The shade of Earl Russell, ‘Finality Jack’, still moves among us, and his name is Clegg. The deputy prime minister’s brief in the new administration is political reform, whose compass, he promised in yesterday’s statement, will be wide – as wide as Russell’s vaunted ‘final’ settlement of 1832. Clegg describes the electoral system as ‘broken’. The Electoral Reform Society branded the general election result ‘unrepresentative’. The criticism is invited by the umbrella labelling of the electoral reform statutes of 1832, 1867, 1884, 1918 etc. as ‘Representation of the People’ Acts. The complaint that the system is unrepresentative is levelled indifferently at the simple plurality voting system (‘first past the post’), and at the remaining ‘pale, male, stale’ demographic in the House of Commons. These two complaints are distinct. Clearly proportionality defangs the first charge, of unrepresentativeness, or at least those forms of PR that make seats won directly proportional to votes cast. But it doesn’t fix the Commons’ dominance by middle-aged white males.
In the coalition negotiations between the three large British parties, both the Tories and Labour offered the Liberal Democrats the possibility of changing to the Alternative Vote electoral system, and in the end David Cameron committed himself to holding a referendum on the issue. This was assumed to appeal to the Lib Dems because the AV generally favours centrist parties: very few Labour or Tory voters would cast their alternative vote for the other but large numbers of both Tories and Labour voters would give the Lib Dems their second preference vote. In particular it is assumed that AV would cement the ‘progressive alliance’ of Labour and the Lib Dems as the majority of both their voters would cast their second preference votes for the other. In fact AV might well not do that.
This election campaign was always likely to end with photos of David Cameron standing on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street. The story had far more twists than anyone can have expected, but it’s ended up at the place where it’s been heading for some time. Still – quite a ride. The final flurry was the flurriest of all, with Brown’s resignation and the accompanying offer of a deal on PR bouncing the Tories into increasing their competing offer. At the same time, many Labour figures began to panic at the prospect of being shoehorned back into power via a coalition of arguable legitimacy. Some comments here have pointed to Britain’s rich history of unelected prime ministers. The history is indeed there, but I don’t think it’s relevant in the current circumstances. An unelected PM coming to power in a minority coalition in the most hostile media environment a Labour premier has ever faced: that’s an unprecedented formula, one which threatened to crash the party through its core-vote electoral floor.
Considered purely as a piece of politics, both the content and the timing of Brown’s resignation were masterly. He gave the Tories time to not-quite make a deal – four days, the same amount of time Wilson gave Heath in 1974. Then he did two things which fundamentally alter the equation for the Lib Dems: he removed himself as problem and he made an offer on the alternative vote and PR which the Tories can’t match.
The sloppy administration of the general election – long queues at polling stations, voters locked out, not enough ballot papers – has rightly caused outrage among those affected and may yet cause legal or other problems. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise. I used to assume that the system in the UK was relatively clean and efficient. Of course, no one is perfect, and every election is followed by police investigations into dirty work of one kind or another. Before election day this time I counted six press reports of police investigations, most but not all concerned with postal votes, once described by a judge as ‘an invitation to fraud’. But I began to look at our system more sceptically after being an official observer at five elections in states of the former Soviet Union. I was part of a team run by the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, the members of which agreed in 1990 that it would be a good idea to observe each other's elections.
No news yet. In with all the extraordinary excitement and unprecedented constitutional upheaval, I’m also starting to get a little bit bored. Apparently the mood-music or hint-music is that they’ll reach a deal today. According to the Guardian, ‘Cameron is understood to have told senior Tories that he would not be offering a referendum on electoral reform under his government’. That has to mean no deal, surely? But according to the FT, ‘The Lib Dems are demanding that Mr Cameron moves immediately to introduce a version of electoral reform – the so-called alternative vote – as a sign of his intention to carry out more far-reaching reforms over time.’ He’s also trying to insist on fixed term Parliaments.
