Coalition government: not liked, but expected

A few years ago, I wrote a post exploring why the very idea of  coalition government became such a negative thing in Canada. I’ve also written a number of posts explaining that, in the United Kingdom, coalition government has become the expected outcome in the event of a general election which results in a hung parliament (this being the most recent one).

UK polling firm Ipsos Mori today released its Political Monitor January 2014. Along with the usual data regarding voting intentions and satisfaction with the various party leaders and the economy, there are some very interesting numbers regarding the outcome of future elections.

A majority (51%) of those polled believe that the 2015 general election will result in another coalition government. That belief is strongest amongst Conservative (58%) and Liberal Democrat (66%) supporters. Labour Party supporters are less likely to think that will be the outcome (42%) – most likely because their party continues to lead in the polls.

But while a majority think there will be another coalition government in 2015, that doesn’t mean they like the idea. A strong majority, 60%, believe it’s a bad thing that no party achieved an overall majority in the 2010 election. That percentage has increased gradually since May 2010, when 52% thought it was a bad thing that no party had won an overall majority. And when asked about the 2015 election, 65% of those polled believe it will be a bad thing if that election again results in a hung parliament. Unsurprisingly, Liberal Democrat supporters are the only ones who overwhelmingly think hung parliaments are a good thing (55%). Supporters of the two largest parties, the Conservatives and Labour are equally unenthusiastic about hung parliaments, with only 21% thinking that it’s a good thing if no party wins an overall majority.

Ipsos Mori then asked supporters of each party who their preferred coalition partner would be from amongst the other parties, should the 2015 election result in a hung parliament. Conservative supporters strongly favoured a resumption of the current coalition with the Liberal Democrats (70%). Only 40% strongly supported a coalition with UKIP – assuming of course that UKIP even wins any seats in 2015. Labour supporters were almost equally supportive of a coalition with either the Liberal Democrats (62%) or the Greens (63%). Given that the Greens have only one seat in the current Parliament, and that is unlikely to change much in 2015, a coalition with the Green Party is not very likely. Liberal Democrat supporters actually favoured the Conservatives (65%) over Labour (53%) as coalition partners. That might surprise some. There is wide-spread assumption in the UK that the Liberal Democrats are a left-wing party, one that would more naturally align itself with Labour. I’ve never quite understood why people feel that way – the LibDems have always struck me as a very centrist party, even slightly right-of-centre in terms of economic policy. That their supporters more strongly favour the Conservatives as coalition partners possibly confirms my views. Or it could simply be a reaction to having had to endure a lot of abuse from Labour politicians and supporters since entering into a coalition with the Tories in 2010.

My interest in this is again to point out how the idea of coalition government has become, if not liked, at least accepted in the UK. The political parties and their supporters at least grudgingly acknowledge that it’s not only a viable alternative to single-party minority government in the event of a hung parliament, but perhaps a preferable option. Labour and Conservative supporters would certainly prefer that their party form a majority government on its own, there is no doubt about that. But the current coalition has demonstrated a couple of things: 1) despite constant predictions that it would fall apart, it hasn’t, and 75% of those surveyed believe it will last until May 2015 (only 40% thought that in July 2012); and 2) it has provided stable government during a difficult economic period. In other words, while it hasn’t always been pretty, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has worked. And ultimately, isn’t that what matters most?

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Report on 2010 elections for positions in the House

The UK House of Commons Procedure Committee released a report on 31 October 2011, which reviewed the elections held, for the first time, in most cases, to fill various positions in the House. It is an interesting report as it provides more detailed information into how exactly these elections proceeded.

In the dying months of the previous parliament, the House of Commons adopted many of the recommendations of the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons (the Wright Committee). These recommendations were implemented for the first time in the new Parliament elected in May 2010.

Among the changes introduced were first time elections for the Deputy Speakers of the House, the chairs of the main select committees and the chair and members of the new Backbench Business Committee, and a new system adopted by the parties to elect their members of the relevant select committees. While the entire report is interesting, I will focus on the elections affecting select committees.

