Important Political Resources

I admit to being somewhat surprised by some of the keyword searches that bring people to this blog. It seems that too many people have no idea where to get key information – somehow they end up on this blog rather than on the sites they should be visiting to get the information they want. Consequently, I thought I would provide links to key resources based on recent keyword search activity. I will add to this post over time, as needed. Also, if any readers know of sites that should be added to this list, please comment with the link or use the site’s contact form to let me know.

Topics: Election results Canada, Election results UK, general information regarding how elections, by-elections, referendums are carried out, election financing laws, voting procedures, etc.

Elections Canada: If you are looking for information pertaining to any aspect of elections in Canada, Elections Canada should be your first stop. It will most likely be the only site you need to visit. It provides detailed election results of current and past elections, you can even download the data in CVS format. There is extensive information explaining how the voting system works, information for voters, for candidates, for parties, information about political parties, financing regulations, research and discussion papers on all things electoral, and even back-issues of the no-longer-published Electoral Insight magazine, which provides a wealth of interesting articles on various aspects of voting and elections in Canada (some dated by this point, but nonetheless interesting). If you’re looking for information about voting procedures in a particular Canadian province or territory, Elections Canada also has links to the Elections body of each (under the heading Provincial and Territorial Election Officials).

Electoral Commission: Sadly, the UK’s Electoral Commission doesn’t have the same mandate Elections Canada does – it doesn’t oversee or administer national elections. However, it still provides statistics, analysis and reports on elections, as well as information on party financing, boundary reviews, information for voters, and much more. This should still be the first place people visit for information about elections in the UK.

Another useful elections-related site for those interested in Canadian elections is the Pundits’ Guide to Canadian Federal Elections. Any possible statistic you might want about Canadian elections (going back to 1997 only) can probably be found here.

Topics: Parliamentary privilege, parliamentary procedure

A lot of people regularly search for “parliamentary privilege” and end up on my blog. I have written a few posts dealing with some aspects of privilege, but it is a very complex subject matter, and I am hardly an expert. The usual sources for information about privilege are the procedure manuals published by various parliamentary bodies. The most famous – the “bible” so to speak, is Erskine May Parliamentary Practice, now in it’s 24th edition. Sadly, Erskine May is not available online, however, the procedure manuals of the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Parliaments are. Each has detailed sections on parliamentary privilege, and all quote Erskine May extensively.

Readers might also want to consult the UK Joint Select Committee on Privilege’s 1999 report: Parliamentary Privilege – First Report. It is somewhat dated, but still provides a thorough overview of the topic.

Topics: How Goverment works, parliamentary seating charts, number of MPs by party, general information about MPs, Committee business and reports, status of legislation before the House, Hansard, etc.

The first stop for anyone interested in any of the above, or related topics should be the official website of the parliament of the country you’re interested in. They normally have all that information and more. Here are the parliamentary websites of the countries this blog focuses on the most: Parliament of Canada, UK Parliament, Parliament of Australia, Parliament of New Zealand.

Topic: Styles of Address

Wondering how to refer to an MP, Judge, foreign dignitary, member of the Royal Family or a parliamentary secretary? The site you want is Heritage Canada’s Styles of Address. Or you could try Australia’s equivalent. And we mustn’t forget Debrett’s, the authoritative guide to addressing people.

Topic: Politicians using social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.)

Canada: PoliTwitter aggregates the Twitter, Facebook, blog and other feeds of any elected federal or provincial official in Canada who has any online social media presence. You can sort them by federal/provincial, by province, and by party. It allows you to see immediately what various politicians and parties are tweeting, blogging and generally discussing online. You might also want to check out TweetCommons, which does something similar.

UK: PoVoice UK does something similar, but only with Twitter activity from UK politicians. It doesn’t seem to be as extensive as PoliTwitter, for example, I can’t tell if politicians have to voluntarily add their feed to it, or how it works, exactly, but I don’t follow it and so can’t really comment that much on how useful it might be. There is also TweetMinster which follows much more than MPs.

Australia: TweetMP documents all Australian federal MPs on Twitter.

Again, if you know of a site that you think should be included on this list, please comment with the relevant information, or use the Contact form.

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Do looks matter at the ballot box?

A recent study conducted by Swedish and Finnish economists found that political candidates on the right-wing side of the spectrum were considered more physically attractive, and people were more likely to vote for them at the ballot box.

The study compared election results from parliamentary and municipal elections held in Finland in 2003 and 2004 respectively with an online poll of Swedes, Americans and other non-Finns to determine how the 1,357 participating Finnish candidates ranked in terms of beauty.

More than 2,500 non-Finns were shown photographs of each candidate, with no indication of which side of the political spectrum they stood on, and were asked to rank them on a scale from one (very ugly) to five (very beautiful).

“We have found that candidates on the right are considered to look better than those on the left. We have also found that they benefit from this in elections – you could say that there is a form of beauty premium,” Bergren said.

As the article points out, previous studies have found that attractive people make more money than their less attractive counterparts, so it shouldn’t surprise us that looks influence other aspects of life as well. However, the study’s methodology bothers me somewhat.

The article states (as per the quoted section above) that 2,500 non-Finns were shown photos of each candidate without being provided any information about their politics. The study participants were simply asked to rank the individuals based on looks. The researchers then compared these looks-based rankings with each candidate’s success in parliamentary and municipal election and determined that there was some correlation between how physically attractive a candidate was perceived to be and their success at the ballot box. Unfortunately, we don’t know how much more successful the pretty people were – the article doesn’t provide that information.

