Monday, 19 July 2010

AV in action: Labor and the Greens cut a deal on transfers

Next May, the UK is due to vote on whether to elect MPs by using the alternative vote (AV) instead of first past the post.

We have some signposts available, to show how AV might work here. Australia’s constitution is based on the Westminster model. But the Aussies have used AV (or, as they call it, preferential voting) to elect their House of Representatives – the equivalent of the House of Commons – at every national election since 1919.

Australia is to go to the polls for a federal election on 21 August. Today, the Australian Greens have said they have chosen to direct preferences (or “transfers” as Brits might say) to the Labor Party ahead of the conservative coalition in an unspecified number of House seats. The arrangement will apply in all but a handful of constituencies, where Greens branches will exercise their right to choose otherwise. In return, the Labor Party will direct its preferences for the Senate, which is elected by STV, to the Greens ahead of all other political parties in all states and territories.

The preferences swap could make a big difference next month. Current polls indicate that the election will be very tight and, with the Greens on around 13 per cent of the primary vote, the governing Labor party may need their preferences to stay in office. The deal will surely help Labor to retain many of their key marginal seats.

Labor and the Greens have been somewhere like this before. In 1990, Bob Hawke’s Labor government seemed headed for defeat and the opinion polls showed a slide of public support towards the Australian Democrats and Greens, due to a combination of protest votes and a new concern with environmental issues. Hawke’s environment minister, Graham Richardson, developed an impressive programme of conservation policies and assiduously courted the “green vote”. In the end, the Democrats and Greens combined won 17 per cent of the primary vote. But two thirds of their preferences went to Labor, who narrowly won the election, despite winning less than 40 per cent of first preference votes.

Deals or no deals, Green voters’ preferences have flowed to Labor in recent national elections by ratios of more than 3:1 in 1998 and 2001 and 4:1 in 2004 and 2007. The latter contest saw Labor restored to power and the generous allocation of Green preferences inflated their majority in the House.

The ABC’s Antony Green, the indispensable guru of Aussie elections, has found that for House seats, the main drivers of Green voters’ preferences to Labor have been the size of the primary percentage vote for the Greens, whether the party decides to direct preferences in particular seats and the presence of a donkey vote.

Green says that the real importance of today's deal concerns the election for the Senate, where either party may be able to gain seats at the expense of the Coalition.

It has to be stressed that this deal won't be responsible for delivering the balance of power [in the Senate] to the Greens. . . . The purpose of the deal is to weaken the Coalition’s position beyond what would naturally occur if the Labor government is re-elected.

The UK does not have an elected upper house (at least, not yet). But the developments in Australia raise some important questions about how the parties would behave under AV. A few months ago, I would have suggested that most Liberal Democrat voters would usually give their second preferences to Labour candidates, and vice versa. With the advent of the Cameron-Clegg coalition, that’s not nearly so clear. Still, we can’t be certain that either of the coalition partners would try to direct their supporters as to how to channel their preferences. Deals or directions might cramp their style for post-election coalition talks, alienate potential voters or cause internal party ructions. As Senate-based parties, Australia’s Democrats and Greens have never had to face those sorts of dilemmas.

Perhaps the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats -- and Labour -- would leave it up to local, state or regional parties to decide whether and how to direct preferences. But that could create other problems for party strategy and branding (“Lib Dems say one thing in Tory seats, another in Labour areas” . . .). The other option is to leave it up to individual voters to decide and hope they follow the subtle clues and dogwhistles.

We may hear claims, based on the Australian experience, that AV could skew future governments’ policies towards “minority” concerns, as the larger parties worked up special policy planks in order to woo third and fourth party supporters. But the way Labor played green issues in the Australian election of 1990 seems to have been a one-off. The reality is that AV seems always to pull Australia’s main parties towards the middle ground of politics.

One thing is for sure: whatever voting system is used, politicians will be politicians. I make no claim to be an expert on the Australian Greens and have no axe to grind with their leader, Senator Bob Brown. But Liberal Democrats in the UK will either laugh or marvel at the way he has distanced himself from today’s deal with Labor. [Click here and here] Here are a few quotes:

I've got enough to do without sitting at tables discussing preferences.