To recap for those who don’t know, one of the recommendations of Wright Committee adopted in March 2010 and implemented for the first time following the May 2010 general election was the election of the chairs of the major select committees. Previously, this process had been a private arrangement between the party Whips. Standing Order No. 122B outlines a three stage process:

  1. The Speaker writes to the party leaders indicating the proportion of chairs of select committees falling to each party based on the composition of the House following the election;
  2. The House agrees to a motion tabled in the names of the leaders of all parties entitled to one of more chairs specifying to which party each chair is allocated;
  3. Two weeks later, ballots are held for each of the posts, except in cases where only one candidate has come forward, in which case they are declared elected without a ballot. The vote is conducted using the Alternative Vote system (preferential ballot), meaning MPs rank the candidates in order of preference.

What happened in May 2010

A total of 24 committee chair positions were open for election. Of these, 8 were elected unopposed and 16 were contested and decided by secret ballot. The allocation of chairs between the parties, as stated above, follows the convention of mirroring the party breakdown in the House. The Speaker sent a letter indicating the proportion each party was entitled to and was arithmetically correct, but the motion tabled by the party leaders was not, nor does it have to be. The motion allocated one fewer chair to Labour and one more to the Conservatives than would have been the case if the figures supplied by the Speaker had been strictly followed.

Members nominated for a committee chair position engaged in rather vigorous campaigning. One of the main problems faced by candidates was making themselves known to new MPs who weren’t familiar with their record in the House or past work on committees. The volume of communication sent out by some candidates even overloaded the email system. This went on for the two week period between the House agreeing to the motion tabled by the party leaders and the actual ballot date. As mentioned, AV is used, since it eliminates the need for subsequent ballots and it ensures that the winning candidate has the support of more than half of those voting.

Once the committee chairs were elected, committee membership was elected. The Wright Committee had proposed that the members of select committees should be elected by secret ballot by each political party, according to their level of representation in the House and using transparent democratic means. The House would then endorse the results.

In 2010, the process of internal party elections was carried out after the election of the chairs. Once complete, the party Whips submitted a list of names for each committee to the Committee of Selection and the House agreed to the formal motions to nominate the select committees. Little information was published as to how the division of seats between the parties was made nor on the method used for election within each party. The Labour Party asked Members to nominate themselves for a select committee. Those who had applied for an undersubscribed committee or where the number of candidates matched the number of vacancies were declared elected unopposed. They then held a two-stage election process with elections for the vacancies on the 12 most subscribed committees followed by an election for the rest of the vacancies.

The Conservatives adopted a similar process to Labour. The process of administering the election will handed over from the Whips, who ran the contest in 2010, to the 1922 Committee for future elections.

The Liberal Democrats were awarded a number of select committee places in accordance with their party strength. Interested members signed up for vacancies and there was no need for ballots.

Committee Recommendations

After reviewing the election process for committee chairs, the Procedure Committee made a few recommendations. The members of minority parties complained that they were excluded from even standing for a post as a select committee chair. While the Committee sympathised, they did not recommend a change to the election process for select committee chairs.

Other members complained about the volume of communications issued by candidates in contested elections, arguing for more control over how MPs campaigned. Others called for opportunities for members to meet with and hear from the candidates for each post, which would have been very helpful for the newly-elected MPs. The Committee reviewed these issues and in the end decided against more central control over the campaign. Given the number of elections involved, they decided that it would be unwise to lay down rules about how each event should be organised, leaving it instead to the candidates to decide how best to reach out to their fellow MPs.

Another issue raised was the participation of Ministers. Voting for the chairs was open to all MPs, but since the role of select committees is to hold Ministers to account, some suggested that it was not appropriate for Ministers to have a vote in deciding who should undertake that role. The Committee recognized this as a valid concern, but problematic to address. Excluding Ministers from voting would affect the party’s balance of the electorate. Changing the rule to say that Ministers could vote in all elections except those relating to their department might be difficult to police. Instead, the Committee concluded that Minister would be “well-advised to refrain from voting in the election for a chair to scrutinise their own department” but decided that a more formal prohibition would be undesirable.

The Committee also reviewed the use of AV for the vote and decided that it would be best to move from AV to FPTP. The Committee justified this on the following grounds: 1) FPTP is simple and is the voting system MPs are most familiar with and 2) the results from 2010 showed that even in the contests which required more than one round of counting, the candidate who was in the lead on the first count remained there and won. Of the 16 contested elections, seven were decided on the first count, five on the second, three on the third and one required 6 counts. In each case, even the one which went six rounds of counting, the winning candidate was ahead by a significant margin in the first round of counting and the subsequent rounds only served to increase their lead until they surpassed the 50% mark.

