Why First Past the Post caused Brexit

For anyone who is young, idealistic and cheerful, I would not recommend visiting Britain at the moment. There is a pall of gloom in the air, mainly because a misguided political gamble by a handful of elites in the Tory party has lurched our country off a cliff. Those who grabbed the steering wheel have no idea how to avoid the crunch and those relegated to the backseat are wringing their hands and praying that we get another referendum on whether we have a soft landing.

In a previous post, I laid out how we got into this rather unfortunate situation, but now taking another self-righteous stride backwards, and, taking what one might call the long view, I would suggest that the real cause of our troubles is a seemingly innocuous element of our constitution, namely our electoral system.

The UK has First Past the Post. I go into this profoundly bizarre system elsewhere, but the long and short of it is that one party can get 35% of the vote and receive 65% of the seats in parliament, while another party gets 12% of the vote and only receives one solitary MP.

Proponents of the FPTP argue that one of the benefits is that it prevents extreme parties being represented in parliament. For example, UKIP, a thoroughly undesirable bunch of xenophobes and Little Englanders, are a party we don’t want sitting on those blush seats. So the Conservatives argued that a system of proportional representation would lead to UKIP getting 60-80 seats in parliament. Cue moral outrage from decent middle class folk.

It might seem very sensible to exclude a party with thoroughly unethical and bigoted ideas. The only problem is that at the 2015 election 4 million people voted for them, and in return for 4 million votes they received exactly one MP. This lead to a perfectly understandable groundswell of resentment and frustration with the British political system among UKIP’s electorate. Those that were then ostracised and excluded mobilised and collectively thumbed their nose at the political establishment that had ignored them for so long. The Brexit vote was to a large extent a scream of frustration from people who feel they have not been listened to.

Brexit was caused by FPTP the post in a direct way: because Cameron was scared of Labour coming through the middle in some constituencies, he promised people that the only way of getting a referendum was a vote for him. But it was also caused by FPTP in this indirect way because a majoritarian system ignores large parts of the population and that resentment will come out sooner or later. The same sort of thing happened in another country with a majoritarian voting system – the States.

Good old Blightly, we have an electoral system that manages to keep out parties from government that want to hamper our economy by restricting immigration, want to endorse little Englandism by forcing companies to declare foreign workers, want to wreck poorer parts of the country by cutting benefits. Good job we’re able to keep a party like that out of power with FPTP…

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Why Brexit happened

June last year the Brits rather upset political pundits, betting markets, our international allies and common sense by voting to leave the EU. I will save the reasons for this decision for another post (/rant), but I thought I’d start this jolly (and not at all bitter) series by laying out why Britain decided to hold a referendum in the first place.

In the heady and blissful days of 2013, the Conservatives were in a coalition government with the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems are pretty relaxed about the EU, but the Conservatives have always been rather divided on the issue of Europe, to put it mildly.

The Conservatives were facing an electoral challenge from a smaller anti-EU party called UKIP. In fact, in 2013 it seemed like the Labour Party’s best chance to win an election would be the Conservatives losing votes to UKIP and pro-EU Labour coming through the middle.

So in darkened smoke-filled room the Conservative elite figured out an ingenious strategy: They would promise to hold a referendum on EU membership if they won the 2015 election. If you wanted to leave the EU, they argued, you shouldn’t vote for the anti-EU party, but for the Conservatives, because then you would get the referendum you so badly craved, and if Labour won there would be no referendum.

The then Prime Minister could tell older provincial people that he had their back while telling financiers, who were reasonably worried about planting a bomb under the UK economy “No worries, we’ll win the referendum, unite the party, cut your taxes and reach for the champagne.” Nudge nudge, wink wink. All good so far.

It also seemed likely in 2013 that the Conservatives would need the support of the Lib Dems to stay in power after the 2015 election. The Lib Dems would never support a referendum on EU membership, because they’re imminently sensible and don’t have a wing of old fogies harking back to the days of empire. (Comes with the liberal turf, I suppose).

