More on AV

Via Mark D’Arcy’s blog on the BBC website, I learned of a study published in the Hansard Society’s Journal Parliamentary Affairs that suggests if the last election had been fought under that system, the UK would have end ed up with an even more hung parliament. (The link is a PDF file).

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across a simulation of the last election conducted under various electoral systems. The BBC has even included some on its website (of course I can’t find the link now). Many of these simulations are based on assumptions, particularly when it comes to a system such as AV, because no one can really know how voters might rank candidates and parties on an AV ballot. The two most common assumptions are that the majority of UKIP supporters would rank the Conservatives as their second choice, while most Labour supporters would choose the Lib Dems.

This new study used British Election Study (BES) data collected immediately after the May 2010 UK general election. Respondents comprising a large representative sample of the British electorate were asked how they voted in the election and, using a simulated ballot, how they would have voted in a comparable AV election. As D’Arcy points out, at least one common assumption doesn’t hold. The study found that only 49% of UKIP supporters would rank the Conservatives second. Similarly, interesting regional differences emerged when it came to second choice preferences.

One assumption does seem to bear out: that the Lib Dems would be the preferred second choice of most Labour supporters (66%) and vice versa – at least in the England party of the UK. This is where the regional differences come into play. However, D’Arcy rightly ponders if the experience with the current coalition government might change that.

While on the topic of AV, The Independent reported on the weekend that a top Tory MP, Edward Leigh, former chairman of the powerful Public Accounts Committee, wrote a scathing piece on AV for the Parliamentary House Magazine, calling it an “insult to voters”. Actually, what he said was that it was insulting to the electorate to force this “confusing” system on them. Leigh adds that the system proposed for the UK is used only in one other place – Papua New Guinea:

“This system is rare for the good reasons that it is complex, eccentric, does not reduce the chances of hung parliaments and leaves the minority parties completely unrepresented.

“In short it is neither fairer nor more proportional than the system we already have.”

I don’t know if Mr. Leigh is correct that this particular form of AV is used only in Papua New Guinea, but, having read the bill and about the bill, I don’t find it particularly “complex” or confusing. This argument is one frequently used by opponents of any type of electoral reform – all systems that are not FPTP are too complex and confusing. The fact that millions around the world have been able to figure out how to vote using these other systems leads me to only one conclusion – voters in the UK (and Canada for that matter) are rather stupid since they’d never be able to figure out a system that requires anything more than marking one X in one box. I think it’s Mr. Leigh’s assumptions, not AV, that are insulting to the electorate.

Leigh isn’t the only Conservative MP to rail against AV. ConservativeHome regularly features commentary from Conservatives MPs and supporters explaining why AV is truly evil and undemocratic. I agree with everyone who argues that AV is little better than FPTP, but given how absolutely idiotic most of the arguments from Conservative Party insiders against it are, I honestly do hope the referendum passes.

Related Posts:

Party conferences: UK vs Canada

Party conferences seem to be a Big Deal in the UK. I mean, it’s actually called “Conference season” and parliament even shuts down for 3 weeks while the three main parties hold their annual conferences one after the other. I don’t know if this year’s schedule is typical, if the parties coordinate these things with each other, or how these things are worked out, but this year, the lead-off conference was the Liberal Democrats (#3 party in the House), followed by Labour (#2), and the last one will be the Conservative Party conference.

There has been pretty complete media coverage as well, with the BBC livestreaming the proceedings from both the Lib Dem and Labour conferences on their website and other sources providing liveblogging services, for example. I imagine they’ll do the same thing for the Conservative conference. I understand that media interest in the Lib Dem conference was higher than usual this year – not surprising given that the party is actually in government for the first time ever (yes, I know the Liberals have been in government previously, ages ago, but the current incarnation of the party never has). Also, I think the media, or parts of it anyway, were sort of expecting the Lib Dems to implode or kill Nick Clegg for aligning the party with the Conservatives. That didn’t happen, probably much to the media’s dismay, but expectations of party discord were certainly high, even it nothing panned out on that front. And of course Labour was electing a new leader at their conference, so that’s certainly media-worthy.

It’s also quite interesting that members from the other parties were actual participants. Again, this is the first time I’ve paid any attention to UK party conferences, so I don’t know if this is standard modus operandi. Oliver Letwin, the Conservative Minister of State at Cabinet Office, participated in a round table with Lib Dem and Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander at the Lib Dem conference. Chris Huhne, Lib Dem Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change spoke at the Labour conference. There may have been others – those were the only two I noted. I’m assuming there will be at least a couple of token Lib Dems participating at the Conservative conference.

Things in Canada couldn’t be more different. To be honest, I don’t even really know if our main political parties even have annual meetings. I’ve been searching online, and the only party conferences I’ve turned up is the Green Party’s, which took place in June and the Liberals’ Canada at 150 policy conference back in March. I have found references to local riding association AGMs for various parties, but nothing for the NDP or Conservatives.

