Making sure you can vote at the EU Referendum

This is my first post in a while. The referendum campaign has been dismal on both sides, and you could be forgiven for being totally put off politics for life. I was surprised to learn recently that pollsters are predicting a turnout lower than last year’s General Election, which is rather depressing to me as there’s much more at stake now than last year. Everyone should vote on the 23rd June, whichever side you are on. Personally, I applied for a postal vote a long time ago, so cast my vote last week. If you didn’t do that though, here are some key dates to make sure you are able to cast your vote.

7th June @ Midnight

This is the deadline to register to vote. You should already be on the electoral roll, but if not, you need to register now. It’s pretty easy and can be done online at www.gov.uk/register-to-vote. You are eligible to vote in the referendum if you are a UK, commonwealth, or Irish citizen living in the UK, or a UK citizen living overseas, but registered at a UK address within the last 15 years. If you are a student living at a university address, you may be back at home on 23rd June, so make sure you are also registered at your parent’s address if you return there for any lenth of time.

8th June @ 5pm

If you can’t get to your polling station on 23rd June for any reason (or are just lazy), you have until this date and time to apply for a postal vote. While you can register to vote online, to get a postal vote, you actually need to fill in a paper form. That’s because a copy of your signature is required to verify your vote when you return it in the post. You can download a postal vote application form from here. Once completed, you can scan and email your form directly to your  local council. Find their email address here. Bear in mind though that if you apply for a postal vote now, you probably won’t receive it until around a week before the referendum day, so if you are going on holiday before then, you may need to apply for a proxy vote. Which brings us to…

15th June @ 5pm

Again, if you can’t get to the polling station on the 23rd and a postal vote isn’t suitable for you, or you miss the 8th June deadline, the 15th is the deadline to apply for a proxy vote. A proxy vote is where you appoint a friend or family member to vote on your behalf. Again, like with a postal vote, you need t0 fill in  paper form, and you can get one from here. The person you appoint as proxy will need to go along to your polling station and then vote as normal for you.

23rd June @ 5pm

If, after 5pm on the 15th June, you have a medical emergency, or a suddenly called away for work reasons which would cause you to miss the poll on 23rd June, you can apply for an emergency proxy vote. This is much like a normal proxy vote, but you have to jump through a couple more hoops to get one. More information on that is here.

Some other key pieces of info

If you applied for a postal vote, but didn’t receive it or you lost it, you can get a replacement from 17th June until 5pm on polling day. You normally have to go down to your local council with ID to get one though. If you forget to post it back, you can hand it in at any polling station until polls close at 10pm. Voting starts at 7am on 23rd (unless you live in Barnet, then who knows what time it will be 🙂 )

That’s about it, so now you have no excuses for not voting. If you are not yet registered, get your skates on because you only have 2 more days to sort it out.

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Boris’s Goat Should Drop Dead

 

 

strike

This title is borrowed from the title of a chapter on inequality from Ha-Joon Chang’s book “Economics: The User’s Guide”. It relates to an old Russian joke that goes like this:

“The peasant Ivan is jealous of his neighbour Boris, because Boris has a goat. A fairy comes along and offers Ivan a single wish. What does he wish for? That Boris’s goat should drop dead.”

Chang uses this joke as an example of how the pursuit of equality is a natural human emotion, and it also seems to me as analogous of a large section of the public’s attitude towards  public sector employees and their decision to take strike action tomorrow over pay an pensions. Public sector workers have been offered a 1% pay rise this year which represents a real terms pay cut for the fifth year in a row. Despite this, many are pretty unsympathetic of those striking tomorrow.

Applying our story of Boris and Ivan to this, the goat would be a decent pension. Many private sector workers have lost access to a decent pension, and are quite happy to see the public sector worker’s goat die too, and are resentful of their efforts to defend what they have. This is not an attitude I really understand. Surely leveling up is better than leveling down?

