Labour's Credibility Problem

Labour are being labelled 'deficit deniers' because they are not fully backing the demolition of public services being performed by the coalition government. The government backed by the media are claiming that only reductions in spending will reduce the deficit. The public generally agree with this analysis. It sounds sensible. Surely if you are in debt, you have overspent? And surely, the best way to redress this is to cut spending?

This is the 'person' analaogy and quite understandably it works for a lot of people, but let me explain why this is rubbish when applied to government spending.

The TUC has estimated that for every pound spent on employees employed in the public sector the government immediately gets back 84% in extra taxes and lower benefit payments. The extra economic activity of public employees also generates extra boost to the economy which helps the private sector. The key is, if this is larger than the 16% shortfall in immediate expenditure, the deficit will be reduced despite the extra government expenditure. For example a company supported by government agencies or grants might boost exports or increase the size of a domestic market, generating more GDP and more tax revenue. Or a company who supplies to local or national government contracts might win an export order through the extra expertise it has gained from the government contract. So we can immediately see how cutting public expenditure can be counter productive in reducing the deficit.

This is all classic Keynsian economics and has a proven track record of reducing government debt. This government is however trying a different approach, the austerity approach tried after the 1929 crash which led to the great depression and eventually to world war. Why are the government trying this? Despite all the attention given to the deficit, their main reason is clearly ideological. They want to reduce the size of the state. Is this a good thing on its own? Won't this reduce taxes for the median earner? Well it could do if the government was interested in reducing inequality, but the omens are not good. The last Tory-led government trebled inequality and poverty in the recession hit 1980s. They also signally failed to reduce the deficit despite the massive oil revenues coming on stream and privatisation of large swaths of government assets generating billions. Which leads me to the government approach today.

I personally feel that this present government, both Tory and Lib Dem are very aware that their austerity drive will not reduce the deficit. The theory they cite in defence is called 'crowding out'. They claim that the private sector will fill the gap in jobs and GDP and expand into the void where the public sector once was. They are less vague on what will happen to inequality but sort of hint at a neoliberal 'trickle down' solution of wealth descending down the wealth hierachy and helping all. This failed in the 80s as already noted inequality exploded under Thatcher. And as government jobs tend to be more equal in terms of pay and conditions and treat gender and race more equally we can expect inequality once again to start to explode.

So my point is, it is extremely likely that the austerity drive will not reduce the deficit, indeed it might make it worse. The government are not pinning their hopes of deficit reduction on reducing the state (like I have said, that is a ideological cause). No, they are pinning their hopes on a weaker pound helping exports - this will undoubtedly help reduce the deficit, but would have happened whatever happened to government spending. The other way they are going to reduce the deficit, is once again selling off public assets. The housing minister Grant Shapps has recently announced the sell off of £10 billion of land to housing developers. The sell off of forests was thwarted by public opinion. The government are also looking to sell off NHS services, but this is likely to be watered down after the recent uproar. All of these will help reduce the deficit. My best guess is that the deficit will be fractionally lower come 2015, but nowhere near the government targets as these rely on strong economic growth which all the indicators are showing is disappearing as fast as the public sector.

So not only are the public misguided in believing that cutting public spending will correspondingly reduce the deficit. They are also wrong to believe that Labour are responsible for the deficit in the first place. For that to be true, Labour would have had to have caused the global banking crisis. Even for hard right commentators this is one hell of a claim, yet somehow they have persuaded people of this.

In actual fact the deficit had been reduced by Labour in its first 11 years, only when the banking crisis hit in 2008, did it start to rise. And still our deficit is lower than most other developed countries. So none of the claims of the right stack up, yet if you repeat them often enough the people can believe them. It is quite a complicated argument to rebuff their claims and the left have little access to the media to get this message across.

My advice to Labour and Ed Miliband is to keep on banging on about how a lack of growth is ruining deficit reduction. Those on the right of the party hanker for a short term media pleasing hardline on cutting spending. Like I have explained this is the wrong strategy. Sometimes you have to face ridicule and ostracisation, but when eventually proved right, your resolve is rewarded. Labour also have the problem that without spelling out exactly how their milder spending cuts plan is going to work and what exactly is going to be cut, they are open to the 'opportunism' accusation.