I’m not a member of any party, so unless these things get major press coverage, they’re not something to which I’d pay much attention. However, I do know that our parties tend to have caucus retreats fairly regularly – which of course are limited to elected MPs, and they hang out together over the course of a weekend to discuss strategy and related issues. But big massive party conferences involving members, federally-elected officials and provincial ones as well – I’m fairly certain these don’t happen annually. You also won’t see politicians from other parties taking part. The other parties will send representatives as observers, but they won’t take part in discussion sessions. I’m certain someone will correct me if they have more information about this.

Leadership conferences, I think, are completely separate beasts. Canadian parties will hold a conference for that purpose only, once it’s decided that a change of leadership is needed. Those get complete media coverage, but caucus retreats are obviously closed to the media. A final press conference is usually held at the very end, but there’s rarely anything earth-shattering that emerges from these events.

One thing’s for certain – they’d never shut down parliament for a party conference. Parties schedule these things during times when the House isn’t sitting – such as during the summer, or over the course of a weekend or during a constituency week.

Related Posts:

More on the Labour leadership vote

A rather innocuous story in The Independent today caught my eye.  Ten percent of the ballots cast in the leadership vote were declared spoiled, the bulk of them being votes cast by members of the trade unions.

That in itself was marginally interesting. What was far more interesting was learning that of the 375,000 total votes cast, the union vote represented 66% of that total (247,339). I know that it was the trade union vote that pushed Ed Miliband ahead of his brother David – David had more support than Ed among Labour MPs, MEPs and members; but what I didn’t know is that the union vote made up a majority of the total vote.

I’m not British, so my opinion doesn’t really matter, but I do find this rather concerning. Can you imagine the outrage if a majority of the vote for the leader of the Conservative Party was allocated to banks, brokerages, and other corporations and businesses? Yes, some of you are probably arguing that the bulk of their membership probably consists of people who are bankers and corporate types, but I’m talking about allocating two-thirds of the votes to, for want of a better word, institutions. Meaning, as long as someone worked for a bank or other company, they’d be allowed to vote in the Tory leadership race.

Now, the reason why so many union votes were spoiled is that the people who cast those votes didn’t tick a box that indicated that they were also members of the Labour party (that’s right – they’d get two votes – one because they’re members of the party, and a second vote because they’re also members of a trade union. Seems a bit redundant to me). Maybe they forgot to tick the box. Or maybe they weren’t members of the party, but decided to vote anyway. It is a bit silly to think that simply because one is a member of a union (which usually you don’t have any choice about if you work in a unionised place), that you’d also support Labour. This is borne out by this from the BBC:

The union with the highest number of votes cast was Unite with 111,270 votes cast. However, this is only just over 10% of the ballots that were distributed by the UK’s biggest union, which has a membership of 1,055,074. Unite backed Ed Miliband.

The next two unions with the highest number of votes cast were the GMB (43,106) and Unison (28,142), the two other big unions that had backed Ed Miliband. Again, these votes cast were just a small fraction of the ballots each union distributed.

So the vast majority of union members didn’t bother to vote at all. And of those who did, a significant number had their votes discounted because they didn’t tick the box that said they were members of the Labour party, either because they forgot to do so, or because they’re not members of the party. Maybe they’re members of a different party. Or maybe they’re not members of any party. We don’t know.

It does seem clear, however, that the bulk of union members either don’t support Labour or at least, don’t care enough about who the leader is to bother to vote.  Given that reality, is it right to continue to let unions vote for the leadership (and probably on other things the party does as well – such as developing policies and the like)? Union members who are keen supporters of Labour can already take part in these activities by becoming members of the party – why should they get an extra vote simply because they’re also members of a union? And why should unions have so much sway in the party when there’s no indication that the bulk of their membership like or support that party?

I think this policy should be reconsidered. Ed Miliband can proclaim as much as he wants that he’s not beholden to any one group, but it seems there was a concerted drive by the unions to make sure Ed, not David, won. No political party, much less its leader, should be beholden to any interest group that way.

Related Posts:

Labour leadership: follow-up

I was able to watch the results of the Labour Party’s leadership race thanks to the BBC livestreaming it on their website. Here are a few observations.

When the candidates were introduced prior to the voting results being revealed, I thought David Miliband had won, given the hugely satisfied smile he wore. Ed Miliband, however, looked rather glum, which seemed to confirm my initial assumption. Either that or they were both very good actors. Of course, as we now know, David didn’t win, Ed did. I wasn’t the only person to think they did a good job of masking their reactions. The BBC had liveblogging to go along with the livestreaming, and I believe it was Nick Robinson who also commented that he thought David had won based on facial expressions. Over at the Guardian, Andrew Sparrow was liveblogging the results and wrote the following:

4.43pm: Ann Black, chair of the NEC, invites the candidates on stage.

