Archive for category Elections

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!

Questions for Question Time

BBCQTI normally object to political hacks objecting to media bias. With the newspapers in particular, it always sounds like sailors complaining about the wind. But the BBC is a slightly special case. And Question Time is the most special case of all outside general election campaigns, because of its profile and because the balance is so easy to achieve. They don’t need every party on every panel, but over the piece the panellists they choose need to reflect the views of the public as reflected by their elected representatives.

And that varies across the UK. Tonight’s Scottish episode is significant in two ways. It’s a week before a Holyrood by-election, and the audience will be entirely 16- and 17-year-olds, to reflect the fact that young people are being enfranchised for the first time in the independence referendum.

Five parties are represented at Holyrood, and all five are standing in Aberdeen Donside, but there’s no Green on the panel. Instead we will have to tolerate both Nigel Farage and George Galloway again. Neither of them represent Scottish constituencies, and neither UKIP nor Respect have any elected representatives in Scotland. Both oppose Scottish independence, too. So, rather than a three-to-two balance in favour of the status quo, which would have been the politicians’ split if BBCQT even noticed actual Holyrood election results when considering balance, we’ll see a four-to-one split against, with just Angus Robertson the only politician speaking up for Scottish self-determination.

The Lib Dems are also being excluded, which is a mistake too. Willie Rennie or another from his group – I’d like to see Liam McArthur get a crack, for instance – have a right to be there tonight just as much as Patrick Harvie or Alison Johnstone do. A panel of six, like they have planned already, would allow them all five actual Scottish parliamentary parties plus the only ray of light in this whole fiasco: the indomitable Lesley Riddoch. She’ll be brilliant and she’ll be feisty, and she’ll help make up for the problems with the panel. But that doesn’t make this good enough.

BBCQT come to Scotland about three times a year, incidentally, and over the fourteen years since the first Holyrood election they’ve only once had a Scottish Green on: Patrick’s slot in 2011, even though Holyrood has always had Green MSPs. Do they really think Nigel Farage or George Galloway are more relevant in Scotland than the Greens? It’s perhaps time for the producers to admit they don’t give a stuff about fairness and balance on Question Time. They just want a rammy, so perhaps we should be grateful they didn’t put Nick Griffin and Melanie Phillips on.

To exclude two sane voices in the independence debate (one from each side) in favour of two wild and unrepresentative demagogues, both on the same side on this issue: that’s bizarre. To exclude two of the Holyrood parties who are contesting next week’s by-election: that’s totally unacceptable. Let the official complaints begin. Update: you can complain here.

pic from here

Denying prisoners the vote: who benefits?

Prison votingWhy would any politician want to deny prisoners the vote? Is it purely because they think it plays well with the less liberal parts of the media (i.e. almost all of it)? Or might there be a better reason? There are all sorts of rationales for the use of prison in the justice system. Are any of them consistent with denying prisoners the franchise as well as their liberty?

1. Public safety. This is the most important one for me. If someone has grievously breached society’s proper moral codes – by which I mean typically premeditated or serious offences against the person – I support using prison to protect society. Why, at the top end of those offences, should the innocent public be exposed to the risk of a repeat offence? I prefer the risk that someone who might actually never offend again still doesn’t get out. You hopefully know the sort of offences I mean here.

So does denying prisoners a vote protect the public? Hardly. What risk is there to the public of further crime from prisoners simply voting? Essentially it’s the same as the threat posed to a mixed-sex married couple by their same-sex neighbours getting married, i.e. none. What’s more, it’s hard to see how they could change anything substantial electorally. There are just over 8,000 prisoners in Scottish jails. A little over 100 per constituency. If they all voted they’d make up 0.4% of the Scottish electorate. A poll I can’t find suggested prisoners would be more likely to vote BNP than the rest of us – and it may not be surprising to turn it on its head and say that BNP voters are more likely to commit crimes – but that’s not a reason to prevent all prisoners voting.

2. Rehabilitation. This is an area where the theory and practice of imprisonment seem miles apart, but can barring prisoners from voting really help them turn their lives around, prepare them for life outside, and reduce reoffending? Actually, the evidence is quite the opposite. It doesn’t seem realistic to say allowing prisoners a vote would have a major impact, but it might have some.

3. Deterrence/retribution. Shall we agree that even the most hardened political hack wouldn’t be put off from committing a crime because of the loss of the franchise? It’s hardly an enormous punishment when you’ve already been deprived of your liberty.

