Tag Archives: Democracy

Balls and the EU

Isn’t it time that the cold light of day be allowed to shine in on this whole EU matter. There is no good economic reason for being a part of the EU (or if there is one I have yet to see it expressed by way of a convincing argument). There is no good economic reason for leaving the EU (or if there is one I have yet to see it expressed by way of a convincing argument). So, sorry Mt Clinton, for once it is NOT “it’s the economy, stupid”. In that case what is it all about? Well, it could just be that the EU has overstepped the mark when it comes to ignoring people. There are tensions building in the EU which are disturbingly similar to those that built up in the old Austro Hungarian Empire prior to WWI. Clearly these tensions have been created mainly by the introduction of the Euro – but the way that was handled was hardly a prime example of democracy at work. It could be that deep down a lot of people are beginning to think, “The EU is going to end badly – and fairly soon by the look of things. Perhaps the risks associated with taking the UK out as soon as we can in a planned, controlled and civilised way are far less than the risks associated with remaining in the club.” I’m not saying it is – but I for one am now coming round to that way of thinking. Up to now I have wanted the EU to sort out the democratic deficiencies it has created and become properly financially accountable and under those circumstances I would have voted to stay in the club. However, the handling of Greece (and whether we like it or not the people in Greece have spoken) in recent days suggests that the EU cannot offer any solution other than brute force. OL – economic brute force for now but . . . Now, if you don’t give a toss for democracy you will think very differently. If that is the case, please stand up and be counted AND tell us what form of governance you would suggest for all nation states in the EU.

VOTING FOR A COALITION

Once again people are talking about “those who voted for a coalition” completing over-looking the fact that nobody did – they all voted for the candidate of their choice or (far too often and very sadly) decided that they wouldn’t vote at all.  It is tempting to assume that these are people who are abrogating their responsibilities as good citizens but we should spare a thought for those who, after long and hard deliberation, decide that they are not prepared to endorse any of the available  candidates.

Anyway, just for the record, I reproduce below a blog I put up shortly after the election in 2010. It may be of interest so here it is.

I want to try to find the answer two questions. Who actually determined the outcome of the last general election which was to result in a coalition? Who actually determined the candidates who became MP’s?

Before looking at some answers, the following may be of interest.

650 seats were contested meaning that to hold a majority a party needed 326 seats. No party contested all of the seats: by a remarkable coincidence the three main parties all fielded 631 candidates.

10,703,754 people voted for the Conservatives giving them 306 seats (47.1%) and 36.1% of the votes.

8,609,527 people voted for Labour giving them 258 seats (39.7%) and 29% of the votes.

6,836,824 people voted for the LibDems giving them 57 seats (8.8%) and 23% of the votes.

If we convert the ratio of votes cast to seats Conservatives should have had 234 seats, Labour 189 and the LibDems 150 with the remaining 77 going to the other parties (who actually gained 22). These ‘others’ included the Nationalist Parties of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales plus one member for the Green Party. This would have resulted in a coalition but it would have included the Labour party rather than the Conservatives (assuming that the LibDems would have felt happier being in coalition with Labour rather than Conservative).

Out of an electorate of 45,597,461 the votes counted were 29,687.604 (65%). There were a further 303,867 votes but these were on ‘spoiled papers’.

Now to look at who determined this outcome. To start with I decided to look at any seat won by one of the three main parties where the majority was less than 2,000. That is, of course, an arbitrary figure and I later realised it was the wrong one to choose but I decided you might like to share my thought processes.

65 seats fell into that category – 10% of the total. Here are the figures.

  • Seats won by Conservatives with Labour in second place: 20 with 17.567 votes.
  • Seats won by Labour with Conservatives in second place: 18 with 18,680 votes.
  • Seats won by Labour with LibDems in second place: 9 with 6,630 votes.
  • Seats won by Conservatives with LibDems in second place: 7 with 4,848 votes
  • Seats won by LibDems with Labour in second place: 5 with 7,141 votes.
  • Seats won by LibDems with Conservatives in second place: 4 with 3,061 votes.

As you can see, these continue to support the view that some voters have far more power than others. Conservatives beat Labour 20 times with a total majority of 17,567. Had ‘voter power’ been equal, the 18,680 majority in favour of Labour would have produced 21 seats and not 18.