Labour should make the case for 'progressive' cuts. They should be supporting Ken Clarke in reducing legal aid, prison sentences and number of prisons. They should be supporting Theresa May in reducing police budgets and numbers. They should support any reduction in defence spending especially nuclear. These are difficult policies for Tories to hold to in the face of tabloid hostility. They are essentially left of centre policies and if Labour is supposed to be left of centre they should be supporting them. There is also scope here for tens of billions of savings that will relieve any cuts in other areas. It is a win-win for Labour, except in terms of the criticism it would recieve from the right-wing press. But the right thing to do is not always the easiest. Ed should remember that.

10 Ways To Make First-Past-The-Post Better

Now that people have rejected AV, changing from first-past-the-post for electing our MPs seems further away than ever. The AV campaign may have been pathetic but the truth is people rejected AV in favour of first-past-the-post even in places where preferential voting takes place e.g. Scotland.

Labour party members are split down the middle on any reform and the parliamentary Labour party are even more hostile to PR than they were to AV (more than half opposed AV). Maybe it is time we reformers looked at making the most of the crap system we have got - first-past-the-post. Here are my suggestions for progressive Labour and Lib Dems to consider.

1. Smaller constituencies. This would make MPs more accountable and closer to their electorates. In 1945 most MPs had around 50,000 constituents, currently the average is 71,000, but this government wants to make that 76,000. This is a move in an undemocratic direction in my book. Smaller constituencies will give independents and smaller parties more of a chance to campaign as well, and generally delivers more proportional results. Moving to 50,000 constituents per MP will result in around 900 MPs in parliament which will strengthen backbenchers at the expense of the executive and also give more competition for government posts.

2. Fewer boundary reviews. People move around and this is a nightmare for systems that rely on boundaries, constituent sizes need to be as equal as possible but equally voters need to be able to vote our their MP - constantly moving them between constituencies makes MPs unaccountable. This government is proposing major reviews every 5 years, instead of the current 15 years. This will make a mockery of accountability and be confusing for voters. Smaller constituencies will make it easier to respect geographical and administrative boundaries, reduce the opportunities for bias and gerrymandering and reduce confusion for electorates as they will remain within local authority borders. Reviews should stay at 15 years, making constituencies smaller will lessen the need for changing boundaries anyway. One of the most costly aspects of our present system are boundary reviews.

3. 10% flexibility in size of constituency, instead of just 5% variation as proposed for the next general election by this government. This flexibility makes considering county and local boundaries and geographical consideratons much easier. For example the variation on an average of 50,000 would be from 45,000 to 55,000 constituents. This would allow, for example, a solution to the 'Isle of Wight problem' where we currently have a vastly oversized constituency, it could now be split in two. Also very rural areas would be accomodated by this change, thereby avoiding large geographical areas. The 5% proposal is for variation just 3,000 either side of 76,000. It will be impossible to stick to county, geographical and local authority boundaries with such a restriction.

4. Make the 'constituency link' really count. Stipulate that any candidate must have been born or schooled in the constituency they represent (or in a neighbouring constituency adjacent to it), or have lived there (or a neighbouring constituency) for at least 2 years PRIOR to applying to be a candidate. This will prevent candidates 'constituency shopping' for safe seats. At the moment many MPs represent constituencies they had never set foot in before they applied to be a candidate there. This would mean less MPs from the south east of England elected in northern seats. Also hopefully a less 'Londonocentric' campaign.

5. Replace deposits with large constituency petitions. A candidate would have to garner 2500 signatures or 5% of the electorate to stand. This is a better and more democratic way of limiting the number of candidates than using a 5% vote threshold and lost deposits (where a vote is less than 5% of total). What is now in effect is basically a big tax on small parties and independents, especially as our electoral system puts such a big tactical squeeze on any party without a chance of winning. This would have the benefit of making all the parties have to contact large numbers of voters in every seat. It shouldn't be money that determines whether someone can stand, but their support in the constituency (even if for tactical reasons they ultimately choose to vote for someone else at the actual election).

