Day of Days

Well, here we are then.

Another birthday.

Actually, this one has been great (so far) and I’m looking forward to the rest of the day. Although it coulded over yesterday evening leading me to think our sunny spell was over, today I awoke to bright sunshine again and it’s stayed the same all morning. The garden looks unkempt but is at least full of flowers and smells, and I had my breakfast outside again before toddling off down to the polling station in St Catharine’s Church Hall to cast my vote in the Elections for the European parliament.

We won’t get the results of that election until Sunday because different European countries are voting on different days and the results are only announced when all polls are closed. I’ll be in Copenhagen on Sunday so will have to catch up on the news from there. Other parts of the United Kingdom are also voting for their local Councils too, and those results will be out tomorrow.

I’m not an expert political analyst but it seems to me these elections could go one of two ways: either the major political parties get a complete drubbing or the population is so disgusted with the political establishment that they don’t turn out at all. When I went to my polling station it was completely deserted apart from the two ladies keeping track of the ballot papers. On the basis of that observation, it could be that apathy will carry the day.

Incidentally, I’m very old-fashioned about voting. I don’t agree at all with the trend of encouraging on-line or postal voting. I think it’s part of one’s civic duty to cast a vote and that means getting off your arse and putting a cross on a bit of paper. It gives a sense of participation to vote in person and most excuses for not doing so just amount to  laziness. There are polling stations all over the place, they open from the early morning until late at night, and it only takes a minute or so to vote.  So get out there and do your bit.

Now I have time to do mark a few more examinations before having a shower and getting ready to get on the train to London. As a birthday treat, organized by Joao Magueijo, a bunch of us are off to the posh seats at Covent Garden to see the opening night of the Royal Opera‘s new production of Alban Berg‘s Lulu, which I’ll review when I get back tomorrow.

ps. A package arrived in the post on Tuesday from my Mum with my usual birthday gift. It turned out to be a raincoat – usually a useful thing for someone living in Wales – but on a sweltering day it seemed a bit comical. No doubt I’ll get a chance to wear it before too long…

13 Responses to “Day of Days”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Happy Birthday Peter! I hope your mother doesn’t read your blog… on which topic, a Jewish friend of mine told me this superb Jewish mother-in-law joke: on his birthday his mother-in-law buys him two ties, so he puts one on to go round and thank her, but got the instant response: “So what’s wrong with the other tie?”

    Online voting is insufficiently transparent, and both it and postal voting are insufficiently private from family members. So I agree, let’s keep it old-fashioned. I have been through one election at which I would have felt my hands dirty had I voted for anyone on the ballot paper, but I agree that voting is important; perhaps one should spoil one’s ballot paper in such circumstances.


  2. telescoper Says:

    They could put a “none of the above” box on the ballot paper. It would be interesting to see what would happen if they did that!

    In fact, there were about ten names on the ballot paper when I voted, so plenty of opportunities to protest votes. The paper was huge, in fact. I had to fold it several times to get it into the box.

  3. Most people who would tick “none of the above” wouldn’t bother to go to the polling station. Even as a protest, it has no effect, since one doesn’t indicate “I didn’t vote for party X because…”. Even assuming that a party would change its programme if it knew what (the majority of) (potential) voters wanted (perhaps dubious in itself—see below), “none of the above” conveys no information as to WHY one didn’t vote for a particular party.

    When results aren’t as expected, often journalists, party members, voters and, yes, bloggers ask “Why?”. Assuming one’s model of democracy is “This is my position, if you like it, vote for me”, then the only appropriate response is at most a lament that the reasons to vote for a particular party weren’t sufficiently communicated to the voters. There seems to be the hidden assumption that the party should somehow “react” to the vote. Apart from the problem above (WHY didn’t more people vote for the party), this implies a rather cynical view: forget your convictions and construct your programme so that it attracts the largest number of voters.
    Most ethical folks would probably hope that party members believe in a basic concept and hope to get support for it.

    On the other hand, few voters know their representatives personally, and in sensible countries with PR, the whole idea is to vote for a concept, not a person. One could thus think of parties and representatives as merely means to an end. In this sense, there is nothing unethical about changing one’s position to reflect what voters want, politicians would be quite literally representatives in the strictest sense, just blindly implementing their voters’ wishes.

    In general, of course, no party will convey one’s wishes exactly, but only cynics can claim that it doesn’t matter for whom one votes. Thus, a “least of many evils” approach is certainly better than not voting at all. On the other hand, I can understand people who don’t want to “reward” a party for moving in the (for them) wrong direction by voting for them, even if they are the least of all evils. In such cases, it would make sense to vote for a party which lies in the direction of where one wants one’s real choice to move, even if the former is, objectively, less to one’s taste than the latter.

