The irrelevance of the main political axis of the 20th century

This is the world we all grew up in. The red circle is the large left-wing party (Labour in the UK, Socialdemokratiet in Denmark, SPD in Germany, The Socialists in France, the Democrats in the US, etc.); the blue circle is the dominant right-wing party (The Tories in the UK, Venstre + De Konservative in Denmark, CDU/CSU in Germany, various parties in France over time, the Republicans in the US, etc.). The yellow circle is the small liberal party that many countries had (the Liberal Democrats in the UK, Det radikale Venstre in Denmark, FDP in Germany, various parties in France), and the purple circle represents the populist/nationalist (also called far-right) parties that sprung up in many countries towards the end of the 20th century (UKIP in the UK, Dansk Folkeparti in Denmark, Front National in France). Of course there were also other parties in many places, but these were recognisable groupings in most countries.
In most democracies, politics in the past century was dominated by two large parties – a socialist or social-democratic party on the left and a conservative one on the right – as well as a few smaller parties (see the first figure on the right). The parties themselves had many different names, and they could be further left or right depending on the country, but that was the normal pattern.

However, it seems to me that we’re moving towards a new configuration, dominated by different questions. The main reason for the change is probably that the left-wing parties to a large extent gave up on socialism after the fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by a general acceptance of globalisation by all mainstream parties, which again bred resentment when it failed to create prosperity for all.

This is the world we seem to be moving towards: A large party that is liberal, pro-globalisation, pro-EU, in favour of protecting the environment, but hard to pin down on the left/right axis (the yellow circle). Macron’s En Marche and the SNP in Scotland are perhaps the best examples of this new movement. Opposing this is another large party that is authoritarian, anti-globalisation, anti-EU, anti-immigration and weak on environmental protection. France’s Front National is a great example of this, but it would also appear that Theresa May’s Tories are becoming this kind of party. There might still be small old-fashioned left-wing parties, such as Mélenchon’s La France insoumise in France and perhaps Corbyn’s version of the Labour party in the UK, as well as corresponding right-wing parties, such as Les Républicains in France.
The main political axis now seems to be authoritarian/anti-globalisation/anti-immigration/anti-green vs. liberal/pro-globalisation/pro-immigration/green (see the illustration on the left).

The country that demonstrates the new set-up best is probably France, where Macron’s En Marche and Le Pen’s Front National now are the leading political forces, supplemented by smaller left-wing and right-wing parties. It’s interesting Macron is called a centrist and Le Pen is characterised as far right, because they really aren’t that far apart on the old left/right axis, whereas they’re miles apart on the new axis. I think we might need new names that are as easy to relate to as left and right, but I’ve haven’t seen any good suggestions yet.

The SNP is also a decent example of a modern global-liberal party (it really isn’t a nationalist party in spite of its name, but simply a liberal pro-EU party that happens to be in favour of Scottish sovereignty), although Scotland as a whole hasn’t rearranged the political spectrum yet.

In England, it appears that the Tories under Theresa May are swallowing up UKIP and are becoming a proper authoritarian anti-globalisation party – it is interesting how the Tory manifesto is moving them strongly towards authoritarianism (e.g., ID cards and Internet censorship) and anti-globalisation (cutting immigration and preparing the country for a hard Brexit), while softening up on right-wing policies (increasing the minimum wage and capping energy prices). However, many right-wing liberals are probably still voting Tory, and the opposition hasn’t regrouped at all, which is why the Conservatives are likely to get an enormous majority. That wouldn’t be the case if they were facing a unified opposition along the lines of En Marche or the SNP.

I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised that major changes like this one can come about. In the 19th century, British political battles were between Whigs and Tories, and later between Liberals and Conservatives, and many of the biggest questions (like voting rights and free trade) were not easy to place on a left/right axis. The world is changing dramatically, so we shouldn’t be surprised if the fundamental political questions change, too.