But that is the only thing, as far as I can tell, that the study participants were asked to do – rank each candidate based on looks. They weren’t asked if they’d actually vote for that person – the researchers simply correlated the beauty findings with election outcomes, and determined that “right-wingers” were considered more attractive, and that more candidates (but we don’t know how many) who were ranked as attractive also ended up being elected; in other words, right-wing politicians are more attractive and because of that, more likely to be elected. In my opinion, that’s a somewhat tenuous assumption.

Granted, the article doesn’t reveal much about the actual study, so it’s perhaps somewhat unfair of me to critique it this way since I don’t have all the facts, but these are some of the problems I have with the study’s conclusions.

First of all, it’s one thing to find someone physically attractive, it’s another to agree with them politically. For a lot of voters, perhaps even most (I’d like to think it’s the case for most), the candidate’s politics do matter. For example, I agree with people that Sarah Palin is a physically attractive woman. Her politics, however, are not, at least not to me. I would never vote for her because of her politics anymore than I’d vote for Mitt Romney because of his politics, even though I do agree that he is at least somewhat attractive.

The flipside of this is that shared policies and beliefs can increase the appeal of someone who is less physically attractive. So can intellect – many people find that far more attractive than physical appearance.

If the researchers had also polled voters as to why they voted for their candidate of choice and also asked them to rank the candidates in terms of physical appeal, the study may have revealed more. Perhaps they are right, that more attractive people do tend to run for right-of-centre parties, and that physical appearance matters more to those on the right – a claim the researchers are really speculating about, but I still tend to believe that people vote for these candidates first and foremost because they share certain political beliefs and values. The physical attractiveness of a candidate might initially make a voter more open to considering what that candidate has to say, but ultimately, if they disagree with that candidate’s positions, I doubt very much they’ll end up voting for them, no matter how attractive the candidate might be.

Granted, there are some people, perhaps more than I’m willing to admit, who don’t follow politics closely, or at all, who turn up to vote without really knowing the issues, and who might simply vote for the best looking face on a poster. The study does specificially refer to the issue of open list voting, where voters have at least some influence on the order in which a party’s candidates are elected (in party-list proportional voting systems). But here too – the voter has already decided to vote for a specific party – he or she is simply ranking various candidates from that party. In such an instance, perhaps attractiveness might be a factor – perhaps even an important one. A voter might agree in general with a given party’s position, but not necessarily be that familiar with the differences between the various candidates that party put forward. If this is the case, did the voter decide to vote for that party because they had the most physically attractive candidates, or did they choose the party because of its policies, but then perhaps rank party candidates based in part on their looks? We don’t know.

This is still an interesting premise that certainly deserves further investigation. On a purely anecdotal basis, I work in a political environment, and I have found that I can often identify people’s political affiliation (which party caucus they are staffers for) based not so much on looks, but on how they dress. The reality is some parties have frumpier staff than others, and the most left-wing party is the frumpiest of all. I can’t honestly say that this extends to the party’s candidates however.

It would be foolish to underestimate the role a candidate’s looks play in swaying voters, especially given the media saturation of most political campaigns in western democracies. Media favours soundbites over policies, campaigns focus on the superficial rather than substance. A good-looking candidate who can come up with clever catch phrases that play well on TV will have a decided edge over a candidate who is perhaps frumpier, older, less attractive, and who can’t – or refuses to – sum up complex policy ideas into something that can be communicated via Twitter.

But does this mean the pretty face will always win?

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From awwwww to awe

I regularly come across pieces in the UK media that quite literally make me go “awwwww” and feel all warm and tingly inside, a completely ridiculous reaction on the face of it, but one that I can explain only this way: this would never happen in Canada.

I believe I’ve at least alluded to the fact that Canadian politics – at the federal level, is in a depressing state of affairs. So much so that I can barely bring myself to follow federal politics anymore. My alienation from federal Canadian politics isn’t due solely to the fact that a party I dislike intensely is in power – I’ve managed to endure other periods of governance by parties I dislike without losing interest in politics – but more due to the fact that the entire process seems stuck in some infernal loop, like a very bad version of “Groundhog Day”. All the parties repeating the same old tired lines, rehashing the same old tired arguments and somehow expecting different results. The system is, in many ways, very broken, yet no one is advocating for real change, nor coming forward with any real vision.

Consequently, political news programs that I used to watch regularly I now avoid, I’ve replaced reading Canadian newspapers with reading British papers online, and certain blog sites that I used to visit regularly, such as Progressive Bloggers, I can barely stomach anymore. That so many people are still so incredibly partisan and convinced that things will change baffles me – everyone should be as depressed and tuned out as I am. And I know of a few others who are, but there are still too many Canadian partisan bloggers writing away as if things are somehow still functional.

This is in large part why I’ve become so enamored with the UK coalition. I don’t know if they’re doing coalition right (if there is a right way to do coalitions). I’m certain that some of you follow politics in countries where coalitions are the norm, and you probably shake your heads in despair at what has transpired in the UK. Fair enough – as I said, I’m not in a position to judge. My only point of comparison is with the stalemate that exists here in Canada, and because of that, I am envious of what is transpiring in the UK.