As far as I can tell, there’s very little actual news at all in the papers today. Yards of speculation and comment, but hardly any actual news. The only thing I can find is a Sunday Times report that the Lib Dems and Tories are discussing a ‘preferendum’, to set a menu of options for electoral reform before voters. This would happen during the next Parliament, as a precursor to a referendum on whichever specific reform the voters chose:
‘This election result is not viable,’ Vernon Bogdanor said yesterday afternoon. ‘There will have to be another within months.’ (At least I think it was Vernon Bogdanor – it may have been David Butler or Peter Hennessy. It was a long siege in front of the TV, and apologies all round if I have misattributed. Constitutional experts don’t look alike but they do sound alike, I suppose because they are men from a similarish background who tend to be say-ing similarish things.) That had the ring of truth. What’s going on at the moment, with everyone busting them-selves to look serious and statesmanlike, is known in the American Senate as a ‘gravitas frenzy’. But the underlying realities are what they are. A Labour-Lib Dem pact will not work. Their combined totals only get them to 315, 11 short of a majority. Labour lost the election and the Lib Dems would be crazy to look as if they were putting Brown back in office. They would also be crazy to put Labour back in while the leadership issue was unresolved; the public wouldn’t swallow a second consecutive Labour prime minister for whom they hadn’t voted.
Well that was a downer. It’s a good thing that the Labour party didn’t suffer a generational wipe-out of the sort which seemed possible a couple of months ago. But the prospect of real structural change seems remote today, as the parties jostle and try to find a way of stitching up the Lib Dems with a referendum on electoral reform that they are sure to lose. It’s a paradox of our shitty system that the disappointing Lib Dem share of seats (on an increased share of the vote) ends up with them having more power than they’ve had in many decades. As for that system:
Britain decides! Or maybe it sort-of decides! Maybe it decides that it can’t quite make up its mind! But that counts as a decision too! A corker of a point from yesterday’s politicalbetting.com. It’s such a strong and simple point that I can’t believe I’ve never heard it made before. Here it is: only once since 1945 has the UK gone from a majority government of one party to a majority government of another. Which election was it?
When you get in the groove of talking about the general election, it’s easy to forget that for a lot of people it’s barely taking place at all. Of the 650 Parliamentary seats, not more than about 150 are truly in play. If you’re living in the other 500, your vote barely matters. A few hundred yards up the road from where I’m writing and I’d be in Battersea, a Labour-held marginal which is one of the Tories’ top targets. About 300 yards the other way and I’d be in Streatham, a once-safe Labour seat which is now 75th on the Lib Dem target list. It would be in play if Labour had a total meltdown, and Clegg paid a campaign visit there a couple of days ago. Labour activists talk about it as a marginal seat, which not so long ago they didn’t do. About a mile in a different direction and I’d be in Tooting, which is an important marginal because it is the Tories 112th target seat. That’s significant because if the Tories win Tooting it means they are right on the cusp of power: Tooting would need a 6.09 per cent swing and the national figure the Tories are aiming for is 6.8 per cent.
I don’t know what kind of demographic targeting apparatus the Lib Dems are packing in this election, but it seems to have determined that there are votes to be had from readers of the Saturday Guardian with a taste for the great masters of modernistic gloom and a relaxed attitude to not namechecking Nelson Mandela. The evidence:
With everyone and his Labour dog calling for tactical voting, the always-good-value Tim Harford made an important point on the Today programme this morning. He says that about 10 per cent of voters report having voted tactically in previous elections. That might not sound like much but in most constituencies it is usually more than enough to determine the difference between coming first and coming third. The important point, though, was the one he made next:
So, 72 hours to go, and the polls are pointing with a quavering, accusatory finger at a hung Parliament. Or maybe it’s a confident, optimistic finger – anyway, that’s where they’re pointing. YouGov has the Tory/Lab/Lib Dem projection as 34/28/29, ICM has it as 33/28/28. UK Polling Report looked at all five of the polls published on Sunday, four of which showed some momentum for the Tories after the third debate, and all of which showed the Tories as falling short, with the lowest projection 264 seats and the highest 315 (the target, remember, is 326).
