Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Queen's Speech - Liberal Conservatives cover your ears

Imagine that you heard that a left-wing South American government had announced the following plans:
I'm sure my Conservative friends would be talking ruefully of the perils of socialist dictators.

Except that these policies, ladies and gentlemen, are the highlights from today's Queen's Speech. A dark day indeed for the Conservative party's more liberal and libertarian members.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

We need a positive case for the EU

The Labour Party now supports an EU referendum. It's perhaps symbolically important, but is effectively a pointless position: the referendum will happen as the Conservatives have a majority and it was a manifesto commitment. The task now is to build the case for continued membership.

There are legitimate complaints about the EU that need to be aired and recognised (although I would not consider protection of human rights and freedom of movement among them).

  • As with any bureaucracy, it likes to increasingly creep in to areas where it previously had no mandate. When it meets a new issue its first instinct is to standardise and harmonise. It rarely follows the principle of subsidiarity, and  gives little thought to individual country preferences and cultures (see the 2013 olive oil shenanigans for an example). 
  • The EU also has an insidious drive towards making us Europeans first, and national citizens second. National borders are often an arbitrary construct, but a shared sense of identity is important for communities, and institutions should not be trying to artificially shape that - particularly when they have such an obvious self-interest in doing so. 
  • As an example, the pan-European research programme (current iteration is FP7) is more about fostering cross-border collaboration as part of being 'Europeans' than it is about research excellence or economic growth.
  • The Common Agricultural Policy, despite reform, still exists, and continues to interfere in the global food production market to the detriment of third world farmers. 
  • The EU's civil servants and MEPs are paid way too much, and there are too many of them - the growth of the bureaucracy and political elite has been extraordinary. There are also too many directorates - 27, one for each member to be head of (literally). 27 cabinet members is too many, particularly given the obvious overlap between the areas of responsibility. 
  • Having to relocate the entire Parliament from Brussels to Strasbourg every month is mind-numbingly stupid - an example of Conquest's Third Law
However, the EU adds a lot of value. 
  • As a trading block it is critically important - and it is naive to think we could still influence the shape of that without being members of the club. 
  • Things I know about, like telecoms, benefit from EU involvement - roaming charges, for example, can only be dealt with at an EU level. 
  • It provides protection for human rights against the actions of/abuse by government. Those that complain about the HRA and ECHR would probably end up complaining about any British Bill of Rights too, once judges began to interpret it - they just don't like the limit that inalienable human rights place on the actions of government. (Repudiation of the ECHR is also a very complex issue.) 
  • Freedom of movement provides tremendous value through the contribution of migrant workers to the economy.

The EU needs to move back towards its trading block roots, and be less about consumer protection, welfare, and other social issues. These should be the realm of domestic governments. Its budget needs to start shrinking, and our MEPs and European Parliament need to cost us less.

However, although it needs reform, the EU is not broken such that it does the UK more harm than good. The easy thing to do is to wash our hands of it. The right thing to do is to drive reform of it.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Labour needs a real choice - Burnham v Cooper is not that

Reports today that both Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper have the backing of over 100 MPs are rather concerning for ordinary Labour Party members. The members need to have a choice, and that should include MPs with no link to the previous government. Burnham v Cooper does not provide that.

Unite also need to think about their approach. They wield significant influence but are at risk of overplaying their hand. Having a party leader that does their bidding is short-sighted. They can have full influence over a party leader that will never be Prime Minister, or some but limited influence with the party of a future Prime Minister.

100% of nothing is still nothing, after all.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Perhaps next time it should be 'Peter ASHEARMAN'

Actually, standing in Eton Wick, this matters a bit less - it's a single seat ward with therefore significantly fewer candidates than other wards in Windsor and Maidenhead. Nevertheless, the recent local election results highlight how alphabetical listing impacts vote share.

I have analysed the RBWM results for those parties without incumbent councillors, who have a name recognition value, and found that out of 63 votes where more than one candidate for a party was on the ballot, on 50 occasions those higher up the ballot secured more votes. Furthermore, on average:

  • The first candidate on the list received 13% more votes than the second;
  • The second candidate on the list received 14% more votes than the third;
  • The first candidate received 27% more votes than the third on the list.

