Smarter than the average politician

On Sunday, our votes from the European Parliament election will be counted and the results announced.

At some point during the BBC election programme, Jeremy Vine will mug to the camera, shrug his shoulders, and confidently inform the public that the proportional voting system we use in EU elections is “complicated”, “complex”, “hard to understand”, “awkward” and other unflattering things.

It isn’t, it’s just the politicians, and the BBC, have a very dim view of the intelligence of the British public. No, really – they think we’re thick.

The actual voting system – mark a single X – couldn’t be any simpler. A 2-year-old could do it. The counting is a bit more complicated, in some ways, since it involves counting the papers to find who got the most scrawled crosses, then counting them again to find who was next, then again and again until all seats (4 to 10 depending on where you live) are filled (it’s slightly more complicated than that, but only very very slightly).

This produces a semi-proportional result that penalises minor parties and rewards the larger parties, but it’s better than our standard First Past The Post system that penalises everyone except the people who voted for the ‘winner’ (and that can be less than 30% of the voters).

There is a better system. It’s called the Single Transferrable Vote, STV, or “Supervote”. Now, this is fearsomely complicated… for the people totalling up the votes at the end, who need at most an O Level in maths to understand it. For the voters, it’s actually simpler than X voting.

On Thursday, I got my local council ballot paper and had to make a decision based entirely on what I thought other people might vote for. I wanted to vote Green, but they couldn’t win here. I didn’t want the local Conservative, Jeff Green, to win as I’ve met him and he’s a condescending piece of shit. The next challenger is usually a Liberal Democrat, but they were on their way to being wiped out for foolishness. So that left Labour, and I’m still not over the illegal and immoral war against the people of Iraq they started for no reason. In a Tory safe seat, I could do nothing more than vote for the Independent, who would come last, but I know him and he’s a great guy. So I chose to waste my vote to try to save his deposit (he didn’t).

X voting was, for me, a total waste of time. There was nothing I could do unless I was sure that everyone else was likely to do it as well. And I was sure the anti-Tory vote would be split. And it was.

Under STV, we don’t have to make such stupid, stab-in-the-dark guesses about other people. You vote for who you want to vote for, but tell the people who are counting who you’d like your vote to go to if that person can’t win, or that person would win by so much that you’re just shouting into the well.

My local ballot looked like this:

Independent [ ]
Tory [ ]
Labour [ ]
LibDem [ ]
Green [ ]

My STV ballot paper would’ve looked like this:

Tory A [ ]   Labour A [ ]
Tory B [ ]   Labour B [ ]
Tory C [ ]   Labour C [ ]
LibDem A [ ]   Green A [ ]
LibDem B [ ]   Green B [ ]
Independent A [ ]
Independent B [ ]

Wow! So very complicated, Jeremy Vine would tell you. But it’s actually easier. I know who I want to win and who I don’t want to win. So I can quickly say: Green A [1], Green B [2], Independent A [3], Labour C [4], Labour A [5], Labour B [6], Independent B [7]. I won’t bother voting for the Tories at all, but I could probably pick between them if I had to.

The people counting have the “hard” job of using basic maths to say “Green A has won lots and lots of votes, so we’ll take this vote and apply it to your next choice” or “Green A is hopeless, so we’ll take this vote and apply it to your next choice”. Eventually, I’ll get to contribute to electing a candidate I liked or at least didn’t mind. And I’ll have voted “against” the Tories by giving them nothing. So everyone is happy! And, more importantly, every single vote counts.

Yes, this does mean that UKIP-BNP and other nutters get seats from nutter voters. But designing a voting system to ensure that people you don’t like but other voters, however misguided, do is not democracy. It’s actually highly anti-democratic and leads to the nutters getting seats anyway and it looking like a majority wanted it when they “won” by getting 25% to their opponents’ 75% split 6 ways.

On Thursday, I wasted my local election vote. But any X I had made would’ve been wasted. It would either have gone to someone who was going to ‘win’ comfortably anyway, or have gone to someone who was going to lose comfortably. And the person who “won” did so with less than half the voters choosing him. Much less than half.

And then the politicians and the BBC wonder why we don’t bother to turn out to vote any more, and decided it’s because voting is hard and we don’t want to bother our pretty little heads with it, so a better voting system would, obviously, just put us thicko voters off even more – because Jeremy Vine would like you to think he’s on your side, you lumpen mass of idiocy, as he mugs to the camera and complains on your behalf how complicated it was for you to draw a single X.

Voting irregularities


I had to call the Returning Officer for Wirral after going to vote. You go in and they hand you the yellow local council ballot paper. Then you have to ask for the European one – or they ask you “Do you want a European thing OR NOT?” in a withering tone. This happened to everyone in the queue to vote. That’s not good, as psychologically, when presented with an unexpected question, people tend to stammer “no”. The Returning Officer didn’t see a problem with this, but I did and asked her to change the guidance to asking “Do you want BOTH ballot papers?” instead of assuming.

Obviously, this practice pushes up the extremist vote, as the nutters are the ones most likely to ask for the “extra” ballot paper.

What’s your experience? Did this happen to you? Please share this so we can see what people are being told as they try to vote.

