25 May 2010

Pot and Kettle

Given the level of criticism the Australian government has faced for its extensive internet censorship scheme and laptop porn searches, the condemnation directed at Google by Stephen Conroy (the Minister responsible driving the filtering scheme) because of, amongst other things, its approach to privacy, looked desperate and petulant:
In a very personalised attack, and with the freedom offered by parliamentary privilege, Senator Conroy singled out Google's chief executive, Eric Schmidt, describing his approach as "a bit creepy, frankly"...
Coming from a digital libertarian or privacy advocate, I might find that an understandable sentiment, if possibly a little overstated, but coming from Conroy, it is laughable. This is a man who considers himself fit to define what internet content is "inappropriate" for Australian's to view and should be censored, with the definition going way beyond any boundaries which could be considered reasonable in a liberal democracy. He's part of a government which has created a regime which enables laptops to be examined at the border for "pornography," be it professional or home-made. Creepy Conroy really isn’t in a position to point fingers at anybody else.
...He also said that Google considered itself above governments:...
If they do, then, quite frankly, good!

Google has had its faults and failings, particularly on privacy issues, but they are definitely the lesser of two evils when compared to governments such as the one inflicted on Australia. Google can't inflict violence on me if I don't do what they wish (unless of course the government does it on their behalf), it can’t demand from me more than I choose to give them, it can’t enforce a right to be the only legitimate provider of its services in a given geographical area (and to be fair to Google, compared to many in their industry, they’ve got a pretty good record when it comes to not attempting to create "lock-in.").

It seems to be a fairly common facet of the authoritarian politicians’ mindset that they consider themselves to be better representatives of us than people or organisations that we’ve freely chosen to deal with, even though the government almost never receives anybody’s explicit consent.
..."When it comes to their attitude to their own censorship, their response is simply, 'trust us'. That is what they actually state on their website: 'Trust us'."
I’m tempted to just put the words "pot" and "kettle." The Australian government has a censorship list. It is maintained in secret and Conroy condemned the leaking of a version of it on Wikileaks. There is no clear review or appeal process. How are the Australian public supposed to have confidence in the process? The implication from the government is clear – "trust us." That's another common facet of the authoritarian politician - they consider it perfectly reasonable to vilify others for following courses of action which they follow routinely.

12 May 2010

How to Drive Electoral Reform

The coalition agreement states:
We agree to establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation.
In terms of electoral reform for the Commons, I think this is more significant that the AV referendum.  At this stage, it's in that half hearted position of being a commitment to look at a reform, rather than a commitment to get on with reforming, but as the three largest parties all have a stated commitment to some degree of election to the Lords, anybody attempting to block it would be inviting significant criticism.

A proportional Lords will be able to claim more democratic legitimacy than an unreformed Commons, so without reform of the Commons, there could be some constitutional head-butting between the two houses.  The Commons would almost certainly have to be reformed in some way, not necessarily to satisfy public demand, but to defend its supremacy over the Lords.

What did they expect?

If I hear or read another person complaining that "I didn't vote Lib Dem to let the Tories in" I think I might grind my teeth to a pulp.

I remember Nick Clegg saying that he believed that the party with the most votes and seats should have the opportunity to form a government. That was the deal the Lib Dems were offering. Complaining because the leader of the party you supported stuck to his word can tend to make you sound like a sulky arse.

The Labour Party doesn't have a moral right to be the government of first choice. They don't have the right to demand that all other parties join them in an alliance to keep out the Tories. If, as a voter, all that matters to you is getting a Labour government at all costs, then vote Labour and take your chances.

All that aside, the numbers just weren't there for a Lib-Lab coalition anyway and given the sharp contrast between what seemed to be constructive Lib-Con negotiations and what seemed to be stubborn Lib-Lab negotiations, I don't think it would have been anything other than a shambles even if the numbers had been workable. The ideological differences on civil liberties between the Lib Dems and Labour are so severe that I don’t think they could have been overcome. On the other hand, any ideological differences on spending between the Lib Dems and the Tories have probably be narrowed significantly by the need to address the public sector deficit.

I think we’ve got the only outcome which was either sensible or workable.

Mild Optimism

Nothing more than that. It's still a government. It's still a group of people who have sought out power over the rest of us with the intention of using it. However, as governments go, I've got a feeling this might be one of the less objectionable ones.

I just hope this post doesn't come back to bite me.

10 May 2010

Having AV and PR together

I've covered this before, but I'll do it again, now it's in the shop window.

I quite like the Alternative Vote and in the event of a referendum, I'd be in the yes category, but clearly, one concern is that it isn't proportional.  I think there's a way to address that which might be acceptable across the political spectrum - PR for the Lords.  All the major Westminster parties back election for the Lords (at least in part).  All it would take is a repeal of the Parliament Act and STV or open lists for the Lords and you would have a proportional house with an absolute power of veto over legislation.

I think it's a viable compromise.  Labour have flirted with AV for the commons and both open lists and STV for the Lords.  The Lib Dems want STV for the Lords and seem prepared to tolerate AV for the commons.  The Tories are prepared to accept a referendum on AV and I can't see them objecting too severely to a proportional system in the Lords.  I don't imagine too many smaller parties or independents would have serious objections either.

