New funding to boost voter registration

A million pounds still sounds a lot of money to me. Just over four million is a big deal in my books. So, it may seem odd that on hearing that £4.2 million is to be set aside as Funding for new ways to encourage voter registration was a tad disappointed.

£4.2 million divided amongst the 650 constituencies equates to £6462 per constituency. Considering the size of the problem we currently have with under-registration this will not go far at all. Something like three and a half million missing voters are estimated at the moment. Factor in the expectations for Individual Electoral Registration and the doubling of that number is not far-fetched.

I hope I am wrong, but I do see examples of people not being registered very frequently. I have sent out many voter registration forms (and without bias – I do not find out whether the unregistered have Labour tendencies first) and there are clearly discernible patterns. Poverty, ignorance, being transient, and being an incomer to the country form the vast majority of reasons why people are not registered. Disengagement does not feature very often, and so my experience does not suggest that only those that can be bothered to vote do so.

People live busy lives, and despite the bad press that postal voting sometimes attracts, for significant numbers of people this is vital if the voices are to be heard. I have had a postal vote for many years (too many to accurately state, but it must be over two decades). I needed this in the past because I frequently worked away from home. Nowadays I have it for convenience.

The legitimacy of our democracy is challenged by low registration and low turnout. Our mandates, as politicians, appear to be shrinking with the passing of the years. This is not healthy, and whilst I applaud efforts to address registration, I think solutions have to be alive to modern society. In the twenty-first century world of new media we should consider modernising our democracy.

Votes per MP, a disparity and an argument still true

One of the first arguments I heard in favour of electoral reform was how the number of votes required to achieve an MP was badly loaded in favour of Labour and the Conservatives. All these many years later it is still a compelling argument – although not the only one in support of change. In those days, some forty years ago, I was not a member of a party, nor especially a supporter of any of them. In those days I was left of Labour, and had I been able to vote I would have opted for Labour only if nothing further to the left was available. Nowadays I am tribal Labour, and yet still want change. In the end it comes down to fairness.

I am aware that statistics can be manipulated to mean all sorts of things. But raw data is an absolute, it is the unvarnished truth. The following two tables, a supplement if you like to my Vote harvesters post, show two extremes. The first shows the ten highest examples of votes required to win a seat in Parliament, the second show the ten lowest.

Year Party Votes seats votes per seat
Feb 1974 Liberal 6059519 6 1009920
Oct 1974 Liberal 5346704 13 411285
1979 Liberal 4313804 11 392164
1970 Liberal 2117035 6 352839
1964 Liberal 3099283 9 344365
1983 SDP-Liberal Alliance 7780949 23 338302
1987 SDP-Liberal Alliance 7341651 22 333711
1992 Liberal Democrat 5999606 20 299980
1950 Liberal 2621487 9 291276
1959 Liberal 1640760 6 273460

Liberal supporters in February 1974 had to see over a million of them turn out before their party won a seat. Quite extraordinary. All ten are Liberal incarnations, and for comparison the highest figure for the Tories was in 1997 when each of their MPs required 58188 votes nationally. For Labour 1959 saw 47350 votes per seat.

Year Party Votes seats votes per seat
2001 Labour 10724953 413 25968
2005 Labour 9552436 355 26908
1945 Labour 11967746 393 30452
1997 Labour 13518167 418 32340
1983 Conservative 13012316 397 32777
2010 Labour 8606517 258 33359
2010 Conservative 10703654 306 34979
Oct 1974 Labour 11457079 319 35916
1966 Labour 13096629 364 35980
1987 Conservative 13760935 376 36598

This second table can be interpreted in a number of ways. Most obviously it looks like Labour gains most from the current voting system. It also shows that Labour voters are the most efficient, turning in greatest numbers in places where victory is possible, and not bothering where their chances are low.

It is not an exclusive Labour preserve though, and nowhere are either Labour or Tory numbers worse than the Liberal Democrats. (In 2001 the Liberal Democrats had 92583 votes per seat, still more than three as many as the Labour needed in the same election.)

No electoral system will produce absolute equality when it comes to votes and the numbers of MPs they produce. However, it is clear that there is something dreadfully wrong, and it is being exacerbated by the increasingly pluralistic nature of modern British politics.

Unversal suffrage – almost there!

