Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Election special!

Let me indulge myself for a moment to imagine the best of all possible election outcomes: a hung parliament, leading to a government committed to a referendum on voting reform. In this joyous dream world, we then have to decide what system should be voted on.

It's no use asking the politicians, of course, as they will only support what serves their own interests. The Conservatives support the status quo, as the split in the centre-left vote between Labour and Lib Dems gives them a huge advantage under first past the post (FPTP) rules. Labour, after many years of dithering that happened to coincide with large majorities in parliament, have undergone a deathbed conversion to the Alternative Vote (AV). Believe it or not, Labour would do handsomely out of such a change. The Lib Dems meanwhile support a form of proportional representation called the Single Transferable Vote (STV). The Lib Dems would more than double their seats under such a system.

Fortunately we don't have to ask the politicians. Back in 1997, when the Labour party weren't as cynical as they are today, they set up a commission chaired by Roy Jenkins to decide which system should be put forward. The Jenkins Report is available on the web, complete with a late-90's dappled beige web background to emphasise just how long it's been gathering dust.

I'm sure it hasn't escaped your notice already that I have an extremely nerdy interest in this matter. So you'll have to take this on a leap of faith: it's a good read. No, really. Jenkins is a terrific writer and his wit shines through in every chapter. It's far more enjoyable than any official document has a right to be. Particularly good are his sarcastic remarks about the politicians' commitment to reform, e.g.
There is enough here to prompt the cynical thought that there has been an element of 'The devil was sick, the devil a monk would be, the devil was well, the devil a devil he'd be' about the attitude of all parties to electoral reform. Their desire to improve the electoral system has tended to vary in inverse proportion to their ability to do anything about it.
And the little history lessons dotted around the text:
Some constituencies were always regarded, at any rate by some politicians, as having a greater prestige than others. Some saw the City of London as being peculiarly appropriate for great financiers or, on two occasions, for party leaders, and Lord Randolph Churchill several times tried to escape from what he regarded as the mediocrity of South Paddington to the romance of a 'great industrial borough'.
The commission's work was governed by four goals: broad proportionality, the need for stable government, an extension of voter choice, and the maintenance of a link between MPs and geographical constituencies. As these goals contradict each other to a large extent, they rule out almost every method in existence. First past the post fails the test because of its gross disproportionality. Alternative vote, while increasing voter choice, can lead to even less proportional results than FPTP. STV, as a proportional system, fared much better, but the authors raised a number of objections against it, in particular the problem that STV constituencies would have to be huge in areas of low population. The other issue is that it is possible to offer voters too much choice, and STV arguably fails on this level:
Where the choice offered resembles a caricature of an over-zealous American breakfast waiter going on posing an indefinite number of unwanted options, it becomes both an exasperation and an incitement to the giving of random answers.
That leaves one other major method: the Additional Member System (AMS), as used already for the Scottish Parliament and London Assembly, as well as in countries such as Germany and New Zealand. Essentially the vote proceeds as in FPTP, but with extra MPs based on a second 'party' vote to make up for lack of proportionality in the constituencies.

AMS keeps the small constituencies that STV lacks, but it has its disadvantages too. Two types of MP are created, with the additional members representing large regions or even nothing at all. The other 'disadvantage' is shared by both systems, in that proportional representation leads to permanent coalition government. The commission's view was that this is not desirable when there is a clear popular desire for a single party, as in 1997 for Labour, even if they are not the first choice of a majority of the people. They also argue that 'proportionality of power' is at least as important as 'proportionality of representation', and PR systems tend to give too much power to small parties holding the balance of power. This is a controversial point, but it's true for example that the liberal FDP effectively could choose the German government for most of the post-war period.

At this point you can sense the eagerness of the commission to devise their very own system, and the one they came up with is called the Alternative Vote Top-Up or AV+. This is best described as a semi-proportional system, as it would use about 15-20% of the seats to offset the unfairness of the constituencies rather than 50% as is usual. Outright majorities could therefore be secured in situations such as 1997, whereas coalitions would be the norm when the voters are split as they are this year. They also selected the Alternative Vote for the constituencies rather than FPTP, although this is not fundamental to its operation and one of the commission members dissented from the choice.

AV+ is either an elegant solution or a messy compromise depending on your point of view. Tony Blair gave the report a fairly positive verdict, saying it "makes a well-argued and powerful case for the system it recommends" (before shelving it for the rest of his time in office). William Hague meanwhile declared it a "dog's breakfast". Both are right in their own way. The example ballot paper is certainly not a model of simplicity. What it does achieve is a reasonable fulfilment of the four goals the commission was set, and it keeps alive many of the better traditions of British parliamentary politics.

Perhaps the most important point in its favour, however, is that none of the parties have since championed it. That in itself shows they must have got something right. Maybe in dream world it will sneak through as the compromise candidate, and we'll be voting this way in the election after next. But even if it remains on the shelf, the arguments in this report are essential reading for anyone interested in the future of our democracy.