It creates enormous problems for parties that don’t adjust to the new questions, but it’s also is a colossal opportunity for those that do.

Mentally accepting proportional representation

meditation photo
Photo by PMillera4
I’ve seen quite a lot of people girning about elected representatives as if they weren’t properly elected if they didn’t get the most votes in your constituency.

Sometimes people are insinuating that list MSPs aren’t proper MSPs, calling them losers if they had the temerity to stand as constituency MSPs but “only” got in on the list, or saying there should be a time limit on being a list MSP.

At other times people are criticising the second and third parties in various council areas if they get together and form an administration that doesn’t include the largest party, and today people on Twitter were furious that the Greens in Glasgow had the cheek to increase their own influence by voting together with Labour and the Tories instead of just accepting that the SNP had won the election (getting 40% of the first preferences and 45% of the seats).

I grew up in Denmark, and I only moved to Scotland after my 30th birthday. As a result, I consider proportional representation to be normal, and First Past The Post to be weird. I’m also not shocked in the slightest by any of the above. In my book, if you got elected, you got elected, and you’re not inferior to other members just because you got fewer votes. Furthermore, I fully expect smaller parties to do whatever they can to maximise their influence if the largest party didn’t get more than 50% of the seats.

I’m therefore starting to think that a lot of Scots are still mentally living in a FPTP world. They somehow don’t consider elected representatives to be proper unless they would also have won their seats under First Past The Post.

Perhaps that’s just inevitable teething pain resulting from changing the election system, and it’ll disappear over time. If not, perhaps Scotland just isn’t ready for proportional representation. Would people really be happier if we starting using FPTP for all elections again?

I strongly believe that FPTP is democratic poison, and that countries function much better if they use proportional representation. Scotland would have been a very different place today if Holyrood always had used FPTP like Westminster.

I just wish people would start mentally accepting the consequences of proportional representation. It’s better for you!

Net migration in the tens of thousands? If only!

immigrant photo
Photo by Matias-Garabedian
I’ve no idea why people are saying May will struggle to bring net migration down to under 100,000 per year.

The way Brexit is going, I bet it will soon be in negative territory for the following reasons:

  • Many EU citizens will go home or move to other EU countries where they feel welcome.
  • Many UK citizens will follow their jobs abroad.
  • When the UK economy collapses, the number of people wanting to come here will fall like a stone.
  • When UK universities lose many of their best staff because of the removal of EU funding, foreign students will go elsewhere.

(Of course some UK pensioners will return from abroad, too, but there are many more EU citizens in the UK than UK citizens in the the rest of the EU, so that won’t cancel out anything.)

Obviously, this is going to be disastrous, and soon people will start waxing poetically about the good old days when immigration was high and life was good.

However, as a result May will easily meet her net migration target. Unless she cancels Brexit, of course – so the fact she’s reaffirming the net migration commitment is yet another sign she’s hellbent on a hard Brexit.

Notional results

Photo by AlexDROP
Computing notional results is a useful technique for comparing two FPTP elections with each other. The problem it is trying to solve is that it’s really hard to do a meaningful comparison when the boundaries change, so psephologists calculate the notional results of the last election to have something to hold the new one up against.

So notional results basically means “this is what we think would have happened last time if the new boundaries had already been in place back then”.

Calculating accurate notional results isn’t really possible because we don’t know what each voter actually would have done if the boundaries had been different – it ignores tactical voting, for instance. However, for parliamentary elections they’re normally decent, because we tend to have access to the results on a ward basis. For instance, if Barrhead ward gets transferred from East Renfreshire to Paisley in a boundary change, we can subtract the ward figures from the former and add them to the latter and get a decent result.

So far, so good. Calculating notional results in local elections is much harder, however, because we don’t have access to any breakdown of the smaller areas. Furthermore, the STV voting system makes it even harder because the ballot papers are so different – how can you know what a voter would vote in a constituency with one SNP and one Green even if you knew what they voted in one with two SNP candidates?

