The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Posts Tagged ‘elections’

It’s All In The Timing

Posted by The Futility Monster on August 24, 2010 @ 11:47

Yes. It is.

To me, the beauty of the American political system is in its enforced renewal. Every two years, the populist House has to be re-mandated. It is this very nature that makes it populist. Meanwhile, their ultimate leader and national figurehead, the President, gets a little longer, but is not allowed to stick around for more than eight years, lest he (not yet a she) start to get ideas above his station, and become a little too attached to the trappings of office.

There aren’t many other Western political systems that have such rigorous time and term limits on everything. The rest of us, especially Westminster inspired systems, have a lot more flexibility regarding the calling of elections. And that’s where the problem begins.

Take Australia. In January, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd looked in an extremely powerful position. The opposition had just replaced its leader, in a fractious contest that split the party down the middle. His personal approval ratings were sky high. The opposition controlled Senate had just blocked a key plank of his legislation – environmental regulation – for the second time. This opened the door for Rudd to engage in some constitutional jiggery-pokery: a “double dissolution” election, which, most probably, would have resulted in a sweeping Labour victory in both chambers of the Parliament.

Instead, he decides to tough it out. And then sees everything go wrong, getting chucked out and replaced by Julia Gillard.

Julia Gillard doesn’t want to repeat Rudd’s mistake. While the polls see her arrival as positive, and the Labor Party improves its standing, she decides to seize upon the honeymoon and go straight to that election. The net result: Labor on the brink, courtesy of a terrible, back-biting campaign, and an opposition that had had eight months to prepare for this very moment.

Then there’s Gordon Brown: clinging on by his fingernails till the very last moment. If only he’d gone straight away, like so many commentators (including me) thought he should. His first job, after accepting the invitation of the Queen to be the Prime Minister, should have been to say, “And now I’d like an election to mandate this change”. He didn’t. He didn’t want to be one of the shortest ever PMs. And yet all the omens were good for them. Tories still not ready. Old election boundaries. Honeymoon period. The rest is history.

Recent evidence seems to be that politicians are not very good at choosing the timing of elections. They either worry that they’re about to sign their own death warrant, or are hopelessly optimistic about what’s lurking around the corner.

Since we should only trust politicians as much as is necessary, we should do them all a favour and back the idea of fixed election dates. Let’s take the stress off them, and in return, remove a major element of political fiddling from the system.

Though I still think five years is too long…

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Labour: Looking To The Future

Posted by The Futility Monster on February 20, 2010 @ 10:23

It just doesn't work, does it...

The one thing that caught my eye this morning was a story in The Telegraph regarding how Labour intends to campaign for the next election. It is clearly written in a very scathing tone:

At a pre-election rally in the West Midlands, Mr Brown will warn his party to frame the election not as a chance to pass judgement on the Labour Government.

Most readers would think that that was some kind of crime, as if all elections are always a judgement on past performance.

I’m not so sure they are.

Elections are very rarely about the past. What’s done is done. They are more often a chance for the electorate to proclaim what they want to see different in the years to come. Even more than that, they are a verdict on the present state of the parties and their leaders: which one would be appropriate right now.

In 1983, the choice was a stark difference between Thatcher, emboldened by her Falklands adventure, and Foot, looking like he wanted to send Britain back to a renewed age of 40s and 50s state control. The dark, satanic mills of England’s past.

In 1992, the country thought they’d give the more calm, sober John Major another turn at the wheel, though they didn’t want him to get too carried away with his mandate, hence a small majority.

1997 – little needs to be said. 2001 was a case of Britain saying, “Let’s have more!” to dear Tony. 2005: we still like you Tony, but not a lot, and so we’ll clip your wings a little.

2010: the message will ring out clear: time for change. Again. We’ve heard that message before, of course, but it resonates with electorates throughout the centuries.

Labour would have to be utter fools to not appreciate the mood of the electorate. Rash, feeling angry, wanting to see a completely different style of government in the years ahead. They are verdicts on the past to some degree, but they are still more about wanting something different in future.

As such, Labour should not campaign on their record. Their finest achievements, e.g. the minimum wage, are so long ago now that to talk about them would be in danger of saying “Well, the best we did was in the previous millennium”. Very risky.

Their focus must be full-square on telling the country what life will be like under a fourth Labour term. How they will keep reforming Britain. How they will change the way we are governed. How they will protect our public services from harm in the worrying years of austerity ahead. How they will get the country growing again.

