Friday 24 April 2015

An unfair election

Although no one has any idea who'll win the election on 7 May, if indeed anyone wins, there is one absolute certainty: our voting system stinks.

Correction: the system we use for electing Westminster MPs stinks. Elections to the Scottish parliament, the Welsh and northern Ireland assemblies, the European parliament, the London assembly, and for the mayor of London all use a variety of proportional or semi-proportional voting systems.

Only Westminster still sticks to first-past-the-post. Does it really matter? It does. Because a system under which a party that could win a mere eight per cent of the national vote is still likely to end up with a couple of dozen MPs, whereas another party that may well win twice as many votes ends up with only a tiny handful of MPs, is patently, blatantly unfair.

The implications are potentially dangerous when you consider that the most unfairly treated party -- the one that could win around 15 per cent of the national vote -- is UKIP. And the party that is likely to win only half as many votes, the Lib Dems, could well end up either in government, or as the key supporters of a minority government.

Under a fair voting system, with 15 per cent of the vote, UKIP should have around 100 MPs. The Green party, which may pick up around five per cent of the national vote, should, in a fair system, see those votes translated into around 30 MPs. Instead, they'll be lucky to keep the one they've got.

Perhaps you remember that in the dim and distant past -- well, four years ago, in fact -- we had a referendum to decide whether or not to change the way we elect Westminster MPs. Fewer than half the UK's registered voters bothered to vote -- and of those who did, twice as many opted for the status quo as for change.

And if you can remember even further back, you may recall that in the run-up to the 1997 election, Tony Blair and the then Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown discussed a possible coalition between their two parties, with a changed voting system as a key policy objective.

Now it's all water under the bridge. There was no Lab-Lib Dem coalition in 1997, and no referendum victory for the reformers in 2011. I strongly suspect, however, that the issue may well return after the election, if for no other reason that UKIP will complain long and loud about the unfairness of the present system.

It is deeply unhealthy if a section of the electorate, already feeling dangerously alienated from the political mainstream, believe, with ample justification, that they have been robbed of fair representation in parliament. You don't need to be an expert in European political history to work out where the dangers lie.

At this point, I suggest you make a note of the word "legitimacy", because I fear it's a word that's about to become woefully over-used. Dictionary definition: "conformity to the law or to rules; ability to be defended with logic or justification".

Could you defend, with either logic or justification, the current Westminster voting system? The traditional justification used to be that it produced strong, single-party governments, unlike all those terrible, weak European coalitions like in Italy, for example. (An alternative example of coalition government -- Germany, which is arguably the most successful European nation of all -- is less often cited by fans of first-past-the-post. I can't imagine why.)

Well, sorry, but that argument won't wash any more. A system that is both grossly unfair and also produces hung parliaments is all but indefensible, save for the valuable constituency arrangement that binds MPs to voters much more closely than party list systems.  The truth, however, is that there are plenty of much fairer voting systems that also retain a strong constituency link.

If after 7 May, we end up with a minority Labour government, supported by, for example, the Lib Dems, the SNP and the DUP, that'll be a pretty strong parliamentary bloc in favour of reform. So there may be a real chance of making progress, if party leaders can be persuaded to make time for a reform bill.

A system that effectively disenfranchises a substantial number of already alienated or disengaged voters is both indefensible and dangerous. But my fear is that MPs will still need to be pushed very hard to do anything about it.

As soon as the election is over, let's start pushing.

Friday 17 April 2015

Has Miliband called the SNP's bluff?

Something very unusual happened towards the end of last night's TV debate between the five main opposition party leaders: I learned something I didn't already know.

Perhaps I haven't been paying close enough attention, but when Ed Miliband and the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon were clashing noisily over hypothetical post-election cooperation between their two parties, I suddenly realised: the SNP have no cards to play.

The Tory campaign posters show a miniature Miliband in Alex Salmond's jacket pocket: the idea is to convince voters that a future Labour government without a clear parliamentary majority would be beholden to a party that wants to tear the Union asunder.

After last night's exchanges, however, it seems abundantly clear that the SNP would have little or no power to exert their will over Labour -- for the simple reason that, as Nicola Sturgeon spelt out in no uncertain terms, their priority is, and will remain, to keep the Tories out of power.

In 1979, as Ed Miliband reminded her last night, the SNP withdrew their support from a minority Labour government led by James Callaghan, the government fell, and at the ensuing election, the Tories under Margaret Thatcher were swept into Downing Street. The rest is history.

So picture the scene: it's the first Balls budget, and the SNP don't like his version of what they call "austerity-lite".  If they refuse to vote for it, it won't be passed. So Labour threaten a vote of confidence, and the choice is clear: either the Scot Nats vote against the government, and risk the possibility of the Tories being asked to form a new administration, or they buckle, and either abstain or reluctantly troop into the Aye lobby with Labour.