Yesterday I mentioned some of the various bizarre, horse-tradey outcomes which might arise from a super-close electoral result. Here’s one of my favourites: that the Tories win either 323 or 324 seats. This result would leave them one or two short, because there are 650 seats so the winning line for a majority is 325. Except that because the five current (and presumably future) Sinn Féin MPs don’t take up their seats in Westminster, the winning line for a majority in the Commons is in fact 323 seats. 1991, IRA lands a mortar in the garden of Downing Street during Cabinet meeting; 2010, political wing of IRA ensures that the Tories have a functioning Parliamentary majority. That strange ghostly noise is Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera either laughing or turning in their graves, it’s hard to tell.
One way of mapping the difference between electoral systems is to plot them on a continuum between fairness and clearness. The two qualities tend to have a negative correlation. Countries in which each individual vote can plausibly be said to have some bearing on the outcome – i.e. countries with a system which is to some extent proportional – are fairer. But they often end up with coalition governments. Countries with some version of first-past-the-post tend to have clear electoral outcomes which in effect disregard the relevance of many votes. The German, Italian and Israeli (for instance) electoral systems are fair but not clear; the British electoral system is the epitome of a system which is unfair but brutally clear. In theory. Not this time, though:
The most popular game on miniclip.com at the moment is Volcanic Airways. ‘The Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland has erupted, you must escape the volcanic ash and get to safety! Loops get you more points!’ For all those urgent exclamation marks, Volcanic Airways is the slowest game ever – your chubby Boeing drags its bulk through the air at such a leisurely crawl that when the ash cloud finally catches up you can’t help but feel you deserve to be engulfed. The work of the programmers behind the game, though, has been undeniably swift. The internet gaming industry has never been slow to respond to the news. As the presidential campaigns for the 2008 US election ground on, a game called Presidential Paintball appeared:
The news that the bond markets were having conniptions about Greece, and also about Portugal and Spain, was a suitably gloomy frame for the final, economics-oriented debate. If the new government cocks things up, we’re en route for the IMF to come in. So it was time to hear some detail about the parties’ plans to prevent that. Instead there was the usual theatre, in which the three men picked on each other’s proposed spending cuts and made a meal of them, in a manner analogous to that of grooming chimpanzees. This was their last chance to be specific about what’s coming – the most difficult period, in terms of state spending, for sixty years. They chose to whiff it, and thereby set themselves up for the disastrous possibility of winning the election with no mandate to do what they’re going to have to do.
In Geoffrey Madan’s Notebooks, there’s a story about Gladstone. Someone tells him an anecdote about two brothers having an argument about an inheritance in Derbyshire on Christmas Eve; the younger one, with the help of the butler, attacked the elder and caused GBH. He was put on trial, and fled the country on his solicitor’s advice. Told those bare facts, Gladstone immediately said that seven points were ‘especially worthy of attention’, and went through them at length. To adopt a conciser form of the Gladstonian manner, I’d like to draw attention to the following seven points about our prime minister’s encounter with Mrs Duffy of Rochdale:
Sleek and pawky Alex Salmond, first minister and Scottish National Party leader, has been in court challenging the BBC over the SNP’s non-inclusion in the final prime ministerial debate on BBC1. His grievance would be a bit more justified if the Nats were fielding candidates in Glossop or Penistone, and the rest of the UK. But as the SNP is only putting up candidates in Scotland (59 seats), it’s quite hard to see how Shrek could put himself forward as a UK prime minister in waiting. And then there is the usual question of line-drawing. If the nationalists had been allowed their place in the sun, why not the Greens, UKIP, the English Democrats and the BNP? Indeed, why not independents, or CURE, the Citizens for Undead Rights and Equality Party, fielding four candidates on a ‘zombie rights’ platform, to allow civil partnerships between living people and stiffs.