The only plausible difference would have been for Conservatives to have gained 20 more seats thus avoiding the need to enter into a coalition and so all we need to consider is the most marginal 20 seats. These include the 4 seats taken by the LibDems where the majorities were 3,061. The other 16 seats would have had to come from Labour so we can discount 2 of the results. The majority in the other 16 seats was 15,073.

So there we have it, 18,134 voters determined that we should have a coalition (not that they would have thought about it in those terms, of course. Nobody – but nobody – voted with the intention of creating a coalition). Interestingly, it would not have mattered for what other candidate this group voted (or none). Take those votes away from those 4 LibDems and 16 Labour candidates and there would have been a Conservative government, albeit with the tiniest imaginable majority.

In percentage terms 0.62% of those who voted actually made a difference. If you prefer, this is 0.04% of all those entitled to vote.

Now for question number two. In the best case scenario, a candidate is chosen by a democratic vote. My best research seems to indicate that party membership in any constituency rarely exceeds 200. Since that may be a bit low, we will work on 500. 500 people in each of the 20 marginal seats where the result of the last election was determined involved in selecting their candidate means that only 10,000 selected those 20 MP’s and I suspect the figure to be far lower than that and I could choose many examples of events that fuel that suspicion.

The selection of Gloria de Piero as Labour PPC for Ashfield (following the announcement that Geoff Hoon was standing down) was mired in controversy. This is not a problem confined to the Labour Party. As the Daily Mail reported in February 2010, the relationship between the Conservative Association in Surrey East and David Cameron became somewhat strained over the matter of selecting a candidate.

So there we have it. In this much prized democracy the vast majority of us have no say in which party will take power and even less when it comes to the people who grace the green benches in the House of Commons.

 

A Parliament for England

Let’s Google “English Parliamentary Party” and see what we come up with.

First up: the English Democratic Party. They call themselves “the official democratic Party of England” but I cannot see who gave them the right to call themselves that. They have just issued a news release in response to the result of the vote in Scotland.

Here is a flavour of what is said on their web site: “The English Democrats commiserate with the Yes campaign and the Scottish National Party and Alex Salmond on the disappointing result of the Scottish Independence Referendum. They should however be congratulated on an excellent campaign against all the lies and propaganda and dirty tricks put up by the British Political and Media Establishment. The abiding memory for the People of England of the Scottish Referendum will be the sight of senior “British” politicians demonstrating again and again and again that they have no interest in properly representing English interests, England or the English Nation and every intention of selling us down the river.”

Now, I don’t know about you but that really is a turn off for me. However, let us move on a bit. ‘Robin Tilbrook, the Chairman of the English Democrats said:- “It is now England’s turn to be heard and the English Democrats have every confidence that the People of England will reject the shabby deal concocted by the Unionist Westminster elite in a conspiracy against English interests. This was rushed through for the purpose of subverting the democratic process in the Yes/No Scottish Referendum after the same gang had refused to allow the Devo-max option to actually be put on the ballot paper. The Westminster elite has shown itself to be utterly self-interested, dishonest, undemocratic and unfit to run our country. So far as England is concerned the English Democrats call upon all those who care about England to block the implementation of “Devo-max” until exactly the same is offered for the whole of England as a national unit.’

Here I admit he says a couple of things with which I agree although I still find the tone tasteless. The question is, “would I be prepared to join this party?” and I fear that the answer, having explored their web site is, “no”. You may care to check it out for yourself. http://www.englishdemocrats.org.uk/

Next up (we are on page 2 now because there are lots of lists of parties which ae of no great interest) is the English People’s Party. These have a WordPress blog site (and there is nothing wrong with that – this is a WordPress blog site) but the last post was dated May 9 last year. I think we can safely say this is not the way to go.

On to page 4 and we find the BNP which (and I hope you agree with this) should receive the least possible publicity. Next item takes us to a group calling itself Progressonline. Good name and it says some interesting things – but they all date back to 2011 or earlier. Oh dear, oh dear.

Page 5: nothing. Page 6: England’s Parliamentary Party (silent since 2008). Page 8: nothing and the same for 9 and 10. Enough. We can draw a conclusion here.