I have to say that I find this recommendation a bit problematic, given the reasons the Committee provides to justify it. First, AV is hardly that much more complicated than FPTP. While I can understand that a newly-elected MP might find it difficult to rank several candidates, none of whom he or she knows at all, they probably would find it as difficult to vote for a single candidate among a list of names that they don’t know at all. As for the second reason provided, simply because the elections held in June 2010 weren’t that close, this doesn’t mean that in future years, there won’t be much closer races. At least with AV, the eventual winner will be the candidate who eventually receives 50% of the vote. With FPTP, if there are very close races for some chair positions, the winning candidate may well be elected by a bare majority of the vote – maybe even one vote.

In my view, this would be problematic when electing the chair of a select committee. I would think that it would be preferable to have a chair who had the backing of an overall majority of his or her fellow MPs, even if that means they are the “compromise” candidate, than to end up with a chair who was narrowly elected over another candidate, and given the vote totals, very likely elected only by their own party, with no support (or barely any support) from members of other parties, which is exactly what could happen using FPTP. The chairs of select committees have to represent and answer to the House, not simply their party caucus. The whole point of moving away from Whip-appointed chairs to House elected chairs was to make the committees more independent and accountable. FPTP could very well undermine this in the event of a very hotly-contested race between several candidates.

Because FPTP was never meant to be used in instances where there are more than two candidates running, I think the Committee is making a mistake in recommending that AV be dropped in favour of FPTP for the election of committee chairs. Alternatively, they could recommend that if there are only two candidates contesting for one position, FPTP could be used since one candidate will inevitably end up with more than 50% of the vote, but in instances where there are three or more candidates, AV be used to ensure that the eventual winner have majority support of the House.

Regarding the election of committee membership, the Procedure Committee got little feedback from members and thus concluded that there was little evidence that any changes were needed. However, they did recommend that it would be more in keeping with the “spirit of the Wright reforms” if each party published details of the process by which it elected its members to select committees.

As stated at the outset, the report covers much more than simply the elections for Select Committee chairs and members. I strongly recommend readers have a look at the report in its entirety.

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Leaders in search of parties

Liberal Democrat party leader Nick Clegg held a Q&A session during his party’s fall conference. At times, Clegg seemed almost impatient with some of the questions party members were asking, even lecturing one of them for not listening to the answer being provided. As noted in the Guardian:

The Nick Clegg 2011 model is not the same as the 2010 one. People have been talking about it at the conference, but his Q&A session really brought it out. He’s more thick-skinned, confident and abrupt. One theory is that it’s just experience. (Last year he did at times look like someone playing at being deputy prime minister.) Another theory is that he’s received so much abuse that he’s become inured to it. Whatever, it meant that he treated delegates during the Q&A session to a rhetorical duffing up. But what I don’t know is whether or not they appreciated the smack of firm leadership. Colleagues who were in the hall say that it was hard to tell.

Other columnists have noted a deepening split between the Liberal and Social Democrat wings of the party, with Clegg and the other “orange bookers” firmly wanting the party to move more towards a liberal/centrist position. This, of course, is not news. Prior to last fall’s conference, he candidly stated that the party had no future as a left-wing alternative to Labour:

“I totally understand that some of these people are not happy with what the Lib Dems are doing in coalition with the Conservatives. The Lib Dems never were and aren’t a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party. There is no future for that; there never was.”

Fraser Nelson recently wrote that: “Like David Cameron, Clegg has no great love for his party members.” A comment left by a reader on a different Spectator blog post about Clegg’s Q&A session observed:

His problem is that his party is composed of sanctimonious bores who would much rather be complaining from the sidelines than in power.

Odd that the three major parties should all be led by men who are so obviously not enamored of their own members.

This is an interesting phenomena in the UK. It does seem that all three of the main party leaders are at odds with a significant number of their party membership.