As an example, if I had to calculate to 2012 notional results for my local ward, Newton Mearns North and Neilston, I would start with the closest 2012 equivalent, Neilston, Uplawmoor and Newton Mearns North, which elected four members last time. Here’s a graph of what happened:

So one Tory got elected easily in the first round. It then took the elimination of one SNP candidate to get the other one elected. Once the Green got eliminated, it pushed one Labour candidate above the quota, and once the last Tory got removed, it led to the last man standing, the second Labour candidate, to get elected.

Losing Uplawmoor has caused this ward to drop from four members to three. So what would have happened last time if the ward had already existed back then? It’s impossible to tell for sure, but the way I’d do it is to simply assume that the last Labour guy wouldn’t have got elected, resulting in one SNP, one Tory and one Labour. If Uplawmoor was really different from the rest of the ward (e.g., much more strongly Labour than the rest), one might change this, but you’d need to have solid evidence for this to do so.

If I repeat this exercise for all of East Ren, I end up with the following notional results:

Party Ward 1 Ward 2 Ward 3 Ward 4 Ward 5 Total
SNP 1 1 1 1 0 4
Con 0 1 1 1 3 6
Lab 2 1 1 2 1 7
Ind 1 0 1 0 0 1

However, it’s really not an exact science. Especially the new ward 4 (Clarkston, Netherlee and Williamwood) is almost impossible to estimate because it’s a combination of most of two wards, including a really successful independent in one of them.

I don’t think my estimates seem too implausible because they all the same or slightly smaller than the actual results. (Smaller is good because the council got reduced from 20 to 18.) However, the BBC’s estimates seem really odd in comparison:

Party Actual 2012 results My notional results BBC notional results 2017 results Actual diff. My notional diff BBC notional diff.
SNP 4 4 6 5 +1 +1 -1
Con 6 6 5 7 +1 +1 +2
Lab 8 7 6 4 -4 -3 -2
Ind 2 1 1 2 +1 +1

In other words, according to the BBC’s notional results the SNP did a lot better five years ago than they actually did, and that means the change from 4 to 5 seats looks like a fall from 6 to 4 in their terms. I find it really odd because they’re assuming that a reduction in the size of the council would have resulted in more SNP councillors, not fewer.

If your calculations of notional results produce weird outcomes like this, I think it’d only be fair to publish the way you calculated them and emphasise that it’s your best estimate, not actual values. However, look how the BBC don’t mention the actual 2012 figures anywhere, and only write a small warning without any link to the underlying calculations:

If this was just a freak event, I wouldn’t be too bothered about it. It’s so hard to calculate notional results that they’re likely to come out somewhat weird in a few places. There seems to have been a systematic bias in their algorithm, however, making it look like the SNP did much better five years than they did, and that in turn has made it look like the SNP did badly this time.

Here are the national results:

2012 actual seats BBC 2012 seats 2017 actual seats Actual change in seats BBC change in seats
SNP 425 438 431 6 -7
Con 115 112 276 161 164
Lab 394 395 262 -132 -133
LD 71 70 67 -4 -3
Grn 14 14 19 5 5
Other 204 198 172 -32 -26

Note how the notional results are making the SNP’s rise from 425 to 431 councillors look like a fall.

It’s perhaps even clearer if we look at the share of seats rather than absolute numbers:

2012 share of seats BBC 2012 share of seats 2017 share of seats Actual change in share BBC change in share
SNP 34.8% 35.7% 35.1% 0.3% -0.6%
Con 9.4% 9.1% 22.5% 13.1% 13.4%
Lab 32.2% 32.2% 21.4% -10.8% -10.8%
LD 5.8% 5.7% 5.5% -0.3% -0.2%
Grn 1.1% 1.1% 1.5% 0.4% 0.4%
Other 16.7% 16.1% 14.0% -2.7% -2.1%

So the BBC estimates that the SNP five years ago would have won 35.7% of the seats rather than 34.8% if the new boundaries had been in place back then (taking seats mainly from independent, but also from the Tories). This means that the new seat share of 35.1% looks like a 0.6% decrease rather than 0.3% increase.

