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Devolution for Wales is good, but where next for the UK?

David Cameron and Nick Clegg were in Wales this morning, announcing further powers to be devolved to the Assembly.

The UK Government is proposing to devolve control over elections to the National Assembly which would see AMs handed power to:

  • Change the voting system for Assembly and local elections
  • Introduce votes at 16 for Assembly and local elections
  • Increase the number of AMs to cope with extra powers devolved since 1999
  • Rename the National Assembly the ‘Welsh Parliament’

Such changes are clearly good news for Wales, bringing power closer to Welsh citizens and paving the way for policies which the Electoral Reform Society (who I work for) has long supported.

Several ERS recommendations have been adopted. Firstly, any change to the ‘rules of the game’ will require the support of at least two-thirds of Assembly Members. This makes sure that these powers require cross-party consensus and that major changes are not used for partisan self-interest.

There are also changes to governance. The Welsh devolution settlement will move to a “Reserved Powers” model, as is the case in Scotland and Northern Ireland, meaning the Welsh Government will have powers over everything except for what it is explicitly stated that it cannot do. This makes it clearer for voters to know who is in charge of what policy area, and makes for clearer and better governance.

But today’s move – including the fact that the government hasn’t been able to offer a comprehensive set of powers – raises again the need for a serious debate over the constitutional future of the UK. We need to decide where power lies, how we democratise our nations and what shape Britain will take in the years ahead.

It’s a debate that needs to be led by citizens – not politicians making back-room deals and delivering powers in dribs and drabs. After the Scottish independence referendum and with more devolution on the cards for Wales, it’s important for the whole of the UK – including particularly those in England – to have their say on our democratic future.

How do we have such a discussion? We need a UK-wide, citizen-led Constitutional Convention to give people the power to decide our country’s future, rather than Britain arbitrarily drifting from change to change without democratic debate.

Where the UK goes next as a union of nations is as yet unclear. A Constitutional Convention would give us all the chance to discuss where power should lie.

So, a good day for Wales. But where next?

Reposted from my blog for the Electoral Reform Society

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Grasping the nettle: how to clean up party funding

First published on OpenDemocracy

Another week, another scandal. Party funding is back in the news again, and for many it sadly comes as little surprise.

We have grown used to allegations of tax-dodging donors, multi-million loans from wealthy backers that will never be repaid, paid access to ministers and more.

As party membership has tumbled in recent decades, reliance on a handful of big donors and organisations has increased. Donations over £250,000 accounted for over half of Labour’s, a quarter of Conservatives’ and a sixth of the Liberal Democrats’ donations income between 2001 and 2010. These donations are coming from just 60 ‘donor groups’, giving rise to justifiable suspicion that these groups have far too much influence on our politics. And this serves to reinforce the assumption that politics is increasingly something for a small number of people, and not something for everybody.

It’s clear that the public are fed up. Polling last year for the Electoral Reform Society showed that 75% of the public believe big donors have too much influence on our political parties, 65% believe party donors can effectively buy knighthoods and other honours, and 61% believe the system of party funding is corrupt and should be changed. ‘Corrupt’ is a strong word, so it says a lot that this is how the public feel.

The question is: what to do about it?

Looking for solutions

The problems are pretty clear to most – we have a party funding system where individuals or businesses can effectively ‘buy’ a party, pumping as much money into it as they desire. Parties then have to spend much less time trying to win the financial backing of millions of ordinary people. The lack of a donations cap, then, is a serious impediment to democracy. Many developed economies have donations caps in place. It’s time the UK followed suit.

The presence of big money in our politics is particularly damaging at election time. One thing driving the dash-for-cash is the lack of a proper spending cap in the UK. The fact that the limit has just been increased by 23%, with the Conservatives building up a £78m ‘war chest’, suggests that this May could be a particularly high-spending election, particularly with the surge in smaller parties. This race to outspend each other destabilises our politics. Parties, with their highly volatile sources of income, could be left exposed by a lack of funds compared to their rivals, which in turn increases the incentive to be less than pure about what they provide in return for cash. A proper spending cap would end this arms race and put parties on a much more sustainable footing.