David Miliband looks very pleased with himself. I haven’t seen Ed Miliband yet.

4.44pm: Ed Miliband looks as if he’s lost. Seriously.

If he hasn’t lost, he must be mighty good at poker.

4.45pm: If David Miliband hasn’t won, I’ll be amazed, for the look on his face.

4.50pm: Ed Miliband has won. He is the new Labour leader

4.53pm: So I was wrong.

Lesson 1: Ed Miliband is leader of the Labour party.
Lesson 2: Don’t play him at poker. He made a good job of hiding that.

Of course, much is being made in some (many) circles about the fact that Ed won solely because of union support. David had the support the majority of Labour MPs, MEPs and members. It was the union vote that put Ed narrowly ahead of his brother. I don’t know how that will play out, or if it will matter at all in the long wrong. However, the reality is that Ed did not have the backing of most of the people who really matter – the ones he has to work with and the ones whose votes he needs: MPs and members.

I have to say I really wasn’t that impressed with Ed Miliband’s victory speech. I think this was the first time I’d really heard Ed speak. I know he’s done interviews during the campaign, but most of those were not available to me here in Canada. My first thought was that he was rather plodding, and not particularly inspiring. Perhaps it was the shock of winning. Perhaps he’s always like that – I really can’t say. My second thought was that Cameron would wipe the floor with him during PMQs.

But as I’ve said in my previous post, I have no vested interest in the Labour leadership. Ed seems like a decent fellow. He has a lot of work cut out for him, and I do hope that he can heal the rifts that exist in the Labour party between the Blairites and Brownites. On a side note, while I didn’t hear his entire speech, I did catch a decent portion of Gordon Brown’s speech. I thought he was extremely gracious and hopefully, that will help with building party unity.

I am looking forward to the first PMQs when the House resumes sitting in October…

Related Posts:

Obligatory post on the Labour leadership race

Tomorrow, we’ll find out who will be the new leader of the Labour party. The only real suspense is which Miliband brother will walk away with the top spot, David or Ed.

I will admit that I’ve not been following the race that closely, for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not British, but even if I were, I doubt my natural inclination would be to vote Labour. I seem to be more of a Lib Dem at heart. My interest in UK political parties is primarily academic rather than personal. By that I mean, it doesn’t really matter to me which party (or parties) form the government, never mind who leads these parties. My interest is that of someone who simply has a general interest in politics. I’m interested in the Coalition not because it’s a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, but simply because it’s a coalition government in a Westminster parliamentary system! A rare beast indeed and so worthy of interest, in my opinion at least.

Second, the race has hardly been much of a race. As I stated above, despite the fact that there were five candidates running, it was clear from the start that a Miliband would emerge the winner. At the outset, the general consensus seemed to be that older brother David would walk away with the prize. It has become mildly more interesting as we get to the very end because it seems younger brother Ed has caught up, and perhaps might even take it on second ballot preferences, but we’re still going to end up with a Miliband. The reality is that there’s been more interest in the question of would one brother serve under the under brother than there has been in the merits of the three other candidates in the race.

If David Miliband emerges as leader, the assumption is that he will continue to position Labour as a more centrist party, in other words, continue what Tony Blair began. Ed Miliband, however, would move the party more to the left. I doubt very much that it would be a return to Labour’s militant, socialist roots, but the assumption is that Labour under Ed Miliband would strive to distinguish itself much more clearly from the other two main parties.

Right now, according to Political Compass at least, all three of the main parties in the UK are right of centre on the economic scale, and both the Conservatives and Labour score much higher on the authoritarian side of things than do the Lib Dems (with Labour actually more authoritarian than the Conservatives and a bit more to the right than the Lib Dems). It would probably benefit voters in the UK to have a major party that was more economically left-leaning again, and it could well also benefit Labour to move that way. But if they move too far to the left, i.e., re-adopting their old commitment to nationalize virtually everything, that would probably make them rather unelectable.

I find myself largely in agreement with this piece from the Daily Telegraph. I think Moore is right when he says that the campaign has lacked boldness:

Boldness would have required an analysis of the past 13 Labour years which would have been intensely annoying to one section or another of the party electorate, so the candidates avoided it. It is fashionable just now to trash Tony Blair, but even such populism would have been dangerous. No critic has offered a coherent replacement for the Blair version of New Labour, so the candidates have confined themselves to a few disparaging hints. Under Blair, after all, for the only time in its history, the party had the habit of winning.

