First thing, Mr Frown is going to ram voting reform through the Cabinet today and force it down Parliament's throat next week. But being Hard Labour his idea for "fair votes" is actually LESS fair.
Second thing, Master Gideon says he'll be bench-pressing the UK into a "new economic model" which looks suspiciously like the OLD economic model of "free-market capitalism with a hint of Government intervention".
Third thing, an e-mail from the POWER2010 people pops up saying that their 25,000th contributor has posted his vote for "None of the Above".
Funny thing: all these things are TOTALLY interconnected.
This urge to REJECT the entire political establishment, to vote "None of the Above", arises out of the perception that "all the parties are the same".
But that perception is driven by exactly the sort of language that Master Oboe uses today: dancing on the head of a pin so that he can say that HIS policies are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT to those of Hard Labour which in turn are completely different to those of the Liberal Democrats, when in fact everyone – yes even us – are offering relatively unimaginative VARIATIONS ON THE SAME THEME.
But that in turn is because those policies are driven by the choices of the electorate, or rather a very small sub-section of the electorate whose opinions are HUGELY MAGNIFIED by the DISTORTED calculus of the electoral system. Anyone who wants to get elected is FORCED into a very narrow range of options to satisfy a very narrow range of people: in short, swing voters in marginals.
And that, ultimately, is why we NEED a reform of the voting system that opens up politics to HUGE change.
Now, saying we want to vote for "None of the Above" is a SYMPTOM of people's disaffection, but as a solution it's nowhere NEAR good enough. In fact, I'd say it was both MEANINGLESS and it's LAZY.
Meaningless, in part, because it doesn't tell us WHY none of the above satisfy the voter. Did they want a candidate who was more socialist or more capitalist? Or more liberal or more authoritarian? Or more female or more male? Or more local? Or more famous?
"None of the Above" adds together all of the splinters of people not satisfied with what's on offer and artificially adds them together. And it would STILL probably be fewer than the votes cast for real candidates because it's not the lack of a "none of the above" box that causes people to NOT BOTHER TO VOTE.
People don't vote through a combination of "they don't think they can change things" and "they don't think things need to change (because they ain't that bad, really)".
But much more than that "None of the Above" is meaningless because what actual EFFECT is it supposed to have on the election?
It's just an "I turned up but didn't vote" box. Now, a "Re-open Nonimations" box, that comes with REAL power – i.e. if "RON" is elected they HAVE to re-run the election with new candidates – that maybe has some merit. Some. Maybe. But just giving people a chance to stick two fingers up at the candidates seems totally pointless.
And it's also LAZY because it's saying "I see a problem here and I refuse to try and solve it"; it is expecting someone ELSE to come along and present you with another option. Well, why SHOULD anyone be bothered if YOU can't be, eh?
And it's not like people AREN'T presenting you with other options.
IThere already ARE lots of choices beyond " the Above", because I'm assuming that by "the Above" what you really mean is "the three nationwide parties (oh all right, four, if you MUST count UKPnuts just because Mr Bob "elected-as-a-Conservatory" Stink sits for them these days… and in Scotland and Wales add a smattering of nationalists) who have representation in the House of Commons".
From Anarcho-Communists to Anti-Abortionists to Sickly Greens to British Nasties to Vanity Candidates to Respect the Leotard Gorgeous Pussycat George Supporters to Monster Raving Loonies… you have got a lot of choices.
But, comes the protest, they don't get elected.
That's partly because they don't have the support and partly because of the system. And those two things do feed off each other too. Our current system biases the results in favour of very large Parties or very concentrated-in-one-place Parties and completely ignores Parties with support spread out across the whole country. Under first-pass-the-port, you can of course get 49% in every seat in the country and still get no MPs at all.
In fact, it's the very geographical POLARITY of the two red-blue Parties – one in the urban strongholds of the industrial and post-industrial North, one in the Home County retreats of the moneyed South-East; neither can really be called broad based anymore, and both suffer from nasty inflammations of the Core Vote Strategy – that contributes to their unhealthy stranglehold on the Government and, more cogently, the DISTORTED importance of those few seats where swing voters can pick which of them will win.
So either organise a revolution and change the system or get involved with the Liberal Democrats and change the system. Or you can always start your OWN political movement to try and capitalise on that big wave of we-reject-all-the-other-parties that you think is out there. And see how far you get.
Anything less is just WHINGEING.
Which, quite naturally, brings me to Master Oboe.
His idea for a "new economic model" includes his eight-step programme of:
• Ensure the whole country shares in rising prosperity – by raising the private sector's share of the economy in all regions of the country, especially outside London and the South East (as thought the Government can actually DO this… does he mean he'll actually REDUCE the public sector in areas where private investment isn't matching London?)
• Get Britain working (well who doesn't want that?)
• Ensure macro-economic stability (well who doesn't want that?)
• Make Britain open for business (well who doesn't want that?)
• Reform public services to deliver better value-for-money (like EVERYONE says they'll do)
• Create a safer banking system that serves the needs of the economy (no, do you think?)
• Build a greener economy (gee, an original thought… when everyone else had it five years ago)
• Create a more balanced economy – presumably with both more motherhood AND more apple pie.
So, basically it's a recipe for BUSINESS as USUAL.
The Government (Hard Labour OR Conservatory… or even Liberal, if you credit the idea we could win) will raise most of its money from a not-very-graduated income tax and a regressive sales tax and then spend a third of it on pensions and benefits, and another third on the health service and schools and the army, and the rest will go on lots and lots of little things that are all important to SOMEONE.
