World of elections (28 Mar 2006)

There is a burst of elections going on in the world at the moment – Ukraine and Israel have received a certain amount of coverage but there’s also lots happening in other places. I’ve written elsewhere about Hungary – an exception electorally, as in most other things. But last week there were also elections in two states of Australia, South Australia and Tasmania, the latter state using the Single Transferable Vote (known there as Hare-Clark). Labor returned to power in both. It is perhaps fitting to note that this is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Hare, pioneer electoral reformer and progenitor of the idea of STV. My past blog entries here have demonstrated a certain amount of support for the Grand Coalition in Germany. This feeling seems to be shared by the German electorate. There were three state elections on Sunday (a day of the week when many sensible countries hold their polls). In Baden-Wuettemberg the CDU increased its already strong representation to within a seat of overall control. In Rheinland-Pfalz the SPD scored very well and won an overall majority, and in Sachsen-Anhalt the electorate deprived the previous CDU-FDP coalition of a majority and made a local Grand Coalition the most likely outcome. Where are all the prophets of doom in the British commentariat now?...

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Godwin, PR and the Nazis (12 Jan 2006)

Godwin’s Law states that: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1. A usual corollary of the Law is that said online discussion comes to an end and the side making the comparison is deemed to have lost. I would like to extend the Law to discussions on proportional representation, because sooner or later someone starts talking about how PR brought Hitler to power, and I am heartily sick of this sordid little political libel. Let me explain. For a start, many – most – countries have used PR systems, and only one, at one specific juncture, has produced Hitler. Like analogies drawn from biology, a single case can be used to show more or less anything. Compare the devoted and selfless parenthood of penguins to the student-like lifestyle of the spadefoot toad, that sleeps most of the time, only getting up to eat and have lots of sex when the rains come to its desert homeland. Rather than making the glib comparison outlawed by Godwin, people making this case need a more elaborated account of why they link PR with the rise of Hitler. There is a tiny foothold of fact on which this edifice of supposition rests. The Nazis received a foothold in parliament in the 1920s under the Weimar PR system, as extreme parties with small levels of support sometimes do. Sometimes extreme parties remain a festering presence, as currently in Belgium under PR and France with its majoritarian system, and sometimes they fade away as in the Netherlands or Australia. The difference is less in the system than in the broad social and economic conditions of the society in which they operate, and the behaviour of the other parties. In the German case, Weimar was born under a bad sun, in the trauma of defeat and revolution in 1918-19, with at best half-hearted support outside the ranks of the social democrats. There were attempted coups in 1920 and 1923, hyperinflation and the occupation of part of the country in 1923-24 and of course the great slump after 1929. Political violence in Weimar Germany was not just a few fights at public meetings, but a simmering state of civil war, in which even the constitutional parties had private armies and the Nazis in particular used murder and terrorism to control the streets in the early 1930s. Weird and unsavoury ideas about how to restore German power were common currency in the country’s universities in the 1920s. What was remarkable about Weimar was how much relative stability and progress there was in the brief good years of 1924-29 against this background. Under FPTP, the Nazis may not have...

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Waffle is a weapon (21 Dec 2005)

Before I dipped my toe into the fetid waters of the US Congress for last week’s blog posts, I hadn’t realised quite how convoluted the US legislative process could be, and how the whole process was not just bureaucratic and complex but deliberately obscure. The point was brought home by a comment in the previous thread House of Horrors which in turn pointed to a revealing Rolling Stone article about it. When something is impenetrable and obscure, that is often not because you the reader are stupid or it is at too advanced a level, it is often because the perpetrator of the waffle is trying to hide something. An academic variant, common among people who style themselves as postmodernists, is to surround an argument with clouds of verbiage that disguises the content-free, banal or simply wrong assertions that are being made. Clarity, rationalism and enlightenment go together. As Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s brilliant book, Intellectual Impostures says: At a time when superstitions, obscurantism and nationalist and religious fanaticism are spreading in many parts of the world – including the ‘developed’ West – it is irresponsible, to say the least, to treat with such casualness what has historically been the principal defence against these follies, namely a rational vision of the world. The offences of postmodernism against clarity are as nothing compared to the US legislative process, which seems almost designed for the rulers of the House majority to benefit favoured groups such as the rich, and their donors, by hiding provisions in dark corners of the legislation. Legislation is often given a cheesy, sloganising title (like the PATRIOT Act). Or merged with completely irrelevant legislation, like putting Arctic oil drilling in the same bill that enables defence spending. Or packed with what is called ‘pork’ – essentially legalised legislative bribery for representatives’ districts or special interests. Votes on this sort of thing provides source material for mendacious campaign commercials – to object to the Alaska drilling you must risk a sliming by paid ads in the local media claiming you wanted to leave US soldiers to face the dangers of Iraq without Kevlar or boots. No doubt companies with a commercial interest in the Alaska drillng would be keen to fund such commercials. Just go and read the Rolling Stone piece. And also see the luxurious life that can be lived if you are inside the machine, for instance the millionaire lifestyle of Tom DeLay, courtesy of his donors. Britain still has much to recommend it, in that parliamentary procedures are, while sometimes complicated, at least honest and not as obscure as in the US (or governance of the EU, which also has a clarity problem). It...

