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Apr 182010

There is a suspicion that the elections in the UK just might result in a hung parliament where no party has an overall majority. In other words no party has more MPs than all the other parties put together. In such a situation, a government formed from the largest party tends to be quite nervous as it can be thrown out by its enemies if they all manage to agree.

The preferred option is for a coalition to form out of two or more parties who can swing (if all their MPs obey the party whip) an overall majority.

However in either case, the government is not as stable as it would otherwise be. Hung parliaments usually have a poor reputation because they typically do not last very long and spend more time arguing amongst themselves rather than actually doing anything constructive.

At least in the UK. In Europe, hung parliaments are common enough that coalition government is the norm rather than the exception.

The Tories – after the first “presidential” TV debate where Nick Clegg was surprisingly effective – are suddenly banging on about how dangerous hung parliaments can be. Ignoring those scum-sucking lying politicians for the moment (at least as far as we can), are hung parliaments actually good or bad ?

Well the truth is that they do not happen enough in the UK for us to know. We do know that hung parliaments in Europe are quite common and that it does not appear to be a complete catastrophe there. Of course there will be those who point at countries like Italy and ask whether we want a government as unstable as they have. But I will also point at Italy’s economy and say that it doesn’t seem to have done much harm – Italy is the 7th largest country in the world in terms of GDP.

It is entirely possible that a hung parliament in the UK will cause a momentary loss of confidence by the financial markets, although those that panic are eventually going to be counter-balanced by those with cooler heads that realise that the UK is not going to go bust just because it has a potentially unstable government. It is likely that the economic effect of a certain cloud of volcanic ash will have a greater effect than a day or two of instability in the economic markets.

If we can avoid being distracted by the probably relatively minor economic problems of a hung parliament, we can look at more interesting aspects of one.

This will be an opportunity to get a government which does not let either of the old major parties (Labour and Tory) have everything their own way. Of course a coalition government will have one or other comprising the largest part, but another party – most likely the Liberals – will have a big say.

The likely result of such a hung parliament is significant electoral reform because the smaller parties are more interested in it than the old school parties who do quite well out of our archaic and undemocratic electoral system. Sure you hear of Tory and Labour plans for electoral reform, but what they plan is tinkering around the edges, and the Tory plans revolve around making the political system cheaper with the effect of making our current system even less democratic than it is at the moment.

If the thought of a hung parliament is currently making you consider one of the big two parties, perhaps you should reconsider – a hung parliament is not quite as bad as the politicians of the big two will have you believe, and the increased chance of genuine electoral reform is worth taking that risk.

Apr 092010

If you listen to what the Tories are saying you will be under the impression that one of their radical proposals is to tackle benefit fraud. The money saved from this will go towards reversing the rise in national insurance contributions.

Sounds good doesn’t it ?

Well it would be, but it really isn’t a change at all. Benefit fraud is apparently at the lowest level for 10 years – the current Labour government has been tackling it and somewhat successfully at that. Even the Tory idea of stopping benefits to benefit cheats is hardly a new idea – they are just making the “stoppage” longer.

Apr 082010

The Tories have been slowly trotting out a procession of business leaders who think a Tory government would be a good idea. This is supposed to be news ? We know that the Tories are bankrolled by big business, which gives those business leaders a considerable say in what the Tories do – not explicitly, but in terms of influence.

Labour of course is similarly indebted to the unions, which gives the union leaders considerable influence over Labour’s policies.

Given that I am not a fat cat but one of the workers, I am likely to be less unhappy with the union’s unfair advantage with Labour in charge than with the fat cats hotline to a Tory government.

But I’m not happy about either Tories or Labour being beholden to any select group. It doesn’t seem to me to be a healthy situation if some group has an unfair access to the corridors of power because they helped fund the political party who managed to win an election.

There is of course the Liberals who are not funded in the same way, but realistically they are unlikely to win a majority. The best chance for Liberal involvement in the next government is with a “hung parliament” with no overall control – at least until a pact is established.

The real answer is to make party funding independent of private interest groups.

Apr 062010

Now that it has been announced, we can look forward to a very tedious month whilst the politicians try and grab all the headlines with variations on “look at me” (with the hope that their exhibitionism will turn into a vote). At least we know when it will be over at last.

