Category Archives: Politics

My Definitive View of the AV Debate

I’ve written two previous pieces on particular aspects of the Alternative Vote (AV). Now that the referendum and date of 5th May are confirmed, I’ve put together a more comprehensive view of the debate and its current arguments. If anything I haven’t considered here comes up, I will try to address it. If you want to skip to the core argument of why AV is a fundamentally more democratic system, regardless of any other considerations, go here.

Why think about it at all?
On the face of it it may seem that there is little at stake in the coming referendum on the voting system for the UK House of Commons. I have to say that this was my first thought on the matter when the plan for this referendum was announced as part of the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition agreement. In my case this is because I believe in a consensus democracy in which national policy decisions flow as much as possible from the equal input of all citizens in the decision-making process. I believe in such a system for two reasons – firstly that in the long-run it is likely to end up making the best decisions for everyone, and secondly because it is the system most likely to avoid sections of the populace, who feel unable to get a fair hearing, attempting to get attention in other more unpleasant ways. I would contrast this sort of democracy to ‘elected dictatorships’ where a government is chosen at intervals with the power to more or less ignore the wishes of the electorate (or at any rate those that are not its confirmed supporters) for its period of office. Continue reading My Definitive View of the AV Debate

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A Brief Explanation of the Alternative Vote

A UK-wide referendum is scheduled for 5th May 2011 to determine whether there should be a change in the voting system for the UK (Westminster) Parliament. The choice will be between the current First Past the Post (FPTP) system, in which you give an ‘X’ to each listed candidate in a single round of voting and the candidate with the most ‘X’s is elected, and the Alternative Vote (AV) system in which you can express preferences for each listed candidate by giving them a number from 1 downwards.

I think the easiest way to understand the Alternative Vote (AV) is to think of it as a multi-round elimination election, in which you specify in advance on one ballot paper how you would vote in each round.

In the first round of counting, instead of the candidate with the least ‘X’s being eliminated, the one with the least ‘1’s is. Then instead of asking everyone to vote again, the ‘2’s of those giving the eliminated candidate their ‘1’s are appropriately transferred to the remaining candidates. The bottom candidate is again eliminated and the same process carried out with their ‘3’s. And so on until one candidate has 50% of the ballots.

The last round is equivalent to a round in which, while some candidates have been eliminated, everyone has a vote between those remaining and the one getting an absolute majority of those votes is elected. So there’s no reason to say that second or third etc preferences should somehow have less value.

I’ve written some more about AV for the UK here.

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Some thoughts on drug policy

Former Home Office Minister under Labour, Bob Ainsworth MP, has ’embarrassed’ his party leadership by claiming that ‘prohibition isn’t helping [and] the ‘War on Drugs’ is failing’.

I would think that one useful way of approaching the issue is to consider the balance of harms affecting drug users (who choose to use drugs) and non-drug users (who choose not to). Currently non-drug users suffer from the violence and crime associated with the illegality of drug use and supply and pay the costs of countering them, and they have to cover most of the costs of treatment for the results of poorly-prepared street drugs and of addiction. Continue reading Some thoughts on drug policy

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Towards ‘Clever capitalism’

New York City Financial District
New York City Financial District

The lesson of the New Labour years that ended in the biggest global economic crisis since the 1930s is a simple one. ‘Shareholder value’ capitalism is a beast that cannot be made to serve social democratic purposes. By social democratic purposes, I mean those that see harm done to one citizen as harm done to all, and accept the value of collective institutions as positive means to limit that harm and so promote the general good. Social democracy doesn’t assume all ‘good’ is done collectively, but it certainly doesn’t have a general individualistic assumption either. In particular, social democracy gives weight to the idea of ‘solidarity’, which is why great inequality is so corrosive of its aims, and why universal welfare benefits, even if symbolic, cannot be given up too lightly.

The assumption of late twentieth century social democracy was first that unionised labour plus a strong state, then the state alone, and finally perhaps accounting sleights of hand by a clever chancellor, could offset the economic power concentrated by banks and large corporations. Pretty clearly, by the end, this social democracy wasn’t worthy of the name. Continue reading Towards ‘Clever capitalism’

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NHS Reform – for Worse or for Better?