    All of the above concerns political positions in the narrower sense. Another issue are things like are happening at the moment in the UK, with politicians declaring things as expenses which are not related to their political activity. If it is true that this process is actually legal (though morally dubious), then of course the law should be changed. Even if it is legal, though, voters are rightly displeased, and it is a natural wish for the voters to express this displeasure. This is a difficult call, but none of the options a) not voting (or casting an invalid ballot), b) voting for a party whose programme is not what one desires or c) voting for a party who would probably have behaved similarly, given the chance, seem correct: none of them convey a message as to WHY one didn’t vote for the party in question (though this might be guessed) and has perhaps undesired side effects such as, directly or indirectly, supporting another party (which one actually doesn’t want to support).

  4. Anton Garrett Says:


    Spoiling one’s ballot paper is a statement that clearly differs from staying at home if the number of spoilt papers is read out at the return.

    You wrote: “in sensible countries with PR, the whole idea is to vote for a concept, not a person”. Political parties are what make it possible to vote for a concept rather than a person, and they have become far too powerful in my view, with MPs seen merely as lobby fodder rather than humans with a conscience.

    I think that the issues of first past the post vs PR, and voting for a concept vs voting for a person, are distinct. Regarding the former, PR-run countries live in a permanent state of political horse-trading compared to first past the post. Neither system is trouble-free (see Arrow’s Theorem about the contradictory axioms of democracy). In any case, the people who invented democracy, the citizens of classical Athens, would not have regarded our present system as democratic. They would have had referenda amongst themselves on all significant issues.


  5. Brendan Says:

    Happy Birthday Peter!

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter: If ballot papers had a “none of the above” option then plenty of candidates would change their names to Mr Noneoftheabove in an attempt to win votes by confusion…

  7. telescoper Says:

    It appears, as I suspected, that the turnout was indeed very low. Labour is clearly losing heavily in the Council elections mainly to the Tories. It will be interesting to see how the smaller parties do in the Euro elections.

  8. Yes, person vs. programme and PR vs. FPTP are two separate issues. However, PR naturally lends itself to programme-oriented elections and
    vice versa, and personal elections naturally lend themselves to FPTP and
    vice versa.

    The main problem with FPTP is that even large minorities have practically no representation. In practice, a two-party system results, which is not much better than a one-party system, especially since the lack of chance for other parties mean that the two parties tend to become quite similar and compete for the middle.

    I can’t see the point of personal elections when these days it is impossible that a politician can personally know a significant fraction of the electorate.

    Yes, there is less horse-trading with FPTP. There is even less in a dictatorship. I rest my case.

    Yes, the Athenians had a different concept of democracy. They also had slaves.

  9. Just a remark on the German system. The number of seats is determined by PR, which is indicated by the so-called “second vote”. The so-called “first vote” is for a direct candidate—a simple majority wins. Half of the seats are for personal candidates. These are subtracted from the party’s allotment based on PR, and the rest come in via a list. (Some parties have lists where one can also vote for the position of various candidates on the list while some have fixed-order lists.)

    Personally, I would prefer pure PR for simplicity, but this system combines the best of both worlds. (There are complications: if the number of direct seats exceeds the PR allotment, then the number of seats can be increased accordingly etc.) If I vote for a small party with the second vote, I tend to vote for the “lesser of two evils” among the two biggest parties with the first vote (not that I think it makes that much difference in practice). Some people who like a specific candidate in a party might vote for her with the first vote, even though the second vote is for another party, in an attempt to indicate that this candidate’s positions are better liked than those of the party at large.

  10. Chris Crowe Says:

    For our Student Elections, there is always an option to vote for RON (re-open nominations), and believe it or not, RON atually beat two other ‘contenders’ for one of our MCR posts, amid much embarassment.

    Whilst he’s a little bare on policies, he does have that universal appeal.

    Shame there wasn’t that option on my form!

  11. Anton Garrett Says:

    Arrow’s theorem shows that the desiderata of democratic voting are not all jointly achievable. We could debate indefnitely which to prefer.

    That the Athenians had slaves does not discredit the idea of referenda on most topics as a way to do democracy. It does raise the question of who should vote. For the sake of definiteness I disapprove of slavery, but for the sake of controversy I suggest one vote per household.


  12. One of the great achievements of civilisation is division of labour. Referenda on “most topics” wouldn’t make sense. Anyone who has to work for a living doesn’t have the time to inform himself on “most topics”. Representative democracy is a much better solution here. I think referenda should exist, but only on four conditions: it must be a question which is essentially “yes/no”, it must be binding, it can only come from a popular initiative and not from the parliament, and the result cannot be unconstitutional (though, with other rules, referenda for changing the constitution would be fine).

  13. Anton Garrett Says:

    Division of labour is the operational definition of civilisation. But I do not agree that “Anyone who has to work for a living doesn’t have the time to inform himself on “most topics”.” People in my local pub have views worth listening to on a wide variety of subjects of interest to national life (many of which are ignored by the major parties today). What I am advocating is the ultimate in democracy, the ultimate in proportional representation. Today this is readily achievable, so why should I be represented by a proxy in Westminster who often does not vote the way I want?

    Real power under this proposal would lie with those who frame the questions to be put in referenda. No system made up of human beings is proof against human corruption, which is why no political philosopher from Plato through Aquinas to Hobbes, Locke and Mill has ever devised the perfect system. But this is worth a try.


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