Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Future for Electoral Reform is AMS

.
After the AV referendum a quick consensus formed that Electoral Reform is off the political table for a generation.  This was a consensus between opponents of reform and, bizarrely, most supporters of Reform, who seemed to suffer a massive collective loss of nerve.

I, personally, could not disagree more.

Over the medium and long-term the time is ripe for change, regardless of the result of that referendum. Reform failed in 2011 due to a combination of temporarily awful political circumstances, the presentation of a weak alternative and gross incompetence on behalf of the Yes Campaign.  None of these circumstances need recur, and it is highly likely that the long-term trends will continue to strengthen the argument for change, as they have since the 1960's.  The decline of the two party vote, the rise of the minor parties, the increasing inability of FPTP to properly represent the democratic wishes of the people of Britain.  None of these things are going away.

What is needed is for the Reform movement to pick itself up off the floor, knock itself hard on the head and learn the lessons of 2011.  Only honestly admitting that it got things horribly wrong and committing to change can give hope of success in the future. The Electoral Reform movement needs a dramatic modernisation, like Tony Blair's refounding of New Labour or David Cameron's modernisation of the Conservative Party, to achieve its aims in an age where politics and campaigning are professional and serious businesses.  It needs a thorough reconsideration of both Aims and Methods.

In this article I consider the aim for reformers by suggesting what I consider to be the best achievable alternative to FPTP.  And a superior alternative to AV.  In a following article I will suggest some ideas about a change in tactics and strategy that I think reformers need if they are to actually achieve their goals within a generation, and avoid repeating the disaster of 2011.
 
The massive 2011 vote against AV doesn't have to kill hope of reform for a generation. But it quite probably has put paid to any hope for change to AV itself for at least that long.  Or to put that another way, any hope for change within the next two decades can only exist on the basis of abandoning AV.  Good, I say. AV was adopted mostly because it was what was on offer, and it only became what was on offer for reasons of Labour Party convenience.  AV was capable of solving at most one of the numerous problems with the current system, and in a manner that had the potential of making other problems worse.

It did have one particular advantage though that should not be forgotten in its tidal wave of defeat. It was quite similar to the current system.  This made it an achievable reform. And this is my first criterion for a candidate for replacing FPTP. A further attempt at change should be focused on a similarly achievable reform, sufficiently similar to the current system to be recognisable as operating on similar principles, and sufficiently different to AV to seek distance from its calamitous defeat. Regardless of the problems with FPTP the massive No vote shows there is considerable public sympathy or at least overwhelming familiarity with its principles.  Any proposed alternative must work with this familiarity rather than against it.

It should also not be based on the same principles as AV i.e. preferential voting. This means not only AV, but also the other alternatives to FPTP that have been seriously proposed by reformers, namely STV and AV+.  AV+ was the system recommended by the Jenkins commission on reform in the late 90's. It is AV with an additional top-up of PR apportioned seats. It is a remarkably complicated change, as one would perhaps expect from a committee, and should be rejected for that reason and for being largely reliant on AV.

STV is the long-time preferred alternative of the Electoral Reform Society, Lib Dems and most other UK reform groups, and is currently used in Ireland. It is AV in multi-member constituencies, which unlike AV gives largely proportional results. STV is the preferred system of a majority of reformers. However, regardless of this, it should be abandoned, at least as a medium term aim. The staggering defeat of AV means that its central mechanism is politically discredited for the foreseeable future and because it requires voters to accept change to preferential voting and much larger multi-member constituencies, in reality, like AV+, it is too large a change to be sellable at once.

Both the reform movement's concentration on STV for decades and the strength of its conversion to AV in the previous year can be explained by its obsession with preferential voting. Most organised reformers are just convinced of its superiority to simple majority voting, regardless of other considerations. However, it has been rejected in the form of AV for now. It would appear to be a change and complication too far and, quite frankly, it is not worth sacrificing the chance of achieving real improvement by other means, merely out of a quixotic attachment to the wonders of preferential voting.


Where does this leave us if we've already rejected FPTP, AV, AV+ and STV? Except in Acronym hell. Another option worth mentioning is Closed List PR.  This would be a very simple system where you just vote for a party, and then the votes are counted and seats portioned out to the parties equal to its percentage of the vote.  This is the only true PR system.  However its side effects are so awful that it is generally rejected even by hard-core PR enthusiasts. Basically the problem is that voters have no control over who is actually elected, and there is no geographical connection between voters and representatives or sense that representatives represent everyone, rather than merely those who voted for them.  It is hence a massive leap from the current system, though it does bear the award of being the joint simplest system with FPTP.  Though from the opposite side of the spectrum.

So, ignoring Closed-list PR, AV, AV+, STV and FPTP, what is possibly left?