Of course because of the election system we suffer, most of us don’t have much in the way of a say in what the next parliament looks like and who makes up the government. Apparently around half of the current seats in parliament have not changed in terms of what party the MP represents in over 40 years! So much for democracy.

Of course there is a form of democracy at work here – those few of us who live in marginal seats are effectively the ones who decide what bunch of politicians make up the next government. The rest of us are expected to vote according to the usual pattern and return an MP for our constituency no different to the previous one.

Perhaps we should remember the expenses scandal, and vote for independent candidates not affiliated and obligated to the party machines.

Mar 282010

One of the tedious things about the UK election system is that we do not know when the election is coming, so before the date of the election is known we have a kind of “phoney election” where the politicians all go head to head being even more critical with each other than they usually are. And of course generating even more hot air than usual.

And then the election gets announced and all the tediousness goes into overdrive.

What for ?

Because of the election system in the UK, there are only a handful of seats (the “marginals”) where the result makes a bit of difference. If like most people you live in a parliamentary seat which is to a greater or lesser degree “safe”, your vote is effectively pointless and all the politicians making noise in your face about how bad the other politicians are, are just wasting of your time.

It seems that there are just 60 seats that are marginal enough to make a difference – 60 out of 646, roughly 9%. So only 9% of the population have a vote that counts! At least if we all vote more or less the way we usually do. Basically the political establishment counts on the majority of us acting like sheep.

The funny thing is that if politicians were honest and actually admitted that the voters in “safe” seats didn’t count, the normally safe seats would be up for grabs. So our electoral system accidentally rewards dishonesty! Kind of puts the expenses scandals into a new light doesn’t it ?

Of course even if you are one of the lucky few living in one of the 60 marginals, the election process takes far too long – who needs many weeks in order to make up their minds ? Most of us already know who we would vote for in the next election, so delaying it just allows the politicians to puff up their feathers.

Just remember we can always ignore the “big three” (Labour, Conservative, ad Liberal) and go for the independents and we might have a chance of getting some proper electoral reform rather than just a bit of tinkering around the edges.

Feb 202010

I did sort of miss the opportunity to make a timely comment on the Conservatives monumental gaff in relation to figures they published regarding the number of teenage pregnancies amongst deprived communities. But it is such a good example of Tory stupidity that I am going to make a comment anyway.

Apparently the Tories claimed as an example of Labour failure that the percentage of teenagers who got pregnant before the age of 18 in the most deprived areas was 54%. The actual rate was 5.4% which itself was a decline since 1998 when the rate was 6%; or in other words the highest rate was during a year where Labour had little chance to correct the mistakes of the previous Tory government having only been in power for a year.

Now of course anybody can make a mistake, which is why in any circumstances where you need to avoid making mistakes you check and double-check your data. And when you have previously made yourself look a fool by making a mistake you triple-check things. And obviously an organisation would have these facts checked by someone other than the author.

So what does a mistake like turning 5.4% into 54% mean ? By itself, not a great deal but it indicates a certain lack of care about the details.

After all, 54% is a ridiculous enough figure that you would normally say to yourself “Eh?” and have another look. The Tories obviously came up with a figure that helped their claims and ran with it.

It’s the sort of carelessness that is not the sort of thing you would like to see the next government use.

Feb 092010

Gordon Brown has announced plans to reform the electoral system in the UK after the election – if Labour is elected, and they do not change their minds. Of course they look likely to give us one choice of reform – choose Labour’s preferred option or no reform. What kind of choice is that ?

We should be telling Parliament what kind of electoral reform we want and not just calmly expect what suits the government of the day. If you look at what Gordon Brown is proposing, it probably represents the minimum possible change to our present system. The Alternative Vote (what GB is suggesting) consists of people voting by listing their preferred candidates in order of preference; if there is no overall majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is excluded and the votes of those who voted for him or her are shared out amongst the other candidates according to their second preference.

The idea is that no MP is elected without representing the majority view of his or her constituency. Ok, sounds better than the current system, but is it as good as one of the following :-

Or even the zillions of other possibilities out there – Wikipedia has a good selection.

There are certain advantages to Gordon Brown’s preferred system – it is a relatively small change and does make things a bit fairer. I would myself prefer a more radical change, but I am quite willing to let the people decide and not have our choice restricted to a simple yes or no to choose some politician’s choice. After all, how sure are we that this is actually best for us and not best for the Labour party ?

