Category Archives: Elections

Final thoughts on voting, non-voters and elections before results are finalised

A few weeks ago I decided, against the advice of friends and family, not to vote at this General Election and I managed to stick to that vow. I have written at this blog about my reasons for abstaining, but to summarise, I mistrust both major parties and their leaders, the election was called to allow the Tories to extend their lead over weakened opposition and I live in a safe, Leave-voting seat extremely unlikely to be toppled by Labour.

Obviously, a part of me wanted to take part. My polling station is but a five-minute walk from my home. The polling card I was sent on Tuesday is still leaning against my television as I type, almost guilt-tripping me into feelings of wrongdoing. But in good conscience, I did not wish to. There is something very slavish about the voting process that is especially magnified when one lacks enthusiasm for all of the available, balloted candidates.

As a non-voter at this election, I wanted to rebut three of the more ludicrous claims that have been made, particularly today, about the vote. They are certain clichés that are recycled every polling day, but that nonetheless linger despite being so profoundly false. I then want to slip in a few final thoughts about improving elections, turnout and predictions ahead of tonight’s result. I should note that this blog has been written partly before and partly after the emergence of tonight’s exit poll.

Non-voters surrender their right to complain

Of all the nonsensical remarks made by the sad individuals who spend polling day pressuring others to vote, none is more irritating and wrong than the argument that non-voters cannot complain about their future political environment or public policy.

The first reason for this is that voting is not by any means the only way to express your views or mobilise politically. In fact, for large portions of the country living in safe seats, it is scarcely a way. Other, very good avenues through which a person can become active and influence the political landscape might be through think tanks, research, trade unions or protest.

Can we really say that a highly active political person, who falls outside the traditional spectrum and thus does not support establishment parties, does not have a right to complain despite engagement in other relentless forms of campaigning and activism? Furthermore, this cliché ignores the reverse: that the reason many do not vote is precisely because they have no party to vote for. Are these people not entitled to a moan? There are plenty of them.

We don’t elect all kinds of bodies and individuals who represent our national institutions. We don’t elect judges, public servants or Lords. Does this mean that, upon their occasional incompetence, we are not allowed to deride and moan about them? I fail to see how the absence of a personal vote equates to limits on that individual’s speech.

It is perfectly plausible that complaints from non-voters, especially those with influence such as academics, may actually help in their complaining to form constructive solutions to difficult problems. I would also add that common reasons for not voting have nothing to do with disinterest. Often, health or scheduling issues may conflict with access to a polling station.

I don’t want to set a complaints threshold. I am not going to say: ‘Only taxpayers can moan about flaws in public policy’, because I think children have the right to moan about injustices and failures at school and in their local communities. The truth is that targeting non-voters (who may live in seats rendering their votes unworthy of effort) as individuals who need to be silenced instead of contributing to debate is a very flawed idea indeed.

Britain fought wars to defend the right to vote

Can anybody name a war in which British troops were explicitly fighting to defend the right to vote? I certainly can’t think of one. A quick examination of any of our country’s more notable conflicts over the last century or more will induce the sensible to conclude that votes were no factor in our military pursuits. Brave men and women have always fought, and continue to fight, for liberty and to resist unjust oppression. These are the necessary motives for war, not protecting or winning any kind of vote. I am not sure why people constantly spread lies like this.

If by ‘war’ we mean suffrage, then that is at least more accurate, if a little misleading. Men in the early 1900s (whose suffrage is always mysteriously forgotten) and women in the late 1920s did indeed fight for the vote, but through domestic mobilisation and pressurising of political institutions. Certainly not on any battlefield.

Abstaining is unjust as other countries do not have the vote

Many countries, it is true, do not have public elections, but it is important that we clarify what we mean by countries that ‘do not have the vote’. The United States, for instance, holds quadrennial elections that the public are able to vote in, but does not constitutionally enshrine any explicit right to vote.

There are also countries in which voting is mandatory, such as Egypt, Lebanon and North Korea. Regardless of the appeal (or lack thereof) of candidates, or of the views of individuals, citizens are legally obliged to cast a ballot every few years. Furthermore, there exist countries that hold elections at municipal and not national levels, or in tier-based systems. Saudi Arabia and China are good examples of countries that operate these respective systems.

But I do not see why the existence of less democratically organised countries provides any moral reflection of abstentionism in countries that do allow their citizens to vote. It is not our business to decide upon the running of other countries as much as we would appreciate not allowing the influences of others dominate the way we govern our own. If citizens in oppressive regimes demand more voting rights, then those opportunities must be fought for at the bequest and approval of the affected population.

If we look for a moment in countries that restrict voting participation or refuse to hold elections altogether, we notice that these practices go on in un-free countries. I would ask the voting zealots to remember that as well as craving votes, many citizens in these countries would also appreciate the freedom not to vote (and hence legitimise the leaders that they despise).

Spoiled ballots ‘None of the above’ option

Why do people spoil their ballot papers? It is the most ridiculous waste of time and I have never understood why folk bother doing it. I was actually informed by a colleague this week that standing candidates are actually shown and read all spoiled ballots, which I found quite amusing (though I didn’t independently verify that it was true).

One interesting idea that I do think people should pay more attention to, though, is that of a ‘none of the above’ option on electoral ballot papers. I believe that if enough of the electorate opted for such an option, say 25% of voters, then an election ought to be declared void and is re-started with new leaders and new manifestos. I do not know if such an idea would cause massive political instability, but it would certainly provide shelter for the disillusioned.

The youth and voter turnout

Last night, I put a bet on with Ladbrokes that voter turnout would fall between 60-65%. I still imagine that this is the case, as I think that post-referendum fatigue may have caused many people to stay at home and not both today. ‘Brenda’, infamously interviewed by the BBC outside her house a few weeks back, captured this mood excellently by asking: “Why are they asking us again, can’t they just get on with it?”