The answer to that is very simple. It's more proportional than FPTP, maintains constituency links, is a modest change from FPTP, is widely used by some European countries and within the UK itself, makes every vote count and is relatively simple compared to AV or STV but would still have given single-party government from our more decisive of recent electoral victories.

This system is the Additional Member System (or AMS).  In particular in a form I like to think of as FPTP+.

It is a combination of our current FPTP system used for UK General Elections and the Proportional Representation D'Hondt system we use for European Elections.  It would work like a combination of the two, producing a composite system that hopefully maintains the main advantages of both, while smoothing away their most stark problems.

The way it would work is simple.  Most MP's would be elected the same way as now, one per constituency under FPTP, with every bit of the country having a constituency MP.  In addition to these ordinary constituency MP's there would also be top-up list MP's.  Parties would gain a number of these MP's in proportion to their share of the vote, taking into account those MP's already elected in the constituencies.  The system works like our current FPTP system, but the top-up list MP's act to dampen the extremity of its results. Guaranteeing a degree of proportionality and ensuring that if you get enough votes you will get seats.

An AMS election would be simple.  Each voter gets a ballot paper with two sections.  One where they vote with a cross for whatever candidate they want to be their local constituency MP, exactly as now, the other they vote for the party they support, which goes towards deciding who gets the list seats.

In particular for the UK I would recommend the following arrangement.  I would suggest keeping a House of Commons at its current size of 650 MP's.  Of these 500 would be constituency MP's and 150 list MP's.  List MP's would be allocated by the D'Hondt system based on the list vote, taking account of the number of constituencies already won.  List MP's would not be based on the vote over the entire country.  Rather I would suggest multi-member list constituencies across the country based on the UK regions used for European Elections.  These could be subdivided to give list constituencies of an appropriate size of 4-8 MP's. I would also suggest allowing candidates to stand as both constituency and list candidates at the same time.  I think of this particular arrangement of AMS as FPTP+.      

That's phrasing it technically.  Basically it would be the same system currently used for Scottish and Welsh devolved elections.  Just with a higher proportion of constituency MP's to list MP's than they have.

I believe this system has a number of immediately apparent advantages.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Nobody Left Out In The Cold - minimum acceptable compromise on Disability Cuts





Take a good look at the above picture.  It is called 'Left Out In the Cold', and it is by and stars disabled artist Kaliya Franklin lying on a British beach on a freezing cold day, just out of reach of the wheelchair she needs to get around.  It represents the almost certain consequence of the Government's planned cuts to support for the long-term sick and disabled. Deeply vulnerable and  disadvantaged people left just out of reach of the vital financial and care support that they need to lead safe and dignified lives as part of our society, despite the disadvantage of their illness or disability.

I have already written about the full range of Cuts to support for sick and disabled people at some length here. If you're thinking of clicking on that link I apologise in advance for the length.  It's long. Unfortunately the scale and range of cuts, and the general public ignorance about this issue means it has to be long to cover the subject even vaguely properly.  I would still honestly reccommend you read it though, or at least look up something else on the issue.  It's extremely unlikely you've even heard of the main planks of welfare that support Sick and disabled people, unless you, a close friend or a family member are Sick or Disabled.  But this is such an important issue you really need to.  They are an absolutely essential life-line for literally millions of people in this Country and they are deeply threatened by the Government's planned cuts.  If I still haven't convinced you to read more about it, don't worry, this will be mercifully short.  

The main facts that everyone should know are extremely simple.  Even before the Recession and any of the cuts to support for Sick and Disabled people families with a Sick or Disabled member were twice as likely to be living in Poverty and had an unemployment rate running at 50%.  The Sick and Disabled are facing the entirety of the squeeze on public services and taxes that everyone else are experiencing, whether cuts to council services, education, healthcare, public sector job losses, housing benefits cuts, rises in VAT and National Insurance, surging fuel prices and Inflation and stagnant wages.  This on its own is probably enough to drive already struggling and vulnerable households into Poverty or just deeper in.

Incredibly though above of and On top of this general financial squeeze they are also facing additional swingeing and targeted cuts to the extra support available to Sick and Disabled people totalling some £5 billion a year.  Employment Support Allowance (ESA), Disability Living Allowance (DLA), the Access To Work Fund, the Independent Living Fund.  All are facing significant cuts and restrictions.  These cuts and changes will make it considerably harder for Sick and Disabled people to move into work.  They will take a segment of our society that already has a Poverty rate DOUBLE that of everyone else and push hundreds of thousands more into Poverty.  DLA, for example, is being cut by 20%, far above the average 11.5% cuts facing the Public Sector. They are fundamentally unjustifiable on this basis alone.  Dry figures are certainly not all there is to this though.

