Archive for the ‘Voting Reform’ Category

Democracy – when more is less

Well before it has launched one of Cameron’s most cherished policies – the planned move to elect police commissioners for all 41 police authorities in England and Wales – is looking like a very bad idea indeed and one that ultimately raises important questions about the practical limits of democracy.

On Radio 4’s ‘Today’ Nick Herbert, Minister for policing and criminal justice repeatedly refused to answer Evan Davis’s perfectly reasonable question about what would constitute a reasonable turnout at the elections in November and whether he would be happy with 15%, saying only that he wanted it to be as large as possible.  Well, yes of course.   Ministers are usually very happy to set targets for others but strangely reticent when it comes to setting any for themselves.  It is bad news indeed if the minister is not privately confident of hitting a measly 15% turnout.

Then there is the question of costs.  Nick Herbert was emphatic that the estimated cost of a state-funded mailshot at £25 – £35 million is too much for the government to afford at this time so candidates will NOT get one.  Earth to Whitehall; policies that are unaffordable are, err, umm, unaffordable.   Yet it’s not that spending on campaigning including mailshots isn’t allowed; earlier on the same programme Ann Barnes who is standing as an independent  in Kent explained that the population she has to reach is 1.7 million, equivalent to over 17 parliamentary constituencies and the allowable expenses in the last six weeks alone are £228,ooo.  This is on top of a £5,0000 deposit.

Cameron’s notion (also from ‘Today”) was apparently that, “Community leaders and pioneers of all sorts… [should stand]”.   In practice, it means only those with the backing of a political machine and the army of free deliverers that brings with it.  The only independents with much chance are those with serious financial backing.

Multi-millionaires are not normally ‘community leaders’ in the usual sense so who might get such backing and in return for what?  The precedent from the USA where many positions are elected that we would regard as administrative appointments – everything from county clerks to judges – is not good.  The track record is that vested interests, even criminal ones, can buy privileged access to the system.  Media magnates have a particular advantage.  Incumbents with plum jobs have to keep those who will finance their re-election happy however unsavory they might be and even if it means bending the law – or driving a coach and horses through it.  Although some voters will know what is going on there is no practical and affordable way of telling the majority, at least not in the face of organised disinformation.  And when turnouts are very low, as Nick Herbert obviously expects but won’t admit, the opportunities for buying elections are that much the greater.   If I were Murdoch I would regard this as the perfect opportunity to buy insurance against any further or future exposures.

The conclusion I draw is that democracy is not about voting as often as possible or for as many posts as possible.  Elections should be arranged and financed in such a way that there is a level playing field that gives independents (and/or minor party candidates) a reasonable chance of ejecting incumbents.  Inter alia, that means that cost must NOT be a significant factor.  And there must be an effective exchange of information and opinion independent of the candidates where their relative merits and demerits can be freely discussed.  The national media (increasingly supplemented by new media) provides this for Westminster elections but only weakly for local elections which is partly why there is so much ‘cross talk’ from national trends.  But for police commissioners?  I don’t see any suitable forum.  As for who might regard £250k or so as a good investment wealthy but public-spirited citizens would be well down my list of likely candidates; top would be power-crazed media magnates and organised crime.



This is why any sort of voting machine is a bad idea

It’s obvious really.  Traditional voting in person paper systems are hard to corrupt; too many people would have to be involved.  And because it’s difficult to do and certain to be detected there is litttle incentive even to try which is ultimately the best protection of all.

With voting machines a reasonably capable hacker can steal any election, and much more cheaply than by campaigning.  And if moderately well done, no-one would ever know – not for sure.


Voting fiasco – a metaphor for a dysfunctional government

The bad farce which characterised the inability to register votes at so many places round the country using a tried and trusted method is a national disgrace and embarrassment.   Britain used to rule the waves and much of the world besides; now we can’t even organise a simple election.  What must the rest of the world think of this mess?   To me this is the perfect metaphor for the dysfunctional state our government generally.

It’s not even as if the turnout was particularly high by historical standards; to the extent it was up a bit that possibility was well signposted in the days before the vote.   Moreover, with record numbers of postal votes the task on the day was that much easier even in the face of a high poll.

No doubt some will call for automation of polling but that is NOT a good idea.  Remember Florida!   Also automated systems can be hacked and who would ever know?  After George W Bush won his second term there were all sorts of rumours floating round the US about some very strange results.  At least with our traditional system it’s all out in the open so that democracy is not only done, but is seen to be done and that consideration trumps all alleged cost or time savings.    No, the difficulty is with government’s seeming inability to manage the proverbial party in a brewery and automation won’t change that.

And if government is so inept at easy things, tasks that it regularly undertakes, what hope is there for more difficult things – like, for example, digging us out of this enormous economic hole we’re in?  My experience in business tells me that when an organisation has lost the plot strategically and has lost control of its cost base then it also looses the ability to get even the simple things right.   That’s what I think is going on here and the uncomfortable truth is that unless government learns to do very much better very fast it will hamstring all and any plans we might have for recovery, irrespective of governing party. 

In short, this debacle is a canary in the government mine – a very dead canary.  We should take note.

By the way exactly what does the Electoral Commission contribute to the process?  What does it cost?  Why do we need it?

Clean Elections

Reform of political funding is very much on the agenda with the main parties deadlocked on positions that just happen to suit their traditional funding base – unions for Labour; big hitters for the Tories.  Here at last is a new idea (well, new to me at least) from the good old US of A.

It’s known as ‘Voter-Owned Elections’ or ‘Clean Elections’ and here’s how it works.  All supporters contribute an equal $5 – and only $5 – to their favoured candidate over an interval governed by the electoral timetable and up to the ceiling set for that election.

Result: no covert obligations to be paid back in government contracts or ‘difficult’ planning permissions awarded and, according to this account greater public engagement in the system.

Does anyone know more about it?