21 February 2015

My Predictions For The Brighton & Hove Council Elections 2015

In 2011, I underestimated how many seats the Greens would gain. In particular I didn't foresee the Green gains from the Tories in Withdean and Central Hove.

I also underestimated how badly the Tories would do. They lost 8 seats when I thought they might only lose 3. And May 2011 was not a bad time nationally for the Tories. They were riding high with decent poll leads over Labour and the coalition was in a honeymoon period (difficult to imagine this, I know).

There are some strange demographics going on in Brighton and Hove. There is a huge churn of voters in the central wards. As much as 50% turnover in some wards where there are some of the highest number of renters in the country. This is bringing a younger, more cosmopolitan sort of voter that doesn't particular favour the Tories. I expect this has continued since 2011. For these reasons I expect the Tory vote to drop overall (assuming the new registration rules haven't decimated the electoral roll).

I also think 2011 might have seen a temporary high water mark for the Green vote. The voter churn I have mentioned is a huge help to the Greens but locally they have had many difficulties running a minority administration. So first a necessary diversion.

The big turning point was the Cityclean bin strike in 2013. I wrote about this at the time and I don't want to go into too much detail again. But just to say, that although I will be voting Green, I have realised the Greens will not be as radical as I want them to be. The Greens will comfort themselves that the dispute was about "equal pay", but as I wrote at the time, that may have been the intention of the national legislation, but there are also some perverse side effects.

In this case it meant that the lowest scales of pay had to also have the lowest allowances for weekend and anti-social hours. This meant that those on higher pay would see increases while some of the lowest paid faced cuts. "Delineating pay differentials" was how I phrased it at the time.

The Equality Act and "single status" agreement between local authorities and unions requires an assessment to be made to align pay of "similar jobs" within an organisation. But the indirect effect of this is to set differentials between each scale.

The problem was, the lower scaled Cityclean jobs did not have the lowest allowances. Either higher grades had to see increased allowances or the lower scales had to see allowances cut to be "proportional" to their basic pay. Increasing higher scale allowances was deemed too expensive, so that left cuts to lower scale allowances as the "obvious" option.

Jason Kitcat could see no way around this "legal imperative". Caroline Lucas instinctively knew cutting low pay was wrong, whatever the reason and joined workers on the picket line.

The alternative radical solution, to cap top pay at say £50,000 p.a. and use the proceeds to raise pay across the board at all other grades was too radical even for the Greens. It was surreal to see some Green councillors justifying gigantic salaries of £80,000-£150,000 on the grounds that they had to pay the "market rate" to get the "right" people. They didn't get my argument that perhaps people who demanded such huge salaries weren't "right" for public service anyway. The shrugged councillor shoulders brought the image of the pigs from animal farm into view.

The damaged morale of workers at Cityclean has led to a deterioration of the service and further disputes. The public just see a poorer service and not the mitigating circumstances (excuses) of a nationally imposed Equality Act, 20 year PFI contracts signed by previous administrations and the current 55% cuts in government central grants. The Greens have seen their brand damaged.

Back in 2011, the Greens had very wide appeal. They could appeal across the political spectrum. But the surburban residents who drive into the city centre were never going to be impressed by the 20mph zones, bus & cycle lanes and higher parking charges. Coupled with the desperately overdue regeneration of many road junctions caused by a previous 30 years of neglect.

Put all the inevitable road delays and Cityclean problems together and a narrative of Green chaos has been created. Nevermind the overdue improvements to some of the most neglected parts of town, the regenerated parks, roads and markets.

Central city residents mostly welcome the reduction of speeding cars, increased cycling and more pedestrian friendly environments.

Personally I would have liked to see much more of this, but of course we have to remember the Greens are a minority administration who need Labour or Tory support for these nationally funded schemes.

Nobody could say the Greens have entered council politics in auspicious times. Considering the challenges of the budget cuts, the Greens have managed services incredibly efficiently and managed to attract national grants for parks and roads on an unprecedented basis.

But back to the point of this post.

