Conservatives must not redraw the map (5 Oct 2009)

Eric Pickles has proposed reducing the number of MPs. But ‘equalising’ the size of constituencies is a deeply flawed policy In his speech to the Conservative party conference today, Eric Pickles claimed to stand for “fair votes”. He did not mean an end to the first past the post system that gives all the power on the basis of under 40% of the vote and ignores votes cast outside the marginal seats. What he meant was a policy of cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 585 and a promise that “we will make all constituencies equal in voting size”. This would be accomplished in time for the general election after 2010. Cutting the number of MPs is a bit of easy populism, made even easier by the expenses scandal. It might not necessarily be a bad idea; the number of MPs should be determined by the need of constituents for representation and the needs of parliament to function well as an institution. However, the Conservative rationale is cost-cutting. It is doubtful that cutting the number of MPs will really make much of a saving in terms of public spending – after all, the same amount of constituency casework will just end up being done by fewer MPs. There is also the possibility that unless the number of ministerial jobs is sharply reduced, there will be more executive dominance of parliament than we have already. The principle that constituencies should be more or less the same size is generally accepted. The issue is how much tolerance for variation from the average constituency size one allows, and how frequently the boundaries are redrawn. Currently, the Boundary Commission allows around 10% either side of the ideal (ie 63,000 to 77,000 electors) with a bigger margin for geographically difficult mountainous or island areas. The Conservatives are talking in terms of a rigid rule not allowing more than 5% either side of the new ideal figure (77,000 after the number of MPs has been cut). To keep within this limit, boundary reviews would have to become more frequent and proceed faster than the current, admittedly ridiculous, system where the boundaries coming into force in 2010 are based on electorate figures from February 2000. Pickles appears to believe that the major cause of the pro-Labour bias in the electoral system evident in the 2005 election was variation in constituency size. This is factually untrue. Constituency size was a small component of the bias, but most arose from other factors such as low turnout in safe Labour seats. Labour’s vote is efficiently distributed, partly because of tactical voting in 1992 and partly through New Labour’s successful electoral strategy. It is quite possible that less...

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We need a better choice than AV (29 September 2009)

Gordon Brown’s manifesto commitment to a referendum on the Alternative Vote is too little, too late for electoral reformers Labour retains some shreds of its constitutional reform programme that was part of its appeal in 1997, and Gordon Brown’s speech at conference on Tuesday featured three significant promises on reform. We have the most detail on the longstanding policy of ending the absurdity of hereditary peers and introducing an elected second chamber. Another, the ability of electors to “recall” erring MPs by forcing an election, has also been trailed but is a minor and possibly dangerous concession to populism. The other announcement is a genuine surprise. The 2010 Labour manifesto will contain a promise to have a referendum early in the next parliament on one form of electoral reform, the Alternative Vote (AV). This is welcome, but can only be greeted by constitutional reformers with the very thinnest of smiles. AV is a weak reform, and the promise at this stage of something in the Labour manifesto reminds one of Hunter Thompson’s cruel simile of a candidate making promises “like a farmer with terminal cancer bargaining for a loan on next year’s crop”. Even if Labour’s malaise enters spontaneous remission and Brown is still Prime Minister a year from now, this is pretty mild fare. The Alternative Vote (AV), which Gordon Brown has come to support, is a simple reform. The current system asks voters to mark an X by a single candidate (implicitly saying that the voter opposes the other candidates in equal measure). Under AV, voters choose their favourite candidate with a 1, next favourite with 2 and so on. If no candidate gets a majority of 1 votes, the 2 votes for the lowest-placed candidate are taken into account, and so on until someone gets to 50%. Nothing else changes – constituencies will be exactly the same. AV is simply an accommodation of the present system to circumstances where two thirds of MPs are there despite a majority of their local voters having voted against them. The electorate clearly no longer believes that a choice of two parties is adequate. AV broadens political choice a bit, makes tactical voting much less significant, and encourages a more honest and pluralistic relationship between large and small parties. To win marginal seats under AV, a party will need to build bridges with supporters of local minority parties and not pretend to have all the answers. Additionally, AV is probably the most extremist-proof electoral system ever devised, as – other than people who support the party – most voters will make sure the BNP is ranked last on their ballot. AV is not perfect by any means. By the same...

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BNP’s Euro success should not shut door on voting reform (9 June 2009)