(And remember, this system benefits a relatively narrow range of people, i.e: people on slightly better than moderate incomes who want their health care and pension paid for don't want the unemployed actually to starve but don't want to pay more tax to see them "dossing about" and would quite like various things, from the Arts Council to continuous supply of electrical power, to continue without them being bothered about the details, or more succinctly, voters in marginals again.)
Saying you want a Britain built on "savings, enterprise and exports" is saying you want them exactly as they are… but a bit better. It's really NOT a new economic model.
A GENUINE, but still MODERATE, change would involve actually addressing some of the things that the Government DOES.
For example, the NHS. Make it a separate corporation, like the BBC, paid for by a health insurance that would not be much dissimilar to the licence fee or a subscription. But oh yes, that's the great HOLY COW of British Politics and tinkering with it is as unthinkable as GOOSING Mrs the Queen!
Or the benefit system. Pay every UK Citizen over the age of 16 a Citizen's Income of £100 per week, paid for by an income tax rate of, say, 45% on all other earnings (abolishing employee's National Insurance), and abolish all other benefits. Depending on how much Employer's NI generates, it even raises money for the Treasury. And there would be a bit less bureaucracy. In theory EVERYONE on benefits is quite a bit better off and NO ONE has to be humiliated with means tests or medical exams ever again. But it's crazily difficult to work out how it impacts people on tax credits and of course everyone earning over about sixteen grand is going to be slightly worse off. That's not even average national earnings, so you'd never get THAT past those marginal voters!
Of course REAL change to our economic model means looking at the factors that are limiting our freedom and doing something about them. The BIG limiting factor is ENERGY. If we can greatly increase the supply of energy we can actually increase people's freedom too. This happened in the Industrial Revolution when we moved from person-power to machine-power, unfortunately fuelled by, well, fossil fuel.
("Unfortunately", because not only is it running out, and not only are we as a country increasingly having to import our energy supply but of course we now know that we are seriously damaging the planet that we happen to be STANDING ON!)
What we need in order to achieve a step-change is to invest in a new and more abundant energy source… if we can FIND one. (The obvious candidates would be hydrogen fusion – if it can be made to work like it hasn't for fifty years – or solar power – probably based on orbital platforms, which requires not just a lot of engineering but a lot of international co-operation too – or something from the exploitation of Outer Space – so we'd better not cancel the Moon Base… oh dear.)
The truth is, though, that GAME-CHANGING revolutionary developments like that tend to be EXTERNAL to the Government. To an extent, the best you can hope for is to LIMIT how much Government HOLDS BACK innovation – which certainly means stopping Lord Mandelbrot intervening to decide what universities should be studying! Because Government tends to be a conservative force even when the Conservatories AREN'T in power.
ALL Government is based on COMPROMISE – not just democracies, though there it becomes obvious, but even dictators have different power blocs to balance – and ANY compromise between change and status quo will take the edge off the radical, blunting it, even turning it back.
Ironically, the so-called "strong governments" generated by our first-pass-the-port system are in fact MORE compromised, more small-c conservative, more, in fact, WEAK, because there is a NARROWER number of people to whom they owe their majority.
That is why we have had conservative government for the last THIRTY YEARS, preserving the status quo for large business interests in the City at the expense of real progress; that is why Hard Labour turned themselves into rouge Conservatories; that is why when they said "things could only get better" things DIDN'T.
That's why everything comes back to electoral reform. And it's why Mr Frown's proposals don't go nearly far enough.
The Liberal Democrats favour STV, or Single Trunk Voting, because it gives most power to the VOTER – you get to choose between parties AND between members OF those Parties, so you can choose Orange Booker or Soggy Liberal, local candidate or high flyer, man or woman whichever you want. And we think it should promote MORE diversity because Parties will naturally favour MIXED slates leading to more women and minority candidates getting elected.
The AV system that Mr Frown proposes is really kind of like first-pass-the-port only MORE SO. The Parties RETAIN control over the candidates standing in each constituency, rather than giving the voter the chance to express a preference, and it REINFORCES the effect of local polarity, with a chance of making safe seats SAFER.
On the one fluffy foot, AV IS pretty similar to STV with single member constituencies. And once you've convinced people of the benefits of ranking the candidates – as opposed to systems with LISTS where the candidates are just RANK – then the move to multi-member constituencies is as simple as of grouping them by fives. Your five constituencies still have five MPs; you just have a better chance of having one you voted first preference for. You might even be able to use the results of the AV election to map out what an STV election "might have done", to show people how easily things could be different.
But, on the other fluffy foot, it's not always the BEST idea to accept compromise as your "first step". I mean look just at the House of Lords Club… we took the first step to reform in 1911 and compromised and STILL the buffers hang on!
And you know, even STV isn't some magical solution. It's not ENOUGH.
What we have at the moment is a BIZARRE system, where our representatives talk to THEMSELVES to make decisions. One where the lobbyists and the vested interests are all hidden behind the scenes and all we get to see is a weekly pantomime at Prime Monster's Questions. What we NEED is a system where the MPs SHUT UP and listen to US.
We need a Parliament that is open to EVERYONE to ADDRESS. We should not have to sit quietly in the Visitors' Gallery like good little children lest someone cry "I spy strangers"! WE should be the ones making the speeches, for and against. We're the ones it matters to! Raise a petition, get enough support and you should be able to take it to Parliament and have them vote on it. We shouldn't be beholden to the Great and the Good – more often the Mediocre and the Malicious – to decide what laws are good for us. WE should be in CHARGE.
We can't just TINKER round the edges. We need to EXPLODE our politics – that's in a METAPHORICAL sense, dear MI5 reader, no ACTUAL explosions – so that we let in the daylight so that everyone can see and let in new ideas so that everything can change.