Monday 17 October 2011

Everything is Arbitrary

Well, okay, not quite. But this post was prompted by a Twitter discussion with Kevin McNamara (@WoolyMindedLib) in relation to the changes to constituency boundaries overseen by the Boundary Commission. The aim was firstly to reduce the number of seats in the House of Commons to 600 from 650 or so and secondly to equalise constituencies (that is, to make the number of eligible voters in each single-member constituency as consistent as possible).

The main bone of contention Kevin seemed to have was that whilst he agreed with equalising constituencies the 600 figure was "arbitrary". He agrees that there's scope to reduce the overall number of MPs, but he argued that it was better to equalise the constituencies first.

There are a few issues with this. First of all, 600 is no more or less "arbitrary" than any other number of constituencies. They could have picked 100 if they really wanted to, although most would argue that single-member constituencies that large would not be appropriate for a body wielding so much power. It may be that you think the number of seats is greater than is necessary to represent adequately whilst maintaining efficient decision-making But anyway, the main point is that 600 is no more "arbitrary" than 601, 623, 646 or 19.

The second issue is that you should equalise the constituencies before reducing the number of MPs. The problem with this is that you sort of, well, can't! By reducing the number of constituencies, you definitionally have to divide up existing constituencies into new ones or, well, disenfranchise all of those in the abolished constituencies! You can only change the number of MPs by changing the boundaries so that they represent a larger or smaller proportion of the electorate.

If you start a review with a view to equalising constituencies, you need a number in mind for roughly how many constituents you want in each constituency. The thing is, this is directly related to the number of MPs you're going to end up with. If A is the total eligible voting population, B is the target standard number of eligible voters in each constituency, and C is the number of seats available, then C=A/B. We have to assume that A is relatively constant, because we can't just invent new people! So the size of a constituency is inversely proportional to the total number of seats.

It is therefore no more arbitrary to decide the size of equalised constituencies than it is to decide the total number of seats. You are setting exactly the same thing. If you equalised constituencies first, then reduced the number of MPs later, you'd just have to completely redraw the boundaries again. It would be a redundant exercise.

Another arm of Kevin's argument is that we should be able to make constituencies more equal by setting the number of constituencies afterwards. Except you can equalise constituencies without changing the total number of seats at all! All you do is don't eliminate any constituencies, but shift the boundaries about according to population distribution. If anything, making special cases for smaller "communities" like the Highlands, as many try to argue in favour of, harms not the arbitrariness of the number of seats, but the very premise of equal constituencies itself.

And that sort of leads on to my more general point about this boundary review. Making substantial special cases of communities in representation fundamentally misunderstands the notion of an electoral system where individuals vote for electors. Members of Parliament represent constituents, not communities per se; their community representation exists only insofar as a community happens to be partly or wholly contained within their constituency. In truth, constituencies themselves are relatively arbitrary. Attempts are made not to create absurd situations where bits of a constituency are landlocked from the rest, or to prevent the drawing of boundaries so as to create an inherent advantage for one party or group. Gerrymandering can still happen even when the size of constituencies is relatively equal. For example, you could ringfence seats with predictable voting patterns so that they become uncompetitive even if the overall numbers are roughly the same.

What we observe about the current system is that the old boundaries created an inherent bias towards Labour, and that not all of that was itself down to unequal sized constituencies. This explains why Labour won a handsome majority (66 seats) off 35% of the vote in 2005 whilst the Tories fell considerably short (by 20 seats) with 36% in 2010. Equalising constituencies does not, in and of itself, eliminate this gerrymandering, although the actual act of redrawing the seats has the practical effect of reducing its effects. Whether that has served simply to gerrymander in reverse rather than undo that which already exists is a legitimate point of discussion. I think there is a case, from a Lib Dem perspective, to argue that this is the case, although I do not find this terribly convincing. The new boundaries can only really be judged by some actual elections to see how they operate in practice, and even then there are other variables at play there. I'm rather more convinced that the problems people are pointing to are rather more fundamental, and pertain to the necessary effects of single-member constituencies.