It seemed, then, that this was a great, low risk strategy to win voters. However, it turned out the plan worked a little too well. Partly as a result of their carefully designed message, the Conservatives won the election, had to hold the referendum and managed to lose it!

That is briefly how we came to have a referendum. In coming posts I will explore more deep-seated reasons for why the UK, usually so content with following authority sent a massive two fingers up to Conservatives and their crew of high financiers and political elite.

What happened in the Norwegian General Election?

In September the Norwegians went to the polls for their General Election. The result was that the current Prime Mninster, Erna Solberg, stays in position with her Conservative-Populist coalition. Their supporting parties, the Christians ans the Liberals, have been somewhat diminished so it may prove harder for her to get legislation through (more on this in future posts). To begin with though, let’s pick over the results.

Red 2.4% 1 seat: As I’ve mentioned before the commies often get good poll results, but then fail on the last hurdle when it comes down to election day. They’ll be pleased, therefore, to have managed to gain a seat this time round. Although only one seat in Parliament still means they have to wait a while before the system of parliamentary democracy falls – at least now they can try to bring it down from within.

Socialists 6.0% 11 seats: A very good result for the Socialists. They will be delighted to have improved on their downward trajectory of the last three elections. However, they are, and ought to be, fuming that Labour Party let them down so sorely. They did their part, but Labour failed to do theirs to get a change of government for the socialist side.

Labour 27.4% 49 seats: This is a very poor result for the Labour Party. Their worst showing as an opposition party since 1924. The message was off, their image was off, they wish their leader had been off. It all went badly in short. To be fair, the Norwegian economy is going better and, given that, it would be hard to turf out a government. But Labour did know the economy was going better and had plenty of time to move away from the ‘end is nigh’ narrative they ended up going with.

Farmers 10.3% 19 seats: In a manner that never ceases to amaze this party of wolly-pully wearers resonated with a large number of people. Presumably people who think Norway’s economy should still be based on sheepherding and wolf baiting, but voters nonetheless. The Farmers managed to rally those against the Conservatives’ attempts to take Norway’s local government system out of the 1800s in a most effective way and will be delighted with their result. However, as with the Socialists, that delight will be tempered with anger that they nearly doubled their size, but the Labour Party’s woes mean they can’t enter government.

Greens 3.2% 1 seat: The green tsunami was more of a green splash. Many opinion polls had the Greens over the magical 4% mark, but sadly they were unable to make it over and their solitary MP will wonder the palaces of the mighty searching for Parliament recycling bins in which to drop their manifesto.

Christians 4.2% 8 seats: Having been piously glancing left and right in search of allies the party leaders should have paid greater attention to their own voters. In short the party elite are full of well meaning Christians with earnest expressions, clasped hands and lofty ideas about values and the importance of human dignity. They were quite happy to tempt the cuddly left side of politics with their centrist kingmaking ability. But, their voting base is made up by rednecked biblebashers in the south and west. A far cry from the well-meaning Oslo and Bergen elites of the party’s leadership. As a result they fell between two stools as many of the rednecks who wanted to go back to 1800 opted for the Farmers and the more immigrant-hating rednecks went for the Populists.

Liberals 4.4% 8 seats: “The only thing that needs explaining in Norwegian politics is why everyone doesn’t vote for the Liberals” – this is an old adage of Norwegian politics and it’s completely true. The Liberals try to be all things to all people; they love the environment, they love small businesses, they love schools, and researchers? Give us plenty of them too. The problem is that no one really listens to them. Or usually that is the case at least. Although this result is low, it is the first time in decades that they have made it over the 4% threshold two elections in a row. So kudos for that, I guess, even it did come from lots of Conservative voters holding their nose.

Conservatives 25.0% 45 seats: Speaking of the Conservatives, they did really rather well. Their Prime Minister stays in and is looking more and more with-it by the day. She is calm, collected, knows her policies in and out. Rather refreshing in a world were policy wonks are having a hard time shining through (see Trump and Brexit whatever the consequences). On the down side, the Oslo boys sipping champagne on daddy’s yacht will have to keep their braincell whirring to figure out how to deal with this new electoral situation, but that’s alright, they have the intoxicating access to power and pappy’s Chablis to get them through.