Suffering a severe, long-term illness or disability is one of the most difficult things to live with of any of the disadvantages in people can face. Almost by definition it robs people of so many advantages the rest of us take for granted including too much of the ability to take part in society. It is often painful, almost always fundamentally exhausting and draining and always stressful for the rest of a sick or disabled person's family.  It often makes life constantly more of a struggle than for well people. It also leaves a person open to a constant flow of minor indignities and general ignorance from a society where many people are still totally clueless about how to relate to disabled and extremely sick people in a human manner.  I could, of course, go on; the difficulties faced by disabled and long-term sick people are as various as the possible mental and physical conditions and the unique individuals that must live with them, but I'm sure you understand the general idea.  The truth is for many families and invididuals who struggle with these problems the effect of these cuts will be to pile stress, fear and struggle, both financial and emotional, on already difficult circumstances above and beyond that faced by any of their able-bodied and mentally well fellow citizens.

I'm an optimist about human nature.  I don't think politicians are deliberately trying to drive some of the most vulnurable people in our society into poverty, harship and despair. I just think they're ignorant.  But the truth is there none the less.  And it is centred on three massive issues that the Government must be forced to compromise on.  I get the idea that some cuts will fall on the Sick and Disabled.  Cuts will always fall on those already struggling because, quite frankly, that's where the money is being spent.  If the Coalition compromises on these three issues though they will have a defensible, if harsh, platform. Without compromise though they are leading an organised public Outrage.

Issue No.1 is DLA.  Disability Living Allowance is a universal benefit designed to help people with the extra costs of care or mobility that comes with being disabled or seriously ill, put by one study at 25% higher than the living costs faced by a non-disabled person. And is only available to the most disabled and ill.  Being disabled or sick is an expensive business.  Whether it's expensive home modifications, mobility equipment, prescriptions, taxis because public transport or driving is impossible, tuition support, personal care or god alone knows what else.  DLA is not an out-of-work benefit, it helps many people who are sick or disabled stay in work as well as others who cannot work. DLA is an almost model benefit.  It is heavily targeted at the most Sick or Disabled (see here for some of its restrictive conditions), it helps large numbers of people into useful employment, it has the lowest fraud rate of any piece of welfare.  Despite this the government has announced they are going to entirely redesign it.  In theory to improve it.  They have been stunningly vague about how they are intending to improve it, but they have very clearly stated they want to restrict it massively and cut spending by 20%, save £2 billion.  This is a massive cut, pure and simple, masquerading as a redesign.

DLA is already restricted to the very Sick and Disabled, massively restricting it further like this, and prioritising achieving a certain saving over need, will leave many people without vital support.  A simple compromise would be to readjust the figure for Savings to £1 billion, a 10% cut.  This would be in line with the general cuts across the Public Sector, it would still be a considerable cut, but it would maintain the integrity of DLA.  It would be a total that is far more likely to be achievable without taking support away from those with truly serious need.  It would give a chance to reform DLA, if that is truly what the government wants to do, without basing the changes around the need to make deep savings, giving the chance to actually improve support.

The 2nd and 3rd issues are the Employment Support Allowance.  This is the benefit that supports the living costs of those people too Sick or Disabled to work, or to fulfill the requirements for the Dole.  No.2 is the government's plans to restrict contributory ESA to 1 year, for around 90% of claimants.  This move is supposed to save £1.5 billion.  On the surface it seems reasonable.  Contributory JSA is limited to 6 months, so why should the equivalent for those Sick or Disabled and out of work, ESA, be different?  There is still Income based ESA to support those with no financial resources.  The problem comes because the connection between ESA and JSA is tenuous at best in this instance. JSA is meant to be distinctly short-term.  For many ESA will be extremely long-term, even with the government's most optimistic assumptions.  Also the government's definition of financial resources is frankly laughable.  Any family with a Sick or Disabled member that also has either any savings or a partner earning almost any money will be deemed to be not eligible for any ESA.  Ignoring the quite savage work disincentive this creates for families with a disabled or Sick member, as I already said families with a sick or disabled member were already twice as likely to be in poverty as other comparable families before these cuts, and the individuals within these families on average have costs 25% greater than a non-Sick or Disabled person.  The considerable and additional financial pressure of this measure will hence almost certainly push most of the three hundred thousand households affected into poverty, or push them even deeper therein if they are there already.