My most recent “awwwwww”-inducing story is this column from the Guardian’s Allegra Stratton – namely the first part, about covert and overt coalitions. Reading about how some of the Tories and their Lib Dem colleagues have apparently bonded so closely just makes me stupidly happy. I simply cannot for the life of me imagine anything similar between any of Canada’s main political parties at the moment. In some instances, I doubt any such level of closeness and camaraderie exists within the parties themselves.

To move away from the pure sentimentality of the article, the discussion of overt and covert coalitions is one that I’d never heard before. The concept is attributed to Roy Jenkins, a former Labour MP who was one of the Gang of Four Labour moderates who left the party to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which later merged with the Liberal Party to form today’s Liberal Democratic Party.

Jenkins discussed overt and covert coalitions in the 1979 Richard Dimbleby lecture, available here, in which he addresses the issue of “the state of British politics today, not primarily the parties or individual politicians, but the system itself, and whether and how it ought to be changed and improved.” Part of that talk deals with the need for proportional representation. His comments were in reply to the usual anti-PR argument that it results in coalition government:

The avoidance of incompatible coalitions? Do we really believe that the last Labour Government was not a coalition, in fact if not in name, and a pretty incompatible one at that? I served in it for half its life, and you could not convince me of anything else.

Coalitions got a bad name in England partly because of a superficial aphorism by Disraeli, and partly because the word became associated with the worst phase of Lloyd George’s career and with the ‘hard-faced men’ who then supported him. But some form of coalition is essential for democratic leadership. Roosevelt established a broad coalition of interest which underpinned the American Democratic Party for fifty years. The old Labour Party of Attlee and Gaitskell was a coalition of liberal social democrats and industrially responsible trade unionists. Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt have governed the Federal Republic of Germany with a coalition of Social Democrats and Liberals for the past decade.

Sometimes the coalitions are overt, sometimes they are covert. I do not think the distinction greatly matters. The test is whether those within the coalition are closer to each other, and to the mood of the nation they seek to govern, than they are to those outside their ranks.

I am therefore unfrightened by the argument against proportional representation that it would probably mean frequent coalition – although not across the whole board of politics. I would much rather that it meant overt and compatible coalition than that it locked incompatible people, and still more important, incompatible philosophies, into a loveless, constantly bickering and debilitating marriage, even if consecrated in a common tabernacle.

I would strongly encourage people to read the entire text. While dated in some respects, many – if not most (sadly) – of the points Jenkins makes are still very relevant today, not only in the UK, but for countries like Canada as well. I will conclude with his conclusion:

You also make sure that the state knows its place, not only in relation to the economy, but in relation to the citizen. You are in favour of the right of dissent and the liberty of private conduct. You are against unnecessary centralisation and bureaucracy. You want to devolve decision-making wherever you sensibly can. You want parents in the school system, patients in the health service, residents in the neighbourhood, customers in both nationalised and private industry, to have as much say as possible. You want the nation to be self-confident and outward-looking, rather than insular, xenophobic and suspicious. You want the class system to fade without being replaced either by an aggressive and intolerant proletarianism or by the dominance of the brash and selfish values of a ‘get rich quick’ society. You want the nation, without eschewing necessary controversy, to achieve a renewed sense of cohesion and common purpose.

These are some of the objectives which I believe could be assisted by a strengthening of the radical centre. I believe that such a development could bring into political commitment the energies of many people of talent and goodwill who, although perhaps active in many other voluntary ways, are at present alienated from the business of government, whether national or local, by the sterility and formalism of much of the political game. I am sure this would improve our politics. I think the results might also help to improve our national performance. But of that I cannot be certain. I am against too much dogmatism here. We have had more than enough of it. But at least we could escape from the pessimism of Yeats’s ‘Second Coming’, where

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity

and

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

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People like me

Class is still a much more prominent issue in the UK than it is in Canada and the US, not because we don’t have different classes in North American society, but because it manifests itself much more obviously in the UK. You can hazard a damn good guess the minute someone opens their mouth at what that person’s socio-economic background is – those “British accents” North Americans always proclaim to love are typically upper-class, public school educated accents.We rarely express much love for council estate Glaswegian accents.

One of the more common criticisms of the Coalition leadership is that they’re out of touch with “ordinary people” because Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and most of the cabinet are all products of upper-middle and upper class backgrounds who all attended public schools and Oxbridge (either Oxford or Cambridge universities). Permanent thorn-in-the-side Conservative MP David Davies stated as much in an interview on Sunday. (See also Benedict Brogan’s column with some extracts from the interview.)

There are two issues for me here. First, the problem, if it is one, of the politicians being predominantly from a particular social class certainly isn’t unique to the UK. The situation is probably far worse in the US, given how much money it takes to run for public office in that country. It’s simply easier for US politicians to come across as “regular folk” – look at George W. Bush. He was the product of an elite childhood, attending only the best schools – certainly on par with, if not even more upper class than, David Cameron, yet thanks to his homey Texas accent, he struck people as just a regular guy, not one of those high falutin’ “elites”. The situation isn’t quite as bad in Canada – thanks to very strict campaign and election financing laws, it’s easier for people from more varied socio-economic backgrounds to get into politics, but that doesn’t change the reality that the majority of MPs come from professional backgrounds. The difference in Canada, as in the US, is that you can’t automatically guess at someone’s socio-economic status simply by their accent the way you can in the UK.