Nicola Sturgeon may be a star debater, even if the snap post-debate poll suggested that Miliband outshone her last night, but she has given away her single strongest negotiating card. After what she said on that stage, it's all but impossible to imagine her instructing her MPs at Westminster to pull the rug from under a Labour government's feet.

That could be very good news for Mr Miliband, and it could be why he was so unwelcoming in last night's debate to her overtures. All the signs are that Labour will still lose a barrel-load of Scottish seats on 7 May, but in any post-election negotiations, if Labour end up with more seats than the Tories, he will be able to present the SNP with a clear choice: either you back me on key votes, or the Tories get another chance.

(What kind of deal the Tories might have to do with other smaller parties-- UKIP, the Lib Dems, the DUP -- is a whole different story: much may depend on who becomes Tory leader if, as expected, David Cameron stands down if he fails for the second time to win an overall Commons majority.)

It's a funny old election, though -- here we are considering possible post-election parliamentary permutations with another three weeks still left until polling day. Unless something truly dramatic happens between now and 7 May, my strong suspicion is that the post-election period will prove to be a great deal more interesting than the campaign itself.

A couple of nights ago, I chaired a standing-room-only hustings event in the UK's second most marginal seat, Hampstead and Kilburn, held in 2010 by Labour's Glenda Jackson with a majority of just 42. (The most marginal seat is Fermanagh & South Tyrone, which Sinn Fein won five years ago with a majority of four.)

What struck me as interesting, in a constituency where by polling day there will have been 20 similar hustings events (I almost begin to feel sorry for the candidates), was the response to a question I put to the audience at the end of the evening.

"How many of you," I asked, "as a result of what you've heard tonight, have either changed your mind about how you intend to vote, or are thinking of changing your mind?"

I was expecting either no one to raise their hand -- the conventional wisdom is that an exceedingly small number of people change their minds during an election campaign -- or perhaps a handful. In fact, more than a dozen hands went up, and I went home wondering whether perhaps there is still time for some surprises.

By the way, if you haven't yet registered to vote, the final deadline is Monday. Just click here.

Friday 10 April 2015

The agony of the tactical voter

I have a friend who would very much welcome your help. She lives in a marginal constituency and is agonising over how to cast her vote next month.

My friend describes herself as a left-of-centre progressive, and she has tended in the past to vote for the Lib Dems rather than Labour on the grounds that she trusts them more on civil liberties issues, to which she attaches great importance.  She was never a great fan of either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, although she says she has been quite impressed by Ed Miliband.

Here's her dilemma. The constituency in which she will vote next month is currently held by a hard-working Lib Dem MP who has built up a good record as a vigorous campaigner on a wide variety of local issues: the library, the local police station, a proposed new waste disposal facility, the A&E department of the local hospital. My friend would very much like to vote for her again, but is terrified that if she does, the likelihood is that she'll have played a part in the re-election of a Cameron-led government. (Assuming, as she does, that if the arithmetic allows it, the Lib Dems would again do a deal, even if it isn't a formal coalition, with the Tories.)

This is her reasoning: to get rid of the Tories -- and she really, really wants to get rid of the Tories -- there will have to be lots more Labour MPs after 7 May. That means that voters like her, in constituencies where Labour are in a strong second place, surely should switch to Labour.

Trouble is, she says, it would feel like a betrayal. She hates much of what the coalition has done over the past five years, but she's pretty sure it would have been even worse without the Lib Dems holding the Tories back whenever they could. On the whole, she admires the way Nick Clegg has played the cards he was dealt by the electorate: she thinks he was right to go into coalition with David Cameron, but says enough is enough.

She also admires her local MP and would be genuinely sad to see her defeated. But she worries that unless she jumps ship and votes Labour, she'll hate herself for the next five years.

Here's what I've told her: if your priority is to ensure that David Cameron does not remain at Number 10, then yes, you should vote Labour. If you cannot forgive his government's reckless disregard for the most disadvantaged, both in Britain ("Austerity? The world didn't fall in, did it?") and abroad ("Migrants fleeing from the coast of north Africa? Let them drown, that'll teach them not to risk their lives"), then yes, you should vote Labour.

If you want to avoid the nonsense of a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union (a referendum that would owe everything to internal Conservative party divisions and nothing whatsoever to the national interest), then yes, you'd better vote Labour.

I suspect what my friend would most like is to be able to vote Lib Dem again and see a post-election coalition made up of Labour and Lib Dem MPs, maybe with external SNP support. But she knows that for that to happen, there will have to be more Labour MPs, and there won't be unless enough people vote Labour.

I've tried to be fair, so I've also given her some reasons why it might make sense to stick with the Lib Dems. You could argue, I've told her, that in an election as uncertain as this one, the best thing to do is to cast your vote where your heart tells you to cast it, for the party you trust that has the ideas you agree with.