There has been much grumbling in Conservative Party circles of David Cameron not being a “real” Tory, or that he listens far too much to the Liberal Democrats and not to his own membership or caucus. Take, for example, the recent exchange during Prime Minister’s Questions when Tory backbencher Nadine Dorries asked this of the PM:

Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) (Con): The Liberal Democrats make up 8.7% of this Parliament and yet they seem to be influencing our free school policy, health and many issues including immigration and abortion. Does the Prime Minister—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. The question from the hon. Lady will be heard.

Nadine Dorries: Does the Prime Minister think it is about time he told the Deputy Prime Minister who is the boss?(source)

The issue isn’t that David Cameron listens more to Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, but that the reality of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats allows David Cameron to ignore some of the more extreme elements of his own party because numerically, he simply doesn’t need their support.

Both Andrew Rawnsley (the Guardian) and the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson make this point very clearly. Robinson observed that (emphasis added):

There is a growing sense of betrayal on the Tory backbenches – not just on abortion and Europe but issues like tax cuts too.

They may blame the coalition but most must know that on all these issues David Cameron is acting according to his own instinct.

What they resent is the fact that the Lib Dems have given him a majority big enough to ignore lobbying from Tory backbenchers, unlike John Major who found himself constantly having to appease them.

The Commons became hysterical when David Cameron tried to reply to Nadine Dorries by saying he knew she was “extremely frustrated” – which MPs took as a comment on her personal proclivities rather than political demands.

Tellingly, he then sat down and gave Nick Clegg a reassuring clap on the shoulder.

Rawnsley puts forward a similar argument (emphasis added):

One simplistic school of Tory thought has it that their leader is too lacking in conviction, energy and steel to secure a full-on rightwing agenda. He allows the Lib Dems to have their way more often than he should because he can’t be bothered enough to fight.

A more sophisticated school of unhappy Tories think that David Cameron uses the Lib Dems as an excuse for not doing things he didn’t want to do anyway. Too often, for their tastes, he calls himself a “liberal Conservative” with almost as much emphasis on the first word as the last. This has more plausibility as an analysis. Most of the things about this government that upset rightwing Tories are not actually down to the Lib Dems.

Labour leader Ed Miliband has also taken stances somewhat at odds with those of his party. He wants to sever, or at least limit, the party’s ties to unions. He also wants to explore opening up the leadership process, potentially even letting non-members vote.

The problems all three leaders face is that their parties span a diverse spectrum of opinion, not surprising since they are “big tent” parties. The Conservative Party membership ranges from extremely right-wing and small “c” conservatives to individuals like David Cameron himself – who is indeed far more liberal. Labour remains torn between Old Labour – strongly socialist and pro-union, and Blair’s New Labour. The Lib Dems, born of a merger of the SDP and Liberal parties, have never really merged into one cohesive party – they retain their SDP and Liberal sides, and the current leadership would like to the party to become a classically liberal party – centrist and progressive. Indeed, during his Q&A session, Nick Clegg urged party members to stop obsessing about the people who won’t vote for them now and to start going after the people who might now vote for them. A slight but important distinction, since most who won’t vote for them now are probably more on the left, and Clegg is hoping his party may now appeal more to more centrist/liberal voters.

In an ideal world, these parties would split up into two or three parties each. That would probably happen if some form of proportional representation (not AV) were adopted to replace First Past the Post, but since there is little or no chance of that happening in the near or even distant future, the phenomena of party leaders at odds with their parties is likely to continue.

 

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Strange parallels: the threat of Tory hegemony?

A recent blog article in the New Statesman warns of a looming Tory hegemony with Labour relegated to permanent opposition. I think many Canadians might see some parallels with current trends in Canada.

The author, George Eaton, identifies the following three factors that would lead to such a scenario:

  1. constituency boundary changes
  2. Scottish independence from the UK
  3. party financing reform

The UK Parliament recently passed a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government bill that will reduce the number of constituencies (and thus MPs) from the current 650 to 600. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 requires the four Boundary Commissions for the UK to undertake a review of constituencies and to submit final reports to the Secretary of State before 1 October 2013. Assuming the changes are accepted as proposed, Labour stands to be the worst affected of the three main parties. The changes would deprive Labour of 25 of the seats won in the May 2010 election, while the Conservatives stand to lose 13 and the Liberal Democrats 7.

