Indyref postmortem IV: Postal voting considered harmful

I think it’s quite likely the next independence referendum will happen sooner rather than later, so it’s important to have a look at what we could have done better, not in order to point fingers at anybody, but simply to make sure that we win next time. This is the fourth of several indyref postmortems.

After verification, the referendum ballot papers were put back into ballot boxes to be counted at 4pm.

After verification, the referendum ballot papers were put back into ballot boxes to be counted at 4pm. by Epping Forest District Council, on Flickr.

I’m not one of those conspiracy theorists who believe the independence referendum was rigged. Electoral fraud might have happened in a few places, but not to such an extent that it can possibly have turned a Yes into a No.

However, I still think postal voting as practised in this country is a very problematic.

Firstly, it’s democratically questionable when there’s a late shift in the public opinion. As a campaigner, I don’t like the fact that there is one deadline for convincing postal voters and another one for everybody else, and from a postal voter’s perspective, it’s horrible if a late development in the campaign suddenly makes you realise you’ve changed your mind.

Secondly, it’s not healthy for democracy when conspiracy theories flourish. Ideally, everybody should be able to convince themselves that no fraud took place, and huge numbers of postal votes makes this much harder, especially when there have been many examples of fraud using postal votes in the past.

Thirdly, Westminster politicians have been pushing postal voting in a vain attempt to stem the tide of low voter turnout. However, the independence referendum demonstrated that people are very happy to vote, so long as their vote counts and the election matters. The corrupt Westminster system with its FPTP electoral system and nearly identical main parties might need postal voting as a form of life support, but independence referendums most definitely do not.

Of course there needs to be a mechanism in place to allow everybody to vote, also those who cannot go to the polling place for various reasons. In Denmark, in lieu of postal voting voters can cast their vote at council offices and embassies for a period of time before the election if they know they will absent on the day, and polling places have a small mobile team who can take a small ballot box out to immobile voters. Mechanisms such as these could be considered in Scotland, too.

Hopefully the Scottish Parliament will soon get more responsibilities for conducting elections and referendums in Scotland, and if that happens, postal voting should be replaced by a better system, hopefully in time for the next independence referendum.

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Posted in postmortem, referendum | 4 Comments

UK democracy: A three-headed monster

Cerberus

Cerberus by Joe Dykes, on Flickr.

The UK democracy is a disaster, it’s like a monster destroying democracy with its three heads: FPTP, over-centralised political parties and the House of Lords.

First Past The Post (FPTP) is a decent way to elect one person, especially when there are only two serious contenders. For instance, in France the second round of the presidential elections is a FPTP election between the two leading candidates. However, as the number of candidates grows, FPTP starts producing increasingly absurd outcomes.

In some seats, there’ll be five parties that are more or less equally popular, so they’ll all get around 20% and the winning party might be the one that gets 25%. That’s hardly very democratic. In other seats, random demographic variations will mean that only one party can realistically win, which isn’t very democratic either.

In single-member constituencies with many candidates, it’s generally better to use the Alternative Vote system, which allows the voters to rank the candidates (e.g., a Green-leaning Yes voter might want to rank the candidates as follows: Green, SSP, SNP, Labour, LD, Tory, UKIP); however, the AV system was comprehensively defeated in the 2011 referendum, and it’s unlikely it’ll be resurrected any time soon, and the AV defeat seems to have made most Westminster politicians conclude that any electoral reform would be unpopular with the British public.

If the electoral system was functioning well, it would automatically limit the control exercised by political party headquarters, because only an excellent candidate with strong local credentials would have any chance of getting elected. In the current FPTP mess, your best chance is to be parachuted into a safe seat and not to rock the boat too much once you’re in parliament, so more and more MPs have given up independent thinking and instead always toe the party line.

Finally, the existence of the appointed House of Lords gives the party leaders yet another way to reward the loyal MPs. Whenever they run into trouble, they can normally be persuaded to step down with the promise of a subsequent elevation of the Lords.

The three problems are therefore connected. A broken electoral system and an appointed House of Lords gives far too much power to political party leaders, who as a result have absolutely no reason to change the system, because it works for them.

If it wasn’t for this fact, it would be easy enough to sort out the mess. The solution to the first two problems identified above is clearly proportional representation, ideally in a variant without party lists. Not only would every vote count, but it would also be much harder for the political parties to control the selection of specific individuals. And if the House of Lords was abolished (or replaced with a democratic chamber), it would be much harder for the party leaders to reward “good” behaviour.