The other issue I have here is this concept of  “ordinary people”. In the UK, from what I can gather, it refers to pretty much everyone who didn’t go to Eton and Oxbridge (Eton being used here as a generic stand-in for any public school). In Canada, it’s the NDP that tends to refer to “ordinary people” on a regular basis – and I gather they mean everyone who isn’t a representative of some corporate interests. This allows the NDP to distinguish itself from both the Conservatives and Liberals, parties which the NDP assures us all are far more concerned with corporate interests than they are the interests of us “ordinary people”. The Canadian Conservatives have taken to referring to “ordinary Canadians” more and more, however, as they try to portray the Liberals as a party of “elites” – elites meaning anyone who lives in a city – or more precisely, anyone who lives in Toronto.

The problem I have with this appeal to “ordinary people” is that no one ever seems to provide a clear definition of exactly what makes someone “ordinary”. It’s right up there with those ubiquitous poll questions asking if the government or a given political party represents the views of “people like me”. Case in point this article from ConservativeHome looking at poll results from when they asked readers a number of questions about their experience of floating voters. Floating voters being those who aren’t totally committed to one party over another – their vote is, in theory, up for grabs. One of the statements people were asked to respond to was “Cameron doesn’t understand people like me”. I used to regularly complete online polls for a Canadian polling firm, and they always, always asked questions along the lines of “The Government doesn’t care about issues of concern to people like me” or “Party X doesn’t understand the needs of people like me” etc.

These questions always stymied me. I was never certain how to answer them because I simply didn’t know who “people like me” were supposed to be. What aspect(s) of being “like me” mattered here? My gender? My race? Which part of the country I lived in? My level of education? Various unspecified combinations of these and other factors? If the poll asked “The Government doesn’t care about issues that are important to me” – that I could answer easily. I know what matters to me personally. I have no idea what matters to these undefined “people like me”.

No political leader will ever understand or represent the views of every single strata of society. If Cameron were from a more working-class background, he’d probably still score the same result in that ConservativeHome poll question – it would simply be a different group of people agreeing with the statement. I think what’s more important here is that Cameron (and everyone else who gets into politics) does so because they want to serve their country. It’s not an exaggeration to say that they’d all probably make more money in the private sector than they would in politics. Personally, I don’t want “ordinary” people in charge of the country – I want competent, qualified individuals who can demonstrate real leadership. Their backgrounds matter less to me than their willingness to serve.

I am reminded of a passage I read recently in Thurston Clarke’s The Last Campaign, a brilliant account of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 campaign for President. Flashing back to 1966, when RFK was campaigning for a senate seat, Clarke recounts how RFK was confronted by a student at Columbia University accusing Kennedy of using New York State as a jumping-off place for his presidential ambitions. Kennedy replied:

“Let me say that I had really two choices over the period of the last ten months. I could have retired – and my father has done very well and I could have lived off him. Or I could have continued to work for government.  I don’t consider it there’s anything sinister in that we’ve all worked for the U.S. Government. Frankly, I don’t need the title… I don’t need the money. I don’t need the office space.” He quoted from Pericles’ funeral oration: “We differ from other states in that we regard the individual who holds himself aloof from public affairs as useless,” and turned the question back on the student, charging that those enjoying greater educational advantages had a greater responsibility to enter public service. (p. 184-5)

I’m not saying the Cameron Tories aren’t perhaps too cozy with “the rich”. I’m simply trying to point out that it’s really a no-win situation. If he moves towards appealing more to “ordinary” people, he’ll risk alienating a large group of core supporters. And then the “people like them” won’t be represented. This is the problem faced by all politicians. Very few manage to appeal to a large spectrum of the societies they represent – across ethnic and racial divides, across socio-economic divides, etc. This is the reality of 21st century politics. Our societies aren’t homogeneous, someone will always feel left out. There aren’t any easy solutions to this, but those who engage in politics should at least be credited for trying.

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Book Review: The High Road

Previously, I posted a brief review of  The Best Laid Plans, a novel by Terry Fallis. I’ve recently finished reading the sequel, The High Road, which continues the adventures of Angus McLintock, rookie Liberal MP from Cumberland-Prescott.

Warning: I will do my best to avoid major spoilers, but since this is a sequel, it’s somewhat difficult to not refer to events from the first book.

The High Road picks up where The Best Laid Plans ended, with the defeat of the government on a very exciting vote on the budget during a full-on blizzard. That’s all I’m going to say about that incident – to say more would spoil the end of the first book for anyone who’s not read it yet. As I’d explained in my summary of the first book, Angus didn’t want to run for office – he agreed to be the Liberal candidate in a riding that had been PC since 1867 only in exchange for Daniel Addison, former speechwriter for the Liberal Party Leader recently retired from politics and beginning a new life as professor of English at the University of Ottawa, taking over the teaching of the dreaded English for Engineers course that Angus had been saddled with again. Events didn’t go as planned, of course, and Angus did end up winning the seat.

In The High Road, Angus decides that he quite liked being an MP, and throws his hat back into the ring, much to Daniel’s dismay. Daniel really would prefer to not be involved in politics anymore, but he realises he can’t say no to Angus, and the two of them are off and running again.

The first part of the book deals mostly with the election campaign. The PCs are determined to win back their seat, and field Emerson “Flamethrower” Fox as their candidate – a former Tory backroom boy who introduced negative campaigning to Canada. Fallis, of course, manages to throw a bit of twist into the campaign, and so I don’t think I’ll be spoiling too much by saying that Angus is re-elected. The difference this time is that the Liberals also win the election (forming a minority government of their own), and so Angus is on the government side of the House this time. The Liberal leadership, while happy to have hung on to Cumberland-Prescott, would have preferred anyone else to maverick Angus. Luckily, an infrastructure disaster occurs the night of the election, which allows the new Liberal PM to appoint Angus, who is an engineer, to head of his own one-person commission to investigate the hows and why of what occurred, thinking that will keep him busy and out of their hair.