4. Restitution. Nothing here either (cf community services, repayment of stolen money). No victim sees any practical benefit from an offender being denied a ballot.

The best the no-vote side are left with (at Holyrood this means the SNP, Labour and the Tories), as far as I can see, is a reference to some abstract moral principle – that prisoners must forgo any contribution to deciding society’s future, and that when they’ve “paid their debt” they can take part again, irrespective of the absence of any practical benefit to society. It’s precisely the kind of vague and unfalsifiable pseudo-moral hand-waving and hand-wringing certain sections of the media love.

So, conversely, why should we let them vote? First, the minor rehabilitation effects noted above. Many repeat offenders already feel alienated from society, disenfranchised in more ways than one. Do we really want to tell people, especially those who will be released, that society thinks their views are irrelevant? I’d like to believe that allowing prisoners to vote might encourage politicians to consider their views on prison conditions, but the small number of these potential voters (versus the influence of the populist press) makes that unlikely.

Above all, though, we’re meant to be a democracy. If we start going down this road we end up with the approach some American states take, whereby felons are barred from voting forever. We live in a discriminatory society, with a justice system more inclined to prosecute and imprison the poor or protesters than so-called “white collar criminals”, and preventing prisoners from having a say extends this discrimination further for no real benefit. Democracies let their citizens vote, not just the approved subset of the population. It shouldn’t take the European courts to make our governments honour this principle.

The Aberdeen Donside by-election

Brian Adam MSPThe sad death of Brian Adam MSP just under a fortnight ago means the first Holyrood by-election of this session, and only the sixth since the Parliament was established. Only in the first of those, the 2000 contest for Ayr, did a seat change hands.

This is a particularly crucial vote for Holyrood’s numbers, given that the SNP have lost five of the 69 they elected in 2011, one to the PO’s chair, two on principle, one to a complete absence of principle, and now, regrettably, Brian. If they fail to retain this seat they will theoretically be a minority administration again.

The 2011 result in Aberdeen Donside was hardly close, though – Brian had a majority of more than 7,000 and a margin of more than 25% over his Labour challenger, Barney Crockett, now leader of Aberdeen Council.

Labour held the predecessor seat in 1999, narrowly lost it to Brian in 2003 (he served in the first session as a regional MSP), and lost it by 15% to him in 2007. So the trend-lines here seem clear. The 2011 result was as follows:

Party Candidate Votes +/– % +/–
SNP Brian Adam * 14709 +2544 55.4 +10.6
Labour Barney Crockett 7615 -999 28.5 -3.2
Conservative Ross Thomson 2166 +139 8.1 +0.6
Liberal Democrat Millie McLeod 1606 -2734 6.0 -10.0
Independent David Henderson # 317 +317 1.2 +1.2
National Front Christopher Willett # 213 +213 0.8 +0.8
Majority 7175 Turnout 26707 Swing +6.9% SNP hold

And it’s certainly no more than a two-horse race, assuming it’s that, with the Tories and Lib Dems scoring less than 10% each in 2011. It’s also the worst part of the North-east for the Greens, should the local branch choose to stand – we polled just 2.5% on the list in this seat that year. If I were Labour I would be inclined to throw the kitchen sink at this campaign – the symbolic power of depriving the SNP of their majority would be hard to over-estimate, unlikely as that result would be.

In terms of candidates, the totally unsubstantiated rumour I’m hearing from the area is that Mark McDonald MSP, the final SNP member elected from the North-east regional list, may choose to do what Richard Lochhead and Mary Scanlon did in 2006 – resign a list seat to fight for a constituency, perhaps against Cllr Willie Young for Labour.

If Mark were to stand, and if he were to win as would be expected, the actual new face at Holyrood would be Christian Allard, sixth from the SNP’s 2011 regional list. Curiously, Mr Allard is the last candidate on that list not yet at Holyrood, given the SNP’s extraordinary success in the North-east, so any subsequent vacancy on their list before 2016 would then go unfilled.

Anyway, RIP Brian. I knew him pretty well from his 2007-2011 role (which from a Green perspective was mostly deputising for Bruce Crawford when the SNP needed Green votes in the Chamber), and he was tireless, totally committed to the cause, and always warm even when he was being blunt. He loved elections, too. Let’s hope this is a good one, much as it’d be better if it wasn’t happening at all.