For a Canadian, there are the inevitable comparisons between Labour and Canada’s federal Liberal party – primarily when it comes to one leader being replaced by his former Finance minister/chancellor and the internal wars that waged between the two camps. The Liberals have been plagued by leadership issues ever since, and more importantly, they too have never opted for boldness and reassessed their thirteen years in power (1993-2006). The party remains mired around the 30% mark in the polls (usually a bit below that), with no vision of change to offer the country.

It’s certainly not too late for whichever Miliband emerges as leader to put forward a bold new vision for the party. Only time will tell if he has the courage to do so.

Related Posts:

Observing question period

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend in person a session of Question Period at one of Canada’s provincial legislatures.

I have watched television coverage of this legislature’s proceedings, including Question Period, and knew that it could be rather raucous at times. I was informed afterward that this had been a relatively quiet day, which made my observations that much more distressing.

When you watch this legislature’s proceedings on television, it seems to be a fairly orderly process, most of the time. The cameras focus only on the person speaking, meaning that you very rarely get any wide angle shots that allow you to see what is going on in the chamber as a whole. Also, the television broadcast picks up mostly only the sound from the microphone of the person speaking, so while you can hear some background noise (meaning comments, jeers, etc., from other members), this doesn’t drown out the person speaking. Consequently, this leaves the viewer with the impression that people in the Chamber are actually paying attention to what is going on.

Sadly, what you experience live is very, very different. What hits you first is how loud it is in the Chamber. In fact, you really cannot hear anything, not the questions, not the answers, not even the Speaker when he intervenes, because of all the heckling, chatting, clapping, jeering and everything else going on. I was sitting in the visitors’ gallery on the government’s side of the Chamber, which made it that much more difficult to hear the ministers when they stood to answer questions, because their backs were to me. However, it was also very difficult most of the time to hear the questions coming from the Opposition side over the heckling from the government side.

The next things that strikes you is that no one seems to be paying any attention to what is going on. I wish this was an exaggeration, but it isn’t. When a member from the Opposition benches would ask a question of a minister, more often than not, that minister would be engaged in a conversation with the colleague sitting next to them, or even worse, sitting behind them, meaning they literally had their back to the person asking the question. The Opposition side is little better, however. They rarely seemed to show any interest in the answer the minister provided. Instead, they too would be busy reading notes, or chatting with colleagues. In fact, the few times someone did seem to be paying close attention to what was being said really stood out because it was the exception, not the norm. I must add, however, that I doubt any of them could have heard much of the exchange over all the jeers, clapping and general cacophony.

What these two points drove home to me was just how scripted, formulaic and, sadly, pointless was the entire exercise. The ministers delivered scripted answers that barely touched on the subject of the questions asked of them, or if they did “directly” address the question, they did so in the most superficial way. The Opposition, meanwhile, didn’t seem to care what answer they received. Their supplementary questions simply harped on the same point over and over again. On rare occasions, they would pick up on something in the answer provided, and pursue it in their supplementary, which would force the minister to move away from their script somewhat and actually engage in a slightly more meaningful exchange, but those instances were few and far between. The worse aspect of Question Period, however, has to be the planted, softball questions that government backbenchers are forced to ask. These are nothing but blatant attempts by the government to score PR points by boasting of its own accomplishments. The Opposition greets these questions with utter scorn. I can’t help but feel that this is a completely humiliating experiencing for a backbencher. They can’t ask questions that might be relevant to their own constituents, about issues facing their constituency; they aren’t granted that right by their party. They are heckled by the opposition members for doing so, and the ministers get extra insults thrown at them for taking such easy questions, but the irony is that should the Opposition party find itself in power, it will do the very same thing with its own backbenchers.

In the end, Question Period is simply one big show for the lights and cameras. There’s no real exchange going on, there’s no real holding the government to account – which is the whole point of oral questions – it’s simply an opportunity for Opposition and government alike to get their soundbites du jour on the air.

I felt particularly embarrassed and bad for the school groups who were there watching. It’s not really anything that’s going to boost anyone’s opinion of politics and politicians.

I’ve never attended Question Period in the federal House of Commons, but after attending this provincial session, I have to think the situation is identical, perhaps even worse in Ottawa. The only real plus with the television coverage from Ottawa is that some camera angles do show the other side’s front bench, which perhaps forces the front bench at least to at least pretend it’s paying more attention. But in this provincial legislature, the members who aren’t speaking know they aren’t on camera, and so there is no attempt to even look remotely interested in the proceedings. To be fair to them, the answers are so scripted, and the questions so fixated on certain talking points, the entire proceeding is excruciatingly boring. That said, I can only imagine how alienating it must be if an Opposition member was trying to ask a serious question (rather than simply trying to score a cheap shot) of a minister, and that minister had their back to them the entire time as they engage in conversation with colleagues instead of paying attention to the question being directed to them.