Of course they couldn’t be more wrong on that regard, but I’ll not say more than that.

I found The High Road to be as entertaining as The Best Laid Plans, however, I do have one small complaint. There was one incident in the book that I found somewhat too improbable. All I will say is that it involves a visit by the US President and First Lady and leave it at that. That part was still funny, but it just seemed too unlikely and maybe even too slapstick-ish in some ways. If you read it, hopefully you’ll understand what I mean.

Overall, however, I enjoyed The High Road very much. Like the first novel, it reads quickly, and while maybe not laugh-out-loud funny, it’s certainly smile-inducing funny, even grin-inducing at times. The characters we got to know in the first novel all reappear, and are fleshed out for us even more. And, dare I say it, this novel also ends in a way that could mean we might have a trilogy (or even an on-going series for all I know) on our hands.

On a side note, I work in the area of procedural research and had lent my copy of The Best Laid Plans to one of my co-workers, while another one bought her own copy. They both finished the book during the recent Thanksgiving weekend, and on the Tuesday morning, came by my office to tell me they’d done so. One of them then raised the matter of the dramatic budget vote that ends the novel, saying that it couldn’t happen that way. My other co-worker, who is more familiar with parliamentary procedure in Ottawa said yes, indeed, it could very much happen that way. Only in my office would a debate over the procedural accuracy of a novel start up!

Edited to add: Both The Best Laid Plans and The High Road are available as podcasts on the author’s website.

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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).

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British Politics and Policy at LSE

I recently discovered an excellent blog produced by the London School of Economics and Political Science, entitled British Politics and Policy at LSE.

From the blog’s About the blog page:

We seek to make available analysis of UK politics and public policy in an immediately accessible and highly relevant way for a wide readership, drawing primarily on the community of academics and researchers at the London School of Economics, but also including many outside contributors with LSE connections. We invite contributions and comments on blogs from any interested reader.

I have already linked to a few entries from this blog in previous posts. I’d like to highlight a few others here today.

Patrick Dunleavy wonders is this is the death of the Westminster model, now that there are no large “Westminster model” countries left in the world with single party majority governments. This blog entry will be of interest to Canadians. Dunleavy explains that four of the five key “Westminster model” countries have coalition governments in balanced parliaments where no party has a majority.”The one exception is Canada, where the Parliament has been hung since 2004, across three general elections. But somehow Canadian politicians have still not got the knack of constructing a coalition government.”

Another post that will be of interest to Canadians in particular is one by Anne White, written back in April before the UK general election, and looks at what the UK might learn from Canada’s recent experience with repeated hung parliaments.

In today’s post, Andy White explains why tactical voting isn’t a practical strategy under the Alternative Vote (AV), which, of course, the UK will be voting on in a referendum in May 2010.

Still on the topic of AV, Stephanie Rickard posits that the more proportional a country’s voting system is, the more likely it is to fully honour its international commitments on world trade issues, and wonders if switching to AV will make the UK a better player in international forums.

I can’t recommend this blog highly enough to anyone interested in UK politics in particular, but also to anyone interested in political reform, electoral reform, Westminister politics, and politics in general. You can also follow them on Facebook, and Twitter.

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Musings on rep by pop

In countries with representative democracy, we elect people to a legislative body to represent us. The representatives form an independent ruling body (for an election period) charged with the responsibility of acting in the people’s interest, but not as their proxy representatives, that is not necessarily always according to their wishes, but with enough authority to exercise swift and resolute initiative in the face of changing circumstances.

While following the results of the recent Australian election, I noted that Australia’s House of Representatives has 150 seats, less than half the number of the Canadian House of Commons (308). Of course, Australia has a smaller population than Canada, but not quite that much smaller. Australia has about two-thirds the population of Canada, so the much smaller number of seats interested me.

I started wondering what would be the ideal level of representation. We frequently hear the expression “rep by pop” – representation by population – thrown around, but there are huge differences in what sort of representation various populations are getting. Just a few examples (all population figures from 2009):

Country Population
Total seats in legislative body Population per elected official
Australia 22.1 mn 150 147,702
Canada 33.7 mn 308 109,542
New Zealand 4.3 mn 120 35,965
United Kingdom 61.7 mn 650 95,064
United States 307.0 mn 435 705,762

I’ll be upfront – I have no idea what an ideal level of representation would be in a perfect world. However, I have to say that I don’t think having an average of over 700,000 people per elected representative would be considered ideal by anyone.

The number of seats in the US House of Representatives is fixed by law at 435, and each state must be guaranteed at least one seat. This means that California, with a population greater than Canada’s (approx. 36.9 mn in 2009) sends 53 elected representatives to Congress and each one represents roughly 697,389 people, while Vermonters are perhaps the best represented, with their sole congressperson representing all 621,760 residents of that state. That’s still a lot of people to represent.