However, I don’t think there’s any reason to be optimistic. In the UK, opposition parties routinely promise reforms but always forget about them as soon as the gain power. If Labour can only get into power with the SNP’s votes, then perhaps there’s a chance we’ll get some sort of reform, but left to their own devices the big Westminster parties will just waffle for decades. The system works for them, after all.

One of the reasons I’m so strongly in favour of Scottish independence is because I believe Westminster is fundamentally unreformable. Scotland already has a functioning parliament elected through proportional representation, and there is no appointed chamber here, so independence will solve the problem for us.

In the meantime, I hope the SNP will use its MPs after the Westminster election to force the other parties to introduce proportional representation and/or abolish the House of Lords. It would be rather ironic if the SNP fixed the Union for the Unionist parties, though.

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Posted in Westminster | 5 Comments

Indyref postmortem III: Why were EU citizens ignored?

I think it’s quite likely the next independence referendum will happen sooner rather than later, so it’s important to have a look at what we could have done better, not in order to point fingers at anybody, but simply to make sure that we win next time. This is the third of several indyref postmortems.

European Union flags

European Union flags by futureatlas.com, on Flickr.

One thing I didn’t really understand during the indyref campaign was why EU citizens were largely ignored by the Yes campaign.

I do realise some leaflets were produced in Polish and possibly other EU languages, but most EU citizens living in Scotland speak English fluently, so what was missing wasn’t really materials in other languages, but answering the specific concerns shared by EU citizens in Scotland, such as the following:

  • Would they be forced to leave Scotland if the EU terminated Scotland’s membership after a Yes vote, as the Unionists were often warning the EU would?
  • Would the non-discrimination of EU citizens continue without change after independence? In particular, would they be continue to be able to work, to access the NHS, to vote in Scottish Parliament elections, and so on?
  • Would it be easy to become a Scottish citizen after independence?

The last question was answered unequivocally — it would be rather hard, much harder than for British citizens living in Scotland. However, the first two items weren’t addressed very clearly.

It would have been very easy for the Scottish Government to issue some clear plans to reassure all EU citizens. However, this didn’t really happen — there were some promising clauses hidden in the draft constitution and other places, but it was all too hidden to be of much use in the campaign.

It’s really rather sad, because most EU citizens were fundamentally sympathetic to getting away from the Eurosceptic consensus that often seems to reign supreme in England — indeed, for many EU citizens here, the in/out referendum could lead to losing their jobs and being deported back to a country they haven’t lived in for many years.

I don’t know why the Scottish Government didn’t do more. I can think of a few possible explanations, but I don’t know whether they’re correct or not.

Firstly, I think there was an unwillingness to discuss the possibility of Scotland being thrown out of the EU — if the Scottish Government had said: “We guarantee your rights to live and work here even if Scotland is temporarily excluded from the EU”, they may have feared the Unionists would have used this as evidence they were right to raise doubts about Scotland’s continued EU membership.

Secondly, they may have wanted to keep their powder dry for the membership negotiations with the EU. If they had already guaranteed the rights of all EU citizens in Scotland, their negotiation position might have been seen to be weakened. However, as an EU citizen it’s not very attractive to vote to become a bargaining chip.

Thirdly, there might have been some disagreements within the Scottish Government about the right way forward, and this kept things vague.

Finally, I’m not sure many Scots really understood how scary the prospect of being chucked out of Scotland as an unfortunate side effect of the EU playing hardball was for EU citizens here. However, we’re so used to threatening and xenophobic language from many English politicans (especially from UKIP) that it’s easy to become somewhat paranoid.

Of course a large number of EU citizens (including myself) voted Yes enthusiastically in spite of all this, but a more proactive approach from the Scottish Government could have led to an almost unanimous backing for independence from these voters. In the end, No won the referendum by such a large margin that it didn’t really matter what the EU citizens voted, but nobody could have known this in advance.

(Much of this blog post might also apply to Commonwealth citizens in Scotland — I’m not sure. On the other hand, people from outwith the EU and the Commonwealth couldn’t vote in the independence referendum unless they had obtained British citizenship, so there wouldn’t have been a specific reason to appeal specifically to them in the campaign.)

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Posted in EU, postmortem | 13 Comments

Election posters in Scotland and Denmark

De første plakater

De første plakater by Karen Melchior, on Flickr.

Peter Geoghegan has written a great wee article on his blog about the problem that election posters are getting banned from more and more councils all over Scotland:

But an expert fears that the lack of posters could contribute to lower turnouts and have a deleterious effect on Scottish democracy.

“People often don’t pay attention to politics. They need every reminder they can get (to turn out to vote). One way of reminding people is by posters in localities. It is important for democratically getting people out to vote and mobilising them,” says Alistair Clark, senior lecturer in politics at Newcastle University.