Needless to say, parties do need money to function. We live in a modern democracy with millions of people whom the parties need to reach. But the source of the funding needs to change – from big donors to cleaner and more democratic sources of income.

One part of the solution is for parties to shift to being funded by their millions of supporters. Many are pointing to online funding and supporter engagement as the new panaceas. But let’s not kid ourselves. Disillusionment with politics and parties runs very deep indeed, and people aren’t rushing to donate just to take the place of hedge-fund managers or union leaders.

There are promising developments, it’s true – for example the use ofcrowdfunding by parties – but these still don’t remove the incentives for parties to accept multi-million pound contributions. Nor do they deal with the arms-race in campaign expenditure. They are, unfortunately, a democratic trickle of funds amid a deluge of undemocratic cash.

So what else is needed?

A not-so-radical idea

Mention state funding of parties in the UK and it can be hard to get past the barrage of instant booing. And not without reason: the idea of giving taxpayers’ money to some of the country’s least trusted institutions does, understandably, cause some discomfort.

But it’s not as controversial an idea as it seems. In the UK, we already publicly fund our political parties. Opposition parties receive ‘Short’ money to pay for parliamentary activities (£7.5m in 2014/15 alone), travel and the Leader of the Opposition’s office, in order to ensure proper scrutiny of the government can take place. ‘Cranborne’ money is the equivalent in the Lords, at nearly £650,000. In addition to direct funding, parties do not pay for political broadcasts (paid broadcasts are prohibited), and are entitled to free postage for one leaflet in both General and European elections.

But we don’t invest enough, with the UK spending just a tenth per voter on political parties as the rest of Europe – 36p a year to £3.25. It’s a shocking indictment of how we treat our democracy in the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’, leaving it to the whim of benefactors. Some 91% of European countries publicly fund their political parties – they understand the need to avoid parties luring wealthy backers with peerages or policy commitments.

The question of where the money will come from to replace the estimated £30m lost by parties if a £10,000 donation cap was put in place is a valid one. But there’s a very simple answer. A cross-party report in 2013 found that £47 million could be saved by replacing the freepost leaflet system with a joint election address booklet (copying the Mayoral and GLA election practice) – more than enough to cover the lost £30m. And if a donations cap and public funding is combined with a lower spending cap, parties won’t need as much money in the first place.

Next steps

Reforming our party funding system is completely achievable. There’s strong public support for doing some deep-cleaning of party finance, while the latest scandals show the need for change is more urgent than ever. We can’t go on stumbling from crisis to crisis and headline to headline, with public trust continuing to plummet. If we’re serious about democracy, it’s time to clean up this mess before it’s too late. The stakes are too high not to act.

The past few years have seen cross-party reports on this with no action. Waiting years for another report or further deadlocked party negotiations isn’t the only option. There are gains to be made by any party or parties that go ahead with funding reform after May.

Let’s hope, whoever gets to power, that they do.

Read the Electoral Reform Society’s new report, ‘Deal or No Deal: How to put an end to party funding scandals’, released today.

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Let’s make this the last ever ‘lottery election’

First published on Left Foot Forward

British politics is now truly a multi-party phenomenon.

In May, the SNP could win over 50 seats, potentially overtaking the Liberal Democrats, while UKIP and the Greens together currently have the support of over a fifth of the UK population. The era of everyone voting for the two main parties is long gone.

But what happens when this is combined with a worn-out electoral system like First Past the Post?

The answer is: chaos. May 2015 could be what the Electoral Reform Society is calling a ‘lottery election’ – where your vote is worth about as much as a lottery ticket.

The ERS asked polling expert Professor John Curtice from the University of Strathclyde to look at some of the possible post-May scenarios: he found that it could all depend on relatively small swings of the vote affecting the whole outcome of the election.

Take one example. Despite the surge of the SNP to double-digit leads over Labour, small swings in the vote and its geographical spread mean they could either end up with a handful of seats or dozens (see graph). A neck-and-neck Labour/SNP result would leave the nationalists with fewer than 20 seats to Labour’s near-40, while a ten-point SNP lead would almost completely reverse that result.

