Saturday, 30 April 2011

Why the winner under Alternative Vote is a cool cat

A comment often made by those opposed to electoral reform is that voting systems isn't something they hear about 'on the doorsteps', and no it isn't. However, the voting system used to elect our MEPs, MPs, MSPs or councillors affects every one of those issues that do exercise the minds of voters.

That's because in many cases the voting system used can encourage us to vote for people who are most likely to keep out those we don't want, rather than vote in those we do. Take for example, the current debate ahead of this week's referendum, on whether to change the current First Past The Post (FPTP) system used to elect MPs to Westminster to Alternative Vote (AV).

Now I don't think changing the system will greatly alter the number of MPs of each party elected. What it will do though, is to remove the tactical vote so often encouraged by candidates who came second in a particular constituency last time ("It's a two horse race", "a vote for x is a wasted vote", "Winning here").

There is a humorous, but excellent video of how AV works, using the example of how cats, which would never consider voting for a dog, would find their votes split under FPTP - letting in the dreaded dog - but not under AV. Any voting system which encourages voting for a candidate other than the one you really want is flawed and deciding who others are likely to vote for shouldn't be part of the decision making process, but under FPTP it is - otherwise you may find your vote is wasted.

A move to AV would encourage more candidates to stand, particularly those with similar views. Take for example the far left - SSP, Solidarity, Socialist Labour, Respect, SWP to name but a few. In some places, a candidate from the far left may be preferred by the electorate, but if all these parties stand against each other, under FPTP the Tory may even be elected, despite being generally disliked (a single dog up against many cats). With AV, that simply won't happen.

In the cats and dog analogy, supporters of FPTP maintain that the cat which wins under AV is less popular than the dog. I doubt if many would agree. They also argue, erroneously, that under AV, voters whose votes are transferred get more than one vote. What actually happens under AV is that there are several rounds of voting - and those who voted for the dog also get to vote in each round - it's just their vote isn't transferred.

Another argument the No to AV camp uses is the cost of switching to AV (which is also flawed as it includes the cost of the referendum itself - money already spent - and the use of counting machines, which aren't needed). However, if we had a voting system (as in Scotland) which reduces the likelihood of a single party gaining an overall majority on a minority of votes, we could dispense with the House of Lords, an unelected body set up to act as a moderating influence on the House of Commons. We get by without such a chamber in the Scottish Parliament, so why not at Westminster?

Ideally, we should have a fully proportional electoral system for Westminster, and the Single Transferable Vote is my choice for that. Although AV is an improvement on FPTP, AV is not proportional. However, moving from AV to STV is simple - just merge constituencies together and hey presto! As far as the voter's concerned, there's little change - just mark your preferences 1,2,3, etc in the same way. Even Casual Cat could approve of that.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

1st Vote Who?

It's a subject which has stirred up a mini-debate amongst Greens, but as we're not standing in the constituencies, to whom should I give my first vote?

Some psephologists in the party suggest we should vote tactically, to help maximise the chance of gaining list seats - for example if the other four main parties gain at least one constituency in a region then they will need twice as many list votes as us to gain an additional MSP. Difficult, as you have to pre-judge how the other parties will fare, and it gets complicated when one party may win so many constituencies that they cannot gain any from the list - as Labour did in Lothians in both 1999 and 2003.

For me that seems too much like hard work. So I've had a look at the contenders and these are my personal feelings regarding the contenders for Midlothian North and Musselburgh.

Scott Douglas (Conservative) - Scott is clearly a political animal; enthusiastic, and a politician for life. He reminds me of Charles Hendry, an acquaintance of mine at Edinburgh University and now honourable member for Wealdon and Energy Minister in the Coalition Government. Scott gave a competent performance at the Eskbank hustings and, though not destined for Holyrood this time, will no doubt add this 'lion's den' constituency to his CV, working his way up to more favourable territory - perhaps ending up somewhere like Wealdon one day. Unfortunately, Scott, hell will freeze over before I vote Tory, but good luck on the way to the green benches and when you get there, say hello to Charles for me.

Ian Younger (Lib Dem) - What is it about the Lib Dems that you don't recall much about them after you meet them? I remember Ian talking at Eskbank, but not what he was saying. Given his party's guilt by association with the Coalition, Ian won't be getting my vote either, and with the Lib Dems' current poll ratings and their 13.77% notional vote here last time, I doubt if it would have made any difference. All credit to him though; it can't be easy being a Lib Dem candidate in these times.

Alan Hay (Independent) - Alan comes across as a genuine guy, and has a lot of knowledge and expertise in social issues. But what else? The problem I have with Independents is you largely don't know what you're getting. True, those with party labels will usually differ from party policy on one or two issues, but if you read a party's manifesto then that's basically what you're voting for. Some people think that not being tainted with a party label is a virtue. An independent can also be a maverick. However, I'm keeping the book open on Alan until I see what else he's offering.