I’m still in New York – back tomorrow – where the story playing biggest right this moment is about the Goldman executives who are testifying in front of the Senate. Of the various things which are astonishing about Goldman, one aspect which really stands out is their demeanour. They really do a very convincing impersonation not just of not giving a shit, but of seeming to go out of their way to be disliked. It reminds me of the Millwall FC ethos, summed up in their song:
Byron said that ‘it is a great affectation not to quote oneself’, but he never said anything about linking to your own pieces. Anyway, I’m going to do it here, because I wrote an op-ed in today’s Guardian revisiting some of the things I’ve written in the LRB and also on this blog. The theme is that unless the party leaders spell out some detail about the upcoming cuts, they won’t have a mandate to do the things they are going to have to do. I mention this because I’ve had a severe case of esprit de l’escalier about the Guardian piece.
The big news here in New York is that I’ve bought an iPad. I’ve been fooling around with it and enjoying the general awesomeness. My preliminary verdict is a. that it is a beautiful toy, objectively expensive but not dear for what it is, and b. that in a couple of years, say by version 3, the tablet will have replaced the computer for most of us, most of the time. Even this version does most non-keyboard-intensive things more intuitively and more prettily and more conveniently than a laptop. The extra-large touchscreen makes you understand that this kind of interface is the future of computing. I’m not typing this on my iPad, however. That’s because while loads of software is already available for the device, crucial parts of Apple’s own software isn’t. Or rather, it is only available to customers with a US iTunes account. But my account is registered in the UK.
A couple of days to let the second debate percolate, and the signs are that it didn’t have much impact.
I’m in New York for the 30th anniversary of the LRB’s American launch. While this fact is not rocking the foundations of our democracy, it does mean that I had to listen to the second leaders' debate over the radio. As everybody knows, radio can have a dramatically different impact from television. The famous example was the Nixon-Kennedy debate of 1960, won by Nixon on the radio and, decisively, by Kennedy on TV. Though as soon as I type those words, I find myself wondering what the relative size of the audiences was. In 1960, was the TV audience really so much bigger than the radio one? Wouldn’t that have meant that the impact of the debate was much closer than it is reported as being?
Oh to be in Stoke, now Nick Griffin’s there, launching the British National Party’s manifesto as its contribution to the St George’s Day festivities. Stoke has a strong claim to be regarded as the BNP’s spiritual doss-house. Sir Oswald Mosley, head of the BNP’s grandfather organisation, the British Union of Fascists, was born there. Oswald’s first wife, Lady Cynthia Mosley, was a Labour MP for Stoke in the 1930s. His son Nicholas wrote in a memoir in 2002 that the 400-strong Stoke chapter of the BUF was ‘part thieves’ kitchen, part bawdy house’. The BNP is putting up candidates in each of the three Stoke-on-Trent constituencies, though not in the more genteel Newcastle-under-Lyme next door. Simon Darby, self-described on his Twitter page as a ‘naturalist, angler and deputy leader of the BNP’, dethroned in 2004 as a local councillor in Dudley, is standing in Stoke-on-Trent Central. Darby can be seen in his offices, having just landed the coveted electoral endorsement of Richard the Lionheart.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like the Tory press’s onslaught on Nick Clegg over the last couple of days. One minute, the Lib Dems can’t get in the news, no matter what they do; the next minute, they’re notorious cat-stranglers. No, it’s even worse: they’re (gasp!) partly foreign! Well, sort of – Dutch mother, Russian grandfather, Spanish wife. ‘Is anything about this man British?’ yowled the Mail. It seemed a self-defeating way of putting it, since the answer is yes – he is.
I never liked David Owen much – even by the standard of politicians, he always seemed to be a self-interested egomaniac – but his interview with David Hare in the Guardian today is interesting. Owen’s most striking claim is this one: I’m pleased that the great British public out there in their strange, almost instinctive way are groping towards a solution. They always do. The British electorate has got every election right in my lifetime, and I include the two in which I got kicked out. Not sure I agree, but it’s an interesting way of putting it – and I suppose the last three elections at least can be said to have been got right,
Just snippets today. 1. The bond market doesn’t care who wins, as long as somebody does. Nine out of ten funds questioned by the FT said that there was no difference between the Tories and Labour. But they don’t like the idea of a hung Parliament, because they think it’ll make it harder to tackle the deficit. 2. According to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, there is no correlation between levels of immigration and support for the BNP. Of the ten local authorities with the highest levels of BNP support, nine have levels of immigration lower than the national average.