It gets worse. For reasons not explained, UK residents from other EU countries have been denied a vote in this election, with local Returning Officers again seeming unable or unwilling to enforce the Representation of the People Acts. See the Independent’s report on this scandal.

Imagine if this was a left-wing country


The other day, David Cameron made one of his lie-filled speeches about AV, and inadvertently blurted out a truth.

No, not the truth that he thinks that you and I are too stupid to understand numbering candidates rather than dabbing a big X next to their name, although that particular vote of confidence in the intelligence of the British population is duly noted. This accidental truth was when he said “First Past The Post has served us well over the years”. He’s right: First Past The Post has served the Conservatives really, really well over the past 60 years. In fact, it has given us plenty of Conservative governments we didn’t want and couldn’t throw out.

There have been 18 general elections since the Second World War. In the majority of those elections, the Conservatives came out on top, never once with more than half of the people supporting them. In 1951, Labour won 48.8% of the vote to the Tories’ 48%. But Labour got 295 seats, the Tories 321. Labour would be out of power for 13 years and the Tories would be seen – and see themselves – as the “natural party of government” for the rest of the 20th century.

For reasons I can’t quite fathom, history records that Mrs Thatcher won a landslide in 1979. She didn’t. If Jim Callaghan had gone to the polls six months earlier, Labour would probably have been returned; Labour was not as unpopular in the late 1970s as the media now recalls. Mrs Thatcher won 43.9% of the vote in 1979 and this gave her a working majority. In the next four years, she blundered through the economy, basically destroying it. Unemployment hit 5 million – a plan her economic advisers had decided upon, not an accidental consequence of her callousness.

She went to the polls in 1983 buoyed by the Falklands War but still unpopular generally. Her share of the vote fell to 42.4% and she got a landslide majority. This landslide was the one that sold off our electricity and water to foreign buyers. She got an unstoppable majority, which gave her dictatorial powers, when 57.6% of the country voted for other parties. She would be in power until 1990, the Tories would be in government until 1997, all from what 42.4% of the vote could do. The post-war settlement, the agreement that the state would work to care for its citizens in return for their hard work, was torn up on the say-so of 42.4% of the population.

First Past The Post really served the Tories well there; but it destroyed my country and ill-served the British people. The next time someone tries to tell you that Mrs Thatcher’s reforms had the support of the vast majority of us, remind them that 42.4% is a minority.

Recently, senior Liberal Democrats seem to be regaining their sense of decency. They have publicly opposed some of the more terribly right-wing things the government is trying to do. And good on them: in other countries with a coalition system, minority partners often go on television to complain about what the other half of the government is doing; this includes cabinet ministers. Here, the LibDems have been silent for too long.

Those senior LibDems have made a very good point: this country is actually a left-of-centre country. It doesn’t feel like it, but it truly is. Put it this way: since the Second World War, the Conservatives have polled more votes than Labour and the Liberal Democrats just once – in 1955 they got 49.7% of the votes to the Left’s 49.1%. Imagine that. Imagine the second half of the 20th century effectively without the Conservatives. Imagine no Stop-Go in the 1950s. Imagine no Three Day Week in the 1970s. Imagine no Thatcherism in the 1980s. Imagine no selling off of British Rail in the 1990s.

Imagine a 20th century where the only Tory Prime Ministers were Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan, both briefly.

AV wouldn’t quite give us that, and it’s wrong to choose a voting system based on the likely outcomes being more to your liking, but still: imagine a 21st century without the Conservatives. We could get nearer to it, if we vote Yes on Thursday.


Voting or not voting?


My quiet Sunday morning has been shattered… by something called the Wirral Egg Run. A ridiculously large number of motorcyclists gather at New Brighton, then ride 20 miles all over the Wirral to Clatterbridge hospital to deliver Easter eggs to children, watched by a ridiculously larger number of cheering spectators. And this takes place just outside my front door. For about 4 hours (there really are a ridiculous number of motorcycles involved). Still, it's for charr-i-dee.

Less shattering was a discussion on Twitter. Someone there made the decision to not vote any more. It's hardly groundbreaking, since 35% of people didn't bother to vote at the last election. But it's a subject that annoys me, since the people who don't vote are the ones that make the loudest noise about how dissatisfied with politics/politicians they are.

Frankly, I've never understood this. Put simply, if you don't vote – and you have the right to not vote in the UK – then you give up your right to complain about the outcome. If you didn't contribute to the result – even by going in and spoiling your paper if needs be – then how can you complain that you didn't get what you didn't vote for?

I can't think of any other subject where we allow the most noise to be made by the people with the least invested in the subject. People who complain about the state of the railways are the people who use (or used to use) the trains. A driver who never uses the rails doesn't comment – or if she does, gets shouted down by people who do, and rightly so. The same applies in other spheres of ordinary life. But if you don't vote, that seems to entitle you to complain about things that voting brings about and does or doesn't change.