My gut feeling this time is that Labour are going to do well in 2015. I expect Labour to retake the parliamentary seats in Hove and also Kemptown (although the excellent Nancy Platts will need a few Greens to lend her their votes to triumph). Caroline Lucas should hold on in Pavilion but not by the sort of margin suggested as possible by the 2011 council results.

The evidence we have to go on are recent Lord Ashcroft polls in Pavilion, Hove and Kemptown, a citywide Euro result and a couple of byelections in Westbourne and Hanover/Elm Grove wards.

The Ashcroft polls in Pavilion shows Lucas 7 points up on 2010 but around 8 points down on the 2011 Green results. There is similar movement in Hove and Kemptown. Greens down, Labour up a couple of points and the Tories a point down. We can project these results across the council as follows.

First the "clean sweep" wards.

For the Greens I expect them to hold St Peters & North Laine, Regency, Brunswick & Adelaide, and to retake the lost seat to Labour in Hanover & Elm Grove.

For the Tories, Hove Park, Woodingdean, Rottingdean Coastal, Patcham and Westbourne will be held. With them regaining seats from the Greens in Withdean and Central Hove.

Labour will hold in North and South Portslade wards and East Brighton. And retake seats in Hollingdean & Stanmer from the Greens & Independent. They will gain a seat from the Tories in Wish and see off the Ukip defector in Moulsecomb & Bevendean.

Now to the "split wards".

Labour will gain a seat from the Tories in Hangleton & Knoll giving them a 2 to 1 split.

Labour will gain 2 seats in Queens Park, so a 2-1 over the Greens. And Labour will also gain a seat each in Preston Park & Goldsmid, leaving them trailing the Greens 2-1 in each of those wards.

Overall I predict the following totals (with changes from current position).

LAB 21 (+8) CON 18(-) GRN 15 (-5)

I expect the independents and Ukip defector to all lose their seats.

29 January 2015

A Green Citizen's Income.

There has been criticism of the Green proposals for a Citizen Income (CI). How will it be funded? Does it really help the poorest?

It's actually all very simple. What's complicated is the costly and inefficient welfare system it replaces.

The Green proposals are to implement a £72 a week payment to all adult citizens, and a lesser amount to children.

There have been claims (notably by Andrew Neil on the Daily Politics) that this will "cost" £280bn per year.

So first a quick sum. £72 x 52 weeks x 50m [adult population] equals £187bn

This is the approximate yearly amount of the adult part of the payment.

Then we have to deduct £72 x 11m (=£41bn). These are the pensioners already receiving more than the CI sum in state pension and pensioner credit. That leaves £146bn to find.

The children's part of a CI depends on the amount it is set at. But we already have a childrens Citizen's Income in Child Benefit (or we did before the coalition started to means test it). If we imagine the child rate is set at half the adult CI rate (£36 a week), that would cost approximately £12bn more than child benefit does currently. So that makes a total of £158bn for our CI.

A lot of money for sure, but well below Neil's inflated sum of £280bn.

So where is this £158bn coming from?

Actually Andrew Neil answered his own question.

The scrapping of the personal tax allowances alone raises around £100bn.

The Green plan is to merge the regressive National Insurance with Income tax to have more honest, progressive and transparent taxes on income. The richest do not pay the bulk of National Insurance, whose burden falls largely on low to middle income earners. The untaxed "rentier" income from capital and the scrapping of the NI ceiling for those earning over £42,000pa would raise many tens of billions more. Lets say £20bn for a conservative estimate. That leaves £38bn left to find for our CI.

To administrate our current £160bn welfare bill costs about £20bn a year. The current army of bureaucrats and means testers uses up over 10% of our welfare budget. To administrate the universal child benefit was 1%. 1% is the sort of figure needed to administrate a universal CI. So once again savings of tens of billions off the welfare it replaces.

A CI replaces completely jobseekers allowance (£3bn to 6bn) and Income Support (£4bn to £8bn) (depending on levels of unemployment).

So we are now down to between £4bn to £11bn left to find.

The Greens are proposing a 1% wealth tax on over £3m of assets. which they estimate will raise £40bn. Andrew Neil disputed this figure, citing the lower threshold (£800k) French wealth tax that only raises £4bn a year. I suppose it all depends on how forcefully such a tax is implemented and how much is allowed to be avoided through capital flight.