A greater loss of seats in the House of Commons would befall Labour should the proposed referendum on independence for Scotland be successful. There are 59 Westminster seats for Scotland in the House of Commons; Labour currently holds 41. The Conservatives hold only one seat in Scotland. As Eaton points out, while Prime Minister David Cameron has stated he will campaign actively to keep Scotland in the Union, many Conservatives are quite open to the idea of Scottish independence. The party has not held more than one seat in Scotland for almost two decades now; there is little political incentive for Conservatives to fight to keep Scotland and its mostly Labour seats as part of the UK.

What is likely to hit Labour the hardest, however, are the Coalition Government’s plans to introduce caps on party financing. The Government is advancing plans to impose a £50,000 cap on political donations, and of the three parties, Labour is the most dependent on such donations:

An analysis of funding conducted since David Cameron became Tory leader shows Labour would have been deprived of 85% of its income since 2005 if the limit had been in place. This is because the vast majority of its funds have come from hefty union donations well above the £50,000 level.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, would have forfeited just 50% of their income, as the party receives a higher proportion of its income from wealthy individuals who tend to give sums below the proposed £50,000 cap.

(…)

Ed Miliband’s Labour is already under severe financial pressure, with debts of between £16m and £20m. But Collins has made clear to the committee that if the party was deprived of money from union affiliation fees – breaking a historic link – it would be unable to sustain itself.

Here in Canada, there are some notable parallels. The Conservative government has announced plans to introduce legislation this fall to increase the number of MPs from Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, so that their growing populations are properly reflected in the House of Commons. Few people dispute the fact that these three provinces are underrepresented in the House of Commons, and reducing the number of MPs from other provinces isn’t possible due to various clauses in the Constitution that protect certain parts of the country by guaranteeing them a minimum number of seats in the House. Consequently, the only way to ensure a semblance of representation by population is to add seats. The provinces where these seats will be added, however, tend to vote more for the Conservative Party. This is especially true of Alberta, where the Conservatives often win every seat in the province. In the 2 May 2011 general election, the Conservatives won 27 of the province’s 28 seats. They also won 73 of Ontario’s 106 seats, and 21 of British Columbia’s 36 seats.

Of course, the issue of Quebec independence is a long-standing one in Canada, and odds are good that a third referendum on secession from Canada will likely take place at some point, especially should the Parti Québécois win the next provincial election (which would likely be sometime in 2012). The Conservatives rarely win many seats in Quebec, and so the loss of 75 Quebec seats in the House of Commons, should Quebec successfully vote for independence, probably wouldn’t upset the Conservative Party that much. Eliminating 75 seats from Quebec, combined with more seats in provinces which do support the Conservatives more than other parties (at least in recent elections), would undoubtedly make it much easier for the Conservatives to stay in power for years to come.

The Conservatives have also pledged to eliminate the per vote subsidy given to political parties, which you can read about in detail here. Political donations to parties in Canada have been capped since 2003, with donations from corporations and unions banned, and donations from individuals limited to CDN$1000 per year. Of the main parties, the Conservatives are the least dependent on the per vote subsidy (currently set at just over $2 per vote if a party garners more than two per cent of votes cast nationally), and so eliminating the vote subsidy would impact the other parties, in particular the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois, far more.

While it is certainly legitimate for Labour party supporters to be concerned, I don’t think it’s necessarily the doomsday scenario Eaton and others paint it to be. For starters, Scottish independence is hardly a given. I haven’t yet seen a poll with a majority in support of the idea. Simply because the SNP won a majority of seats in the Scottish Assembly does not mean that a majority of Scots want to leave the UK. The current constituency boundaries favour Labour more so than any other party for a variety of reasons, therefore reform is justifiable. As for party financing, it is hardly healthy for a party to find itself completely dependent on one source of funding. As Eaton notes in his article, “In the last quarter, private donations accounted for just £59,503 (2 per cent) of Labour’s £2,777,519 income. Just two individuals donated to the party, one of whom was Alastair Campbell. By contrast, union donations accounted for 90 per cent of all funding.”

