All posts by tobypereira

We need to invest more in green energy

It has been reported that we will be quite low on electricity supplies this winter, and while it seems that we are unlikely to have any blackouts, spare electricity capacity is likely to be at only 4%, down from 17% three years ago.

This shows that we clearly need to invest more in energy. And with the dangers of climate change and nuclear waste, and now the added threat of fracking, we need to invest more in renewable energy, such as wind and solar energy. This is not something that can be solved overnight, but this is where we need to be looking in the long term, and much more so than we are doing at the moment.

Based on 2013 figures, we get approximately 15% of the energy for electricity from renewable sources. We could get a lot more from wind power now, but many applications for wind farms are rejected often for apparently no good reason. Conservative MP Eric Pickles in his position as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has unilateral power over these decisions. Such a state of affairs means that decisions are at risk of being made for political reasons, as many would argue has been the case here. I have previously argued that individual politicians should not have so much power. The level of power held by cabinet ministers has not been awarded democratically as it goes way above and beyond their election by their constituents as a local MP, and generally appointment is not based on any sort of merit or expertise; cabinet positions are handed out seemingly arbitrarily to the MPs who happen to be favoured by the party in government at the time.

Many people make the argument that wind farms are ugly, but as Vince Cable has argued, it is an irrational dislike as they are no worse than the electricity pylons that dominate the skyline. It certainly seems to be a very selective dislike, which coincidentally is held almost exclusively by people who are opposed to green energy in the first place. And which is uglier: wind turbines or much of the world descending into poverty caused by out-of-control climate change? Some people need to get a sense of perspective. We want to avoid fracking, and reduce our dependence on nuclear power and fossil fuels as quickly as possible, but to do this we need to take seriously the investment in renewable sources of energy.

People argue that there’s no point in putting in the money and effort because other countries, including perhaps America and China, will continue to pollute anyway. That is of course an overly simplistic view of these countries. But while there does need to be more of a coordinated global effort, there are international agreements in place such as the recent EU deal. But regardless of what other countries are doing, we should carry on developing the technology and infrastructure as much as possible and not be afraid to take a lead where necessary. Technology developed here can be used by other countries in the future so it would not be wasted effort, and obviously this goes both ways, with the UK being able to use technology developed elsewhere. The more of a worldwide effort and the more money that is spent on this, wherever it is spent, the better for everyone. In other words, don’t hold back on green energy development just because you think some other countries might not be doing enough.

A YouGov poll indicates that most people want energy nationalised. Nationalised energy would mean that we could take control of how energy is generated without involving companies that need it to be profitable for them. There would be no companies applying for fracking licences, because the decision on whether to frack would not be made on the grounds of profit. It makes sense for essential services that require such high levels of regulation and coordination to be nationalised to keep them to under proper control.

Improving our transport system

At the start of this year, rail fares increased, as they do every year, making it harder and harder for users of the rail service. The problem is that successive governments haven’t been interested in keeping people using the trains. Currently the government pays 32% of the total railways bill but they want it to be 25%, putting more of the burden onto passengers (see above link), which is clearly moving in the wrong direction. Compared with other countries in Europe, our rail fares are already very expensive. There are complicated discount rates if you book in advance for journeys on off-peak trains, but this isn’t at all helpful for most commuters, and isn’t a particularly fair system anyway. Those who travel at peak times have to endure the most crowded trains, and pay the highest rates, and are effectively subsidising those who are able to travel when they please on emptier trains.

Considering the size of the UK, it becomes clearer how poor our rail service is. We have a high population density, making it far cheaper per head to keep up a reasonable rail network than most other countries, so it should be far easier for the government to subsidise than with other countries.

Travel by rail needs to be encouraged more. To decrease carbon dioxide emissions, pollution in general, as well as congestion on our roads, the government should be encouraging more public transport use, and for this to happen we need a cheaper and better service. What we have at the moment is completely unacceptable, and the idea that the government wants to contribute less than it currently does is appalling. For a start, public transport should be nationalised. The changes required to our rail system need to come from the government; changes should not be driven by the desires of profit-making companies.

We need to get away from the idea that the car is the default mode of travel. Public transport needs to be cheaper, run more frequently and for longer hours, and have wider geographical coverage. This will require more investment in rail infrastructure, which will obviously take a lot of time and money. But trains are only one part of the solution. We need to nationalise the whole of public transport, including buses. Yes, buses are polluting, but less so than the same number of passengers in individual cars. A cheaper and better bus service is part of the solution to remove cars from the road, and would be relatively simple to implement as it does not require building such an infrastructure first. Buses are also a more realistic solution for small towns and villages where travel by rail is less realistic.

This needs to be more than simply responding to demand that currently exists. The idea is to create demand by improving public transport to the extent that it becomes the cheaper and more convenient option for most journeys when compared to driving. Many people don’t use public transport now because it is inadequate. There are a lot of people who like to drive, certainly, but there are also many people who do not like to drive but feel forced into doing so because public transport is not fit for purpose. There are also many people who cannot drive, who therefore have their travel options severely limited.

You only have to drive from one town to the adjacent town in rush hour to see how ridiculous the situation is. So many people are making almost exactly the same journey but in hundreds of different vehicles, all creating pollution, all contributing to global warming and all congesting the roads, and quite often all travelling rather slowly. This isn’t an attack on car users. This is about giving them a realistic and cheaper alternative that would in many cases cause them to willingly give up the car for the daily commute.

I live in the Braintree constituency in Essex, and the train service here is awful. Trains to and from Braintree are hourly for most of the day, although it stretches to approximately every three quarters of an hour during rush hour. The last train to Braintree is also very early as well. For example, on weekdays, the last train leaves London Liverpool Street at 23:18 compared to 00:46 if you are going to Chelmsford or Colchester. This is a difference of nearly an hour and a half.

The poor service to Braintree is partly because Braintree station is on a branch line with just one track, so only one train can be between Braintree and Witham (where it branches off) at any one time. But since it can be every three quarters of an hour during rush hour, they clearly aren’t running at full capacity for most of the day. But even that isn’t enough. Really it needs a half-hourly service. And presumably they don’t want to send trains down the branch line late at night if they can get away with it.

There has been a lot of talk about building a “Cressing loop”, where an extra lane of track would be made to allow trains to pass each other at Cressing, which is about halfway between Witham and Braintree. This way there could be more than one train at a time on the branch line, allowing for a half-hourly service, and hopefully a service that runs later. It has been talked about for years, but nothing has been done, although there have been recent reports that it might happen. But this is an essential improvement that should really have been made years ago.

It is also not enough on its own to have transport running reasonably frequently. There needs to be coordination. I live in Rayne, which is a village about two miles from Braintree rail station. If I want to use public transport for my journey, I have to first get the bus into Braintree before getting the train. But they’re run by different companies and don’t tie up remotely well, which results in a lot of waiting around. Even if I wanted to get another bus from Braintree to, for example, Chelmsford, they still don’t tie in which each other, so there is no less waiting. So, of course it’s far more convenient for people to all get in their own individual cars, to all make the same journey separately, to create pollution and congestion, and to contribute to climate change. This is obviously just a very small cross section of public transport in the UK. Many places, particularly rural areas, have it far worse. But this is why money needs to be spent on public transport.