Populists 15.2% 27 seats: After a bit of a slump mid-election cycle the Populists have bounced back and have made a roaring trade on xenophobia and fear of immigrants and refugees. The election campaign started off with a debate about Norwegian values and how much brown cheese was needed on a waffle to make it fully Norwegian. The Populists made hay on that debate among people who feel unable to enjoy their waffles knowing that there are foreigners around who might take their waffles from them and try to put foreign muck like salami on them. But yes, I suppose that’s around 15% of voters, which is fine in the grand scheme of things.

 

 

 

 

 

Why I got it so wrong?

So, the first thing to say is that my election prediction was completely wrong. Not wrong, as in “A couple of seats off for each party”, but wrong as in “the course of UK history would have been different if I had been right” sort of wrong.

Given my previous record, you might have expected a bit of caution on my part. Brexit, Trump and Corbyn. I have been completely off on all of them. I’m sure this inspires great confidence, but at least I am now able to write some observations on just how wrong I was.

First off, my prediction was a Conservative majority of 72. The result was in fact a Conservative majority of minus 8 or put more simply, they fell short of a majority.

So, where did it all go wrong? Let’s pick over my predictions.

Conservatives: 42.4% – 318 seats (prediction = 44% – 361 seats)

My prediction for the Conservatives wasn’t too far off. I anticipated that their unthinking ‘Brexit means Brexit’, ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’ and flag waving platitudes would see them do very well. To an extent I was right, but where they fell short was in how well the Labour Party did. May thought she would trounce Corbyn for being unfit to be Prime Minister, but following seven years of Tory misrule and a rocky Brexit process she was the one who seemed unfit to people. May’s gamble, like Cameron’s gamble backfired massively.

Labour: 40.0% – 262 (My prediction: 33% – 212 seats)

I was as surprised as anyone at just how well the Labour Party did at this election. I imagined that May’s constant talk of Corbyn’s record and repeating the mantra of being ‘strong and stable’ would see them through. In fact, the result is like getting the first whiff of spring in the eternal winter of Narnia. I am very impressed (and pleased) with just how well Labour did, but someone ought to break it to them that they didn’t actually win and that against such an ineffectual government willingly embracing self-harming Brexit they really ought to be aiming to win, not avoid calamity.

Lib Dem: 7.4% – 12 seats (My prediction: 8% – 9 seats)

Here my prediction wasn’t too far off.  The Lib Dems had been hoping to mop up all those die-hard Remainers out there, but many of them ended up supporting the Brexit-supporting Labour Party instead. Funny old world.

UKIP: 1.8% – 0 seats (My prediction: 5% – 0 seats)

UKIP’s utter meltdown was more extreme than I expected, although they did win he anticipated number of seats (i.e. zero). Contrary to my prediction, UKIP voters didn’t go en masse for the Tories and instead split 50-50 to Labour and the Tories. Surprising maybe, but then many UKIP voters were Northern working class people who recoil at the idea of ever voting Tory. Maybe some of them thought, “The Brexit battle is won, now we need half-decent social services and a government that actually cares about people like us.” The idea of UKIP being a gateway drug from Labour to the Tories was not all it was cracked up to be.

Green: 1.2% – 1 seat (My prediction: 2% – 2 seats)

This result was probably the easiest to get right, nevertheless I went and got it wrong. I thought the Greens would hold onto Brighton Pavilion (which they did) and also take Bristol West (which they not). In fact, Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire in Bristol West got a majority of over 37,000, enough not only to cling on, but to build a small maisonette out of her votes and still have enough to beat the Greens with.

So the one prediction I could get on the nose fairly easily, I was also wrong on.

SNP: 35 seats (My prediction: 48 seats)

In a bizarre (and, were the circumstances different, amusing) turn of events, the only reason May is still in Downing Street is because of Scotland. Had the Tories lost all of their seats in England and not picked up any in Scotland, Corbyn might well be measuring drapes and putting his sandals on the shoe rack in number ten. It also lays dead the question of independence for the foreseeable future.