The other extreme in our chart is of course New Zealand, with one elected representative per 36,000 people. My first reaction to that is to wonder if a population of just over 4 million people really needs 120 elected representatives. The Canadian province of Ontario has a population of just over 13 million and only 107 seats in its legislative assembly, an average of 121,495 Ontarians per MPP.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in the UK tabled a bill in June which, among other things,  seeks to reduce the number of seats in the UK House of Commons from 650 to 600. This would increase the average number of citizens per MP from the current 95,064 to 102,986 – still below the current average for both Canada and Australia. Meanwhile, there is a bill in the Canadian House of Commons to add 32 more seats to the House, which would increase the number of seats to 340 and reduce the citizens per MP average to 99,235.

Personally, I lean towards an average of about 100,000 citizens per elected representative – mostly because I like nice, round numbers. If we were to apply that benchmark to the countries in our chart, Australia’s House of Representatives would increase its number of seats from 150 to 222.  Canada’s seat total should then be about 337, an increase of 29 (so quite close to the 340 proposed by the bill), while New Zealand’s chamber would be cut from 120 seats to 43. The UK sees its number of MPs reduced to 618, and the US House of Representatives would balloon up to 3,070 seats, which probably isn’t very practical. And when you consider that India’s House of the People has 545 seats for a population of 1.1 billion (that’s 2.1 mn people per elected representative), the US isn’t doing that badly on the rep by pop front.

I can’t help but think that how effectively an elected official can represent his or her constituents will depend on how many constituents they have to represent. A single individual representing an entire state population of over 600,000 will have a more difficult time reflecting the divergent views of their constituents than would someone representing 100,000 constituents in a more concentrated area – say part of a city. That said, I don’t know how else one balances a manageable legislative body and a very large population base. The larger the population base, the greater the average number of citizens each elected official will represent.

Of course, there are other factors that determine the number of constituencies in a given country. An important one is geography. While it would be ideal to have very equal ridings in terms of both size and population, this isn’t always possible. Countries such as Canada, Australia and the US have areas that are geographically huge, and very sparsely populated. For example, the riding of Nunavut in Canada has a population of just under 30,000 people spread over 2 million square kilometres – most of which is accessible only by air. Merging that riding with part of another one to create a new riding with a population closer to 100,000 would simply create far more problems for the elected MP. The geographic area they would have to cover to consult with their constituents would be unreasonable.

Another factor is constitutional. Just as the US House of Representatives is fixed by law at 435 seats, other countries have similar conditions imposed on how seats are distributed. In Canada, for example, in order that each province’s representation in the House of Commons continued to reflect its population, section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867 stated that the number of seats allocated to each province would be recalculated after each 10-year (decennial) census, starting with the 1871 census. The total number of seats was to be calculated by dividing the population of each province by a fixed number, referred to as the “electoral quota” or “quotient.” This quota was to be obtained by dividing the population of the province of Quebec by 65, the number of seats guaranteed for Quebec by the Constitution in the House of Commons.

This simple formula was to be applied with only one exception, “the one-twentieth rule,” under which no province could lose seats in a redistribution unless its share of the national population had decreased by at least five percent (one twentieth) between the last two censuses. In 1915, the first change was made to the original representation formula, by the adoption of the “senatorial clause.” Still in effect today, this clause states that a province cannot have fewer seats in the House of Commons than it does in the Senate. In 1915, it had the immediate effect of guaranteeing four seats to the province of Prince Edward Island, instead of the three it would otherwise have had. It has had four seats ever since. Other changes to the formula were introduced over the years, and in 1985, the Representation Act, 1985 brought into effect a new grandfather clause that guaranteed each province no fewer seats than it had in 1976 or during the 33rd Parliament. Consequently, provinces can gain seats, but they can’t lose any. The only way any semblance of representation by population can be maintained in Canada will be by increasing seats in some part of the country, since reducing the number of seats in other parts with declining populations isn’t an option.

In the end, each country has to assess what works best for it. My inner idealist favours smaller population to elected representative ratios, but my inner realist recognizes that isn’t always feasible.

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Loose cannon or plain speaker?

In a recent column, Con Coughlin asks if David Cameron becoming  the new Bush because of a series of foreign policy-related gaffes the British prime minister has made in recent weeks:

First there was the diplomatic rift with Israel over David Cameron’s description of Gaza as a “prison camp”.  Then there was the outrage in Islamabad over the prime minister’s accusations that Pakistan was looking both ways in the war on terror. Now Mr Cameron has completed his hat trick of diplomatic faux-pas with his claim that Iran has a nuclear bomb.

I’ve previously explained that according to journalist Michael Kinsley, a gaffe in politics is when a politician accidentally tells the truth, or inadvertently says something publicly that they privately believe is true, but would ordinarily not say publicly because they believe it is politically harmful. Using this definition, Cameron’s statements don’t qualify as gaffes.

I am not going to weigh in on whether or not Cameron is right to describe Gaza as a prison camp. Many in the UK media agreed with him when he made that comment, many others disagreed – it all depended on how they view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What is important to note, however, is that Cameron’s comments on this occasion were consistent with other comments he’s made in the past. During the Israel-Lebanon conflict in 2006, Cameron condemned Israel’s “disproportionate use of force.” He also condemned Israel’s attack on the Turkish flotilla that was bringing supplies to Gaza as “completely unacceptable”. Therefore, it’s rather difficult to view his prison camp comment as a case of him accidentally saying something publicly that he privately believes to be true – instead it seems to be a deliberate statement in line with his thinking on other similar actions involving Israel. Again, I am not defending what he said, or saying I agree or disagree with his position here – I am simply trying to point out that his statement would not qualify as a gaffe as defined by Kinsley.