I think what made it worse is that the members all know it’s just a big show. They lob insults and jeers at each other, but then you see them laughing and grinning at each other (and getting up to talk to each other). To me that indicates there would be no serious interest in trying to make Question Period better in any way – they’re not interested in a serious back and forth exchange. It’s all about cheap shots and soundbites and that suits them all just fine.

I regularly live-stream both Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), and other Oral Questions sessions from the UK House of Commons, and my overall impression of what transpires at Westminster is infinitely more positive. I don’t doubt now that it’s probably a different experience in person, but there are several factors that I think make the entire process more productive at Westminster. At the top of my list would be the seating arrangements. In Canada (both federally and in the provincial legislatures), our politicians sit behind desks, at assigned seats. At Westminster, the front bench (and everyone else) really do sit on a bench. They have no desks, so can’t sit there with newspapers and briefing materials and other distractions spread out before them. There aren’t assigned seats – whichever ministry is up for Questions that day positions itself accordingly. This has benefits beyond Oral Questions. During debates on other matters, when most cabinet ministers are not in the Chamber, the front benches are filled by other MPs. In the Canadian House of Commons and in provincial legislatures, members must stay in their assigned seats, making the absences of top ministers glaringly obvious. In fact, it makes the absences of many members very obvious to the viewer. At least in the UK, members can reposition themselves to occupy the main benches on both sides of the House.

I like the dispatch box. Of course, it’s only the minister answering the question and the members of the shadow cabinet that actually go to the dispatch box to ask and answer questions – other MPs ask questions from where they are sitting – but it results in a much smaller divide between the two. This smaller space, combined with benches gives me the impression that there is a more genuine willingness to both ask serious questions and a greater onus on the government side to provide actual answers. The desks uses in Canada act as a barrier, a defensive line each side can hide behind.

Government backbenchers at Westminster can also more freely lob questions not only at ministers, but also at the Prime Minister during PMQs. I’m not saying there aren’t ever any “planted” questions of the kind we have in Canada, but if a government backbencher has a legitimate concern affecting their constituency, they can freely question the minister or PM.

Of course, the grass is always greener on the other side of the Atlantic. While I might find what transpires in the UK preferable to what we experience in Canada, that doesn’t mean everyone in the UK is satisfied with the state of their Question Period, as I’ve previously posted about.

Related Posts:

Clegg’s Conference Speech

Caveat: I’ve never listened to a speech delivered by Nick Clegg to the party faithful before. I have listened to a couple of speeches he’s done as Deputy Prime Minister, but never one delivered in his capacity as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

I did watch Clegg’s keynote speech delivered earlier today at the Lib Dem party conference. My caveat above is only to make it clear that I have no point of comparison against which to measure this year’s speech. I don’t know how previous speeches have gone down, during the years when the Lib Dems probably thought, if they were being honest with themselves, that being in power wasn’t going to happen any time soon. I don’t know if Clegg was realistic in those speeches, or if he spoke as if there was an actual chance that the Lib Dems might win the next election. I can imagine that it’s a difficult position to be in, leader of the perennial third party – you have to act as if you might really make it to government one day, when deep down, you know that’s not very likely to happen.

But it did happen, and the Lib Dems are actually part of government. Perhaps much to the dismay of some, since it involves working with the much-hated Tories, but nonetheless, there they are. I must say that I was quite impressed with Clegg’s address, and rather surprised that the BBC’s Nick Robinson described it as “largely defensive“. I didn’t find it defensive. I thought Clegg conveyed a degree of maturity and responsibility, appropriate to his new role as Deputy PM.

His speech did focus on driving home the Lib Dem contributions to the Coalition and its policies. Perhaps that is why Robinson saw it defensive. Clegg knows many in the party aren’t happy with some of the policy decisions the Coalition has taken, and fear that they’ll either be swallowed up by the Tories or pay a heavy price at the polls in the next election, so I can understand why he’d make a point of stressing how Lib Dem values are prevailing and will continue to prevail. He needed to try to reassure party members, and I thought he did a fairly decent job of it. “Hold our nerve and we will have changed British politics for good”, was one line, another was “we’ve always been the face of change, now we’re the agent of change.”

What impressed me the most, however, was how relatively non-partisan the speech was. He said nice things about David Cameron (“he showed he could think beyond his party and help build a new kind of politics”), but did pledge to ensure that the Coalition would never repeat the Conservative excesses of the Thatcher era.  He made a case for coalition government, saying it can be “braver, fairer and bolder than one party acting alone”. This coalition is the “right government for right now”. The BBC, which was live-streaming the speech, also had a liveblogging feed set up. Brian Wheeler commented: “This is very sober stuff. No jokes, no ritual bashing of other parties and definitely no crowing about being in government” which is exactly what I’ve been trying to convey here.

He was most critical of Labour, both past and future: he attacked them for not taking full advantage of huge majorities and a strong economy to bring true, progressive change to the UK, and almost pleaded (I thought) with the party to be a more effective, constructive opposition. But he could have been far more partisan, and perhaps in the past, he was.