There is no viable group capable of uniting the people of the four nations in a way that they need to be united in order to establish a four-nation federation which – at least in my view – is the only sensible and doable way forward following the Scottish vote and the wild promises made by politicians of all colours: promises made with no reference to the view of the electorate of these four nations.

So we need to create one.

So we have.

Here’s the link – www.englishparliamentaryparty.com – but it doesn’t take you to anything more than a few ideas that need to be thrown around and thought about. That’s where you come in, if you want to.

The Smallest Competent Authority revisited

Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil: in its worst state, an intolerable one. (Thomas Paine)

This is what I wrote in March 2011.

Having entered the seventh decade of my life I often find myself becoming very cross with those who are running our country. Indeed, the whole process which once seemed so reasonable now seems awful – mendacious, self-serving and (most importantly) grossly inefficient. Over the years I have come to believe the following statements:-

It is beyond the wit of man properly to govern the sort of complex, multi-layered society in which we, in the UK, now live (or we aren’t as clever as we think we are!).

The form of representative democracy that we have in this country no longer works in the best interests of the people as it fails to meet the needs of many members of the electorate and has handed too much power to central government – as opposed to parliament – and to innumerable unaccountable bodies.

If, as seems likely, the problem is one of scale then the solution is to reduce the size of problems until they are small enough to be understood. Small problems, analysed as close to the source of difficulty as possible, with decisions being taken at as local a level as possible are far more likely to result in sensible decisions being made. Put it another way: all decisions should be taken by the smallest competent authority accepting that that could be anything from a town or parish council to the a multi-national authority such as the U.N.

* * *

After that blog appeared, I received a very interesting email from Marek Kubik which included the following.

“From reading your more recent blog posts I see you’re a fan of local governance. Breaking down the problem into smaller chunks and making it easier to solve. I can see the logic behind this, but I also didn’t see consideration for the potential pitfalls; namely:”

He then lists three points which I would like to take one at a time. The first is this:

“Centralisation is arguably better for efficiency (as one amalgamated office for say, the treasury is more efficient and cost effective to run than a separate one in every constituency).”

My first reaction is that this is not always true. Clearly where the requirements are identical in all respects (such as all the branches of a chain of opticians) and there are no local variations, savings can be made by centralising design and purchasing. However, that is generally not true when it comes to governance. Areas are different: they have different needs, different local suppliers and there is likely to be a difference when considering what the people of the area need and want. This is true even within the NHS. Every hospital has (or I assume has) a stand-by generating plant. Should they all buy the same model or even from the same supplier? I would argue that the answer is ‘no’. For a start, not all hospitals would need the same size of generator – so there can be no ‘best’ manufacturer to cover the entire range. Secondly is the question of the proximity of a service facility: If you are the western end of Cornwall you do not want to rely on a service engineer coming from, say, Bristol.

Here is the second. “Letting my engineering background shine through, a local based government system could be considered sub-optimal from a systemic point of view. The sum of local optimums may be worse than a single global optimum. By this I mean if every local community only looks out for and funds itself, the poorer communities will struggle most. Under a centralised system the taxes from the funding can be coordinated that the wealthiest constituencies can be redistributed to the poorest. I guess I’m talking about the concept of ‘the greater good’ here, and that is something that I guess depends very much on your political philosophy as to its relevance.”

Here I absolutely agree in that Marek hits on a problem that would arise unless it were to be properly addressed. My preferred solution (at the moment and very much work in progress) is that all income related taxes and property taxes should be collected on a local basis – both personal and business – whilst VAT, Customs and Excise and other taxes should be centrally collected. In this day and age of computers that should not present any administrative problems (but would, of course, if the IT is unreliable). One of the functions of central government would be to administer a levelling grant to local areas based on a formula taking into consideration a range of factors (each area’s average income, population, etc). Incidentally, at this stage I am deliberately not defining what I mean by ‘a local area’ as that is a complex subject requiring more consideration.

Marek’s third point was: “Re-emphasis on localism could potentially detract from national unity. This sounds like a very authoritarian statement from someone like me (I’m slightly left of centre and slightly libertarian on the political compass), but what I mean here is a danger of different laws and legislation being ratified in different parts of the UK. So, to take an extreme example, one liberal area supports and legalises full rights for gay marriage, and a very conservative one overturns and outlaws it.”

