Do we actually understand our parliamentary system?

There’s a general election on its way. You might have noticed, but if you haven’t: it’s on Thursday 7 May 2015 at a polling station near you, during which the 650 constituencies of the United Kingdom will elect one person each to represent them in the House of Commons.

It is worth noting that we in Britain elect a single member of parliament to represent us—we do not elect a party, neither do we elect a Prime Minister. We elect a person; and these persons subsequently group themselves together, at which point the largest of these groups forms a government.

OK, so the party affiliations of each candidate are well-known before votes are cast, but the principle stands: people often vote for someone they like even though they might not be too keen on their party. This is our system, and it has worked extremely well for quite a few centuries.

Yet some people – advocates of proportional representation in particular – don’t seem to get this. They propose that if a political party wins, say, ten percent of votes, it should be allocated ten percent of seats. First Past The Post, they say, prevents this, which is supposedly undemocratic.

There’s a logic to their argument, of course there is. It’s the logic of PR. It is also a logic that begins from a misunderstanding about our system. That is a problem. Our system is not primarily a party system. It is a system of individual, personal representation, whereby those individual MPs are accountable to their constituents—not to their party.

Of course MPs are accountable to their parties, you might say. What are the whips for if not to ensure MPs answer to their party? Sure, but their first loyalty is to their constituents. MPs are elected by their constituents, not by their parties.

I raise the point because James Kirkup has been wondering how many seats UKIP will win. He concludes that it is unfair for them to get only one percent of seats in the Commons if they have won ten percent of votes. Not only is it unfair, but it will also feed one of the resentments he believes fuels support for UKIP in the first place. Namely:

‘Ukip is at least in part an expression of anger at the system, the cosy Westminster establishment that Kippers believe colludes to ignore and frustrate their wishes and the wishes of the electorate as a whole.’

He fears that if UKIP voters notice the discrepancy, they will only become more frustrated with the system:

‘Because an electoral system that could well leave a party with 2.5 million voters holding just 2 seats in the legislature is a poison that could kill faith in representative democracy.’

He has a point. People do say that our political system is a conspiracy against the people. But if that is the case, it might be a good idea if the people had our ‘system’ explained to them. That way, they might not get so angry.

It is false to assume that an MP voted into parliament on, say, thirty percent of the vote cannot represent the seventy percent of constituents who did not vote for him or her. Representation is not an absolute. There will be times when even the thirty percent feel their opinions are not being adequately represented by the person they elected. (For example: Conservative MPs agreeing to defence cuts against the wishes of many of their voters).

But that’s the nature of politics. That’s what happens when you elect one person to represent thousands of people. They all have their own pesky point of view. That’s the problem with people: their individuality. It’s what certain celebrities playing at politics don’t realise. There is no way to represent everyone’s view absolutely in parliament. Those who think there is simply misunderstand how representative democracy works.

I am not referring to James Kirkup here. But his thought about FPTP is interesting:

‘First-past-the-post really is a conspiracy between the Conservatives and Labour against smaller rivals and against the electorate.’

FPTP certainly encourages a two-party system, even though sectarian loyalties in some parts of the country seem to refute this principle. It is indeed one of the arguments cited in favour of FPTP: that it enables strong government and an easy way to change government.

But the charge that FPTP is ‘a conspiracy… against the electorate’ is the exact same charge levelled at PR. Which one is it? It’s probably both, up to a point. But that brings us back to the original point: people not understanding our system.

We do not have PR. We have FPTP. And the main advantages of FPTP are that it enables strong government; it offers a straightforward way to change government; and, perhaps most important of all, even though I put it last, it allows us to cling to the notion that we are represented by an individual and not by a party machine.

There may be weaknesses to the system as it stands today, but there are weaknesses in all systems (as James Kirkup acknowledges). We miss the point if we simply look at the maths and deduce that our system is junk because a small party gets a higher proportion of votes than seats.

Our system is not about voting for parties. It is about voting for people. If we don’t like voting for people, and want to vote for parties instead, leaving the selection of MPs even more in the hands of parties than it is now, then fine. But let’s be clear about what we will be doing. And let’s be clear that there will be consequences, some of which we won’t like.


Conservatives win the Newark by-election

The earthquake is over apparently. The Conservative Party has won the Newark by-election and the UKIP fox has been shot for the mangy creature it is. This is the gleeful tone many are taking, and will continue to take, out of desperation that maybe their worldview is not the worldview of as many people as they thought.

The indignation that quite a lot of people are not in benign agreement with current policies concerning the EU and mass immigration is tangible. And a favourite way to attack an inconvenient presence is to construct a straw man – who cares what one does to an inanimate straw man?