6. Parties must have at least 1000 party members (2% of electorate) in the constituency to be able to field a candidate. Parties would have to widen their appeal (especially as they also need 2500 constituents to sign their petition (see point 5 above)) and larger memberships would introduce more inter-party competition for candidature especially in safe seats where one party has a monopoly on the local MP. There would be panic amongst parties at first, as large numbers of constituency parties would not have enough members to be able to field a candidate. I would imagine that membership would become free in such places. If no party could meet this membership rule then the top two candidates nearest to achieving 2500 signatures and 1000 members in the constituency are allowed to stand. If only one party or candidate can meet the criteria, their candidate is automatically elected without the need for an election. Ultimately it is unlikely that more than 5 candidates could make the ballot with all these restrictions, and even the major parties might not be able to field candidates. There would be more 2 candidate elections, Tories would struggle to stand in the urban north and Labour in the rural south. This would mean less split votes, and more honest elections especially when first-past-the-post is only really works for 2 candidate elections. Candidates would have to get the written support of 2500 potential voters and membership support of over 1000. This would mean a frenzy of door knocking and campaign literature in EVERY constituency and right throughout the parliamentary term. Candidates would be allowed to garner support for up to 2 years before an election - they would probably need this time. For once voters would have to be canvassed and listened to.

7. Allow a tick box on the ballot, so a voter can donate £5 of tax money to said local party if they so wish. A voter could donate to a different party than they vote for or to no party at all if they leave the box unticked.

8. Top 400 second placed candidates elected to second chamber. This would mean a reduction in overall parliament numbers of over 200. Currently there are over 900 Lords and 650 MPs, a total of 1550. Under my proposals there would be 900 MPs and 400 in the Lords, a total of 1300. (Maybe MPs could swap to the bigger Lords chamber and vice versa). Those who lose out by just a few votes on becoming a MP will now be elected to the revising second chamber. The 400 best second places (runners-up with the highest percentage of votes in each constituency around the country) will be elected. This avoids any legitimacy issues (as second placed candidates are obviously less legitimate). And also avoids extra elections that the public might tire of. It would also ensure a more regional outlook of the Lords.

9. Smaller wards for local government. Just like for Westminster, local councils could do with smaller wards. Currently 2 or 3 councillors are elected in each ward in the UK, why not make it 1 councillor per ward and have the wards much smaller. This would make them closer to their electors and make the ward identity easier to adhere to local areas. It would also be good if candidates were made to live in either the ward or a neighbouring ward.

10. Fixed 4 year terms instead of 5. I am dubious as to what difference fixing terms makes anyway (as it seems a government will always find a way to dissolve parliament if they have to) but 4 years is definitely more democratic than 5. Gives people their say more often. (There is an argument for annual elections with a quarter of seats up for election every year of a 4 year cycle around the regions, but I won't make this argument this time about avoiding too much London-centric campaigns).

The Great Boundary Jigsaw Puzzle

Psephologist Lewis Baston has helped produce a report on what the new boundaries might look like. The report suggests that the Tories are not going to gain many seats and that the Libs are going to lose loads. Possible, but we must remember that the Tories and Lib Dems are in government making these changes and there are 2 years of wrangling ahead of where these boundaries will be drawn, so I won't be surprised if somehow the boundaries are drawn to be kind to both governing parties otherwise why would they vote it through - just you wait and see.

The four nations boundary commissions will work within the rules set and try to minimise change but as I have argued before, we are talking about completely abolishing 50 seats and moving to a less than 5% margin around an average figure to be newly set at 76,000 constituents (the margin at present works out by chance around 10% against a lower average of around 71,000). To make this new 5% margin possible, local geographical and administrative boundaries will have to be over-ridden and boundary reviews to be every 5 years instead of 10 to 15 as at present. The consequence of this will be an inevitable reduction in accountability and even a small change of adding 5-10,000 in one constituency will have massive knock on effects right across the country - most constituencies border on at least 4 or 5 others and all could be radically altered.