The only sticking point could be repealing the Parliament Act, but I see that being almost inevitable if the upper house were to become elected and have democratic legitimacy on a par with the lower house.

It's got to be Lib-Con

At this point, nothing else makes sense:
  • A Lib-Lab coalition wouldn't have nearly enough seats.  A Lib-Lab coalition with the regional parties would be incredibly unstable and would require an extremely unpleasant level of pork barrel bribery.
  • Having a second Labour Prime Minister who wasn't leader at the time of the election would not be particularly popular.
  • In spite of the both Labour and Lib-Dem politicians saying that they are closer to each other in policy than the Lib-Dems are to the Tories, on a lot of controversial issues, I don't think they are.  On civil liberties issues (ID cards, databases, vetting,...) Labour and the Lib-Dems are poles apart and it's one area where I don't think the Lib-Dems could afford to concede any ground without losing all credibility.  The Lib-Dems might instinctively be closer to Labour on certain tax and spend policies, but the state of the public sector finances might limit the options available to the next government anyway.
  • Forcing through a pact with Labour could irreparably damage the Lib-Dems.  It seems to be what the MPs and party activists would prefer, but it would involve backing away from Nick Clegg's pre-election offer of support to whoever was the largest party, it would look like a rash self-serving act, it could make them seem so close to Labour as to be irrelevant and to the wider electorate, I think a more stable Lib-Con deal is what would go down better at this point.  Even those who don't like it could probably see the sense in it, which probably couldn't be said of an incredibly unstable Lib+Lab+others arrangement.
It's time to get on with it.

08 May 2010

Newer is Not Always Better

It was almost inevitable that there would be groups looking to use the problems at polling stations as an excuse to push technological solutions and it's already happened at the BBC:
David Monks is a local authority chief executive, and chair of Solace, the Society for local authority chief executives' electoral matters panel.

"What we've got here is a very Victorian system, that many Solace members have argued is much in need of modernisation," he said.

"We need a system for the 21st Century that is suitable for our lifestyles".
Of course, it's to be expected that the people who are in part responsible for delivering elections would try to put the blame on the system in order to distract from any potential shortcomings of their own, but I think this particular argument is weak. If there are too few staff in the polling station, then there will be problems irrespective of the voting method. If there are a lot of people trying to vote in the period just before the poll closes, there will be problems irrespective of the voting method.

There is a technological snobbery at play, which implies that paper is outdated and always a poor choice when there is a more high tech option. In this case, I don't think it is. The system might be Victorian, but it's a good one. Elections conducted on paper are transparent and auditable in a way that entirely electronic systems aren't.

I expected the first suggestion to deal with the issue to be a move to more widespread postal voting, rather than electronic voting, which is something I'm even less happy with and would like to see scaled back. There's no guarantee that a postal votes will reach it's destination and the whole approach destroys the principle of the secret ballot, opening the voter up to potential coercion.

It might be over 150 years since the Chartists pressed for elections conducted on paper in secret, but I think the principle is as sound now as it was then and has yet to be surpassed.

If there are issues with timings at polling stations, then either increasing the number of staff, or having some kind of "last orders" system, where people are allowed to votes so long as they are at the polling station by a certain time, would seem to be a more sensible approach. The secret ballot is too valuable to be sacrificed because of a few procedural failings.

07 May 2010

Just a few thoughts on the election...

...but no more, because I find it generally uninspiring:
  • I wanted a hung parliament and that's what we've got. I would have preferred a slightly different balance, as it would have made electoral reform a more likely prospect, but all in all, I'm not too disappointed. I feel that there is a reasonable chance that the Tories will try to hobble forward as a minority administration and parliament will tie it in knots, hampering its ability to force its will on the general public. If that happens then, so long as it doesn't result in another election any time soon, it will be one of the better possible outcomes.

    My only serious concern is the prospect of minor parties being bribed for support with pork barrel funding, but given the state of government's finances, the scope for offering it may be limited.

  • The spectacle of people being turned away from polling stations and angry voters holding ballot boxes hostage has the potential to rumble on. The Electoral Commission has already said it will conduct a review and I wouldn't be surprised to see one or two by-elections.

  • The success of the Greens in Brighton shows that a long, focused campaign in the right areas can yield results for smaller parties.

  • The defeat of Evan Harris left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. The situation surrounding Harris was summed up pretty well by Ben Goldacre in his Bad Science blog, prior to the election. Harris had a reputation for promoting science and evidence based policy and while I didn't agree with everything he promoted, part of the campaign against him had the kind of extreme religious anti-science tone which is don't generally associate with British politics.

  • However, the story of the night for me has to be the Alliance Party victory in Belfast East, in which they more than tripled their vote and went from third place to first, with a massive 26% swing from the DUP. I can't claim to know too much about politics in Northern Ireland, but a success for a non-sectarian candidate feels like a good thing to me. The fact the Alliance Party had a manifesto commitment to repeal the Digital Economy Act also gives me a lot of positive sentiment towards them.