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The wit and wisdom of Otto von Bismarck (14 Dec 2005)

I am currently trying to write a post about the use of obfuscation and confusion as a political weapon, and found myself reminded of Bismarck’s celebrated statement that To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making. It’s not to be found in writing anywhere in Bismarck’s papers, but various versions of the quote have circulated since. I hadn’t realised that Bismarck had also delivered a number of other statements of wry, cynical Realpolitik. He’s like a 19th Century H.L. Mencken, with the added advantage of a powerful land army. When you say you agree to a thing in principle you mean that you have not the slightest intention of carrying it out in practice. Referendum on electoral reform in the first term, anyone? As for There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children, and the United States of America. … oh, you don’t need me to comment on that one, do you?...

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Dual (duel?) candidacy (9 Dec 2005)

The Wales White Paper announces the government’s intention to end what is known as dual candidacy for the Welsh Assembly. Dual candidacy is an issue that comes up when you have two different routes into the legislature, as in MMP (AMS) systems. Should, or should not, people be allowed to stand as candidates in both a single member district and on the party’s list? The populist argument says no – that candidates who failed at constituency level should not have a ‘back door’ into parliament. In Wales it has become known as the ‘Clwyd West question’ because in that constituency three of the four defeated candidates popped up as Assembly Members because they were also on the lists. Peter Hain, in his capacity as Secretary of State for Wales, agrees. (The link takes you to the uncorrected transcript of evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons, scroll down to Q241 and following.) Hain has often been a constructive thinker on electoral issues, and has done much to promote discussion of the electoral system within the Labour Party. But on this occasion he is wrong, some of his arguments to the Committee were extremely weak and his remarks were marred by rudeness. The least defensible part of Hain’s evidence was his rude response to the work of two academics who had researched the use of MMP abroad, which was personally discourteous and also inaccurate. Peter Hain was presented with the finding from two academics that the only system similar to the one he proposed had been used in pre-Orange revolution Ukraine, and why that was the most appropriate model for Wales. Hain replied: It is not, and indeed the two academics are wrong because I researched this very carefully. The issue of dual candidacy is one that has proved controversial in many other jurisdictions that have introduced additional member systems, and there are not many that have. This is a fairly unusual system. For example, it was considered by New Zealand’s independent commission on electoral systems and two Canadian Provinces that are planning to introduce the additional member systems and are committed to banning dual candidacy. I draw from that that in those British-type parliamentary systems, New Zealand and specifically in Canada, they are committed to doing this. The somewhat gratuitous reference to Ukraine is wrong, and I suggest the academics get better researchers in the future, similar to the ones I have got. The reference to New Zealand is flat-out wrong. In 2001 their Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry (yes, a government that held an open review into their electoral system!) in New Zealand was very firm about dual candidacy – in support of the...

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The Senate of Brobdingnag (6 Dec 2005)

The United States Senate is one of the most bizarre and unrepresentative legislative bodies in the democratic world – and I say this advisedly, coming from a country where a seat can be filled by an election among four people with hereditary titles who support a particular party. Each of the 50 states of the US elects two Senators. The nation’s capital, the District of Columbia, cannot, probably because the idea of black people voting hasn’t caught on sufficiently among other legislators. Representation is unrelated to population, so that Wyoming has two Senators for its population of just under 500,000, and California has two Senators for its population of just under 34 million. The 15 per cent of the American people who live in the smallest states can command a Senate majority. Senate malapportionment is a time bomb under American democracy. The reasons that the Senate is such a problem are twofold. One is that it is an exceptionally powerful second chamber. The US Senate has effectively an equal role in the legislature to the House, and in some crucial areas it is actually more important. This makes it distinct from other malapportioned upper chambers in other parliaments (such as Australia and Germany), whose decisions can usually be overridden by the lower house eventually, as with our own dear House of Lords. The Senate can completely block a President’s nominations to the Supreme Court (and other courts), the Cabinet and other executive positions, and veto treaties. It can cut off government funds. The second is that the bias in favour of small states has systematic consequences. The bulk of the ethnic minority population lives in larger states – California, Texas and Florida notably among them. It is not accidental that the number of black Senators in US history can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The small states – Wyoming, the two Dakotas, Montana, Vermont etc – are among the least ethnically diverse places in the US. They also lack urban areas, and tend towards social conservatism, distorting the entire agenda of US public policy and even judicial philosophy. This quota system for white rural dwellers has delivered the Senate to the Republicans. The Democrats won the popular vote in Senate elections in 2000 (by 0.6%) and 2004 (by 4.8%) but the Republicans won in 2002 (by 4.1%). Cumulated, this is a 48.4% to 46.8% Democratic advantage. But instead of a thin Democratic lead the Republicans have a comfortable majority with 55 out of 100 seats. The Democrats are only viable as a Senate party because they have a number of popular individuals who can win election even in very conservative states, such as Senator Nelson of...

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