Just imagine MPs might have to deal with up to 6 different local authorities in their area, and the constituents they help are very likely to be under a new MP's constituency come the next election. Not exactly a very good incentive for MPs to help constituents. It makes a mockery of the so called constituency link if a voter is unable to 'throw the bugger out' because they are now in another constituency altogether. And that's even before we get on to the subject of 75% of seats being safea anyway.

This boundary review is the most far reaching constitutional change for a hundred years. Far more MPs will have their tenure ended by this boundary review than has happened in any election. If we ever needed a lesson in how our system is only a semi-democracy, then the fact that boundary reviews make more difference than voters is a salient lesson in first-past-the-post's democraticability (to invent a word). The power resides with the power brokers not the voters and this is exactly how they want to keep it. The people win concessions from the ruling class inch by grudging inch and have to fight tooth and nail to hold onto anything they have gained. Only when it becomes too much trouble for those at the top, do they throw us a crumb. This is what they call democracy, I demur.

Incredibly, Most People Still Think FPTP Is Fair.

Speaking to people who voted no in the referendum, I was amazed to hear how many people say they voted against AV because they wanted to stick with a 'fair' system.

This just demonstrates to me how ineffective the yes campaign was. I could accept that people thought AV just wasn't good enough, or just too complex or whatever else the no campaign told them, but to actually argue that FPTP is a fair system! That is just absurd. FPTP is only one step away from having no elections at all, it is completely unfair. We reformers have a lot of work to do to explain this, but we have to keep plugging away with the facts.

At the last general election campaign, the Lib Dems were top of the polls at one stage. People at the time were shocked to hear that the party in third place (Labour) would get twice the number of seats as the Lib Dems who topped the poll. How absurd is that? How fair is that? It is amazing how quickly people forgot this fact. Everybody should have had this fact rammed down their throat at this referendum by the yes campaign. But somehow people were persuaded that FPTP is fair. That it most definitely isn't!

For example, here are some results from the 2010 general election.

Basically, in Scotland, Wales and Northern England, Labour got 39% of the vote yet over 66% of the seats. In the South excluding London, the Tories got 47% of the vote yet over 82% of the seats. That leaves the Midlands and London where the Tories just topped the poll with 38% of the vote to get 52% of the seats. Northern Ireland is only about 3% of seats in total, so effectively irrelevant.

A 3.9% increase in the Tory vote to 36% garnered them nearly 30% more seats in parliament, a 1% increase in the Lib Dem vote lost them nearly 10% of their seats. Does any of that sound fair?

But when we look even closer it gets even worse. From these charts you can see how results are distorted from region to region, exagerating the difference between the parties, not only smaller parties suffer from FPTP but millions of Labour voters in the South and Tory voters in the North. (South = south west, south east, eastern) (North = north west, north east and yorks+humber).

But even this doesn't show us the real distortion of FPTP. In the South the Tories might get 47% overall, but this hides the variation between their urban and rural vote. They typically get near 80% of the rural vote, but just 20% of the urban vote and about 40% in surburbia. In the North you can halve these figures, so 10% urban, 20% surburban and 40% rural.

The Labour party are facing near death right across the South only averaging 17% of the vote, and getting just 5% of seats. In the European elections, the Labour vote dropped as low as 8% across the South. In rural areas of the South the Labour vote can be less than 3%.

But of course all these figures are affected by tactical voting.

The Tories have big hopes for their boundary changes and this is what makes me think they will want to get to 2013 before wanting to leave the coalition. It makes sense for the Lib Dems to keep this coalition going till 2015 to give people a sense that they were part of this government from start to finish.

The Tories hope they can manipulate the larger boundaries to include more of their rural vote in urban areas to create more marginals. They really couldn't hope to win more seats in the South on this evidence, but in the North, maybe there are possibilities for gerrymandering some more seats. Who knows. Whatever you want to call this process, it ain't fair and it ain't democracy in my humble opinion. The challenge is to get this across to the mass of voters out there.