Politics, Vote 2015

Some thoughts on Proportional Representation

Following the 2015 general election there has been an incredible amount of support for and discussion about Proportional Representation.  I am 26 years old and I have been a proponent of Proportional representation for half of my life.  I first began to support the concept of PR for UK elections after studying different electoral systems during a Modern Studies class.   Even at the age of 13 it was clear to me that the First-past-the-Post electoral system that we use to elect people to the House of Commons does not work for our modern politics.

The system hasn’t always been broken; it worked when the two main parties attracted 95% of the votes cast by the electorate.  As time has marched on our politics has changed.  The political landscape is vastly different to how it looked in the late 1800s and early 1900s and as a consequence the electoral system no longer functions in a way that is appropriate.

The current Government in the UK consists of a single party which holds a (slim) majority of seats in the House of Commons.  In percentage terms, the Conservative Party has 50.9% of the seats having achieved only 36.9% of votes cast nationally.  It is over-represented in the commons by approximately 90 seats on a proportional votes to seats basis.

The Conservative Party is not the only party that is over-represented in the current House of Commons: the Labour Party, DUP and the Scottish National party are over-represented.  The Labour Party has 35.7% of the seats with 30.4% of the votes cast nationally; it is over-represented by about 31 seats on a proportaional votes to seats basis.  The Scottish National Party has 8.6% of the seats in the Commons having achieved 4.7% of the votes cast nationally (given that the SNP had candidates standing only in Scotland the figures are slightly misleading.  Looking only at the votes cast in Scotland for the seats allocated to Scottish constituencies it has 95% of the seats on 50% of the votes cast).  The SNP is over-represented in the House of Commons by about 30 seats on a proportional votes to seas basis.  The DUP has 1.2% of the seats available in the Commons with 0.6% of the votes cast nationally (like the SNP, it did not have candidates standing in all constituencies; it’s only candidates were in Northern Ireland and has 44.4% of the seats allocated to Northern Irish Constituencies with 25.7% of the votes cast in Northern Ireland) and is over-represented by about 3 seats.

If some parties are over-represented it follows that some must be under-represented; the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and UKIP are all under-represented.  The Liberal Democrats have 1.2% of the seats with 7.9% of the votes cast nationally.  They are under-represented by about 42 seats.  As for the Green Party they have 0.2% of the seats in the Commons with 3.8% of the votes cast nationally and are under-represented by about 22 seats.  UKIP also have 0.2% of the seats in the Commons with 12.6% of the votes cast nationally; they are under-represented by about 81 seats.  There are other parties who are under-represented in the Commons based on the votes that were cast, but for the sake of brevity I will not set them out in detail.  The parties are: Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein (who by convention don’t take up their seats in the Commons), the Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party.  The only party whose representation under FPTP is what it would have been under a PR system is the SDLP.

You will notice that where I have stated by how many seats a party is over-represented or under-represented I have qualified it with “about”; I have done so because had the election been run using a PR system rather than FPTP it will likely have changed the way some people voted (and quite possibly in significant enough numbers to affect the seat distribution).  There will have inevitably been a great deal of tactical voting in this election; FPTP encourages tactical voting, especially in seats that are considered to be ‘marginal’.  In seats that are marginal, people who know their preferred candidate has little chance of being elected will often vote tactically; that is to say they will vote for the person most likely to defeat the candidate that they least want to win.  So, in a Labour-Tory marginal seat someone who might naturally prefer the Liberal Democrats may well recognise that the Lib Dem candidate is highly unlikely to win.  They may absolutely not want the Labour candidate to win and so vote Conservative because they are the candidate most likely to defeat the Labour candidate.

It is impossible to take account of tactical voting with any degree of certainty when modelling a PR based Parliament on votes cast under the FPTP system.  There are also a multitude of different PR systems; some of which it is not possible to translate FPTP results into because they use a preferential voting method (i.e. you rank as many or as few of the candidates/parties standing in the order that you prefer them).

I may be a proponent of PR, but I do recognise it is not perfect either; there is no such thing as the perfect system.  There are trade-offs to be made and which system you favour depends on what it is you value and what it is you hope you achieve by introducing PR.  For example, if you’re more interested in getting as close to a representative Parliament as possible and are not fussed about the ‘local link’ between the elected representative and the constituency; then a system based on a party list is likely to take your fancy.  However, if you favour keeping the local-link despite that resulting in an ever so slightly less representative Parliament (but still far more representative than FPTP), then something like the Single Transferrable Vote (STV) system is probably going to get your support.

Personally, I favour STV because I would prefer to keep the ‘local link’ over having a totally representative Parliament.  However, I recognise that such a system might not best serve the country.  Looking at it objectively a list system is probably more appropriate and that’s simply because I think, objectively, the local link has already largely been lost.  There are a few exceptions, but if you ask a representative sample in each constituency who they voted for you are most likely to get either the name of the party or the name of the party leader as opposed to the name of the candidate that actually appeared on the ballot paper.  That’s because in reality the majority of people vote for a party irrespective of the candidate.

