Friday 31 October 2014

Is the United Kingdom breaking up? The West Lothian question.

1. The issue of English votes for English laws, commonly known as the West Lothian Question, refers to whether MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, sitting in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, should be able to vote on matters that affect England only. The Devolution in Scotland highlighted this problem and put the question in focus owing to the significant number of MPs involved. The Scottish electoral system, AMS, devised specifically for Scotland was decided without due consideration to its consequences. It was an example of how a political party, Labour here, decided on measures which looked like benefitting that party at the time overlooking the wider public interest. That decision came to haunt Labour now.

2. Way back in my book on TR Total Representation published under the auspices of the ERS in 2009,  I analysed in Chapter 7 the faults and consequences of AMS as applied to Scotland comparing it with TR (Total Representation Electoral System) My analysis was based on the actual results of the Scottish elections of 1999, 2003 and 2007. AMS is intended to reflect the voting preferences of the electorate in a more representative manner than the Westminster model, retaining the best features of FPTP – direct though limited accountability – while introducing proportionality between parties through party list regional voting. So Scottish electors each has two votes: one to elect 73 Constituency Members of Parliament, using FPTP; and another vote to elect 56 Regional Members, using  Proportional Representation "PR". Broadly speaking, the percentage of votes obtained by the parties in the list vote (for Regional Members) determines their overall number of representatives; these party lists are used to top up the FPTP seats to the required number. So if a party has won two seats in the Constituencies but its results in the Regional vote give it a proportion equivalent to five seats, the first three candidates on its list are elected in addition, and it ends up with five MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament). Therefore in practice the component of PR in the AMS is the dominant and determining element.

3. In comparison Total Representation TR is an electoral system based on the premise that every single vote cast in an election has to end up with representation in parliament directly or indirectly. It avoids the most serious defect of the first-past-the-post system, under which votes cast for the successful candidate are represented while all the rest  of the votes cast for the unsuccessful candidate are are discarded and left unrepresented. Under TR these unrepresented votes are totalled and distributed to the Parties of the Candidates ( in proportion to their contribution to this Total) to elect Party Members of Parliament (PMP) Therefore TR offers a solution by fusing the positive elements of both systems FPTP and PR in one ballot one vote. And back to Scotland, the following three paragraphs 4, 5, 6 are quotations from that Chapter 7 based on analysis in the tables provided of the actual results of Scottish Elections of 1999, 2003, and 2007:

4. Here is what I wrote in Ch 7 in 2009: "In my view, giving voters two ballots is potentially dangerous and destabilising. My reason for saying this is that it tends to make people think in two different directions – and the system can become a playground for machination and manipulation by professional politicians and their public relations advisers."    and another quote "A close examination of the results shows why the system is likely to become unviable. It is important to bear in mind when reading it that the calculations of the Regional seats are not based on simple straightforward conversion of percentages into seats to determine the resulting number of Regional representatives for each party. The calculation simply determines the topping-up requirements. That is why, for example, you find that (in 2007) almost equal percentages of votes of 29.1 and 31.0 for Labour and the Scottish National Party result in them winning 9 and 26 Regional seats respectively! The idea is to compensate the latter for its lack of success in the constituencies"

5. "Before the (2007) Scottish General Election, it was expected by the UK government that Labour, which was thought to be the most supported party, would win a majority. In fact, the desire of both the Labour government in London and the Labour Party in Scotland was to frustrate the efforts of the Scottish National Party to promote its platform of independence, and to show through the outcome of the election that the nationalists were in the minority and that Scotland did not want to break away. But close scrutiny of the results of 2007 show how AMS, the Additional Member System, subverted the results, and how a determined nationalist party, riding on a strong, emotional platform of independence, managed to overtake among the electorate the hitherto-more-supported Labour Party’s objective of staying within the Union. The results of the Constituency votes compared with those for the Regional List votes already show the manipulation of the votes between the two ballots. Eventually AMS will break down. It was obvious that sooner or later the voters will split their votes in order to push forward the fortunes of sectional interests of minority parties – that is, unless the Scottish nationalists succeed in seceding from the Union. But that will be a different ball game."

6. "To examine the results of 1999, 2003 and 2007 meaningfully, one needs to compare the results of each participant party, and especially the way its voters split their votes in different directions. This comparison is especially significant when one sees that this split occurred in a big way among those who cast their Constituency ballots for the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives and others – but not among those who voted for the two big warring blocks: Labour and the SNP.  The final results show the power of emotional, negative protest rather than rational opposition. A basis like this is bound to cause the system to fail sooner or later, sending the authorities back to the drawing board. A detailed examination of the actual results , reveals how – over three general elections – the Scottish Nationalists inched their way to the top. Their dip in the middle served to spur the voters of the other parties on to support them through the Regional votes to attain their objective of independence." End Quotes.

