Different and better, or same old New Labour

The Labour List blog is currently running a series of articles, produced by party worthies, on the ‘One Nation Labour’ theme recently introduced by Ed Miliband. I submitted a comment on one of the articles yesterday, but it was not published, probably because it rubbished the whole One Nation concept, albeit in – for me – relatively moderate terms, I thought.

The article, by Labour ideologue Lord Glasman, was entitled, ‘Different and Better: How One Nation can work for Labour‘. I reproduce it in full below for convenience, along with my moderate and moderated-out comment:

In order to generate energy and to succeed in opposition it is necessary to have a narrative, a strategy and an organising concept that can give plausibility and coherence to the swelter of initiatives, policies and programmes that swirl around the Westminster Village.

The narrative must tell a story of how we, as a nation got into this mess and how we as a party are an important part of how we will get out of it.

The strategy, both electoral and governmental, concerns the coalition of interests that can champion the change that is required and generate value, the people and the things that will make things different and better.  A plan of action that can grow in time to deliver electoral success and a compelling programme of government.

The organising concept is the idea that selects and shapes the policy and turns it into politics.  An idea that applies to all areas of policy and defines the identity of the party and of the offer they make to the electorate.  This is what Ed Miliband achieved at the last Party Conference with One Nation Labour.

In comparison, the idea of productive and predatory capital is an excellent and a true analytical distinction but it could not organise policy across the range, it gave no guidance concerning welfare reform, or education, constitutional reform or defence policy.  There was a real danger that we would get trapped in the dominant framework inherited from New Labour and intensified by the Coalition Government and engage in an endless and antagonistic exchange concerning faster or slower, higher or lower, more or less, without disputing the direction of travel.

With the emergence of One Nation however, the organising concept has been established.  It commits Labour to a politics of the Common Good.  In all areas of policy, estranged and divided part of our Nation: capital and labour, north and south, immigrants and locals, men and women, secular and religious need to be brought together in order to generate greater value.  It is different from what went before because no one interest dominates civic, political or economic life but all of these require people to come together and make things better.

Labour was founded in order to demand recognition by those who worked, as part of one nation.  There was no wish to dominate but to remind the rich and the powerful that workers were part of the nation, that they had interests and considered themselves a necessary part of the common good.  That argument needs to be made again for one of the things that is different about the One Nation position is its recognition of labour as a source of value, the Labour theory of value.  Innovation is generated by people with experience and expertise who understand the new technology and can work within it.

This in itself is a radical breakthrough because now we need to have a real conversation with the Unions not about what the Party can do for them, or even what they can do for the party, but what they can do to make things better.  How are Unions to be partners in generating value, honouring good work, defending labour as a necessary partner to capital and technology in the production process?  Do they champion changes in corporate governance so that the workforce is represented on boards?  That should be an important part of One Nation agenda, and one that Disraeli and Burke could not ever accept.  Anyone and anything other than Labour constituted the diverse ecology of the Nation.  We are here to correct that mistake and One Nation Labour does that.

But it is not limited to corporate governance reform on the private sector.  The same applies to the public sector.  How is the workforce, along with funders and users going to make the way we care and look after each other better.  It suggests a move from the contractual to the Covenantal.  We trust each other with the care of our children and our parents and we need to honour those who do that well, but we also need a way of dealing with those that don’t.  One Nation is a demanding category.  Vocational renewal is a double edged sword, it requires quality and equality and we need to be resolute in the pursuit of both.

It goes into making capital available to regions and to break the grip on internal investment by the same failed banking institutions.  Regional banks which serve local markets and businesses draw attention to our reliance on the financial sector and the need for an economy that works on dry land.  The lack of private sector growth in the regional economies outside finance and property is a great concern and One Nation makes the people of those regions part of the nation once more.

It enables us to talk about Land Reform and Community Land Trusts as a way of including people in the property owning democracy by transferring the freehold asset to communities.  In housing that means that the price is halved and there can be a genuine and affordable house building programme.  It is also applicable to Dover Port for example and offers an alternative to privatisation and nationalisation that works in the interests of all the people of Dover and brings capital, labour and the town together in a common concern for its flourishing.

One Nation is both a radical and a conservative idea and that is why it works.  It retrieves a tradition from within our nation history and through it generate greater solidarity and inclusion. Labour, in recent years, has shown a tremendous respect for diversity and pluralism.  This is greatly to our benefit and it was right to do so.  What was missing was a balance, an account of how that diversity can generate better forms of the common life, of how it could nourish and sustain the common good.  One Nation Labour corrects that imbalance.