In this case it is to pretend that UKIP expect to win the 2015 General Election, or at the very least win enough seats to occupy a sizeable block on the green Westminster benches. When they fail, as they surely will if this is the absurdly high bar over which they are expected to jump, the crowing can quicken and everyone can be reassured that the British people are neither racist nor xenophobic nor bigoted and that the incumbents of power were right about almost everything all along.

The thing is, straw men arguments are not real. Fabricate something your opponent says or does and then demonstrate with smug and abundant ease how they are wrong or have failed in their objective. It’s an old trick, but a favourite. As it happened, the figures, far from reassuring the Conservatives, should worry them considerably – and Labour, who won Newark in 1997. UKIP support could very well drift away, but the evidence suggests not just yet. Here are the results from the BBC:

  • Robert Jenrick (Con) 17,431 (45.03%, -8.82%).
  • Roger Helmer (UKIP) 10,028 (25.91%, +22.09%).
  • Michael Payne (Lab) 6,842 (17.68%, -4.65%).
  • Paul Baggaley (Ind) 1,891 (4.89%).
  • David Kirwan (Green) 1,057 (2.73%).
  • David Watts (LD) 1,004 (2.59%, -17.41%).
  • Con majority 7,403 (19.13%) 15.46%
  • Turnout 38,707 (52.67%, -18.69%)

I don’t know what the psephologists will make of this data. Perhaps we will be told to account for the ‘plague on all your houses’ attitude some voters assume at by-elections; perhaps we will be told that the high UKIP vote is the result of momentum which will run out before next year’s election. But whatever we are told, it is difficult to see how anyone can regard the UKIP vote, 25.9% no less, as anything other than highly significant. They polled more than Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined.

The threat posed by UKIP to the status quo has never been – and almost certainly won’t be for some time, if ever – taking enough seats to create that sizeable Westminster block, let alone forming a government. The threat is that UKIP takes enough votes to alter the outcome of the General election, or to deny one of the two major parties a majority.

And on the basis of the local council elections, the EU election and this by-election, the UKIP threat is still very much present. It might fall away, that much we should all concede not least because of our First-Past-The-Post system; but the evidence so far suggests the earthquake is not over yet, even if it remains rather low on the Richter Scale.

Politicians, presentation and the subversion of integrity

What sort of politician do you prefer: a conviction politician led by a clear sense of what is right and wrong, or a perception politician led by the public mood? Should a politician rely mostly on their political philosophy or on the deliberations of various focus groups?

Perhaps these things are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps the former is too autocratic and the latter too weak, and perhaps the best sort of politician is the one who knows what he or she believes but is not so self-obsessed as to be blind to fallibility.

These questions arise because of a recent post by Alex Massie on his Spectator blog. Labour and Conservative politicians, he writes, ‘are both wrong on the politics of the 50% rate of income tax.’ We might wonder how they can both be wrong. Surely 50% is either the right rate or it is the wrong rate? What does he mean?

The telling word here is politicsWhen various characters ask why so and so is playing politics over this or that issue, they are criticising their political opponent for not treating the issue with the impartial respect it deserves. In this context, it is a pejorative term: to play politics is underhand, ignoble and contrary to the interests of the country.

And yet politics is their game. It is what we elect them to Westminster to do, and it is a serious game that affects people’s lives. Political decisions are necessary in a civilised society: they determine the occurrence of war, the level of public services and the degree of public intervention in otherwise private matters. No-one is exempt from their effects. It just so happens that politics has two meanings: the functional process of deciding policy; and the political process of ingratiating oneself with the public.

In this example, Mr Massie is saying Conservatives and Labour have both blundered: the Conservatives because, by reducing the income tax rate from 50 to 45%, they have reinforced the wrong political message – that they look to the interests of their ‘rich chums’ first; and Labour because, by arguing for a return to the 50% rate, they are reinforcing their negative image as the tax and spend party. They are, in short, reinforcing negative stereotypes.

This is a good point. Perception really does matter. But there is another side to this. What happens if one of these positions is right: ‘right’ in the sense of being in the long-term interests of the country as opposed to the short-term interests of the party? What then? We have subordinated conviction to perception. There might be very good electoral reasons to do this, but the country has lost out. Politics, as one might say, is more than mere politics.

It brings us back to the question: what sort of politician do you prefer? Should they act in the interests of the country or their party? We could get into the circular argument that a party needs to win an election before it can implement its otherwise terrific policies, thus making a bit of politicking an essential precursor to doing good. But what if this analysis is also wrong?

We do not need much reminding that politicians have a pretty low reputation at the moment, and that this was caused by not only the fiddling of expenses but also a growing sense that they lack political integrity. How many times does a vox pop survey turn up a verdict of ‘I don’t trust politicians?’