Yes, but that is the whole point. To put it bluntly, what is localism? Looked at on a global scale, were there a global authority which pronounced on, say, gay rights I would hazard a guess that there would be more against such rights than for. Whether or not that is true, I would be most upset – I am also a libertarian but swing wildly between left and right as I go from subject to subject – if gay legislation ion this country were to be reversed as a result.

All of which assumes, of course, that if the local authority is a major tax raising authority it will be taken more seriously by the electorate – but that again is another subject.

* * *

Reading through that piece again today, I remain convinced that central decision making far from what we have come to call ‘the coal face’ is at best inefficient and at times utterly wrong. This is true, I believe, in all walks of life, not just the government. There are two problems with it. The first is that the information from said coal face to the decision maker will have passed through a number of hands and some of those hands (if not all) will have an agenda. They may not even realise that they have one but everyone has one even when they honestly do not realise that they do. Indeed, then it is even more dangerous. Anyway, it means that the person who has to take the decision takes it on false data.

Then there are the distortions in the command as they travel back down through the various layers of managers and administrators, each layer will want to see how these instructions fit with their working practices and will seek to amend or even reverse certain parts of the instruction before passing it on.

And we wonder why each and every decisions seems to result in extra cost, a number of (often expensive) unexpected consequences and not very much actually changing in the intended direction. It is, I feel, reasonable to say that these costs are greater than the so-called savings that may or may not be achieved by centralisation.

One final thought which I do not intend to pursue here. Some of us have been discussing a reverse flow of tax. In other words local collection and the amount that filters trough to what would (in essence) be a federal central government would depend on the relative wealth of each locality. This is work in progress,

Not That It Matters

For various reasons, we have created a division of Devonwriters (the name of the partnership within which I work) called Dartside Press. This is because the office is pretty close to the river Dart here in Devon and this division is going into publishing. We can afford to do this because of ebooks. To do so with printed books would be far too costly.

Even then there is a lot to learn and I decided that I wanted something simple on which to cut my teeth. The result is a compilation of some of the political stuff I wrote in 2011 and 2012 – suitable edited and embellished as required. It is called “Not That It Matters” for two reasons. The first is that it seems a pretty accurate title. The second is that it was the title of a delightful collection of essays written by A A Milne who, apart from his children’s books, was a brilliant writer in an era when writing styles were at their most elegant (a personal opinion, of course). Anyway, this was to doff my cap at him (and at his son near whom we once lived and who I knew slightly).

The book is priced at a very reasonable £1.83 but I am afraid is available from Amazon alone at the moment. I have another steep learning curve to climb before we publish in other formats but hope get there reasonably soon. Should you care to know more click here.

A coin has two sides

Every coin has two sides and I am beginning to wonder whether or not that is the most important political statement that can be made. On the face of it, that is a ridiculous idea but I will try to demonstrate that it could be the key to the political problems that we face here, in the UK, today.

Personal freedoms are important to many of us – the freedom freely to express an opinion with fear being pretty well at the top of the list. But that freedom creates problems unless it is exercised with great care. I don’t think the idea of one person’s freedom being almost always at the expense of others occurred to me until I stayed with a cousin of mine in the delightful village of Bottmingen just outside Basel. (In passing, I haven’t been there for over thirty-five years and I expect it is now just another suburb of the city so, if you know that to be true, please don’t tell me – I want to remember how it was then).

My Canadian cousin and her Swiss husband had very different ideas when it came to personal freedom. One of the laws (whether local or national I am not sure) stated that at weekends it was forbidden to have a record player or radio on in the garden. As Max pointed out this meant that everyone could be in their gardens at the week ends knowing they would have peace and quiet. Joan, on the other hand, considered this to be as near as maybe an infringement of her personal liberty. That coin had two sides and both side could claim the moral high ground if they wanted to. It is, actually, a political coin.

So who was right, Max or Joan? As a libertarian who, by definition, considers most regulations to be a response to a human failing of one sort or another I find myself siding with Joan. I feel we should be able to rely on the good manners of those with whom we live and that cultural pressures should be sufficient to ensure people respect their neighbours. Yes, I know that is hoping for more than can be expected but regulations reduce the sense of community responsibility within the population generally and I do not believe that to be a good thing.