Again, I didn’t find this to be a defensive speech. It was sober, yes, even humble. Did it succeed in quelling the doubts and fears of many in his party? I don’t know. Perhaps many were expecting a far more partisan speech, but Clegg’s in a difficult position. Labour is the only real target he has, since he can’t really rip into the Tories anymore, other than to remind them that the Lib Dems will be their Jiminy Cricket, but even when it came to his hits on Labour, perhaps because the party’s in the midst of a leadership race, he didn’t hit as hard as he could have.

Of course, I’m not a party member, and have no vested interest in what happens to the Lib Dems in 2015, so perhaps my assessment is more positive. However, I do think that even as a party member, I would have been quite satisfied with this speech.

Related Posts:

Book review: The Best Laid Plans

WARNING: Slight spoilers below. Also, The Best Laid Plans is a work of fiction. Eric Cameron is a fictional character. There has never been a real Finance minister in Canada named Eric Cameron.

The Best Laid Plans is a novel by Terry Fallis which won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour in 2008.

The premise of the novel is quite simple. The main character, Daniel Addison, leaves Ottawa after several years working for the Liberal Party, most recently as head speechwriter for the leader (who is Leader of the Opposition), and returns to academia as an English professor at the University of Ottawa. Daniel’s decision to leave the world of politics began with a growing malaise as he became more jaded and cynical, but was finalised when he discovers his long-term girlfriend in a compromising position with the party’s House leader. That scene alone should win a prize for most creative use of parliamentary language to describe something other than parliamentary procedure.

However, Daniel can’t make a clean break from politics or the party – he has to do one last favour for them. There is an election coming up, and the Liberals need to find someone to stand for them in the riding of Cumberland-Prescott, a seat which has been Tory forever, and is currently held by the Conservative Finance minister, Eric Cameron, dubbed the most popular Finance minister in Canadian history. It’s a hopeless cause of course, and Daniel is desperate to find someone willing to run. He finally manages to convince his landlord, a retired Engineering professor named Angus McLintock, to stand, in exchange for Daniel taking over the teaching of English for Engineers, which has been foisted upon Angus again, much to his absolute dismay. While there is no chance that a Liberal will win Cumberland-Prescott, Angus makes doubly sure of that by insisting on several conditions: no lawn signs, no press, no photos, no actual campaigning, etc. He even leaves the country during the latter part of the campaign.

Of course, things don’t go as planned, and in the dying days of the campaign, a scandal involving Eric Cameron comes to light. The rest of the novel traces Angus’s reluctant acceptance of being an MP, and his decision to do things his way, much to the party leadership’s dismay.

Anyone who is interested in Canadian politics (or even politics in general) will probably enjoy this novel. It provides the reader with a fascinating look at party politics and behind-the-scenes machinations. And if you’re particularly a fan of the idea that MPs should behave more independently, you’ll embrace Angus McLintock – even if he is a Liberal.

Farris published a sequel earlier this month entitled The High Road. You can read that review here (although there are spoilers re: The Best Laid Plans).

Related Posts:

Don’t worry about polls

“Don’t worry about polls, but if you do, don’t admit it.” (Rosalynn Carter)

Opinion polls taken outside of an election campaign might provide a snapshot of current public opinion regarding political parties, but most of the time, the findings should be taken with a grain of salt. The way the media reports on such polls should be taken with an entire salt shaker.

The Independent has a story with the ominous headline: “Clegg sold out to get power, say voters“, followed by a by-line which informs us that “Four in 10 supporters say they wouldn’t have voted for him if they’d known about coalition.

Two things about this. First of all, while 40% of supporters is a significant percentage, the paper could have just as easily emphasised the fact that 60% of supporters were OK with the coalition. There is also the fact that quite a few traditionally Labour supporters voted Lib Dem for the first time in the May 2010 election in a bid to prevent the Conservatives from winning. It’s not clear to me if the poll questioned only traditional Lib Dem voters, or anyone who voted Lib Dem in the last election. If many of the normally Labour voters were included in the poll, rather than only traditionally Lib Dem supporters, of course you’re going to end up with a significant number saying they’d never have voted Lib Dem had they known there would be a coalition with the Conservatives. That vote was largely anti-Tory, not pro-Lib Dem.

The second thing is perhaps a bit more of a head-scratcher. The Liberal Democrats have always been strongly in favour of electoral reform, with their manifesto calling for a move to STV. Now any move to a more proportional electoral system would most likely result in regular coalition governments.

Therefore, what I’m finding somewhat confusing here is if you’re a staunch Lib Dem supporter, you have to know that 1) the party advocates moving from FPTP to a more proportional electoral system; 2) such a move would result in coalitions being the norm rather than exceptions; 3) even with some form of PR, the Lib Dems would most likely remain the 3rd place party; 4) it wouldn’t always be possible to form a coalition with Labour.

