The Day After

I wasn’t planning to stay up last night watching the General Election results come in, but in the end I stuck with it until about 3am, basically hoping to understand what was going on.  Even by that hour there didn’t seem to be a particularly clear pattern emerging, so off I went. I had a revision lecture this morning as well as a lot of other things so I didn’t fancy an all night sitting.

Whenever there’s a General Election I always pay attention to constituencies I used to live in to see how things are changing. Broxtowe (the constituency that contains Beeston, where I used to live when I worked at Nottingham University) changed hands from Labour to the Conservatives. It had been a Conservative marginal in 1997 when it was won during the New Labour landslide. It seemed fairly typical for seats like that to revert to what they were pre-Blair. Brighton – remarkably – returned Britains first ever Green Party MP. Bethnal Green returned to the Labour fold after a flirtation with George Galloway’s Respect party.

Meanwhile here in Cardiff the results were as mixed as elsewhere. My own constituency, Cardiff West, stayed Labour, as did Cardiff South (and Penarth). The Vale of Glamorgan reverted to its pre-1997 Tory hue, unsurprisingly. The Labour candidate in Cardiff North was the wife of former Welsh Assembly leader Rhodri Morgan and it was a definite surprise to see that seat turn blue too. Cardiff Central remained Liberal Democrat.

As it has turned out the exit polls got it just about right, with the Conservative Party leading the popular vote (36%) and number of  seats (306), but not enough to make an overall majority. Labour (28%, 258 seats) and Liberal Democrats (23%, 57 seats) between them have a majority of the votes cast but don’t have enough seats to form a coalition. It’s a well and truly hung Parliament and we look set for days of discussions to see what kind of agreement can be reached between which parties. Gordon Brown remains Prime Minister until some kind of resolution is reached. We live in interesting times.

Although the election results were extremely interesting by virtue of their puzzlingly inhomogeneous variation across the country,  they really amount to little more than a sideshow compared with the spreading panic on international markets. The markets fell sharply, not because of the hung parliament but as part of a worldwide panic over the knock-on effect of the Greece and Portugal sovereign debt problems. The contagion could be very dangerous if Greece can’t convince traders that it’s not going to default and in an attempt to do so its government has put together a severe austerity package. Cue violent unrest. The Greeks live in even more interesting times than us.

I’m not going to pretend that I have the slightest clue how either of these things will pan out, but I’m not very optimistic about the forthcoming months. I hope I’m wrong. We’ll see.

The other thing that struck me  was the story of people being unable to vote because of long queues at the polling stations near 10pm when they closed. At first I wasn’t at all sympathetic. Polls are open from 7am until 10pm, so there’s no need to turn up with only 5 minutes remaining. However, it then emerged that  some polling stations couldn’t cope with the large turnout and people had been queuing for hours by the time the doors closed. The turnout was 65% nationally, higher than last time but by no means ridiculously high. In fact I think it’s a shame the usual turnout  isn’t very much higher than this. However, turnout seems to have been much higher in certain wards and the staff unprepared for the demand, sometimes with insufficient ballot papers and sometimes with out-of-date copies of the electoral register. I don’t mind saying that I found this level of incompetence deeply shaming. We can’t afford to be so careless with our democratic system. It doesn’t matter if only a few hundred people were affected. It’s the principle that matters.

Over the next few days there’ll be a lot of discussion about electoral reform. Perhaps the fact that our current electoral system seems to be showing signs of neglect might generate some impetus for change, quite apart from the scandals of MPs fiddling their expenses. I’ve always been on the fence over proportional representation. Our system is absurd in some respects, delivering huge majorities in the Commons to parties with only a modest share of the popular vote. On the other hand our country is so divided that it’s not obvious what the short-term consequences of changing to PR would be. It seems likely, for one thing, that fringe parties such as the neo-fascist BNP would actually be represented in Westminster. I find that a repulsive prospect, but putting up with people you can’t abide is one of the consequences of democracy.

I have an open mind on electoral reform and I’d like to hear the arguments for and against different systems of PR aired properly. Presumably the Liberal Democrats will want a referendum on this as part of the price of their support in a coalition, so no doubt there’ll be a lot of chat about this.