Where possible, better than trains or buses is walking or cycling. For longer journeys, these aren’t feasible, but in many cases people are discouraged from walking or cycling because the journey is perceived to be too dangerous. Many people who want to cycle are put off by the fact that roads are primarily designed for cars, and simply not safe enough for cyclists. Pedestrians often find themselves walking on narrow roads with no pavement.

We need to bring in more pedestrian and cycle routes, so that pedestrians and cyclists can complete their journeys with minimal contact with motorised traffic. Main roads could have such routes running parallel. Cyclists and pedestrians are far better bedfellows than cyclists and motorists, as long as the paths are wide enough. In the Netherlands they have separate cycle paths, which aren’t just a bit of paint on the same road the cars go on like we have here, and while they don’t generally have shared pedestrian/cycle paths, where there is no pavement, pedestrians can use the safer cycle path rather than the road designed for motor vehicles. In the UK, pedestrians and cyclists are in most cases a mere afterthought.

Obviously these proposed improvements would cost a lot of money, and it would have to come from somewhere. But as I have argued previously, higher taxes for those who can afford it is not something we should be afraid of. According to this website the government spends £20 billion of our taxes on transport a year. This is less than half of what is spent on defence and is less than 3% of total public spending. In the general scheme of things, I don’t think that this is very much, and I think it could easily, and indeed should, be a lot higher.

Extradition, deportation and human rights

David Cameron has recently declared that he wants to get rid of the Human Rights Act. The Human Rights Act gets a lot of negative press because in some cases it enables foreign criminals to escape deportation. It’s not unknown for politicians to score a few cheap political points by reducing complex issues to a few simplistic sound bites, so getting rid of the Human Rights Act wholesale and replacing it with their own watered down bill of rights is a small price to pay if it gains a few votes.

Deportation and extradition to other countries is a serious matter and not something to be taken lightly. This country has a responsibility not to put people in dangerous situations. If, for example, we send someone to a country where there is a risk that they might be tortured, then this country is responsible for that, even if the UK doesn’t commit acts of torture itself.

Politicians have wasted so much time, effort and money trying to deport a handful of specific individuals out of the thousands of potentially dangerous people we have in this country just so that they appear tough on foreign criminals. For example, the case of Abu Qatada should not have got anywhere near the amount of attention from politicians and the press that it did. The absurd amount of money the government spent trying to get rid of him would have been much better spent elsewhere. Politicians do not need to get involved in individual cases such as this. Obviously it is a problem when legal cases take years to resolve, but the solution isn’t to crudely reduce everyone’s legal rights across the board. It’s far more complex than that.

I’m going to use the rest of this post to discuss extradition in general. We have certain punishments for crimes, because, rightly or wrongly, it’s been decided that these are the appropriate punishments. And if someone is at risk of a significantly higher penalty by being extradited to another country, then this extradition should not take place. As it is, the UK will not extradite someone if they face execution abroad, and what I’m arguing here is just a generalisation of that. Put simply, the UK should not extradite people to face punishments that the UK itself would consider unjust. This applies as much as anywhere else in the case of extradition to America, which has a very poor record when it comes to its treatment of prisoners, and is one of the few countries in the western world to still have the death penalty. For a country that is advanced in so many ways, it lags very far behind when it comes to human rights. Guarantees over potential punishments always need to be given before any extradition occurs to any country.

This doesn’t just apply to countries with harsh punishments, but also to countries with unsafe legal systems, which have a high chance of a miscarriage of justice. So we need to be careful with EU extraditions. The European Arrest Warrant makes it very difficult to block extradition to other EU countries, despite there being no guarantee of the standards of justice. Ensuring better safeguards in these cases is an area where David Cameron would be better advised to devote his efforts.

Furthermore, we should not under any circumstances extradite someone to another country for an alleged crime committed in this country. High-profile examples include computer hacker Gary McKinnon, and Richard O’Dwyer, who faced copyright charges in America over his TVShack website. But even though these two ultimately avoided extradition, it was not for the right reasons. The main issue has not been addressed.

Gary McKinnon has Asperger’s syndrome and was said to be at a high risk of suicide. But that could equally be the case with someone at risk of being imprisoned in the UK. Why are these factors more important if someone faces extradition abroad as opposed to imprisonment in their home country? It seems as though these reasons were used as an excuse not to have to deal with the real issue – that he never should have been considered for extradition in the first place because he had never set foot in America.

Some people have argued that it’s a grey area because although McKinnon was physically in the UK, his actions had their effects in America. But that doesn’t make it a grey area. Gary McKinnon was in the UK. While in the UK, he is clearly bound by UK laws. It really is that simple. Yes, it’s possible to cause problems in other countries while remaining in the UK, on the Internet or in other situations, but that doesn’t change anything. If his acts were criminal, then he can be tried in a UK court and subject to UK penalties. The American legal system is irrelevant to acts committed in this country.

However, reasons have not always been found to stop these unjust and illogical extraditions. The “NatWest Three” were three bankers who were extradited to America and then convicted and imprisoned despite being in the UK for the whole time when their alleged offences took place. It’s a disgrace that this was allowed to happen.

It’s time to look at extradition and deportation in a more mature and logical manner. Not as vote-winning rhetoric, but to ensure fairness and justice for all.

Coordinating international military action

The UK Parliament has recently voted for military strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq. Other countries have recently had similar votes, such as Canada and Turkey. Barack Obama has called on more countries to sign up.

However, I would argue that this is the wrong way to go about things. Decisions for international military action need to be made internationally. For individual countries to decide whether they should go to war in another country is a recipe for disaster.

The most prominent recent case was in 2003 when America, the UK and other countries decided to invade Iraq, despite the protests and the many claims that it was an illegal war. However, this will remain a problem if individual national parliaments can decide to have a vote on whether they are going to go to war with another country.

But this problem need not exist. We have the United Nations Security Council – an international body that can make international military decisions. It’s not an ideal solution in its current state, with its arguably unbalanced and outdated five permanent members of just China, France, Russia, USA, and UK – this permanent membership stems from the result of World War II! So while it is not really fit for purpose in its current state, it is still better than countries making their own unilateral decisions.

International military action needs international control and coordination. Countries that meet certain standards (based on factors such as stability and democracy) would sign up to a body (whether a vastly improved Security Council or something else), with no arbitrary hierarchy where some countries have elevated status, and this body would make decisions independently of the individual countries’ governments or parliaments. All legal international military action would be decided by this body. Signed-up countries would contribute resources including soldiers. So while countries would have their own armies, in an international conflict, they would be considered to be an international army under international control. This would save every country from individually having the same debate over whether military action is desirable.

This would also enable us to get rid of individual countries’ nuclear weapons. For example, there is simply no need for the UK to have its expensive Trident system all on its own. If there really needs to be a nuclear deterrent, then it can be shared among all cooperating nations. This way, the cost would be spread, and the total amount of nuclear weaponry could be reduced.