Dangerous, yes. It may mean they are admitting to mistakes. But maybe the voters will appreciate a little honesty in the face of a slippery David Cameron, promising all things to all people.

Renewed Labour, here we come…

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Could 2010 Get Even Better?

Posted by The Futility Monster on December 1, 2009 @ 08:30

"And not a lot of people know that" said Mr Rudd

Psephologically speaking, I mean.

Apparently, yes.

The Australian Liberal Party – who aren’t very liberal – have just elected a new leader. A new fall guy, perhaps, but certainly someone who thinks he can take the fight to the governing Labor Party.

And the key issue?

What other than that thing that gets conservatives across the globe hot under the collar: climate change.

The issue of whether to back Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s plans for an emissions trading scheme has split the Liberal Party right down the middle. Previous leader Malcolm Turnbull had insisted his party supports the scheme, but the consequence of that is now plain for all to see. The final round of voting in the leadership election ended with Turnbull getting 41 votes, and new leader Tony Abbott getting a superb 42.

(Incidentally, it’s good to see the return of the smoke-filled room electing a party leader; clearly there wasn’t a vote of the membership, unless they really have just 83 members…)

So the Liberal Party is in complete turmoil. Meanwhile, the climate change legislation is popular, the government has excellent opinion poll ratings, Kevin Rudd is still the preferred Prime Minister and the Australian Constitution has a get out clause enabling a mega election – called a double dissolution – in which both Houses of the Australian Parliament are dissolved completely, rather than the usual whole lower House and half the upper House.

Is Rudd bold enough to take on the gamble? He has not been known for such an aggressive strategy in the past, but it would be foolish to rule out the threat of an early election as that is one way you keep both your party in line and place the opposition under further pressure.

There is also the unknown of whether the new Liberal leader will manage to unite his party and turn them into a credible electoral force. Rudd is very likely to wait until he gets the answer to that question before taking any decision.

However, if I was in Rudd’s position, I would ensure that the climate change legislation is once more put before the Senate and rejected, which then gives the government the double dissolution option. It also puts the incoming leader under tremendous pressure in the first few days of his new job. That will answer a lot of questions about him.

Then, consider the options in the New Year. Indeed, consider the option of not only making climate change the major issue, but opening up the possibility of much stronger legislation because – assuming electoral victory – he will no longer be forced to make concessions to an opposition controlled Senate.

Thus giving Australia a chance to position itself as the leader of the world in the fight against climate change.

Sure, that’s bound to piss off the sceptics and big business. But the world really cannot afford to continue this pretence of tackling the issue while doing absolutely nothing about it any longer.

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More American Elections = Fun, Fun, Fun

Posted by The Futility Monster on November 28, 2009 @ 10:11

The cheap way of doing things...

Psephologists worldwide are always excited when it’s a US election year. The main reason is that nobody does elections quite like the States. Big spending, big personalities, big media agendas, vast levels of polling data, unbelieveable detail in demographic targeting. And certain races catch the eye to become real battles getting the Hollywood treatment.

So next year we’re in for a treat. Not only will we see the demise of the Labour government, but later on in the year will be the first genuine test of how the USA will react to the so-called Democratic supermajority control of the legislature and the executive branches for the first time in some decades.

Elections to the US House of Representatives happen every two years. This pretty much means that as soon as they’re elected, the poor buggers have to go out and start campaigning again. Luckily, they’re helped by extremely favourable incumbency rates. But to some extent, they’re favourable for a reason: they work hard to bring home the bacon to their district.

With that in mind, the vast majority of Congress members will have been doing as much they can to raise the cash for next year’s election. However, certain races have the luxury of being the recipient of campaign cash from the national parties. And, at the moment, only one side of the aisle has the readies… at the ready. On top of that, certain races get lots of attention from the netroots, which can raise extremely large sums of money at the drop of a hat.

But money is obviously not the most important factor. Maybe we should be grateful of such a small mercy. In mid-term elections, enthusiasm is critical. How motivated are your base to come out when the big draw of the Presidency isn’t around? When the “coattails” effect isn’t in action…

Well, this survey (bottom of the post) gives us an answer. 40% of Democrats say they’ll either be “not likely” to vote, or definitely won’t vote. On the other side, just 14% of Republicans say the same. And when you consider that there are more registered Democrats than Republicans, that’s a lot of apathy amongst the Democratic base.