The Government has been quick to exploit this instinct however and have used it to paint public sector workers including teachers as enemies of reform or coddled shirkers who don’t know how to work hard. They are the ones arguing that public sector pay and conditions should be leveled down to the level of the private sector, even though public sector wages are now barely, if at all higher than private sector wages.

The unions bear some of the blame for this too in my view. They seem to have been rather complacent about the erosion of private sector wages and pensions, not realising it would have an impact on public support for their efforts in maintaining and improving the pay and conditions of their members. I think they need to be aiming their message more towards private sector workers who may formerly have been unionised and working towards promoting a solution to the private sector pensions crisis. The public need to be on side with the unions’ aims if they want to arrest the decline in the labour share of national income across the board.

I don’t what proportion of union members will actually strike tomorrow, but with David Cameron saying today the next Tory manifesto will contain proposals to introduce a 50% turnout threshold before strike action can be taken, something needs to change, or the demise of organised labour could start to accelerate again.

Euro Elections Yorkshire & Humber – The Runners and Riders

My postal vote turned up yesterday and I still have no idea who to vote for. Here in Yorkshire & Humber region, there are 10(!) parties bidding to win one or more of the 6 seats up for grabs. All but one of the 10 have 6 candidates each (despite the odds of winning more than 2/3 seats being vanishingly small. Here are party political broadcasts for the runners and riders in the order they appear on the ballot paper.

An Independence From Europe (The poor man’s UKIP who have stuck ‘an’ on the front of their name so they are top of the ballot paper)

British National Party (For knuckle-draggers in England, Scotland and Wales)

Conservative Party (For hardworking people who want to work hard and get on)

English Democrats (For knuckle-draggers in England only)

Green Party (Who Jesus would vote for)

Labour Party (“Let’s hope people will vote for us because we’re not the Tories”)

Liberal Democrats (“Did we mention we’re the Party of In? What’s that? You’re not listening? But we’re the Party of In”)

NO2EU (Eurosceptic trade unionists)

Can’t find a PPB for them, here is their website: http://www.no2eu.com/

UKIP (The People’s Army *snigger*)

Yorkshire First (Int Yorkshire Great?) Not sure if this is an official vid, it’s not really a PPB. Here’s their website.

The EU’s democratic deficit

Next month we’ll be voting (well, about a third of us will) for MEPs to represent us in the European Parliament. Here in Yorkshire and Humber, we send 6 elected representatives to the EU after voting under a system of proportional representation. But what do MEPs do, and how much power do they have?

MEPs are elected for five year terms, but the power they have is actually quite limited. The cannot propose or draft new legislation or implement or enforce existing legislation. This role is reserved for the European Commission. MEPs are limited to amending or blocking legislation proposed by the Commission, and under certain circumstances can ask the Commission to prepare proposals for new legislation (although the Commission can refuse the request).

So if MEPs don’t have much power, where does power in the EU sit? The late Tony Benn famously set out five questions for powerful people:

  1. What power do you have?
  2. Where did you get it?
  3. In whose interests do you exercise it?
  4. To whom are you accountable?
  5. How can we get rid of you?

Applied to the European Commission, it could be concluded that they actually have rather a lot of power. As the executive body within the EU, they have the sole power to propose and draft legislation in a number of areas.

There are 28 Commissioners (one for each member state), one of whom is the president who is proposed by the European Council (which is made up of the heads of government of the member states). MEPs then vote to approve the person who has been proposed for president (currently Jose Manuel Barroso). The European Council then appoints the remaining 27 Commissioners, and MEPs then get a vote on whether or not to approve the whole Commission. The can’t vote to oust an individual Commissioner, and can only object to the whole Commission (they have never done this). Do they get their power from EU citizens then? Not really. Their power is bestowed on them by the heads of government’s of each member state.

They are not required to act in the interests of their home country. On the contrary. They are obliged to act in the interests of the EU as a whole. Who decides what is in the interests of the EU? Partly the Commission themselves!