An improved international body would mean that military action would be one step further removed from domestic politicians, who might be looking at irrelevant factors such as how action might affect the next election or their own legacy. It would also mean that military action would not take place simply because the nations that happen to have the most military power decide that it should. Military power does not equal sound military judgement.

Making university education fairer

As universities start the new academic year, I think it is a good time for my second post on education, which is about opening up university education to make courses accessible to more people, and a move away from individual universities making potentially life-changing decisions on who gets to do the course of their choice.

Currently we have the “top” universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, and people who go to these universities are generally seen in a better light than those who go to “lesser” universities. Many people have their applications to Oxford or Cambridge rejected, and while they can take a course at another university, there is still the perception that they’ve missed out and will now not be able to reach the level, educationally and perhaps in life generally, that they wanted. However, I think that this is an outdated and unhealthy attitude. But this is a centuries old tradition that for some reason is rarely seriously questioned.

I would argue that a degree should be considered the same wherever it comes from. Whichever university someone goes to, they should have the opportunity to reach the same academic level. This is why I would standardise degree classifications, so that a particular degree classification would be worth the same from any university. A-levels and GCSEs aren’t worth different amounts based on what school you attended, so this is just the next logical step. It does seem that at the moment, it’s actually rather unclear how to compare degrees from different universities. That there may be equivalence is clearly not enough. This equivalence needs to be official and clearly recognised by everyone. As well as this benefiting students, I don’t think potential employers would want to have to work out what a degree is worth based on some formula involving degree classification and the university that awarded it.

It is generally seen as a problem that some schools get better results than others, and much is made of the fact that some pupils get a better education and better opportunities than others, which includes the likelihood of getting into a better university. But this drive for equality seems to end once university level is reached, and this inequality seems to be more accepted at university level, for some reason. Yes, people complain that there are too few people of lower “socio-economic” backgrounds that get into Oxford and Cambridge, but there seem to be relatively few complaints that there are these exclusive universities that give better opportunities to students in the first place. This is what I would want to put a stop to.

By standardising things, there could be the concern that top students would be held back, when they have the potential to do a degree that progresses to a more advanced level over the three years. But there’s nothing to stop some universities offering a “fast-track” degree over two years, where the third year is spent at master’s level, for example. The main point is that as much as possible, all courses and qualifications should be open to all people who want to do them, regardless of how long it takes them to complete the course.

Obviously these changes cannot be made overnight. But with fairer funding and a drive to raise the standards of lower-achieving universities, the discrepancies would start to disappear over time. Also with a standardised system and universities working together, relevant lectures can be made available online. All this would mean that all students should be able to access the best material. This is an ideal time for these changes to be made with the general move to having more and more lectures, courses and other learning material available online. Physical location need no longer be a barrier to most courses and qualifications.

As it is, universities have to make potentially arbitrary decisions on who to accept based on unreliable measures such as predicted grades. They might do the best they can but it’s still not a fair system, even if it is apparently getting more transparent. There would still be a limit of how many students each university can accept, but with the inbuilt pecking order eliminated, there wouldn’t be so much competition for places at some universities over others. The load would be spread and there would be less disappointment.

Some courses may require specialist equipment (e.g. medicine and other practical sciences), so it wouldn’t always simply be a case of watching the relevant lectures and accessing materials online. This means there may still be limited places for some courses, at least in the short term. However, better equality of funding across universities would ameliorate this to some extent. Also while universities would still exist as separate entities, more cooperation at a higher level would mean that enrolling on a course at one university would allow a student access to facilities at any other university. This would include, as much as possible, specialist scientific equipment as well as the more obvious libraries and computers.

Going to university can be very expensive with accommodation and general living costs, but with more standardisation and free access to resources from other universities, students would in most cases be able to get the same level of education in the course of their choice at their local university if they cannot afford to move away or do not want to.

Some courses, of course, are only studied by a small minority of students, so it would be unrealistic to have a department for these subjects in every university. But in most cases students enrolled at other universities or studying from home would still be able to access learning materials online if they wanted to take individual units from such a course.

The overall aim for this is to make university education accessible to a greater number of people, and for the vast majority of students to be able to do the particular course that they want to, and to make the system less competitive and more cooperative.

While I think that anyone who wants to go to university should be encouraged to do so, I also think that those choosing not to go to university should not be unfairly penalised. More people have degrees than in the past, so employers can demand that applicants have degrees for jobs that would not have previously required them, as a simple, and arguably lazy, way of sifting applicants.

One possible solution to this is that employers who demand degrees from applicants could be required to demonstrate why the job needs a graduate and have to apply for permission, or they would not be permitted to discriminate on these grounds. Generally this permission would be granted when a specific degree is required with specific knowledge or skills acquired from it. Many people are expected to go to university for three years to earn a qualification for jobs that they would be perfectly capable of doing without a degree, purely because employers want a quick way to cut down the applicants. I think people should be encouraged to go to university for the right reasons – for example, because they simply want to learn, or because they will later need the actual knowledge gained rather than the piece of paper.

This is similar to what I have previously argued with GCSEs. In many cases employers require applicants to have a certain number of GCSEs because they are the arbitrary tokens of the workplace, not because the knowledge from them is required.

A possible alternative to this suggestion is for employers that demand degrees from their applicants to be forced to contribute towards the costs of higher education, so that they are not parasitic on it. This would make them think about whether it is really necessary. Either suggestion could help put and end to the generic graduate job.

It would also help to have a more informative classification system for degrees. The terminology of first, upper second, lower second and third seems rather arbitrary anyway, but more importantly, as argued here and here, a simple, single classification is too crude. It would help if more information was used on the certificate, including marks for specific courses, so that the difference between getting an overall average of 59.9% and 60% (generally the border between a lower and upper second) wouldn’t make so much difference to someone’s life chances. University degrees are complex and are more than just currency in the job market, so I think this should be reflected in the award. Also by being given more information than a simple grade, potential employers would be forced to make a more considered assessment of applicants.

In conclusion, it’s time we had a fairer and more modern system of university education. It needs to be less exclusive, less competitive, and have a grading system that fully reflects the complexity of a degree course.

The problems of devolution

The Scottish independence referendum is looming, so after all this waiting, the result will soon be known. Personally I’d prefer the UK not to be split up, but that’s not what I’m here to post about today. I’m here to discuss the devolution of powers to the separate nations within the UK, including the Scottish parliament, which may have further powers devolved to it even with a “no” vote.

Why do we need the separate devolved parliament in Scotland, and assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland? One argument is the cultural differences that these nations have. However, it’s not as if people in different parts of the UK have fundamentally different needs as a result of this. We all need money to be spent on the same basic things – a health service, education, transport etc. We’d all like not to have to pay university tuition fees or prescription charges; it has nothing to do with cultural differences. There are also cultural differences within these nations and also within England, and most of England is far from Westminster, but that doesn’t mean that you need a further proliferation of parliaments or assemblies to take all this into account.