Finally, a Citizen's Income would replace the impossibly complex system of tax credits. Around 7 million households are entitled to Working Tax credits and Child Tax credits. Around 5 million claim them costing around £30bn-£35bn a year (Note: this brings the total raised to more than needed for the proposed CI).

Critics use tax credits to point out that a CI could actually penalise some lower earners currently claiming these credits. Though the higher than child benefit rate I propose for the children's CI would probably make sure families with children are always better off.

I think that the huge change in the personal allowance in the last few years from £6,500 to £10,500 has made calculating a more progressive level of CI more difficult. Coupled with the replacement of the tax credits system, it might mean that a more generous CI would need to be implemented than the one proposed by the Greens to ensure that absolutely every low earner is better off. This could be clawed back through higher rates of income taxes on higher earners.

But the impact of a CI remains sound.

A payment of £3,744pa is better than tax allowances that saves you less (approx. £3,000pa). Only the higher tax rate payers should lose out with higher rates when NI is merged with Income Tax.

And the real impact is on the financial incentive to work.

Tell the unemployed you can earn money AND keep your £72 a week payment and the financial incentive to work has been dramatically improved.

Green leader Natalie Bennett did the Citizen's Income a disservice with her poor level of detailed knowledge of this policy. She needs to do her homework and be much sharper in future interviews and debates.

15 January 2015

I've Seen The Future Of Low Public Spending... 11,000 Miles Away.

Unaffordable housing, dire public transport, crumbling roads and infrastructure, scandalous road deaths, rising crime, desperate rising inequality and a dearth of decent paying jobs. The UK? How about New Zealand!

Perhaps not the image you might think of about the land of the Hobbit and the Maori. Of course New Zealand has wondrous abundant countryside and is well worth a visit (if you don't mind lots of driving). But for a country with an abundance of natural wealth, it isn't half in a mess.

Add in unaffordable healthcosts and dire TV and radio to the above list and you might understand why so many New Zealanders emigrate.

If you want a vision of life without the BBC, spend an evening watching (or rather enduring) New Zealand TV.

No homespun dramas, just endless imports, repeats, derivative programming and incessant adverts littering every programme, making them unwatchable. I started watching a film at 9pm, by midnight I had given up getting to the end of the movie after literally dozens of very long advertising breaks. I was then told that New Zealanders NEVER watch anything live, preferring to spend their time zapping adverts every few minutes on their timeshifted shows.

If you'd like the idea of a bonfire of regulations, you will love New Zealand. Where land developers are free to destroy beautiful countryside at will (while brownfield sites are left to decay), to throw up dilapadated tin houses with no insulation, that even in New Zealand's mild climate will leave you shivering. Where drink driving will result in only a slap on the wrist fine and result not surprisingly in the most dangerous roads in the Western world. To get too old or sick to drive is really to experience loneliness for most New Zealanders. Trapped in isolated towns with no resources for health (or much else).

So there you have the free market in all its glory and all its excuses laid bare. There are no planning restrictions holding developers back from building homes in New Zealand. And in a country bigger than the UK with just a 4.4m population, there is masses of space. Yet still they don't build. Why? Because big developers control the market like in the UK and by carefully restricting supply drive up property and land prices, especially in the crowded cities. Hence bigger profits, and that is the bottom line of market economics. It is not run for the masses, or even for efficiency. It is to make profits for the few. Proper regulation is needed to ensure competition diminishes profiteering. And a thriving private sector needs the public sector to provide opportunities and infrastructure support.

Go to New Zealand and drive (or should I say bounce) on their many "unsealed" roads, i.e. rubble tracks that are untarmac-ed. Go to their historic "spiritual" sites, if you can afford the theme park prices and stomach the theme park mentality. And woe betide if you can't drive. They don't even spend money on bridges or tunnels for their trains, preferring to run them through traffic islands. Not as if it matters when they run so infrequently for passengers, they are next to useless. They will never be able to expand public transport precluded by this lack of foresight. When New Zealand's population does grow big, as it will, they have laid the foundations for a living hell for future generations.