This is all equally true for Canada’s opposition parties as well. Quebec independence is not a given, even if the PQ win the next general election in that province (which is highly likely). People are tired of the provincial Liberals, and the PQ is really the only viable alternative for government. However, even if the PQ win a majority of seats, that does not mean that a majority of Quebecers favour independence. Adding more seats to the House of Commons is necessary to correct growing imbalances in representation. It’s not being done deliberately to hurt the opposition parties. Eliminating the vote subsidy, however, may well be a more deliberate attempt to undermine the opposition parties. If the Conservatives were truly that concerned with using taxpayers’ money to fund parties, they would also eliminate (or at least reduce) the overly generous tax credit for donations to political parties, which not only costs taxpayers far more than the vote subsidy, but also benefits supporters of the Conservative party more since they receive more donations from individuals than do the other parties. However, they have no plans to do so.

Ultimately, the onus will be on Labour and Canada’s opposition parties to find ways to transform their support base  and make themselves more electable. Labour’s financing issues are not new; they’ve had ample time to address them. This is true of Canada’s parties as well – the party financing rules were changed in 2003, that they’ve not done as well as the Conservatives to adapt to these changes is their own failing. While debate may rage on whether all of this is a deliberate Tory plot to undermine the opposition, or simply a coincidental convergence of needed reforms, in the end, it will be up to the affected parties to find ways to cope if they hope to not just survive, but thrive.

 

 

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Political perceptions

As I have frequently written on this blog, I read a variety of British media, left and right. I tend to avoid the tabloid press unless some other source directly links to an article that appeared in one of them, and so my daily reading includes the BBC, Guardian, Independent, Telegraph, New Statesmen, the Spectator and ConservativeHome. I used to read the Times as well, but not since they’ve gone behind a paywall.

Because I don’t limit myself to media that favour one party or ideological slant, I am frequently both amused and dismayed by how each side perceives the other. For example, Guardian and New Statesmen readers (and columnists) accuse the Cameron Conservatives of being extremely right-wing, while the more right-wing posters  and bloggers on ConservativeHome often think Cameron’s far too left-wing, or people who think the Lib Dems were a left-of-centre party, when clearly their policies made them quite centrist, if not right-of-centre. It simply reinforces my belief that most people base these perceptions on their own beliefs, and too often are completely mistaken in where they themselves really are on the left-right political spectrum.

One of my favourite sites, Political Compass, has a chart mapping the political positions of UK parties in 2010. What it shows is that all three of the main parties are clearly right-of-centre in terms of economic positioning (because that is what left-right applies to – one’s economic position), with Labour being the most authoritarian of the three, and the Lib Dems the most libertarian. Further down on that same page, there is a fascinating chart showing how the parties have shifted over the years.

Now compare the Political Compass chart, which positions all three of the main parties to the right of centre, to the findings of a YouGov poll which asked people where they perceived themselves and the three main political parties to be on the political spectrum. You can read a summary of the findings on UK Polling Report, but it’s also interesting to look at the actual YouGov data (PDF). Sadly, YouGov doesn’t distinguish between economic position (Left-Right) and Authoritarian-Libertarian the way Political Compass does (which is far more accurate) so people are forced to confuse the two (as most people probably do anyway). In my opinion, Political Compass is the more accurate reflection of where the parties stand (or at least stood in the May 2010 election), and so I will use that to point out how badly people’s perceptions deviate from reality.

On page 3 of the YouGov results we find how respondents rated themselves on the left-right spectrum. Unsurprisingly, most people think they are quite centrist, after all, very few people ever want to think that the views they hold are in any way extreme. The poll found that 48% of those polled rated themselves as being between slightly left-of-centre (13%) to slightly right-of-centre (13%) with 22% simply centrist. Among those with declared voting intentions, 72% of Conservative party supporters ranked themselves between centrist (23%) to fairly right-wing (18%), with 31% being slightly right-of-centre. Sixty-six percent of Labour supporters fell into the fairly left-wing to centrist range (fairly left-wing 19%, slightly left-of-centre 26%, centre 21%); meanwhile, 67% of Lib Dem supporters viewed themselves in the slightly left-of centre (18%) to slightly right-of-centre (13%) range, with the majority (36%) identifying themselves as centrists.