[…]

While councils cite the cost of removing posters, there already exists legislation requiring parties to remove election material after polls close.

There appears to be little party political variation on the decision to ban political posters with councils of all strips across Scotland outlawing them.

[…]

The outlawing of election material on council property means Scotland is out step, both with rest of Europe, where political posters are a common sight, and even other parts of the UK.

I can definitely confirm that election posters are an important part of Danish political campaigning. When I was a political activist there, I never chapped a single door (nobody does that in Denmark), but I spent many hours putting up posters and taking them down again after the election.

Another big difference is that while Scottish election posters are typically small, often just displaying the party logo, Danish ones are generally big, showing a big picture of the candidate and sometimes even a quote or a slogan. The purpose is to make the voters familiar with the candidate before the election, and it’s generally quite effective.

If you saw the text “Kirsten Oswald — SNP” at least 20 times while driving down Ayr Road in Newton Mearns, you’d be unlikely to forget it again.

Anyway, posters are clearly not going to be allowed in time for the Westminster election, but hopefully Holyrood will overrule the councils in the future and allow posters again everywhere in Scotland.

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Posted in campaigning, culture, Denmark | 2 Comments

Move the UK Parliament away from London!

York Viking March 2014

York Viking March 2014 by Peter Roberts, on Flickr.

As part of the ongoing “cash for access” scandal, Malcolm Rifkind said the following about the salary paid to MPs:

I think also if you’re trying to attract people of a business or professional background to serve in the House of Commons and if they’re not ministers it is quite unrealistic to believe they will go through their parliamentary career being able to simply accept a salary of £60,000.

That sounds a lot to a lot of people earning less than that but […] the vast majority of people of a business or professional background earn far, far more than that.

I’m sorry, but although that might very well be the case in the City of London, in Scotland and other non-metropolitan parts of the UK, only the select few earn in excess of £60k. I think the problem is that the MPs are living in a London bubble full of the über-rich and famous, and they almost feel like the poor relative in comparison.

However, there’s absolutely no law that a country’s parliament must be placed in the largest city. Washington DC didn’t even exist when it was made capital of the US (the capital was moved from Philadelphia to an area outwith the territory of the states), and Germany thrived when the capital was Bonn (by no means a big city).

If living and working in London is too dear and overwhelming for UK parliamentarians, perhaps the best solution would be to move the UK parliament up north somewhere. (Westminster is falling to pieces anyway.)

I don’t really care where it gets moved to, so long as it’s not in commuting distance from London. Ideally I believe it should be close to the population-weighted centre of the UK, and not too far from any of the four nations of the Union. My own suggestion would be York (just because I like it, and perhaps due to a bit of Viking nostalgia), but when I mentioned this idea on Twitter, I received many suggestions, such as St. Kilda, Clatt, Stornoway, Liverpool, Inverness, Perth, Dundee, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Some of these might have been made tongue-in-cheek, but Liverpool is actually an excellent suggestion.

Once the new political capital of the UK has been chosen, Halls of Residence for MPs can be built next to the new parliament so that there won’t be any need for second home allowances and all that.

Who could possibly be against this plan?

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Posted in England, Westminster | 17 Comments

Peace, European values and the well-being of the peoples of Europe

Glasgow Foodbank

Glasgow Foodbank by Zep 19, on Flickr.

Article 3 of the consolidated EU treaties states: The Union’s aim is to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples.

How can the EU’s aim be compatible with forcing the Greek people into poverty through austerity? Surely it doesn’t promote the well-being of the people of Greece at all. Given that poverty, unemployment and general hopelessness can easily lead to civil unrest and down the line even war, it doesn’t appear to be promoting peace in the longer term either. And I naïvely thought European values were about democracy, liberty and solidarity, not about enforcing neoliberal economic torture against the democratic will of a people.

I’m a huge fan of the EU project, especially the way it was conceived and implemented in the 1980s and 1990s. Promoting peace and prosperity while fostering links between people from many countries is a wonderful idea. Without the EU’s rules about free movement, I might never have moved to Scotland (I got a job here without having to apply for a work permit), which would have deprived my daughters of being born, given that I met my beloved wife here. And if European countries had been at war rather than working together in the 1960s, my father would probably not have moved from Württemberg to Denmark, where he met my mother.

However, the way the EU is currently developing is hugely worrying. It’s increasingly becoming a technocratic project where most decisions are made according to the rulebook of the Party of Necessity (“there is no alternative”).

