Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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Why I’m supporting AV

Say Yes to AV!I am surprised that there is the whole spectrum of strong views about the Alternative Vote among my friends and colleagues. UK voters are being promised a referendum on whether or not to adopt AV for electing the House of Commons, and the party lines seem to be shaping up as Labour and Lib Dems for, and Tories against (with sizeable groups within parties campaigning against the leadership). I am for it, but am shocked that those I consider the most progressive and/or radical are set against it. I am a member of the Labour Representation Committee, but was knocked back when I found out that the National Committee had decided to support the No campaign.

To be honest — and, if you are of the No persuasion, I shall grant you this as a starter — AV is not a very attractive option. If we were being truly progressive, we would want a referendum on adopting a system of proportional representation. Neither AV nor our current system are designed to return seats in Parliament in proportion to votes cast. However, just because AV is not the best ever option, it is does not automatically follow that we should keep our current arrangement. When given a straight choice between AV and the current FPTP system, AV is far better as it allows voters to express their true preference and return their preferred candidate, without wasted votes or vote splitting, and reducing the need for tactical voting.

This referendum is a distraction from the real politics of the dismantling of the post-war consensus on the welfare state and public services, which are far more important. However, if we have to do this, let us do it right.

There are three lies that are being spread by the No Campaign about AV

  1. That we no longer have ‘one person, one vote’
  2. That it will mean that a ‘loser’ will win and a ‘winner’ will lose
  3. That it will cost a huge amount of money

Under AV everyone still has one and only one vote. The difference is that an FPTP vote can be wasted by voting for a candidate who does not stand a chance. With AV, instead of the vote being wasted, it is transferred to the next preference as ranked on the ballot paper. This does not mean you get two or more votes. It is still one vote, but it can now be recycled if the first preference polls badly. With FPTP the problem of wasted votes encourages voters to vote tactically rather than expressing their true preference. For example, many more people would probably vote for the Green Party, but they do not vote for them because they reckon that to do so would be a wasted vote. Thus, the Green Party’s electoral support is probably far lower than the true preference of voters.

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What is the House of Lords for?

House of Lords

House of Lords

Ninety-nine years ago today the British Parliament passed the Parliament Act. It limited the powers of the House of Lords and set up as official the idea that the chamber should be democratized. The Parliament Act 1911 also changed the way the House of Commons operated by reducing the maximum term of that chamber from seven to five years and introducing MP’s salaries (then at £400 p.a.). These Commons measures were along the lines of what the Chartists and others had long been campaigning for: shorter terms to give the electorate greater voice (because we can vote more often), and wages for MPs so that a private income is not needed to take up the political ‘hobby’.

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When politicians swear

It’s been about twelve years since I last had a fulsome swear.

I do swear
that I will be faithful
and bear true allegiance
to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II,
her heirs and successors,
according to law:
So help me God.

All Church of England clergy have to make this Oath of Allegiance on the taking up of most church posts. The same oath is made by MPs at the beginning of the parliamentary term. Our MPs began swearing their new oaths last Wednesday (19 May), which just happens ironically to be the anniversary of the Declaration of the English Commonwealth (1649).

A pile of sacred tomes is deposited beside the government despatch box in the Commons for those who wish to hold something sacred while they swear. An alternative form of the oath that affirms rather than swears is available for those who object on principle to the swearing of oaths. The alternative was originally introduced to allow Quakers, who do not swear oaths, to take seats in Parliament. No Sinn Féin MP has taken their seat as there’d be no way they’d swear allegiance to the British monarchy. Some others cross their fingers, some add ‘and all who sail in her’, as a compromise of taking up their seats as duly elected without taking the forelock tugging too seriously.

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22 points about the election

  1. The House of Commons we elect this week will have four more MPs — 650 MPs in total — than the last due to population increase and boundary changes.
  2. This means that the entire UK is divided into 650 constituencies, each will elect one MP.
  3. The average number of registered voters in a constituency is 68,433.
  4. Actual numbers in constituencies can be a few thousand less or more than this. You can check your constituency over at Voter Power Index.
  5. The bigger a constituency the less of a voice one has nationally, as more people than average still get only one MP. The largest constituency is the Isle of Wight with 110,000 registered voters.
  6. The smaller a constituency the more of a voice one has nationally, as fewer people than average still get a full MP. The smallest constituency is Na h-Eileanan an Iar with 22,000 registered voters.
  7. A voting system called First Past The Post is used in each constituency to elect one MP; the candidate with the most votes wins.
  8. This means that often the winner does not receive more than half the votes, with most voters voting for someone else.
  9. Gordon Brown has proposed that a system called Alternative Vote be offered as an option in the future; under AV a candidate would have to secure more than half of valid votes to win.
  10. Neither First Past The Post nor Alternative Vote are proportional electoral systems. That means that if 30% of the electorate vote Conservative, neither system would ensure that 30% of our MPs are Conservatives, as only those who cast a vote for the winner in their constituency affect the composition of the House of Commons.
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POWER2010 and the People’s Charter

POWER2010If you haven’t visited the POWER2010 website and voted for the political reforms you would like to see, please do so. Polls close on 22 February.

A number of political campaigning organisations of  which I am a part are supporting POWER2010. It is part of a desire to put political reform high on the agenda in post-New-Labour Britain. The idea is to choose five policies to put at the centre of the POWER2010 Pledge and campaign for their adoption by the government as a 21st-century Chartist movement. Continue reading


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When democracy meant getting your sword

Battleton Holt, Edgehill; photo by Jonathan Billinger

Battleton Holt, Edgehill; photo by Jonathan Billinger

367 years ago today it all kicked off. The Battle of Edgehill on 23 October 1642 was the first major engagement of the English Civil War. As I sit in my study looking out on this bright but chilly day, with the puddles of yesterday’s rain still glistening on the tarmac, I can only begin to imagine what that day a few miles west of Stratford-upon-Avon was like.

Charles Stuart sr was a tyrant, an autocrat who ruled according to his own whim. While the House of Commons was not a great advert for power to the people, stuffed as it was with landowners and merchants elected on a very limited franchise, it was the nearest thing to democracy we had. This was a world before the revolutions of the US, France and Russia: no one had heard of a president running a country, and democracy was a dirty word. Continue reading


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The Unspoken Constitution

If you’re interested in politics, Stuart Weir and Stuart Wilks-Heeg of Democratic Audit have written a wonderful spoof of our unwritten constitution The Unspoken Constitution.

We, the elite, do not believe in the kind of constitution most other advanced nations have — those that boast a belief in popular sovereignty; with resounding declarations such as ‘we, the people’, and that tend to contain rules about how government should act.

We describe ours as the ‘unwritten constitution’. It is a collection of laws, fictions, powers left over from the old monarchy and powers that we make up as we go along. It allows us to decide what governments can do; and best of all, only we have the power to change it.

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