25 Responses to “The Day After”

  1. It’s a bit of a joke when Blair and Brown talk about ‘exporting’ democracy to places like Afghanistan and Iraq when we can’t even get it right here.

  2. Matthew Barcia Gomes Says:

    It does strike me as odd, that Liberal democrats are wanting to work with the Tories. Its likes Stalin getting into bed with Gandi just very odd. If LIB DEM join with labour then that would be 50% of the popular vote within the coalition, with people of similar views. Llooking at facebook and tweets around, the LIB DEM voters do not want to have a Tory government, and most infact voted for LIB DEM because they believed it would make sure that a Tory government would not happen because of their vote. Staying with Labour with a very LARGE LIB DEM input must be a greater thing for this country than a Tory government with a SMALL LIB DEM input.

    Who knows, what’s going to happen, though things are definitely going to be changing. either way.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Our current electoral system is showing signs not of neglect but of abuse – postal voting corruption, boundary changes in favour of a long-standing government, Scots and Welsh MPs able to vote on purely English issues. All of these favour the Labour Party. And, empirically, immigrant communities tend to vote Labour, which might explain an immigration rate that most people find disturbing. All of this is an argument against Labour, not for the Tories.

    I spent election night watching The Ghost, a film which anybody who hates the sleaze associated with Tony Blair will appreciate. It is a first-rate thriller too.

    Unless there is another general election with a more decisive result, what will happen now is not very much. Although I would like to see some of the changes of the last 13 years reversed, a parliament in which not very much happens is not a bad thing. Who believes the ccountry is in a better state now than before the last 13 years of hyperactivity? MPs used to be part-time and that was no bad thing; today’s fulltimers – of every party – feel the need to justify their existence by interfering with everything, when most people simply want to be left alone to get on with their lives.

    Arrow’s theorem shows that some of the desiderata for a fair voting system are mutually exclusive, so debate about democratic electoral systems can go on endlessly, which can be fun… personally I would like to weaken the party system at Westminster and give more room to conscience votes, as used to be the case many decades ago. It should not be beyond the mind of man to work out how to enforce such a change.

    Anton

  4. telescoper Says:

    Nice to hear the voice of reason again. It’s reassuring to know that immigrants are responsible. Makes it all much simpler.

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    If I’m not wanted on your blog then please email me. I hope we can sort this out.
    Anton

  6. telescoper Says:

    Anton

    You’re entitled to express your opinions here as much as anyone is. I’ve no intention of stopping anyone commenting as long as the comments aren’t abusive. But I’m entitled also to say when I think you’re wrong, as is anyone else.

    I’ve heard too much immigrant-bashing during the General Election campaign to let your comment pass. We all know where that leads. Today, by the way, is VE day, in case you’ve forgotten that we once had to go to war against Nazism.

    Peter

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter,

    I don’t go where I’m not welcome. If you don’t want me here, please tell me straight (privately or publicly) rather than misrepresent what I say.

    Anton

  8. telescoper Says:

    I have no intention of misrepresenting anyone, and will remove my comment if I did so. It did however seem to me that your comment was suggesting that letting immigrants vote was an abuse of the voting system as it was contained in paragraph giving examples of alleged abuses. If I’m wrong I’ll withdraw my comment and delete it from the blog.

    So what were you saying about immigration?

  9. Phil Uttley Says:

    Matthew, I don’t agree that Labour, in its current form, is obviously the most natural fit to the LibDems. Many people voted LibDem rather than Labour because they are social-democrats not socialists, and they run a mile from the statist bureaucratic, centralising approach of the last government. Politics isn’t just a left-right spectrum, there is also an authoritarian-libertarian axis, and in that regard the current localist policies of the Tories match the LibDem approach much better than Labour’s targets culture. The big caveat is that the Tories must keep their more extreme right wing in check. But the fact that Europe as an issue has been kicked well into the long grass by the current crisis has made that much easier.