Yesterday was the centenary of my father’s birth. No telegram for Cyril though, he passed away in 1983. However, his sixty-nine years witnessed a great many changes, including universal suffrage. Or did it?

I ask because not everyone can vote and therefore we do not have true universal suffrage. There are exceptions, for good reason, but I think we need to look at these exceptions because I believe they need amending.

Let’s start with the exceptions I would keep.

Foreign nationals (apart from citizens of the Irish Republic and Commonwealth countries resident in Britain) cannot vote, and I think this broadly correct. However, if we were to rigorously adopt the principle of no taxation without representation then there is a valid argument for giving the vote to those foreigners who work here. After all, what is the real difference between an Australian and an Austrian? The Austrian can vote in our local and European elections, can work and pay his taxes, yet has no say in how those taxes are spent. It is certainly an avenue worth looking at.

People convicted within the previous five years of illegal election practices cannot vote. Seems fair enough, an electoral equivalent of a driving ban.

And so to those categories I would change.

Young people under eighteen years old cannot vote at present. I support votes at sixteen, and since sixteen year olds can marry, work, join the army, etc, then I think they should have a say in how the country is run.

I would give the vote to members of the House of Lords. This second chamber is in desperate need of reform (acknowledged by all the main parties) and since members of the primary chamber can vote I see no reason to disallow Lords, Bishops and Royalty – and whoever ultimately replaces them.

Perhaps my most contentious change would be to enable prisoners to vote. Actually, it really ought to be described as changing the ban from automatic to becoming part of sentencing policy. Aside from the potential loophole which could come with a postal vote, since General Election results can be in force for five years it does seem harsh to prevent someone who may only have a day or week left of their sentence from voting. I wonder why someone given a short-term for a lesser crime should be treated the same as a long-term prisoner when it comes to voting, and it ought to be a part of the rehabilitation process. Allowing prisoners to vote also acts to prevent a police state, where people are locked up to curtail their democratic expression.

Thirds, or all-ups?

Three Tory councillors all writing in support of something at the same time must mean something. I suspect they sense defeat and are doing their best Canute impressions. We shall see where we end up on this, but I am inclined to agree that we are unlikely to see enough councillors voting for a change in the electoral cycle in Southend-on-Sea.

I am opposed to all-up elections for Southend-on-Sea’s borough elections for one simple reason (although I can find other arguments against): it makes worse the effects of first past the post.

You see, I am an electoral reformer. I am a member of the Electoral Reform Society and sit on the executive of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform. I want to change in the way we elect all of our councillors and members of Parliament – I want proportional representation.

Let me explain. When I was elected in 2012 I received 35.8% of the vote. I was ahead of everyone else, but still some way shy of claiming majority support. In all-up elections most voters will put their three Xs against the three candidates of their party of choice. If we had had all-up elections in 2012 we could have seen three Labour councillors elected in Milton with almost two-thirds of those voting wanting something else. In my view this would have been unfair.

At present nine of the seventeen wards in Southend-on-Sea have mixed representation. This would largely disappear under the homogenising effects of all-up elections. In 2001, when we last had all-up elections (following the boundary review and the creation of seventeen wards) and two wards went for mixed representation: Shoeburyness elected two Conservatives and one Labour councillor, Westborough went for two Labour and one Liberal Democrat.

The previous all-up election, in 1997, saw three of the then thirteen wards go for mixed representation: Chalkwell, Eastwood and Milton. This was the year of the Blair landslide that saw some unexpected results all over the country.

I should not be, but I am, disappointed in the sloppy arguments used by the three Tory councillor bloggers.

Dear Ole Nige writes:” All groups are struggling to attract effective candidates or active election workers” – which may be his experience in his party, but is not what we are seeing in Labour locally. He also states “it is hardly that our local elections have shown any great risk of galvanising the majority of the electorate” which did not stop his party insisting on electing Police and Crime Commissioners (I remind him, again, that Nick Alston’s impressive mandate in our borough is a derisory one in thirty-five voters).

The Great Leader wants an overall reduction in elected members, odd somewhat when set against a backdrop of a rising population. Is he arguing that the more people we see in the town, the remoter they should be from their elected representatives? He also makes the point that “At times we seem to be fighting an eternal election campaign” which I see as a point in favour of the current electoral cycle – by having to test the water regularly we remain in touch, properly.