If you like what the Lib Dems say about introducing a new media freedom law, vote Lib Dem. If you think hard-working constituency MPs are important, then again, stick with your Lib Dem candidate. If you admire what they've done on civil liberties (surveillance and ID cards, for example) or on taking the low-paid out of income tax, then yes, vote for them again.

But I'm a hard-hearted pragmatist, and I have also reminded my unhappy friend of a simple truth: the party -- or parties -- that form the next government will be those that have gained the most support on 7 May. And unless more people vote Labour -- and fewer people vote Conservative or Lib Dem -- Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne will be back in office for another five years.

So that's what I've told her. What would your advice be?

(In the interests of full disclosure, I should make clear that my friend may not actually exist. She may be a mere journalistic device to illustrate a point -- but she'd still very much welcome your thoughts.) 

Friday 3 April 2015

Iran: the new chapter

It's a deal. Or, to be strictly accurate, it's a framework deal, which means that Iran and the six major powers with whom it's been negotiating over its nuclear research programme still have a few i's to dot and t's to cross.

Even so, it's definitely worth celebrating. Not so long ago, there was a distinct possibility that Israel, with or without tacit US approval, might launch air strikes against Iran, with incalculable consequences for the region.

It's only three years since the then US defence secretary Leon Panetta was reliably quoted as saying they he believed there was "a strong likelihood" that Israel was about to start bombing Iran. Five years before that, a senior retired Israeli military official said: "If the Americans do not take military action against Iran, we'll do it ourselves.”

And only a matter of weeks ago, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Washington to make a deeply controversial speech to the US Congress on the perils of doing a deal with Tehran. The Obama administration, to its credit, ignored him.

So the announcement from Lausanne on Thursday night was immensely significant. But so was the first phone call that President Obama made after the deal was done -- to King Salman of Saudi Arabia. (Mr Netanyahu, it seems, had to wait.)

Because the Saudis are every bit as worried about the prospect of a stronger Iran as the Israelis are. If this deal is good for Iran -- and if sanctions are lifted, it will be very good indeed for Iran -- then the thinking in Riyadh is likely to be that it's bad for Saudi Arabia. It's not just sectarian rivalry between Sunni Riyadh and Shia Tehran: it's also good, old-fashioned strategic rivalry in one of the most febrile regions on earth.

It may even be that the Saudis' unusually assertive military intervention against Shia rebels in Yemen was at least partly due to Riyadh's determination to send a message to Tehran: you may get a deal in Lausanne, but you won't automatically get what you want elsewhere.

So let us assume that the Iran nuclear deal does stick: how likely is it that for the first time since the 1979 revolution, relations with Washington will return to something resembling normal?

Not very, is the short answer, at least as long as Iran's leaders continue to back President Assad in Syria, Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. On the other hand, in Iraq, where Iranian fighters are in the forefront of the ground war against Islamic State while US warplanes are in action overhead, the two countries look almost like allies.

And here's something else that's worth considering: what will be the effect in Iran itself of the Lausanne deal? It will be presented, obviously, as a tremendous victory for the leadership -- but although President Rouhani has been backed by the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he still has plenty of hard-line opponents who will try to prevent the deal being finalised.

Rouhani owed his election victory in 2013 to a promise to get the crippling economic sanctions lifted by, in his words, "increasing mutual trust" with other countries. If he can demonstrate that his approach has paid off, he will be much strengthened politically and his critics will be weakened.

As the American security analyst Fred Kaplan wrote: "Tehran’s rulers have long justified their alliance with terrorists and their repressive domestic policies by raising alarms about the threat from demonic America."

So if that threat is receding, might Rouhani then be tempted to recalibrate Tehran's support for Hizbollah and Hamas? Or will he want to buttress Iran's proud reputation as an implacable enemy of Israel by continuing to support hostile Palestinian and Lebanese groups on its borders?

Iran has been immeasurably strengthened since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 (yet another example of the Law of Unintended Consequences). It now plays a crucial role in Iraq, it has foiled the attempted overthrow of its ally in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad, and in Lebanon Hizbollah is a vital political player. Most recently, its Shia allies in Yemen have forced the president to flee.

The shape of the Middle East has changed, and is continuing to change, beyond recognition, first as a result of the wave of unrest that was briefly heralded as the Arab Spring, and now by the Iran nuclear deal. No one can predict what it will look like when stability returns.

The regional analyst Abdel Moneim Said Aly, director of Cairo’s al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, wrote in Foreign Policy: "I am 67 years old — I lived through the 1956 and 1967 wars, the Arab-Israeli peace, the revolutions and coup d’├ętats. Despite all that, I never had the same uncertainty that I have now about the region. Everything is possible.”