    On PR and voting reform, I do think we need change, but we need to preserve the local links of candidates in some way. Perhaps local lists plus a regional top-up? PR systems work perfectly well to promote functional government for the Netherlands and Germany, and I don’t think we are like Belgium (no big split-identity) or Italy. The Conservatives perhaps fear a perpetual LabLib coalition, but I think the current situation shows that fear is unfounded. And people will tire of coalitions just as much as political parties, so the pendulum will always swing far enough to allow a change of government, even under PR.

  10. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter: On another thread recently I misrepresented your words, and was sorry and apologised for it.

    I wrote, above: “immigrant communities tend to vote Labour, which might explain an immigration rate [under a Labour government] that most people find disturbing”. My complaint was about the rate of immigration, the motivation for permitting it, and the neglect by government in a democracy of a issue that most people express concern about.

    That will probably not allay your suspicions over my view of immigrants, so: I believe that all (and only) British citizens should be allowed to vote in British elections. Legal immigrants who are not citizens should be treated impartially under the laws of the land. Illegal ones should be deported. Non-UK citizens who commit crimes of intermediate seriousness should be deported (obviously not for minor crimes, and not for major ones such as murder – they must serve their sentence).

    I don’t care what colour people are but I do care what they believe, because that influences their behaviour. I think that too many people who have no commitment to Western culture are being let into it.

    Anton

  11. telescoper Says:

    Anton,

    I was alarmed by the fact that your original comment didn’t distinguish between UK citizens and immigrants. A great many British citizens came here through immigration and the country is all the better for having them. I think we agree that they should not only be allowed to vote, but should be treated as British citizens on the same footing as every other.

    Illegal immigrants of course are illegal, and aren’t allowed to vote anyway. How would they get onto the electoral register?

    I agree with you on both those points and I apologize for misrepresenting your comment, which I interpreted wrongly as saying that only been born here should be allowed to vote. But since it has led to a clarification perhaps it’s better if I don’t delete my response. Please let me know.

    A remaining issue concerns legal immigrants who don’t have full citizenship. As far as I’m concerned if they live here legally, have permanent residence, and pay taxes they should be allowed to vote, whatever they believe in. I therefore disagree with you on this. And while we’re on this matter, I wonder what your view is of British nationals living abroad to avoid paying tax being allowed a postal vote? I certainly think they shouldn’t be allowed to, and probably the majority of them vote Tory.

    Peter

  12. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter: no deletion requested – the dialogue is fine by me. Re your last point, I should have said: “I believe that all (and only) British citizens resident in the UK, plus those serving overseas in the armed forces, should be allowed to vote in British elections.” We appear to differ only on whether non-UK citizens resident here should be able to vote. I’d consider it for local elections, but not for Westminster where national policy is decided – Anton

  13. telescoper Says:

    Phil and Matthew

    I think the most likely outcome of the current dialogue is a Tory-LibDem coalition. The only question is how effective Clegg is as a negotiator. If he sticks to his party’s line then he’ll want PR brought in. Perhaps they’ll agree to have an election under PR if and only if the economy recovers under the coalition.

    If this does happen and Brown has to step down as PM then he should and probably will resign as Labour leader. Who will take over, I don’t know, but they could be a force to be reckoned with pretty soon.

    PR is an interesting question for many reasons. One of them is the extent to which the votes under first-past-the-post are influenced by the system. News commenters are assuming that the current vital statistics of 36-28-23 will be replicated under PR. Perhaps, but I suspect we’ll get many votes for alternative parties, including the Greens and, regrettably, the BNP. It would be an interesting test of the morality of centrist politicians to see how they go about coalition-building if this comes about.

    Peter

  14. The Tories should definitely seriously consider some form of PR, because at the moment with only 1 MP in Scotland and 6 in Wales they have no mandate to assume governance over these areas, any more than Brown has a mandate to continue as PM.

    I believe some sort of regional top-up list could be the best option, keeping a representative linked to an area as well as allowing for some proportional representation, much in the same way the Welsh Assembly elections are held. It’s not perfect, but sure is fairer than the current general election set-up.