Tony Cox makes this statement “I also suspect that the opposition parties will not support the move is that they would struggle to find 51 candidates.” To be fair he then says “I have no actual proof of this” which makes the assertion all the more remarkable. I can categorically state that Labour would be able to find fifty-one candidates, which makes his statement even more nonsense. However, if it were true, is Cllr Cox arguing for less choices for the voters in our borough?

James Courtenay has a crystal ball! He must have, he already knows how the vote will go, stating that the Opposition will be saying no. I can reveal that Labour is still debating its view and so his headline is untrue. It may come to pass that we also reject the change, but this has yet to be agreed (being democratic we discuss and debate on a range of issues before every full council meeting).

Besides the cost savings I think there is some cynicism in the timing. The ruling administration could have suggested these changes a year ago, but they clearly did not fancy having all-up elections next year (the cost savings would still have applied) as they would likely have received an electoral mauling. In pushing for 2015 they are hoping for a bounce in their local fortunes. The Independents and Liberal Democrats will struggle in 2015 – Independent voices are somewhat lost in the General Election chatter, and Clegg’s party is going to struggle when forced to defend their record in Government to an electoral base that is not enamoured with all things blue.

As a final point, Nigel Holdcroft hopes to inflict on the borough a change that he will not have to endure himself – he is not seeking re-election next year.

Party funding and union patronage (or the absence of hereabouts)

My gut feeling is against the state funding of political parties. However, if you want fair and even electoral contests then we may have to go down this path.

My gut feeling arises, principally, from a sense that this may become a stitch-up designed to maintain the status quo. I write this as a member of one of the big two parties, and perhaps self-interest should quieten my voice, but I take both parts of my avowed democratic socialism very seriously. A lesser argument runs that those who seek power should be able to persuade not just voters but sponsors; the weakness in this argument arises from the unequal distribution of fiscal resources and the uneven battle this inevitably causes.

Traditionally Conservative backers have come from the monied classes, whereas Labour backers from the unions. Another way of putting this is that Tories are supported by the exploiters, Labour by the exploited. It shows how uneven the money is spread that the few in number monied can contribute more than the many who are without. Yet, still the Tories complain about union power, for they refuse to see their donations as aggregations of small contributions.

At least union members pay their taxes, which is not always true of the wealthy backers of the Conservative Party, and their loyalty to the country is not bought by exchequer bribery. It still astonishes me that tax exiles are allowed to meddle in our affairs, and at least one has a seat in Parliament.

It has been asked of me about my union backing; I have none, and have never had any. Whilst I have enjoyed indirect union hospitality (when they have sponsored events at national and regional conferences, for instance) I have not had any help from them. To be honest I did inquire once of my union whether I could get any support for my parliamentary aspirations; Unite were entirely indifferent to my inquiries. I was not after loading a selection meeting, but did hope to be able to promise help from them if I was selected. I should add that they gave me no support during either of my General Election campaigns. This is not a criticism, I fully understand the need to prioritise the distribution of resources, but merely to show that accusations about being in the back-pocket of union pay-masters is a long way wide of the mark. I have had two spells as Treasurer of Southend West Constituency Labour Party: from 2003 to 2007, and from 2010 to the present. Whilst unions do affiliate, the vast majority of our money comes from individual donations.

I have digressed. Whilst parties come in for criticism, parties are essential, if for no other reason than most voters will not know their candidates and parties provide a convenient shorthand guide as to who to vote for: you can vote Labour without the inconvenience of having to remember your candidate’s name. The democratic process requires parties, parties need money, campaigns need money. If democracy is a battle of ideas, is about accountability, is about openness, then it is also about funding. To some extent a fair fight is promised by the limit on campaign expenditure, but this kicks in only in the run-in to the big day, election day. Besides, much like a speed limit sign in the midst of a traffic jam, it becomes more of an aspiration than a barrier if your party’s circumstances are close to penury.

Asking the tax-payer to fund the political apparatus may offend some (q.v. Cllr Tony Cox), but the reality is that much of the process is already paid for by all of us. Cllr Cox’s bar-room braggadocio will only comfort the zealots in his own camp, but it does illustrate how the argument can be hijacked by those too lazy to unearth the facts (his first sentence is so far from the truth one wonders whether it is intended as a spoof). However, this will be an important debate, and one that will dramatically affect our democracy.