The problem is that the devolved powers create an extra bureaucratic layer, and can create arbitrary and unfair differences and inequalities between nations within the UK, when there is already such a problem with inequality in the UK. And yet we have a system that seems specifically designed to increase the levels of both bureaucracy and inequality with no obvious advantages.

We have the arguably arbitrary Barnett Formula, which is used to determine how funds are split between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, funds should go where they are needed in the UK at a finer level than this, so the borders between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should not have any particular relevance. For these purposes, the UK does not need to be divided into four regions in such a blunt manner.

This crude allocation of money makes it more likely to make a difference where you live – more of a “postcode lottery” if you like. For example, there are no prescription charges in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and no university fees for Scottish students, as well as extra financial support for Welsh students. This makes a mockery of any drive towards equality. But also, because England doesn’t have its own devolved parliament, decisions affecting England are voted for by the whole UK parliament, meaning that Scottish MPs can vote for tuition fee rises in England knowing that Scotland will be unaffected. You might have deduced from my posts that the Daily Mail isn’t my favourite newspaper but this is still quite an interesting article on the subject.

Same sex marriage was legalised in England and Wales in March 2014, but it won’t be introduced in Scotland until the autumn. And there are no plans to introduce it in Northern Ireland at all. The whole UK Parliament voted it through, but only for England and Wales. The Scottish parliament had to then vote separately for Scotland. It’s interesting that despite the existence of the devolved Welsh assembly, the UK parliament voted it through for both England and Wales, whereas Scotland and Northern Ireland are both treated separately for this. So what counts as a devolved issue seems rather arbitrary and inconsistent.

Not much was made in the media (at least as far as I could see) of the fact that it was only in England and Wales that same sex marriage had become legal, considering this and other significant legal differences that we now have within one country.

I don’t think it makes much sense to have a country that has such inequality in law in different places. Every time there is the need for change in an area that’s arbitrarily been deemed to be devolved, it has to go to a vote in all these separate parliaments and assemblies to make it law across the whole of the UK. This clearly just makes the whole process more bureaucratic and cumbersome.

We actually had three different legal systems in the UK before devolution: English law (applicable in England and Wales), Scots law and Northern Ireland law, because these systems existed before the union was created. However, this is something that should have been addressed by the UK parliament, gradually equalising the laws between these nations, taking the best bits from all of them, and should have been completed years ago. It’s not something that should be used to create further legal inequality and complexity across the UK. We shouldn’t be expected to have to learn new laws and remember what is applicable where when travelling from one part of the United Kingdom to another. It’s time that the UK came together with one parliament and one system of law to ensure greater equality, fairness and simplicity. If Scotland votes for independence, then clearly it’s another matter for them, but whatever remains of the UK would be better with one parliament working for everyone.

A fairer approach to crime and punishment

Earlier this month, the parents of a murder victim spoke of their shock when they overheard the judge at a parole hearing saying that their victim impact statement would have no effect.

It is obviously wrong if they were misled into believing otherwise, but under a fair judicial system, sentencing and parole decisions need to be based on more objective criteria. Victims or their families should not be able to influence any punishment handed down in this way. Sentences should not be affected by how articulate a victim’s family happens to be, or whether they have any family to speak for them at all. That’s not necessarily to say that they shouldn’t be allowed to make a statement in court. It may be helpful as a cathartic act, for example. And hearing the impact on the victims may be useful for the culprit to hear so that they can reflect on the consequences of their actions. But it must be made clear in advance that the statement will not affect any sentence.

But then, what should sentencing be based on? Possible sentencing reasons include the following:

Deterrence – This could be both for the individual who committed the crime and for others who may do so in the future.

Physical protection – While in prison, someone does not have the same freedom to commit crimes so people are protected from them.

Compensation – To pay something back to the victims, whether this is an individual or a whole community who have suffered as a result of someone’s actions. A custodial sentence would not come under this category as nothing positive is being paid back to anyone.

Rehabilitation – This is to work with the culprit to educate them and ensure that they are less likely to go back to committing the same sorts of acts.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned revenge, retribution or that an individual simply deserves to be punished “in a vacuum”, independently of any consequences of the punishment. That is because I don’t think it’s the role of the state to be meting out punishments for these reasons. Leaving a discussion of moral philosophy and the existence or otherwise of free will aside, it’s not the job of the state to issue such punishments. In simple terms, the state is there to ensure that society runs well, and an isolated judgement on an individual irrespective of consequence is clearly irrelevant this, and is therefore outside of its remit. The point here is that I am not even getting into a discussion of whether someone deserves to be punished; I am arguing that it is irrelevant because it is not the state’s job to decide this.

Of course, the idea that people are somehow getting revenge or justice may be seen as a positive outcome for them, and for society overall. However, I would argue that this is at most a short-term and short-sighted benefit to a small number of people. A far more positive benefit in the long term would be to encourage a more tolerant and forgiving society, and hopefully for people not to have such feelings of vengeance towards perpetrators, however hard this may be to achieve. It is not the act of a positive and healthy society to inflict suffering on someone in order to make someone else feel better about it. Sentencing needs to be made for positive rather than negative reasons.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I think that, for most crimes, prison is an outdated punishment, and something that should be used as a last resort. Specifically it should be largely reserved for people who pose a violent and physical risk to society. Prison should be very rare indeed for non-violent crimes.

Prisons are expensive, and wasteful in human terms as they are a purely negative punishment, in contrast to something like community service, where offenders put something back into society. There are over 85,000 people in the UK’s overcrowded prisons. There is a lot wrong with prison as a punishment, and here are three links to pages to look at in your own time (one, two, three).

But where people absolutely do have to be taken out of society, prisons should not be seen simply as a punishment. They should be there to rehabilitate and educate offenders so that they are less likely to commit further crimes. Conditions should be geared towards improving inmates’ behaviour and their chances in the outside world in the future. This is where proper evidence-based research is needed, rather than just political hand-waving.

Despite what I have said and the pages I linked to above, there are plenty of people who would argue that prison does work and that its use should not be reduced. And what if new studies and a thorough look at the evidence showed that prison sentences do work better than the alternatives for reducing crime, going against my ideology? We need to look at various factors here. This includes reducing crime, but it also involves treating people as human beings. You could probably reduce crime by cutting petty criminals’ hands off, but I don’t think most people would suggest that you do it. Likewise, I see prison as a negative thing in itself, so all other things being equal, it is a worse outcome than a non-custodial sentence. Reduced crime rate is just one factor of many, although I would obviously stress that it is still a very important factor. But given what I have said, I would argue that if there is any doubt about whether a crime should receive a prison sentence, the burden of proof lies with those arguing that a prison sentence would result in a better overall outcome. But it should go without saying that evidence-based sentencing is very important, and there should be ongoing research into what works and what doesn’t.

Action and intention should be looked at above consequences. For example, someone causing a fatal accident through dangerous driving should not be treated more harshly than someone driving similarly dangerously who was more fortunate and caused a non-fatal accident. To do otherwise is illogical, even if there are repeated calls for harsher punishments for those guilty of causing death by dangerous or drunk driving, such as here and here. These are tragic cases and obviously I sympathise with the victims’ families, but it is as important as ever to be fair and objective in such emotive cases. And purely from the point of view of deterrence, dangerous driving where there are no serious consequences is more likely to need something extra to give people to think about. Any further legal consequences above and beyond causing a fatal accident are unlikely to have a deterrent effect.