End of Year Update (30/12/2010): Looking back we came tantalisingly close to that ideal result, but the parliamentary maths made a Lib-Lab pact impossible and with it went the opportunity for the Lib Dems to negotiate a referendum on a major change like AV+ or STV. However, to their credit they did manage to extract a referendum on the Alternative Vote system from the Tories. AV is a small but important reform that would eliminate the need to vote tactically, as is often necessary to make your vote count under the first past the post system.

Interestingly - at least if you're as cynical as I am about the parties' attitudes to reform - the partisan calculations on AV have changed considerably since the election. From the formation of the Lib Dems up until 2010, it's been the received wisdom that Lib Dem second preferences would break for Labour and vice versa, meaning that the Lib Dems and Labour would do well from AV at the expense of the Conservatives. This was partly why the Jenkins commission felt unable to recommend AV. But since the election the Lib Dems have lost around two-thirds of their support in the polls, dropping from 24% to 8-9% according to YouGov. The voters they've lost are leftish 'social liberals', dismayed at the economically liberal Orange Book policies of the Lib Dem leadership. The rump Lib Dem support are now much more likely to cast their second preferences for the Tories, and vice versa.

We can therefore expect next year to see increasing dissent from Labour partisans against Ed Miliband's (admirable) support for AV. The Tories will find it harder to shift their position, given that their commitment to FPTP is far longer-standing than Labour's to AV. But I wouldn't be surprised to see the Conservative leadership not campaigning very hard at all against AV and secretly hoping it goes through. The Lib Dems, of course, will take whatever reform they can get. What this means for the chances of a yes vote in May, I have no idea.

The Report of the Independent Commission on the Voting System
by Roy Jenkins, Robert Alexander, Joyce Gould, John Chilcot and David Lipsey
First published 1998
Available online

Thursday, 8 April 2010

The middle of the film

I was given Michael Palin's first volume of diaries by my father-in-law and admired them so much that I was inspired (not for the first time) to keep a diary myself. I soon realised (not for the first time) that I'm not one of life's diary-keepers. The secret, if Palin is any guide, is to write up your previous day's adventures first thing the following morning. Presumably this requires an engaged brain at an early hour, so there's no hope for me.

I've resisted any urge to try again in the wake of Halfway to Hollywood, Palin's second volume of diaries. This is not a reflection on the book, which is just as admirable as the first volume; quite a surprise considering that the time period covered is, in hindsight, a lull between his great successes as a Python and as a travel documentary maker. Part of the joy is knowing the denouement before the author, the opposite of the normal reading experience.

The title is an accurate summation of the contents. As Palin notes in his introduction, the door to Hollywood was open, and he is involved with seven films over the course of the book. I would probably have got more out of it if I'd actually seen half the stuff he made: The Missionary and A Private Function in particular get a lot of coverage and I hadn't even heard of them before reading this. Meanwhile some of the films I have seen (Meaning of Life, Brazil) seem to come and go in a flash, although that might just be because I was more interested in reading about them.

This volume also charts the winding down of Python's big screen reincarnation. Not that there's much of a story to be told: it opens on a high with the success of Life of Brian, which transfers into enthusiasm for making the film that eventually became Meaning of Life, and then fizzles out for no obvious reason (though maybe their realisation early on that Meaning of Life isn't going to be a Brian-level masterpiece plays a part). Again it's interesting to read this from the viewpoint of a diary rather than a biography, where reasons would have to be supplied.

The greatest success of the decade is A Fish Called Wanda, which Palin is surprisingly sceptical about in its early stages. Wanda comes at the end of the book and seems to contradict Palin's statement that his chances of a Hollywood career had ended, given that people fall over themselves to congratulate him on his acting. He is also well on the way to making American Friends. But his enthusiasm for scriptwriting, if not acting, does wane over the years, and so it's not surprising that American Friends is the last film he's written to date.

As in the first book, if you're looking for dirt you'll be disappointed and there's nothing in here to suggest that Palin is anything other than the very nice guy we all assume him to be (though reassuringly he does get annoyed from time to time). Even his politics are likeable, at one point going as far as becoming chairman of a transport pressure group after letting his railway enthusiasm get the better of him. His ever-increasing despair at the Conservative government of the 1980's is a chilling reminder of what we might be about to face in a month's time.

The diary has been edited to around a quarter of its original size, and what's left concentrates on his work, as this is obviously of most interest to the average reader. But there are some interesting tales of his family too. One highlight is his 80-year-old mother's first ever trip to America, which ends up with her co-hosting Saturday Night Live.

I'm not sure how attractive the next volume of Palin's diaries will be. Around the World in 80 Days and its follow-ups are, after all, just edited versions of what he's been up to, so competing for the same territory as these books, and with better pictures too. Having said that, it's the in-between bits that make Halfway to Hollywood really interesting, the great jumble of work and family life, and the feeling that it gives of an unfiltered behind-the-scenes account of it all.

Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980-1988
by Michael Palin
First published 2009