Of course as you might expect, the Tories are against any form of electoral reform, and the Liberals are in favour (although this isn’t their preferred system).

What I would like to see is a referendum giving us a proper choice amongst a range of options. That would be complicated to difficult to do properly and would be more complex for us people to decide – we would have to spend some time thinking about what we want. We would need a neutral group reviewing possible systems and keeping the list of options down to sensible numbers. We would also need a neutral group coming up with a list of advantages and disadvantages for each, and ideally stop the politicians from making recommendations (asking a politician to keep quiet is wildly unrealistic I know).

The key thing is that we should be making the choice and not the politicians.

Oct 132009

So an interim report on the expenses scandal is out and it is suggested that many MPs will have to pay back some of the expenses they have claimed over the last 5 years. And of course we have MPs claiming that it is not fair that they have to pay back expenses that were legitimately claimed under the rules that were set at the time.

No it isn’t fair.

It isn’t fair that MPs had such a lax expenses system that they could claim such ridiculous amounts on ridiculous items.

Complaining about paying back some of the excess is foolish in the extreme – whilst it may not be fair, everyone other than an MP is going to see this as just typical corrupt politician behaviour. Still it should make the next election interesting – we may not have a majority of Labour or Conservative MPs. There will be too many independents 🙂

May 102009

British MPs have managed to make themselves look corrupt in a spectacular way with the leaking of the details of purchases made on the second home allowance. It is particularly amusing that the biggest fuss is about somewhat trivial items such as loo brushes (that’s not a real example) and the like.

It is worth pointing out that the whole second homes allowance was introduced by the Tories in the 1980s to supplement MPs salaries during a time when Thatcher was grinding away at public sector salary increases. So this is not strictly speaking a Labour issue.

There have been a number of excuses floating around as to why MPs need a second homes allowance, and because MPs are so good at spinning rubbish it is easy to start to think that they may have a point. But lets compare things with not just the private sector but everyone else …

Normally when you take a job, you are expected to live within a reasonable distance of work. It’s not usually explicitly stated but you are expected to turn up to work every morning at a reasonable time, and stay for a reasonable length of time. Whilst you may get a more or less generous “bonus” to making moving easier, you don’t get money to pay for a home near work.

So MPs might have a point about a second home allowance but until such an allowance becomes common place outside of Westminster, they are going to look like pigs in the trough if they do have one. Under the existing system it does make sense to make some sort of arrangement for providing accommodation to MPs whose constituency is some distance from London.

But that can simply be provided by a block of flats close to Westminster – perhaps something on the river.

If MPs had sorted this all out before all this fuss, it would have been quite reasonable to abolish the second home allowance, spread the money used for it previously amongst the MPs as a salary increase. But because this was not sorted out previously the MPs should lose the money completely.

It would seem that many of the items coming to light are strictly speaking “within the rules”, but that is not good enough. We have to trust MPs to be honest and honourable as they make the rules that govern us. If they are apparently eager to exploit a system that is not quite as rigorous as it should be, what is to blame ? The MPs of course.

In any position of power, there are ways of abusing that power. It is the responsibility of those with power to not abuse that position. Can we trust MPs not to abuse their position ? Apparently not; at least not those MPs who have abused the system. Parliament needs to identify the 10 worst offenders and expel them for a minimum of 5 years.

Or if they do not have the courage to do this, perhaps we should identify the top 50 most serious offenders and refuse to re-elect them at the next election.

One of the dangers of so much concentration on the second homes allowance is that we are in danger of overlooking worse things. For instance, why are MPs allowed to take on jobs in addition to their job in Parliament?

In many situations (at least in the public sector), if you are in any sense in a senior position, you are effectively prohibited from taking additional jobs. At least without getting permission to do so. In the case of MPs, I see no reason why they should be allowed to have additional jobs – they already have an important and well paid job and any other job will take them away from what they are supposed to be doing.

There’s a tired out old excuse that MPs like to trot out whenever the second jobs question gets asked – that they need second jobs to keep in touch with the outside world. It is really an excuse to rake in fat cat salaries – after all how many MPs with second jobs work as nurses in hospitals ? Or anything that does not pay ridiculous amounts of money for trivial amounts of work.

Time to refuse to elect part-time MPs.

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