This is why there should be no separate offence of causing death by dangerous driving above and beyond dangerous driving. Or at least, if it is a separate offence, it should be purely for categorisation rather than for sentencing purposes. And that’s also why victim impact statements aren’t relevant to sentencing. We should not be punishing someone on the unforeseen consequences of their actions, but more on the actions themselves and the intent. Above all, we should be sentencing based on what is likely to lead to more positive societal outcomes in the future, as I have argued above.

Once someone has served any sentence relating to a crime, and they are free in society, then I think they should be allowed a clean break in most cases. This means not having to declare previous convictions on job application forms. There’s no point in rehabilitating someone and setting them free into society only to handicap them anyway and prevent them from using this rehabilitation and freedom. There would be special cases for certain crimes and certain jobs, but these would be the exception rather than the rule.

Finally, I would argue that there is no logical reason why prisoners shouldn’t be allowed to vote in elections. Unless you bar all convicted criminals from voting, then specifying just those in prison is arbitrary. And if you bar all convicted criminals from voting, then the country quite simply becomes less democratic. Convicted criminals are still part of our society, and barring them from the democratic process is unlikely to help with their rehabilitation or indeed provide any benefit to society.

There are many sentencing options open to judges, one of which happens to be prison, but why should that one also be linked to the democratic process? For example, sometimes people avoid prison for health reasons, not because the crime isn’t deemed serious enough, but then why should they keep their voting rights over and above someone else that went to prison for the same crime? It is a logical non sequitur to deny someone the right to vote purely on the basis that the judge thinks that the best approach for society and the individual is to keep them away from the rest of society for a certain amount of time. It makes no more sense than saying that those who receive more than 200 hours of community service shouldn’t be able to write a letter to their MP.

General elections occur about once every five years. Someone might be in prison for four-and-a-half years, and not miss an election, whereas someone else might be in prison for just one week and miss an election. Surely, the fact that someone is free in society for the bulk of the term of Parliament is more relevant than where they were on the date of the general election. But that’s a side point. The main point is that prisoners are still citizens of our country and as such have the right to be a part of the democratic process. To argue otherwise is to argue for a less democratic country.

As a society we need to keep a positive outlook. Crime is a negative thing, but the way to respond is not with further negative actions. We need to try to ensure a more positive future for everyone involved.

Reforming Parliament and abolishing the House of Lords

Over the last three posts (one, two, three), I have argued the case for a form of proportional representation. It would be unlikely to ever elect a single-party majority government, which is one reason people use to argue against proportional representation. However, I would argue that this is a good thing, and that it’s time to take a closer look at how Parliament is organised, and in particular the very concept of a separate government within Parliament.

I would argue that we should be electing individuals rather than party brands. Individuals can still have affiliations with a party, but they are elected by us, and they should ultimately be accountable to us, not to some organisation that they happen to be a member of. As such, parties should have no official status within Parliament, although I would keep the party names on ballot papers for voters’ convenience. This would, of course, eliminate the possibility of a party forming an official government.

However, I would argue that a majority government, single-party or coalition, is an undemocratic concept. We vote in 650 MPs, but just over half of them, so anything from 326 upwards, can shut out the rest of Parliament on all issues by forming a majority government. They do this by making a deal that involves many of them voting against their beliefs on many issues to ensure that they can, as a group, force through all their legislation. So they reduce the democratic power of Parliament twofold: firstly by shutting out potentially nearly half of the democratically elected MPs, and secondly by voting against their own views as an elected representative, to keep them shut out.

We elect all the MPs. But somehow Parliament is then partitioned into two tiers – those in power and those out of power. But every MP has been equally voted in by the electorate. We don’t vote in our MPs to not be in power. Being in power is what being an MP should mean.

The problem is the very idea that we need a majority government consisting of MPs that vote in the same way on all issues. It’s certainly not there for our benefit. However, the majority of MPs clearly see it as a good thing that they can shut out nearly half of Parliament to have more of the power themselves.

Because there would be no party in power and no government, this obviously means no leader of the government, so no Prime Minister. The process that leads to a Prime Minister being appointed is only indirectly and tenuously democratic. The Prime Minister is the person who happens to be the leader of the party in government. We don’t vote for the Prime Minister. As I have already pointed out, we don’t even have a national election to elect a party into government. We just have 650 individual local elections, which are then crudely put together as if that’s a reasonable way of forming Parliament and creating a government.

But worse than the position of Prime Minister are the other cabinet positions. The indirectly elected Prime Minister simply puts his favoured MPs into the cabinet positions. So this is one step further removed from any democratic process than even the position of Prime Minister. They can be there regardless of expertise – they frequently shuffle around to seemingly arbitrary other positions, and the positions generally go to those who are in favour in the party, rather than to those who have particular knowledge in that area. There are also special cabinet meetings where important matters are decided, which makes no logical sense. Why should, for example, the education secretary be involved in a secret meeting about which wars to fight in? The answer is simply that these are just the favoured MPs, and the labels given to the cabinet positions are in large part a façade to enable a certain set of MPs to have extra power.

Clearly I am against the idea that individual MPs should be given these lofty cabinet positions in such an undemocratic manner. It’s a rotten and outdated system and it needs to be changed. Politics is too much about personalities over policies and substance, and I would want to reduce this as much as possible. For example, Ed Miliband is often criticised not on his policies and how his party might run the country, but because he is seen as too “geeky”. This is an absurd state of affairs and not how politics should be. And in any case, better a bit geeky than smarmy and intellectually dishonest. (I discuss that video in depth in this post.)

Of course, if all 650 MPs were equal in every respect, it would be very hard to keep any sort of organisation and for anything to get done. Also, while many MPs might decide that they want to take a lead in some areas, other areas might get neglected altogether with no-one officially in charge. So I’m not arguing for a complete free-for-all. There would still be positions, which I’ll refer to as cabinet positions for convenience, although the system would be very different to what we have now.

For every cabinet role, there would be more than one position available, and they would be elected by MPs in a proportional manner. For example, there would be not one but several education secretaries. I’m not going to commit to how many positions would be best for each role at the moment, but it could be anywhere from two or three to five or six. Too few and it would be too similar to what we have now with the favoured few having all the power to make legislation, and too many and it might end up too chaotic and lacking in cohesion. In the early days of this system, it could be a possibility to trial different numbers of MPs in each role to see what works best in practice. Also within the Parliamentary term, there could be two or three occasions where the cabinet positions are voted on.

There could even be a role roughly equivalent to Prime Minister: something like main general spokesperson. But as with the other roles, there would be more than one position available. The cabinet members would be the main people responsible for proposing legislation in their policy areas. And MPs would be free to support whatever legislation they wanted on each issue. They would be able to form coalitions with like-minded MPs on individual issues to get legislation through. But there would be no need for a once-and-for-all official coalition for the term of Parliament on all issues. These would be transient coalitions, which would form for a specific purpose and then dissipate afterwards, and with no official status.