Commissioners are nominally accountable to MEPs who have the power to hold a vote of no confidence on the Commission as a whole. This has never been used though, and an individual Commissioner cannot be sacked. They are definitely not accountable to you and me, although the legislation they propose and draft must be implemented by the member states if voted through by the European Parliament.

How can we as citizens get rid of a Commissioner? We can’t!

The EU as currently constituted is not democratic at all. MEPs have little real power, and could 73 people actually properly represent the whole of the UK even if they did? For Eurozone members, it’s even worse. Recent years have seen democratic governments in Greece and Italy ousted and replaced by unelected technocrats, and incredible pressure to subvert domestic democracy has been placed on Ireland, Cyprus and Portugal.

People on the left in the UK often seem quite happy with this democratic deficit because they like certain social protections that have resulted from EU legislation – protections they fear would be removed if they were left to member states. I think this just demonstrates a lack of confidence in their ability to argue their case and a lack of faith in the public to come together to vote out those that want to roll back those protections. It would be much better if national governments did have power over this kind of legislation where the answers to Tony Benn’s questions 4 and 5 could be “Us!” and “Easily!”

 

 

Why we should leave the EU

This is a quick post on the issue of the EU, which has been claimed by the right wing as their noble cause, as popularised by UKIP and Tory MPs like Peter Bone. Today former Tory Chancellor Nigel Lawson has called for the UK to leave the EU. I suspect his motives for doing so are questionable, but does he have a point?

The prevailing view on the left seems to be strongly in favour of the UK’s EU membership, with the feeling that leaving would be unthinkable. These seem to be the common arguments in favour of staying in, and why I think they are misguided:

1) EU regulations on employment rights, environmental protections etc would be torn up if we left and it’d be like Victorian Britain all over again. This seems a strange sort of argument to me. Of course, there are a lot of people who would love to tear up a lot of these regulations, but we should have more confidence in our ability to win the argument about the importance of retaining these protections whether inside or outside of the EU. We shouldn’t need an external body to protect us from the more extreme elements on the right.

2) Around 3m jobs would be put at risk if we left the EU. I’ve seen this claim a lot, and I’m not sure where it comes from. Obviously, a lot of people work for companies that trade with the EU, but I think people over estimate the impact on trade our leaving the EU would have. The UK is a huge economy. The idea that the remaining EU nations would not want to trade with us on favourable terms seems unlikely to me.

3) British workers wouldn’t be able to go and work in Europe any more and millions of Brits would have to come home. Again, I don’t think this is as big an issue as it is made out to be. It’s likely there would be new restrictions on labour movements, but skilled workers would always be welcome to work in other countries, as we welcome skilled workers from outside the EU today. People that have retired to Spain are not going to be sent home, as their spending power is a great benefit to the Spanish economy.

Here are some other reasons why our EU membership does not benefit us.

  • There are a lot of things in the various treaties we are signatories to which tie the hands of our government. Deficit limits and the prohibition of using the full power of the central bank severely limit the ability of government to react economic crises. You can argue (maybe rightly) that in a crisis, these rules are routinely ignored, but moves are afoot to make these rules even more binding on nations.
  • State aid rules mean it’s very difficult to implement an active industrial policy, which I would argue is vital for long run growth. Government needs to be able to ‘pick winners’ and nurture their growth. State aid rules don’t allow this.
  • Immigration. Most of the evidence on immigration shows it has a strongly positive impact on the UK economy. This post makes that case wellBut does this mean we should be banned from imposing any limits on immigration from the EU? I don’t think so. It may be that we decide it’s in our interest to let anyone who wants to come here to work do so, but it should be a decision for the national government to make, and they should be free to impose limits if that’s in the best interests of the nation.