Public figures, usually trendy liberal lefties and rich celebrities, once again tried their best to rally the young at this election. Their mannerisms are often so patronising. I wouldn’t mind so much if these people were honest, and openly asked youngsters to cast a vote for the Labour Party. That would at least be a little more sincere. The young may have turned up in surprising numbers today but it will be a while before we have any evidence. I suspect youth turnout was, as is customary, proportionally low.

The freedom not to vote and marginalisation

It is worth remembering that the freedom not to vote is very important. It was not protected by any of the nation’s wars, but it remains a useful method of political protest. The freedom not to vote is imperative purely because it allows members of the public to refrain from voting in instances where all balloted candidates propose policies and espouse views that they personally disapprove of.

I am actually developing a rapid dislike for the term ‘marginalised’. It is overused in political discourse. But, for social and moral conservatives such as myself, as well as other narrowing sects of the population, marginalisation is something we are experiencing. And I see no end to it.

Many who do not vote choose not to because they feel that in doing so, they would be fuelling a consensus or knot of parties with whom they have fundamental disagreements; thus bringing upon themselves further disenfranchisement. In this regard, not voting can be just as powerful and as telling as voting.

 


Terror is not a reason to suspend political campaigning

It is especially disheartening that Paul Nuttall’s most worthwhile contribution to this General Election campaign has been to refuse to cease political campaigning in the wake of Saturday’s London Bridge attack. Though occasions in which I find him even mildly impressive are rare.

But he is right that the country should not have to routinely disrupt its democratic procedure all thanks to the unfortunate and unsurprising persistence of jihadism in our society. Especially when polling day is just days away (perhaps it is me, but the whole thing seems to have gone very quickly indeed).

It is of course important that, for the sake of rebuilding broken spirits and reminding ourselves of the good in humanity, efforts to commemorate and remember those who have lost their lives are made. Sometimes, a period of reflection and deep thought is useful.

But these things can be achieved independently of the campaigning of political parties. Most of us do not leave our charity at the door even in times of intense political contestation. Politicisation of tragedies, I have noticed especially amongst my generation, tends to be met with the scorn that it deserves.

What interests me far more, however, is the modern obsession with suspending our daily activities in response to mindless terrorism. This is particularly apparent in the midst of political campaigning, arguably an innately more vulnerable time for the country as it is a more politically-sensitive and reactive period.

This, the country that dealt with the menacing embrace of the Luftwaffe, now appears to want to scurry about in useless panic, desperately cleaving to whichever platitude it can offer in order to make us feel better about ourselves. Well, without meaning to sound crass, I don’t think platitudes are helping anybody. Especially not those most affected.

So, why do we suspend political campaigning? Is it a mark of respect? I don’t see how. All we do is afford jihadists and those waiting to follow in their footsteps more airtime than they perhaps warrant. Candles, prayers, bouquets and momentary unity are more than enough. The democratic process need not suffer too.

Terrorism is, if we remember, politically motivated. It feeds off the cameras, the alarm and the inevitable changes to public policy that serve only to further slice away at British liberty. I am trying carefully not to pen the very slogans that we have all become so tired of hearing over the last couple of years.

Indeed, there is something to be said for preserving most what the terrorists crave to bring down. Even more so when it is as precious and as (often) irrecoverable as freedom itself. This is why I am suspicious of renewed support for internment of our enemies in Britain.

It was tried in Northern Ireland not too long ago and proved a powerful recruiting agent for the Irish Republican Army. It is also a fundamental violation of Habeas Corpus, perhaps the most profound symbol of freedom ever marked by the country. I think there are better responses at our disposal (I will be exploring internment at this blog soon).

And shutting down the British election certainly oughtn’t to be one either. If anything, the magnitude of the terror threat we face demands an intensifying of political campaigning, not an easing of it. The country deserves to know what our potential leaders plan to do to help the situation, especially before such a time that they have been elected.

As I sit here and think about Thursday’s election, of Manchester Arena and of London’s blood-stained streets, I find it unfathomable that combating terror has not played a more significant role along the campaign trail.

Issues like police cuts have rightly been raised, and Jeremy Corbyn has been quizzed on his opposition to renewing Trident, but that has been the extent of security discussion. I am appalled by this. It is as if our leaders have no answers or are frightened to voice them. How has such an issue escaped political discourse? I fear the country will regret the relative silence of its leaders at this General Election.

And the more we suspend party politics, presumably to appease victims who are in no way enamoured by our doing so, the louder the silence grows.

 


The right to smoke does not equal the right to vote

It is striking to me that Theresa May has said something so straightforwardly sensible in reaffirming her wish for the voting age to remain at 18. I had always been under the impression that, given the dwindling interest in voting and sharp decline in participation over the years, politicians would be looking to 16 and 17 year olds to help beef up turnout by now.

She needn’t have bothered trying to rally the youth ahead of this election. Mrs May doesn’t exactly possess the charm that Nick Clegg displayed in attracting the youth vote during the 2010 General Election campaign, when he promised to scrap tuition fees upon getting into government.

The Tories would have just as much success rebranding themselves as the British Communist Party. Young people consistently show Left wing, liberal biases, and remain far more at home in the Labour Party or Liberal Democrats, at least until they enter the world of work and become taxpaying citizens.

I do enjoy the usual string of arguments deployed by those in favour of lowering the voting age. Especially humorous is the idea that because 16 and 17 year olds can smoke or drive they ought to be offered the vote in order to align rights with responsibilities.

Smoking and driving do not have anywhere near the impact upon public policy that voting can have, and 16 and 17 years by and large do not have the wisdom or knowledge that older voters do. Many will vote according to their parents’ biases, and not on the backs of independent thought or comparison.

It is at least a reminder that we don’t really have any coherent societal position on what exactly our ‘rights’ are. Of course, I appreciate the nuances in this argument. A 17 year old who turns 18 in July of this year might contend that he or she doesn’t lack the wisdom or knowledge of somebody a month older, and that person would probably be right.

But we need to draw lines somewhere. If we extend this argument, we can quite reasonably ask why 15 year olds ought not to be given the vote straight afterwards. It is a bottomless pit that creates nothing but problems and is never forwarded consistently.