For a voting system such as STV, I think it would be fairer to compare two elections by looking at what has happened to the actual number of seats and the share of the total.

Notional results may be a necessary evil in FPTP elections, but they can be strongly misleading under STV, as demonstrated convincingly by the BBC yesterday.

Last vote ever?

It felt really important and weird to cast my vote today, because I realised that it could be the last time in my life that I’m able to do so.

It takes a bit of a perfect storm, because it requires all of the following to happen:

  1. Brexit really happens and never gets reversed.
  2. Either (a) we never get another independence referendum, or (b) we get one, but the UK government changes the franchise to exclude EU citizens, and Scotland votes No again.
  3. EU citizens get removed from the electoral roll when Brexit happens. I don’t think the Scottish Government would be happy with this, but Westminster could force it through.
  4. I don’t apply for naturalisation.
  5. I don’t move to another EU country.

But what about Danish elections? Well, Denmark disenfranchises emigrants after just two years abroad (and I believe it was just six months when I left), so I haven’t voted in a Danish election since 2001, three months before I moved to Scotland. Since then, I’ve been restricted to voting in elections for the council, Holyrood and the European Parliament, as well as the first independence referendum. I can’t vote in Westminster elections, and of course I couldn’t take part in the Brexit referendum, either.

(The bit about voting in UK elections is of course different for Irish and Commonwealth citizens in the UK, who have full voting rights for historical reasons.)

I guess it doesn’t really matter, but it does feel a bit weird not to know whether I’ll ever vote again. I hope I will.

The lack of smoke-filled rooms

smoking photo
Photo by paulbence
The famous FAZ article made a really good point, namely that Theresa May seems to think the Brexit negotiations will be similar to the justice and home affairs opt-out:

[May] defended her vision by making references to a previous experience with European negotiations – she argued that protocol 36 had been dealt with in the same way. While the protocol had meant a lot on paper, it changed little in reality. Now Juncker’s people’s alarm bells were ringing. They had feared something like this, and now it had happened.

Protocol 36 is an addition to the Lisbon Treaty, the last of the great reforms of the European treaties. It summarises various special provisions, one of which concerns the Brits. They had reserved the right to opt out of all policies in the ares of justice and home affairs. Back then, this agreement was sold as a defence of British sovereignty. However, London had immediately opted back in to two thirds of the fifty affected acts of law — out of pure self-interest. This had been kept fairly quiet. May imagined future relationships with the EU in a similar way. While she wanted Britain to make an official hard cut she wanted the country to still be included in matters of its own interest.

However, I believe she learnt two lessons from the Protocol 36 negotiations, not just one. The first lesson was the idea that you can just leave and then opt in to whatever suits you – basically Europe à la carte. The other lesson was that you can talk very loudly and publicly about leaving, and then quietly rejoin a lot of it in a smoke-filled room afterwards, without the British public ever noticing.

In fact, this seems to have been the UK’s favourite way of doing things in the EU over the years. In public British politicians will blame the EU for everything the voters dislike, and they will completely forget to say that they agreed to it themselves during late-night negotiations in Brussels.

It seems most of the UK’s politicians and journalists therefore believe Brexit will be done exactly like this. For instance, London-based newspapers have been repeating ad nauseam that Brexit negotiations won’t start in earnest until after the German elections, because in the end Brexit will come down to a deal between May and Merkel (or Schulz, if he becomes chancellor instead). No matter how often the EU negotiators say that they’re ready to start, and that they will be conducting the negotiations, not the leaders of the 27 other EU countries, it seems nobody believes them. In fact, I guess May thought it would be quite harmless to hold a general election at the moment because nothing important would be happening anyway.

