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A very brief further Bonkers Electoral System Update. I had forgotten (or never noticed) that the Jenkins Commission considered PFPTP, calling it ``the `weighted' vote'', but rejected it on the grounds that,
... there would be great problems if one of these vote-heavy beasts [an MP from a party underrepresented in the Commons, i.e., one who would have a relatively large voting weight under PFPTP] were to find himself in a lobby different from his party leader and whips, or worse still, if he were permanently to lumber off across the floor. There would inevitably be the most excited attempts to re-corral him. And the ability sometimes to take independent action must surely be preserved, even encouraged, if MPs are not to become party automata.
Therefore, while we respect the ingenuity and conviction with which this weighted vote solution has been put forward, we think that it would arouse more mockery than enthusiasm and be incompatible with the practical working of a parliament.
Suppose you are a political party and you have -- let's say -- 356 MPs in the Commons. Suppose further that one of these MPs considers rebelling or defecting. This makes a difference of one 356th to your power in the Commons, whether under the current FPTP system or under PFPTP. For party whips and leaders, PFPTP makes no difference to the consequences of and incentives for preventing rebellions.
It could make a difference in how different parties court MPs who intend to cross the floor; for instance, suppose that you are (say) the Liberal Democrat Party and you know that a Labour and a Conservative MP are each considering defecting to your party, but that neither will defect if the other does. If all that matters to you is votes in the Commons, you would obviously prefer the Tory to defect, since -- at the moment -- under PFPTP Tory MPs would have a larger voting weight than Labour; and so you would encourage them to desert at the cost of preventing the other from doing so. But defections are in any case uncommon and I don't believe that parties evaluate them purely in terms of their effect upon Parliamentary arithmetic.
So, as you will have noticed, unless you've been on holiday for the past few weeks or something, we have a new Labour government; depending on who you believe, it may even be a New Labour government. This government has, in the words of Geoff Hoon, been ``elected by a substantial majority in the country'', which is what in English we used to call a `minority', and that means that they're now in a position to ``[entrench] progressive politics'' in this country, which is what in English we used to call `invading things and abolishing our civil liberties'.
Now, exactly what the Labour government plan to do is up to them; their immediate plans will be announced in the Queen's Speech next week, but until then we don't know precisely what they're plotting. However, it's probably safe to say that the Prime Minister wouldn't have decided to make Andy Burnham MP a Parliamentary Under Secretary with particular responsibility for ID cards unless he plans to have another go at forcing bloody ID cards on us again.
Burnham, whom regular readers will have met here before, has such enthusiasm for ID cards that he advocates making them compulsory-to-carry; without carrying ID cards at all times, he argues, it would be impossible to ``unlock the full benefits of identity cards in fighting crime''. Benefits like, uh, sabotaging the witness-protection programme. Idiot.
Anyway, that means that the ID Cards Bill will very probably be back from the dead in this session of Parliament. The Government didn't take any notice of the responses to the consultation on ID cards or the recommendations of the Commons committee on the Bill last time round, so it's unlikely to make any substantive changes to the previous version of the Bill despite getting a fairly serious kicking from the electorate and being returned to power with the support of only a fifth of the population.
The House of Lords, which is likely to be fairly unreceptive to the Bill, cannot block it because, as Hoon says, it is a Labour manifesto commitment; under the 1945 Salisbury Convention, the Lords can't now kill it off. Of course, if the Government are minded to bring in ID cards legislation which isn't as described in their manifesto, the Lords can amend it until it is. Here is what the Labour Party have threatened us with: (from their manifesto, page 52)
The reasons why the Labour party are pursuing this scheme are, as ever, unclear. It's big, it's shiny, it's high-tech, it's expensive: a perfect new Labour scheme, some argue. Others suppose that the Home Office have been reading too much stuff from MI5 and have become terrified of terrorism; ID cards, incongruously, are imagined to be the solution. On a different tack, this perceptive article from law firm Pinsent Masons points out that,
Details of an ID Card Gateway Review, published on the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) website as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request last month, reveals that the wider ``public service'' use of the ID Card database has been an objective of Government for two years. The OGC Review, dated June 2003, states that the ID Card database ``could provide a more efficient basis for administering public services by avoiding the need for people to provide the same personal information time and again to a range of public services''.