Ed Miliband has retrieved, from what his Dad might have called the ‘dustbin of history’ a great gift to his party.  In order to live and grow it must be supported and cared for by many hands.  It offers the possibility of great years ahead.

And my comment:

‘One Nation’ will be an incoherent and useless slogan for Labour so long as the party fails to develop a narrative of that nation’s identity. Britain is increasingly not one nation, but three nations (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) plus another nation (England) that the party and the political establishment in general refuse to acknowledge: England.

‘One Nation’ Labour, and indeed Britain, will be deliverable and feasible only if Labour does articulate a narrative for the whole of the UK: what is the relationship between the devolved nations and England; what can Labour do for and in each; what is the relationship between reserved and devolved – and hence English – policy areas? Can Labour bring itself to articulate a vision for England? If not, what will reform of health, education, housing and social-care policy actually mean, as a Labour UK government’s powers in these areas will in fact be restricted to England, even if Labour refuses to acknowledge and articulate that fact.

One Nation is meaningless so long as the one nation to which it applies in full – England – is the one nation Labour cannot bring itself to value and envision. Simply balkanising England into a series of economic-development regions, as Lord Glasman is proposing here, will not do it.

Fair comment, I thought. The One Nation concept is completely bonkers as applied to the UK as a whole, because no UK government of any hue can any longer develop a fully joined-up agenda for the whole UK that unites social and economic policy, as social policy has been devolved whereas economic and fiscal policy, in the main, remains reserved. In fact, the only nation for which Labour or any party could develop an all-embracing policy vision is England, because it’s only for England that the UK government has maintained control over all of the policy levers.

In essence, the One Nation concept involves an outmoded idea of Britain as a unified nation and polity that Labour itself gave away via the Scottish and Welsh devolution settlements in 1998. But Labour won’t acknowledge that reality, and they steadfastly refuse to acknowledge England as the only nation they could now fully mould in Labour’s image if they were minded to do so. There are many reasons for this, such as political expediency and left-wing anglophobia. But the consequence of this wilful blindness on Labour’s part is that their concept of One Nation is ultimately a sheer fantasy Britain that has absolutely no credibility whatsoever as a vision for the ‘nation’ because it doesn’t even correctly articulate and take account of the actual identity of the nation – England – for which it could be implemented.

Ultimately, One Nation Labour, just like New Labour before it, washes its hands of the social realities of the only nation, England, to which the One Nation vision could ever apply. It’s a mere blueprint for a more economically vibrant and prosperous ‘Britain’, which involves balkanising England into unwanted British economic-development regions, and refuses to articulate any coherent, comprehensive model for a new English civic society: for the way in which we in England can best organise ourselves to deliver the best education, health care, public services and environment for our country that we can. Labour can’t answer those questions, because it’s not even asking them in realistic terms that can be engaged with. In the end, One Nation Britain is meaningless as a vision for England because nothing valuable can ever be done for England by a party that doesn’t love England, and doesn’t value her and her people in themselves. The one nation that has no place in One Nation Labour Britain is England.


Unionists need to find reasons for England to remain in the Union, as well as Scotland

As it was reported this morning that several leading Scottish-elected Westminster politicians were up in Scotland campaigning in favour of a pro-Union vote in the Scottish referendum on Scottish independence – whenever it happens – the Daily Telegraph reported that a majority of those in England who expressed a preference in a new ICM poll favoured independence for Scotland (43% for, 32% against). By contrast, in Scotland, there was a majority in favour of remaining in the Union; and not only that, the share of those in favour of independence was lower than in England (40% for, 43% against).

While Scottish and English nationalists will doubtless take comfort from these figures – the Scots because the margin between the no’s and the yes’s has narrowed, and the English in particular taking delight at the massive majority in favour of an English parliament (49% for, 16% against) – the fact that support for Scottish independence is greater in England than in Scotland itself should surely make Unionists pause for thought, if not substitute some of their scheduled speaking engagements north of the border with similar events to its south.