This is an error, however. While it’s true that really big internal discussions normally get thrashed out by the heads of state in smoke-filled rooms late at night in Brussels, this is basically the equivalent of a family gathering. It’s not how the EU operates externally. For instance, trade negotiations are conducted by the European Commission, not by a huge group of prime ministers.

Because Brexit is turning the UK into a third country from the EU’s point of view, the UK will not be in the room when the other 27 countries (and the representatives from the European Parliament) get together to approve the deal that the European Commission has negotiated with the UK.

Of course Germany might have some specific concerns, but they have to a large extent already fed that into the EU’s negotiating guidelines. Furthermore, many of the other countries will have equally strong priorities, and they’re likely to veto any deal if it doesn’t suit them. It’s not simply a case of making a deal that suits London and Berlin.

The sooner Theresa May gets through her thick skull that Brexit isn’t an internal EU negotiation in a smoke-filled room that has to result in a compromise that everybody can live with, the better. The other countries want to get the best possible deal for them, and a deal that demonstrates clearly that leaving the EU is a bad idea. They also realise that the UK is more likely to succeed if they are allowed to play the other countries out against each other, so they have quite deliberately agreed to let the Commission handle all the negotiations.

Accusing the EU of trying to influence the election, as Theresa May did today, isn’t going to help at all. It’s just going to infuriate the very people she’ll be negotiating with, so it simply increases the risk that the UK will leave without a deal. It most definitely won’t make Merkel take over from the Commission’s negotiators. That’s not how the EU deals with third countries.

The prodigal son

may pole photo
Photo by Calamity Meg
I expect the UK (or perhaps I should say South Britain, as I expect Scotland and Northern Ireland will have left by then) will in a few years’ time realise that Brexit was a colossal mistake. The size and location of England, as well as the population density and the age profile, combine to make it a very bad candidate for becoming a European Singapore or Hong Kong, and so long as the European Union exists, there probably isn’t any realistic alternative to membership if the country wants to be prosperous and moderately powerful.

However, it’s also very clear that the UK hasn’t had a good time in the EU. Instead of being a leader, it has normally been found on the sidelines, asking for exemptions or demanding to get its money back. As we all know, it’s impossible to play a leading role in a club while never taking part in anything.

Because of this, if England in a few years’ time realises that Brexit has been a terrible mistake and that they should reapply for EU membership, I hope they will also understand that staying out of Schengen (the passport-free area), the Eurozone and many other parts of the modern EU was a colossal mistake, because it prevented the UK from being a leader, and the English don’t want to be part of something where other people are setting the rules.

As we all know, there are currently many problems with both Schengen and the Euro – the former didn’t cope well with the refugee crisis, and the latter needs a deficit transfer mechanism – so if in five or ten years’ time the EU receives a membership application from South Britain that says they’ll join absolutely everything so long as certain problems are fixed, together with good and constructive suggestions for how to fix them, I believe everybody in the EU will be delighted.

Perhaps this seems rather far-fetched given the Brexit dystopia that Theresa May and her strong and stable government are dragging us into at the moment, but who knows? Once Scotland and Northern Ireland have left the United Kingdom, and once it has become abundantly clear to everybody and their hamster that Brexit has been a calamity, hopefully the Conservatives and UKIP will become unelectable, and new, pro-European parties can rise from the ashes. It certainly is already the case that Brexit is causing more people to read up on the EU than ever before, and that’ll be the first step in rebuilding the relationship.

I don’t see why the English shouldn’t be able to learn to love the EU. The half-hearted way subsequent governments have dealt with Brussels, staying out of this and refusing to pay for that, has been a disaster, and Brexit is simply the natural conclusion to a disastrous relationship. If instead the Westminster government starts talking up the EU and being pro-active, trying to lead Europe by example, I think everybody – the English, other people on these isles, as well as other Europeans – will be delighted. England may yet turn out to be Europe’s prodigal son.