The Prime Minister is, though, right when she claims that there are plenty of other ways to become active in politics, though the examples she gave (youth parliaments and councillors) were horrendously uninspiring. I myself used the lure of the summer’s referendum to do so, and with great personal benefits.

Most democratisation has absolutely nothing to do with government. It is arguably the workplace that is in most need of a little more democracy, since that is where adults spend most of their daily lives. I have been encouraged, for instance, by the slow growth in worker owned cooperatives in tiny pockets of the west.

Germany and Denmark operate thousands of successful, communal energy cooperatives, with many able to invest in renewable sources without the clouds of political forces hanging over their heads. A large network of worker owned enterprises has shielded Mondragon, in Spain’s Basque region, from the worst of the country’s economic hardship.

The vote often achieves very little in the way of democratisation. This is particularly so when a largely uncaring base are offered it. On the 11th November 2016, Darragh O’Reilly, a Northern Irish member of the UK’s Youth Parliament, laughably claimed in a parliamentary sitting:

“I tell you this: votes at 16 is no one-trick pony. It is nothing short of handing young people the freedom to achieve freedom. The freedom actually to fund the NHS. The freedom actually to have a decent transport system. The freedom to tackle racism.”

His statement was an enjoyable soundbite and I admire his genuine passion, but his view is baseless and most his age simply aren’t politically enfranchised. And of course no emotive political statement would be complete without a reference to the National Health Service.

Just like most other proponents of lowering the voting age, he dressed up its importance to be something other than what it actually is: a gimmick. If a genuine campaign were to emerge proposing to allow 16 and 17 year olds in the Armed Forces alone the vote, then I would be much more interested (and likely to agree).

Until then, Theresa May is correct to ensure that the voting age stays where it is. Britain is a one-party state and appears to have entered its second era of Tory dominance in the past forty years.

And 16 year olds aren’t about to change that.


Immediate reflections on 2017’s General Election

I suppose it made sense in the end, in spite of Mrs May’s repeated claims that there would be no early General Election. Polls were warning us for weeks that it might happen, and those warnings were only growing sterner.

And let us not pretend that the Prime Minister needed yet another mandate in order to carry out Britain’s departure from the European Union; we had a clear enough one already to those who bother to pay attention.

This decision was fundamentally, and shrewdly, party political. But it could turn into a whole lot more than that. Since Brexit is now the hallmark of British politics, I expect the upcoming campaign to be a proxy; a second referendum of sorts.

But, more than that, yesterday’s announcement from Michael Crick may have been just as important. The Crown Prosecution Service, he wrote, will investigate up to 30 Conservative MPs for electoral fraud at the 2015 General Election.

I think this will have played a role in forming Theresa May’s decision to hold a quickfire election. Her advisors are acutely aware of proceedings, and presumably, if the CPS’ investigation had led to the sacking of up to 30 Tory MPs, an election would have been thrown together anyway.

And so, regardless of the motive, we have another General Election on June 8th. I have mixed feelings towards elections. I find election night immensely thrilling to watch unfold, but there is no denying that these events are merely public relations extravaganzas.

In particular, I am dreading the prospect of listening to the Liberal Democrats droning on about remaining in the European Union for the next eight weeks, though of course, it would be wise from en electoral perspective for them to do so.

If they mobilise effectively, and their rapid membership growth since yesterday morning’s announcement suggests they may, the Lib Dems could use this year’s election to become the government’s co-opposition, or in the case of an almighty shock, the opposition.

Yesterday a colleague and I tried to find betting odds on the Lib Dems winning more seats than Labour in June, but we could find no such market. I wonder if one will open in the coming weeks, and whether or not it would be worth a punt.

For the record, I think the Liberal Democrats will do extremely well. By leading a policy of Brexit reversal, they garner the attention (and many of the votes) of many millions upset with the direction the country is headed in.

This snap General Election is the last obstacle in between Brexit voters and what they desire most. It is therefore imperative for them to support the party most willing to secure the very things the country wanted to reclaim control of last June.

Since the Tory Party (and the Tory Party alone) fills this bracket, I shall be voting for the Conservatives on June 8th. I am politically unaligned and have been for much of the year, but this election is the last port of call for those desperate to rally behind Brexit.

As far as the Labour Party is concerned, I think we should first give Jeremy Corbyn credit for sticking by his word and accepting the challenge of a snap election. Of course, he won’t win, but who in his position would lead Labour to victory?

I have for some time thought that Yvette Cooper, known for her tremendous parliamentary performances, might have been a far better candidate to lead Her Majesty’s opposition. Corbyn is a good politician, but a hopeless leader.

Labour members ought to be worried. Most polling and local election results suggest that they will take significant hits come June, but their worry should not necessarily be triggered by the Tories.

For the first time since the early 1980s under Michael Foot, the Labour Party is in very real danger of losing its status not only as opposition, but as the party of working people.

The Lib Dems, who appear much more organised and viable an opposing party, have a chance to leapfrog Labour at this election. And their members know it. Through talking to Lib Dems, as I have been, I have found the sense of optimism striking.

My one fear is that they win enough seats to make up for Labour losses in rural England that they are able to thwart a Tory majority. I don’t think this will happen, as a weakened SNP in Scotland may allow Ruth Davidson to take more marginal seats, but it is indeed a possibility.

I would also draw the attention of readers to two other interesting political developments that may have a significant impact on this summer’s election.

First, 2018’s boundary changes (which I had forgotten about entirely until I was reminded of them on Facebook last night) are a potential problem for the Conservatives. ‘Holding off until 2020 would allow the Tories to take advantage of boundary changes that come into force in 2018’, writes Will Heaven yesterday in The Spectator.

Secondly, the prominence of Sinn Fein ought not to be ignored. The Tories have always benefitted from a useful Democratic Unionist Party contingent in parliament, and they will regret the number of DUP MPs falling.

