First Past The Post

One of the accepted laws of political science is that first past the post electoral systems lead inevitably to two party systems.  If either the progressive or conservative ends of the political spectrum present the electorate with multiple choices, then votes are split between them, allowing the other end of the spectrum to romp to victory.  Creating ‘broad church’ parties that encompass different shades of progressive or conservative opinion, but which give voters only a single option, is the rational and common response to this situation.

In such a two party system, voters with out-and-out progressive or conservative views can be, and often are, taken for granted.  The battleground is then for those voters with mixed or undecided views; and parties’ political platforms may be formed to appeal to those voters, at the expense of orthodox progressive or conservative policies.

All of these accepted norms of political life now, though, look in doubt in England today.  There were two non-progressive parties (Conservatives and UKIP) each picking up millions of votes in 2015, and yet the Conservative Party was able to form a majority government.  Since then, the Labour Party has been formulating policies that represent the traditional views of the most hard-core Labour (or even to the left of Labour) supporter; with little or no concern as to how attractive such policies would be to other sections of the electorate.  Why have these shifts in behaviour and outcome occurred?  Contributory factors would appear to be:

  • A loss of willingness on the part of core supporters to see their dearest held convictions being ignored for electoral reasons. Thus the creation of UKIP and the capture of the Labour Party by the far left.
  • A more fragmented electorate with concerns that transcend normal right/left divisions e.g. that combine a dislike of immigration with resentment of the rich.
  • The growing importance of personality rather than party in politics, causing considerable fluctuations in voting depending upon the relative attractiveness of party leaders.
  • The rise of Scottish nationalism and an antipathy on the part of English voters to allowing Scottish nationalists to have any say in the government of England.
  • The loss of trust in the political establishment arising from a deep and lengthy recession that originated in the financial sphere.

In this changed environment, the ability to form (or even the benefit of forming) the coalitions of differing interests and views that were the Labour and Conservative parties of old may have been fatally undermined.  The Conservatives are managing to hang together for the time being, but could yet fall aoart due to disagreements over the nature of Brexit.  While the Labour Party faces either a split or the total defeat of one wing of the party.

Pursuing progressive politics therefore requires a different approach.  Compromising progressive views to form a party with those of a more orthodox, socialistic left-wing persuasion no longer looks feasible nor desirable.  Creating a competitor for progressive votes to a left-wing Labour Party is not, though, necessarily a recipe for electoral defeat.  The fragmentation of the electorate and the other developments listed above create a situation in which a social-democratic, progressive party (particularly one encompassing the Liberal Democrats) can realistically hope to gain power or to hold the balance of the power.  Better that than being tied to a probably unelectable Labour Party espousing policies that are largely irrelevant, or downright harmful, to the interests of the English nation.

Another accepted wisdom of first past the post systems is that they bring stability and certainty to government, compared to the shifting coalitions and dodgy dealing engendered by proportional representation.  The history of Britain since 2010 makes this argument difficult to sustain.  Instead, it is PR that could restore some semblance of order in our political life, by allowing the different sections of the electorate to be represented properly within the House of Commons and so return the centre of gravity of democracy to Parliament and away from referenda and Momentum.

Gender Inequality

Women continue to experience a number of practices within our society that are directly harmful to them (I write as a man) or are significantly prejudicial to their interests.  Our society is also permeated by a number of attitudes to women and representations of them in the media etc that underpin and encourage these practices.

It might therefore seem logical to concentrate on the causes of these practices i.e. the negative attitudes and representations, as the best means of putting a permanent end to the practices that harm or disadvantage women.  The fact that many of these practices operate in environments where direct intervention by government or the authorities is difficult – the home, the playground, bars, canteens etc – renders cultural initiatives designed to change the nature of these environments attractive.

There are, though, difficulties in prioritising efforts in changing attitudes and representations.  Firstly, there is the intractability of these cultural phenomena, making change slow-paced and uncertain.  And then there is the seriousness of the effect of many of the practices on individual groups of women or even on the majority of women.  This suggests that dealing directly with certain practices rather than with their causes should, for the time being, be the priority; even if the realms in which action can be effective are limited.

Examples of practices that should (from my admittedly male perspective) and can be tackled, and possible ways of doing so, are as follows:

  • A targeting of domestic violence as a major law and order issue for the country.
  • Setting up a Royal Commission into differentials in pay and promotion prospects between men and women with a view to identifying any legislative changes or actions on the part of employers that would reduce this inequality.
  • Changes to legal procedures that would protect and encourage victims of sexual assault in coming forward and would increase the chances of successful convictions (e.g. allowing victims to give evidence by video and to undergo cross-examination in writing rather than orally).
  • Placing a statutory duty on political parties to take all necessary steps to achieve a particular proportion of female MPs by a particular date (e.g. 40% by 2025).
  • Greater legal protection for workers in the sex industry and strict enforcement of these protections by the police.

