Wednesday, 6 November 2013
The 2013 Challenge, day 4: Glensulaig to the Old Pines (4)
As we walked down Glen Loy, our conversation turned to politics. This is not a matter I often discuss; but I found it easy to converse with Tony and I knew that even if we differed in our opinions it would not cause us to fall out, so I was happy having the conversation. In a couple of kilometres, I managed to persuade him that a local income tax would never happen in this country, because its implementation would be politically impossible (if interested in the reasoning, see note 1 below); and also swayed his opinion on Proportional Representation from being broadly in favour to seeing the weaknesses of the system as a means of electing a national Parliament (if interested in the reasoning, see note 2 below).
NOTE 1: Why a local income tax is a political impossibility.
There is a choice of two ways (and only two ways) in which a local income tax can be administered. Either the rate is set centrally, and the same rate applies across the entire country, with surpluses being distributed from one local authority to another according to need. This is what currently happens with non-domestic rates. Alternatively, the rate can be set locally, with each local authority setting the rate at a level appropriate to raise the amount of revenue it needs. This is what happens with the Council Tax.
If a local income tax were to be introduced on the first model, then everybody (especially the media) would simply add the rate of local income tax to the national rate; and the government which introduced it would be characterised as the government which had raised income tax by 7p in the £ (or whatever). That would be a sure-fire guaranteed way to lose the next general election, and no government would touch it with a barge pole.
The alternative, however, is to have each local authority setting its own rate; and were this to be done, then we would have the rather unedifying spectacle of the good citizens of Kensington and Chelsea paying at a rate of 1p in the £ whilst the citizens of Hull paid at a rate of 9p in the £. This would not play well in the media either.
Between the two, therefore, it does not appear that there is a model that any political party will be prepared to adopt. Therefore, no matter how much certain parties may appear to espouse the idea in principle, it will never happen in practice.
NOTE 2: The problems with Proportional Representation.
Every system of Proportional Representation which has ever been seriously proposed, or is ever likely to be seriously proposed, exhibits one or other or a combination of both of two features, namely votes which are transferable amongst the candidates in a given constituency; and election of candidates from a party list instead of election of a candidate as a direct representative for a given constituency.
In a three-party political environment, the transferable vote has a MASSIVE in-built bias in favour of the centre party, by virtue of the fact that the second preference of every voter whose first preference is for either the party of the left or the party of the right is likely to be for the party of the centre; whereas the second preference of the voters whose first preference is for the party of the centre is likely to be more or less evenly split between the parties of left and right. It is therefore trivial to demonstrate that if national opinion is exactly evenly divided between the three parties, with minor local fluctuations so that each party will poll the fewest first preferences in one third of the constituencies, the outcome will be that the candidate from the centre party will be elected in two thirds of the constituencies (all of those in which their candidate was not the one to poll the fewest first preferences); whilst the parties of left and right will each win in only one sixth of the constituencies. This is hardly a "proportional" outcome; but it is easy to see why parties of the centre argue so strenuously in favour of such a system! It is just a little disingenuous of them to pretend that it is somehow "fairer" than the existing system, without acknowledgeing the extent to which they will be the beneficiaries of this "fairness".
The problem with the party list system is that it enables a political party - within certain limits - to decide who will be elected entirely independently of the wishes of the electorate. The top 100 or so names on the Labour and Conservative lists are essentially in the position of overseas first time Challengers: they are guaranteed their seat in the next Parliament. The electorate is therefore disenfranchised to the extent that it cannot say "We do not want that person in Parliament under any circumstances"; and the result that we saw at Cambridge in 1987 cannot be replicated.
(In case you are unfamiliar with the story of Cambridge in the 1987 election, basically, the Alliance (as the Lib-Dems were then known, as they had not yet formally merged) drew up a "hit list" of high profile seats that they wanted to win, and which their grandees would fight as candidates. So the Alliance candidate for Cambridge in 1987 was Shirley Williams, who swept in on a wave of confidence that she would unseat the Conservative Robert Rhodes-James, who had represented Cambridge for many years. However, the electorate of Cambridge saw in Robert Rhodes-James a candidate who wanted to go to Westminster to represent Cambridge; and in Shirley Williams a candidate who wanted to represent Cambridge to go to Westminster. It was a pretty one-sided contest, and as I recall Shirley Williams took such a drubbing that she barely recovered her deposit. Yet it was not because Cambridge was inherently Conservative. Robert Rhodes-James retired from Parliament at the 1992 election, and Cambridge promptly elected a Labour MP.
Now there is, of course, room for the view that the idea of MPs as the chosen representatives of their constituents is antiquated and obsolete, because in reality at a general election voters are choosing and voting for their Prime Minister not their MP. The MP they get is just an accidental side-effect of the process of choosing a Prime Minister. I do not hold this view myself; but if you do, then of course the arguments against the party list system of Proportional Representation will carry rather less weight with you. However, I believe it is important that an elected Member of Parliament should have had to win a constituency election, and not merely get in because the leader of their party chooses - for whatever reason - to put their name at the top of a list.