These are my most pertinent thoughts on this election. My vote, as a matter of supporting Britain’s exit from the EU, will go to the Tories, and I should expect them to win a majority. But I will keep a beady eye on the Liberal Democrats.

 


Nicola Sturgeon needs a legacy-defining moment, but won’t find one in independence

Realising that she has become the only major British politician without a legacy-defining moment, Nicola Sturgeon’s demands for a second Scottish Independence referendum are once again doing the rounds. This recognition must be especially difficult for her to stomach, since she came very close in 2014 to causing the biggest constitutional disruption to the United Kingdom in its history, only to be defeated two years later by an equally significant referendum result on our membership of the European Union.

In my view, Mrs Sturgeon has been hypocritical in her approach to both referenda. If independence was her goal, then an important step towards achieving that would have been securing a Leave vote back in June. The unfortunate contradiction in The SNP’s position on sovereignty is that, for it to reach the jurisdiction of Holyrood, it must first filter through Brussels, which, of course, isn’t sovereignty at all. This is perhaps one of the reasons for Ruth Davidson’s surge in popularity over the last twelve months. She is at least more believable than Scotland’s current First Minister, who doesn’t seem to be able to tell the difference between countries ‘working together’ and the ceding of parliamentary sovereignty.

Her rehashed insistence upon Scotland becoming independent is at least partly down to a feeling that she has been left behind, ostracised from considerable political change taking place around her. It is well known that politicians are vain, and there are good reasons for this. They must have the belief and self-assurance that they can enact important change and steer the country on a new course. It is not a job for the light-hearted. Mrs Sturgeon, coming off the back of two, humiliating referendum defeats, is desperate to reclaim some of the spotlight, and for her to have any truly meaningful political legacy, she simply must be able to persuade Scots to vote to leave British union.

Without seismic victory (and no, The SNP claiming a vast majority of Scottish seats at the last General Election is not enough), she will go down as a noisy loser, who talked the talk but who was, in the end, unable to walk the walk. I should say that in principle I understand the desire for independence. As somebody who considers himself a prominent and fairly central Leave campaigner last year, anybody should be intrigued by the opportunity for their country to govern itself. The question, though, is on what terms independence will be delivered.

Even after the country’s historic EU vote, I do not think that Scottish people will vote for a cessation of Britain’s union. The economic case for doing so will have been immensely weakened by a shocking fall (only partially recovered) in the value of oil in the 18 months following 2014’s initial Scottish Independence vote, and by a weakened pound, cited by Remain voters incessantly as evidence that the Brexit vote was a mistake.

I also think that Scottish people have been made aware of The SNP’s rather cynical obsession with membership of the European Union, which, unlike Westminster, seeks to further integrate legislative power and remains opposed to any real devolution. This should act as a warning to Scots who are told that upon leaving the United Kingdom, Scotland will seek to re-establish itself as merely another EU province, only this time, lacking the presence that it had as part of the UK and faced with enormous pressure to abandon its currency and adopt the Euro.

So I think that Mrs Sturgeon should be careful what she wishes for. She is undoubtedly a talented politician, catching eyes during the televised leadership debates in the lead up to the 2015 General Election. But what she is not is a figure that has made an impressionable mark upon British politics. Yes, she has provided Scottish nationalists with an avenue through which they can pursue their patriotic utopia, but her insistence that she can change the political weather (almost Trumpian in nature) and take advantage of Brexit will not inspire like she may think it will. She can rustle feathers in Westminster all she likes, and between now and the next Scottish Independence referendum she will, but inevitably her vision for a Scotland detached from the United Kingdom will not be realised. And I think her desperation suggests that she knows this.

 


What to do with the House of Lords

The following blog post is a plea to journalists, activists and politicians. The country has entered a period of intensifying debate over the future of its Upper House, and this proposal (not solely forwarded by me) must feature in the argument. If readers support the idea, then please email a link to this piece to your local MP.

I am getting tired with repeatedly seeing fresh calls for the abolition of the House of Lords, or with demands for the second chamber to be an elected one, so I want to use this blog to help push forward a proposal for real Upper House reform; the kind not being discussed by the very people who would appreciate and support it most. I will present a case against abolition of Westminster’s Upper House entirely (with particular emphasis on the dangers of a possible referendum), a case against electing the House and a case for a system of citizen juries, known more formally as sortition.

The first thing that needs to be said about this new wave of anti-Lords sentiment is that, were it not triggered by Britain’s EU withdrawal, it would not exist in such vitriolic form. Politics, as I feared post-referendum, has become a battleground entirely transformed by the Brexit vote. The public is now viewing issues from the perspective of its referendum camp, which has resulted in a skewing of objectivity. The Lords debate is not the only evidence of this, either. By-elections, too, such as that of Richmond, are being manipulated according to how voters voted in last summer’s poll, and results are being translated in the same fashion. I hope, therefore, by writing this and avoiding EU-related tribalism, I will present a reasonable case (though likely untenable at the present time) for radical reform of the Upper House.

 

Why we shouldn’t abolish the Upper House

Without meaning to condescend, I believe that much of the anger of the abolitionists is down to short delays to the Brexit process and not principled opposition to the House itself. The public were told many months ago that March 31st would be the deadline by which Article 50 was triggered. I don’t think anybody remotely sensible ever thought that this would be over quickly, given its obvious constitutional magnitude.

I also think the reactionary behaviour of Leave voters is dangerous because they fail to present us with a viable alternative or safety mechanism. They simply say: ‘Abolish the Lords!’, without proposing any legislative reform or telling us either what will come in its place, or how the Commons and its operations will adjust to being the sole source of law-making in the UK. Overzealous reformers can sometimes, as problems in our education system show, be the obstacle to positive progress. 