7. All this occurred also, of course, because the Scottish National Party was better led and more organised at campaigning in 2007 than in 2003, and the demand for a non-Labour government was greater. In 2003, a large number of smaller parties, notably the Greens and the SSP, were elected, mostly from the List part of the ballot. It was in that election that the difference between constituency and list voting was more apparent and most significant, while in 1999 and 2007 there was a less of a gap between the two.

8. Indeed the faulty Scottish Electoral System led directly to the recent  Referendum in Scotland and the chaos in the Westminster Parliament that unless dealt with wisely and quickly would be certain to  lead to the break up of the United Kingdom irrespective of the results of the recent referendum and not withstanding the result of 55% rejecting independence. And with the recent disintegration of Labour in Scotland its votes in the next general elections for Westminster could be overtaken by those of  the SNP. We could then find Westminster dominated by a reinvigorated SNP as a  powerful minority party side by side with the Lib-Dems and force the Conservative or Labour to play to its tunes. Therefore unless a proper response to the West Lothian Question is addressed now Scotland will become an independent country and the United Kingdom will be broken up.

9. Meanwhile Politics in the UK in all its aspects and institutions stand today under big question marks. The political establishment and the political institutions  in the country have become the object of distrust and even  derision in the eyes of the public. Westminster Palace has become the symbol of a historical fossil. Democracy itself is in a state of disarray. The political leaderships are in confusion. What are the answers? To create new parliaments for the regions? To abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a Senate?  To leave the EU? These questions need to be settled by the people, the ultimate Sovereign. But we don't live in ancient Athens where we can all assemble at the Agra, vote and decide on our needs and our future. We are not Swiss either who grew up for centuries exercising their democracy through the practice of referenda in all levels of  their politics, Communal, Cantonal and Federal. Shaped by our own historical circumstances we elect representatives to think and decide for us. Unfortunately today there is a disconnect between us, the people, and our representatives, the MPs and the Lords. The fault lies in our outdated Electoral System of FPTP and the mutilations recently of the House of Lords. We need solutions for both based on our present circumstances and in tune with our traditions of practical commonsense  and not on ideologies. The last thing we need now is the use of Referenda which is alien to our democratic traditions and therefore result in low participation and become  easy to manipulate  by vocal activists. That could certainly result in the subversion of the will of the British People the Sovereign..   

10. So where are the solutions? And how to reconnect the voters, the people, to our politics? The answers to all those questions lie in reforming the tools of our Democracy which have become rusty and malfunctioning.  And the biggest tool is  our outdated electoral system that caused and gave rise to all these problems in the first place. But instead of understanding the basic faults of the system we tried to tinker with and patch up the problems derived from its malfunction.

11. My solution has two prongs:  to replace our FPTP System with "TR" a modern electoral system that fuses in one ballot, one vote both the systems of FPTP and PR. And side by side  to  reform the House of Lords converting it to an Elected Chamber while retaining its present revisory functions. I believe that the Smith Commission Recommendations are  reversible. It would be advisable to the Welsh and Irish not to rush to clamour for  devolution and independence. I would not be surprised that the May Elections could result in the SNP gaining  more seats in the Commons. However I would not be surprised either that the SNP could end up later on  after the Scottish Elections with no overall majority in Holyrood. The outcome of the implementations of the Smith Commission will highlight the enormous problems that the SNP has created to the Scottish people in Scotland, in England and in Europe. People cannot be fed with speeches, slogans and emotions.

12. As for England, the last thing we need is a multiplicity of regional parliaments. We have to distinguish between political aspirations and economic  efficacy. Instead of devolving politics to the regions from London we must ensure  economic prosperity there. We must not destroy in haste London as the great centre of finance serving the whole Union. London's role and function can only be in the field of finance. The North and the other regions are our industrial hinterland. Instead of transferring political power to them from the centre we must engage in injecting economic resources to create jobs and increase productivity. Instead of devolving political power to the regions we should  revitalise our local governments and revive their glorious days before both the Conservative and Labour denuded them of financial muscle and authority. Local taxation served good purposes in the past. We should revitalise the town halls that stood for local  pride. It is then that a Councillor becomes a coveted office as important in the eyes of the public as an MP.

Aharon Nathan, Wimbledon, October 2014