This all started, I suppose, because I and others became antagonists on Twitter in the matter of the so-called bedroom tax. I explained all this on a previous post (Capping Housing Benefits). For the record, as a result I have now discovered one person who has been adversely effected by that cap and I shall be meeting her soon to hear her side of the story. Why we got ourselves into a muddle was that we did not think of it as being a coin with two sides – which is exactly what it is.

On the one side you have all the people who, often through no fault of their own, are living in housing the cost of which is being borne by the state and on the other side you have all the people who are giving up a part of their earnings in order to meet those costs. In a properly grown-up democracy, we would look at both sides of that coin and seek a modus operandi that removes the present conflicts that are causing so much fear and hostility.

That is a big ask.

Any move to alleviate some of these costs is seen as a personal attack by those to whom the state says, “you are taking more than your fair share of the available resources”. I am pretty certain that if I were to be in that position I would feel the same.

Meanwhile any move to suggest that it is reasonable to increase taxation to meet what could so easily become a bottomless pit (as has the NHS) is seen as an attack on people who would describe themselves as decent, hard-working and responsible members of society who put in far more than they take out.

Both view are, of course, wrong. Both views are, of course, extremely human – as are the people provided for by the state and the people fortunate enough to be able to not only support themselves but to be able to make a contribution to the well-being of others. But we humans are by no means perfect: some are selfish, some are greedy, some are lazy. You will find them on both sides of the coin. Also on both sides of the coin are people who are unselfish, generous and hard working.

So it is that some of those who have been told to find smaller accommodation have (if it is available) said, “Fair enough” and they got on and done it. Some feel the same but can find nowhere suitable without moving away from those who support them or make life worth living: friends and family. There needs to be provision for these since moving them could well increase the overall cost to the state despite a reduction in housing benefit. However, there are also those who seem to seize the opportunity to become victims.

Likewise among those who pay taxes you will find those who say, “There but for the grace of God go I” and are happy to pay higher taxes but there are also those who feel very differently.

Do I have an answer to that big ask? Not really but I have the hint of a suggestion.

During my lifetime I have seen that the people who suffer most when the nation’s “cake” becomes smaller are the poorest and most dependent.

When the national coffers dry up, there is no possibility of increasing welfare benefits and existing benefits tend to be eroded by inflation. Furthermore, reduction in activity in the private field and the need to economise in the public field both add to unemployment – and the unemployed pay very little in tax and need a good deal in benefits. Thus the existing poor become poorer and they are joined by more of their fellow citizens.

When the country is really open for business and doing well, however, welfare benefits can be increased in line with (and possibly above) inflation and more and more people will find gainful employment or self-employment. The existing poor may not be better off but are no worse off and their number drop as more and more people find work.

Thus I want to see a regime that does all it can to increase the size of the national wealth to provide the resources required to support those in need. This can be achieved only be reducing the regulations that strangle the growth of businesses and that will mean that some employees would have to lose some of the protections they presently enjoy. It will also mean accepting that the wealth generates will become wealthier and that the gap between the poorest 5% and the richest 5% will widen.

I do not have a problem with either. This country has been built in large part by people putting themselves on the line and starting their own businesses which means no guarantee of income and no guarantee of the business remaining viable. Compare their situation with those in employment (and especially those in the public sector) and I find myself thinking that it is time these people shared some of the pain. As to the gap between the rich and the poor: I do not mind how rich the rich get but I do want to live in a country where none are suffering from poverty. If the price of lifting everyone above a certain level is a an increase in the wealth gulf, so be it.

However, I want to add another burden on whomever is running the country: yes, get the wealth generating machine running properly but always ensure that you have the compassion to use that wealth for good.

I do not expect my left-wing friends to agree with this.

Referendums and democracy – again.

Ian Holman (@yarmouthian) and I had a Twitter exchange the other day which I want to use to introduce this blog which will be about referendums and could well take us nowhere. It started with a comment from him that caught my eye.

IH: Seriously hope UKIP’s disgraceful poster campaign backfires. Blatantly pandering to the ignorant and uneducated.

RW: @yarmouthian Are you surprised?

IH: @Rodney_Willett Sadly not.