Those calling for the abolition of the second chamber should remember, firstly, that due to timetabling restrictions, the House of Commons often has to rely on the Lords to introduce smaller bills. Commons ‘sessions’ do not manage to get through all proposed legislation, so the second chamber plays a useful role in introducing Bills which would otherwise be forgotten about. In the 1983-87 parliament, for which we have easily accessible data, the House of Lords introduced 88 Bills[1] out of the 209 tabled in total. It may be argued, therefore, that the Upper House often speeds up the legislative process, despite popular allegations to the contrary. Readers may like to give the current table of Bills a glance. Please pay particular attention to those with [HL] in their titles. This means that the relevant Bill was introduced in the second chamber. I would put it to those calling for the Lords’ heads that, if they got their way, legislation beneficial to their interests may be slowed, ignored or not introduced to parliament at all.

Unicameralism, for good reason, is not anywhere near as common as bicameralism across international legislature[2]. Another reason why this is so could be down to harbouring appropriate scrutiny of government. Those who take a look at the map provided will quickly note that some of the most authoritarian countries in the world, such as Iran and China, opt for systems that do not allow for the executive to be held to account. I acknowledge, also, that many civilised and democratic countries appear in the list of unicameral legislatures, but thorough examination tells me that most are either rife with corruption or authoritarian in nature. Part of the reason for this could be a lack of monitoring of government operations, and so I think that Britain benefits from having strong measures of scrutiny throughout its parliamentary process. The Lords have also shown unity with public opinion on many occasions, proving their worth when voting on major changes to the law. Halting George Osborne’s tax credits plan, showing their support for same-sex marriage and voting against Blair’s anti-terrorism legislation are three such examples. As James Forsyth wrote in ‘The Spectator’ recently, “the House of Lords has a strong self-preservation instinct: it knows its limits.”

 

The absurdity of a referendum

If readers recall, the last time we held a referendum on substantial change to Britain’s constitution, we found ourselves stuck in the position we are currently in. Delays, anger and confusion have become the three pillars of British politics. Referendums require Bills, and Bills require filtration and inspection, so I doubt that those sitting in the Upper House would be convinced that a simple national poll is provision enough for major constitutional change.

Referendums are a fun exercise of direct democracy (not because people vote, but because they get to decide themselves on an issue rather than hoping somebody else will), but they aren’t usually congruent with the constitution, as the incessant delays and stoppages attached to Britain’s departure from the European Union illustrate. Referendums are, by their very nature, simplistic and often binary. In their make-up, they ignore the nuances that become apparent after votes for change are cast.

 

Why we shouldn’t elect the Upper House, either

I hear constantly the term ‘unelected’ being used pejoratively. This is primarily because the public has been conditioned, after many years of propaganda by politicians and parties, to conflate ‘democracy’ with ‘elections’. I will delve further into this at some point in the future, but democracy, firstly, predates elections, and secondly, most democratisation has absolutely nothing to do with government (see, for instance, the introduction of the daily newspaper in the early to mid 19th century).

There are three main reasons why electing members of the Upper House is a bad idea. The first concerns general voting patterns, marginalisation and plummeting turnouts. I would at this point ask the reader to consider, hypothetically, that the UK is about to hold a national Upper House election. What do you think voter turnout would be? European elections in Britain have historically produced very poor turnouts[3]. Turnouts at General Elections have for very many decades been on the decline[4]. What makes anybody think that voter turnouts would be anything other than miserable? I don’t, myself, see a scenario in which voter turnout for Upper House elections reaches even 30%. Low turnout is important because we are told that the purpose of elections is to provide those in power with a mandate.

My suspicion is that, given immense electoral fatigue – thanks largely to the digital age and the information saturation that comes with it – and widespread public disengagement from politics (that voter turnouts highlight), most British people would not care enough to venture to their nearest polling station and vote for members of the second chamber. Increasingly, we don’t bother to vote at General Elections, so electing a senate would prove no less purposeless.

Secondly, electing the Upper House would transform it into a mirror-image of the Commons. One of the great features of the House of Peers was that it was supposed to act as an objective, politically-unaligned chamber more able to provide the executive with appropriate scrutiny and amendments. In a scenario where members are elected, they are more easily forced to think along party lines, as they are constrained by campaign promises, manifesto commitments and may view legislation more tribally and ideologically, perhaps reducing space for independent thought and concern for others. I also think it could be the case that Peers may see their democratic mandate (however small) as not subservient to the Commons, but as equal in its validity. This could create a situation in which there is unnecessary competition between chambers, and long periods of ‘ping-pong’.

A third issue with Upper House elections is that they will consume unnecessary resources and eat into time and budgets. The legislative process is long, drawn out and requires a lot of thorough examination and re-examination. Taking a couple of months out of a parliamentary session to focus on being re-elected would seem to me to hamper the ability of Peers to carry out their primary function: scrutiny of government. Election campaigns are expensive and have a noticeable draining effect on both the public and those involved in them. They also, crucially, subvert attention away from getting on with the job. We begin to focus more on people and less on issues.

 

Proposal: Replace the Lords with citizen juries

Most people are not familiar with the meaning of the word ‘sortition’. It is a political structure that has proven successful in British life, most notably in our courts, where juries of randomly selected citizens come together to decide upon the fate of another person. Juries were first constructed shortly after the Norman Conquest more than 1,000 years ago, but have undergone several reformations since. Sortition is the process of allocating to office or duty a jury of citizens selected at random. I mention our courts because, before we proceed, it is important that we respect both the liberty the system has given us and its use in Britain’s criminal justice system. Most people report high levels of trust in criminal juries, despite the lack of legal experience of those sitting on them, and consider taking part an ‘important civic duty’[5].

It is my belief that an Upper House comprised of a jury of citizens, cycled on periods lasting a few weeks, with those from afar allowed to expense either travel or accommodation expenses, would be a much more democratic and fairer alternative to its current formation. By bringing together randomly-selected, representative members of the public (on a scale closer much closer to 600 than 800) to scrutinise Bills presented by the House of Commons, vote on legislation and contribute to committees and initiatives that they care about, Westminster will be enriched by more cognitive diversity, democracy will be enhanced through the introduction of more people into the legislative sphere and we will have an excuse to end the slow, painful suffering of the peerage.

