Archive for category Elections

Commonwealth and Common Weal: The shape of things to come.

According to Nicola and Alex the world is watching, but the truth is that Britain isn’t even watching. If 2014 does turn out to be a momentous year for Scotland it will happen with a whimper down south. Although it still looks like the No campaign might win it, the Yes side has moved the debate on from where we were two years ago. Some kind of positive outcome for Scottish democracy now seems inevitable, and it can either be done consensually or by splitting the Labour party down the middle and further undermining its already wobbly legitimacy. Anas Sarwar and friends won’t go gently from their 80,000 a year at Portcullis House, especially with the outside chance of getting to sit at the big table and play around with some of those cool nuclear submarines.

There’s also a European election this year. It looks like the SNP and Labour will get two seats apiece and the Tories will likely hang on to theirs. The real battle of interest will be between the Lib Dems in their first election test since the massacre at Edinburgh City Council in 2012, the mustache bearing armchair army of Jaguar driving UKIPers and the Greens. Given that the Greens exceeded expectations last time around and have historically performed better in European polls, it is not too much to expect that Maggie Chapman will be ensconced in Brussels come next summer. From the left of what is already Holyrood’s most left-wing  party, Maggie will be hoping to attract the core Green vote combined with disenfranchised Labour and SNP supporters and the rump of the Socialist left to push past George Lyon and whichever Top Gear audience member UKIP plump for.

A European breakthrough could signify a big year for the Greens, now fairly well established in Edinburgh and Glasgow but still hovering on the edge of several wins in central Scotland and the Highlands. The increased profile given to them by the Yes campaign has allowed Patrick Harvie to more clearly articulate what separates them from both the SSP on the one hand and sandal-wearing Lib Dems on the other. With Alison Johnstone bedding in following the retirement of Robin Harper, the Euros and the long lead in to the Scottish general election of 2016 will be critical in determining whether Green politics in Scotland can copy the relative success achieved in its North Sea neighbours. The dominance of the SNP and the apparent inability of Labour to put one foot in front of the other means that Scottish politics is crying out for a torch bearer for floating progressive voters.

It will also be the year in which Scotland gets equal marriage legislation, in what has been a needlessly drawn out process. One of the side effects of the equal marriage campaign has been to further erode the influence of the Catholic Church in Scotland. The Church has not covered itself in glory in the past twelve months for all kinds of reasons, burning bridges with many progressive Catholics in the process.

Celtic will, somewhat inevitably, storm the SPL. Fingers crossed Aberdeen will come second, one of the few clubs with the resources and fanbase to do something with their European place and the financial bonus it would bring. The game would appear up for Hearts, hamstrung by a combination of apparent corruption, a global financial crisis and the inability of the Scottish Football Association to keep watch on the game. The irony of their Wonga sponsorship won’t be lost on the fans who have had to watch it all unfold from the stands and in the newspapers. Scottish football is still in a fairly sick state, and until the men with suits and 1990s playground haircuts are replaced at Hampden then it probably won’t get better.

Then there’s the Commonwealth Games, Scotland’s mini Olympics. No doubt there’ll be a lot from Glasgow City Council about putting the place on the map, showing it is open for business and reminding us that people make Glasgow, just like people made the dual carriageway to the East End and the over budget motorway that cuts a swathe through the Southside like the spaceship hovering ominously in Independence Day. The sceptic in me says that Commonwealth and Common Weal are different things, but it is to be hoped that some of the shine stays at least once the G4S guards on temporary contracts and the BBC mobile broadcast vans have chugged off south again.

One thing for 2014 is certain though. Peter Capaldi is going to be brilliant in the TARDIS.

An urgent post-indy reform

An STV ballotIf Team Yes win the vote next year, amongst the governance changes required will be an expansion of the number of MSPs, primarily because we’ll need to staff more ministries and more Committees. Consider Westminster, bloated as its offices may be.

Starting with ministers, this page lists around 100 of them, and that’s just counting the Commons. The largest Holyrood grouping seen so far was just 73, the 1999-2003 Lab/LD coalition, down to 72 when Steel became PO. They couldn’t all be Ministers, not just because some of them weren’t up to it.

Now clearly there’s more to manage when you run an administration covering 63m people (with varying levels of devolution) compared to one which would the sole national administration for just over 5m people. But we’d need Ministers to cover pensions, social security, foreign affairs, defence, and a host of other junior Ministers too.

The same applies to Committees – currently there are 14 regular ones at Holyrood, plus a few on pieces of private legislation, plus welfare reform and one for the Referendum Bill. We’d need a permanent committee for the areas mentioned above, and there just aren’t enough MSPs to go round. Almost every MSP who’s not a Minister (or the PO, or Margo, or Johann Lamont, or Ruth Davidson) is on a Committee, sometimes two, sometimes three.

