Phil Woolas: still crazy after all these years

December 8, 2010

Apologies for not blogging sooner on the Phil Woolas news. I wasn’t sure what to say, until I heard the man himself speaking straight after leaving court last Friday. It’s very impressive: every sentence contains an inaccuracy. It therefore deserves a good old-fashioned fisk. Woolas’s remarks are in italics; my commentary isn’t.

“The judges have said that there is no avenue of appeal for my electors, who elected me at four general elections, to have their say.”

Well, this is stretching it a bit. The judges found Woolas guilty under s. 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. That, I would argue, is the main conclusion they reached.

The fact is, that Parliament never intended for there to be a right of appeal in cases such as these. As this BBC blog puts it:

Mr Woolas did well to get even [as far as judicial review].

The law was deliberately drafted to avoid exactly this kind of legal delay; once an MP has been disqualified, they are expected to simply shut-up and go.

So the fact that Woolas was granted a judicial review on the facts, and yet his appeal was rejected anyway, is worth recounting.

Also, the people of Oldham East and Saddleworth will now have a say in a by-election. Woolas cannot stand, because he broke election law, and his punishment was to be disqualified as a candidate for three years. It is surely right and proper that if you have broken election law, you should receive some sanction for it.

So, one sentence in and Woolas has already got three things wrong. Let’s carry on.

“This is the only area of law, as far as I can see, where there is no appeal.”

This makes little sense. The court granted Woolas the right to appeal against the facts, but said that he had dishonestly made untrue statements against Elwyn Watkins that Woolas knew were untrue. As the summary judgement shows, the original election court said that Woolas had made three untrue statements that were illegal. The decision last week granted him leave to appeal, yet still found him guilty on two of those three charges.

[a little addition thanks to Peter: there are further avenues Woolas could appeal to from the High Court (such as the Court of Appeal) but he is not going any further. Not that this means the factual findings would change]

“We won on the costs argument, we won on the point of law, that I’m pleased with.”

I assume the costs argument means that he no longer has to pay Watkins’ costs. Woolas neglects the fact that he has to pay a £5000 fine.

“But the judges’ hands were tied by what is out of date law.”

This is nonsense. The law Woolas was found guilty under was passed in 1983. It was amended by New Labour, and as I’ve pointed out before, Woolas voted for that law!

After this, Woolas says thanks to both people in Oldham and Labour for the support he’s had. Then a journalist asks “What mistakes did you make, Mr Woolas?”, at around 1.02 on the video.

“I don’t believe I did make any mistakes.”

Still no apology for stirring up racial tensions. Still no apology for trying to “make the white vote angry” in a town that had race riots less than nine years ago and has a fairly significant BNP presence. Still no acknowledgement he’s broken the law.

“I believe I’m the victim of the circumstances of this law.”

Woolas is trying to paint himself as the victim. That’s an, er, interesting move.

“As I say, I believe it’s unfair that the electorate have not got the chance to say what they think.”

They do, in an upcoming by-election. Though if opinion polls were anything to go by, 71% of voters backed the electoral courts’ decision.

But he must have some regrets, surely? Only a moral vacuum could have no regrets over the kind of campaign that he led.

“I don’t regret anything that has been said.”

Oh.

“My argument is that my election leaflet and the way that has… (pause) this was one leaflet in fifteen years of Parliament that I’ve been thrown of out Parliament for.”

Although, of course, it was two leaflets. Woolas was found to have made illegal remarks in both The Saddleworth and Oldham Examiner and the Labour Rose. Sigh.

“My argument was and is that wooing certain types of vote, that is a political comment.”

Indeed. But the court decided differently. See paragraphs 121 and 122 of the full judgement. The court has said that merely saying that Watkins was an “extremist” would have been a political statement on his position, and therefore not illegal:

However when it was asserted in The Examiner that those whose votes were being wooed by Mr Watkins were those who were not simply extremists but those who advocated extreme violence, in particular against Mr Woolas, it plainly suggested, as the Election Court found, that Mr Watkins was wiling to condone threats of violence in pursuit of political advantage. It was not then a statement about the type of support he was wooing, but a statement that he was willing to condone threats of violence. That further statement took the statement from being a statement as to Mr Watkins’ political position to a statement about his personal character – that he conducted criminal conduct. It is not simply an implied statement in relation to a political matter, but a statement that goes to his personal character as a man who condones extreme violence. (my emboldening)

Woolas goes on:

“I never said, as some have said, that the Liberal Democrats supported violence. That is a preposterous thing to say. Of course that is not the case.”