Many of the Unionist persuasion may not in fact be terribly surprised at English people’s lack of enthusiasm for the 300-year-old Union. The ICM poll also shows that 61% of people in England think that higher per-capita public spending in Scotland is unjustified, while 53% of Scots believe it is justified. What did Westminster politicians, who’ve continued to justify the Barnett Formula for so long as a bribe to keep the Scots sweet and to provide a spurious justification for MPs elected outside of England to vote on English bills, think that the long-term effect of these injustices would be?

But the bigger point is that it’s the English that most need persuading that the Union is worth preserving. OK, the Scots may vote against independence; although they might just vote for it. But even if they opt to remain in the Union, how sustainable will that Union be if the English no longer believe in it? The English majority can be ignored only for so long.

And that’s the Unionists’ dilemma: they have ignored England for so long that they no longer have a language in which to present a positive case for England to remain in the Union. The phrase ‘for England to remain in the Union’ is itself a revealing paradox. The idea of the Union – any Union – persisting if England decided to leave it is a complete non-sequitur. If such an eventuality arose, all you’d be left with is a set of disparate nations and territories that would have to make their own minds up as to how they wished to govern themselves and relate to one another. However, despite the fact that the Union between Scotland and England is supposed to be a marriage of equals, no one assumes – but perhaps they should – that the consequence of a divorce would be to break the bonds between the UK’s other nations. Using the marriage analogy, if England and Scotland are the parents, why is everyone assuming that, after their divorce, England will automatically gain custody of the kids (Wales and Northern Ireland, and perhaps Cornwall)? Perhaps Scotland should take on some responsibility for them, such as paying them maintenance out of its oil reserves. Or perhaps they’re grown-up enough to take care of themselves.

The absurdity of this analogy shows how invalid the marriage analogy is. The Union is not a marriage, it’s a family of four children, the largest of whom – England – has acted in loco parentis (the parent being called ‘Britain’) for so long that she has invested her emotions and personality wholly into the role, to the extent that she has lost sense of who she is apart from that role. But now her siblings are growing up, they understandably want to manage their own affairs; and England, who has thought of herself as Mother Britannia for so long, has now got to rediscover a new mission in life as a grown-up, independent person – albeit that she might continue to play a key role in the family business going forward.

But this is my point: once England starts to think of herself separately from the Union, then this is as much a consequence of the Union having already begun to break up as it is a precursor and cause of England’s political separation from the Union. The Union is as much in England’s mind as it is a political reality; and for the thought of ‘England remaining in the Union’ to even be possible, that Union must have already have begun to dissolve.

It’s that England that the Unionists must try to convince of the Union’s merits. But the mere fact of that England existing as a distinct entity means the Union as it has existed for 300 years has already begun irrevocably evolving into a different set of relationships between its constituent parts.

English parliament

The nightmare scenario: United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland

In answer to the speculation in my last post about what the new United Kingdom, following Scottish independence, would be called, maybe we’d be looking at the nightmare scenario of a ‘United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland’, instead of a possible ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’.

The Union establishment will do anything in its power – and anything, in fact, exceeding its rightful powers, as I suggested in the previous post – to maintain its pretension to be the heir and continuation of imperial Britain, with all its supposed international prestige and ability to ‘punch above our weight’. As I argued, the new UK could no longer call itself the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’, as Great Britain would be dissolved by Scottish independence. However, there’s no theoretical reason why ‘Great Britain’ couldn’t be replaced by ‘Britain’ in the official name of the state. After all, Roman ‘Britannia’ comprised basically England and Wales, and referring to all the territories that in fact form part of the pre-Union Kingdom of England as ‘Britain’ at least gets over the clumsiness of an alternative comprehensive designation of the state as ‘the United Kingdom of England, Wales, [Cornwall], Northern Ireland and the Crown Dependencies’. The possibility of that latter title, of course, would result from the awkward question of Cornwall’s status being raised, which can be glossed over if all the British parts of the new state are simply and indiscriminately dubbed ‘Britain’. Plus it would allow ‘Britain’ to continue to exist as a more historically and politically resonant synonym for the state’s legal personality and brand in international affairs and commerce than ‘the UK’.

All the more reason, then, why the English people should demand a say in the new constitutional settlement resulting from Scottish independence. We must be offered the choice as to whether we consent to England continuing to be subsumed within a would-be British nation, and whether we are content for the name of ‘England’ to still be excluded from the name of the state of which we are citizens.