It is all such a shame, such a beautiful country, and through mean public infrastructure and reckless irresponsibility they are in a rush to despoil it.

I've seen the future for the UK if we keep heading in the same direction. The Tory road leads to New Zealand, but without the countryside.

06 January 2015

Can We Define Cameronism?

As, hopefully, David Cameron's reign as PM hits it's final furlong. I'd like to look deep into it's murky backwaters. I'd like to find the defining ideology of the man, and his schizophrenic government. Not just in terms of two parties in coalition, but of the conflicting ideologies of the man himself.

When the Labour party ran their shortlived and underplayed party political broadcast of a cartoon Cameron chameleon morphing from one political theme to the next, they were closer than they realised to nailing his defining characteristics. And to be fair to Cameron, they are not all bad. His apologies for Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough did seem genuinely heartfelt.

The most surprising attitude of his government has been their attitude to foreign aid and gay marriage. To have a Conservative government support these issues, in the face of much severe criticism from it's own MPs and media, is a bigger victory for the Left than probably they dare realise. It is also difficult to fathom.

I really can't make my mind up whether Cameron is a real convert to these causes or is trying to play some sort of modernist card to win the liberal urban middle class vote that the Tories have sorely missed since their post Thatcher collapse.

I actually suspect his conversion is real, but it doesn't square with his support for Section 28 (as recently as 2001) and his opposition to gay adoption.

Ditto, foreign aid. Did he find some damiscene conversion in being a 80's child of the Live Aid era? Seems as unlikely as his claim to be a Smiths fan.

Look at how easily Cameron has jettisoned his now almost unrememberable softly softly approach to immigration and Europe. His seemingly real understanding of the stupidity of punitive drug laws. His infamous, now laughable claim of "vote blue, go green". He even went as far as quoting "the spirit level" when claiming to want to reduce inequality. A claim never to be heard again from the man who put IDS in charge of welfare.

Then we look at the economic agenda and attitude to the public sector. More Thatcherite than even Thatcher. The relentless drive to push private sector profiteering deep into public provision. Cutting tax on Capital even further, even amid an economic depression and promise to reduce government debt.

Although he has given up on two dog whistle issues - gays and foreign aid, he has relentlessly pushed others. He has been outflanked on immigration and Europe because he could never out UKIP UKIP. But the attacks on the unemployed, disabled and even public sector workers have been relentless in their ferocity. Here we see Thatcher's child in his full glory.

Another curious aspect is his hot and cold attitude to religion. Once describing his religiosity as "like Magic FM in the Chilterns" - "it comes and goes". Then months later he is praying in Church like a US president at his most eager.

It is really difficult to pin down what is sincere about Cameron. But as attributed to Tony Blair, if you can fake sincerity, you have it made.
Cameron seemed to start out a liberal but become more hardcore Thatcherite once in power. His journey rightwards seems to continue to this day, with no sight of where it would end. For those of us who are true liberals, lets hope it ends on May 7th!

03 January 2015

The 2010 and 2015 General Elections Will Dispel A Lot Of Untruths About Coalition Government

In 2015 we are likely to get a second consecutive hung parliament. And without radical and controversial boundary changes, that are due to come in in 2018, we could get a third or even more.

We were told by proponents of our current voting system that this could only happen under proportional systems.

We were also told that coalition government was unstable and couldn't be long lasting or provide "strong" or radical government.

As we near the end of five years of one of the most radical governments ever, we find other myths about coalition are dismissed too.

We were told coalition would mean perpetual Lib Dems in government, though that seems unlikely after 2015 with the most likely coalition a Labour/ SNP one.

The only claim left is that coalition can be unpopular and divisive. Yes, as unpopular and divisive as the Thatcher governments were. But I suspect that has more to do with our politics being bought by big business.

The truth is, our voting system is the straitjacket imposed on voters to maintain the two party duopoly. But thankfully this is breaking down. Lots of voters are scared into voting for the big two parties because their fear of one is greater than their distaste of the other. The spoiler effect and disproportionality are the big parties' friends.