Compromise is easily possible here to.  This measure is meant to save £1.5 billion a year, by taking £90 a week of ESA away from hundreds of thousands of people who would otherwise be eligible.  As previously discussed, this is an awful ideas that will drive many families already struggling financially, and with Sickness and stress, into the ground.  There are various possible compromises though.  The Labour Party has suggested limiting Contributory ESA to 2 years.  This would avoid catching a considerable number of families, but would still leave most with the same problem, just somewhat later on.  Another possible compromise is based on the structure of ESA.  ESA is made up of two parts in theory, a £65 a week basic element and then a £25 or £30 additional element that everyone gets.  Those effected by this cut would be receiving the £25 additional element.  The compromise is to remove the additional element after 1 year.  This would save around £0.5 billion  a year and while still leaving families with some ongoing support.  Under this regime they would still almost certainly wear down both savings and suffer and struggle financially, considering the high-levels of costs they generally face.  But it would leave them with some support, and would be a change there would be some chance to adjust to, rather than the immediate removal of almost all income.  There are also other options that would deliver some savings to the government, without the same harsh risk of leaving many families facing near destitution if their Sick or Disabled members do not find work within a year.

The 3rd Issue is the nature of the assessments for ESA itself.  These have been roundly, widely and very strongly criticised by everyone from the Citizen's Advice Bureau, one of the experts who actually designed the system, the government's own review of the system, and pretty much every single person who has experienced it.  It has been particularly criticised for failing those with mental health disabilities.  It's not hard to see where the criticism comes from.  The assessments are a tick-box exercise scored on a computer, with all the flexibility and individual consideration that description suggests, and often not even conducted by relevant medical personel.  The evidence that the system is broken is overwhelming.  Appeal rates run at almost 40%, of which about half are upheld. The acceptance rates for ESA are also frankly unbelievable with 2/3rds of applicants being found 'Fit for Work', even some who have then literally died the next day.  The sense that this is all motivated by financial rather than medical need is overwhelming when the government has already announced how much money it expects to save from this whole exercise.

This final issue desperately needs change. The government must recognise the serious problems with the assessment process and commit to sweeping changes to meet these serious issues.  They could start in worse places than implementing the reccommendations of their own Review.  Changing the assessments in a direction of bringing in a genuine holistic assessment of an individual's capabilities, rather than a tick-box exercise, with proper recognition of the distinct circumstances faced by those with mental health conditions or just highly variable long-term conditions.

I entirely understand and appreciate the need to cut spending in this country considering the £155 billion deficit we have. I'm the last person who would argue against that. But like that does not justify any old cut. Families with long-term sick or disabled members already face some of the worst poverty and social exclusion in our society, without even mentioning the obvious pain and suffering that so often comes with these conditions, and the huge stress it places on individual and families.  A lot of cuts are unfortunate and down-right difficult, but they do not involve the risk of fundamental damage to our most basic social duty, provision for those who just cannot provide for themselves.  Neither is this a partisan issue.  many of these problems were started by Labour and are now being continued and in some cases intensified by the Coalition.  There is plenty of failure to go around, and plenty of scope for minds to change and governments commit to do better.  These compromises I have mentioned would 'cost' the government around £2 billion a year.  They are the absolute minimum acceptable if we are to live in a decent and supportive society. This still leaves around £3 billion a year of cuts directed at support for the disabled, above and beyond the wider financial squeeze being imposed on society. Surely more than enough of a reduction to be borne by possibly the most disadvantaged and vulnerable section of our society.

The final question then is what can people do?  Many things.  I wrote to my MP for the first time today.  On its own this won't change anything.  But it is an essential part of making sure politicians are aware of the depth of feeling about this issue.  And that this is something that cannot just happen quietly.  Another important thing you can do is just to get yourself informed about what is happening.  And if you have the chance get others informed as well. The greatest danger is just that so few people know about these cuts, because sadly the sick and disabled do not have the loud supporters, friends in the media or noisy ability to defend themselves shown by more high-profile but less vital issues. Though it is inspiring to see the grassroots movement that has emerged (largely online) in a few months to campaign against these measures. 'The Broken of Britain' is a great collaborative group that attempts to raise the profile of this issue and bring disabled, sick and well and able-bodied people together to campaign against these cuts. 'Diary of a Benefits Scrounger' is a great blog written by a wonderful lady called Sue Marsh, who herself suffers from serious Crohns disease, and explains these issues much more eloquently (and briefly) than I could hope to. Both of these have a lot of information on what people can do to help. There are also a load of other resources online.

There is also some time, since many of these changes do not come in until 2013 or later.  There has even actually already been some success. Under great pressure the government has already decided to review the decision to remove mobility allowance DLA from those in care homes, and in the last day has announced a public review into ESA.  This is hence a crucial time to increase the pressure on them to reverse these cuts and secure proper support for long-term sick and disabled people in our society permanently.

But it will require people like you and me to get off our asses and get informed, get aware and look out for the opportunities to do whatever we can to make sure these disastrous changes are not allowed to just happen around us.



Many thanks to 'Broken of Britain' and Kaliya Franklin for the above Picture.