It would be a lot easier to end gerrymandering and to equalise voter influence if we adopted some form of proportional representation. Larger multi-member constituencies, chosen by preferential method, are much more flexible to deal with large variations in population density. If a natural region does not comfortably correlate with a fixed "number" in mind, you have more options to maintain a constant voter value. Not only can you increase or decrease boundary sizes, but you can also increase or decrease the number of representatives without inherently prejudicing any particular party.

Distribution and number of seats can absolutely affect to a greater extent the outcome of an election than a relatively modest change in the system by which our representatives are elected from FPTP to AV. But it is procedural in character and a question of administration of the existing system rather than an overhaul of the way we elect our members of parliament. The idea that we need a referendum every time the boundaries and number of seats are tweaked by the Electoral Commission is, I think both impractical and misguided. It is an administrative and not a substantive concern.

Sunday 9 October 2011

Home Rule and Booze - Just a normal Scottish Lib Dem Conference!

A speech or a suicide note... you decide
The day started at about 7am. After a raucous and alcohol assisted Parliamentary Debate at the GUU, and just three and a half hours sleep, I hauled myself out of bed in time to catch my lift to the Scottish Lib Dem Conference in Dunfermline. My total lack of organisation meant I had to get registration for Conference sorted out, including having a mugshot taken for my voting card that reflected quite accurately my lack of sleep. A brief bacon sandwich properly restored semi-consciousness and it was straight into the hall to begin proceedings.

Shortly before the first debate, I decided to submit a speaker slip on the off-chance I would get selected. I'd written a broadly supportive speech on the first motion (affirming the work to be done by the Home Rule Community Rule Commission) on the back of a Scottish Women Lib Dems leaflet (don't tell them!) in the canteen shortly before. I have to confess to being a little nervous, but what I had to say seemed to be well received, even if I did deviate a little from my script in the middle! I've enclosed what I intended to say, but it's not quite verbatim:
"Conference. This is my first speech at a Lib Dem Party Conference so I'll do my best not to disappoint! Our party is often perceived as constitutionally eccentric. Whilst our views on particulars are invariably well founded, be it on electoral systems or the dispersal of power to different levels of government, there is an increasing problem with showing people why it matters. The success of the SNP in the last 4 years has been predicated on an over-arching message to the electorate in Scotland, however misguided, that they are fighting their corner. In the mean time, we've lost our own liberal narrative for Scotland and have come to be seen as "tinkerers" and strained defendants of an extension of the status quo.
This Commission is the first significantly positive step we've taken in recent years to rectify this situation. Pulling down more powers, be it from Westminster or from Holyrood, means that people should have more control over the things that matter to them. It is more transparent, accountable and democratic when a body is responsible for raising what it spends as the custodians of local services.
I don't think the Commission is perfect, and we need to show that it's part of a wider federal approach, be that encouraging further devolution of power to other regions of the UK or indeed forming a proposal for an English Parliament. That is not to say that we should dictate to our neighbours how to run their affairs (perish the thought!). However we need to recognise that it is the asymmetry of the current system and the ad hoc approach we have taken to it, which has harmed the stability and credibility of the constitutional settlement. We need instead to incorporate this into a truly federal structure under a codified constitution. If we dwell on Calman for too long we risk accepting something with which, when it comes down to it, we consider insufficient.
I worry that this Commission will serve to delay what many of us already want to advocate: the Steel Commission with a lick of paint. In the interim, we must continue to push the political case beyond Calman and avoid finding ourselves on the small 'c' conservative side of this debate. Let's make sure that the people of Scotland see us for the real localists and federalists we are and not the Damascan converts to be found among other parties. With all this in mind I urge you to support this proposal."
There were a handful of other motions throughout the day, dealing with fuel poverty in rented accommodation, affirming support for the Human Rights Act and ethical trade, none of which threw up anything especially controversial. Tim Farron addressed the Conference with a clear message of empathy for our difficult predicament, but with a morale-boosting, positive message for Scotland's role in furthering liberal values across the UK. Michael Moore delivered a speech in which he emphasised Calman as a "stepping stone to Home Rule". I have criticised us overplaying the substance of the Calman Commission in the past and was never especially comfortable with rhetoric of Scotland's "settled will" or Moore's public incongruent approach to SNP demands for more powers. His message was, however, much more promising and I hope he and other Lib Dems at Westminster make it clear that Calman is not our end-game.