Generically, Democrats still hold the lead. But there are a lot of people who are very upset with both parties in Congress. Democrats can only hope that they either don’t vote at all, or choose not to take their anger out on the Democrats by voting Republican, in the usual protest vote strategy that one normally sees at a mid-term election.

In any case, elections aren’t fought generically. They are personal battles. And in the heart of the Republican party right now is an ideological one as well. This is very likely to result in much more conservative candidates than usual. Will that appeal to mainstream America? Or will the fired up nature of the Republican base get the Democrats out in force too?

And yet, while Democratic popularity has taken a nosedive over the last few months, courtesy of Congressional failures to get healthcare reform rolling, and a resurgent Republican party lying about every issue under the sun, they haven’t covered themselves in glory. Americans have extraordinarily unfavourable views of the Republican leadership – and a 70% unfavourable view of the Republicans in Congress in general.

How, in such circumstances, could the Republicans possibly gain?

The answer lies in whether Obama can find it within himself to deliver the goods to the nation. He seems to be forgetting that just a year ago his agenda was given a very positive reception by the American people. An agenda that was far more progressive than what is currently making its way through Congress.

He is wasting his mandate by not insisting on the policies that the American people actually voted for, and which continue to be popular in national polling.

Healthcare reform is key, but so is the environment, and, of course, getting the economy up and running again. Which means getting people into work.

Governing is a far more difficult job than campaigning. But what’s disappointing so many of us Obama fans right now is that we believed that if anyone could thread the needle, if anyone could use their leadership skills to bring Congress on his side, it would be Obama.

A year to go, and there’s all to play for. But if Obama messes the 2010 election up, his presidency will be effectively over before it’s even started.

America can do without that.

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Old Parliaments Die: And This Is Why

Posted by The Futility Monster on September 26, 2009 @ 09:50

Last Saturday I wrote about the key political concept of legitimacy: what it means, where it comes from, and what happens to it.

The goal of any political reform must always be to enhance legitimacy. That is obvious from common sense: no democrat would argue for a reform that would damage the legitimacy of a system. Not intentionally, anyway.

But what is important is that legitimacy, within a political culture, is quantifiable in a theoretical way. What does that bullshit mean?

Well, it means that for any elected body (the only institutions that can have a genuine claim to 100% legitimacy)  we can put a rough value on just how legitimate it is.

Better still, using some formula jiggery-pokery, we can make a reasonable guess as to how legitimacy declines over time. Because legitimacy, being derived from election, must inherently diminish as time goes by from the last election to that institution.

Let’s imagine that an election takes place to the House of Commons. On day one, it could be assumed to be 100% legitimate, being an accurate (ignoring the question of proportional representation) reflection of the will of the electorate who turned out.

Click for a closer look

Click for a closer look

As time goes by, that legitimacy slides away. Slowly at first, so much so that after 12 months still 96% of the population would deem the Parliament to be legitimate. But 12 months later, that has dropped to 86%, and 12 months further still, it has dropped to 68%. Click the graph to the right for a closer look.

At what point is a new election desirable? Should we wait until dropping below 50%? Or is it better to nip the decline in the bud by going for slightly earlier?

Why is respect for our current Parliament so low? It’s not just the expenses scandal. I would argue that it’s because of how long it has been since the last election, almost 54 months. That would give a legitimacy rating of just 30%. Most people, when questioned, would like an election almost immediately. Does that lend credence to such a low legitimacy rating?

Indeed, by the next election, some 60 months after the last one, I would argue legitimacy would be as low as 14%. The way the formula works is that, the further away from the election you are, the faster the decline (because of its logarithmic nature).

This is an extremely basic formula, but I would argue with some tweaking it could be adjusted for turnout: the idea being that the lower the turnout, the lower the starting point should be, and the faster the decline. It could also be adjusted for political culture: for example, elections to the US House of Representatives are every two years, so the decline would be much steeper.

Using this we can make a case for when the “ideal” time for an election should be. Five years is far too long, and risks the kind of fag-end, lame-duck administration we’re seeing now. Four years is better – but at 44% I would still say it’s a bit too late, as towards the end such a Parliament’s age starts to show.

I think three years would be better (the Australian Parliament seems to have this right)… but why must we always deal in exact years? Why not 3.5 years (at 57%)? Just before the majority of the country get fed up, and round enough to be nice and predictable.