It's rubbish, obviously. There's no reason to suppose that `the need for people to provide the same personal information time and again to a range of public services' seriously contributes to the cost of providing those services, or even to the hassle of using them. You might argue that building one central database which all the local database -- at GPs' surgeries, hospitals, benefit offices, etc. -- can refer to might save money, but actually linking all those disparate databases to another new database will probably make them more expensive to run and will certainly cost a lot of money to set up.
If this is truly what they're based on, I expect Labour's attempts to make the public services `more efficient' will be a complete disaster -- mostly of the `pissing money down the drain' variety, rather than the `killing people by accident' variety, though I wouldn't rule out the latter completely.
Anyway, if we believe this theory of What The ID Cards Scheme Is For, we should expect Labour to cling to it through thick and thin, because they believe that their credibility -- such as it is -- is predicated on efficiency-saving reform of the public services, and that those efficiency savings mean forcing everybody to have an ID card and have all their personal details and all their comings and goings recorded in the National Identity Register. Idiots.
Here is an optimistic possible scenario (``never make predictions, especially about the future''): Labour gets the Bill through the Commons; the Lords, then, by amendments render it relatively inoffensive but impotent for its -- unstated in the Labour manifesto -- true purpose. Labour resolves to force it through under the Parliament Act, but by the time they've gone through all the relevant Parliamentary hoops, their government has dissolved into 1995 John-Major-style chaos (or the economy is going down the pan or they're too busy fighting a war in Iran or whatever), and they are left unable to get the Commons to approve the Bill; the idea is dead -- for a few more years, anyway.
We will legislate to place reasonable limits on the time bills spend in the second chamber -- no longer than 60 sitting days for most bills.
which I interpret to mean that they intend to further amend the Parliament Act to reduce the extent of the delay the Lords may impose from one year to much less than that. I don't suppose that this crept in purely because of ID cards -- it's much more likely to be because Blair and cronies were so enraged by the behaviour of the Lords in trying to protect some of our remaining basic freedoms during the wretched Terrorism Act episode -- but basically this means that there will be no effective check on Labour's enthusiasm to fob off on us ID cards or any of the rest of their police state bullshit.
OK, it's time for another blatant plug, I'm afraid, and this time I'm asking for money. But it's not money for me (you are of course welcome to buy me books if you like). If, like me, you're one of those people who don't switch off the news, it may have come to your attention that life in the third world can suck pretty badly. Unlike most of us, Engineers Without Borders are doing something about this; I strongly encourage any of my half-dozen readers who can to sign up to donate £10 towards this project to fix solar panels and build clinical waste incinerators at a number of rural health clinics in Suriname. (More here on EWB's own site.)
(Of course, I'm also, completely cynically, asking you to help us test PledgeBank as a fundraising tool. Imagine us, if you like, as a bunch of heartless technocrats, exploiting others' good intentions to get some software tested for free. That's right: we're an evil dairy. But please don't let that stop you helping out.)
Robin Grant of perfect.co.uk draws everyone's attention to a meeting on Wednesday on electoral reform at the House of Commons attended by the great and the good (and, perhaps the less great and the merely adequate, though I won't try to tell you which is which):
Speakers will include Chris (Lord) Rennard (Lib Dem Campaign-Manager-guru-chap), Polly Toynbee (Guardian Columnist), Billy Bragg (singer/songrwriter and political activist) and Martin Linton MP (Chair of Make Votes Count's Labour Wing)
On the same subject, I should also draw your attention to this piece by John Quiggin on `Crooked Timber', which picks up on a related topic I've mentioned before.
And to hang a fragment of content on this otherwise fairly blatant plug, here's how the late General Election would have come out under PFPTP:
|Party||Number of MPs||Fraction of vote (%)||MP voting weight|
(For those who are just joining us and can't be arsed to read my previous post on this, PFTP, ``proportional first-past-the-post'' is a modification to Britain's current electoral system which achieves proportionality not by modifying the electoral system but by modifying the procedure of divisions in the House of Commons. Instead of getting one vote each, each MP gets a vote proportional to their party's support in the country, divided by the number of MPs in that party. Each constituent gets exactly one MP and each MP exactly one constituency, but power in the Commons is proportional to the parties' support in the country as a whole. Pedants will note that I've computed the above table on the basis of the 645 seats which have declared. In Staffordshire South the Lib Dem candidate died during the campaign; the result will be determined by a byelection later. This, if you are [un]lucky may provoke a post on how byelections should work under PFPTP, since there are several plausible answers.)