 

In summary, I was wrong, and wrong by quite a long way. This is good news in that usually when I’m wrong, I depress myself. This time there is a glimmer of hope that next time round “one-more-heave Corbyn” will come up trumps.

UK General Election prediction

The UK General Election is tomorrow, and it’s time again for your sloth on the ground to give his predictions. Now this might seem like a silly and strange thing to do given my previous well-documented mistakes on Brexit and Trump. Nonetheless, I am nailing my colours to the mast and providing you a detailed breakdown of how I think each party will do (I’m a sucker for punishment).

Polls in the week leading up to the big day have ranged between a Tory lead of one to twelve. These figures are mainly drawing from the same underlying data, but it depends how many young people each polling company thinks will turn out. Those who think many young people will turn out give Labour better chances; those who think fewer young people will turn out give the Tories better chances. Now, call me a cynical old git, but I’m pessimistic on youth turnout – therefore my low prediction.

So my prediction is – drumroll – a Conservative majority of 72. Why do I think this? Let’s go through it in lurid detail.

Conservatives: 44% – 361 seats  

The Conservatives will do better than anticipated, though nowhere near as well as people thought going into this campaign. The more people have seen of the ‘strong and stable’ Theresa May the more they have concluded she is: ‘weak and wobbly’. Despite this I think many people will be unwilling to lend Labour their support and the Conservatives’ unhinged message on Brexit will see them through on the day.

Labour: 33% – 212 seats

Compared to where this campaign started it has to be said Labour are going to do really well. Seven weeks ago, when May called the election, Labour was around twenty points behind. The campaign has definitely increased their support, the question is how much. My prediction has them coming in rather lower than the Labour team will hope and losing seats in fact on 2015. Maybe this is the worst of both worlds for the Labour moderates. Corbyn increases their vote share, while taking them further from power than ever. They will remain stuck in this awful limbo where they can’t get rid of Corbyn, but the party can’t win either. I hope my prediction doesn’t come true, but I fear it will.

Lib Dem: 8% – 9 seats

They really haven’t taken off in the way we would have expected. They will lose some seats in Brexity seats and pick some up in London Remainy seats, but they won’t have a very good night compared with their early expectations.

UKIP 5% – 0 seats

One of the big stories of this election is the almost complete meltdown of UKIP. Having had their reason for existence satisfied by Cameron’s reckless referendum, there is no longer any point in UKIP.  On Brexit, the Conservatives are going for UKIP’s favoured damaging and hard Brexit, while the Conservative have also lapped up some of their key social conservative issues such as Grammar Schools and reducing immigration. Why vote UKIP when your abhorrent views have become mainstream in the new Conservative Party? In short, they’ll do badly.

Green: 2% – 2 seats

Their vote share will be artificially depressed due to them gallantly stepping aside in several seats and Labour and the Lib Dems not so gallantly stepping aside in seats the Greens may win. My prediction has them winning Brighton Pavillion and also Bristol West. Might be optimistic, but the rest of the prediction’s a bit depressing so completely rationally I put in a sweetener towards the end.

SNP: 48 seats

It’ll be interesting to see how many of their 56 seats the SNP can hold on to. I think the unionist tactical voting will be enough to lose the SNP a handful of seats, but they will still be the largest party by quite a long way. The interesting thing to see will be whether the result is spun as a rejection of independence. Unjustified though it may be, the Tories use any SNP losses as proof that Scots don’t want independence. Let the spin begin.

Scottish results: SNP 42%, Con 29%, Lab 23%, Lib Dems 5%, UKIP 1%, Green 1%

Much as I hope I’m wrong, and tomorrow is a great day for progressive politics, my fear is that my prediction will prove correct. It’s highly likely that’s for sure is that my prediction will be somewhat off – but analysing why, where and how my prediction is wrong will be the source of much fodder for the sloth to come.