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When the Greens and UKIP are thrown into the mix, the result becomes even more unpredictable. What is likely, however, is that both parties will be disappointed, with UKIP potentially failing to build on their two by-election victories even with an expected 13 per cent of the national vote. At the same time the Greens – though likely to retain Brighton Pavilion – could fail to make any gains even with the 8 per cent they are currently polling.

Yet the Lib Dem vote could to some extent determine the election, with their support hitting the Conservatives harder than Labour. To illustrate this, a Lib Dem vote of 10 per cent would mean the Conservatives need a seven-point lead for a majority. But a Lib Dem result of 15 per cent would raise that to a full ten points (see graph).

ThatThreeway_Lottery_InfoG’s what happens when you try to squeeze six or seven-party politics into a two-party voting system. All the parties are affected by the lottery election one way or another, and while some may got lucky, others are going to be sorely disappointed.

Is this any way to determine the make-up of the next House of Commons? What can we do to make it fairer?

What we need above all is an electoral system that reflects how diverse British politics has become. One positive result of the May election might be that debates around electoral reform come back on the agenda. Perhaps we could even make 2015 the last lottery election.

Read ‘The Lottery Election’ here.

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100 days to go: six thoughts on the Greens and May

First published at Bright Green

We are just 100 days away from the General Election.

With this in mind, let’s look at the Greens prospects for May and the months ahead.

1. The effect of both the steady Green surge of 2014 (doubled membership) and the Green tidal wave that has been January thus far (membership leaping past UKIP and the Lib Dems to nearly 55,000) on the Greens’ seat prospects are by no means clear.

It is very likely – touch wood – that Caroline Lucas will keep her seat. What will happen in Bristol West and Norwich South though is extremely uncertain, with us standing a fair chance in Bristol – a city with the second highest Green Party membership in England & Wales after Brighton. Whether our final vote share under First Past the Post will actually match our current polling levels of ~9% is also unclear. People, sadly, do vote tactically, and surges don’t last forever. But we can hope. Moreover, there will be plenty of council seats on May 7th for Greens to win.

What is clear is that our national vote share will be significantly higher than in 2010 (1%) – with a 5%+ average vote meaning dozens more candidates will at the very least keep their deposits. At £500 a pop, that’s good news in itself, but even better news for the narrative that the Greens are a growing party, and setting us up well for 2020.

One thing is certain – we have a lot more feet on the ground, a lot more campaigning acumen (recruiting campaign co-ordinators in every region) and a lot more money; both through increased subs income, extensive use of crowdfunding, and things like, you know, Vivienne Westwood’s £300k donation.

2. The Labour attack dogs are out.

This has been clear for a while, with the establishment of the Sadiq Khan led anti-Green unit. But Labour will be jumping on any policy flaws or cock-ups by Green candidates in the coming months – and promptly sending them off to the press. We have to be on guard.

3. The media have spotted the Greens, at last. But…

While media coverage is excellent for our profile – it’s a double edged sword. They will do anything they can to pick apart party statements, past embarrassments, internal spats and minor controversies. This week we saw an article in almost every paper picking up one side comment from Natalie Bennett on putting the Queen in a council house. The Telegraph went further in a piece called ‘Drugs, brothels, al-Qaeda and the Beyonce tax: the Green Party’s plan for Britain’, while the Spectator followed suit. And today’s Sunday Politics interview with Natalie Bennett was shocking, in the sense that Andrew Neil was at his most vicious, consistently picking on obscure policies and refusing to let Natalie answer. His treatment of Jim Murphy was, funnily enough, incredibly tame.

What is interesting is that many of the attacks are coming out in the right-wing press, rather than from more centrist/lefty media operations that would in theory back a Labour win. What does this mean? Well, the right are getting scared that Green party policies might actually get implemented.