I can understand that quite a few Lib Dem supporters might be more at home with the thought of a Lib Dem-Labour coalition than they are with a Lib Dem-Conservative coalition, but the reality is that sometimes the latter would be the only real option available.

My advice to the Lib Dem leadership is to not worry too much about this or any other poll. It’s more than likely that had the Lib Dems opted to join forces with Labour after the election, we’d be hearing the same opinions expressed. It’s also a bit ludicrous to ask people if they’d vote differently after they know what the results of the vote. Would that theoretical 40% seriously have voted for Labour and kept a failing government in power under Gordon Brown?

The Lib Dems will be in government until May 2015, which is an eternity in politics. Come May 2015, all parties will come under the spotlight again in a general election, perhaps on a completely new voting system. That’s the opinion poll that truly matters, not one taken four months after the last election.

Related Posts:

Rethinking fixed-term parliaments

I have discussed the issue of fixed-term parliaments previously (see this post and this post), mostly in the context of the legislation under consideration in the UK, however, it is an issue I’d written about on a previous blog (now defunct), when various Canadian provinces and the Canadian federal government were considering adopting fixed-term parliaments.

My initial position, which has remained unchanged, is that fixed-term parliaments aren’t necessary because the main “problem” they seek to address isn’t really that much of a problem, and that in all likelihood, fixed-term parliaments would simply create new problems. Based on the experiences of various Canadian provinces, I believe my initial objection to the need for fixed-term parliaments has been borne out.

The main justification for adopting fixed-term parliaments is that it levels the playing field for all parties since the governing party can no longer call an election when it wants to, at a time that might be particularly beneficial for that party.

In Canada and the United Kingdom, parliaments last a maximum of five years (in a sense, there is already a term limit in place). The governing party can call an election pretty much whenever it wants to, with the only limit on that freedom being that an election has to occur five years to the day of the previous election, for example, if an election was held on 1 May 2006, another election would have to occur on or before 1 May 2011. That would be the latest possible date for a new election; the problem, for some at least, is that there is no earliest possible date limit.

The argument in favour of fixed-term parliaments is that because it is the governing party which has the power to decide when the election will be, it can choose  a time that will be the most favourable to it, for example, when opinion polls indicate a sizable lead over other parties, when the economic forecast looks particularly strong, or when it can exploit any weaknesses in the opposition parties, i.e. leadership issues, fund-raising problems, lack of nominated candidates etc.  Also, since the governing party has a particular date in mind for an election call, which it of course keeps secret, it can begin unofficially campaigning weeks, even months ahead of time, travelling around the country or province making spending announcements, all on the taxpayer’s dime. Or it can table a particularly generous budget, full of tax cuts and spending announcements, then call an election to campaign on its generosity.

The introduction of fixed-term parliaments was supposed to put an end to that sort of thing. True – now the date of the next election is no secret, and if the governing party finds itself trailing in the polls when election date rolls around, or if the economy takes a turn for the worse, there isn’t much it can do about that. Similarly, opposition parties know when the date of the election will be, and so would no longer find themselves caught unprepared: they’d have time to put together a comprehensive platform, and ensure all their candidates and constituency teams were in place. Other arguments in favour of fixed-term parliaments include: fixed election dates would make it easier for parties to recruit stronger candidates since they’d have more time to reorganize their lives to accommodate a run for public office; and that fixed-term parliaments would improve the overall tone and caliber of debate.  However, the only issue that truly has been addressed is that of the governing party having total control over the calling of an election. There is no real evidence that any of the other proposed pluses have indeed materialized, and as I stated previously, new issues have emerged.

British Columbia was the first Canadian province to adopt fixed-term parliaments legislation in 2001, and its first election held under that legislation, also the first fixed-term election in Canada, was held in 2005. Since then, five other provinces and one territory have joined the fixed-term parliaments club (date of first fixed-term election in brackets): Ontario (2007), Newfoundland and Labrador (2007), the Northwest Territories (2007), New Brunswick (2010), Saskatchewan (2011) and Prince Edward Island (2011). The federal government also adopted fixed-term elections, however, given that we have had minority governments in place, there hasn’t yet been an election based on the fixed-term legislation. Still, five elections across the country have been conducted under fixed-term parliaments legislation, and these have provided us with some useful information.

First, while it used to be that only the governing party knew when an election would occur, and would not-so-subtlety start an unofficial campaign, now every party knows when the election will be, and all parties start unofficially campaigning weeks, even months, ahead of time. It’s not an official campaign, because most, if not all, provinces have strict rules in place that limit that sort of activity and how much money can be spent during and outside of campaigns (although there are no limitations on how much the government can spend under the guise of conducting “government business” that more closely resembles campaigning), but all parties nonetheless begin jockeying for attention. This will happen both inside and outside the legislature.