This is the weakest of straw men. I’m slightly obsessed with the Woolas case, as you might have noticed, and I have not read once, in any of the reports connected with it, that he accused the Liberal Democrats of supporting violence.

But that was the interpretation given by the judges.

*hits the roof, goes absolutely apoplectic, kicks kitten*

Apologies for that outburst of anger, but Phil Woolas brings out the worst in me. As the judgement clearly shows, this was related to the personal conduct of Elwyn Watkins, not the Liberal Democrats. To say otherwise is a complete untruth.

Not by the people, but by judges. And I regret that much.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, it is a fallacy to suggest that it is undemocratic for judges to intervene in this way.

That’s enough for now. I’m going to have a lie-down.


The Case for AV (or: ‘AV it!)

September 8, 2010

The electoral reform bill has passed a second reading, so we will almost definitely have a referendum on the Alternative Vote system next year. Forget accusations of “gerrymandering”, because the referendum isn’t about the proposed boundary changes, only the way we vote. I will also be attending the Green Party Conference on Saturday, when they will be debating whether they should back a “Yes” or “No” vote at the referendum. Now therefore seems a suitable time to explain why you should all vote Yes. I want to get involved in the Yes campaign, so see this as a statement of intent, if you like.

If you are already in favour of voting Yes to AV, then great, but forgive me if I don’t address this to you. There’s little point in preaching to the converted, after all. If you are not (yet) in favour of voting AV, I assume you are one of two groups:

1) People who don’t think First Past the Post is better than AV.

2) People who would prefer a more proportional voting system and do not think voting Yes offers any benefits to them.

I’ll discuss both those points in turn. First, I’ll just explain how the First Past the Post (FPTP) and Alternative Vote (AV) systems work, courtesy of the Electoral Reform Society. Both of the articles on their site are rather partial, as you’d expect, but provide excellent summaries on the two different methods of electing a government.

So, FPTP:

FPTP voting takes place in single-member constituencies. To vote under FPTP, the voter simply puts a cross in a box next to one candidate. The candidate with the most votes in the constituency wins.

Simple enough, then. Whereas AV:

The Alternative Vote (AV) is very much like First-Past-the-Post (FPTP). Like FPTP, it is used to elect representatives for single-member constituencies, except that rather than simply marking one solitary ‘X’ on the ballot paper, the voter has the chance to rank the candidates on offer.

The voter thus puts a ‘1’ by their first-preference candidate, and can continue, if they wish, to put a ‘2’ by their second-preference, and so on, until they don’t care anymore or they run out of names. In some AV elections, such as most Australian elections, electors are required to rank all candidates.

If a candidate receives a majority of first-preference votes (more people put them as number one than all the rest combined), then they are elected.

 If no candidate gains a majority on first preferences, then the second-preference votes of the candidate who finished last on the first count are redistributed. This process is repeated until someone gets over 50 per cent.

It may look a bit more complicated at first glance. But all a voter has to do his rank the candidates in order from 1 to 5, or 6, or whatever. So it really isn’t that hard, is it? Anyone who complains that AV is overly complicated obviously doesn’t really respect the intelligence of the general public, which seems a bit patronising to me.

 Without further ado…

 Why AV is better than First Past the Post

 1) FPTP is unsuited to modern-day politics

 Our present democracy was made for a two party system. Look at the structure of the House of Commons, for instance: it’s adversial, and designed for two parties to sit opposite each other, bickering and throwing rotten fruit across the chamber. Since 1832 the system has served its purpose because generally British Politics has been about two parties. In the nineteenth century these two parties were Liberal and Conservative, then in the first decades of the twentieth century the collapse of the Liberals ushered in Labour to be the second of the two main parties. In 1951, for instance, Labour and the Conservatives got between them 96.8% of the vote.

Over the last three decades we have seen the breakdown of the two party system. This is best illustrated by this wonderful graph made by a user on Wikipedia:

Key (from top to bottom):

  • Blue: Tory (1832), Conservative (from 1835), Liberal Conservative (1847-59), Liberal Unionist (1886-1910), National parties (1931-45)
  • Grey: other parties and independents
  • Orange: Whig (to mid-19th century), Liberal (mid-19th century to 1979), National Liberal (1922), Independent Liberal (1931), SDP-Liberal Alliance (1983-87) and Liberal Democrat (from 1992)
  • Red: Labour

As you can clearly see, the proportion of people voting for a party other than Labour or Conservative has been the highest it has been for about a century. Because of the way FPTP does – or doesn’t – work, you end up with anamolies in the system. Which leads on to our next point:

2) FPTP leads to unfair, skewed results

The number of Lib Dem votes increased in May, but ended up with seven less seats than 2005. On three occasions – in 1929, 1951 and 1974- a party has secured most votes in the election, only to finish second in the overall poll. This is a system, remember, that its supporters will say should be kept because of its simplicity!