People vote for various reasons, and perception is no doubt one of them. But in this context, perception is a negative reason to vote, especially if it is based on a set of policies that seem to contradict the overarching political philosophy of whichever politician happens to be standing before us at the time.

For Conservatives to argue for higher tax and Labour for lower tax seems to run against everything we think we know about these parties. When they start arguing for things contrary to their philosophy, it merely reinforces the thought in the public’s mind that politicians lack integrity. To the electorate, it looks like the politicians are simply gaming them. The damage done to Nick Clegg over his promise on university tuition fees comes to mind.

Mr Massie is right to attach importance to political perception, and no doubt he attaches equal importance to integrity. But there is an inevitable trade-off when political philosophy is subordinated to presentation. Political parties will always have an eye to the next election (and also think that this requires a lot of ‘politics’), but they need to ask themselves why people are reluctant to vote for them. Is it because they don’t spend enough time ‘signalling’ and combating ‘negative stereotypes,’ or because the public don’t really trust what they are being told anymore?

Four More Years for Barack Obama

So, the Obama wobble was just a ploy to raise interest in the US elections.

For a moment, during those early presidential debates, it looked as though he’d lost his mojo for power and decided law seminars at the University of Chicago were a more appealing way to spend his time. But then he went and won the election. Perhaps he knew his ground campaign, during which he targeted marginal voters in swing states, had already sewn up the electoral college, and that it didn’t really matter how much effort he put into debating Romney on TV.

But he won the election, and the 70 percent of Britons who wanted him to beat Romney, Chicago style, could go back to feeling just a little bit smug. It was almost as if their pleading for America to see sense and do the right thing had levitated across the ocean, saving those ever-so-slightly backward Yanks from themselves and the myriad sins of Republican extremism.  Vindication is sweet, and Twitter was awash with celebrities and non-celebrities declaring that the world could now heave a collective sigh of relief, as if a Romney victory would have been a victory for Sauron or Pol Pot or someone else as heinously conservative.

Not that I mind Barack Obama being elected for four more years. For now, I’m non-partisan. He, like Cameron, received a hospital pass from his presidential predecessor – debt, debt and more debt, and a broken monetary system throttling the economy after years of excess. They both deserve time, and anyone who argues that they’ve had time to turn things around is mistaken; it takes years to correct an error that was years in the making. And, more to the point for presidential elections, when looking presidential is the main thing, Obama looks the part, and nice; he has funny ears, too, like Will Smith, and when you add in the family it all seems like a pretty presidential kind of package, a bit West Wing.

It’s also worth remembering this side of the Atlantic that the Presidency is a lot different to the office of Prime Minister. One is the head of state and government, the other just the head of government. But the PM has greater power. Under normal non-coalition circumstances, the PM controls not only the executive but also the legislature, and can make laws a whole lot easier than the President. For example, he can sign staggeringly consequential treaties with organisations beyond the reach of the British electorate just because he feels like it. Can you imagine the fuss Congress, not to mention the States, would make if the President tried something like that? Quite.

If we want to know what’s going to happen next in America, we should probably ask someone who knows something about US politics, but in the meantime I have two thoughts:

First, Obama will come up against the fact that he does not control the House of Representatives. The Republicans won the House 233 to 193. That’s like Number 10 being in the hands of one party while Parliament is in the hands of the other. What gridlock; like Trafalgar Square in 2005 after the Ashes. And that’s what Obama faces in the coming weeks and months. He has a budget to get through, and if he wants to do things his way he needs the House to agree with him. How the Republicans react to not getting back into the White House will be critical. They played hardball with the 2011 federal budget, and could do so again.

Second, Obama is going to have to deal with the national debt, assuming he doesn’t find a way to keep America stumbling along until he leaves office and hands the problem to his successor. Apparently it’s now over $16,000,000,000,000. Like them zeroes? A lot, aren’t there. Per Capita that works out at about $51,000, which now I look at it doesn’t seem so bad. But I think it is bad, and that it matters, a lot. Sure, borrowing money enables investment, but keep borrowing and the markets begin to wonder if you’re good for it. It pushes up the price of that debt, which forces government to do things like suppress interest rates, which encourages malinvestment, or conjure new money from the magic money-box. And then the debt brings stagnation to the economy. Japan knows this well, and it is thought that unemployment will spike and that the stock market and asset prices will fall when the final correction takes place.

But we return to the point about the Presidency being different, and in a sense less powerful than Number 10, allowing for the relative power of the US verses little old UK. The President doesn’t say how much the Federal government spends, Congress decides that. His job is to be the Commander-in-Chief and go about looking presidential, making hopeful but ultimately empty speeches, and bringing dignity to his office and consequently to the United States. And for this, Barack Obama is admirably well suited.