There is much going on in our democracy, much that is changing. We almost saw a reduction in MP numbers and a near-equalisation of constituency sizes. We nearly had the Alternative Vote. We shall see Individual Electoral Registration. Party funding is now being discussed, as is spending by lobbyists and campaign groups. We have a fixed-termed Parliament too; all this changed by a party with a debatable mandate to do such things.

Second jobs

My view has largely remained unchanged through the various crises that have buffeted politicians over the years. I am largely relaxed about MPs and second jobs, but only provided they are open and honest about it.

You see, I think that provided an employer, in this case the electorate, is content with their employee having another means of employment then who am I to object? Yet there are those, including comrades in my local Labour party, who think that Members of Parliament should not be allowed a second job.

It strikes me that very often there is envy involved, and a lack of pragmatism, but let’s look at some of the issues.

  • £60K plus is enough for anyone – Perhaps true, but MPs earn a pittance compared to footballers, pop stars, bankers, etc.
  • MPs should be concentrating on their constituents. Difficult to fault this argument either, except that many MPs already have the distraction of ministries, chairmanship of committees, etc.
  • MPs gain from the experience of having outside interests – this will depend on what this is (I cannot believe that working for a hedge fund will deliver as much benefit to constituents as volunteering at a food bank, but I could be convinced). One big criticism of our current crop of politicians is the somewhat narrow sphere they mostly seem to come from, and their lack of real world experience.
  • Having a second job will influence their decision making – not necessarily a bad thing if it is a poverty or health charity. Probably less than ideal if it is a financial planning firm.
  • Being an MP should be a full-time job – it may sound reasonable, but would does it actually mean? MPs do not clock in (and their attendance at Parliament and in their constituency is largely at their own discretion) and the workload will vary considerably.
  • What is a second job? – This is a less straightforward question than you may first imagine. I was paid a match fee for most of the games I refereed, and yet I think refereeing added to my life skills. Is refereeing a job? Is volunteering a job, albeit an unpaid one, and if not are interns employed or not?
  • I wonder what Sinn Fein MPs think of this (they never step inside the Palace of Westminster). I presume they have other jobs in Northern Ireland.
  • What of MPs who have a second elected position? Some MPs start out as councillors and hold onto to both roles for a while.
  • Should aspirant MPs give up work? I do not think so (if for no other reason than it would exclude all but the independently wealthy from applying) but the case for commitment to the role could equally apply.
  • Should MPs give up all roles in external organisations? This could include trade unions, pressure groups, political organisations, even internal party roles. Can you be an MP and sit on the party NEC?
  • Is it just about the money?

Whilst it is very easy to make statements about second jobs and MPs, the issue is a tad more complex than you might at first think.

When a child is born

A new baby is a moment of joy. However you view how we got here, it is a miraculous event. I can recall the wonder at holding something I had been instrumental in creating. A real sense of responsibility coursed through me, as well as a sense of bewilderment.

The birth of a child to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will bring much pleasure to them and their families. I congratulate and celebrate in much the same way as I would for every birth, for all children matter, everywhere.

This new Windsor already enjoys fame, and one day could become Head of State. By my reckoning this new life is already third in line; they could be Head of Sate tomorrow if disaster were to befall the Queen, the Prince of Wales, and the Duke of Cambridge.

I am a Republican. This means that I wish for a democratically elected Head of State for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. No-one knows how this child will turn out, but its suitability for the job is a mixture of fluke of birth and its indoctrination to come. My wish for an end to this medieval practise will fall on deaf ears, and to be honest it is very low on my list of priorities – I am not about to foment revolution. I wish the Royal Family no harm at all, and am as fascinated by anyone by the pomp and history. I signed the Queen Mother’s Memorial Book in the run-up to her funeral, and as I was working in London even saw a bit of the funeral procession. (By accident I saw her coffin come to London from Windsor whilst on one of lunchtime walks – I was working in South Kensington at the time.) I expect change will come slowly and gradually.

This child is born into a Britain where a third of children live in poverty. Its wealthy surroundings are at odds with the reality facing four million children. So, while we celebrate with the Cambridges let’s also ponder how a 21st Century Britain can address the issue of child poverty (and perhaps think about creating a more democratic country as well).

Age

One of the many things I campaign for is the lowering of the voting age. I wrote to my MP about this recently, and his reply indicated that he did not support my view.