Of course, it's worse when you don't vote rather than actually exercising your right to do so, because of the statement you are making. The argument is usually "the political system has disenfranchised people like me, therefore I don't/won't/can't vote". The problem is that politicians do all they can not to listen to us, except when we're saying what they want to hear. Or are saying something different that can be spun to sound like it sounds like something they want to hear. The only time we get to try to make them listen is at the ballot box; declaring that you've been disenfranchised and then disenfranchising yourself (you did it, not them) allows them to ignore you more than if you did actually vote. Worse, the politicians look at 35% not voting and take home a message: 35% don't care what we do. The number of people they can fuck over is vastly increased (for the record, it's people who voted against you + people who didn't vote, which, in our minority-votes system, means politicians are allowed to fuck over anything up to around 75% of the population between now and the next election).

Because of that, people who don't vote don't count – to politicians or to me. Why should I listen to the grievances of someone the government is fucking over when they did nothing – nothing whatsoever, not even the bare minimum asked of them, which is putting a cross in a box – to try to help themselves or try to prevent this outcome? Why should I have my ear bent by someone who can't even travel the half mile to mark a piece of paper to try to prevent other people being fucked over by the government?

To me, not voting is extremely selfish. You raise yourself and your circumstances above those of the other 65% of the population that, rightly or wrongly, believe they are contributing to the process, telling those 65% that your circumstances are so very important that you can't even begin to put a cross in a box, so fuck the rest of you.

Also, ahem, people died so we could have the right to put a cross in a box (and, with luck and a fair wind, a 1 in a box in future. See, that's not complicated, is it, Mr Cameron?). A woman threw herself in front of a horse race and died so that other women would have the right to vote. Men and women are dying even as I type in Libya, Egypt (still) and Bahrain amongst far too many other places, all because they want fellow citizens to have the right to put an X or a 1 in a box. Yet people in the UK stay home, don't bother doing the bare minimum, but do complain very loudly about how they're being ignored.

And then they call you a cunt for pointing it out. Oh well.

Selfish reasons for voting "yes"


In my Westminster constituency, Wirral West, we’re stuck with a truly awful MP.

When the boundaries were redrawn before the last election, a seat that Labour had held quite well as a marginal became a Tory seat. It’s not the safest seat in the world, but barring a 1945 or 1997-style landslide (and they don’t come very often) it’s almost impossible to remove the person the Tories chose to be our local MP.

Esther McVey is a horrible person. Well, maybe her family tolerate her, I don’t know. But as an MP, she’s a Gilbert and Sullivan character, Sir Joseph Porter: “I always voted at my party’s call / And I never thought of thinking for myself at all”. According to TheyWorkForYou, she has never once rebelled over anything. In fact, I’m pretty sure she’s never once had a single original thought in her head.

I’ve twice written to her to voice my opinions (having previously lived in actual marginal constituencies, it was always a good thing to do, provoking honest, thoughtful replies and once actually changing my then-MP’s mind). The first time, the letter I got back, eventually, was copied word-for-word from the Tory manifesto with the addition of a paragraph that told me, with good grace, to keep my Commie views to myself in future and fuck off out of it (I paraphrase, but I’ve never been so politely told to get lost before). The second time I wrote, on a different matter, she didn’t even bother to reply.

I think I can safely say that Esther McVey is a party droid, elected to represent the Tories in Wirral West, not the people of Wirral West in Westminster. And she’s permanent. Under the current voting system, she cannot be removed.

And yet, only 42% of the people voting in 2010 wanted her as our MP. 58% of people wanted someone – anyone – else. But our “winner takes all” X-voting isn’t interested in what the majority want. It wants to pick an MP from the largest block, and with Wirral West drawn to contain some very posh areas of Meols and Heswall, the largest block is the Conservative party.

With the Alternative Vote, the 58% of people – the majority – who didn’t vote for Esther McVey suddenly get a choice. People like me, for instance. No longer would this be a safe enough seat that she could fuck me off if I write to her. Oh no: she’d have to at least pretend to listen. She’d have to vote against the government now and again, lest she looked like a party stooge and found that people, handed the power in her seat at last, chose to turf her out.

On the face of it, she still might have won in 2010. She got 42.5%. Labour got 36.3%. The LibDems got 16.8%. The other three (UKIP, ‘Common Sense’ that wasn’t and an independent) hoovered up the remaining 4.4%.

We can probably assume that the right-wing nutjobs who wasted their X-votes on the bottom three would have given their second (or later) preferences to la McVey rather than Labour or the LibDems. So lets be generous and do that transfer now: C:46.9%, L: 36.3%, LD: 16.8%.

Next to be knocked out would be the LibDems. Now, remember this is before the LibDems went all more-Tory-than-the-Tories Orange Book on us. Their transfers would be vital, and this is where it gets interesting. The local LibDems by and large loathe the Tories more than they dislike Labour. Most of their transfers would thus go to Labour… and we wouldn’t have la McVey lording it over her Rotten Borough. If we did, it would be on a very thin majority from transfers and she’d need to be a lot more responsive because this seat would be a lot more valuable to her.

And this is why I’ll be voting “Yes!” with a song in my heart on 5 May. It might not mean the end of having a Tory MP locally, but a yes vote means the end of having a remote, uncaring Tory MP here. I can settle for that.