Bernard Harkins (Labour) - I saw Bernard speaking at three hustings and must say I was impressed. He knows his stuff, is articulate and is not afraid to stray from the script. I did wonder why Labour chose a community councillor when experienced councillors were on the short leet, but I now see why. Whether I can bring myself to vote Labour in the one-party state is another matter though, and I'll have to think carefully.

Colin Beattie (SNP) - Colin is a good speaker and spoke clearly and forcefully in the hustings I attended. He's got bags of experience in electioneering as well as in the cauldron of Midlothian Council, so knows how to play the political game. That's the only problem I have with Colin though - I find him a bit too partisan. Holyrood is - has to be - more about consensus and building bridges with other parties if you want to get things done, but then maybe he would adapt.

So apart from ruling out the ConDems, I am as yet undecided. I'll definitely vote for someone on 5th May as we should all, and I wish whoever wins the best of luck as our next constituency MSP.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Alternative Car Park

The story starts with the Gourlaw/Newbigging/Shewington Opencast Community Fund (commonly known as the Gourlaw Fund), administered by Midlothian Council. Into this fund goes 25p for every tonne of coal extracted from the open cast coal mine just outside Rosewell, to be used for local environmental improvements.

In March 2008, Bonnyrigg Rose Athletic Junior Football Club (BRAJFC) applied to the fund for £37,500, as matched funding towards £75,000 to be spent on provision of a car park, for use by the club on match days and the community the rest of the week. A covering letter and roughly drawn sketch are all the council received in support of the application. A brief item appeared on the agenda of the Gourlaw sub-committee of Midlothian Council.

However, two years later, the car park looks like this.

This state of affairs came to light when Poltonhall & District Community Council started asking questions - as they had unsuccessfully bid for funding from the Gourlaw Fund, and the matter reached the local paper

A fellow community councillor submitted a Freedom of Information Request (FoI) to find out what happened to the money and my involvement began when I read the response from Midlothian Council to the FoI request, and which implied that information may never be released.

I then submitted three FoIs, requesting details of payments made by the council to BRAJFC and a copy of all the documents held by the council as part of its "Following the public pound" procedure, under which, for funding over £30,000, Midlothian Council should have rigorously applied a risk mitigation process. This includes retaining detailed funding conditions (accepted by Bonnyrigg Rose in writing), financial controls, monitoring of expected spending against actual, audited financial statements, retention of all invoices and receipts with an adequate audit trail, along with a written agreement from Bonnyrigg Rose that it indemnifies the council against unlawful acts. There should also be evidence of competitive tendering as public funding is involved. It transpired that none of this was held, apart from a copy of the club's 2008 accounts which the council refused to release.

There then came forward claims that the work had actually been competed, reported here and here in the Advertiser. I have formally asked Bonnyrigg Rose if I can examine their accounts, as all those involved in the club say they have nothing to hide and the bad publicity is damaging the club, and it would be in the club's interest to clear its name. However, my requests have been turned down.

The council has been conducting an internal investigation, lasting six months, and the findings have just been released in private to the Council's audit committee. The council has also issued a statement saying "An internal investigation into this matter has been completed, with information passed to Lothian and Borders Police.  A number of areas of concern within the council's processes have been identified and work is underway to strengthen procedures".

Clearly something has gone wrong if Inspector Knacker is now involved. But the last part of the council's statement is ironic as the "Following the Public Pound" procedure was introduced in 2006 following a poor report from Audit Scotland, so the council could, er, strengthen procedures.

Friday, 22 April 2011


Who am I and why did I decide to enter the Blogsphere?

My name is Ian Baxter, a Green Party activist. I’m also chairman of Bonnyrigg & Lasswade Community Council, and I’ve lived in Midlothian for over 30 years.

Midlothian has changed a lot in that time. In 1980 we had coal mines and nearly all the councillors were Labour. Now the pits have gone, and many Midlothian residents work in offices or shops in Edinburgh.

Politics has changed here too, though not as much as I would like. Many Labour councillors are still ex-miners or hark back to the ‘good old days’ of the one-party state, but largely thanks to the introduction of the STV voting system they are now held more to account, with a sizeable SNP group on Midlothian Council.

But how are they held to account? A number of issues have arisen over the last few years which made me realise how hard it is to tell people how it really is. Yes, we have a fine local paper in The Midlothian Advertiser - but for some reason or other, it’s often not keen to criticise our council, and there's a rumour it's closing its Dalkeith office. The Edinburgh Evening News? - well, the clue’s in the title.

Come election time, election leaflets from Labour councillors are not exactly forthcoming about the council’s failures. And then there's 'Midlothian News' the council's own Pravda-esque bulletin, delivered to all homes. No bad news there.

I wondered what would happen if The Advertiser disappeared.

So I thought I’d write a blog. Partly to publish an uncensored, albeit partisan, Green perspective on Midlothian, but also as a way of getting feedback from my readers. Politics, after all, should be a two way communication process, and although I do knock on a lot of doors, people are often out. So here goes ...