates by 2011.

"Jack McConnell's constituents in Motherwell and Wishaw don't know if their MSP is coming or going," she said. She seemed to have forgotten, a Labour source noted, that until a few short weeks ago her party leader, Alex Salmond somehow managed to be an MP for Banff and Buchan, MSP for Gordon and First Minister."

This Labour source appears to have forgotten just how critical his/her party was of Mr Salmond's decision to hold that dual mandate, and how they repeatedly demanded that he relinquish his seat at Westminster immediately. Cuts both ways, doesn't it?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Though cowards flinch...

I see Jeff is mischievously asking whether a Scottish flag will be flown outside 10 Downing Street in support of Andy Murray, now that England are out of the World Cup. To be honest, I'd be a bit cautious about putting such thoughts in Cameron's head - I'm quite sure he'd conclude the most appropriate flag to fly for Andy Murray is the Union Jack! It's the old story - heads, Briton wins, tails, Scot loses.

I never had a problem with the English flag being flown for the duration of England's involvement in the World Cup, and I'm even prepared to believe that if both England and Scotland had qualified, both flags would have been flown. What I have more difficulty in believing is that the Scottish flag would have been flown on its own had a 1974 or 1978 scenario arisen, with Scotland being the only UK country to qualify. Can you imagine the press reaction if Gordon Brown had flown the saltire in Downing Street on its own, as Cameron has just done with the St George's Cross? Cancel that - can you imagine Brown having the guts to even try it in the first place?

SNP on 32% in ComRes subsample

The Scottish subsample from the latest GB-wide ComRes poll gives Labour an eight-point lead over the SNP, with both parties well ahead of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Here are the full figures -

Labour 40% (+13)
SNP 32% (-5)
Conservatives 14% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 13% (-4)
Others 1% (-6)

Although this is a reversal of the previous subsample that gave the SNP a rare lead, these numbers taken at face value would still be good news for the party. They relate to Westminster voting intention only, and of course the SNP tend to do better in Holyrood elections. The real problem, as ever, is that the sample size is simply too small to draw meaningful conclusions.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Are the tectonic plates shifting?

A very interesting post by Tory blogger Dean MacKinnon-Thomson, referring to a Sunday Times article which apparently suggests that elements within the Scottish Conservative party are warming to the idea of coalition with the SNP after next year's election, even if it means a referendum on independence. Not having paid my Murdoch levy, I haven't read the article in question so I can't judge for myself, but if there's some truth to this suggestion it could yet be a vital lifeline for the SNP. I'm beginning to worry about the spectre of 1994/5 - ie. the SNP receiving a high share of the vote but still being unable to outpoll Labour, due to the extreme unpopularity of the Tory government at Westminster.

But if the worst happens and Labour do emerge with the most seats next May, it would probably take more than an SNP-Tory combination to form a non-Labour governing majority. Although he doesn't spell this out, I get the impression that Dean feels the Lib Dems would go along with what their Westminster coalition partners want. I'm not sure it's anything like as clear-cut as that, with the Scottish Lib Dems especially troubled about the long-term consequences of being perceived as Tory 'collaborators'. Of course, it would be equally hard in the circumstances for them to do a deal with Labour (indeed Labour might not even entertain the idea), so it would be fascinating to see which way they jump.

How do you solve a problem like the UK at Eurovision?

So it's official - the UK's dismal showing at this year's Eurovision Song Contest had nothing to do with political voting. Even if only the juries had voted, the UK would still have finished in 25th and bottom place. It wasn't really the fault of the singer Josh Dubovie, who performed well enough and by all accounts was a fantastic ambassador for his country in Oslo. The problem was the song - and it's extraordinary that it should be that way round given that the BBC commissioned a big-name songwriter and paired him with an inexperienced 19-year-old performer. That Sounds Good to Me was so dated it would have been lucky to limp to seventh place in 1986. I find it almost impossible to believe that even the conventional open national selections we had pre-2004 wouldn't have turned up a better song.

So what's the solution? The BBC have tried just about every permutation over the years - an internally selected high-profile performer, but open selection for the song from 1992-94, an internally commissioned batch of songs from higher-profile-than-usual performers from 2004-08, and an internally selected song from a high-profile songwriter, with a casting show to select the performer over the last couple of years. But it has to be said the best results for the UK (both in the literal sense and in the sense of boosting the credibility of the contest) occurred in the mid-to-late 90s under the direction of the now disgraced "pop mogul" Jonathan King. That period marked a return to a conventional open selection, but with a much more proactive effort than ever before to encourage talented songwriters and performers to take part, and with the guiding principle that the national final should cover as many musical types as possible. 1995 and 1996 in particular were probably the highest-quality and most varied national finals the UK has ever had. So perhaps that's the most promising way forward - under a very different supremo, it goes without saying.

It's essential that the selection remains on primetime TV, though - the brief 1990s "golden age" was essentially brought to an end by the disastrous decision to shunt the show onto a graveyard Sunday afternoon slot. It wasn't so bad when the songs were still being initially showcased on the National Lottery show or Top of the Pops, but even that lifeline was taken away in 2000. The predictable result was a dramatic decline in the quality of songs being entered, ultimately leading to the "nul points" debacle in 2003.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

MEN of ENGLAND! It's time to join the Oompa-Loompas... (If Carlsberg did post-match analysis)

I don't really want to rub salt in the wound for our friends down south, because I remember how I felt on the day Scotland were knocked out of the World Cup nine months ago - but the headline popped into my head, and it was hard to resist.

My main thought after the disallowed Lampard goal was that I hope England either a) win the match or b) take a total hammering, otherwise we'll have another 'Hand of God' scenario and never hear the end of it for the next 200 years. Judging by the way the BBC concluded their coverage, however, it doesn't appear the hammering will make much difference on that front...

Is there a word for a reverse Cleggasm?

The most damning polling evidence yet of what really should have been obvious from the word go - that entering into coalition with the Tories can only harm the Liberal Democrats electorally. How was a rational voter ever going to react to a True Blue Tory Budget? Those who approve will be minded to cast their vote for the 'real thing' rather than the little helpers, while those who disapprove will hardly be inclined to support either coalition party.

I sometimes wonder if their experience in coalition in Scotland led the Lib Dems into a slight false sense of security - because it's certainly true that it took far longer than anyone anticipated for them to start paying the price for propping up Labour at Holyrood. But my guess would be that can be explained by Labour being overwhelmingly perceived as "the government" by virtue of their dominance at Westminster. The Liberal Democrats were able to enjoy the best of both worlds by being able to demonstrate that a vote for them was no longer entirely wasted, while sitting back and allowing Labour to take the hit for anything that went wrong.

That's a luxury that simply won't be afforded to them this time - they could hardly be more exposed.