Since the election was called I’ve been looking at a number of statistical sources who try to predict the outcome. I’ve been concentrating on sites where lots of individual opinions are aggregated, rather than looking for individual wizards. The three I’ve been regularly checking are:
Last night I had a clear sign that I’ve been spending too much time thinking about the election. My sons recently listened to the whole audiobook of The Hobbit during a long car journey, and I decided to try them out on the DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring (the fan-preferred extended cut, obviously). The opening sequence establishes the peace-loving, insular nature of the Hobbits and their love of the Shire, and makes it clear that for Tolkien the Hobbits were a form of surrogate Englishmen. Bilbo Baggins is talking about this in his narration and says: ‘They are quite content to ignore and be ignored by the world of the Big Folk.’ I found myself thinking: 'Hmmn, they’ll be voting UKIP.’
Keane (the band) aren't happy about the Tories using their song 'Everybody's Changing'. Quite right too. Though I wonder who at Conservative central office chose it as the party's theme song, and what their ulterior motives may have been, since it doesn't exactly endorse Cameron's post-Obama message of change. 'Everybody's changing and I don't know why,' the first chorus goes.
Front page of the Sun, over photos of the volcano and the leaders’ debate: ‘Britain Paralysed By Hot Air’. Vulcanologically inaccurate, but not bad. To be fair, the debate was better than that; and I don’t think anyone watching it would have thought that any of the three party leaders was thick or incompetent or mad or self-evidently unqualified. Needless to say – and yet here I am saying it – the most important subject of all, the deficit and impending cuts, did not feature in any serious way. But it would have been naive to expect otherwise and the exchanges were at least an entertaining simulacrum of real debate.
John Self, anti-hero of Martin Amis’s novel Money, is forced to sit down and read Animal Farm. A determined non-reader, he finds it very hard work indeed, though the book does have a few points in its favour. ‘I must admit, I admire the way in which Orwell starts his book fairly late in, on page seven.’ The party manifestos are a bit like that. They aren’t really made for reading. I say that with feeling, since having managed to get to the age of 48 without ever having read an election manifesto, I’ve now read three in a week. The Labour and Lib Dem manifestos are especially stiff going. They are heavy on detailed policy specifics, and both take an essentially managerial view of Britain: they list specific proposals and aspirations, point-by-point. The Tory manifesto is different. It has more blank pages, for a start. John Self would like those.
I’m not going to comment on the Tory manifesto until I’ve read it, which won’t be for a day or two since the sodding thing is 118 pages long. (I thought I might order the £5 hardback from Amazon for next-day delivery, but it isn’t available. In fact if you type in Conservative Party Manifesto, the top result is a second-hand copy of the 2005 Manifesto, for £10. Someone’s eye is off the ball.) The launch was interesting, though. Battersea Power Station has obviously negative associations, which rivals weren’t slow in pointing out: as Nick Clegg put it, ‘they’ve just launched it in a power station that doesn’t have any power.’ In fact it’s worse than that, since the power station is a very conspicuous relic, an abandoned shell, a purposeless eyesore which testifies both to the achievements of Britain’s past and the relative deterioration of its present.
The coming Parliament will see the biggest spending cuts ever imposed on the UK. The key question in this election is what is going to be cut, and by whom. I said some critical things about John Humphrys the other day, but his opening question to Ed Miliband, alleged mastermind behind the manifesto, was trenchant: ‘Can you name us one thing, one service that people want, that you are telling them they can’t have?’ Miliband’s reply: ‘We are going to reduce spending on regeneration and legal aid.’ It is not Miliband’s fault, though it is horribly bad timing, that the news has just broken that the three Labour MPs charged with fiddling their expenses are all going to receive legal aid.