When women receive equal protection under the law, are equally rewarded for their efforts, and are equally represented in the running of the country, it will then be time to focus fully on the attitudes and representations that do much to impair their daily lives.

Public Sector Pay

Although market factors, affordability and the characteristics of individual public services properly pay a play major part in determining public sector pay, there is still, in reality, an inevitable and large role for government in this respect; even if, for political reasons, there may be an attempt to obfuscate this role.

The influence that government has over public sector pay can and should be used for beneficial macro-economic purposes.  This can be achieved by linking pay to GDP growth (which makes sense if one sees GDP changes as being a ‘performance indicator’ of the public sector and therefor a link to GDP as representing performance related pay in a broad sense) and moderating this link depending on whether the economy needs boosting or restraining.  In this way, public sector pay can have a counter-cyclical effect i.e. it can reduce the booms and busts of the economic cycle.

For example, in normal times public sector pay could increase by inflation plus the growth in GDP (i.e. it would increase in line with the money value of the economy).  However, if GDP growth was over, say, 2%, pay increases could be restricted to inflation plus 2%.  This would be below the increase in the money value and so would have a deflationary effect; thus lessening the ‘boom’.

By the same token, if there was a recession and GDP was falling, public sector pay could still increase by the full amount of inflation.  This increase would be above the change in the money value of the economy, and so would be inflationary, and would therefore work against the decline in economic activity occurring during the recession.

A clear line on public sector pay of this kind might also forestall industrial disputes – although considerable local and service flexibility will still be needed to meet particular needs and varying market conditions.  A formula for public sector pay would also be applicable to MPs’ pay, reinforcing the notion that ‘we are all in it together’.

Another element of public sector pay that the government could use to pursue wider economic policies is in relation to very high salaries.  By placing a ceiling on the pay of any individual entering employment in the public sector (e.g. that their pay should not exceed that of the Prime Minister) the pressure generally within the economy to offer very large salaries to attract the top talent would be abated to some extent.

The fear, of course, would be that this would make it difficult to attract such talent to the public sector, thereby worsening the performance of the sector.  Whether, though, it is realistic for the public sector to compete with big multinationals might be doubted; and if there is not a significant impact on the quality of recruits this brings into question whether the benefits of premium salaries match the financial costs, strain on industrial relations, and undermining of society’s perception of public service arising from such salaries.

Party Democracy

Parliamentary democracy rests on individuals being able to put themselves forward for election with the minimum of hindrance (i.e. a small fee or a number of signatures to prevent a multiplicity of casual candidates standing) and then the electorate being able to choose freely between them.  The successful candidate is then empowered to vote as s/he pleases within parliament.  In order to gain election, the candidate may make certain promises about how s/he will vote, and adherence to those promises may be a factor in the next election.

In a party system, the prospects of election are greatly increased by being adopted as the candidate of that party.  This provides the likely support of all those voters who have some measure of allegiance to that party or who are swayed by the arguments or image of the party nationally, it also means that local party members will undertake various electioneering activities for the candidate.  Very few people are elected to parliament without being the candidate of a major, national party.

In selecting candidates, party members will have a natural interest in the political ideals and preferences of those putting themselves forward and it is commonplace to give local members some measure of say as to who will be the party’s candidate in their constituency.  It should be noted, though, that this practice is not an integral part of parliamentary democracy, nor is any other measure designed to give party members a greater say e.g. determining the shortlist of parliamentary candidates, deselecting sitting MPs as candidates, direct election of the party leader in parliament etc.

The promotion of party democracy is therefore not necessarily in the interests of parliamentary democracy nor should it be confused with it.  Advocates of party democracy may feel that greater democracy in all walks of life is a good thing, but that does not make it so nor is it necessitated by democratic ideals that are about the government of the country being elected by the people.  At worst, the cause of party democracy may simply be a tactical measure adopted by those who see it as a means of furthering their own ideological ends.

Parliamentary democracy is, in fact, furthered by political parties that adjust their own constitutional interests to give primacy to parliament.  This should include:

  • No deselection of MPs on policy/ideological grounds (although deselection for wrong doing, including non-performance of MPs’ fundamental duties of attendance and spending time with constituents, could provide legitimate grounds for deselection).
  • Election of the party leader in parliament by MPs only (although they may choose to be influenced by members’ views through a vote or other means).
  • Overall control of the party, including the shortlisting of parliamentary candidates, to be in the hands of the parliamentary party.

A party member who is unhappy with the political programme being followed by the parliamentary party is, of course, free to join and/or vote for another party or to club together with other dissatisfied members to form their own political party.

Social Mobility

Attempts to increase social mobility have traditionally concentrated on equipping members of particular socio-economic groups with the skills to progress within society e.g. though better states schools in deprived areas or by widening access to universities.  The idea has been to try to give young people from less privileged backgrounds the same characteristics, experiences and opportunities as the children of white, middle-class parents; in the expectation that they will then fare as well as their middle-class peers.