David Amess added: “this is not a party political matter but I am against the reduction to 16”.

David is very aware of my politics and he regularly responds to my emails. Although I can and do complain about his politics, I cannot fault his assiduousness in this regard.

Votes at 16 does cut across the political spectrum, although I feel that there are more who are inclined to support this within Labour and Liberal Democrat ranks than amongst Conservatives. That being said, there are Conservatives who do campaign for all sorts of electoral reforms (see Conservative Action for Electoral Reform).

The age at which one can vote is 18 at the moment, and the age at which one can seek office is the same. Eighteen year olds can be councillors and Members of Parliament, and once in place can by extension have ministerial positions etc.

Cllr Ron Woodley strikes me as a pretty easy going fellow outside of the council chamber, but clearly has a bee in his bonnet regarding the portfolio holder for Children and Lifelong Learning on Southend-on-Sea Borough Council. Privately Cllr James Courtenay and I get along pretty well, but politically we are poles apart. I share much of Cllr Woodley’s concerns about education in the town.

My views about Cllr Courtenay’s unsuitability for his role have nothing to do with his age. I was in the chamber when Cllr Woodley labelled him a “child in charge of children’s learning” (reported here) and thought it not only rude, but had ruined what until then was a pretty decent set of remarks about the grammar schools in our town and how they seem serve the interests of those outside of the borough above those who reside within.

I am fifty-three, and in the eyes of some already past it. However, I hope to have a few more years of campaigning left in me, and would certainly hope that it is my ability that I am judged on and not my age.

Of course, age does have some influence on ability, but I would hope that we would see a good spread of ages in the chamber and in the Cabinet.

Cllr Woodley has some salient thoughts on education in Southend; I hope we do not see these lost in controversy because he cannot resist abusing his opponents.

Democracy in Southend, alive if a little offended

Democracy comes in many shapes and sizes. That some systems are more democratic than others seems obvious to me. I do accept that my preferred democratic model does not match everyone’s preferences. I prefer elections at all levels of administration, and want proportional representation. I would also widen the franchise.

I would not claim that democratic models that do not meet my preferences are not democratic.

Saxon King in Priory Park is a local pressure group, set up initially in response to the Saxon finds in Priory Crescent in Southend-on-Sea. They evolved from the remnants of the Camp Bling organisation that successfully campaigned against the road widening in Priory Crescent. I share some common ground insofar that I too have a strong environmentalist streak running through me.

However, I do not agree with everything they do, far from it. Their latest statement includes a line that is blatantly wrong: “… to highlight the lack of democracy in local government and the fact that the voice of ordinary people is ignored.

I am a member of the Electoral Reform Society – I want an improved democracy. It is wrong, though, to suggest that there is no democracy. I sit in council because I managed to get enough people to vote for me. This is democracy. It is not perfect, but it is democratic.

Ordinary people are not ignored, not by me anyway (or by my Labour colleagues). I cannot vouch for all of Southend’s councillors, but since we all depend on the consent of the people it would be extremely short-sighted to do anything but listen and respond. However, listening does not mean necessarily agreeing, if for no other reason than that we sometimes get conflicting opinions.

At the recent council meeting I was the only councillor to refer to the incident mentioned in SKIPP’s latest announcement. Since, though, a number of other councillors have waded into the fray.

I have called for a public apology from the council, and for the security team to be spoken to in the hope that this incident not be repeated. Insofar as democracy is not just about votes, but also about freedom of speech, then this incident is an affront to democracy.

Richard III

Some time ago I did briefly consider a change of career. I looked into becoming an archaeologist: in the end I decided that I could not take the cut in salary. However, I have an abiding fondness for the past, and when not reading on things political, I will often tackle something with a historical bent.

I am fascinated by today’s news confirming that the remains of King Richard III have been discovered. I hope that we will see a facial reconstruction at some point.

Richard III two-year reign was terminated by his death in battle, and his nemesis took the throne. My wandering mind does wonder what this does to the argument for a hereditary monarchy, because Queen Elizabeth II is not the closest direct descendent of King Richard III. In fact, the line of descent twists and turns throughout the centuries to suit the convenience of vested interests.

The most extreme example I can think of is George I, who had 56th people in front of him in terms of succeeding to Queen Anne’s throne, all disqualified because of their Catholicism.

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