I mentioned earlier that scrutiny is perhaps best provided by a chamber that is objective and non-partisan. It is also true that most people think in terms of issues and not in terms of ideology. To propose, therefore, an Upper House comprising of randomly-drafted members of the public is to join together these two premises. And I think ordinary people will jump at the chance, too. The House of Lords is an exotic place, especially for those living in distant, forgotten parts of the UK. Introducing jury service may also act as a way for Westminster to reach out to forgotten communities and perhaps ease some of the discontent and mistrust that has grown substantially in the modern political climate.

There is also no technocratic argument against this proposal. Members of the public have skills, knowledge, expertise and common sense, and are able to think rationally about the effects that Bills will have upon individuals. They will also, upon initiation, be aided by secretaries, parliamentary assistants and researchers with experience of the inner workings of the Upper House and legislative procedure. We trust our fellow man to make important decisions over matters of justice, so we can do the same in other aspects of public life. I am not saying that jury service in court is logistically identical to service in the Upper House, but as research shows[6], people approach civic duty in a conscientious and serious manner. I do not think this would change under this proposal. 

 

The suffering of the peerage

Back in November, Jacob Rees-Mogg instructed the Prime Minister to create 1,000 new sunset peers in order to help speed up the Brexit process. This may sound like a good idea for those who support Britain’s departure from the EU, but this sort of political puppeteering has profound consequences for the legitimacy and value of the peerage; one of the oldest – and now most devalued – honours anywhere in the world. One of the main causes of the suffering of the peerage has been the temptation displayed by governments (often acted upon) to give peerages to party representatives, usually donors or political advisers behind the scenes, purely for the purpose of aiding legislative efforts in the Upper House.  Tactical posturing on the part of parties is cynical and undermines the importance law-making. It is, after all, about what is best for the country, not what is best for preserving electability.

 

Final comments

I invite readers (whom I thank sincerely for reading what has turned out to be a necessarily long post) to leave their feedback in the comments below. As I said in my opening remarks, this idea is not unique to me. In 2008, The Athenian Option: radical reform for the House of Lords was published by Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty. The argument about the future of the Lords cannot be a binary one. If a perfectly reasonable suggestion such as this exists, we must not frame this debate merely in terms of abolition or election. The political potential of sortition has been an interest of mine ever since I became familiar with the pitfalls of electoral representative democracy. I think it should interest you too.

 

Notes:

[1] See third table (section 3): http://www.leeds.ac.uk/law/teaching/law6cw/hc-3.htm

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unicameralism#/media/File:Unibicameral_Map.svg

[3] http://www.ukpolitical.info/european-parliament-election-turnout.htm

[4] http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm

[5] See table 3.1: http://www.icpr.org.uk/media/10381/Juries%20MOJ%20report.pdf

[6] See page 2: http://www.britsoccrim.org/volume4/004.pdf

 


UKIP will not pose a threat in 2020, but this may be bad for British politics

I now think that UKIP will play no considerable role at the 2020 General Election (provided, of course, that there isn’t one sooner). My conclusion is partly informed by uninspiring quarrels between its senior figures and partly by the result of last year’s referendum, which now seems so far away I can scarcely believe how time has flown.

Notice that I use the word ‘uninspiring’. Of course, squabbles in political parties – despite the fact that they can open up debate – aren’t usually very helpful, but with UKIP, matters are made worse. The party was primarily a one-issue political force, acting as a battering ram and driving home an agenda that had been forgotten or deliberately ignored for far too long.

At present, UKIP lacks purpose and direction. Its primary goal has almost (barring a few late hiccups) been achieved and it must now attach itself to other issues worth pursuing. Indeed, Michael Heaver, Nigel Farage’s former spin doctor, thinks that proportional representation and House of Lords reform are two such issues that the party can use to maintain its foothold in British politics.

This is a false trail. These areas of policy are fringe issues not capable of rallying a significant portion of the electorate. UKIP’s divisions are therefore uninspiring because neither side is offering any credible path towards long-term relevance in the current political climate. Arron Banks, who funded UKIP at the last General Election, claims that Paul Nuttall is week, but the problem is in fact much deeper.

The party has reached its sell-by date, and as the party only ever truly planned for a referendum, it is unsurprising to me that it finds itself a little hollowed out and purposeless afterwards. This is itself causing internal doubt and frustration. Being the leader, Mr Nuttall will find himself in the crosshairs, but truth be told, even Nigel Farage would struggle to keep UKIP on the map.

I do not write this gleefully by any means. I have always been fair to UKIP and stood up for the party when under unjust attack. This is because I believe that its impact on British politics has been largely productive. Its success transcends electoral representative democracy and, perhaps ironically, was aided largely by its very inconvenience to the establishment parties and their pocketed media tycoons.

UKIP’s most profound influence on British politics was to apply serious pressure on the Conservative Party to be conservative; to stop supporting Britain’s ongoing membership of the European Union, to stop imposing on the country unprecedented levels of mass immigration, to strengthen and illuminate the national culture and character. These simple premises had long ago been abandoned by a party that knew that all it had to do was mirror Blairite values and – as the Labour Party was hollowed and left demoralised in the ensuing post-Blair years – it would guarantee electability for years to come.

The Conservative Party knew that it had become New Labour. How could anybody have missed the many glaring parallels between its leader, Mr Cameron, and his now infamous predecessor? The trouble was, so too did many of its members. Its most disgruntled supporters switched their allegiances and opted instead to seek refuge in a growing party that believed and said the things conservatives had been saying vainly for so long. It is no wonder that UKIP became a force in such a short period of time.

Nigel Farage shrewdly spotted a few years ago that if he could only (but correctly) associate mass immigration with EU membership, and raise awareness to a possible referendum, his and his party’s political legacy would be secure. Though what he still does not recognise, to his discredit, is how ineffective the Leave campaign would have been had UKIP been spearheading it during the country’s referendum period. Alas, it no longer matters. Our side won it, all that remains is for departure to be negotiated and executed.