On the other hand, it can also exaggerate the majorities of parties who receive the most votes. In 1983 Mrs Thatcher’s Tories won 42.4% of the votes, which earned them a whopping 61.1% of seats; the SDP, in contrast, got only 3.5% of seats with over a quarter of the vote. In 2005 Labour received 35.2% of the vote, less than 3% more than the Conservatives (32.4%) but gained 355 seats to the Tory’s 198. With turnout so low, at under 60%, Labour receieved a commanding majority with only 20% of the popular vote. No wonder people like Lord Hailsham have called this system an “elective dictatorship”.

3) Millions of wasted votes

The reason FPTP produces these skewed results is because the election is fought within hundreds of constituencies. A party with a solid base in a geographical region (Labour in the North and Scotland, Tories in the South) will always outperform a party like the Liberal Democrats, which has decent support across the country, but not enough to win seats.

I know so many people who are not interested in politics because they said there was no point in getting involved and learning about the different parties. The result of their election was never in doubt, because their sitting MP (usually Conservative, but occasionally Labour) had a huge majority, so they thought there was no point in voting. These seats are the twenty-first century equivalent of rotten boroughs. That where you live makes such a difference to the weight of your vote is illustrated best in the voter power tool produced at the last election: it estimated that I had 0.25 of a vote (I was one of the lucky ones, friends of mine had half that figure!).

This system has led to a number of safe seats: 31 haven’t changed hands since the reign of Queen Victoria, for goodness sake. This breeds complacency, which can be best exemplified by the expenses scandal last year. To take a differnet point: Burnley, for instance, was a safe Labour seat, and because it was a safe seat its sitting MP would not listen to the concerns of local residents. The BNP vote grew in Burnley because voters did not feel their MP was listening to them on issues such as housing and education. Their vote grew from zero in 1992 to over 4000 in 2001 and 2005: a reflection of how much voters felt their MP was ignoring them. It’s not as if 4000 people in Burnley suddenly became racist in nine years. However, an active Liberal Democrat party in Burnley began to campaign against the BNP and for the needs of local residents. This year the Liberal Democrats won almost 15000 votes in Burnley, tripling their vote from 1997, to take what had been a Labour seat since 1945, whilst the BNP vote dropped by a quarter. AV would make more seats more competitive, meaning that MPs would have to take more notice of their constituents. We’d have representative democracy, in other words.

That’s enough about how bad FPTP is. Its disadvantages are plain to see.

Here are some positive reasons why AV is better than FPTP:

1) All MPs must get at least 50% of the vote

Presently, two-thirds of MPs are elected with less than half of the vote in their constiuencies. What sort of mandate does this give them in Parliament? With AV, all MPs will go to Parliament with the backing of at least half of their constituents, making them representative and giving them a proper mandate.

2) There will be less negative campaigning

My home constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth saw some really vile leaflets published by Phil Woolas. Some are the subject of an ongoing court case. In one leaflet he “sang from the BNP hymn sheet”, whilst in another he appears to have photoshopped armed police behind the Lib Dem candidate. These are divisive and put people off politics. Under an election held under the Alternative Vote, there would be much less of this sort of divisive attack, because all candidates would be attempting to get other participants’ 2nd and 3rd preferences. This can only be good for politics.

3) Virtually eradicates tactical voting

“If you vote X, you let Y in”. How often did you see that on the campaign trail this year? Those bar charts on Lib Dem election leaflets – “Only we can win here” – can be a thing of the past (it’s worth voting Yes for this reason alone). Too often under FPTP voters need to choose between the “lesser of two evils” – do you vote with your heart, for a party you believe in, or with your head, for the anti Tory/Labour/whatever candidate? With AV, you can do both: vote for a positive programme whilst knowing you can still stop the election of a party you hate. This doesn’t mean an end to tactical voting, but under AV there is far less than under FPTP. We’d have more debate over which party’s policies were best for the country, rather than which candidate is best to tactically vote for “to keep the others out”.