I'm saying to people, vote one Green and put your preferences where you want to.

I don't like backroom preference negotiations with other parties. In fact, I'm sick of it.

There’s one lesson from Australia: cross party deals that are about votes always look messy. So you have to keep your brand as clean as possible.

Posted via email from Neil Stockley

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Narrativewatch: Nick Clegg as a cartoon figure

Today's Observer has an interesting feature on how newspaper cartoonists are casting Nick Clegg as "David Cameron's fag", "Little Clegg Riding Hood" and so forth.

I have long thought that such simple portrayals can be vital in defining how the public sees leading politicians. The cartoons become heurestics - quick and easy mental shortcuts that help voters, especially those who are not all that interested in the policies and issues, to identify and appreciate the characters in the big tv show of politics.

The article recalls the way how, back in the days of the Liberal-SDP Alliance, Spitting Image depicted David Steel as a puppet in David Owen's pocket. The then Liberal leader's reputation undoubtedly suffered.

The article might also have mentioned the way cartoons of Ming Campbell using a zimmer frame helped to doom Nick's immediate predecessor.

How many times did Neil Kinnock fall into the sea at a Labour conference? Just once, but it was replayed on tv many times. And let's not forget the infamous Sheffield rally of 1992.

Don't panic, Lib Dems: none of the cartoonists' images of Nick has taken hold, at least not yet. Last week, UK Polling Report and YouGov observed that on ratings like being "decisive" and "charismatic" he is still seen considerably more positively than at the start of the year.

But if swing voters and soft Lib Dems start to see Nick as one of these pitiable characters, the fall guy in an everyday political cartoon, he will find that narrative very hard to shake.

Posted via email from Neil Stockley

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Narrativewatch: Sarah Palin releases 'mom awakening' political broadcast

Sarah Palin's new "mom awakening" TV spot has sparked a fresh round of speculation that she will run for president in 2012.

The spot is a clever piece of political narrative, based firmly on the "rot at the top" archetype. Palin warns of a "fundamental transformation of America", with her country's children and grandchildren under threat from an unnamed enemy within.

To ram it all home, she compares America's 'awakening mom' to a grizzly bear protecting her cubs - a cultural story that everyone can understand.

The spot packs a powerful emotional punch, without saying outright what the threat is. Some images used suggest that the danger comes from the Democrats' healthcare reforms, but you can't be too sure.

Posted via email from Neil Stockley

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Analytical, pragmatic revolutionaries who see both sides - understanding the leaders from Generation Jones

Do you really know what you're getting from Generation Jones - the people who now rule much of the world?

Earlier this week, Cari Oke (a fellow Joneser) commented on how leaders from our generation are more likely than our forebears to strive for the greatest possible agreement when political choices have to be made.

As Gen Jonesers hover on either side of the half-century mark, are we seeing the telltale signs of our empathetic natures? . . . President Obama, born in 1961, is well known for his ability to see many sides of an issue and his belief that two sides can be brought together with a little help from a friend. Supreme Court nominee and Joneser Elena Kagan, born in 1960, continues to defy efforts at labeling. The best anyone can do is to call her a moderate.

For years, I’ve noticed and approved of the way "liberal-left" politicians from Generation Jones try seriously to follow political principles that are once “idealistic” and “pragmatic”. The obvious example, going right back to the “neoliberal” triumphs of the 1980s, are the concerted efforts to reconcile “social equity” with “economic efficiency”. Another example is the concerted effort that has been made over the last decade or so to synthesise “economic prosperity” and “environmental sustainability”.

But then I am, after all, a paid-up member of Generation Jones who has supported the New Zealand Labour Party and now the Liberal Democrats. And that may be one reason why I am more prepared than some Liberal Democrats to cut Nick Clegg (born 1967) some slack as he tries to frame the coalition government’s tough fiscal policies as progressive, as well as responsible. In today’s Guardian, Nick cites his conversion over fiscal consolidation as an example of accountable politics. Nick even says:

“I am a revolutionary but I am also a pragmatist.”