As the combined vote of the big two plummets towards 60%, the system still delivers them 85%-90% of the seats. The coming boundaries could make this worse. But people want more choice. They want political parties that listen to their members not big donors. If voters keep voting for newer more radical parties and the combined vote of the big two drops below 50%. Could they still resist voting reform? They would certainly try.

Voters accepted 35% of the vote delivering a majority. Would they accept 29%?

But more than the percentage of vote for the "winning party" or the "turnout" percentage. The numbers we need to watch to determine the health of our democracy are the total number of registered voters compared to the voting age population, and the total votes a "winning" party gets. So 35% of the vote in the future, could be far less than 35% of the vote is now.

Even when the voting age population was 10m smaller, Thatcher, Major and 1997 Blair were getting seat majorities with 13m to 14m voters. By 2005, Blair got a majority with less than 11m. Cameron nearly got a majority with 10.7m.

With the new harder registration rules already "disappearing" millions off the register, with millions more predicted to go by 2020, this "winning majority" of voters could drop dramatically.

Registration numbers are failing to keep pace with voting age population growth.

In the 1950s, a 50m population had 40m on the electoral roll. Today's 65m population has around 45m on the roll. 3.5m eligible voters are estimated as unregistered and this could grow to 10m with the new rules.

Another issue to watch is the disparity between voter roll numbers for local and European elections, that includes all EU citizens resident in the UK and Westminster elections that don't.

Migration is an established fact and as the number disenfranchised in this way grows across Europe from around 5% of voting age towards 10% and beyond, it will become more and more unacceptable. As an already vulnerable group, this disenfranchisement will encourage political parties to treat them even more unfairly and will distort our politics.

All of this is relevant to coalition government because coalitions tend to increase the number of votes required to win a majority of seats. Under a proportional system, coalitions need even more voters to rule. Obviously this is more democratic.

Be very suspicious of those who argue in favour of a system that allocates power to parties on a smaller and smaller number of votes.

How Easy Would It Be For Labour & The SNP To Do A Deal?

With the same boundaries as 2010 and a multitude of amateur psephologists on the internet, this May general election is looking like being the most analysed ever.

If most analysts are right we are heading for a very messy hung parliament with maybe 3 or 4 party co-operation needed to garner a majority.

Both Labour and the Tories could end up between 265 and 290 seats. With the Lib Dems likely to be reduced to twenty something seats, this would mean the big two having to look elsewhere to make up a majority.

Tories have been sounding out the Ulster Unionists and would make an offer to the SNP, though it would be political suicide for the SNP to accept.

UKIP are more obvious Tory supporters, but that would make a Tory/Lib Dem deal more difficult and the Tories are likely to need 3 or more parties to make a majority. There has even been one wild suggestion in the national press of a "grand coalition" of Labour and Tory.

But realistically, for me, the most obvious partnership would be Labour and the SNP.

The most likely scenario is a minority government with "confidence and supply" forthcoming from other agreeable parties.

Even with the fixed term parliament Act, the chances of this arrangement lasting anywhere near 5 years seems very slim to me.

As is tradition, the sitting PM, in this case David Cameron, will get the first chance to form a coalition, even if his party are not the largest in seats or votes. Obviously whichever party manages that will theoretically have the moral upper hand, though in practise it will make little difference.

If Cameron fails, the scene will be set for Labour and the SNP. The SNP will almost certainly be the third largest party in parliament. Unless something really dramatic happens to dent their huge lead over Labour in Scotland.

Labour are going to have to swallow their pride to make a deal with the SNP.

I don't see Miliband having a problem dealing with the SNP, but a lot of his backbenchers and cabinet colleagues will be seething.

Thankfully the most rightwing Labour MPs are in Scotland and most of those would have lost their seats in the bloodbath north of the border. Labour could easily find they have Scottish MPs down in the single figures.

The SNP say they want Trident out of Scotland and will push for more tax powers.

When it comes to nuclear power, Labour are still a very conservative party. This would be a difficult area for them to compromise on.

On tax powers, the Labour party were the ones dragging their feet even more than the Tories and Lib Dems in the recent Smith deal.

So, what would the SNP do if Labour refused to budge?

The SNP options would be limited. Labour would love to drive them into the Tories hands. Sadly I can see Labour being so bloody minded they were willing to see Cameron continue.