We tremble on the verge of greatness today, as the first of the parties – Labour – sets out its manifesto. I’ll comment on it after I’ve read it. In the meantime, a look at how modern politics is conducted, in practice. In this election, one of the Tories’ main tools is a ‘consumer categorisation’ package called Mosaic, developed by the data management company Experian. They are one of the big credit ratings firms, and are also behind that software that spookily knows who you are and where you live when you type in your postcode.
What’s unique about this election? The quality of the debate? The riveting closeness of the contest? The charisma of the party leaders? The visionary vistas opening up in front of the British people as we contemplate the party’s rival visions for out future? None of the above. What’s unique is that it’s the first time (at least in the last hundred years or so) that both of the main parties are being led by somebody with a first-class degree.
Michael Ashcroft’s power in the Tory party comes from two things: the fact that he was giving them money back when no one else would; and the fact that, in the aftermath of their 2005 defeat, he commissioned a study of the reasons for it. He wrote up the analysis and published it under the title Smell the Coffee. This report was to become, in effect, the intellectual underpinning of the party’s turn to the Cameronistas. Smell the Glove, sorry, Smell the Coffee, comes to a memorably blunt conclusion: ‘The problem was not that millions of people in Britain thought the Conservative Party wasn’t like them and didn’t understand them; the problem was that they were right.’ Even a non-Tory would agree with that.
Oy! This is important. I’ve had two conversations since the elections were called with people who aren’t around to vote on 6 May and were saying that it’s too late to register for a postal vote. Not so! The system has been changed to be more flexible, and the deadline for registration is much later than in the past – I imagine in response to the historic lows of the last two turnouts, 59.4 per cent in 2001 and 61.4 per cent in 2005.
Gordon Brown has at the last minute and too late been converted to the alternative vote (AV) as a method of election to the House of Commons. AV preserves single-member constituencies but ensures that the winning candidate must win at least 50 per cent of the votes plus one. As many have noted, it is the way the lower houses of Australian parliaments are elected. By itself it is a minimal reform, better than nothing but something the Lib Dems would regard as merely a first step. What no one has pointed out is that the upper houses of all Australian parliaments (except Queensland which abolished its upper house) are elected by forms of proportional representation (PR). In Australia the two go together: AV for the lower house and some form of PR for the upper have emerged historically as a single electoral system, the one complementing the other, and Australian political parties have been surprisingly willing to forgo short-term political advantage in order to secure it.
Presumably there are people out there who admire John Humphrys’s interviewing style. I’m not one of them, and yesterday’s grilling of Neil Kinnock on the Today programme was an example of why not. Humphrys went after Kinnock on the subject of Labour’s 1992 loss, and whether there was a parallel with the current contest. The gist was: people didn’t vote for you because there was something about you they didn’t like. People might not vote for Brown because there is something about him they don’t like. How does that make you feel? So we had: ‘Your personality played a very large part in your campaign, you think it helped bring about your downfall, do you think that’s going to be the case with Gordon Brown?’ And then: ‘What they did was they looked at you as an individual and apparently they didn’t much like, or at least a lot of them didn’t much like what they saw. They will do the same with GB won’t they?’
Finally! The production we’ve all been waiting for, Mr Brown Goes to the Palace, has opened at last. There’s something very British about the way everyone has known for months that the election was going to be on 6 May, but that it’s only now that we officially know it. This point is so obvious it tends to be overlooked, but in the last thirty years, the incumbent party has only lost the election once. There have been five wins for the party in government, one win for the challenger. That was in 1997, when John Major took the power to declare an election whenever he liked it to one extreme: it was declared on St Patrick’s Day, 17 March, and held on 1 May. That’s a full two weeks longer than the current campaign. Maybe Major thought that if the country had a long hard look at Blair, they would recoil in revulsion. He was right, in a way, it’s just that it took ten years for the effect to fully kick in.