English parliament

Response to request to support 38 Degrees’ [English] NHS petition

Below is my response to an email I received yesterday from a friend asking me to support the 38 Degrees petition calling for the House of Lords to demand more scrutiny of the [English] NHS and Social Care Bill, which they’ll be voting on later today. The email was one of those automatically generated support emails that sends a standard, pre-formatted text to multiple recipients, and read as follows:

“It’s the last chance to kill this terrible Bill and protect our beloved NHS from vested and private interests – please sign the petition it takes less than a minute.

“These changes weren’t in any manifestos and the public has never had a chance to vote on them.

“These changes weren’t given proper scrutiny in the House of Commons so we need the House of Lords to look at them properly – more info below.

“Please pass this on as it is SO important.  The petition has to be signed before Wednesday’s debate in the House of Lords.”

I’m afraid the phrase ‘our beloved NHS’ – as opposed to ‘English NHS’ – was like a red rag to a bull, so I rattled off the following riposte:

I have to say I have a problem with this petition, which relates to the way it is worded and, in general, the way 38 Degrees and other campaigns like it (such as UK Uncut) refer to the NHS. It’s not ‘the NHS’ (i.e. the British NHS) that’s affected by the Bill but only the NHS in England. (Did you know that?) That’s because health is a devolved matter, so the UK government’s competency on health issues is limited to England.

Why aren’t 38 Degrees and UK Uncut honest about this, and why don’t they mention ‘England’ anywhere on their campaign pages, instead just referring to ‘our NHS’, ‘the NHS’, ‘the country’ and ‘the UK’, when only England’s affected?

One answer is it’s tactical: they want people from across the UK to sign the petition, and Lords who live outside England (and who previously may have represented non-English constituencies) to support the blocking measures; and they don’t care about the issues of legitimacy involved. It’s a bit like the West Lothian Question (which, if you’re not familiar with it, is the fact that non-English MPs can vote on matters that don’t affect their constituents but do affect England, because those policy areas have been devolved). And in fact, the only time I can see that 38 Degrees mentioned the fact that the Bill relates to England only was when urging its supporters to write to their MPs – including those from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – to vote it down: West Lothian voting – voting down an England-only measure for which they are not accountable to English voters.

The second reason why they don’t mention England, as far as I can see, is political and strategic. The NHS symbolises and embodies their vision of what ‘Britain’ is and should be at its best. But that Britain is no more, and the NHS in fact exemplifies that fact: it’s already run along different lines in each of the UK’s four nations, and in England, it’s already been transformed along market principles by the last Labour government via measures such as Foundation Hospitals that were voted in only with the support of Labour’s non-English MPs (which demonstrates that the West Lothian Question is far from academic). If this Bill goes through, it will mean not so much the ‘end of our NHS’ but the end of the idea of a single British NHS, because the English NHS will be organised along market lines even more fundamentally than it already is, while the NHS’s (plural) in the other UK countries remain truer to the British NHS’s founding principles.

I am actually opposed to most of the measures contained in the Bill, and I think it will / would lead to the break-up of an integrated, publicly owned / controlled national health service in England, and to inefficiencies and inequalities in health-care provision. But I can’t endorse the petition because of its dishonesty about England, and because it’s part of a whole left-wing / progressive and unionist agenda that I don’t support. I in fact want an English parliament and government, which is by far and away the best means to guarantee an English health service that’s accountable to English voters. If the Bill goes through, it could be a good thing to the extent that it will show English voters that the British establishment doesn’t give a **** about England or English democracy, and that they’re interested only in pursuing their own ideological agenda, and their business and financial interests (private health-care and health-insurance firms being among the Tories’ largest donors).

It might seem petty not to support the petition just because the 38 Degrees campaign suppresses references to the Bill’s and the NHS’s England-only character. But that’s part of a much bigger agenda to suppress any idea of English nationhood and any possibility of an English polity, which both the British establishment and progressives find completely abhorrent for their different reasons, mostly self-serving and prejudiced.

I think my reply rather took her aback, but we amicably agreed to disagree.

Am I being petty to refuse to sign the petition? After all, I am opposed to the Bill; so shouldn’t I set my scruples aside and sign it, to add pressure to the Lords to vote for further scrutiny? I have to say I’m impressed by the speed with which 38 Degrees have managed to exceed their yesterday’s target of 100,000 signatures. As I write, early on Wednesday morning, the total stands at over 115,000, whereas late-morning yesterday, it was only around 38,000.