I’m sure most of the modern EU politicians honestly believe they’re doing the right thing, but they don’t appreciate that there is more than one way to do things, that globalised neoliberalism isn’t the only game in town. As Paul Mason put it recently:

For a technocratic, youthful generation of politicians, brought up in what playwright David Hare calls the “absence of war”, the events in Greece just do not fit the world view in which all these historic issues and grievances, and obscure Greek anniversaries were supposed to be subjects for the documentary channels, not politics.

The modern technocratic politicians are of course everywhere, not just in the EU. In many countries, they’re busy trying to abolish universal benefits, free public amenities, subsidised public transport and so on. For instance, in Denmark there are currently huge discussions about how it’s becoming impossible to live in “Udkantsdanmark” (“peripheral Denmark”) because schools have been shut, bus routes cancelled, hospitals centralised, and so on. Everything was done in the name of efficiency and quality, but the technocratic politicians completely forgot to ask themselves what Denmark will be like when almost everybody lives in either Copenhagen or in the nascent Randers-Århus-Skanderborg-Horsens-Vejle conurbation.

Of course there are exceptions in some places. The SNP has been brilliant at defending universal benefits, lowering ferry prices and doing many other useful things, but in many countries only fringe parties go against the technocratic consensus. Another example is the fight against benefit fraud and tax avoidance. Modern neoliberal technocrats seem to be outraged at the former and quite relaxed about the latter, although the state loses much more money through tax avoidance. Again, the SNP has signalled a very different approach in Scotland.

To return to Greece and the EU, I obviously don’t have a problem with voters electing technocratic governments if that’s what they want. However, currently it seems like the EU is increasingly becoming a tool for the technocratic governments to force any aberrant countries to toe the line. They’re clearly not thinking first and foremost about the consequences of their actions on peace, European values and the well-being of the peoples of Europe, but more about not rocking the boat and upsetting their friends in the multinational banks.

That said, there’s clearly also a cultural clash with regard to bankruptcies. In Denmark and Germany, declaring bankruptcy is more about getting protection from creditors and less about getting a fresh start; if you’ve grown up in a culture where any debt you take on stays with you forever, it must be hard to understand why a country should get half its debts cancelled just because it cannot realistically ever pay them back. However, Germany would do well to appreciate that the forgiveness it was shown after World War II made it the stable and peaceful country it is today, whereas the punitive measures imposed on it after World War I were an important cause of Nazism; if they truly want a peaceful and harmonious Europe, they should perhaps pass on the baton of forgiveness.

I really hope the current technocratic/neoliberal majority in the EU will be replaced by parties such as the SNP and Syriza who’re willing to rethink politics and create a Europe that works for the benefit of its citizens.

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Posted in economics, EU | 11 Comments

Are terrorist attacks Europe’s high-school massacres?

Fuck the Terrorists

Fuck the Terrorists by VivaAntarctica, on Flickr.

In the light of the recent horrible events in Copenhagen, I’m starting to wonder whether terrorist attacks are becoming Europe’s version of America’s high-school massacres.

Both high-school massacres and small-scale terrorist attacks are typically done by young people who feel they don’t fit in, and they’re heavily publicised by the media.

Lionel Shriver wrote the following back in 2007; however, wouldn’t almost every word of it apply to many recent terrorist attacks in Europe?

If it does not sound too tautological, campus shootings keep happening because they keep happening. Every time one of these stories breaks, every time the pictures flash round the world, it increases the chances that another massacre will follow. In the main, all of these events are copycat crimes. Campus shootings are now a genre, much as, in literature, campus-shooting novels are a genre, one of whose entries I am guilty of writing myself. They are part of the cultural vocabulary, and any disgruntled, despairing or vengeful character — of any age of late, since grown-ups now want in on the act — now has the idea of shooting up a campus firmly lodged in his brain.

[…]

I would far prefer that this new killer remained anonymous. Were all such culprits to remain utterly and eternally unknown, the chips on their shoulders interred with their bones, their grudges for ever private, surely the frequency of these grotesquely gratuitous sprees would plummet. One of the driving forces for most of these killers is not just to be noticed, but, however perversely, to be understood.

Of course there are terrorist attacks that are carefully planned by organisations consisting mainly of grown-up people, and maybe they should be handled differently. However, I can’t help thinking that perhaps we’re actually causing lots of small terrorist attacks by talking about them too much.

Would it not be better if media reported such attacks in a low-key fashion, without talking too much about the perpetrator’s identity and reasons, basically treating them pretty much as if they had been bank robberies with the same number of casualties?

Of course it’s hard to force the media to tone down their reporting when there’s a huge amount of public interest, but at the very least we should perhaps try to keep the big headlines inside the country where the attack happened instead of publicising every one of them across the entire continent. For extremists, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

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Posted in culture, freespeech, media, terrorism | 3 Comments