This approach faces considerable problems, though, in overcoming the disadvantages arising from early upbringing, home environment, cultural effects etc.  It also, even if successful, simply means expanding the pool of people with middle class occupational preferences and educational background – so leading, for example, to more graduates of a certain type chasing a particular range of graduate jobs.  In this competitive environment, middle-class advantages of well-connected parents, family support to pursue unpaid internships etc all work to reverse any social mobility gains.

An alternative (or complementary) approach is to change the nature of tertiary and higher education so as to lead to better outcomes in terms of social mobility i.e. to gear these sectors to the preferences and characteristics of the generality of the population rather than the traditional middle-class.  This could involve greatly expanding vocational education and training at the expense of more theoretical, academic subjects.  Such an approach could be expected to have wider economic benefits as well as benefiting people from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Those exiting tertiary and higher education would be better prepared to enter a wider number of occupations, thus making it easier for individuals from all socio-economic backgrounds to progress within society in accordance with their ability and industry.

The Housing Crisis

Population growth has clearly led to an increase in demand for housing.  One would hope that this increase in demand would be met by an increase in supply, as house builders stepped up construction to take advantage of the commercial opportunities offered by the increase in the number of customers for their products.  There would seem, though, to be certain obstacles to this market mechanism working adequately e.g. a lack of suitable building land, uncertainty over future demand and returns, and a shortage of capacity in the construction industry.

All possible measures should be taken to make brownfield sites available to house builders, but it seems unlikely that this approach alone will provide sufficient land for the construction of housing.  This brings into play the use of greenfield sites with all the difficulties that arise over community objections and the obtaining of planning permission.  Given the extent of the housing crisis and its negative impact on young people and the economy, fairly drastic measures are warranted to streamline the planning application process and to reduce the ability of local communities and authorities to obstruct house building proposals.

In particular, the housing restrictions on greenbelt land around major cities should be reduced or removed.  The effect of these restrictions is to push commuters further away from cities, thus increasing the transport and environmental costs of commuting.  Greenbelt land would be extremely attractive to house builders and the release of this land should provide a major boost to the construction of housing.

These and other measures (increases in social housing, extra apprenticeships in the construction industry etc) may, though, still not allow the supply of housing to equal the increase in demand.  Thought should also, therefore, be given to reducing the demand for housing.  A reduction in immigration may have that effect, but at considerable economic cost if the skills and labour of migrants were to be foregone.

Another approach to reducing demand would be to increase the occupation intensity of current housing. This is, no doubt, already happening to some extent as increasing numbers of young people are forced to remain in the parental home for longer periods due to the lack of affordable housing – but this is simply a symptom of the demand for housing not being met.  A real reduction in demand could come about by removing the single person’s 25% discount on Council Tax i.e. to make the Council Tax fully a property tax that is levied regardless of the number of people in the property.  This would provide a significant financial incentive to share properties and so increase the occupation intensity of our existing housing stock.  The removal of the discount would need to be phased so as to allow people time to adjust their finances and their choices over housing; but even the prospect of its removal should start to have a beneficial impact on the housing situation in the near future.

Relating to Russia

Russia’s recent breaches of international law – in Georgia, the Ukraine and Syria – render the sanctions being imposed on it by the international community a reasonable response.  Until there is a clear sign of intent by Russia to alter its behaviour in these countries, then the sanctions should be retained.

This does not mean, though, that there cannot be recognition of the understandable and legitimate interests of Russia in these and other countries.  For Russia to have concerns about the treatment of ethnic Russians outside its borders is perfectly natural, and there should be an international response in support of Russia to insist on the protection of the fundamental rights of ethnic Russians.

It is also entirely reasonable for regions outside the borders of Russia with a majority Russian population to exercise their democratic right, if they so wish, to become part of Russia.  Such a move should, though, take place without Russian military intervention so as to be in line with international law.  By the same token, however, military force should not be used to prevent secession against the wishes of the majority and countries using such force should be subject to the same sanctions as Russia is now experiencing.

The Russian government also has the right (and the duty) to protect the security of its people.  Action against terrorist groups outside its borders may be legitimated by these security concerns.  Indeed, we and other western nations are likely to share such concerns.  Any such action, though, should be with international agreement and should not be used to mask the pursuit of wider geopolitical goals – such as the support of the Assad regime in Syria.

None of this means displaying any weakness in the face of Russian aggression towards neighbouring countries.  The upkeep of international law, and our own treaty obligations designed for the mutual protection of our security interests, mandate a total commitment to the territorial integrity of countries bordering Russia – backed by military force, if necessary – where this is in line with the democratic will of the peoples of those countries and the regions constituting them.