Brexit reveals the broken relationship between government and parliament

Much wringing of hands over the government’s so-called ‘concession’ yesterday. David Davis promised a vote on the final Brexit deal – a ‘take it or leave it’ vote, as reported by the BBC here.

The way this is portrayed by the media (including the BBC in that article) is that this is some sort of climb down by the government. In fact it’s nothing of the sort.

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As it’s been apparent since the referendum result became clear, any vote on a deal must include the possibility of staying in the EU, otherwise it is meaningless. It’s very strange that the government hasn’t recognised this, as by giving Parliament that power they would both be honouring the terms on which Leave won the referendum (“take back control” – sovereignty, remember?) and giving themselves more bargaining power by holding themselves accountable.

In coalition government, the best thing rank and file Lib Dem members could do was to up the ante on policy-making to force the parliamentary party to take more radical starting positions when negotiating with the Tories. This was quite basic stuff; when negotiating with a more powerful party, you have to hold your ground as best you can, not concede it from the outset. (I say it is basic, but it was also apparently beyond the grasp of some of our people.)

In the same way, the UK government would have been better off using Parliament’s bias to Remain in its favour. They would have been justified in doing so because the Leave side claimed it wanted to give Parliament more power. And they would have given themselves room to make concessions that are healthy for the UK economy, in line with the EU’s requirements, and supported by Parliament. In short, they would have got a better deal that reflected the result of the referendum more accurately.

It blows my mind that the same Theresa May who made what now looks like a remarkably decent pro-Remain speech (for a Tory) back in April 2016 has frittered away her political capital and her chance to ‘stand tall and lead’, in her own words, by manufacturing a situation in which her ministers can simply ignore the country’s elected representatives.

We can’t really blame the government though. It asked for unfettered power to negotiate the terms of Brexit by challenging Parliament over Article 50. And Parliament, to its everlasting shame, blinked. In voting through the government’s bill completely unamended, it enabled Theresa May to invoke Article 50 without binding her in any way to any policy that would have ameliorated the total uncertainty of the current situation.

Once Article 50 was triggered, the legal process ceased to be a UK-based one, and becomes European. David Allen Green’s excellent thread, starting with this, summates:

If you didn’t read David’s thread, here’s the gist: you can forget all you read or hear in the press about Parliament having a ‘final say’ on Brexit. The legal position is that the UK will leave the EU on March 29, 2019, regardless of any further legislation being passed in the House of Commons. Only the government can directly intervene to stop the Article 50 process, and even then, it would be dependent on European institutions to allow or confirm the revocation.

What does all this tell us? It shows us the extent to which government and Parliament are failing to work together in the interests of the country. The relationship between executive and legislature ought always to be adversarial rather than cosy; the way that our government is built, derived as it is from Parliament, makes this immediately difficult.

But more importantly, it shows us just how poorly our elected representatives understand their role in our democracy. They voted enthusiastically for an advisory referendum that meant they retained the power of decision-making on Brexit. They squandered that power. Now, it appears, they are demanding that power be restored, having voted enthusiastically for a legal process that took it out of their hands.

It’s almost as if we need to reform the way we choose them.

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Cameron will survive the #PanamaPapers tax farrago — because of our electoral system

The Panama Papers have led to protests and political upheaval in two Western European countries — Iceland and the United Kingdom. But the outcome of these protests is already very different.

It’s difficult to see what separates the accusations levelled at Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson and David Cameron. Neither is accused of illegal behaviour, although Gunnlaugsson’s activities through his wife’s offshore company Wintris appear to be a more serious conflict of interest. Yet Gunnlaugsson is already gone — turfed out of power less than 48 hours after the Panama Papers were first published.

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By contrast, David Cameron survives, and is likely to leave his post at a time of his own choosing. By his own admission he has handled this week’s revelations poorly. Anyone who has worked in PR or public affairs can see the truth of that: a cardinal rule in such situations is to “get everything out there” at the first opportunity, as Ben Rathe showed this week in a blog post that was both spot-on and very amusing.

Instead, Cameron equivocated and obfuscated for four days — in four separate statements — before coming clean. He has now attempted to defuse the story further by publishing more information about his tax affairs, although it should be noted that the documents are not his actual HMRC returns. As Fraser Nelson comments today in the Spectator, this might just raise more questions than it answers.

But it will blow over. And the reason is our electoral system.