But it just sticks in the gut that 38 Degrees, like UK Uncut, steadfastly refuses to refer openly to ‘England’ in such an England-specific matter, and I can’t just condone that by signing the petition. For 38 Degrees, UK Uncut and other ‘progressive’ groups, ‘the NHS’ (the British one) does symbolise and embody the Britain of their dreams; and it is the case that the end of the state monopoly on health-care provision in England represents more a potentially fatal assault on that ideal image of Britain than the destruction of ‘the NHS’ as such. There’ll be a radical and clear difference between the English NHS and the old British-style NHS’s in the UK’s other nations; so it won’t be as easy to gloss over the differences in the way England is treated – politically and medically – from the rest of the UK.

In fact, one could even say that what the progressive opponents of the NHS Bill want to prevent from arising is an English NHS, distinct and different from the old NHS. And beyond that, it’s the emergence of an England distinct from Britain that they’re resisting. No wonder they can’t and won’t refer to it as the ‘English NHS’ because that’s precisely what they’re fighting against.

So if there’s one good thing that could come out of the Bill it’s that they won’t be able so easily to deny that England, and her NHS, is different from a now defunct Britain.

English parliament

36% of English people support independence – for England

A ComRes opinion poll commissioned by BBC Radio 4, published yesterday, found that 36% of the English-only people questioned felt that “England should become a fully independent country with its own government, separate from the rest of the United Kingdom”. By any account, this is an extraordinary finding. However, if all you had heard about the poll was what was said about it on last night’s Newsnight programme dedicated to discussing Scottish independence, and its impact on England and Britishness, you wouldn’t know about this particular finding, as it was not referred to.

This appears to be another, all-too typical, instance of the establishment suppressing discussion of the English Question: the question of how England should be governed. For all that the programme represented a refreshing attempt to deal with the impact Scottish independence might have on the rest of the Union, and to consider an emerging sense of Englishness and English nationalism, it glossed over what for me is the most important issue: England’s democratic deficit and how this should be remedied, irrespective of Scotland gaining independence or not. The programme did not dwell on this issue or treat it with any degree of seriousness, nor did it link it to the issue of an emerging English consciousness, to which it is central: one of the main purposes of an English parliament or English independence being that they would give England a national voice and institutions, around which a confident English identity could coalesce.

How significant is the 36% support for English independence, though? Another finding of the ComRes poll that was reported is that 36% of English people favour independence for Scotland (versus 48% who oppose it). This is also, incidentally, a striking finding. The programme did acknowledge that this represented a significant increase on the last time support for Scottish independence in England was canvassed, when it stood at 16%. However, one suspects that there is a close correlation between the 36% of English people who favour English independence and the 36% that support Scottish independence. In other words, people must be assuming that English independence would result from Scottish independence; and in that, I can’t help feeling that they’re sadly mistaken.

This was another thing that the programme didn’t explore (well, I guess you can’t cover every aspect of the question): what sort of residual United Kingdom, if any, would be the by-product of Scottish independence? My own feeling is that if the Scots voted for independence in a referendum, the inhabitants of the rest of the UK would not be given the opportunity to decide in a referendum how they wish to be governed (although 45% said people in the rest of the UK should have a say in whether Scotland became independent, while 47% thought they shouldn’t).

Specifically, I think the English people would not be given the chance to choose whether to have a parliament of their own, still less independence. Instead, the UK Parliament, which is presently sovereign in such matters, would simply decide what sort of state the residual United Kingdom would be. Overriding any consideration of whether the United Kingdom as such should be considered dissolved as a consequence of Scotland separating from the Union (because this breaks up ‘Great Britain’, and hence dissolves the union of Great Britain with Northern Ireland, which is what the UK is), Parliament would simply decree that a new United Kingdom (e.g. a ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’) should inherit the legal personality and constitution of the old UK. And Parliament would then carry on governing England as the UK, as if nothing had changed – except it would be less likely, but still not impossible, for a UK government to be formed based on a majority of UK MPs without enjoying a majority of English MPs.

The programme did not nail down this issue, which is central to the whole debate: would Scottish independence be a separation from a United Kingdom that would carry on pretty much unchanged as a consequence (in which case, it could be considered to be a purely Scottish matter, although the Welsh and Northern Irish might wish to dissent from that view if it meant they were dragged into what they perceived as an even more England-dominated UK); or would it involve breaking up the UK altogether by virtue of dissolving the Union of 1707 – in which case the other party to that Union (England) should have a say in its own constitutional and political future.