This would be a far more democratic and less personality-based system than what we have now, and it would reduce the disproportionate power that some MPs have within our Parliamentary system. However, although there would be no official party status within Parliament, clearly in practice many MPs would still vote with their party a lot of the time. But by making it unofficial and removing the whole whip nonsense, and also by having more independent MPs, the negative effects of this should be drastically reduced.

As should now be clear, the House of Commons is in need of urgent reform. However, with the House of Lords I would go further. I would argue that it is an undemocratic and unnecessary institution and should be abolished altogether.

We’re told that we need the House of Lords to provide “checks and balances” for the House of Commons, so that the government can’t simply force through all their proposed legislation. Currently the Lords can reject legislation they don’t like and suggest amendments. The House of Lords also has various experts in certain fields.

However, its necessity only comes about because of the system we have now with majority governments that could otherwise force through what they want. With a proportional system and no majority government, we’d have all the checks and balances we needed within the House of Commons. It’s what we have 650 MPs for.

Regarding experts, there is nothing stopping experts in various fields from standing for election to the House of Commons. And the unelected experts we have now still have their own agendas. They’re not just experts in a vacuum. There are experts on the left, experts on the right and so on. And they are, by and large, appointed by the government of the day for political reasons. For example, Robert Winston is not just an expert in medical matters – he is also a Labour peer. MPs also have experts advising them in particular areas anyway, so we don’t need an entirely separate chamber that happens to have some experts in it. It’s also perfectly possible to have advisory bodies without an official second chamber.

And then there’s the problem that the House of Lords is unelected and so undemocratic. Indeed, recent proposals for reform have included having a largely elected House of Lords using proportional representation. But then we’d essentially just be taking our elected representatives and arbitrarily splitting them into two, as if that would somehow work better than having all the elected representatives together. A House of Commons that works properly does not need another chamber to look after it.

The House of Lords can also cause serious problems. In 1999, when the Labour government was trying to remove hereditary peers, several Lords disgracefully threatened to disrupt Labour’s other bills as a form of protest.

Our current second chamber, the House of Lords, is undemocratic. Having a second chamber of any description is unnecessary if the first chamber is set up to work properly. Indeed, Norway and Sweden both have a single chamber and are ranked first and second in the Global Democracy Ranking list and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. We need just one chamber, which should be elected using proportional representation.

This concludes my series of four posts on electoral and Parliamentary reform and I’ll be moving onto another topic next time. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

Electoral reform 3 – A reasonable way of electing MPs proportionally

At the end of my last post, I left you with my five criteria for a good electoral system:

1. Voters should be able to vote for any candidate from anywhere in the country. It would be a national election.
2. The system should be proportional at a national level.
3. There should be no systematic bias against independent candidates.
4. The ballot paper and voting system should be relatively simple for the electorate, so people can still just turn up on the day and vote as they do now.
5. The system should, as much as possible, favour a reasonable geographical spread of MPs.

And I promised to show you how this could be implemented. It is clear that any voting system that fits these criteria would be more complex than our current system. But a certain amount of added complexity is acceptable in exchange for a fairer system. And by criterion 4, it would still have to be relatively simple for the voter. So without any further ado, here is one possible method:

Every candidate, whether standing as an independent or for a party, would have a nominated constituency. The ballot papers for each constituency would list the candidates who have nominated that constituency, with a tick box by each name. They would also list all the main parties (those fielding candidates in over a threshold number of constituencies), also with a tick box by each. So the ballot papers would be very similar to how they are now, except that they would list the main parties in addition to the locally standing candidates.

Voters would have two separate options open to them: to vote using the ballot paper provided, or to prepare their vote in advance. If a voter just turns up on the day and uses the ballot paper, it would be quite simple. They just cast a vote for as many or as few of the options as they want. This is known as approval voting and it is very simple.

Casting a vote for an entire party simply means casting a vote for every candidate standing for that party nationally. There would also be space to write in any candidates that someone wants to vote for who aren’t listed on the ballot paper – those who have not nominated that constituency but are standing elsewhere in the country. Candidates could have a reference number in case there is more than one candidate of the same name. There would be a list of all candidates standing nationally available in each polling station.

That would be the basic voting option for people who do not prepare their vote in advance. However, if someone wants to vote for several candidates who are not in their constituency, then writing them all on the ballot paper would not be a feasible option. There would be the option to go online in advance (or perhaps use a purpose-built machine available in libraries and/or other public places) to select the candidates they want to vote for. There could be various ways of viewing the list of candidates, such as by party, alphabetically or by constituency. It would be designed to make navigation and use as simple as possible. For example, there would be the option of selecting all candidates for a party and individually deselecting any as required. Once a voter has selected the candidates they want to vote for (as many or few as they like), they would receive a print-out of this. This would then be presented at the polling station on election day, endorsed and put in the ballot box with the rest of the ballot papers.

That is how the voting would work. The votes would then be counted and the seats allocated in a proportional manner (it is not simply a case of adding up the votes for each candidate). There are several proportional systems that can use an approval voting ballot. Indeed, Single Transferable Vote (STV) can easily be modified to take approval ballots by assuming that all voted-for candidates are voted equally at the top rank.

So what’s going on here? There is one national election, and all 650 seats are decided in a proportional manner, rather than one per constituency. And yet candidates still have to nominate a constituency, and they only appear on the standard ballot paper for that constituency. Isn’t this a contradiction? No. This is to help voters who have not prepared in advance to give them a reasonable number of options. It also means that every candidate would get at least this amount of publicity – by appearing on the ballot papers for one constituency – and it is to ensure that there is likely to be a reasonable geographical spread of MPs. Any voter can still vote for any candidates they like, but I think that this ballot paper is a good compromise for those not wanting to prepare their vote in advance, and there is candidate equality with each candidate appearing on one constituency’s ballot paper.

I have also said that there should be no systematic bias against independent candidates and yet there is the option of voting for all of the candidates for the main parties on the ballot paper. Those standing for a main party get to be on the ballot paper for every constituency! However, as this is a proportional system, this would not actually significantly help party candidates. It is not simply the 650 candidates with the most votes that get elected. A party would be likely to get a similar number of candidates elected nationally whether voters all just vote for the local candidate for that party, or vote for all party candidates nationally. It would, however, help supporters of a party that is not particularly popular in their own constituency – meaning that their local candidate is unlikely to be elected – by saving their vote from being wasted, and it is a convenient shortcut for voters. It would be there to help voters, not parties.

Being able to cast a vote (no rankings or scores) for as many candidates as you want is a simple solution to what could otherwise be a complex process. Whoever you want to be elected, you can vote for. Theoretically you can vote anywhere from none of the candidates to all of the candidates. Although by voting for all of the candidates, you would effectively be voting for none of the candidates.