4. The TV debates will be a game-changer.

Being excluded was already a huge victory – it energised activists, bolstered the narrative of the ‘alternative’ and the ‘underdog’, boosted our coverage and recruited thousands. But being included in the debates could do the same – it will establish us as a truly ‘major’ party, whatever Ofcom says. In part of course, this depends on performance – Natalie will have to do well to see anything like the Cleggmania of 2010 happen for the Greens (a poisoned chalice?). But the very act of appearing on two of the three debates will set a precedent: having boosted our 2010 vote, we’ll have to be in the 2020 debates, too.

5. Voter registration and core demographic turnout will be key for the Greens.

Our support is incredibly strong among students. Yet under the new voter registration system, nearly a million people could be left off the Electoral Roll – mostly students. We need to get them registered and get them out on polling day, something which will need the kind of organisational structure and efficiency we’ve not traditionally been famous for as a party.

6. The next government could be the most left-wing we’ve had in decades.

All the predictions are that Labour will be the biggest party, but not by much, meaning the minority government could have to rely on SNP, Plaid and potentially one (or more!) Greens’ votes. The red lines have already been drawn, and the latter three parties – a parliamentary left-wing alliance – have set Trident as their condition for a confidence and supply agreement. Labour are in meltdown in Scotland, on track to win as few as four seats to the SNP’s 55. Austerity and rail renationalisation will of course be two other agreement-breakers. Add to the potential Europe-wide ramifications of Sunday’s Syriza election victory in Greece, and it could be bye-bye neoliberalism. Let’s hope so.

See you on the doorstep.  

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Crowdfunded EP Luddite Ballads to be released in two weeks

I’m proud to announce that my new EP, the first release to be crowdfunded through Crowdshed, will be launched on the 31st of January – just two weeks time!

Luddite Ballads is an acoustic release, and includes the political anthem (if I can call it that!) ‘A Movement and a Reason’, as well as the title track ‘The Ballad of a New Luddite’, John Martyn’s epic ‘I Don’t Want to Know’, and an instrumental piece ‘Old Friends’. Hope you like it.

You can now sign up to pre-order it on BandCamp! Make sure to grab a copy for just £3 (£5 for a print copy) – https://josiahmortimer.bandcamp.com/album/luddite-ballads-ep-pre-order

It’s being released through York-based independent record label Rack Mount Records.

Here’s how Luddite Ballads has been described:

“Combining mellow sounds with defiant sentiment, Josiah Mortimer’s debut EP Luddite Ballads is a breakthrough collection of anthems for a disenchanted generation. Bound by masterful guitar and crisp vocals, Mortimer’s first offering paves the way for a new era of radical acoustic music.”

Luddite Ballads will be out on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify and all the major online distributors (yes, I get the irony) at the end of the month.

Over £3,000 was made to master, print, distribute, and promote the EP. Thanks to everyone who contributed to make it happen!

Let me know what you think when it’s out. Fingers crossed and thanks for the support!

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BREAKING: Green Party membership overtakes UKIP and Lib Dems

Originally published on Bright Green

UPDATE: After overtaking UKIP on Wednesday, UK Green membership also overtook the Lib Dems on Thursday evening after gaining over 6,000 members in just two days. There are now well over 45,000 Greens across thee UK.

In what appears to be the biggest Green Party membership surge since the movement’s inception, we are proud to be the first to report that membership of the Greens across the UK overtook UKIP’s on Wednesday.

Well over 2000 people joined the party on Wednesday following anger at the Greens’ exclusion from the TV debates, and coverage of the ‘Green Surge’.

The figures comes from the Green Party of England and Wales’ online membership records, which when added to the figures put together by OpenDemocracy’s Adam Ramsay put the Greens’ membership at more than UKIP’s 42,500 for the first time ever.2000

The cause of the surge appears to be the enormous coverage of the membership figures themselves, which went viral on the Guardian, Independent and Daily Mirror sites on Wednesday. The reporting claimed that Green membership across the UK could overtake UKIP’s within a week – something that has now been far surpassed.

It looks like UK Green membership could overtake even the Liberal Democrats’ over the weekend.

How this will affect the TV debates following Ofcom’s ruling earlier this week is as yet unclear, but Al Jazeera appear to be following the Guardian consortium’s lead in planning TV debates which will include the Greens.