These are two quite distinct questions, and the ambiguity in the Newsnight discussions in part resulted from a failure to make a distinction between them. And that further reflects the establishment’s reluctance to explore any avenue that might lead to something such as a distinct English nation deciding how it wishes to govern itself. Because, surely, that’s the logical outcome from the Scots opting for independence: that each of the UK’s remaining nations should then be allowed to choose whether the UK itself remains, or whether they follow Scotland’s example and decide for independence.

AV referendum: for the sake of England, don’t vote!

Do you think the First Past the Post voting system used for electing UK MPs should be changed to the Alternative Vote? Do you even care?

Firstly, should anyone who supports the idea of an English parliament give a monkeys about the voting system used to elect the UK parliament? On one level, no: the fact that this AV referendum is being held on the same day as the elections for the Scottish parliament, and Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies, but that the English have never been consulted about a parliament of their own; and the fact that we’re being offered only the disproportional AV system, whereas those very devolved elections use a different, proportional system, is a downright insult. So not only is there no representation for England as a nation on offer, but there is to be no proportional representation for England even within the UK parliament. So I know where I’d tell them to stick their AV.

On the other hand, a ‘better’ electoral system for electing English MPs would surely be a gain for the nation even while we’re being governed by an unrepresentative UK executive and parliament. Does AV constitute such a gain? Well, in my view, AV is marginally – very marginally – better than FPTP. It does ensure that parliamentary candidates have to secure the explicit support of a larger proportion of their local electorate in order to win – though it doesn’t guarantee that MPs must obtain the support of a majority of voters: that depends on how many voters don’t express a preference for either / any of the candidates remaining after the less popular candidates have been eliminated.

However, in reality, this greater share of the vote MPs have to win, which includes the second and subsequent preferences of voters whose first-choice candidates have been unsuccessful, already exists in latent form under the FPTP system. The only difference that AV makes is that it allows voters to explicitly express that support with their preference votes, so that – for example – a winning plurality of, say, 40% is turned into a winning ‘majority’ of 52%. That extra 12% of voters who are broadly content for a candidate to win on 40% of the vote are still there under FPTP; so AV in a sense just legitimises what happens under FPTP: the election to parliament of MPs who fail to be the first choice of a majority of voters.

AV is, therefore, mainly a means to secure buy-in to an unfair system that has ill-served England. That’s what FPTP has been: over the past few decades, it’s given us Tory and Labour governments that have never commanded the support of a majority of English men and women. It gave us the divisive, confrontational and egomaniacal Thatcher regime; and it was responsible for Blair’s New Labour, with its legacy of asymmetric devolution, British-establishment Anglophobia, public-spending discrimination against England, and the overseas follies of Iraq and Afghanistan, with so many brave young English people exploited as cannon fodder in unwinnable, unjustifiable wars.

FPTP has failed England. AV is only a very slightly mitigated version of FPTP. Both will lead to more disproportional, unrepresentative UK parliaments that will continue to ignore not only the just demands for an English parliament but England’s very existence. Under the present UK political settlement, England as such is completely discounted and passed over in silence. The pro-AV campaign says that, under AV, your vote really counts. But England will still count for nothing, whether we have AV or FPTP.

So make your vote really count this Thursday in the AV referendum by greeting it with the silent contempt with which the political establishment treats England. England’s voice is not being consulted; so respond with sullen, stern silence in your turn. Don’t vote for a system – the UK parliament itself – that disenfranchises you. And let the result – whether a win for AV or FPTP – be rendered as meaningless as it really is through a derisory turn-out across England.

England will have its say one day in a meaningful referendum: on an English parliament. And I bet neither AV nor FPTP will be on offer as the voting system for a parliament that truly represents the English people.

First Past the Post Majority Top-up (FMT): the perfect compromise between FPTP and AV

We English are famed for our ability to reach pragmatic compromises. Our First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system is totally compromised; and the Alternative Vote (AV) is a compromise between FPTP and PR.