Willie Rennie's first conference speech as party leader was a rousing one. Opening with the story of the family of a young girl who needed alterations made to their home to deal with her medical condition, and the cumbersome response of the local authorities when a little flexibility was all they craved. Going on to expose the illiberal and centralising deceit of the SNP with respect to the police and other issues, and confronting the Catholic church about the issue of equal marriage, I really felt as though we have the makings of a persuasive alternative vision to put to Scotland in the absence of just about anything from Labour or the Tories. I was left feeling much more optimistic about our prospects going forward.

I do, however, have one regret about this year's Conference, and it pertains to the passing of the motion put forward in relation to adopting a minimum price per unit for alcohol. The party has, in the past, felt a degree of inertia towards what is an illiberal and ineffectual response to the problem of excessive alcohol consumption in our society. It disappointed me in particular, that Willie appears to be a strong advocate of this policy as well. He spoke with great passion about sending a clear message that we're serious about solving this problem. Other speakers expressed with considerable strength of conviction that the external harm alcohol causes and the correlation with cheap booze justified this intervention.

Lamentably I think this majority miss the point. Certainly many who consume large amounts of alcohol consume cheap, strong beverages in high volumes. But we have to ask ourselves what is it that motivates dangerous levels of consumption.

My contention is that a minimum price simply serves to make the poor pay more for alcohol, does not change attitudes, and only benefits supermarkets who currently sell alcohol more cheaply. High consumption of alcohol happens not because drink is cheap and readily available, but because of cultural attitudes towards drink ("binge" drinking) and because of alcoholism. The predetermined motivation is driven by reaching a certain level of intoxication and not a question of "how many units of alcohol can I acquire for £x". The desire for alcohol in large amounts is not simply a rational economic calculation; indeed if anything such considerations are overridden by social and psychological factors.

The reason that excessive alcohol consumption is linked to cheap booze is because it is after the above premise that the market operates. The cheapest and strongest booze is preferred because it's the cheapest available. This would still be true with a minimum price. The idea that increasing the price makes someone decide just to buy enough alcohol to become tipsy instead of legless has no real basis. People will still buy approximately the same amount of alcohol. The difference is they'll cut back on other things and spend more in doing so.

If you want to mitigate the impact of alcohol, there are two responses. The first is the amendment which was rejected. It was better than the motion, advocating use of higher duty levels to cover the cost to society of excess drink. This at least puts money into rehabilitation schemes instead of helping Tesco's shareholders.

But the second option is, for me, the truly liberal option. To tackle our drink problems we need not resort to what David Laws called "nanny state liberalism" in the Orange Book, but instead examine what it is about our society that makes drink so culturally attractive and by extension what makes our society susceptible to alcoholism. Why is it that alcohol is no less available or especially more expensive on the continent, yet the attitudes and behaviours in relation to it are not nearly so severe?

The liberal response is to better inform people of the risks, to enforce existing laws about serving minors and intoxicated persons more rigorously, and for local authorities to use more discretion as a licensing authority. Targeting the proceeds of alcohol duty to treatment and prevention is not incompatible with this approach, but arbitrary price pointers are. I am almost certain that this proposal shall not make any meaningful dent in alcohol consumption and health risks. It's a large mallet that cannot even crack the nut and I hope Conference finds an actual nutcracker by the next time we come to debate it.

