Friday, August 30, 2013

Parliamentary Arithmetic


How many MPs failed to either turn up or otherwise not to enter the division lobby yesterday in the vote that led to the defeat of the Government?

The vote was 285 to 272,  giving a total of 557 votes. To these, eight others need to be taken into account. There are four in the Speaker's team, who don't by convention vote. Then each side puts in two tellers, who count the votes of other MPs' as they come out of the division lobbies. The figure then goes up to 565, except that a Conservative and a Liberal entered both lobbies as a means of exercising positive abstentions. The calculation then goes back down to 563.  With a total of 650 MPs this leaves 87 to be accounted for. Three of these were Government Ministers. Ken Clarke missed the vote as he was away for "family reasons". Then Justine Greening (Secretary of State for International Development) and Mark Simmonds (Parliamentary Under Secretary for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) were together in a meeting in the parliament building, but did not hear the division bells. On the other hand they should have been aware that votes from 10 pm are a standard procedure on major issues when the Commons has commenced at 2.30 pm. That leaves us now with 84 other MPs to be accounted for. (Update 23.35 hours, 30 August : The Daily Telegraph now claim that in "total, including Liberal Democrats and a Downing Street adviser, 10 members of the Government are recorded as not having voted" -  numbers of whom claim to have been excused the whip and some who face the sack.) 

84 missing MPs is almost 13% of the total. It is a lot to be missing for a crucial vote. There are a number of possible explanations for absences. First, some could have decided to abstain - either being in the Commons at the time of the vote or being elsewhere. Some could have been "paired", where a Government and an Opposition MP have an agreement sanctioned by the whips not to vote on various items, so their votes will normally cancel each other out. It normally allows MPs to be away from parliament. But with 49 Government supporters coming to defying their whips, it is odd for people to be excused whipping arrangements - unless the whips felt that the people concerned were unreliable and might rebel, or they just had no idea what was going to happen. August is also a bad time for a Government to recall parliament, unless their whips are pro-active. Given the parliamentary time-table and constituency commitments it is the best time in the year for MPs to take a holiday break. With children still on school holidays, some MPs could be overseas with their families. What efforts did their whips make to contact them and pressurize them to turn up? Given the result, the Government whips failed to deliver in a startling fashion. Had they warned Cameron of the dangers of defeat? If not why not? Did he ignore such warnings? After the defeat of the Government. will the opposition now put forward a motion of no-confidence in the Government? If this was lost it would trigger either the appointment of a new Prime Minister or a General Election.

Look for changes in the Government team. There are no less then 17 of them in the whips office. They are headed by Sir George Young, who is far too kind a man for such a job. I bet they return to having a Rottweiler.

Also see here about the MP whose move ten years ago paved the way for yesterday's vote.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Don't Destroy A Good Idea

The Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) are proposing that first time voting should be made compulsory, yet other voting should remain voluntary. See here.

Whatever, the rights and wrongs are for compulsory voting: the IPPR are wrong to propose having a two-tier voting system, with voting being compulsory for some and not for others. All voters should be given the same status.

Labour is supposed to be interested in the IPPR Report, with a view to attaching the notion to their proposal for Votes for 16s. This would make things even worse. How can we treat 16 year olds as adults and give them the vote, then say because they are not really adults they will be forced into using their first vote? Talk about crossed messages.

Let us have votes at 16, with electoral registration taking place via schools for 15 year olds in readiness for them attaining the vote. Then run courses for the 15 year olds at school about voting and democracy.

Schools, Colleges and Universities can then be used as a means of updating registers. For those who have left educational institutions, a pro-active re-registration system can be put in place. This would track and catch up with people as they move, in order to get them to re-register. Advertising could also be used to alert people to the need to re-register. If Wonga can use the media to sell their dangerous services, then the State can do it for a worthy purpose. If the State adopted relevant legislation, they could oblige the media to run their adverts for free. Electoral Returning Officers could also be funded to arrange for door to door canvassing to encourage re-registration. All registration should be compulsory, with the numbers fined starting to match up to the numbers of non-registrations. 

But we should treat everyone in the same way.  Not forced voting for some, but it not mattering for others.

My own preference is for all voting to be voluntary. It is up to political parties, individual candidates, political activists and the media to start interesting people in politics and to show that it can have real meaning to people's lives.  As the Labour Party are now advocating votes at 16, they have a special responsibility on this matter.

A universal franchise is only part of the democratic process. But it is an essential element.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Labour and Votes at 16

It is being reported in the media that Labour has come out in support of votes at 16.

There is now a key opportunity to provide important add-ons to the policy, which will (a) ensure full electoral registration for those acquiring the vote, (b) encourage a good turnout from the newly enfranchised and (c) will enable these 16 and 17 year olds names to be retained on the electoral registers as they grow older.

Providing voting rights from 16 can be used as an essential step to tackling the serious problem of voter under-registration. The Electoral Commission reported that at least 6 million people are missing from electoral registers. Yet we also see that the under-registration figure is likely to be larger than this, as census details have revealed 1.57 million people in England and Wales have second addresses and this will entitle many of them to double registration. If, say, 1 million throughout the UK have done this, that means that under-registration is actually over the 7 million mark. There are even indications recently by the Electoral Commission that 2 million more may need to be added to these under-registration figures.

With votes at 16, the names of "attainers" would be included on registers when they were 15, showing the dates of their coming birthdays and their then entitlement to vote. If registration for these first-time voters took place via their schools, an initial registration of almost 100% could be achieved. A proactive registration system could then be put in place to ensure that most of those who initially registered did not slip through the net later in life.

As under-registration is high among the 18-25 age group, the poor, the rootless and ethnic minorities; this also leads to a situation where the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies are seriously distorted. A system of initial registration via schools, with an associated and imaginative educational programme, could start to correct this imbalance and develop a commitment amongst young people to use and improve the democratic process. With almost universal registrations being achieved for 16 year olds via their schools, electoral registration officers could also be given the authority and resources to trace the addresses of the people concerned as they grow older and have often moved their homes. This would have an early impact by ensuring that most of those newly enfranchised would be on the registers as they moved into the under-represented 18-25 age range.  Many of the newly enfranchised 16 year olds will also, of course, already fit (or come to fit) into the categories of other groups who currently suffer from under-registration.

Provision for pro-active electoral registration methods (including relevant education programmes in schools for 15 year olds about the democratic process) can hopefully be added to Labour's welcome commitment.