The latest example of the Jonesers' empathetic, thoughtful but somehow ambiguous brand of politics is Australia’s new prime minister, Julia Gillard. Born in 1961, she is the latest member of Generation Jones to take power. Her competence and professionalism are not seriously disputed. Nor is her ability to consult or to engage in serious dialogue on tricky policy issues. Sounding like a true Joneser, she has promised:

"We will consult, listen and encourage people to give their best and we will work through the nation's policy challenges with a calm, methodical and analytical approach."

In his first weeks in the top job, prime minister Gillard has cut a deal with the mining industry over resources taxation – trying to make the government’s “fairness” rhetoric work alongside the industry’s needs. But she has come across as less than forthright over border protection and the processing of refugees. And the commentators are now asking Gillard to explain what she really stands for and reminding us that you win elections by setting out a clear path to the future.

There’s an even bigger question around Julia Gillard – and Barack Obama and Nick Clegg for that matter. Even if another of Cari Oke’s observations about my generation sounds a little tongue-in-cheek, it still makes for uncomfortable reading.

While watching the implosion of Joneser General Stanley McChrystal’s career, one has to wonder if the Generation Jones ability to see both sides also allows us to play both sides. Does this characteristic come back to bite us in our once bell bottom clad butts? I could argue either way.

I hope that it doesn’t bite us anywhere. I am waiting and hoping for Barack Obama, Nick Clegg (though he's a deputy PM in a coalition government) and Julia Gillard to use their times in the sun to deliver a politics that is new and different in its substance. A competent, empathetic style of governance is most welcome. Using it to deliver the politics of the “soft heart” and the “hard head”, based on a more environmentally sustainable economy, would be great.

Posted via email from Neil Stockley

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Winning the AV referendum: 10 lessons from New Zealand's experience

So, the government plans to hold the alternative vote (AV) referendum on 5 May 2011. I for one will be happy to support a change of voting system. It’s not that I think that using AV would radically change UK governance for the better. In fact, I think that hyperbolic predictions and promises are best avoided on this one. But AV has some important benefits. In about two out of three constituencies, more voters would see their choices count for something. All MPs would need the support of at least 50 per cent of those voting. That should enhance the democratic legitimacy of the Commons.

Holding a public vote on changing the voting system is a radical step for the UK. But it has been done before. In 1993, my home country, New Zealand held the second of two referendums to decide how to elect MPs. An established Westminster democracy voted by a 54:46 per cent margin to get rid of first past the post (FPTP) voting and put in its place the German-style mixed member proportional (MMP) system. [For more details, click here; here; here; here and here.]

Of course, the UK in 2011 will not be New Zealand in 1993 and, for that matter, AV is not a proportional voting system. But I believe that some valuable lessons can still be drawn from the New Zealand experience.

1. Reformers need to convince supporters of at least one of the major parties that a change will be better for their cause than the status quo. In New Zealand, Labour won more votes than National at both the 1978 and 1981 general elections, but ended up with fewer seats. Labour’s sense of injustice helped to kickstart the electoral reform process and kept the show on the road at key stages. Labour voters (whose party was back in opposition by 1993) backed the change by a margin of 2:1. In the UK, current polls suggest that Labour voters may well swing the final result.

2. Reformers should be prepared for attempts by pro-FPTP MPs to booby trap the process and/or make the reform option less appealing to voters. In New Zealand, the government added 21 "much hated" MPs to the MMP option. Sure enough, “more MPs under MMP” became one of the catch cries of the anti-change campaign.

There are already strong signs that some Labour and Conservative MPs are colluding to frustrate the passage of the government bill containing a referendum and reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600.

3. The pro-reform campaign must be grassroots-based and above and across party politics. Debates about electoral reform are always about political party advantage. And when any of the parties weigh in, the public naturally senses that political calculations are involved. New Zealand’s Electoral Reform Coalition (ERC), contained activists from several parties and none, but no well-known political figures. As a locally based, decentralised campaign that contained activists - but not MPs - from all parties (except, I think, National) and none, the ERC may be a useful model for UK reformers. But . . .