4) It retains the constituency link whilst being more proportional than FPTP

A key element of British democracy is the constituency link that MPs have. It’s inconceivable that this link could be abolished at present by the introduction of a  “list system”. Bearing this in mind, it’s true that AV, on average, over a wide range of scenarios, is more proportionate than First Past the Post. It would mean that the Lib Dems, for instance, who at the moment are under-represented under FPTP, would get fairer representation.

A footnote to rally those who begrudge the price: or a message to those who want a more proportional system than AV

Nick Clegg – AV is a “miserable little compromise”

We can expect to see that phrase repeated quite a lot over the next few months, so we might as well confront the elephant in the room straightaway. Let’s see what Clegg actually said:

Mr Clegg said: “AV is a baby step in the right direction – only because nothing can be worse than the status quo. If we want to change British politics once and for all, we have got to have a quite simple system in which everyone’s votes count. We think AV-plus is a feasible way to proceed. At least it is proportional – and it retains a constituency link.

“The Labour Party assumes that changes to the electoral system are like crumbs for the Liberal Democrats from the Labour table. I am not going to settle for a miserable little compromise thrashed out by the Labour Party.”

Most Lib Dems would probably prefer a more proportional system, like straight PR, or even AV-plus, as Clegg says above. There are quite a few people on comments boards who are basically saying, “I am in favour of PR, not AV. So I will vote no in the referendum because I don’t want AV”. This point of view was put most eloquently by Jane Watkinson.

There are a couple of points to make against this argument:

1) Half a loaf of bread is not the same as no bread

Whenever I read someone argue that they won’t vote for AV to replace FPTP because they prefer PR, I am reminded of this passage from Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn:

An illusion can become a half-truth, a mask can alter the expression of a face. The familiar arguments to the effect that democracy is ‘just the same as’ or ‘just as bad as’ totalitarianism never take account of this fact. All such arguments boil down to saying that half a loaf is the same as no bread.

As Nick Clegg said in the passage I quoted above, AV would still be an improvement on FPTP. I hope I have demonstrated above that AV is a better system than FPTP. It isn’t perfect, but it is a start. Jane argues that a Yes vote to AV “would hamper any future reform”. I’m afraid I would have to respectfully disagree with this. How would a No vote further the cause of electoral reform? Surely a Yes vote would do infinitely more to further the cause of electoral reform. How many times have we heard from FPTP supporters that “Nobody really cares about electoral reform” and that “it isn’t a doorstep issue”? A high turnout and resounding Yes vote next year could put those arguments to bed. To vote No, or abstain, because AV isn’t the reform system you want would really throw the baby out with the bathwater.

2) AV isn’t the only proposed consitutional reform

As Jane Watkinson rightly points out, AV does not help smaller parties such as the Greens. This is AV’s main failing (I’m willing to admit it’s not perfect). However, remember that AV is not the only constitutional change being proposed. Amongst other initatives, plans will be announced earlier next year to introduce an elected House of Lords, perhaps under the STV system. In that case, smaller parties like the Greens could end up in a situation like Australia, where nine Green members in their upper house held the balance of power.

Parties like the Greens, and like Labour, need to look beyond their own self-interest. AV is a once in a generation opportunity for electoral reform. We must grasp it or face more decades of a shoddy system and millions of wasted votes. 


Trouble at t’mill

July 3, 2010

I voted Lib Dem at the last election, for my sins, and even delivered leaflets for them in my home constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth. One of the main reasons for me drifting from Labour to the Liberal Democrats over the past two or three years is that OES’s Labour MP is Phil Woolas is the MP.

For a quick summary of why he’s that repulsive, here is a decent list of reasons. This populism has continued in opposition too, with this “Afghans on back of buses” remark.

Woolas finally was declared the victor in Oldham East after several recounts, by 103 votes. This was after a nasty campaign by Woolas. Labour circulated a mock-newspaper claiming that the Lib Dem candidate Elwyn Watkins was “wooing” the votes of Muslim extremists, and was being funded by a Saudi oil baron. Because, of course, Saudi oil barons are just flocking to fill the coffers of Oldham Liberal Democrats.

Mind you, what else can one expect from a former PPS to Peter Mandelson, and who first fought a by-election in 1995 with a campaign which claimed his Lib Dem opponent was “high on crime and soft on drugs”?

Watkins issued a legal challenge to the result, and now it looks like this challenge now shall go to court, probably in September.

According to Ansari, Elwyn Watkins must prove the allegations were made and that they were false.

Phil Woolas must also either prove the allegations were correct, or that he had reasonable grounds for believing them.