The big question is Miliband. I have hopes he would find a compromise. And his reluctant colleagues could be used to drive a hard bargain. The SNP would need something big though.

Miliband would do well to bind the SNP close and go for a long lasting deal, maybe even a coalition.

The Tories and UKIP are overflowing with hedge fund money and would love a second general election in October 2015 to bankrupt Labour and the other parties.

It is going to be difficult for Labour to accept the SNP, but the alternatives for Miliband would be resignation. The knives would quickly be out to get a blairite like Umunna installed.

Miliband is going to have to lay the law down with the rebels in his own party and accept real devolution to Scotland. And if he has any sense he will roll this devolution out to the rest of the UK as well, including the English regions.

So the answer to the question is, it isn't going to be easy to get a SNP backed Labour government. They fight each other as bitter rivals in Scotland and that sort of tribalism is hard to overcome (see Labour and the Greens in Brighton).

But the disappearance of Scottish Labour MPs as a large block in the parliamentary party and the pragmatism of Miliband and Sturgeon gives me real hope it will happen.

The consequences of letting Cameron and co continue on their wrecking mission would be unforgiveable. To keep Scotland, Labour will have to make a deal work. It could work to all social democrats advantage.

02 January 2015

Revised Predictions for 2015 General Election

In May last year, I had a stab at predicting how many seats each party would win in the coming general election.

The unforeseen (by me) rise of the SNP in Scotland has completely thrown out my predictions.

I also accept that my broad brush approach to universal swings was too rough an instrument as perhaps universal swings are too generous to Labour. Lord Ashcroft's constituency polling gives some more pointers as to what is happening in the marginals.

I gave predictions for scenarios ranging from a 6 point Tory lead to a 6 point Labour lead. The current Labour 2 point lead suggested a 40 seat overall majority for them (LAB 345 CON 245). A tad optimistic for Labour perhaps.

I rounded each party to a nearest 5 seat total and worked on the assumption of a combined "others" of 60 seats (Lib Dems with 25 of those). With Labour and Tory combined splitting 590 seats between them.

Now we are closer to the election, I think I can narrow that down and also incorporate more data from spread betting predictions, which tend to overestimate the Tories and underestimate Labour. In 2010 betting predicted the Tories getting 13 more seats than they actually got and Labour 40 less.

Bearing all of this in mind, my predictions are now as follows (with net change from 2010 result);

Using the current polling of Labour with a 2 point lead over the Tories in the UK but 17 points behind the SNP in Scotland.

LAB 279 (+21)
CON 269 (-37)
SNP 47 (+41)
LDEM 25 (-32)
DUP 8 (-)
UKIP 6 (+6)
SF 5 (-)
PC 4 (+1)
SDLP 3 (-)
GRN 1 (-)
RES 1 (-)
AP 1 (-)
OTH 1 (-)

Behind these figures, I have predicted Labour losing 33 seats to the SNP. The Lib Dems losing 13 seats to the Tories, 10 to Labour, 8 to the SNP and 1 to Plaid Cymru. And the Tories losing 44 seats to Labour and 6 to UKIP.

Assuming Sinn Fein with their 5 seats continue to not take up their seats, then 321 is needed for a majority.

I predict a Labour minority government with the SNP, SDLP, Plaid Cymru and Green providing confidence and supply (a total of 334 seats, a majority of 26 excluding Sinn Fein). Obviously this would be a very precarious arrangement unlikely to last anywhere near 5 years.

28 December 2014

Democrats Need To Make The Most Of 2015. It Will Be The Last Hung Parliament For A Generation.

In the 2010 general election campaign, the Lib Dems campaigned against austerity and tuition fees, but they also campaigned for more democracy.

Sadly on all these issues they have done the opposite in government.

Those of us hoping for constitutional improvements have been shocked.

This 2015 election could be the last chance for smaller parties to have a say. All of the following issues will make it harder to challenge the status quo of the big two parties.

As a democrat, the last thing we needed was bigger constituencies, yet from 2018 we will get them as seat numbers fall from 650 to 600.