But what of the future of UKIP? I would love for my prediction to fall flat. They have been a useful kick in the backside for the Tories down south and northern Labour who, shamefully, have resisted public opinion (even that of its own voter base) and insisted on fighting – rather than listening to, UKIP. In the run up to the triggering of Article 50, backsliding on Brexit was widely suspected. But come the inevitable collapse of UKIP, a party almost too combustible for its own good, more serious backsliding may be seen.

The Tories, knowing full well that much of conservatism is damage limitation, may not see a battle worth fighting, and we could well see them revert to their old, disingenuous ways, freed of the UKIP-led electoral pressure that so many took for granted.


Yes, some peers are useless, but so too are elections!

Once again, the House of Lords finds itself squirming in the spotlight of British politics , this time as our peers attempt to weigh in on the triggering of Article 50. I do not think they will try to block Brexit. The House of Lords has shown that if it cares about anything, it is its own preservation.

For all the scandals, trials and tribulations that have rocked the second chamber over the years, the way in which the Lords remain relatively unscathed really does amaze me. And they know it too. Even Baroness D’Souza, a former speaker in the Upper House, believes that there are peers who offer nothing and get away with the bare minimum. 

She has told the BBC ahead of next Monday evening’s documentary on the Upper House that “many, many peers contribute absolutely nothing, despite receiving the full allowance.” Lords are allowed to claim a daily attendance allowance of up to £300 – but do not receive official salaries. If it wasn’t for absurdly generous allowances, I doubt many peers would bother with the parliamentary process at all.

Most are uncomfortably rich, often businessman or career politicians and do not need to claim hundreds of pounds every day. I don’t usually have any qualms with politicians accruing travel and accommodation expenses, as time taken out of the day to travel between home and Westminster can eat into casework, committee or legislative obligations, but attendance allowances (like those offered to Members of the European Parliament) are nonsensical.

But whatever dissatisfaction with peers lingers, I would reject calls for members to be elected to their posts. Some months ago I wrote an article for ‘Reaction’, which you can read here, on the political and practical potential of sortition (randomly selected citizen juries) in the arranging of Westminster’s Upper House. The article still highlights my position today, but like most of my work, it went largely ignored.

I do not think the Upper House should be an elected chamber. This is primarily because I believe that the British electorate simply doesn’t have the energy or the care to bother with voting for them. European elections consistently attracted embarrassingly low turnouts and even General Elections have revealed the same trend over the past seven decades.[1]

Many do not fully – or even partially – understand the role played by the Lords, and any Upper House elections would struggle to draw in even 20% of those eligible to vote. This would be in part due to electoral fever (made worse by social media) and in part due to a lack of understanding and emotional investment. Peers, after all, are not policy makers and need not produce enticing manifestos.

Another reason for avoiding the electing of peers is that it would help to transform the second chamber into a mirror image of the Commons. At present, Lords do not have to worry about toeing party line in order to keep their jobs. This is good, as it allows them to scrutinise government on a level playing field and operate according to their beliefs and consciences. The entire purpose of the second chamber, after all, is to hold the executive to account; an apolitical obligation almost on its own terms.

Juries of randomly selected citizens in the House of Lords would revitalise, or at least strengthen, the public’s enthusiasm for politics, introduce more cognitive diversity into the second chamber and would allow for more individuals to play a role in the legislative process. There is certainly no technocratic argument against it. Ordinary people have expertise, would be aided by researchers, secretaries and assistants, and we’d have the opportunity to do away with a stale honours system.

Peerages have become disgraced relics, handed out for political, rather than meritocratic purposes. Incumbent governments have been known to add party-political individuals to the Upper House in order to assist their efforts to have legislation passed through. This kind of tribal posturing is exactly what has led to the devaluing of honours and general mistrust in the House.

Committees do not have to be set up by former chancellors or founders of beer companies. Travel and accommodation expenses would indeed be paid to members of the public, just as they are today. The public can read, vote on bills and scrutinise serious issues, as proven by the unmistakeable success of court juries and a plethora of sortition-based research experiments.

Why, then, do we clamour for an elected system that we know perfectly well we wouldn’t care for?

 

Sources:

[1] http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm


Article 50: 498-114 doesn’t tell the whole story

I find myself wondering what the result of yesterday’s parliamentary vote would have been had it been conducted on the basis of conscience or private opinion. Most certainly not 498-114, and there would not have been so many abstentions, either. Thankfully, the rare occasions on which we exercise direct democracy, which more easily illustrate the national mood, (the kind provided more easily by referenda than by elections) anchor our representatives more forcefully to respecting public judgement.

I usually like the debates surrounding big issues in the House of Commons. They tend to bring out the best and the passion in MPs, who by and large do care about things. One only has to go back and watch the day of the gay marriage bill to gain an understanding of the best of British politics, and I’m not referring necessarily to the result. But yesterday’s affair didn’t have the same sort of feel to it.

Parliament appeared tense, symbolised poignantly by row after row of gritted teeth and furrowed brows. MPs on both sides of the Commons, bitter in the fallout from a shocking referendum defeat, struggled to tap into any optimism, preferring instead to talk submissively about the importance of standing up for the democratic vote. George Osborne, arguably the biggest loser of last year’s EU vote, spoke of ‘provoking a constitutional crisis’ in the event of voting against the triggering of Article 50.

It is true that politicians ought to stick up for the values of democracy in times such as these, but what I found most peculiar about some of the speeches was the lack of enthusiasm for the new direction that the country has opted to head in. The chamber looked almost condescendingly anxious, with many of the MPs making up the 498 clearly too reluctant to praise the decision made by the electorate, or to welcome an exciting opportunity to re-establish Britain’s role in the world.