This might to some extent appear to be a two-tier system for voters, with only those willing to prepare in advance having all the voting options open to them. However, this isn’t strictly the case. There would be a list of all national candidates in every polling station, so all voting options would still be open to all voters. There could also be computers in the polling stations to help with the voting process, if this is feasible. But the simple fact of the matter is that if you want to vote for a complex selection of candidates from those standing nationally, this is going to take a certain amount of time, and it would be easier to do this in advance of voting. The only way to avoid this would be to not have the full list of candidates available to every voter, and this would be a bigger loss to democracy.

Inevitably people who do more research would be able to better participate in the democratic process, but this is the case to an extent anyway, and democratic power is a responsibility, not just a right. It is your responsibility to find out about the candidates you might want to vote for. The ballot paper can only go so far. The importance of democratic choice easily outweighs any negatives here. It is also better this than the current situation where voters in some areas of the country have more democratic power than others, with nothing anyone can do about it short of moving. The democratic process is not just about voting once every five years anyway; there are numerous democratic outlets, such as attending speeches and marches among many other things. These are all things that someone has to go out and do. As should be clear from this, the way to ensure democracy for all is not to limit the democratic rights of those who are willing to work for it so that those who are least willing to make an effort are on an equal footing with everyone else.

With things hopefully a bit clearer, I am now going to discuss a few variations on the method. There is an alternative method, which is the same except that if you vote for just one candidate, you can “delegate” your vote to them. This is essentially Jameson Quinn’s PAL system described here and here. Each candidate has a pre-declared public ranking of the other candidates. It would work like an STV election, except that if your top candidate is eliminated, your vote is transferred to your candidate’s second favourite and so on rather than your own second favourite candidate. Candidates voted for by voters who have chosen not to delegate would all still be treated as equally top-ranked, so it could still proceed as an STV election.

In Quinn’s system, candidates are only permitted two tiers of ranking within their own party (or three including the candidate themselves), and one for each other party. This means that within their own party, a candidate would have themselves top, and then they can split the remaining candidates into two groups. Candidates within a single party that isn’t their own would all be of equal rank. Independent candidates can be ranked anywhere. This simplifies the process somewhat relative to individually ranking every candidate in the country. See Quinn’s diagram, reproduced on both pages I linked to above.

It might seem strange for voters to pass their voting power to candidates in this way, but this would be entirely optional, and would vastly increase the voting power of those who want to simply turn up on the day to vote. And being able to view your favourite candidate’s rankings in advance means that you could make an informed decision about whether you want to delegate your vote or stick to your own approval votes. Being able to delegate votes like this adds very little complexity for the voter, and it gives the voter more power, as they can simply cast a single vote for their favourite candidate without it being wasted if they are not elected. According to Quinn, the “normal” way of voting would still be to cast a single vote for a local candidate, which could then be transferred. This means that there would likely be a reasonable geographical spread of MPs.

When I devised my original system, it was before I had encountered PAL, and I decided that the simplest way for voters would be for them to cast votes for candidates rather than providing rankings. But by upgrading to PAL, it gives delegated votes the power of ranking, and so it would be asymmetrical and arguably unfair to voters who want to retain control of their votes, as they would have no power to rank candidates. So while PAL does not add much complexity for voters by itself, to keep it fair, we would need to add the complexity of allowing voters to rank candidates, which is something I initially wanted to avoid. However, if we were to allow voters the ability to rank candidates, it could still be kept fairly simple by limiting the number of ranking tiers within each party as with candidates’ rankings. Having said that, perhaps it should be up to voters how complex they want to make the process for themselves.

Another alternative would be to use scores (e.g. out of 10) for candidates rather than rankings. There are systems that can award seats proportionally from scores rather than rankings. Unscored candidates would count as receiving a zero. Voters would still be able to cast simple votes as before, and they would be counted as a maximum score (so 10 if it’s out of 10). Giving scores is arguably simpler than giving ranks, especially to a large number of candidates.

This leaves us with four main options available:

1. Allow voters to cast a single vote for as many candidates as they want.
2. In addition to this, allow voters who cast a single vote for just one candidate to delegate this vote to this candidate. The candidate would have their own rankings of the other candidates, and this would be used as in an STV election.
3. In addition to the above, allow voters to rank candidates rather than simply cast votes.
4. Candidates and voters would give scores to candidates (e.g. out of 10) rather than rank them.

At the moment, I’m not going to advocate just one of these systems, but they are all fairly similar and a massive improvement on what we have now. I am against option 2 (which is basically PAL), however, because it gives votes delegated to candidates more power (i.e. the ability to rank) than undelegated votes cast by individual voters. So if option 1 is not enough, then I think it would be best to jump straight to option 3 or 4, even if it does add a bit of complexity for voters. However, I think more discussion and analysis is needed before committing to an exact system.

Any of these systems would still be simple enough for a voter to just turn up on the day and cast a vote in the general election. Voters would be able to vote for any candidate in the country. It would be a national and proportional single election that would also favour a reasonable geographical spread of MPs. Independent candidates would be able to stand equally with party candidates. So these voting systems fit all five of my initial criteria. These systems would increase voters’ democratic power immensely while keeping the process relatively simple.

Finally, one other thing that I would introduce to put independent candidates and lesser-known parties on a more equal footing with the major parties is an official manifesto website. Every candidate would be able to submit a summary of their policies (with a word or character limit) to the website, and this could be used by voters to have a look at their policies. There would be options to sort candidates by constituency, by party, alphabetically, or by whatever else is convenient. This way, being able to communicate with the public would not just be about which candidates could afford to send out leaflets to all their constituents. Effectively all candidates’ leaflets would be available in one place.

That concludes my series of posts on reforming the system used to elect MPs. In the next post, I’m going to discuss reform within Parliament.

Electoral reform 2 – Why we need proportional representation

Welcome to my second post in my section on electoral reform. In my last post, I discussed why First Past The Post (FPTP) is such a bad voting system, and that we lost out by choosing to retain it over Alternative Vote (AV) in the referendum in 2011.

However, I would argue that the main problem with our electoral system is that we have 650 individual geographical elections with one candidate elected from each. This is a problem under either FPTP or AV, or indeed any system that would elect a single candidate from each constituency.

The problem is that general elections are trying to achieve two different things: elect local representatives and also elect a national Parliament. But just adding up the local representatives is a very crude way of forming a national Parliament and, unsurprisingly, it does a very poor job, and results in a fairly arbitrary national distribution of MPs, which doesn’t represent the national vote in any meaningful manner. How close a national election result is isn’t just down to how close the parties are in total votes, but it’s also in large part down to the geographical spread of these votes.

If people’s voting preferences were more evenly spread around the country than they are now, then most constituencies would return similar results to each other at each election. This would mean that the most popular party would always be likely to win the national election with a landslide. This is regardless of whether they had 50% of the national vote, 40%, 30% or whatever. Any diversity in Parliament relies on geographical voting diversity.

The current system favours parties whose support is polarised into strong support in some areas and weak support in others, rather than those parties that have a consistent level of support across the country. A good example of this is the 1983 UK general election. Here is John Cleese discussing it. Labour received 27.6% of the national vote and the SDP-Liberal Alliance received 25.4%, whereas they won 209 and 23 seats respectively. It would even be possible for the most popular party to lose out in this way, especially if the top three were all fairly close in terms of national support, and the most popular party had consistent support across the country rather than pockets of high and low support.