RW: @yarmouthian If we could have a quick referendum, it would remove the point of UKIP and that would be good. Yes?

IH: @Rodney_Willett My preference is not to have one but I agree it would kill off UKIP

RW: @yarmouthian What’s wrong with having one?

IH: @Rodney_Willett Gives the largely uneducated public a vote on a single issue which they don’t fully understand

RW: @yarmouthian It’s the same public that votes for our MP’s. Some thoughts here (this was a link to my blog) and I would welcome your views on that

IH: @Rodney_Willett Interesting piece and a referendum would resolve the issue either way, I agree. My fear of a referendum is that many will vote no for the wrong reasons, i.e. not on economic grounds but because they ‘don’t like foreigners’.

RW: @yarmouthian Yes, that is a problem but how much do we value democracy?

IH: @Rodney_Willett Interesting debate. If there was referendum on death penalty, for example, vote may be in favour. Democratic but a result of lack of understanding of rule of law etc. Again a reason for not liking votes on single issues.

RW: @yarmouthian Yes, I have blogged about that problem too. It was tight but the right result in the end. But if not the people then who?

IH: @Rodney_Willett Point taken & tricky to argue against. Prefer to avoid referendums & allow govt., elected on manifesto, to make decisions.

The problem is, I feel, that we are both right. Yes, the people should be able to take major decisions about the way they are governed. Yes, the people cannot be expected to be sufficiently well informed to be trusted with taking major decisions about the way they are governed. It really is impossible to object to either sentence so where does that leave us?

When Ian says that he prefers to allow a government elected on a manifesto to make decisions, he is making the assumption that all matters of importance can be included in a manifesto. That was pretty much the case as the nineteenth century morphed into the twentieth. Then government was involved in far fewer areas of life than it is today and the divisions between the parties were fairly clear cut – for or against free trade, for or against the concept of workers’ unions and so on.

The Whigs, the Tories and the newcomers on the scene, the nascent Labour party all knew why they existed, what they were fighting for and for whom. By today’s standards, some of the things that were being fought for were unacceptable (the Tories), radical but on an intellectual rather than an emotional level (Whigs or Liberals if you prefer) and totally justified if fuelled by righteous anger which could be destructive (Labour).

So, if you voted for a politician you knew what he (no she’s then) stood for and the tribe he represented. You get a good feel of that if you read Ken Follett’s brilliant novel, “Fall of Giants” which deals with the period leading up the Great War and the tensions between the classes at that time.

Nowadays it is far more complicated as government has become more and more involved in the micro-management of the country (a move I deplore but that is another matter). One party wants to reduce the top rate of income tax, another to raise the income tax threshold. One party wants to restructure the NHS and another to provide it with more resources (although failing to explain exactly from where they are to come). Frankly, manifestos have become more a list of aspirations than of carefully costed and thoroughly researched proposals for action.

Meanwhile, since all of the manifestos will contain things that everyone likes, things that everyone dislikes and more things that most people do not care about it becomes impossible to decide which party would be best for the country (or even for each individual voter). That’s a sweeping statement but is probably realistic. To make matters worse, very few people believe that the politicians have any real intention of taking note of what they said in their manifestos and very few people realise that changing circumstances can render certain manifesto promises unachievable. One things of Clegg and tuition fees and Macmillan saying, feelingly, “Events, dear boy, events”.

Then there are matters – the EU is a perfect example – where the divisions in opinion do not follow party lines. So these matters never appear in a manifesto and the people have no opportunity to express an opinion.

In the end, elections are fought on other grounds: the likeability of the leaders, how they come over on the telly, the record of the last government (or, to be more accurate, the perception regarding the record of the last government) and, even though outdated and probably foolish, old tribal loyalties.

When canvassing I would often be told, “Well, my father/mother always voted Conservative/Liberal/Labour so . . .” Such people rarely said LibDems, their parents being too old to have taken that merger to heart.

Even more depressing was, “Oh, I shan’t be voting, they’re all as bad as one another,” or words to that effect.

So, just how should we look to decide on the two most important issues facing us today – the make-up of the UK and its relationship with the EU?

Next time I will try to tackle that question. Meanwhile if you have any ideas, I would be delighted to hear from you (whether by comment here, email to mail@rodneywillett.co.uk or on Twitter).