Similarly Cameron’s statement on Pakistan, also fails the gaffe test. Cameron said:

“We cannot tolerate in any sense the idea that this country is allowed to look both ways and is able, in any way, to promote the export of terror, whether to India or whether to Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world.

“That is why this relationship is important. It should be a relationship based on a very clear message: that it is not right to have any relationship with groups that are promoting terror. Democratic states that want to be part of the developed world cannot do that. The message to Pakistan from the US and the UK is very clear on that point.”

Cameron made the above statement in answer to a question following a speech he delivered to Indian business leaders in Bangalore. As such, they were off-the-cuff, not part of his speech, and it is possible that he didn’t mean to say what he said. It’s possible, but not likely given that Cameron strenuously defended his comments afterwards, and even elaborated on the point. It’s clear Cameron believes what he said to be true (as do most, if not all, intelligence and security experts) and is comfortable, in this case at least, calling a spade a spade.

The negative reactions the above comments prompted weren’t solely, or even because, of what Cameron said, but rather, where he said them. The “Gaza is a prison camp” remark was made while Cameron was on an official visit to Turkey, which currently has rather strained relations with Israel because of the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla. While Cameron’s comments may very well have been consistent with his previous public denounciations of Israeli policy, by making them in Turkey on a state visit, they seemed rather gratuitous and Cameron came across as rather opportunistic.

Similarly, I don’t know if anyone in the media outside of Pakistan disagreed with Cameron’s comments about Pakistan and terrorism. Again, the problem wasn’t so much what Cameron said – which most agreed was true – but where he said them, in India, a country that has had a long, troubled history with Pakistan. Cameron’s comments weren’t so much gaffes as diplomatic faux-pas.

Cameron’s most recent eye-brow raising utterance, saying that Iran has nuclear weapons, was made during a Q&A session in Hove as he was justifying his support for Turkey joining the EU. While this statement clearly was a mistake on Cameron’s part, I don’t think it qualifies as a gaffe. The only way it could be a gaffe is if British intelligence recently found out that Iran does indeed have nuclear weapson, briefed Cameron accordingly, and he accidentally let the cat out of the bag. And I won’t completely discount that as being a possibility. However, I do think it’s highly unlikely, and that Cameron simply misspoke. Proof of that is that Cameron apologised later for his mistake, something he hasn’t done for his comments about Gaza and Pakistan. Quite the contrary – he adamantly stands by what he said in both instances, further proof that these were not gaffes. Diplomatically unwise, perhaps, but not gaffes.

Cameron also misspoke on his recent trip to the US, when he said during World War II, the UK was the “junior partner” to the US in 1940. Of course, the US didn’t enter WW II until 1941, and Cameron quickly apologised for that comment, saying he meant the 194os, not 1940. It’s obvious Cameron doesn’t believe the US was fighting in 1940, so again, this was a mistake, not a Kinsleyian gaffe.

Cameron was actually lauded by many after his Gaza and Pakistan comments (in particular latter) for being refreshingly candid. It only after his Iran comment that many in the media honed in on the gaffe-prone image. While some argue that he’d be better off making his candid remarks in private, others still welcome his approach, but chastise him for making them before “safe” audiences. For now at least, Cameron’s approach seems to have the support of the general public:

Asked to sum up their view of his comments abroad, 49 percent agreed that he was “being plain speaking and other countries will respect that” while 27 percent said he was “being a loudmouth and risks upsetting relations with our allies” in a YouGov/Sun newspaper poll released earlier this month.

(Technorati NRV838XKYDA2)

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Rethinking political labels

Recently, on ConservativeHome, Tim Montgomerie blogged asking “What is Right-Wing?” Montgomerie admits to being less than satisfied with most of the definitions found online, and invited others to proffer their own definitions of what constituted being “right-wing”.

I found this post and the comments made by readers interesting because I too have been struggling with definitions of late. It isn’t simply the definition of “right-wing” that troubles me; I am finding most political labels to be inaccurate, at times meaningless and frequently misused by others. “Right-wing”, “left-wing”, “progressive”, “liberal”, “conservative”, etc., all face the same problem: there is little agreement on what they mean.

The biggest problem for me is that most people tend to lump economic philosophy and positions on various social issues into one box. This means that for many, perhaps even most, “right-wing” means someone who economically is largely pro-free market, cuts taxes, slashes spending, etc., and at the same time takes what most would probably define as “conservative” positions on various issues, i.e. anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion, might not believe in climate change or at least opposes things like a carbon tax, anti-drug decriminalization, “tough on crime”, etc. Of course the opposite of that is the “left-wing” position which economically would favour more government intervention and control, and would take what are generally considered “progressive” or “liberal” stances on the above issues: pro-gay rights, pro-freedom of choice, pro-strong environmental protection measures, etc.

However, while I don’t doubt for a minute that there are individuals, perhaps even quite a few, who do fall quite nicely into those boxes, be it the one on the left or the one on the right, most people’s political and economic views are more complex than that. They might straddle both boxes; after all, it is possible to have a very “progressive” stance on social issues, but at same time, be very fiscally conservative, for example.

I prefer the approach that The Political Compass uses. “Right” and “left” apply to one’s economic position. The more right-wing one is, the more one favours the free-market and laissez-faire capitalism, while the more to the left one is, the more they favour government control of the economy. Someone in the centre recognizes the value of both – and seeks to balance them: free-market yes, but with rules in place.