  15. “Arrow’s theorem shows that some of the desiderata for a fair voting system are mutually exclusive, so debate about democratic electoral systems can go on endlessly”. True, but that doesn’t mean that all systems are equally good.

    As others have pointed out, the LibDems are probably closer to Labour on issues such as, say, gay marriage and closer to the Tories on, say, favouring a small government. Which is more important to the LibDems, I don’t know. However, with Labour they have a chance to institute PR, which they have said in the past they wanted to do, and surely the prospect of a better system of representation is more important and a chance that should be seized.

    The advantages of PR have been discussed quite often, including in this blog. Let me once again suggest the German system: each voter has two votes. With the first vote, he elects a representative from his district, in a first-past-the-post system. This keeps the folks who want a local representative happy. With the second vote, he votes for a party. The number of seats is determined by the second vote, i.e. PR. However, the number of seats includes those elected by the first vote. It really is having one’s cake and eating it too.

    There is also room for more expression. For example, in most districts smaller parties have no chance of having their direct candidate elected. However, people can still vote for them, as a signal, knowing that, due to the second vote, their vote won’t be lost. If a direct candidate receives far fewer votes than the second vote for his party, voters can indicate to the party that they don’t like him. On the other hand, if a candidate receives much more votes than his party, this indicates that folks from other parties like his position, if not that of the party, and might vote for the party in the future should such a position gain more weight.

    I think the prospect that the BNP and other extremist parties might send a few MPs is the weakest argument against PR. It is essentially the same argument dictatorships use: we know what’s right, so we will skew the system so that only good parties get elected. In Germany, there is a bit of debate as to whether extremist parties (which actually advocate unconstitutional positions) should be forbidden. Most haven’t been, and the general wisdom, which I agree with, is that it would do more harm than good. A forbidden party can cry “repression” and put themselves into the role of a victim and increase their sympathy (even among those who don’t agree with their policies, in accord with Voltaire’s dictum). They rarely get enough votes to send any MPs. When they do, they are usually revealed as an incompetent bunch and an embarrassment even to people who voted for them. When the next election comes, they disappear for a decade or two. In any case, there are never enough to do any harm, and if there were enough to do any harm, then keeping them out due to a skewed system wouldn’t work anyway (but would probably lead to revolution).

  16. “It does strike me as odd, that Liberal democrats are wanting to work with the Tories. Its likes Stalin getting into bed with Gandi just very odd.”

    Wow, this insults both the Tories and Gandhi at the same time! 🙂

    (Or does it insult the LibDems? I’m not sure who is Stalin and who is Gandhi in your parable.)

  17. “The Conservatives perhaps fear a perpetual LabLib coalition, but I think the current situation shows that fear is unfounded. And people will tire of coalitions just as much as political parties, so the pendulum will always swing far enough to allow a change of government, even under PR.”

    This is probably true in general. However, even if there is a perpetual coalition, that is no reason to oppose it which is any better than a dictator justifying his power as a means in itself, i.e. if he relaxed in then he would lose his power. In most countries with PR, there are changes in government about as often as there are in the UK (and anyone who talks about the number of Italian governments since WWII is talking about an exception, not a rule). There are exceptions, of course. With a pure PR system and threshold of 4% (5% is usual), the Social Democratic Worker’s Party in Sweden managed to get elected—with the same prime minister, Tage Erlander—from 1946 until 1967. Back then, elections were every 3 years, so that makes 8 elections. He stepped down in 1969 towards the end of the last term (but his party remained in power until 1976). In this case, it reflects a genuine preference in the country. The SDAP has been in power since 1932 except for 1976–82, 1991–4 and 2006–2010 even though there was no skew in the system.

  18. Let me point out that there was an election in Germany yesterday, in Northrhine-Westphalia (the state with the largest population). The two biggest parties are equal at about 34% (both posting the biggest loss in the last 50 years or so, but this is mainly due to other parties getting their share of the vote), the liberal party is stable at around 7% (compared to the last state election, but half of what they had in the national election last autumn), the Greens doubled their share to 12% and the Left party got about 6% with the rest going to various and sundry small parties with too few votes to get any seats (the biggest being the Pirate party with 2%).