Radical boundary changes will also take place as strict rules on registered numbers will cut across communities. Seats will become even more arbitrary, and volatile too, as changes are made every five years. The idea of an MP representing a community will be turned into farce, as voters find they are moved from seat to seat and unable to re-elect or vote out their MP.

Individual registration will affect everyone from 2016 and make it harder to register, the mobile poor, urban and/or students are already falling off the register in their millions. This matters, as boundaries are drawn by registered numbers not those eligible. Rural seats will become smaller and more powerful and urban seats will swell in constituent size with more voters disenfranchised.

One of the biggest myths of our voting system is that urban seats are smaller than rural, they are not. In terms of both population and eligible electors they are already bigger than rural seats. Only because of lower registration and turnout do they appear smaller. And this matters because this is the criteria used. By tightening this criteria the coalition will disenfranchise urban voters even more.

Then there are 5 year parliaments. Another regressive measure removing power from voters by prolonging the length of time between elections. As 2015 will probably show, it is even ineffective at that. Elections can still happen at any time.

And finally we hear that the Tories in the last few months have quietly slipped into law a massive increase in party spending limits while a gagging law prevents charities and trade unions from campaigning.

All of this has happened with the Lib Dems consent. Truly shocking. What are they thinking?

The Tories rely on the national media and local press and leaflet campaigning that without volunteers is expensive. All of these new laws will help the Tories and disadvantage other parties who use volunteers to build support in an area over decades. Disruptive seat boundaries favour bigger parties with national backing. The 2015 parliament could be the last chance to halt these undemocratic practises. Yet no party seems to be talking about it.

09 October 2014

UK Democracy Has Failed

1. A constituency MP is accountable.

2. Single party government is decisive.

3. One person, one vote, it must be fair.

4. The candidate with the most votes wins, this is a simple system.

5. Our hereditary and unelected Lords are best at scrutinising our elected chamber.

All of the above are used to defend our present system. All are false.

1. Most constituents do not vote for their MP or even know their name. Yet 70% to 85% of seats do not change hands.

2. Our governments are slower at making decisions than those abroad and less likely to think long term.

3. The value of your vote is determined by constituency boundaries.

4. The link between total seats won and total votes cast is unfathomably complex for Westminster and local elections.

5. Amongst developed states only the UK has hereditary and unelected law makers.

All of this is beyond debate. These are undeniable facts.

The question is, what to do about it?

For a political animal like me, the triumph of UKIP on the back of what is obvious voter frustration at how our system works is very depressing.

Sadly, any party achieving power under the present system is unlikely to change the system. But worse, by the time they achieve power, the system will have moulded that party to its image. Real change seems hopelessly out of reach.

The failure of our political system can be summed up by two words - the lack of;

1. Representation

2. Information

1. You can increase representation by increasing the proportionality of results, so seats won more accurately reflects voteshare. You can also increase the frequency of elections and decrease constituency size to improve accountability. But in my opinion, good though these measures would be, it would not be enough.

Our current system is getting worse partly because the proportion of the electorate needed to win power is decreasing as our voting system fails to cope with votes dispersing among multiple parties. It is now possible to win power with less than 20% support amongst the electorate. But even the most proportional systems can deliver  power with less than 40% electorate support. Better, but still not a majority. And everywhere this figure is falling. There seems to be something fundamentally wrong with the process of voting itself.

The problem is that voting is a crude process that does not come close to capturing the opinions and views of voters.

2. The second problem is lack of information. It is pretty near impossible to get detailed and impartial information on candidates and party policies. We could improve the quality and range of information available to people by diversifying the ownership of our media. This would mean more opinions reflected and views more in line with the public mood. This would help, but once again in my opinion, it would not be enough.

People haven't the time to become experts on the main topics and no-one can be expert on everything and every candidate.

The other linked problem is that our political parties, candidates and media can be easily bought by the rich and powerful. We could have rules on donations and the dispersion of propaganda but how practical would this be and how long would these rules last?

Also the bigger problem is those people who need democracy the most are always the least likely to have the time or energy to participate. The poorest are not properly represented in political parties and certainly not in parliament. This will always be the case. And the longer this goes on, the more it alienates the poor from the system and the more likely they are to disengage.