In this spirit of compromise – a spirit which is increasingly absent from the debate on electoral reform running up to May’s referendum – I’d like to propose another voting system that is a ‘perfect’ (if that’s the right word) compromise between FPTP and AV. I’m opposed to both systems because of their manifold failings. But equally, they both have their merits. FPTP is simple and straightforward, which commends it to your average Englishman and -woman: you just stick a cross in a box, and the winner is the candidate that gets the most crosses. The trouble is this produces rule by the minority, which then becomes a British stick to beat us English folk. AV is fairer but fiddly: you list candidates in order of preference (which presupposes that you regard any of them as acceptable, let alone several), and then if there’s no majority for anyone, the bottom-ranked candidates are eliminated and the preference votes of their supporters redistributed among the remaining candidates until one of them has a majority of the votes remaining in play. Yes, even to describe it involves a proliferation of polysyllabic Latin words! But once you get the hang of it, it’s not all that complicated, but it is inconsistent: not all the preference votes are counted, which can lead to questionable results.

My system – First Past the Post Majority Top-up (FMT) – is the best of the dodgy worlds of FPTP and AV. And it’s even easy to describe:

  • There are two columns of boxes next to the candidates’ names – let’s call them column A and column B
  • In column A, you put a cross next to the name of your preferred candidate, just like in an FPTP election
  • In column B, you put a cross, or more than one cross, next to the name(s) of any other candidate(s) you would like to be elected if your preferred candidate doesn’t win an outright majority of the votes recorded in column A
  • Any candidate winning more than 50% of the column-A votes wins automatically
  • If no candidate wins such a majority, then the votes recorded in column B are added to the totals of all the candidates
  • This could produce one or more candidate with more than 50% of the vote
  • If there’s only one such majority winner, that candidate wins the election
  • If there are more than one, the winner is not the candidate with the highest share of column-A + column-B votes, but the candidate who obtained the highest share of column-A votes only – even if their share of column-A + column-B votes is less than that of another candidate
  • If there is still no candidate with the support of the majority of voters, the winner is then the candidate with the highest share of column-A + column-B votes.

Got it? This system basically preserves the merits of FPTP: it gives greater weight to the first preferences of voters, and the ‘top-up’ system of preference votes in column B is designed merely to discover whether any candidate enjoys the support of a majority of voters if no majority is produced in the primary vote. So, if a candidate has won most of the first-preference votes but not a majority, all they need do to win is get enough preference votes to constitute a majority, and they can win even if another candidate has more combined first- and second-preference votes than them.

However, if no candidate enjoys a majority even after the preference votes are counted, then the winner is the one commanding the broadest overall base of support, i.e. first- and second-preference votes combined. This is more like AV, except – unlike AV – all the preference votes of all voters are counted and treated equally. So with my system, FMT, there can be no latent majority for a candidate that is bigger than the majority or plurality of the winning candidate. It’s possible for some candidates to get more first- and second-preference votes than the winner – but only if that winner a) came ahead of the other candidate in the column-A vote, and b) if both the winner and the other candidate won a majority of A + B votes.

And this is a lot simpler than AV. If there’s no majority winner of first preferences, you just add up all the second preferences in one go, and that’s it. And the rules for who’s won are very clear and simple.

And finally, the technical bit (but I’ll keep it short). FTM doesn’t pass the ‘later no harm’ criterion for voting systems. This means that voting for a candidate as your second preference can harm the chances of your first-preference candidate by, for instance, contributing to a majority or plurality for your second-preference candidate that is higher than the plurality obtained by your first preference. So voters would have to be advised on the ballot paper along these lines: ‘Any candidates you vote for in column B could defeat the candidate you vote for in column A. You should therefore carefully weigh up your choices for each column. However, you are not obliged to vote for any candidate in column B – so if you are in any doubt, leave this column blank.’

This warning applies only to candidates that have a realistic chance of being elected: you can harm the prospects of your favourite candidate by voting for other candidates in column B only if your favourite candidate has any hope of winning in the first place. So this system would lead to a degree of tactical voting along the lines of FPTP, with Lib Dem and Labour voters typically switching their support in column A to whichever candidate was more likely to beat the Conservative. But then, if no candidate wins an overall majority, you can still vote for your actual favourite candidate in column B. And your favourite could still catch up the candidate you voted for tactically, so that you wouldn’t mind about the ‘later no harm’ rule in this instance: you’d actually want your second-preference candidate to win if possible. So it cuts both ways.

As for any prospect of this system actually being adopted – well, I haven’t seen too many flying pigs recently. Nonetheless, I think it’s a ‘good’ compromise. And, you never know, if the result of the referendum is itself compromised by a low turn-out – as I hope – I might try to put it on the table. Or should that be the trough?