    There are several possible coalitions, but one big party with one small party is not one of them. Some are politically unrealistic, so in practice the alternatives are a “grand coalition” of the two big parties or a “red red green” coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and the Left party. The former has counting against it dissatisfaction with the Grand Coalition at the national level until the last election last autumn and the fact that the only party with a substantial loss was the conservative party (CDU), dropping from 45% to 44%. While the two big parties are equal, the perception is based more on the change, with the CDU losing a big chunk of its former self (mainly due to supporters not voting at all). Another point against it is that the CDU has slightly more votes, so either one follows the tradition of having that party supply the prime minister, meaning the biggest loser would do so, or have the (slightly) junior party supply the prime minister. The latter has counting against it a fear on the part of the SPD that a coalition with the Left party would cause moderate voters to not vote for them in the next election, with no offsetting influence from elsewhere (leftist voters of course vote for the Left party). Personally, whatever one thinks of the Left party, I think they should be brought into a coalition. If it works and people realise it is not the end of the world, then debate about this can be replaced with debate about important issues. If it turns out that they are an incompetent bunch, then probably they will fade from view. In essence, the situation is the same as after the national election in 2005: there is a strong left-block majority. In 2009, a Grand Coalition was chosen, officially since the Left party was deemed to be too extreme. An objective analysis of positions, though, shows that the SPD is probably closest to the Left party. The real reason was the hope on the part of the SPD that by refusing to form a coalition with the Left party would “force” voters to vote for the SPD instead. In practice, this has not happened, and some politicians have openly said that the SPD needs to change its strategy. (I think this is bad. Democracy should be “these are my views; vote for me if you agree” rather than “what should our position be in order to maximise our results in the election”. In practice, however, it might lead to a coalition with the Left, which a) I think is good and b) which one should support even if one doesn’t favour such a government for the reasons discussed above.

    Why does this matter? Isn’t it just a state election (even though, with a population of 18 million, it has more inhabitants than most countries in Europe)? Since the upper house of the German legislature is composed of representatives of the States, this means that the ruling coalition in the lower house loses its majority in the upper house. This means that all laws requiring both houses to vote for them can be passed, if at all, only after a compromise. (As I’ve said here many times, I think this “extreme federalism” is bad, leading to blockades rather than checks and balances. There is nothing wrong with a federal structure in itself. The problems in Germany are a) some things which are state-level should be national level (for example, education and research) and b) many laws are neither national-level nor state-level, but have to pass both houses. This lames the central government (probably the intention when this allied-influenced system was set up) and leads to intransparency, since when a compromise is passed it is not clear who is responsible for what part.)

    This means that lawmaking in Germany will become more difficult. The SPD withheld its vote regarding the stabilation package for Greece (they didn’t vote against it, but didn’t vote for it), despite the efforts of the Chancellor to get as many votes as possible (though the votes of the coalition were sufficient to pass it). The main reason was that this package was not coupled with more regulation, the lack of which is the cause for the current financial crisis in the first place. Even though it was a state election, this certainly played a role in the election yesterday in Northrhine-Westphalia (especially because it was clear that a change in government there would lead to the loss of the national government’s majority in the upper house).

  19. First, let me disagree with Anton: I don’t think the Labour party deliberately encourages immigration because immigrants tend to vote Labour. (That’s not to say that some or perhaps most—definitely not all—immigrants don’t vote Labour, of course.) You didn’t say this directly, but my impression is that it was implied. Apologies in advance if I misinterpreted you. .-)

    Second, let me agree with Anton in a somewhat roundabout way. Those opposed to opposition to immigration (which is not necessarily the same as favouring immigration) often point out two things: First, immigrants tend to be young and have more children, thus ameliorating demographic problems caused by an aging “native” population and second, immigrants often contribute to the work force where “native” workers are lacking.