Having long been a convert to the PR cause I am glad to see that more people appear to be coming round to the idea that PR is better in our modern politics.  I did vote for AV in 2011, but I also know that a lot of pro-reform people voted no.  I understand why they did so, AV was a false option; it’s not a PR system.  While it does deal with many of the issues with FPTP in the our modern political world, it does not result in a proportionate parliament; it doesn’t even deliver an a parliament that is approximately proportional.  I vote for it because despite its flaws it was progress, a move in the right direction.  The referendum in 2011 was lost, and clearly so.  However, that does not (nor should it) preclude reform.  Nor does it mean that there isn’t a huge level of support for a PR system.

I will continue to fight for, campaign for and support electoral reform to bring a more proportional electoral system for elections to the UK Parliament.

The Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy currently have a petition running in support of PR; if you’ve not already signed it and support the concept of a PR voting system in the UK then please consider signing it.  The Petition can be found here.

Data Protection, Freedom of Information, Information Law, Information Rights, Politics, Privacy, Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations, Vote 2015

#GE2015, Data Protection, Privacy and FOI

It is now two days since the UK went to the polls to elect the 650 people who will be responsible for representing us until Parliament dissolves on Monday 20 April 2020 (assuming the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 remains in place and intact).  The result was significant for many reasons, some of which I may address in a future blog post.  The focus of this blog post though will be the possible impact on Data Protection, Privacy and Freedom of Information following the result in this election.

Data Protection and Privacy

These two areas, in their current form, rely heavily on EU law.  Both the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations implement EU directives into UK law.

It is well known that one of the promises David Cameron made was a referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EU if the Conservatives were returned to power with a majority.  They were, albeit a small and fragile one, and as such it is likely that in 2017 we will have a referendum on whether the UK will continue to be part of the EU, or not.  If the UK were to leave the EU (and this is purely hypothetical at this stage), then there would be no requirement for the UK to continue to comply with EU law; including the Directives underpinning the Data Protection Act and the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations.

Withdrawal from the EU would not, of course, immediately repeal every piece of law that is implementing an EU Directive – such a position would be unworkable.  Overtime there would, like there is in every other area of law, be reform and that could include both the Data Protection Act and the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations.

That is not the end of the story though; our continued relationship with the EU will have some impact in this area, especially with regards to the Data Protection Act.  If we were to remain part of the EEA, we would still have to comply with EU law except in some areas: data protection is not one of those.  So, if we withdrew from the EU and remained part of the EEA, nothing would change.

If we withdrew from both the EU and the EEA there would still be some Data Protection implications.  The eighth Data Protection Principal prevents the transfer of personal data outside the EEA unless the country or territory to which the personal data is to be sent “ensures an adequate level of protection for the rights and freedoms of data subjects in relation to the processing of personal data.”  In other words, we would require some form of Data Protection or Privacy legislation that meets the test of “adequate” under EU data protection law.  This is a requirement that looks set to stay as part of the Data Protection Regulation currently working its way through the EU legislative process.  In all likelihood we would probably adopt the same data protection regulations as the EU, or something substantially similar thereto.  For that reason, Data Protection and Privacy looks fairly safe over the coming 5 years.

Freedom of Information

Scotland has its own Freedom of Information laws that cover Scottish public authorities.  These laws will likely remain largely unchanged in light of the 2015 election result.

Freedom of Information Act 2000

The FOIA covers English and Welsh authorities as well as UK-wide authorities such as UK Government Departments, the British Transport Police, the BBC, Channel 4 etc.  They are not popular with the Government; they force the Government to reveal information it would rather keep secret.  The Prime Minister isn’t a big fan of FOI; it “furs up the arteries of Government”.  We can expect to see some changes to FOI laws over the coming 5 years: the veto will likely be strengthened in light of the recent UK Supreme Court decision in the Prince Charles case; there could well be changes to the cost limits making it harder to get access to information and there could be the introduction of fees (at least for Tribunal cases).  Substantial harm could be done here (and if you value FOI and the power it gives you to access information held by public bodies I would commend the Campaign for Freedom of Information to you – they could need a lot of help, support and money over the coming 5 years).

Environmental Information Regulations 2004

These implement an EU Directive and provide a much tighter access to information regime with respect to Environmental Information – they also cover a much wider number of bodies than the FOIA does.  While they implement an EU Directive, they have their origin in another international Convention (one which is not anything to do with the EU), the Aarhus Convention.  The UK is a signatory and so if it were to remain a signatory it is likely that there would be no change to the substance of the EIRs.  There would be changes though.

Currently, because they are based upon EU law, they are subject to the primacy of EU law.  It is largely for this reason that the veto was held not to apply to Environmental Information.  It also gives recourse to the Court of Justice of the European Union in respect of interpretation (as was seen with Fish Legal).  This strengthens the EIRs significantly.  However, all is not lost.  In terms of the Aarhus Convention there is a right of remedy to the Aarhus Compliance Committee.