Above then are just a few quick points by way of suggesting that although one’s position on the EU seems to have been reduced to a split between left (pro) and right (anti), it shouldn’t be. There are strong arguments against our membership of the EU, and they shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. As ever, feel free to disagree, or suggest things I’ve missed in the above.

Why don’t more people vote?

In the run-up to and aftermath of last week’s elections, all the talk was about the rise of UKIP as a new force in British politics. UKIP managed to go from 8 county council seats to 147 on a projected national share of the vote of 23%. There’s been a lot of ruminating in the last few days about why so many people voted UKIP. Was it because of immigration, the EU, or just a reflection of dissatisfaction on the economy? Was it an anti-politics vote? Are people just fed up of the main parties?

All of these are interesting questions, but there’s something that’s less focus placed on it, although to me it is the elephant in the room – turnout. The BBC has estimated the average turnout at last week’s elections to be 31%, down from 41% in 2009, the last time these elections were fought. So while in wards where UKIP stood candidates, 25% of those voting, voted for UKIP, when all eligible voters are taken into account, this means only around 8% of people who could have voted, actually voted UKIP. The proportions for the other main parties will be similar.

The Conservatives have taken UKIP’s success as a sign they need to start talking tougher on immigration and Europe as that’s what they think the message from voters has been, but what about the 69% (plus the (around) 10% who aren’t even registered to vote) who didn’t vote at all? Even in the last general election, turnout only just touched 65%, down from over 80% in the early 50s, and at last November, a paltry 15% of people bothered to cast a vote. The main parties seem a bit complacent about what to me is becoming a democratic crisis, and are instead focussing on appealing to a smaller and smaller number of people. But why are people opting out of voting at elections in such great numbers?

The following table (click on it to enlarge) is comprised of data taken from the website of the Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). I’ve compiled data on turnout and electoral systems from each of the current OECD countries. The turnout is for each country’s last Parliamentary election, while the right hand column gives the peak turnout since the end of WWII.

Voter Turnout

A few things jump out on looking at the table. Firstly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, countries which have compulsory voting have higher turnouts in general, although a few countries (like Denmark and Iceland) manage to achieve high turnouts without voting being compulsory.

Secondly, with the exception of Australia, all of the top 15 countries in the table have some sort of proportional voting system, mainly the list system. It was interesting that during the referendum campaign for AV, the no campaign made much of the fact that AV is used hardly anywhere else, but of the OECD countries, only three use our current system of First Past the Post, and of those three, the UK had the highest turnout at the last Parliamentary elections, but that was only the 19th highest in the OECD. This makes the Lib Dems decision to settle for a referendum on AV rather than PR all the more baffling.

Thirdly, the data on peak turnout is quite interesting. In relatively young democracies (like the former communist states), turnout tends to peak at the first democratic election, after which it falls off quite quickly. In more mature democracies though, peak turnout seems to have been in the period between the end of WWII and the 1970s, dropping off significantly since then. This is true of the UK, US, France, Germany, Australia, Canada and so on. Nordic countries, by comparison have managed to maintain high turnouts since WWII without much of a drop-off. So why might this be?

Here’s my theory (feel free to disagree). Since the late 1970s we have been living in the neoliberal period, during which time, the agenda known as the ‘Washington Consensus’ has been pushed – privatisation, liberalisation of trade and financial/capital markets etc. Initially, there were distinct political parties, which fought over these big issues, but as time went on, all main parties came to accept these ideas to such an extent that they are now largely indistinguishable on the main issues. This has been true of the UK since about 1992. These policies are detrimental to the welfare of a significant proportion of the population, so under a first past the post system, where the main parties look identical, what’s the point in voting? At least when people vote for an X Factor contestant, they can see that their vote has counted and can feel as though they have influenced something (no matter how trivial).