Of course, all of this is a creation of my over-active imagination.  There is no scientific basis behind it; only a guess based on hunch and instinct as to how Parliaments decline in the eyes of their electorate.

But I think, with the proper study and testing, it could be revised and enhanced to cope with more variables (like turnout and electoral system), and it aids understanding as to why we need a regular supply of elections, and when they should occur.

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A Question Of Legitimacy

Posted by The Futility Monster on September 19, 2009 @ 08:00

Legitimacy, of course, being one of the things Voldemort used against Mr Potter...

Legitimacy, of course, being one of the things Voldemort used against Mr Potter...

Please be warned, this post contains political “science” stuff that probably bores most people to tears. I’m sorry. It’s just something I want to get down in writing for future reference.

Parliaments wither. So do governments. As time goes by, they degrade and become less useful. Less vigorous. Less relevant.

Why?

In a liberal democratic system, it is because of this magic concept of legitimacy.

Legitimacy is the idea that a body of authority has the support and the capability to exert said authority. We all accept the government has a right to govern, to tell us how to live our lives (within reason, limited by a higher authority such as a constitution or appeal to human nature, even religion), even if we don’t agree with it, because we know it is legitimate. We accept that the police officer has a right to stop us if we’re speeding, because his/her authority is derived from law, laws which have been approved as a result of a democratic process we’re all signed up to.

So legitimacy derives directly from election. We tell dictators that they are not legitimate because they haven’t been elected. Dictators aren’t bothered: they have power – the ability to co-erce – which, ultimately, achieves the same end as legitimacy.

On the other hand, some dictators deliver the goods to their people. They may abuse others in the process. But to those who are being looked after (example, the Sunnis in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) the dictator has a very special kind of performance legitimacy. The people are content because they are getting what they want and to disrupt such a regime may produce undesirable affects. So they accept the current power situation, may even fight to defend it, and in turn legitimise it.

Legitimacy is one of the most fascinating concepts in political science. What construes a “legitimate” arrangement varies wildly from country to country depending on the political culture of the nation. For instance, the sudden introduction of a majoritarian winner-take-all system to a consensus-orientated country like the Netherlands would be seen as grossly illegitimate. Or in Belgium – if the leading party declared it was to rule the country how it saw fit, because it had achieved the most number of seats in the election, there would be uproar because of unfairness.

Meanwhile, in this country, we think nothing of the idea that someone could be elected on 33% of those who voted, and even less when the actual size of the electorate is accounted for. They become our representative, and, though we’re not happy about it if we didn’t vote for them, we accept that they sit as the MP for our constituency, and take part in the parliament or government on that basis.

Some of us are not so keen to accept that mandate, particularly anyone who subscribes to ideas of proportional representation. We argue that a more proportional parliament would be more legitimate. But we don’t go so far as to say that our current parliament, our current representatives, are not legitimate. If we did that, we would a) be guilty of hypocrisy by participating in such a sham; and b) we would be undermining the broader system which we claim to support.

These arguments all have a conclusion: that legitimacy comes in degrees – we could even put an arbitrary percentage to it – and is not directly comparable between political cultures.

Therefore, any revisions we make to our system must broadly conform with our political culture, unless we all (in reality, a sufficient majority) agree on some new terms, some new redefinitions before we begin. The goal of such reforms must always be to increase legitimacy. Politicians understand that, hence why any reform is always couched in such terms. Hopefully, the electorate understands it too.

But there is no glorious peak, no golden age, that will bring us the ultimate definition of 100% legitimacy. But – following our logic – the only things that could ever hope to achieve such a figure would have to be directly, openly, and freely elected. This is also why we don’t like quangos, agencies and other such bodies instituted by government: they have no direct democratic mandate.

That means the only bodies in this country that have a chance of achieving 100% legitimacy are the parliaments, assemblies and councils that exist throughout the nation.

And, as we implied at the start of our post, that legitimacy is time-limited.

In other words, 100% legitimacy could only occur from day one after an election.

That’s where we’ll leave it. Next time (next Saturday), more pseudo-science, and even an Excel chart!

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Election Withdrawal Symptoms

Posted by The Futility Monster on June 25, 2009 @ 18:17

We won't be seeing much of this...

We won't be seeing much of this...

As alluded to in my previous post, elections are the raison d’etre of all politicos worldwide. Without them, we are naught.