4. Reformers shouldn’t be surprised when the forces opposed to reform are well-funded and fight hard. In New Zealand, the pro-FPTP lobby eventually coalesced around the Campaign for Better Government (CBG), which was largely funded by major business interests. A leading light in the pro-reform lobby later recalled how the CBG was able to pay for high quality research material and mount a well-funded advertising campaign against MMP

targeting "the least educated and most gullible" sectors of the electorate by providing "easily digestible, alarming material" warning electors of the consequences of MMP. . . The ERC was ill prepared for this onslaught . . .

Now, who wants to bet the same sort of thing won’t happen in the UK?

5. The government should invest in educating the public about both first-past-the-post and AV. In New Zealand, the government appointed an independent Electoral Referendum Panel, which worked at arm’s length from politicians and public servants, for both the 1992 and 1993 votes. The panel had a substantial budget for the task of providing voters with impartial information about the mechanics of the options that were under consideration. Some of the panel’s output is in this clip.

6. Debates about electoral reform are won by using the most powerful frames. The report of New Zealand’s Royal Commission into the Electoral System provided a high level view of the frames used for discussing different voting systems. When it came to the referendum, those wanting reform framed the choice in terms of fairness between parties and groups in society and the need to place a democratic check on future governments (accountability). Those campaigning against MMP claimed that “faceless” list MPs from minor parties would have too much power (accountability) and that future governments would not be as effective. (Click here to see how the ERC countered the “more MPs under MMP” argument.)

In the UK, supporters of AV will frame the current system as one that allows MPs and governments to take office but without having democratic legitimacy. Supporters of FPTP will use the accountability and voter participation frames, arguing that we need a voting system that is easy for people to understand and enables them to eject quickly governments they don’t want anymore. They will also say that is more likely to avoid coalition governments, thereby promoting stable and effective government. John Prescott is framing the referendum as a pay off for Nick Clegg, part of a dirty political deal between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.

7. Those making the case for reform will need to engage with the way voters feel about politics and politicians at the time of the referendum. Kiwi voters voted for MMP because, by the early 1990s, confidence and trust in politicians and Parliament had plunged to new depths. Both Labour and National governments had broken election promises and launched radical policy changes that had not been part of their manifestos. Polls showed that politicians ranked alongside used-car salespeople as the least-respected occupational group in the country.

Some of Britain’s “anti-politician” mood may have dissipated since the Coalition Government was formed. But if voters are deeply disgruntled by the time of the referendum, the reform campaign will need to play to these feelings. Even if they are not angry with politicians in general . . .

8. As is usually the case, this referendum will be about the government almost as much as the questions on the ballot paper. New Zealand voters cheerfully ignored warnings from the then the prime minister, Jim Bolger, and other senior members of an unpopular (centre-right) National government about the supposedly dire consequences of using MMP.

Next May, if the UK coalition is not travelling well, or its economic policies are unpopular, voters – especially Labour supporters - will be less inclined to “risk” another coalition. John Prescott is already encouraging Labour voters to use the referendum as a stick with which to beat the coalition and especially the Lib Dems.

9. The reform campaign will succeed by embodying its narrative as the cause of the people against the powerful. There is some evidence that New Zealand’s CBG over-reached themselves, with a big burst of advertising spend in the last week before voting. The political scientists Nigel Roberts and Alan McRobie later concluded that, whereas the ERC campaigners usually came across as sincere and credible, the pro-FPTP lobby suffered from a basic problem:

"built as it was on the fears and uncertainties of people who were not quite sure of the desirability of change, their campaign was remarkably effective.….. the CBG's greatest handicap lay in its failure to convince the electorate that — despite . . . repeated protestations to the contrary — it was not simply a front for the business roundtable."

10. All this suggests that politicians of all parties may be well-advised to take a back seat during the referendum campaign.

Posted via email from Neil Stockley