Published on Left Foot Forward on October 5th

Under the coalition’s planned NHS reforms GPs could find themselves with a serious headache. Patients armed with detailed outcome data and on-line hospital reviews may enter a GP’s surgery demanding referral to a named specialist at a hospital in another part of the country. The patient-choice imperative will make this a difficult request for that doctor to resist, but the financial and commissioning responsibilities handed over by the reforms may give him or her a worrying conflict of priorities.

A traditional role of the GP in the NHS was as a ‘gatekeeper’, who filtered out those of his or her patients most likely to benefit from specialist care, and referred them according to knowledge of the local hospitals and consultants. In this way, costs were kept down, capacity constraints observed and quality was managed through professional reputation. Now that paternalism is a dirty word, self-diagnosis takes a few mouse clicks and professionals are no longer trusted by default, this is no longer acceptable. Continue reading NHS Reform – for Worse or for Better?

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Union Action Against the ‘Cuts’

Maid of the Loch Paddle Steamer
British Industry as it used to be!
This post was published on LabourList on 13th September 2010.

The TUC conference starts today, and union leaders are declaring war on the coalition’s deficit-reduction strategy. Although some union leaders are talking about ‘civil disobedience’ campaigns and co-ordinated strikes, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber is taking a more cautious and constructive line. He wants a ‘political campaign’ that depends not just on a negative stance against the ‘cuts’.

He is absolutely right to take this approach, for two major reasons. Firstly, while it is absolutely right that individual groups of workers make the case that removing their jobs are false economies, it is too easy for the coalition to claim that without reducing the deficit and the interest payments that are attached to it ‘things would (or will) be worse’. And the reason it is so easy is because there is a lack of understanding of the economic paradigm that underpins the coalition’s rhetoric. Sadly this economic paradigm was shared by the 1997-2010 Labour governments. Continue reading Union Action Against the ‘Cuts’

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Amartya Sen in Edinburgh

Princes Street at dusk
Princes Street, Edinburgh, at dusk

I had the chance to see the great economist and social philosopher Professor Amartya Sen at the Edinburgh Book Festival on the 29th of August. I use the word ‘see’ not to imply that I had a personal meeting with him, but because he actually said disappointingly little at the large public event in which he took part.

He only said a few brief words about his new book, ‘The Idea of Justice’, and then the floor was open to questions from the moderator Brian Taylor of BBC Scotland and the audience. I admit that I haven’t read this book, although I regard his previous work ‘Development as Freedom’ as one of the most important I have read. From a review of the book by John Gray it seems however that what Professor Sen did say amounted to a fair summary of the main argument. Continue reading Amartya Sen in Edinburgh

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Voting for AV

This post appeared on the Labour List website on 30th August 2010.

There can be only one rational reason to vote against AV in next May’s referendum, and that is to undermine democratic government in Britain. This explains why ludicrous right-wingers such as Matthew Elliot and Lord Leach are in charge of the campaign for a ‘No’ vote. The best chance for the rich and powerful to carry on ruling the roost is to make sure that the House of Commons remains as unrepresentative and polarised as possible. Continue reading Voting for AV

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‘Europe is Dying’

If the financial sector can be rescued only by cutting back social spending on Social Security, health care and education, bolstered by more privatization sell-offs, is it worth the price? To sacrifice the economy in this way would violate most peoples’ social values of equity and fairness rooted deep in Enlightenment philosophy.

Superb, if lengthy analysis from Michael Hudson, Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City: Europe’s Fiscal Dystopia: The “New Austerity” Road to Neoserfdom.

His argument is along similar lines to my Cameron’s Deceitful Cuts Rhetoric

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Adam Smith and the Cuts

The Institute that takes the name of Adam Smith (wholly in vain in my view) has been in the forefront of the expenditure cut propagandists. They have produced, in the guise of impartial analysis, two documents that start with their desired conclusions and proceed by the use of pseudo-logic and misdirection. The great Kirkcaldy moral philosopher and economist will be spinning in his grave if he has had the misfortune of posthumously reading these travesties.

Firstly, the Institute’s co-director, Dr Eamonn Butler has produced a document apparently rather cleverly called ‘Re-booting Government’. In fact, the correct computer analogy would be ‘Re-installing a cheap and cut-down operating system sold to you by a dodgy guy in the local computer repair shop’! It starts with an economic premise that is simply wrong: Continue reading Adam Smith and the Cuts

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