New Brunswick will be holding its first election under fixed-term legislation on 27 September of this year, and one political analyst from the province, Don Desserud, has already decided that fixed-term parliaments legislation was a mistake. Desserud writes:

We now have an extended pre-campaign period, what we call the “phoney campaign,” during which election finance rules restrict the opposition parties’ activities, but can do little to prevent the government from openly campaigning.

Ever since the New Brunswick legislature adjourned on April 16, all parties have been doing their best to campaign. No one even pretended they weren’t.

New Brunswick isn’t alone in this. The next Ontario election is still over a year away (October 2011), but the parties are already jockeying for position in the legislature, particularly during question period. While you can argue that question period is usually fairly raucous, there is something different afoot in Ontario. The Opposition Progressive Conservative party is trying to build name recognition for its relatively new leader, by regularly mentioning his name when they raise questions. This is contrary to parliamentary procedure, where Members are not to refer to other Members by name but by riding only, and the Speaker has had to warn them repeatedly that he will not allow this to continue.

Desserud adds:

The long, phoney campaign has had other negative effects. Most people (except political junkies like me) find even a four-week campaign tedious.

An election campaign that drags on for four months is interminable. We won’t know the election turnout until after the ballots are counted, of course, but I will be surprised if the participation rate improves.

I can only imagine the impact of a campaign that drags on for a year, if what is currently happening in Ontario continues until October 2011.

Desserud again:

Neither have I seen any evidence that the quality of the debate has improved, now that opposition parties have more time to build their policy platforms. If anything, the phoney campaign has dropped the level of debate to new lows.

Certainly, neither the PCs nor the Liberals have managed to present anything approaching a vision for the province or a plan to deal with the growing list of serious and difficult issues that the province faces.

Again, this certainly applies to Ontario, with the Opposition Progressive Conservatives more intent on discrediting the sitting Liberal government than they are on pushing an alternative vision for the province, while the sitting Liberal Government simply attempts to defend its record.

When debates over the issue of fixed-term parliaments have arisen in the past, some people pointed to sitting governments calling elections unnecessarily early rather than serving out their complete mandate. I have found some interesting statistics that indicate that this isn’t really the case. In Canada, parliaments, both federally and provincially, tend to last about four years without fixed-term parliaments legislation.  The New Brunswick Commission on Legislative Democracy conveniently informs us that since 1785, elections have been held in New Brunswick on average every 48.3 months (which you can find on page 6 of this PDF presentation). The Parliament of Canada website informs us that the average duration of majority governments in Canada since 1867 is 4 years and 6 days. Canada has had a fair few minority governments over the years (11), which last on average 1 year, 5 months and 9 days, and so if you calculate the average for all parliaments from the return of the writs to dissolution, the average duration drops to 3 years, 3 months and 27 days. Elections Ontario doesn’t provide averages, but it does provide the dates of general elections from election day to dissolution. I didn’t want to calculate the average duration going back to 1867, but from the 24th Parliament onwards (1951 to current), the average duration of a parliament in Ontario was 53 months (please note that I rounded off the dates for reasons of laziness and practicality).

Perhaps the statistics from only two provinces and the federal government aren’t quite enough to form an overall generalisation, but I will nonetheless.  My point here is simply that in Canada, there isn’t that much evidence to support claims that sitting governments tend to call elections well before their fourth year in office (particularly when you take minority governments out of the equation, and most provinces don’t end up with minority governments that often since most of them tend to be dominated by two parties). On occasion, a sitting government would call an election earlier than that. Sometimes their gambit was successful, but often, they’d pay a price for going to the polls unnecessarily early. Similarly, the only governments that drag out their term to the maximum limit are governments who know they’ll be defeated – badly – at the polls. It is seen as, and rightly so, a desperate bid to hold on to power for as long as they possibly can. I would argue that instinctively, most opposition parties know that, coming into a government’s fourth year in power, an election will be imminent and would thus organize themselves accordingly. There are always signs that a party is contemplating an election call, knowing the exact date doesn’t provide that much of an advantage.

Don Desserud’s sums up quite well the merits of moving fixed-term parliaments:

I do concede that with fixed-date elections, political parties should have an easier time attracting quality candidates. Unfortunately, I can’t think of any objective way to measure whether this has in fact happened.

But frankly, if that’s the only reason left for keeping the new system, I suggest we explore other means for attracting good people to run for office.

Fixed-date elections make election planning more convenient. However, the price we are paying for this convenience is a system that favours the party in power and serves only to convince the voting public that elections are horrendously boring and nasty affairs.

Related Posts:

Page 31 of 37« First...1020...2930313233...Last »