So what can be done? Working on the assumption that the more people voting the better, from the data above, we can see that in general, the countries with the highest turnouts use a proportional system for voting. If people feel like their vote counts they seem to be more inclined to vote. Compulsory voting also seems to ensure high turnouts. The Lib Dems blew a golden chance to address our democratic deficit in 2011. They blew it by plumping for AV – when they could surely have got a more proportional system on the ballot – and perhaps ensured the downward slide in turnout becomes terminal.

Politicians need to react to this if they are to remain committed to democracy. PR and compulsory voting will go most of the way to turning things around, and will also promote differentiation of political parties, which desperately needs to happen. The concept of a ‘party of protest’ should not exist. UKIP should have to spell out their policies like all parties and attract voters on their merits, rather than purely because they are not a ‘mainstream’ party. Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories should be made to diverge so that, at the very least, the difference between them goes beyond the colour of their rosettes.

How far to the left or right of the main parties are you?

When asked what was her greatest achievement, Thatcher famously answered “Tony Blair and New Labour.” The truth of this statement is neatly illustrated by this chart taken from Political Compass:

UK Parties at different times

This is the true impact of Thatcherism. It has been the narrowing of political ideas to such at extent, that on most issues, the main parties are now virtually indistinguishable in outlook. Politics has now been reduced to ‘branding’. David Cameron said this morning “…we are all Thatcherites now”, which didn’t go down well, but in terms of the political class he’s absolutely right. The wider public, not so much.

The knowledge that Labour have drifted to the right is obviously not new, but I think this chart really brings out the transition they have made from a left, slightly libertarian party, to a party almost as wedded to neo-liberalism as the Tories and marginally more authoritarian. For the Tory’s part, for all their efforts to paint Ed Miliband as ‘Red Ed’ and the Labour Party as representing the ‘nanny state’ or the surveillance state, their actual differences in political outlook are superficial at best.

This lack of political choice presents a real problem for voters. Here’s another chart from political compass that shows the political stance of the parties running in the 2010 general election:

UK Political Parties chart

The left-right axis represents economic stance, and all three main parties tended towards neo-liberalism. While Labour and Conservative Parties went into the election with pretty authoritarian manifestos, the Liberal Democrats actually managed to retain some weak libertarian tendencies. The Greens where the only national party in the lower left quadrant.

The media talk of parties seeking to ‘claim the centre ground’, where most voters sit, but if that were true, the ‘centre ground’ is not actually the centre ground at all, but a brand of free market economics twinned with a strong inclination towards authoritarianism.

I find this hard to believe. Voter participation at general elections is falling consistently as the years go by, and those that do vote often vote for the lesser of two (or more) evils. Since voting for the first time in 2001, I’ve voted for Labour, the Lib Dems and the Green Party, but only once have I voted for someone who I actually wanted to win and who had a chance of winning (he lost). Here’s where I score on the Political Compass test:

From this, I should be voting Green, but they don’t have a chance of winning where I live, so what to do? There are those that think we need a new party of the left and others who think the Labour Party must be pressured into returning to its roots, but whatever the answer, there are a huge number of potential voters who’s views lie to the south-west of where Labour sit at the moment. As it stands, they are relying on there being enough people that either hate the Tories or are disgusted with the Lib Dems to get them over the line, but they could be so much more if they had both the courage and the inclination. Right now, they seem to be lacking in both.

P.S. I’d be interested to know the Political Compass scores of anyone reading this, if you feel willing to share in the comments below (mine was: Economic -8.75; Social -6.82) 🙂 .

PCC Elections – A How-to Guide in how not to run an Election

Along with thousands of others up and down the country, I was one of the people verifying and counting the votes as they came in on Thursday night and Friday. I’ve done this a few times before, at both local elections and one general election. The PCC election was unlike any I’ve seen before. Here are a few quick observations from seeing the votes come in.

I was working in the West Yorkshire PCC area. I saw the ballot boxes being opened and helped count the votes. The most votes I saw in one box was 152 and the lowest, 4. 4 votes! In most polling stations there were three staff, working from 7am from 10pm. I’m glad I wasn’t one of them. I heard that one polling station in Leeds District had no voters during the whole day.