Overall, Conference for this relatively new member was a principled, resilient and a friendly environment. I guess our task is to spread that goodwill across the rest of the country.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Appeal to Ken Clarke - Join the Liberal Democrats

It's Conservative Party conference, and somewhat predictably, they're going at it hammer and tong at the Human Rights Act combined with another of their pet hate subjects, immigration. First Theresa May, a Home Secretary that occasionally threatens to make David Blunkett and Jack Straw seem reasonable, briefs in interviews with the press that she thinks the Human Rights Act is stopping us from deporting people, then she goes on to set-off Immeowgrationgate by claiming that a Bolivian man was only allowed to stay in Britain "because he kept a pet cat".

Never mind, of course, that she'd lapped up a craven Daily Mail article which massively distorted the truth of the matter (that the cat was merely one element of extensive evidence put forward alongside being in a long-term relationship that proved residence in the UK had become integral to his family life per Article 8 ECHR). Facts are an inconvenience for this Home Secretary. She's the same Home Secretary who stymied efforts to reform control orders properly and whose response to the riots was to knee-jerk into the default "flog" setting on the Tory bandwagon.

Never mind, too, that it's not the Human Rights Act that prevents the UK from deporting people. The Human Rights Act is substantially a domestic enforcement of the provisions of the ECHR to which we are a signatory. It is the interpretation of the substance of that document, and not the Human Rights Act itself, that gives rise to deportees being deemed to have had their right to a private family life infringed.

If the UK still wanted to deport these people, it could do so with astonishing ease. All it would take is an Act of Parliament (with sovereign force...) expressly empowering the Home Secretary to deport certain classes of persons notwithstanding any potential Convention breach. This would still lead to Strasbourg cases and damages payments being made relatively frequently, but that's no different than if they were to "get rid of the Human Rights Act" as either way they'd be denying individuals the right to a domestic remedy per Article 13.

If anything, wholesale repeal of the Human Rights Act would be even worse as it would expose them to more Strasbourg cases, and increase litigation costs across the board. Any replacement "British Bill of Rights" would have to confer exactly the same human rights or even make them more robust than the existing set-up, for this not to be the case. If it's to be the same: what's the point? If it's to be stronger: why get rid of the Human Rights Act at all: surely it would just need supplementary legislation or amendment?

Unless, of course, she actually wants to withdraw from the ECHR, the international treaty we the UK were largely responsible for drafting to restore basic liberty to a post fascist Europe? Well that would give us about as much credibility in the international human rights movement as Belarus, the last European dictatorship (save the Vatican...), or Russia and Turkey, whose pervasive disregard for the ECHR sees them account for over two fifths of member-state violations.

But it's not even that I'm finding so incredulous. What is incredulous, is that Ken Clarke, for all his public opposition to, well, just about everything Theresa May and the Tory flog-ems have ever said, is still in the Conservative Party. With Number 10 backing May on the specifics and many others being wheeled out to back her nonsensical stance, it seems clear that Ken Clarke's political sympathies are not shared by his peers.

I'm sure it's been suggested to him before, but the time may come when Ken Clarke makes a stand and joins the Liberal Democrats. Even Nick Clegg nominated him for the 6th Lib Dem in the Cabinet at our party conference, such as is his steadfast support for Lib Dem causes within the Cabinet. On so many policy areas his positions are more instinctively within the liberal tradition than a conservative or authoritarian one his Tory colleagues have to offer. Pro Europe, pro the Human Rights Act, pro sentencing reform, relative economic moderate, supported more liberal approaches to drug addicts in the prison system and more besides.

He's not perfect. His links to BAT will probably rankle a little with some in the Lib Dems and his loading of the justice cuts onto legal aid is certainly not a liberal response. Further, as has been suggested elsewhere in the past, he may advance liberal causes more effectively as an unsackable Tory within a Coalition than he would as an out and out Liberal Democrat. But a cheeky defection a few months before the 2015 election would serve as a massive morale boost to the Lib Dem campaign, help us to show the public why we're different and better than our Coalition partners and not just their lapdogs, and most importantly, he would be a political heavyweight with liberal leanings at home in the UK's only truly liberal party.

Go on Ken. You know you want to...

Oh, and I couldn't let this post end without showing you live footage of Theresa May's plan to deport every last cat owning Bolivian and subvert those sneaky Europhiles...