Happy voting!

Labour’s Problems

People critical of the current Labour leadership sometimes speak as though the reason for their dismal showing in the polls and string of poor results in by elections is solely the fault of Jeremy Corbyn. Change him out and talk about the NHS some more and we’ll have a winning combination, they say.

They are deluding themselves.

If Labour lose the two by-elections today and Corbyn takes this as his cue to leave (although he’s ignored every other cue to leave), the Labour Party will still be facing an existential threat.

Corbyn leaving will not suddenly make Scotland think “Hang on a tick, let’s give these social democrat types another shot.”

UKIP voters in the North and Midlands will not think “I know Corbyn and co didn’t understand us, but clearly this other bunch of public school boys in suits do.”

The Corbynistas will not pack up their pistachio coloured shirts, put the sandals back on the shelf and say “Oh well, turns out Third Way was the most electable option after all.”

Even granted that Corbyn goes quietly, and the membership somehow chose someone charismatic and charming, the party would still be in existential danger. The people who make up the ‘Labour coalition’ are just too disparate.

On the one hand there’s the metropolitan, liberal group who have done well out of the globalisation. The sorts of people who have the time and disposable income to buy lattes and think hard, yet do little, about social justice. They are relaxed about immigration and are not terribly interested in their identity as British or English; they are far too cosmopolitan to worry about that sort of thing.

On the other hand, there is Labour’s old heartland vote. The bedrock of loyal working people who followed the party through many tough years, but who have done less well out of globalisation. They’ve been struggling for a while and are resentful of the fact that politics doesn’t work for them. They are sceptical about immigration, and concerned by a lack of loyalty to Britishness and Englishness.

The problem is that these two groups are not only different, but they want mutually exclusive things. On immigration, social policy, and Brexit their priorities are simply incompatible. I fear that no amount of talking about the NHS and funding for education can create a bridge between these two groups.

Labour’s problems are made worse by having an unelectable leader, but those who think a new chief with a clean score-card and a charming smile will save the party are deluding themselves.

 

Why is Clinton so unpopular?

I can see why Donald Trump is so unpopular. He’s rude, abnoxious, vulgar and many other dreadful things besides. But as someone observing from the other side of the Atlantic, I never could get my head a round why Hillary Clinton is such an unpopular candidate for president.

She currently has the lowest favourability ratings of any person to run for president in modern history, only surpassed by Donald Trump. But to a casual osbserver she is a centre of the road Democrat, maybe not the most charismatic person in the world, but she has heaps of experience and policy knowledge. You’d think would be just what the doctor ordered for the presidency.

In order to understand this wierd phenomenon, I think it helps to start with one basic question. What does Clinton  do for fun? We know that Obama enjoys a game of basketball, we know that Bush likes his golf and we have a little too good an idea what Trump does for fun.

But when it comes to Clinton people don’t know. They may have a sneaking suspicion that what she does in her spare time is to pour over policy papers and read brieing notes. I imagine they’re not actually too far wrong on that score.

They also suspect that the rest of her time is taken up in champagne receptions schmoozing with the elites and taking massive donations. In other words, being a typical politican.

In this year of political outsiders (see Sanders and Trump), however, it’s not too surprising that a quintisessential politican might have a hard time. Clinton has been in the game for a very long time, something that makes her superbly well-qualified to be president. It also means that a lot of the resentment that has built up against Washington and political elites can be projected onto her.

People talk about the email scandal and Clinton Foundation as big problems for her, but they are just symptoms of a broader ‘credibility problem’ that she has. She might have been careless when it came to the email server, but she did nothing criminal. She may have schmoozed closely to bring in money for the Clinton Foundation. But again, that’s what politics is like. It’s just rather unpleasant when we see the dirty laundry aired through some of the leaked emails.

Clinton has done nothing wrong beyond being a politican in an anti-politican year. Had the Republicans had a candidate able to exploit Clinton’s actual weaknesses, rather than fictionalised version of them, they would have had a good chance in this election. As it is, however, it looks as though the politican will win out. Just.