The two electoral systems most widely discussed for Westminster are both less likely to elect extremists than first-past-the-post As the dust settles on the county and European election results, one can take stock of what they mean for the parties and politics over the next year and in the long term. The county elections are probably the more accurate measure of what might happen in the next general election, because they use the same electoral system and the considerations people have in mind when choosing their vote are more similar. The county results point to the Conservatives being substantially ahead and in a position to win the next general election, although they have less of a margin of comfort than they did last year, when they were 43-23 ahead of Labour in national vote share, rather than this year’s 38-22. While Labour’s vote collapsed, the Conservative vote has been gently drifting downwards. It is too easy to dismiss the Euro results as a freakish curiosity: while voters perhaps behave oddly in European parliament elections, the results can be consequential and indicative of future trends. The 1979 European election produced a Conservative landslide, and the campaign was marked by ludicrous Labour infighting, a prelude to the divisions and disaster of the next four years. In 1984 Neil Kinnock proved that Labour was not dead, and in 1989 Labour inflicted Margaret Thatcher’s only defeat in a national election. It was the first pillar of her rule to crumble; a botched reshuffle, the resignation of the chancellor and a stalking-horse challenge followed by the end of the year – and in 1990 she was out. The 1989 election was also interesting for the 15% of the vote for the Greens, and the Conservative tilt to Euroscepticism. In 1994, John Major did not do quite badly enough to trigger a leadership challenge. In 1999, the Conservatives’ win, and the vote for Ukip, helped take joining the euro off the agenda, and the low turnout and strong vote for smaller parties was a sign of what was to come, confirmed by the fragmentation of the vote and the weak performance by both main parties in 2004. The 2009 European elections will surely be notable for more than confirmation of existing trends away from the two (or three) principal British political parties. The pre-eminent fact is the astonishingly low Labour share of the national vote, at 15.8%. Winning at the last general election in 2005, with 36% of the British vote on a 61% turnout, showed that Labour was on thin ice. Euro 2009 may be an important point on a long-term declining trend in Labour’s vote and vote share that has only been briefly...

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The perks of bonuses (16 February 2009)

Attacking bonuses earned by bankers is counterproductive: they need and deserve incentives to save the UK economy Bonuses are supposed to be paid on the basis of the performance of the company (or in this instance, bank) and the employee in the previous year. This simple fact seems to escape the attention of a lot of people who talk about City pay. I know a little bit about it because, to coin a phrase, some of my best friends are bankers; take this declaration of interest into account by all means, but do not dismiss the argument for that reason. Bonuses are convenient for employers because they do not create open-ended commitments or affect other payments such as, for instance, redundancy. Banks employ many people who are neither tellers at branches nor the executives who made all the errors, but whose trading and sales expertise can make a large difference to the fortunes of the institution. For most of these people, bonuses were neither windfalls nor tips, but actually served their purpose as incentives to work hard. Any fool can make money in a rising market, but it takes skill and commitment to make money when the going gets tough, and over-performing in a bad market is probably one of the most bonus-worthy achievements there is. The semi-nationalised Lloyds Banking Group, created in January 2009 from Lloyds TSB and Halifax Bank of Scotland (HBOS) is in a particularly strange position. Shortly after the merger was announced, samizdat images started circulating around the City. Howard, star of Halifax’s television commercials, was depicted doing something unmentionable to the black horse of Lloyds. Lloyds is the one institution that did not fail itself but been dragged down by helping the whole sector, and the government, out of a tight spot by taking over HBOS, Lloyds TSB generated about £1.3bn in profits in 2008, compared to losses of £8.4bn at HBOS. David Cameron declares that Lloyds staff should be restricted to a figure, £2,000 (which, after 41% ends up with the exchequer, amounts to £1,180), which he has plucked from the air. Cameron can probably afford to tip the waiter £2,000 after dinner, thanks to his inherited family wealth, estimated by the Sunday Times Rich List at over £30m. It seems perverse that regardless of individual performance, City workers should have their pay dictated by a preposterous political auction about who can be harshest to the wicked bankers. Meanwhile, taxation of inherited wealth appears to be on the way out. I would not mind so much if this were a shift from market capitalism to egalitarian socialism – but this is more like a regression to feudalism. Politicians of all parties boasted for...

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Labour has designs on the City (7 February 2009)

The 2009 City of London elections will, for the first time, be contested on a party basis. Does Labour stand a chance? Labour launched its 2009 local government election campaign on 4 February. This was not a ridiculously early start for the county council elections in June – the elections for the common council of the City of London are in March. The date is not the only weird aspect to the City elections. It is a unique local authority, in that its 9,000 or so residents share the right to vote with businesses. Labour expanded the franchise in 2002 so that a certain number of City workers, as well as business owners, have the vote. The City has 25 wards, with old-fashioned names like Cordwainer and Candlewick, electing 100 members of the common council. Most of the resident population is concentrated in three wards, with the other 22 having mostly business voters. City government is probably best described as a benevolent dictatorship. The City of London Corporation (CLC) is, despite its medieval pageantry and layers of tradition, a modern and efficient local authority which runs high quality local services and deals well with its extraordinary task of catering for about 300,000 workers who flood in and out every weekday as well as its small resident population. It also has several legacy roles such as landlord of social housing well outside its borders, and custodian of Hampstead Heath and Epping Forest, which are also by and large carried out with unobtrusive efficiency. The CLC is at the centre of a quiet, discreet network of power and influence. It is taken very seriously nationally and internationally when it speaks on behalf of the financial sector – it was a crucial voice for the long-delayed Crossrail project, for instance. Despite the current woes of the financial sector, it still looms large in the calculations of the future of London and the British economy. However, a lot of the elected element of City government is opaque rather than transparent; some members of common council have but the most tenuous connection with the present life of the City, and old boy networks and Buggins’s turn play more of a part in City government than in most provincial backwaters. Despite having more “elected” representatives than anyone else in Britain, the inhabitants of the City face something of a democratic deficit. The 2009 elections will be the first time that any City elections have been contested on a party basis. Up until now, candidates have stood as independents and very often, particularly in the business wards, there have not been contested elections at all. Labour’s six candidates are therefore making a little bit of history....

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