So what’s normal for an independent European country of our size? To pick the four such countries who have a population between five and six million, we find the following:

Bear in mind also that we’ll be celebrating the departure of 59 MPs who represent Scottish constituencies, plus a proportion of the 781 members of the House of Lords, however calculated. 65 would be our pro-rata share of the hereditaries and the bishops and those installed through patronage. So a Holyrood seating anything up to about 250 would be a net reduction in the number of parliamentarians representing Scotland. Oh, and we’d get more MEPs – to be honest, a greater proportional influence in the EU sounds more useful than about 95% of the peers I’ve ever taken notice of.

But 250 is excessive. Somewhere between 150 and 200 would make sense and fit that European pattern. I’m going to plump for 200 and y’all can haggle me down if need be.

So how would we elect them? The path of least resistance would be to expand the existing AMS system. Increasing both halves of the equation proportionally would give us about 113 constituencies and about 87 regional members. That’d be easiest done as regional lists of 10 rather than 7. Right now each constituency MSP represents just over 70,000 people on average (remembering that Orkney and Shetland have an MSP each, each representing around 20,000 people). Under this change each constituency MSP would represent about 47,000 people. Seems okay.

Another option would be to elect a second chamber by some other method – perhaps a national list or similar. And find somewhere else to house them (for a smaller chamber of, say, 71, the old Royal High would actually work). This is architecturally easier than expanding Holyrood, although I enjoyed being press officer for the building process and am ready to do it again if need be.

But if we’re going to do this thing, why not do it properly? Let’s get rid of the damn lists altogether, which were a compromise of their time between Labour and the Lib Dems, end the division between constituency and regional MSPs, and elect every last one of them fairly. STV works for Scottish local elections, it ends the kind of games which AMS encourages, and it allows the public to express more sophisticated preferences if they wish. Voters are already used to it, and it would reduce the number of electoral systems in play, making voter education an easier task.

The obvious way to do that (again, with tweaks for the islands in particular) would be to break each of the eight regions into five mini-regions, and elect five MSPs for each mini-region. People would complain that the constituency link would be lost, no doubt – they always do – but mini-regions like that would actually only be about twice the size of existing constituencies, and people living in each one would have five much more local representatives to talk to when they need help. Consider also the role of the Highlands and Islands list MSP just now. They represent an area the size of Belgium (as Eleanor Scott always reminded us), stretching from the most northerly point in Shetland to the southern tip of the Mull of Kintyre, a point further south than the whole of the central belt.

But I’m afraid it’s unavoidable: we’re going to need to do some building work to accommodate them all. I’m sure that’ll go more smoothly this time.

Update: By coincidence, Professor Paul Cairney wrote about this too, yesterday.

Dunfermline athletics long game to kick off for Green goals

elephantbridgeCara Hilton is now firmly ensconced in Holyrood after what turned out to be a reasonable majority in the Dunfermline by-election. Her victory was assured using a scattergun approach to campaigning that entailed being selective about what Scottish Labour’s current policy platform says and relying heavily on ‘I’m no SNP, so I must be Labour’ identity politics.

I know this because I was responsible in part for organising Zara Kitson’s campaign for the Greens and saw it all unfold before me first hand. How do you fight half-truths with truth when nobody recognises the legitimacy of what you are saying? On that same note it would take a Scottish Labour spin doctor to dress the Greens’ result up as a victory, but neither was it the disaster some naysayers made out.

Looking at the question of legitimacy, I was rather disappointed with Brian Taylor for lending his voice to a piece beginning ‘Meanwhile, the Greens had an environmental message’. The clip took one quote from Zara Kitson and pretended it was a manifesto. Had the BBC checked their own footage they would have found hours of interviews with the Green candidate in which she talked about local democracy, the bedroom tax, community football, properly funded schools and well-paid jobs. I know because I was there when it was filmed.
Perhaps it serves the Greens right for running an honest campaign in which they attempted to talk about what needed to be talked about. Zara Kitson made no promises about bridge tolls she would never have individual control over or the policies of a council she would not sit on. Should the Greens have followed the UKIP route and ploughed money (but precious few activists) into the kind of bitter, dishonest and intellectually bankrupt reactionary politics designed to garner as many votes as possible on as little policy as can be inserted into a leaflet made on the 1997 version of Microsoft Publisher? Probably not.

UKIP’s voters will have gone and voted and then retired to their armchairs or slipped their driving gloves back on and taken a ride out in their Saab 95 to check there were still no wind turbines. The Green voters, however, were part of a planned-out process of capacity building and a strategy that went beyond securing votes and getting back on the motorway to Edinburgh or London. This was misconstrued by the BBC on election night when they quoted Zara Kitson saying ‘it had been all about the campaigning’. She did not just mean that it was the taking part that counted; this was a longer battle than the media were prepared to accept in their finite narrative.