Because of the importance of the geography of the votes, single-winner constituencies are susceptible to gerrymandering, where constituency boundaries can be altered to favour one party despite making no difference to the total number of votes received by any party. Here is a video to explain it.

Even if we could all agree on the best voting system for electing a single candidate in a single election, whether FPTP, AV or something else altogether, you cannot simply put together the results of 650 individual elections like this and expect it to add up to a reasonable democratic system at a national level. It simply does not work. And this is why we need a better system: specifically proportional representation (PR). If a certain proportion of the population have the same political views as each other, then they have the power to elect that proportion of the MPs together. That’s how democracy should work. PR is simply more democratic than what we have now. There are various forms of PR, each with their own pros and cons, and I will discuss some of these. But first I want to discuss some of the arguments people use against PR.

PR is unlikely to lead to strong majority government. Unless a party has over 50% of national support, which is unlikely, parties have to form a coalition if we are to have a majority government. This is seen by some people as a bad thing. However, many other successful countries, including Germany, have PR, and it hasn’t caused the world to collapse in on itself.

Watch this video by John Cleese on PR. It’s the full-length version of the video I linked to above. Some of it is out of date, but he makes some good points. In particular he points out that majority single-party governments that change from election to election result in less stability than coalitions because every time a new government gets in they are likely to make big changes, which can then swing back and forth. PR also encourages honest voting rather than just voting for who think can win in your constituency.

To have a majority government that doesn’t have a majority of the support is less democratic than PR. So, you are trading in a certain amount of democracy for your precious majority. And as I discussed in my last post, there is no guarantee of a single-party majority government anyway with 650 single-winner elections. It has become less likely nowadays because fewer people vote for the main two parties than in the past. Indeed, the 2010 UK general election failed to return a majority for any party. So if it’s not proportional and it’s not a majority for one party, what is it? It’s an undemocratic mess that no-one wanted.

It’s often argued that PR would allow extremist parties in. Well, only in the proportion that they are elected. That’s democracy. If they only have a small amount of support, they will only have a small amount of influence in Parliament. There are also many minority parties whose inclusion in Parliament could benefit the country.

The bottom line is that proportional representation is more democratic than any other way of creating a national Parliament and the arguments given against it aren’t strong enough to counteract this.

There are various systems of PR. For example, there are party-list systems, where everyone votes for a party, and each party then gets the proportion of the seats equal to their proportion of the vote. This can work at a national level to ensure a high level of proportionality by dividing up all 650 seats in the most proportional way, rather than splitting them regionally first. However, this would do away with the concept of a local constituency MP. It also discriminates against independent candidates who would not be able to stand in a party-list system. I have previously argued the case for independents being able to stand on an equal footing with parties, so I see this as an unacceptable failing.

Multiple-seat constituencies are an improvement on party-list PR in some ways. Candidates can stand either for a party or as an independent, as they can in our current system. However, there would be larger constituencies and more than one MP elected per constituency. For example, it could be eight MPs per constituency. This would mean having constituencies eight times the size that they currently are, to keep the total number of MPs the same. The system normally used for this is Single Transferable Vote (STV), explained in this video. It is the multiple-winner equivalent of AV, which is why many saw AV as a stepping stone to proportional representation. Under STV, parties generally field more than one candidate in a constituency. For example, if a party has a quarter of the vote, then they would expect to get two MPs in an eight-seat constituency so it would make sense for them to field at least two candidates. Constituents would have eight local MPs that they could potentially write to, so there would be more chance that they would have at least one MP that is sympathetic to their views.

However, because there are still regional constituencies, STV only offers limited proportionality. If a party has 5% of the vote nationally, then out of 650 MPs they should get 32 or 33, but under this system they might still get none, because they need to reach a higher threshold to get a single seat out of eight, so it’s not proportional at a very fine level. It would not be feasible to make STV work with a single country-sized constituency because every candidate in the whole country would have to be listed on every ballot paper. So while it is better than party-list PR for independents, it gives less proportional results.

There are also combined “mixed-member” systems, explained in this video, where you get two votes – one for a party and one for a candidate in your constituency. Half of the seats go to the constituency candidates who are elected in the usual way, so it can allow for independent candidates. The remaining half of the seats are allocated to parties in a proportional manner, so that all parties end up with the number of seats that relates to their proportion of the votes. The proportion calculated includes the constituency seats, so it is possible that a party already has too many seats before the proportional part of the system kicks in. This system is a bit of a mess, forcing together two different systems in an ugly manner, and it is still party-centric with a bias against independent candidates in half of the available seats.

Ideally, we’d have a system that isn’t biased against independent candidates and also gives proportionality at a national level. Because of this, I think it is important that candidates should be able to stand nationally. An independent may have supporters across the country, not just in their geographical constituency. They may have enough national support to get elected in a fully proportional system, but not enough in a smaller geographical area. This is also a problem for minor parties, but at least they can field candidates in several constituencies, whereas an independent candidate only has one of themselves.

From the voters’ point of view, I also think that they should not be limited to the candidates standing in their constituency. The democratic choice available to voters varies wildly from constituency to constituency. Someone might be in a constituency with only mainstream party candidates, or they might be in the Speaker’s constituency and have very limited options, since the main parties have an agreement not to stand against the Speaker – don’t worry about voters’ democratic rights or anything. There might be a few independent or minor-party candidates dotted around the country that someone supports, and it’s just luck whether they happen to live in the right constituency to be able to vote for one of them. A fair system should not favour voters who are lucky enough to live in the same area as a candidate that they support.

We actually have 650 local elections, rather than one national election, and your democratic power is highly dependent on where you happen to live. Having a single national election would be a more democratic system. But this brings us back to the problem of having a local MP to contact.

MPs vote nationally so don’t just deal with local affairs. If I haven’t voted for my local MP (currently in my case the Conservative Brooks Newmark), then I don’t feel represented by him, and he’s not really the person I’d want to write to. I think we should be able to write to an MP that we consider to represent us, not just the one who just happens to be the most local. I will discuss the idea of local MPs further, however, in the context of what I am going to propose in the next post.

Our current system tries to elect local MPs and also a national Parliament while using a voting system that’s far too crude to manage it properly. Are you supposed to vote for the candidate who is your favourite at a local level, or the one who represents the party machine that you prefer at a national level? There’s no single correct answer to this, and people are left to their own devices to make their way through a confusing and bizarre system. We need to start again with a new system.

In summary, here are my criteria for a good electoral system:

1. Voters should be able to vote for any candidate from anywhere in the country. It would be a national election.
2. The system should be proportional at a national level.
3. There should be no systematic bias against independent candidates.
4. The ballot paper and voting system should be relatively simple for the electorate, so people can still just turn up on the day and vote as they do now.
5. The system should, as much as possible, favour a reasonable geographical spread of MPs.

And how to implement that is what I’m going to discuss in the next post.