So it is indeed fortunate that we have two by-elections around the corner. One in Glasgow North East, Michael Martin’s old constituency, and Norwich North, where former MP Ian Gibson did the honourable thing by resigning (though curiously, people with worse expense claims than him are still in situ).

First off: the question of timing. Labour hasn’t yet moved the writs, so it’s very clear they intend to kick these by-elections as far into the long grass as they can. It also means they are running scared. After so many months of terrible headlines, they clearly do not want to risk any more. The consequence of that is we’re definitely going to have an election free summer. Bah!

As usual, there is another flaw in the British constitution. There is no requirement to move a writ for a vacant constituency. Ever. Convention suggests it be done within three months of the vacancy arising. As far as I’m concerned, convention is useless. Something else that needs ironing out in a written constitution.

Of course, Michael Martin’s seat has only just become available, so I suppose there’s no real surprise there. But Ian Gibson resigned a couple of weeks ago and nary a peep has been heard. And as both by-elections are the result of resignations, the writ for a new election can only be moved while Parliament is sitting (there is no provision for a recess writ in the Recess Elections Act 1975). So if Labour doesn’t do something about it by the middle of July, these seats are going to be vacant for a very long time. Even if they did move the writs on the very last day of the recess, 21 July, that would make for a by-election on or about the 6th August. A more unlikely election date you can’t imagine.

In other words, I don’t see the writ being moved before the resumption of the Parliamentary session on 12 October. Which would mean by-elections towards the end of October or early November.

As for the circumstances surrounding the two by-elections, well – they couldn’t be more different. One is a seat the Conservatives have an excellent chance of winning, Norwich North, and one they really ought to be winning in a General Election if they were to form a government with a healthy majority.

Meanwhile, Glasgow North East is anyone’s guess. There hasn’t been a competitive parliamentary election there since 1997. That one will be fascinating to watch.

And to think, so many by-elections, and not a prayer for the Lib Dems anywhere. We really are getting out of the habit of winning them! Difficult times ahead…

UPDATE 30/06/09: it seems Labour took the bait and are up for the fight in Norwich North after all. But nothing yet about Glasgow North East. Could they be held on split dates after all? Seems very likely now. Interesting tactics – could potentially lead to two very bad days. Mind you, I don’t think it matters to Brown any more…

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Waiting, Interminably Waiting

Posted by The Futility Monster on June 23, 2009 @ 21:42

Wish it was just three minutes till the election...

Wish it was just three minutes till the election...

Now that the Speakership election is over, the world of politics once again turns to thoughts of where our next election is going to come from. Because, as political anoraks the world over know – you can’t beat a good election.

There’s nothing quite like the prospect of staying up late at night to see whether, this time, we really might get a hung Parliament. OK, there aren’t many of us who think like that. Only us Lib Dems. One day, our fantasies will come true, and our time will come!

Until then, the rest of the nation is bored of waiting. Because, frankly, it’s been far too long since the last election. Four years, I feel, is the absolute limit. By then the government’s mandate is exceptionally stale. The manifesto has long since been pulped and forgotten. But, by hook or by crook, in November this year, Gordon Brown will once again give us another Queen’s Speech filled with more useless ideas for legislation, barely any of which will have any resemblance to what the voters approved way, way back in 2005.

With the rise of the Internet, and the instant reactions expected by an electorate used to phone-in votes, text polls, Twitter, blogging, 24 hour news, continual status updates, a world where you can reach your family friends at any time at almost no cost in time or effort… it just will not do that our politics is far detached from our the modern reality.

The expenses scandal, and the public’s reaction to it, has proved once and for all that our political class is frighteningly behind the times. Parmjit Dhanda alluded to this in his excellent speech yesterday. Does the House “get it”? Can we not find more direct ways of voting to change the agenda (by choosing a debate topic, for example) that will empower citizens inbetween the blunt instrument of an X in a box every four years if we’re lucky, and every five years if we’re not?

It seems, instead, we just have to sit tight. We all know this government has run its course. It’s like a dodgy kebab mixed with a bad pint. You know it was a mistake. You know there’s nothing you can do about it now.

You’ve just gotta take the punishment and wait for the whole damn thing to get out your system.

The country is currently waiting for Gordon Brown to decide he’s finished. If he doesn’t do so soon, then by June 2010, then we get to exercise the only right available to us in the Septennial Act (as amended by the Parliament Act 1911).

We get to bust the door down.

Only then can we get on with the business of wiping not only his arse, but the excrement off the walls.

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