In Iceland — often considered the oldest parliamentary democracy in the world, having established the Althing in 930AD — the government is formed by multiple parties on the basis of proportional representation elections. The current government there is an almost equal coalition between the Progressive Party and the Independence Party, both of which won 19 seats in the 2013 election. Both parties won around a quarter of the popular vote, and the Althing has 63 seats, so they were only slightly over-represented.

That means that power is genuinely shared, and when there is a serious breach of trust at the highest level of government, pressure can immediately be exerted.

In the Westminster Parliament— wrongly considered the “Mother of Parliaments”, a serious misquote that misrepresents John Bright’s great liberal intentions—the government is usually formed by a single party on the basis of “First Past the Post” elections. The current government is formed solely by the Conservative Party, which won 330 seats in the 2015 election. The Conservatives won 36.8% of the vote and the House of Commons has 650 seats. That means they won 50.7% of the seats, so they were enormously over-represented.

That means that the Tories have to answer to nobody but themselves when things go wrong. Sure — perhaps the media will give them a rough ride for a few days. But imagine if they were still in coalition with the Lib Dems. The junior party probably wouldn’t demand resignation, but it could say that without reform on tax havens, it would remove its support for other government policies.

Why does this matter? Because the “First Past the Post” system favours parties that have strong clusters of support rather than support that is spread widely across the country. This, in turn, encourages the formation of parties that represent particular groups of people in their policies. Convince enough people in the places that most reflect your party to vote for you, and you’ll always be a large party, assuming you are strongly associated with a large enough group. (This explains why the Labour Party is still a thing, despite treading water ideologically and rhetorically for the past six years.) Convince enough waverers to join your loyal core vote, and you have a decent shot at a majority.

Cameron will survive because his supporters, and probably even the waverers, expect the Conservative Party to represent the interests of the wealthy. They do not care one jot about the Prime Minister’s tax arrangements; if anything, they probably think all these demands for “transparency” and “accountability” are a disgusting intrusion into a gentleman’s private affairs.

Edward Snowden doesn’t know much about British politics but he inadvertently put his finger on this problem with this tweet:

It shows the dismissive attitudes that pervade UK politics. If you don’t align with our interests — whether they are protecting unearned wealth, keeping foreigners out, or breaking up a successful supranational institution — then keep your mouth shut and don’t expect us to do anything to make your life better.

So the protesters outside Downing Street were wrong. They shouldn’t have been demanding David Cameron’s resignation. They should have been demanding real change — to an electoral system that would prevent people like him arrogantly arrogating power on the say-so of their cronies.

Nothing in British politics will really change until that happens. Everything else — including the EU referendum — is a side-show.

Why Nick Tyrone is wrong about First Past the Post

Nick Tyrone, formerly of the Electoral Reform Society and the Yes to AV campaign, has revealed his support for the First Past the Post voting system today. This is a pretty courageous move (in the Yes Minister sense) for someone with those associations and who is still a Liberal Democrat, as far as I’m aware.

So naturally I was intrigued to see someone of his stature within the Lib Dem/liberal community resile from electoral reform at a national level. He still supports PR for local government.

I was wondering whether he would make any new arguments for FPTP that I hadn’t already heard. But actually, he hasn’t. I don’t usually make a habit of fisking other people’s writing but on this occasion I have to make an exception.

His argument for retaining FPTP begins like this:

But at Westminster, I actually think First Past the Post has definite advantages. Relevant to the age we live in, it keeps extremism at bay. Some electoral reformers talk endlessly about how the Tories got a majority with only 37% of the vote. Yet, if we’d had a proportional system in place, the most likely government would have been a Tory-UKIP coalition, which would have had just over 50% of the nationwide vote together. I don’t see that as a step up myself, and many centre-left voters who automatically see PR as more progressive should have a long, hard think about DPM Farage.

Immediately there are a lot of problems. First of all, Nick says FPTP “keeps extremism at bay”. That’s a problematic statement both because it begs a question – namely, what constitutes extremism. Plenty of people might think the current government has an extreme agenda on the economy, or on intelligence and surveillance, for instance.

But more troublingly, it takes for granted the notion that the voting system we should use should have an in-built anti-extremism safety mechanism. In other words, we should rig our democracy to reduce the possibility of certain views being fully represented. That is, of course, the opposite of democracy.

Another problem: “the most likely government would have been a Tory-UKIP coalition”. This is based on the vote share those two parties received under FPTP. But you can’t extrapolate from vote shares under FPTP to a PR outcome; voting behaviour could change, possibly dramatically, with moderate parties like the Liberal Democrats likely to benefit from voters’ anti-extremist preferences.