What we need is a system that allows a truly representative sample of the population equal access to a diverse range of expert opinion, the time to deliberate, and the power to implement their collective decisions.

Thankfully we already have such a system - the jury service. We should extend this to selecting our government.

It is not perfect, but most of the objections are unfounded. People can make very informed decisions on the most complex situations.

Replacing our elected representatives with randomly selected representatives will deliver a much harder system for the powerful to corrupt. It would take the money out of politics and ensure proper representation of everyone.

We could experiment with term limits, a mix of elected and randomly selected. But ultimately I feel our system has gone so badly wrong that this might be the only way to put things right.

The numbers of "jury politicians" selected would have to be big enough samples to be representative. I suggest 500 in the Commons and 500 in the Lords.

This idea could take a long time to gain favour. But don't dismiss it, really think about it. Then think about where we are heading with our current elected alternatives. Which would you prefer?

19 September 2014

The elephant in the room is proportional representation.

Westminster politicians rarely look worried. Why would they when 70% have got jobs for life as long as they keep their party happy. They are effectively immune from public opinion.

Since the universal franchise, only around 15% of seats on average change hands at an election, and never more than 30%.

70% of MPs have more to fear from boundary changes than voters.

Local government is increasingly about entrenched one party states in many areas. Not that that matters much with power so sucked into Westminster.

We are the most centralised state in Europe, with stagnant local government and undemocratic parties.

At every level there has been centralisation of power.

Our parties have taken power from their membership and handed it to their leaders.

Westminster are constantly eroding power from local government.

And turnout is so low in local elections that parties only have to address a dwindling minority to stay in power.

So, when something happens that makes Westminster worried, it is a revelation. The Scottish referendum was such a moment. A real decision concerning power in the hands of voters. And the unprecedented 85% turnout shows how much that makes a difference.

The problem for our political elite is democracy is a messy unpredictable business. It provides easy targets for our 24 hour media. But when policy making is slow and bland, it destroys hope and passion.
The Labour party in particular, now have a big problem. The Tories have their own ready made solution to devolution. They propose giving the Scots control of a few more percent of their own taxes and then to exclude Scottish MPs from Westminster. So the Scots remain slaves and Labour lose their Scottish MPs as well. Lose, lose for everyone except the Tories.

Because Labour tried to fob the regions off with feeble powers last time, nobody now trusts regional government in England. But without it we have a lopsided union. How can we devolve powers to Scotland and Wales without devolving to the English regions?

Answer is, to do that will cause justifiable resentment and present the Tories with a stick to hit Labour with.

But the Tories "English laws for English MPs" is equally unfair and so would be an English parliament. (And impractical, because spending decisions in England automatically affect Scotland and Wales and NI).

An "all England" solution will be as unfair to northern England as a UK parliament is to the Scots.

It is not just the Scots who have rejected the Tories for decades, it is northern England, Wales and many urban conurbations right across England. To be fair, devolution has to take this into account.

But for Labour to resurect regional devolution will mean an incoming Labour government offering to give away vasts tracts of power quickly. Real power over taxation. Not just the amounts, but how it is raised. This would take real courage and something Labour have lacked for decades - real democrats in their party hierachy.

I titled this piece about proportional representation. And I do believe our first-past-the-post voting system is a root cause of the power grab at the centre, unaccountability and the polarisation of our political geography.

I believe it essential that any new assembly/parliament is elected proportionally. But I also now believe that even PR may not be enough to stop our democratic drift.

We all know our corporate media are pushing us towards a plutocracy. Billionaires and big businesses buy policies at will from our political parties either with donations or through control of the media. Our elections are increasingly bought. We have to find a way to stop that.

I believe one way is to experiment with picking our politicians at random, like we do with jury service. We could start with local government, and if successful move on to national.

It would immediately take big money out of politics and allow a wider range of society and opinion a voice in making our laws. I believe it might bring new ideas, even trust back into our system.

Without something radical, I fear for the levels of inequality and dysfunction awaiting our society. Scottish independence was one democratic lever, now cruelly snatched away. How long will we wait for the next one?