So how did these respondents rate the parties? Overall, 57% of respondents rated Labour as ranging from very left-wing to slightly left-of-centre, with the slightly left-of-centre option being the most popular (27%). This range held across declared voting intentions, with 74% of Conservative supporters agreeing with that range (with 34% finding Labour fairly left-wing), as did 58% of Labour supporters (but most (39%) opined that the party is only slightly left-of-centre) and 55% of Lib Dem supporters (with 28% believing Labour to be slightly left-of-centre).

The Conservative Party is viewed by a majority of respondents (59%) as ranging from slightly right-of-centre to very right-wing, and, like for Labour, this range holds across party lines (68% for Conservatives, 65% for Labour supporters and 63% for Lib Dem supporters). Conservative supporters, however, think their party is mostly only slightly right-of-centre (48%) and only 4% think it is very right-wing, while 31% of Labour supporters think the Conservatives are very right-wing and only 8% think it is only slightly right-of centre. Lib Dem supporters are fairly evenly split when it comes to the Conservative party – 24% think it is slightly right-of-centre and 27% think it is fairly right-of-centre. Only 12% of Lib Dem supporters think the Tories are very right-wing.

As for the Lib Dems themselves, well, pretty much everyone agrees that they occupy the boring middle ground, which you’d think would be a good thing since a majority of supporters of all three parties view themselves as occupying that same boring middle ground! Overall, 48% of respondents said the Lib Dems ranged from slightly left-of-centre to slightly right-of-centre. Slightly more Conservative supporters viewed them as slightly left-of-centre (26%) while slightly more Labour supporters think the Lib Dems are slightly right-of-centre (20%), while most Lib Dems think their party is very much in the centre (33%).

So what does all this tell us? The majority of voters (at least those polled) view themselves as being centrists or very close to the centre, leaning only slightly right or left as the case may be, and this holds across declared voting intentions. Very few supporters of either the Conservatives or Labour see themselves at the extreme end of their respective ideological leaning – only 6% of declared Conservative supporters consider themselves to be very right-wing, and only 7% of Labour supporters view themselves as very left-wing. Lib Dems consider themselves extremely centrist. Supporters of a given party also see that party as being mostly quite centrist, in other words, in accordance with what they believe their own political leanings to be – 43% of Conservative supporters rank the party as being only slightly right-of-centre, while 39% of Labour supporters think their party is only slightly left-of-centre, and of course, Lib Dems see their party as mostly centrist (36%).

Perceptions of the political party leaders is also worth mentioning. Overall, 56% perceive David Cameron as being slightly to very right-wing, but most Conservative supporters think he’s only slightly right-of-centre (37%). Most Labour supporters think Cameron is very right-wing (35%) while Lib Dem supporters are rather evenly split in their opinion of Cameron as being either slightly right-of-centre (28%) or fairly right-wing (24%). Labour leader Ed Miliband is viewed by most respondents as ranging from slightly left-of-centre to very left-wing by 54% of respondents, and Conservative supporters overwhelmingly view him as fairly (34%) to very left-wing (25%). Labour supporters are mostly split between viewing their leader as slightly left-of-centre and fairly left-wing (25% support for each position), while most Lib Dem supporters think Miliband is fairly left-wing (29%). Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg gets the most interesting results, from Labour supporters at least. In general, people view Clegg, like his party, as ranging between slightly left-of-centre to slightly right-of-centre (46%), and most Tory supporters view him as slightly left-of-centre (24%) or centrist (28%). Lib Dem supporters view Clegg as mostly centrist (36%). Labour supporters, however, rank him rather evenly from centre (14%) to slightly right-of-centre (16%) to fairly right-wing (19%) to very right-wing (13%).

Given that everyone seems to be so close ideologically-speaking, with a majority of supporters from all three parties nicely in the middle or only sightly left- or right-leaning, it is truly amazing that there is such strong dislike of Conservatives among Labour supporters and vice versa. And yes, I’m being somewhat tongue in cheek here.

Obviously, how people perceive themselves colours how they view the parties they support and those they don’t. But what is clear is that most people don’t really understand where their own views actually position them on the political spectrum. It’s understandable that no one wants to think they are extremists, and if you surround yourself with people who largely reflect your own views, in real life and online, then you’re likely to think your views are quite mainstream, aka centrist. It seems rather obvious to me that most of the respondents in the YouGov poll can’t be as centrist as they all seem to think they are. If that were indeed the case, they’d all be voting for the Lib Dems.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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