    I think all agree that immigrants should be integrated/assimilated/whatever into their new home. Whatever traditions they choose to keep should, at least if displayed publicly, not clash with those of their new home. (This says nothing about the relative values of such traditions; it would also be expected of an immigrant from England to Saudi Arabia, for instance (and perhaps punished by death if not adhered to).) Thus, if they become integrated, then they will have as few children as the natives for the same reasons the natives do, and hence won’t solve this particular problem (at least not in the long run without a continuous influx of immigrants). If they do solve the problem by having more children in accordance with their tradition, then they are probably not well integrated. One probably can’t have an immigrant who is well assimilated except for things which benefit the “native” population of his new home. Also, there are reasons why people today have fewer children (and no, it’s not because abortion and birth control are easier); addressing these would probably be easier and cheaper, at least in the long term, than hoping immigrants will solve the problem.

    While it might be the case that immigrants can bring skills to the workforce which might otherwise be lacking, the question arises as to whether this is the best way to solve this problem. While there might be situations where there is little alternative (i.e. many “native” people killed during a war), in most cases it is due to deficits in the educational system and/or the desire to get good work done but pay only bad wages and immigrants, especially those willing to work for less than the going rate, are a cheap if short-term solution to the problem (slavery using imported slaves is an extreme example). Also, it involves taking advantage of their home country in that this home country paid for their education to acquire the skills in question and then the new country attracts them, leaving on balance more unskilled people in the home country. Anyone who has an interest in lesser developed countries developing should work for skilled people to remain there, not work for them to leave. (Of course, in both cases the question is not forcing someone to stay or go, but rather one of incentives and in which direction they work.)

    This is not to say that immigration is bad. What I am saying is that those who are in favour of it should bring forward good arguments, rather than just arguing that immigrants are a cheap if perhaps short-term fix to problems (bad educational system, bad demographics, bad wages) of the country attracting said immigrants.

    Full disclosure: Both my wife and I come from non-EU countries and live in the EU. We didn’t come to improve our economic situation (though that has been a side effect, though we would have come and stayed had that not been the case) but rather for personal reasons, which is fine as long as a) we are well integrated and b) not a financial burden on our adopted country, both of which apply in our case.

  20. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip,

    You didn’t misinterpret me. I believe that Labour was up to exactly that.

    There is a superb essay, “The migration of ideas” by the 20th century classicist Gilbert Highet (a Scot who emigrated via England to America, which rather makes the point), which argues that different cultures can teach and learn from each other, often by immigration.

    Multiculturalism does require, however, a commitment from all the cultures involved to live together without attempting overthrow. Are we really certain we have that in Europe’s immigrant communities today?

    Anton

  21. Anton Garrett Says:

    One of the paradoxes of the way things are today is that unemployment is high but hand-harvesting of asparagus and other such crops is done by immigrants. Two generations ago, farm labourers’ unions would have been incensed. I don’t know enough about how things got this way, but I know it’s a mad mad world.

  22. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip,

    Where I prefer the German system is not PR but stronger local government. Here, about 70% of local government is paid for centrally, and he who pays the piper calls the turn.

    Anton

  23. Anton Garrett Says:

    Or even the tune, oops.

  24. telescoper Says:

    Doing a degree in Media Studies doesn’t leave enough time to work in the fields, hence the shortage of home-grown agricultural labour. And plumbers, and builders…

  25. “Multiculturalism does require, however, a commitment from all the cultures involved to live together without attempting overthrow. Are we really certain we have that in Europe’s immigrant communities today?”

    It depends on the community. As usual, the more problematic ones get more press. Actually, well assimilated immigrants don’t live in “communities”. .-) Note that Sarkozy’s father (or should I say the father of Nicolas Paul Stéphane Sarközy de Nagy-Bocsa) immigrated from Hungary, so the current French president is a first-generation immigrant (on his father’s side). That’s pretty fast integration, though he did marry a foreigner.

    Usually, most problems with immigrants occur in societies which see them mainly as a source of cheap labour, and thus have a reason not to see them integrated, at least from a short-term economic point of view. Hand in hand with this is the question whether the society actually wants immigrants (or, at least, doesn’t care where people come from) or preferes a more homogeneous population.

    In some cases, migrant farm workers are actually preferred to local labour, since the local labour supplied by the unemployment office is often, for a variety of reasons, too inefficient.

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