Note that despite various bizarre features of this election, none of the parties' voting weights are too out-of-whack. Lady Sylvia Hermon, the remains of the Parliamentary UUP, would get just over three votes, against a bit under six for their nemesis, the DUP. George Galloway picks up a little extra influence from a closely-fought campaign in Bethnal Green and Bow, and support elsewhere (he won about 16,000 votes, while the party as a whole got just over 68,000). Richard Taylor, as befitting a single-issue candidate in one constituency, commands rather little influence: about half a vote, less even than that of a Labour MP.
As expected, this result would mean that, united, any two of the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems can between them command a majority in the Commons; no other combination of parties can. Of course, once MPs start rebelling (the rotters!) anything could happen -- but what's new?
Update: Simon Keal (see comment, below) corrected me on the name of the Kidderminster Hospitals MP -- I had incorrectly called him Richard Thomas. Oops. He also drew my attention to the inexplicable absence of an updated plot of Anne Campbell's Parliamentary Majority. Now, arguably, as an ex-MP Anne is not a public figure and so such taking the piss is out of order, but (a) I've never been one to turn down a cheap laugh, and (b) she did vote for ID cards and the abolition of habeas corpus, so sod that:
I'm going away for a few days and so will leave you all with a few disconnected thoughts and whatnot. Firstly I should say that this means I have had to vote postally (I almost wrote `post votally', but to the best of my knowledge that doesn't mean anything). I have, of course, absolute faith that the Royal Mail won't lose my votes and that they will be counted for the candidates I intended to support. Beyond that it would be churlish not to wish the best of luck to the various candidates in the elections; but I'm in a churlish mood, so frankly they can all sod off, other than those I wouldn't mind seeing win.
(The second of those is slightly misleading in that the coloured areas are based on the electoral geography of today; but it does illustrate that neither John Major nor Margaret Thatcher would today be guaranteed a Parliamentary majority on the shares of the votes they achieved historically.)
Moving on, a quick comment about honesty, Tony Blair, and the war (inspired partly by this rant by Conservative supporter Oliver Kamm). Whether Blair lied over Iraq is now no longer a matter of fact: it is a matter of opinion. He told the House of Commons that the sporadic and patchy intelligence evidence on Iraq's `weapons of mass destruction' was in fact `extensive, detailed and authoritative'. He said that the Attorney General's advice on the legality of the war against Iraq was `very clear' in concluding that the war was legal; in fact the document is full of caveats.
So, did Blair lie? Well, he said a number of things which were not true and which he ought to have known were not true. But did he know? Could he (for instance) have mistaken patchy and sporadic intelligence evidence for extensive, detailed and authoritative intelligence evidence? Perhaps he could.
Here is a different take on the question: is it likely that Tony Blair sat down with a book or the internet and tried to establish for himself, independently, whether the story that Iraq was making chemical and biological weapons and threatening its neighbours was really in any way plausible? My guess is no: a sad oversight on his part.
On the Political Survey 2005 front, here's a plot which should tell you something useful about how politically representative the Internet is. The coloured points on the chart are the responses of YouGov's 2,059-person sample; the black contours show the positions of the 20% (thick line) and 75% (thin line) of approximately 19,000 people who did the poll on the web:
And, returning to the Election Estimation Quiz, here's an update on the relative informedness of supporters of the various political parties. A few days ago it looked as if Tories were significantly better-informed than Liberal Democrat or Labour supporters. Unfortunately this tantalisingly provocative conclusion seems to have disappeared now that we have more responses:
-- perhaps the Tories are doing slightly better, but any such effect is much smaller than the previous analysis suggested. This tells us, presumably, that cleverer Tories strike while the iron is hotter.
Anyway, that's all for now, because I have to get on an aeroplane in the fairly near future and I need some sleep before that happens. Happy voting, and I'll write something when I get back, assuming that the country is still here in a week's time.
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