For the 114, it was the same old story. Nick Clegg tried his best not to take things personally,  channelling his blatant frustration into an irrelevant defence of the preferences of the majority of 18-24 year olds; the tiring implication being that elder generations stole the futures of the youth. I do not recognise this idea to be true, partially because I got to know many passionate youngsters who campaigned for Brexit during the referendum and partially because youth turnout is always notably low, or at least lower than it is among other age groups. Alex Salmond went as far as to call the triggering of Article 50 an ‘act of madness’, which, given his obsession with sovereignty, I couldn’t take all that seriously. A painstaking resentment was briefly interrupted by jibes aimed at Remain supporting MPs by an understandably jolly John Redwood, but for the most part, the debate lacked the energy that Westminster is renowned for.

But it was not just angst and disdain that characterised last night’s vote. It was also an opportunity to see quite clearly the depressing void that lies within Her Majesty’s opposition: a Labour Party still being eaten away at from the inside by Blairite residue and trying to decide whether it should stand by 70% of its constituencies and press ahead with European Union withdrawal. You would think that during such a significant period in British political history a major party would be able to pull itself together. It still amazes me that 94% of the parliamentary party backed Remain, despite profound differences now obvious with large swathes of its voter base.

Only the SNP, so hilariously brazen in their hypocrisy, managed to match Labour’s embarrassment. They defend Scottish independence and sovereignty in Westminster, they deride it in Brussels. They claim that, based on cross-border cooperation and commerce, it is in the national interest to work with other European Union member states, but they fail to apply the same argumentation to the issue of British union.  My gut instinct is that come the 2020 General Election (providing one isn’t called sooner), they will cease to be a serious political force. Even in the eyes of Scottish swing voters. In fact, more substantive change could take place in three years’ time than that. 114 MPs, at least open and honest in their disapproval of the public, rebelled against the national vote. Time will tell whether or not they are able to retain their constituency seats.

More than one hundred of Britain’s political representatives decided to ignore the legitimacy of the majority verdict in last night’s House of Commons vote. What truly shocks me is not the number of MPs who did this, but the number of MPs who didn’t.


Why 2016 was the year of the establishment

When Nigel Farage and Donald Trump describe the events of 2016 as a ‘political revolution’, they do so not to paint an informed picture, but to massage their own egos. For them, the idea of revolution cements their place in history. It validates their importance to the political arena, even in the face of adversity and massive public criticism.

Various alt-Right claims concerning the magnitude of last year’s political changes are at best dubious and at worst insulting lies. 2016 was not the year of political revolution. It was a year in which swamps were drained with swampland and a year in which the public relations industry worked its magic in ways never seen before to create the false perception that we now, more than at any other time, live in a post-truth political environment.

Yes, it is true that startling alliances were exposed that sent powerful signals to government, and that the public mood seemed to defy even reputable polling, but one only has to take a look at the manoeuvring of the chess pieces currently on the board to examine that the effects of 2016’s groundbreaking votes haven’t been as profound as commonly thought.

Take, for instance, the new cabinet of president-elect Donald Trump. After promising to ‘drain the swamp’ at the White House for many months, Trump’s new cabinet picks are more than a little eyebrow-raising. The combined wealth of Trump’s cabinet, excluding the president-elect’s $3.7bn fortune, is a staggering $4.5bn[1], and not all positions have been decided upon.

It can be a little easy to forget that the establishment often branches out far wider than politics itself. What we call the establishment is in reality an intricate web of political figures, banks and multinational corporations, media, owners atop strategic industries and international institutions. Many of Trump’s cabinet selections, like ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson or Wilbur Ross, who made millions dealing with subprime mortgage’s during the 2007-08 crash, reek of establishmentarianism.

They are deeply engrained within an economic elite, and despite Trump’s plan to draft in figures that will revolutionise America’s negotiating skill and allow it to do business his way, the establishment stench will linger so poignantly that even many of his voters will be able to smell it. If by ‘swamp’, Trump was referring to establishment figures, then swampland has undoubtedly been replaced with swampland. It is, too, worth noting that the ‘anti-establishment’ candidate received more than 2 million less votes than the firmly established Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential contest.

I am always suspicious when a political figure claims to be waging a war with the establishment. It tends to be a war cry, designed to rally a specific kind of voter; whoever the disillusioned and marginalised voter of the day would appear to be. It makes sense, as the thirty year period of neoliberal capitalism has, for all its successes, brought about a deep-rooted marginalisation of the working man. Anger is understandable. The question therefore should be: “How do we deal with this frustration constructively?”

Similar trends were noticed during Britain’s EU referendum. As the arguments intensified, established politicians like Boris Johnson and Theresa May played their cards close to their chest, one choosing to use the campaign to fight a proxy war with David Cameron, the other choosing to campaign mildly in order to take advantage of a fallen Prime Minister. The script read like a west end play.

After Cameron’s resignation and an underwhelming Tory leadership contest, Remain-backing Theresa May took the helm and entered Number 10 as Prime Minister. The government she formed featured campaigners on both sides of the referendum, and once again the Conservatives found themselves strapped with the task of carrying out Brexit. Thanks once again to some clever manoeuvring, the party that for years had supported Britain’s membership of the European Union was in charge of withdrawal.

The same politicians, with a few exceptions, are calling the shots, and Britain seems both reluctant to reveal its negotiating cards and content to stretch the process out for as long as possible. The very same pattern has emerged on both sides of the Atlantic: the anti-establishment types, camouflaged as defenders of the working man in a bid to attract widespread support, were so zealous and deceiving in their pursuit of power that they forgot almost entirely how to deal with it when it came.

In 2016, the establishment launched a coup unto itself, disguised as its sworn enemy. It managed to harness the anger of forgotten communities and mould it into a brand new mandate; with which it will trot confidently into what is deemed to be the new political era. And what’s worse? Even our populists, who ceaselessly present themselves as anti-establishment, are starting to look every bit as careerist and every bit as bubbled as those they claim to oppose.

 

[1] Peterson-Withorn, C. (2016). Here’s What Each Member Of Trump’s $4.5 Billion Cabinet Is Worth. Available: http://www.forbes.com/sites/chasewithorn/2016/12/22/heres-how-much-trumps-cabinet-is-really-worth/#e7a9676f0219. Last accessed 2nd Jan 2017.