The interesting thing about the Green vote in Dunfermline is that nobody had ever been given the chance to elect a constituency MSP before, and the group of people who did choose to vote Green were galvanised by the election into knowing that there were hundreds of people across the area like them. Were Holyrood by-elections contested using the AV system the results could have been radically different. First past the post traps people into tactical voting and creates the same two-party politics that dominates Westminster.  It is almost inevitable that the end result will be hastily printed flyers with big pictures of bridges on and wild promises that can never be kept and will never need to be kept.

It is about the illusion of localism and the belief that constituency MSPs are local leaders, rather than parliamentary legislators. Even more so, the first past the post element of the Scottish electoral system perpetuates the kind of thinking that Holyrood was supposed to leave behind. Why it cannot be replaced with sixteen smaller regions electing lists is a question we should probably all be asking ourselves. Local government should perhaps be left to local government and we should not pretend that Cara Hilton or any other MSP has the ability to change things by themselves.

Any such reform would also present a challenge for the Greens, it has to be recognised. There is very little data showing whether people first vote Green and then opt for a constituency candidate of their choice or whether the reverse is true.  The BBC did not help, but what Zara Kitson tried to do in Dunfermline and will no doubt do again in the future was show that Green votes are not second preferences but first steps toward something altogether different. We need an election system that liberates people to vote freely and demands that smaller parties ready themselves for government.

A trampled bagpipe

Behold the greatest contrast offered by the Dunfermline by-election campaign: the aftermath of the moment when Zara Kitson’s Green campaign was interrupted by the 3rd Viscount Monckton, notorious climate change denier and UKIP’s top candidate for Mid Scotland and Fife in 2011. Personally I think it’s brave of him to campaign in Scotland having saidthe Scots are subsidy junkies whingeing like a trampled bagpipe as they wait for their next fix of English taxpayers’ money.” I also like the fact that Zara fobbed him off with a leaflet on the Greens’ vision for an independent Scotland. No wonder the furrowed brow, as he contemplates ideas he presumably can’t distinguish from full communism.

ZaraKitsonLordMonckton

We can fund politics

Thanks for your donation!Last week our friend Andrew Smith did a guest post about the problem of party funding at Holyrood, specifically citing the proportion of the SNP’s funding which comes from Brian Souter. Egregious donors to the larger parties abound, though, and Soutar is just the closest example to home.

Take Michael Brown, who handed the Lib Dems £2.4m he’d acquired through fraud. Last year he started a seven year sentence after being captured in the Dominican Republic: the stolen assets, which the Lib Dems received, have never been returned.

Labour’s examples are less shocking, perhaps – well, almost all the other examples are less shocking – but they’re substantial too. David Abrahams used “three employees as fronts to fund the Labour party nearly £600,000“. Bernie Ecclestone handed over (then withdrew) a £1m donation amidst accusations that the money was tied to an exemption for his pet business, Formula One.

The Tories, well, it’s harder to tell with the Tories, given how central to their purpose it is to skew the rules in favour of big business at our expense. Their policy really does seem to be for sale to the highest bidder.

However, political parties have to be funded. Capping donations and just taking smaller donations from members is one route, but it also limits parties and doesn’t give them an incentive to appeal beyond their base.

At the end of Andrew’s piece he says he doesn’t think anyone is considering public funding, and that he’d opt out if it might fund UKIP (a position he comes back from a bit in the comments).

So what might the alternative be? Why not consider it a tax rebate instead, and add a second form below the existing ballot paper which gives people the opportunity to allocate a pound from their taxes to the party they voted for, or indeed to any other party standing? Or to opt out and have that pound stay with the Treasury if they prefer?

Andrew Rawnsley argued yesterday that the parties would have to become mass organisations again, which is admirable but sounds a bit optimistic. Might this rebate idea not be one small way to rebuild connections (in both directions) between the wider non-joining public and the parties? Might the public feel a bit more invested, and the parties feel a bit more pressure to appeal beyond their base?

The cost would be minimal – even if no-one opted out, the “rebate” from Holyrood 2011 would amount to less than £2m – the turnout was 1,991,051. For a comparison (assuming a final cost of £1.6bn and a road distance of 6.7km), the total cost of this entire scheme for Scotland would be less than the price of ten metres of the unnecessary additional Forth Road Bridge. Yes: the bridge and its roads will cost more than a quarter of a million pounds per metre. Sorry to get sidetracked.

And this kind of sum would be on a convenient scale to fund an election campaign. Take the 2010 UK General Election. 29,687,604 votes cast: £31.5m spent (see 2.3 of the Electoral Commission’s report). Sure, some people would give their “rebate” to parties you or I might find unpleasant, but unpleasant people fund unpleasant parties already, and typically with much larger sums.

Alongside a £5000 cap on donations, this would turn politics over to the public, or at least the electorate (if you don’t vote, your “rebate” goes back to the Treasury, sorry). In a marginal seat where someone’s voting tactically, perhaps they’d donate their £1 to the party they’d really like to see win, and that way that party would be marginally more likely to win next time. It’s no substitute for proportional representation, but it might help ameliorate some of the worst winner-takes-all effects of the current system. Power to the people!