The right and left labels, however, do not work when it comes to the social dimension of politics. Issues such as the environment, human rights, law and order, etc., are not ideological. They are not “right-wing” issues or “left-wing” issues, nor or they conservative or progressive. It is how people attempt to deal with these issues that we must measure. What the political compass test does is measure where people stand on a Authoritarian-Libertarian axis. To quote from the Political Compass website:

Both an economic dimension and a social dimension are important factors for a proper political analysis. By adding the social dimension you can show that Stalin was an authoritarian leftist (ie the state is more important than the individual) and that Gandhi, believing in the supreme value of each individual, is a liberal leftist. While the former involves state-imposed arbitrary collectivism in the extreme top left, on the extreme bottom left is voluntary collectivism at regional level, with no state involved. Hundreds of such anarchist communities existed in Spain during the civil war period

You can also put Pinochet, who was prepared to sanction mass killing for the sake of the free market, on the far right as well as in a hardcore authoritarian position. On the non-socialist side you can distinguish someone like Milton Friedman, who is anti-state for fiscal rather than social reasons, from Hitler, who wanted to make the state stronger, even if he wiped out half of humanity in the process.

The chart also makes clear that, despite popular perceptions, the opposite of fascism is not communism but anarchism (i.e. liberal socialism), and that the opposite of communism ( i.e. an entirely state-planned economy) is neo-liberalism (i.e. extreme deregulated economy).

In other words, the more one seeks to control individuals, the more authoritarian they are, while someone who prefers the government keep their nose out of our daily life is more libertarian. Supporting the so-called “War on Drugs” would be an example of an authoritarian position, while favouring decriminalization or even legalization of some or all illicit drugs would be more libertarian position.

What does all of this mean for me as a blogger?

For me personally, it means I get very frustrated with how some refer to certain politicians, governments and policies. For example, I frequently encounter comments on various UK media sites which refer to the Liberal Democrats as a “left-wing” party. This is usually from people who voted for them because they didn’t like Labour, but disliked the Conservatives even more, and are shocked that the Lib Dems ended up in a coalition with the Tories, a “right-wing” party.

However, according to Political Compass, the Lib Dems are not a left-wing party. They are to the right of centre when it comes to economic policy, but not as  strongly in favour of free market liberalism as are the Conservatives (or Labour for that matter). However, when one looks at the Lib Dems stand on various social issues, they are far more libertarian than either the Conservatives or Labour, which is perhaps why they are considered a left-wing party by many – because many equate such positions as being left-wing, rather than libertarian vs authoritarian.

The UK Conservatives are far more right-wing than the Lib Dems on the economic scale, which is what the whole right/left thing is – economic policy. They are also more authoritarian than the Lib Dems, but not as authoritarian as Labour (all of this according to Political Compass). Labour, meanwhile, is slightly more right-wing than the Lib Dems, and the most authoritarian party of the three main ones. Thus the Lib Dems are the most “left-wing” of the three parties when it comes to economic policy, yet they are still indisputably right of centre. They are also the most libertarian of the three parties. But they are not a left-wing party.

I think the question Tim Montgomerie asks – “What is Right-Wing?” is the wrong question. I think what he is trying to define is “What does it mean to be a [UK] Conservative?” It is very clear to me what being right-wing means – it is someone, or a party, that favours a free-market approach to the economy. Of course, there are varying degrees of support for that approach, but in general, someone on the right will seek to minimize government interference in the economy, and will favour deficit and debt reduction, lower taxes and other related measures.

But such an approach isn’t limited to Conservatives, or even conservatives. Economic policy alone isn’t sufficient to define one as a conservative. It is the social dimension that would be a more important consideration.

The UK Conservative party is a big tent party, meaning it attracts a variety of people with differing positions on various issues. This isn’t unique to the Conservatives, of course. The same is true for Labour and the Lib Dems, as well as the Liberals and Conservatives in Canada, and the Democrats and Republicans in the US (and probably many other parties in many other countries, but I will limit myself to those with which I have more than a passing familiarity). Among the supporters of those parties, one will find a wide range of positions on various issues. In the case of the UK Conservatives, you will find some who are quite libertarian in their stand on issues such as gay rights, climate change, etc., while other members and supporters will have much more authoritarian views. Yet, there must be some common values or beliefs that bring people with such different views together, and that is what Montgomerie should be trying to identify: what beliefs in other areas define a big- or small-c conservative. That might prove to be more difficult.

The point of this post is not to try to answer that question for him. Rather, I am trying to point out the inadequacy of the political labels we tend to use. Everyone has their own interpretation of what they mean by terms such as “right-” or “left-wing”, and this can cause much confusion. So let me explain how I will be using such terms on this blog.

If I describe something as being to the “right” or “left” (or centrist, for that matter), this will be in reference to that person’s or that party’s economic policy only. This will not be a comment on their stance on various other issues. As much as possible, I will avoid using terms such as “liberal”, “conservative” and especially, “progressive”, simply because I know that my own personal definition/understanding of how I use those words won’t be the same as those of my readers, and this will create confusion. For example, I don’t have any problems calling David Cameron “progressive”, but I know a lot of self-defined “progressives” would object very strongly to the idea of Cameron being one. If I need to refer to how someone or a party positions themselves when it comes to a particular issue (other than economic issues), I will use the libertarian-authoritarian scale. If I do feel a need to use labels such as “conservative” or “liberal”, etc., I shall attempt to define how I am using those terms. That way, even if a reader disagrees with my use of such a term, they will (hopefully) understand how and why I am using it in that way.

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