But also this is just another version of “keeping extremism at bay”.  A genuine democracy sees the majority view represented. If the majority vote for parties that are considered extreme, then an extremist government is what we should get. I have no desire to see that outcome, but the possibility of its reality is in line with the principles I subscribe to as a democrat. I cannot abandon those principles for political expediency.

Another problem is that PR for Westminster can just sound like sour grapes. For instance, Caroline Lucas always going on about the Westminster voting system being “broken” or some other pejorative term. It feels a bit like, sorry to say, the Greens couldn’t break through under FPTP so now it’s time for a new voting system that will help them do better. Or then she talks about a Labour/Lib Dem/Green alliance. Putting aside the political realities standing in the way of that – if you want a “progressive majority” so badly, why don’t you just join Labour and fight for stuff inside of that party?

This isn’t an argument against PR, but against the Green Party. Unsurprisingly, I have some sympathy with it. I want my party to succeed under whatever voting system we have, and that’s why it’s not sensible to keep banging on about electoral reform as the central political issue facing the UK today (even though, in one sense, it is).

On the other hand, small parties are right to feel aggrieved at their lack of representation in Parliament. UKIP won a lot more votes than the Lib Dems in 2015; they have 1 seat to the Lib Dems’ 8. The Lib Dems won 24% to Labour’s 29% in 2010; they won just a fifth of the seats (57 against 258).

This is a fundamental injustice. It’s not about helping parties “do better”; it’s about recognising that they have broken through by winning votes, and that the system should reflect their success.

Finally, Nick turns to coalition government:

The last coalition may not have been to some tastes, but it was stable and it was effective at getting legislation passed. The Lib Dems thought if coalition could be shown to be functional over the course of a five year parliament, enough people would vote Lib Dem again in order to have another pluralist government. The Lib Dems were wrong about this, as May 2015 showed. And you can go on and on about tuition fees and what you see as the betrayals of the Lib Dems in government – you are only proving my point. The British people, and most pronouncedly in some ways now, those on the Left in Britain, are not prepared to accept coalition government. Given PR is almost guaranteed to produce coalition government in most instances, FPTP is the only way to go at Westminster level until the British public finds itself in love with coalitions (i.e. never).

This is a mis-diagnosis of the Lib Dems’ failure in 2015. The decision to go into coalition obviously lost the party a chunk of its support, but fundamentally our disastrous performance was about loss of trust. To say that that means the British people have rejected the idea of coalition itself is wrong.

The reality is that British voters are anti-government in whatever form it arises. A YouGov poll conducted in April 2015 showed that no form of government had a net positive reputation with voters. Even a Tory majority only scored -3. Moreover, there was some evidence in polling around the election to suggest that voters actually approved of the idea of the Lib Dems mitigating the other parties.

It is, in any case, impossible to extrapolate this kind of conclusion from election results – partly because FPTP itself does not tell us enough about voters’ preferences. Perhaps that is why Nick supported AV, a preferential (but not a proportional) system – because he himself recognised at one time that having the most possible information about what voters wants will create a better democracy.

All he needs to do now is recognise that seats should match votes – and he’ll have completed his journey from darkness to light.

If Julia Hartley-Brewer really wanted to save democracy, she’d back electoral reform

Today Julia Hartley-Brewer has an article on Capx urging non-aligned voters who care about their country to join Labour as a supporter in order to back “Anyone But Corbyn” – the so-called ABC campaign.

To be honest I’d always Not a Tory - officialthought Hartley-Brewer was a signed-up Tory. She frequently writes for the Telegraph, used to broadcast on LBC, and Capx is one of the trendiest new right-wing blogger hang-outs going, often populated by other strongly Conservative commentators such as Iain Martin and Daniel Hannan. To be fair to her, she claims in the article never to have been a member of a political party, so let’s give her the benefit of the doubt.

The problem with her article is that it fails on its own terms. Her argument is that a government should be scared of the alternative; that without a functioning opposition, we risk losing democracy itself. She claims to object to “power with no end in sight”.

If that’s the case, why doesn’t she try pointing out that the “majority” government we have was elected on just 36.9% of the vote? If the seats in the Commons reflected anything like the reality of how ballots were cast, we would not be in a position where the choice of opposition leader would determine the result of the next general election (as she seems to believe) – because we wouldn’t have a system where the winner takes all.

The temptation is to think that Hartley-Brewer, far from cherishing democracy and wanting to protect and extend it, is more interested in shutting down legitimate debate by preventing the rise of a genuinely left-wing Labour leader. If that’s the case, very well, but don’t use the figleaf of a commitment to democracy to cover it up – say so.