Turnout amongst postal voters though was relatively high – about 35-40%. Usually, turnout is in the 65-75% range for postal votes. This means turnout at the polling stations must have been only 5-10%.  Overall turnout was 13.76%. This is just incredible.

My final observation related to the number of votes was the staggering number of rejected ballot papers. Generally, at a parliamentary election for example, the number of rejected papers is very low  – certainly lower than 0.5% of the total votes cast, but in the West Yorkshire PCC election, there were 8,200 rejected ballot papers, almost 4% of the total cast and just under half the number of votes got by the Lib Dem candidate. As soon as we started to unfold the votes from the ballot box, it was clear something weird was happening. There were a huge number of ballot papers with messages written on them, with the two main themes being – not enough information to make an informed choice; and do not agree with having an election for PCC at all. I have never seen this before and it will be interesting to see if this is repeated in future elections.

So why was turnout so low?

Anecdotally, people were angry about the lack of information they had received about the elections. Candidates at elections are usually allowed one free mailshot to voters. This time the Government decided not to fund that. People didn’t seem to know what Police & Crime Commissioners would do, and they certainly didn’t know who the candidates were or what their platforms were. Holding elections in November, and in isolation from more traditional elections was crazy and guaranteed a low turnout. It’s hard not to conclude that this was deliberate.

Preferential Voting System

The new voting system also seemed to confuse and irritate people. After the referendum for changing the voting system to AV last year, during which voters were subject to strong messages from the Tory Party against AV, and for first past the post, the first election they introduce is not using first past the post, but something that looks remarkably similar to AV. I just don’t understand it. Why are different voting systems OK for other elections, but not for Westminster?

The preferential vote system is easy to understand in that people get that you vote for your favourite and also your second favourite. However, there seemed to be very little information given about what that second preference would ultimately mean. Many people didn’t know that if one candidate didn’t gain 50% of the vote in the first round, then the second preference votes of the eliminated candidates would be reallocated. From the votes I saw, I would say around 15% hadn’t stated a second preference and another 5-10% voted for the same candidate first and second. This were rejected in the second round. In a race with more than 4 candidates, it is very unlikely that one candidate will get more than 50% in the first round, so a second count was nearly always needed. Spare a thought for the poor vote counters! In West Yorkshire, it was clear the Labour candidate had won after the first round – he had 43% of the vote against less than 30% for the second place, but we were required to count second preferences nonetheless. After this second count, the Labour candidate still didn’t have over 50%, but was duly elected. This process took around 300 staff 8 hours to complete, even though there were only 220,000 votes to count. I dread to think how long it would have taken if turnout had been 50% or more. For me, it has to be either first past the post or (even better) proportional representation. These other systems just seem to be a bit of a fudge.

So Who’s to Blame

If we want to have a strong democracy, we need to maximise the number of people engaged in the democratic process, Governments should do everything possible to maximise turnout, and that means holding elections at the right time of year, combining them with other elections and providing the public with sufficient information for them to be able to make informed decisions. The Electoral Commission and Electoral Reform Society are both well placed to provide expert advice on how best to do this, and for whatever reason, they seem to have been ignored by the Government. I understand the Electoral Commission are now going to hold an inquiry into the whole shambles of these elections. The Government, instead of blaming the media, should be hanging their heads in shame over this, and then act quickly to ensure it never happens again.

I final point I want to make is that the union strike ballots over the last two years have generally had low turnouts (in the 20-25% range). This has prompted Government ministers to question their legitimacy and start to suggest strike laws should be made even more tough, so it was interesting to see ministers over the last couple of days saying that the mere fact that people were able to vote for a PCC made the process legitimate and an improvement over the previous system. I’ll be interested to see what these same ministers say the next time union members vote to take industrial action, and whether our media will pick them up on this.