This is not a new phenomenon.

In future elections RBWM, and all other local authorities for that matter, should implement randomised ordering on ballots to address this bias.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The Black Spider lobbyist

Clarence House has said that today's publication of Prince Charles' letters to ministers would 'only inhibit' the prince's ability to express his thoughts in the future.

As a parliamentary democracy with a ceremonial monarch, we can only hope.

Javid opens with an attack on workers' rights

An interesting approach to being on the side of working people - Sajid Javid's first act as Business Secretary is to make strike action affecting key public services more difficult, by requiring 40% of eligible union members to vote in favour.

Unions need to change, and often have a legitimacy gap when balloting over strike action. However, 40% is a ridiculously high bar to be set (ignoring whether a bar should be set at all, which I feel it should not).

As a comparison, I have just analysed 42 constituencies where Conservatives won last week (all those beginning with A or B, so Aberconwy through to Bury St Edmonds). Of those 42, just 4 had 40% or more of their electorate vote for the winning MP - less than 10%.

Given that these MPs are likely to seriously affect key public services, I look forward to 38 of them standing down at the earliest opportunity and contesting by-elections until they achieve the 40% threshold needed for legitimacy.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Is the case for electoral reform now unanswerable?

Unfortunately this is a QTWTAIN (Question To Which The Answer Is No, for those who aren't John Rentoul readers). However, as with the presence of the SDP in the 80s and the Lib Dems through the 90s and 00s, there is again a legitimacy gap between the intention of voters and the make-up of our Parliament.

Janan Ganesh in the FT (a former university classmate of this writer) makes an important point (part paywall) when he says that we do not yet know what the electorate meant with the General Election result. I would go further. I think it is impossible to know what any electorate really means as long as First-Past-The-Post is the voting system.

We in Labour are as guilty as the rest when we rely on tactical calls in specific constituencies. 'Can't win here' leaflets are a regular campaign feature, telling people to not waste their vote on those they actually want to see returned to Parliament. 

These calls work. A Green-supporting friend of mine voted for them for the first time this election. He was bored of forever compromising with his vote, only to see his mis-cast cross claimed as a 'mandate from the people'.

My issue is this: no clear or obvious mandate can exist when so many are already casting second or third preference votes. Politicians cannot both ask people to negate their first choice in favour of influencing the outcome, and then claim this vote as proof of their true belief. There may well be a majority in favour of conservatism - particularly if Conservative and UKIP vote shares are added - but this electoral system will never tell us. An electoral system that encourages people not to reveal their true preference will always lack legitimacy.

Furthermore, this barrier to entry to new parties prevents the one thing - competition - that would actually provide a feedback loop to the two national parties. They will never truly change, as they are institutionally protected in their electoral duopoly.

The constituency-MP link is important, and this can be retained with, for example, AMS, STV, or AV+. However, I would make a further point. I am a Labour Party member (and unsuccessful council candidate) in Windsor. My MP is a Conservative, Adam Afriyie. I do not feel represented by him. Indeed, in three sentences when we met for the first time last Thursday (outside the Eton Wick polling station) he was deliberately antagonistic towards me as the Labour Party candidate. I would not trust him with a sensitive issue, and this is not unreasonable for those involved in street-level politics. 

It would be better to have a choice of representative, perhaps from a multi-member constituency, so that I may choose a politician that I feel comfortable with representing me. The vast majority of MPs, lest we forget, are elected by a minority of their constituents. They may say they will represent all, but that does not mean that all would wish to be so represented.

Saturday, 9 May 2015


Some good news in a difficult result Nationally.

In WINDSOR Fiona Dent won second place in the General Election: The first time ever that a Labour Candidate came second in this constituency!

Tories came first, UKIP third, LibDems fourth and Greens fifth.

Well done to the whole Labour team!
More importantly....
THANK YOU to all the people of Windsor who put their trust in Fiona.
We will continue to champion your interests and to fight for fairness across Windsor.