Truly extraordinary, as this is the first legal challenge to a parliamentary result for 99 years. I’m looking forward to see what the court’s decision will be.


The Early Skirmishes

April 10, 2010

That last PMQs was typical of most I’ve seen with Gordon Brown. You end up being so frustrated with his evasive answering that you want to throw something at the television.

The problem is that Brown is so much more comfortable in public when he is denying reality. Or, rather, when he puts forward his alternative vision of reality constructed in the cocoon in which he lives: that he is an economic wizard who can lead Britain out of the wilderness of the recession without cutting any services in the meantime, unlike those ghastly Tories.

What is worse, is that the higher echelons of the Labour Party seem content for Brown to live in this fantasy island. Other ministers who have the misfortune to be grounded on planet Earth have to announce Labour’s planned cuts – see Alistair Darling’s “deeper and tougher than Thatcher” and Stephen Timms yesterday, also saying that the NI rise will cost jobs. You can’t blame them I suppose – it beats Brown throwing things at them.

Anyway – where was I? Oh yes, PMQs. It was astonishing. Brown said it’s not his fault that there were not enough helicopters in Helmand, but the fault of the generals who advised him. Again, he did not answer directly questions on robbing pension funds or whether businessmen had been deceived. Brown just launched into a bunch of election soundbites that didn’t answer the question.

He did, perhaps, have the best joke, saying to Cameron “To think he was the future once”, a cute paraphrase of Cameron’s first barb at Blair at PMQs. But the problem with Brown telling jokes, however funny we are told he is in private, is that he delivers them in public the same way that he delivers economic forecasts. And Brown shouldn’t be making jokes about the future. Gordon Brown has been, and always will be, part of the future only in the same way that going bald and your teeth falling out are part of  your future.

Anyway, Cameron won PMQs pretty convincingly.  Nick Clegg piped up with a question about party funding. Attacking Labservative’s funding has been a common theme of Liberal Democrat attacks recently. You’d have thought with their track record, it’s the last area they’d want to highlight.

The opening days have been dominated by rows over National Insurance tax rises. I will bow to the great Malcolm Tucker on this one:

And probably the most thrilling part of the whole thing is the “battle” over national insurance which, brilliantly, no one understands. The Tories have tried to brand NI a tax on jobs, which has the merit of being such an oversimplification that it actually makes it harder to understand what they’re talking about. My advice on NI: move on, nothing to see here.

Chris Dillow’s excellent post here scuppers any Tory attacks that NI rises are a tax on jobs – seeing as in Finland a lower NI rate had naff-all impact on creating jobs. It doesn’t seem as if Labour know what they’re talking about either, mind you – Brown is trying to use it as a way in to his Alternative Reality, where the next election is about “Labour investment versus Tory cuts”. It isn’t, of course, but as mentioned above Brown’s team seem happy to let him wander his happy place and think that it is. It will be interesting to see how St Vince-of-making-jokes-about-Mr-Bean’s criticism of the “nauseating businessmen” goes down. As usual, I think he’s spot on.

This week we’ve also seen Cameron’s latest ploy to attract wavering Labour voters. They are doing this by using lefty buzz words. A month ago they unveiled plans to let people set up “co-operatives”, a policy so half-baked that it was probably written on the back of a half-baked potato. Now Cameron is using the language of equality:

We are already committed to pay transparency and accountability, but I think it is time to go further. The government plays an important role in helping to shape society, so if we win the election we will set up a fair pay review to investigate pay inequality in the public sector.

Some of our most successful private sector companies operate a pay multiple, meaning that the highest paid person doesn’t earn more than a certain multiple of the lowest paid. We will ask the review to consider how to introduce a pay multiple so that no public sector worker can earn over 20 times more than the lowest paid person in their organisation. There are many complex questions that the review will need to address, but I am confident it will not only help tackle unfair pay policies, it will improve cohesion and morale in the public sector too.

This just doesn’t sound convincing, though. If any government were serious about tackling inequality, it would start with the private sector where inequalities were starker. It would also have a coherent policy on gay rights. This post is far too long anyway, but I’ll direct you here for why Cameron has a wrong diagnosis of the inequality problem, and here for why the Tories don’t seem too concerned about making society more equal.

Before I go, a quick word about polls. The absolutely indispensible political betting have the Lib Dems gaining at Labour’s expense, which is very interesting. It’s also, presumably, something which Labour will try and keep from Gordon Brown, so they can leave him in his happy place, talking to the 13 staunch Labour supporters that are left about how nasty everyone is but him.


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