Bright Green will cover developments on Thursday as they emerge.

The ‘Green Surge': what’s behind it, and where next?

This article was first published here in the Green European Journal

UPDATE: Ofcom’s decision not to give the Greens major party statusthis week led to nearly 300 people joining on the same day, bringing total UK-wide party membership to well over 40,000.

If they weren’t thriving before, 2014 put the UK’s Green Parties firmly on the map.

Amid a breakdown in public trust of the political mainstream, smaller parties have of course been on the rise. The growth of the hard right UKIP is well known, fuelled by big donors, ex-Conservative defectors and a fawning press. But the Greens have seen their own surge – partly in response – both in Scotland and in England & Wales. Two separate parties with strong links, they each have their own reasons for entering the political arena – the independence campaign playing a huge role for the Scottish Greens, while the dismal unpopularity of an austerity-obsessed Labour party in the rest of the UK played its part too.

December saw several high-profile new members come into the Scottish party’s ranks, including Independent Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP)John Wilson, following John Finnie MSP’s ‘defection’ in October. Both were previously in the governing SNP but differed with the party over issues such as NATO. In England and Wales, high profile figures are turning to the party too, including many former Liberal Democrats in light of a gap on the left of the political spectrum.

The developments in Scotland are important because they in effect bring the size of the Green group up to four, joining co-convener Patrick Harvie and Alison Johnstone MSP in Holyrood. Though both new recruits will remain officially Independent until standing as Greens in 2016, the party has nonetheless enjoyed an overnight surge in credibility.

Importantly, it adds to the massive momentum building up behind the Greens before and in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum on independence, after they formed a crucial pillar in the Yes campaign. In the run up to the #indyref, the Greens outflanked the SNP from the left and put up a strong grassroots campaign, both independently and as part of groups such as Radical Independence, a coalition of left-wing activists that saw over 3,000 gather for their post-referendum conference in November. The extent to which this built up the party’s prestige among the Scottish left cannot be understated.

In quantitative terms, these developments have seen the Scottish party’s membership surge from around 1,500 to nearly 8,000 since polls closed – more than quadrupling in size in just a couple of months. Many of the new recruits are energised, more socialist-inclined, and young – the latter being pivotal in a country where 16 and 17 year olds are soon to get a vote in ordinary elections (75% of them voted in the recent referendum).

40kIt’s not just the separate Scottish Green Party which is benefiting from a surge however – the Green Party of England and Wales more than doubled in size in 2014 to over 31,000 members. Adding the Scottish and Northern Irish Greens therefore puts the party just a few thousand behind UKIP (42,000) and the Liberal Democrats (44,000). If both can win MPs with that membership, in theory so could the Greens. The thousands more foot-soldiers for upcoming elections will be crucial for the years ahead, if the momentum can be sustained.

Explaining the rise is difficult however, as there are a huge number of factors. We can summarise some:

The rise of UKIP

  • The Green Party’s growth correlates to a certain extent with anti-UKIP sentiment – as UKIP grows, the need for a progressive response to it does too, pushing greens of all shades into action. It’s a dialectical relationship that in some ways means UKIP’s worrying emergence could strengthen the Greens, at least in the short-term – although it is arguably an unstable basis for success.

The sorry state of the Labour Party

  • In Scotland this was seen through the recent dramatic resignation of the leader Johann Lamont, who said the Scottish Labour Party was run as a ‘branch office’ of Ed Miliband’s Westminster party. In a nation as independent-thinking as Scotland, it was an insult of the worst kind – and has seen Labour’s poll share plummet (mostly, admittedly, to the SNP’s benefit). It’s an opportunity for the Greens too, however. And Labour’s dire situation is unlikely to change any time soon, after electing the Iraq war-supporting Jim Murphy to the leadership after Lamont’s exit.
  • In the rest of the UK, Labour’s failure to challenge austerity, fracking and countless other social and environmental evils have seen a mass exodus of young support, putting the Greens on nearly 20% among ‘the youth’, much of it at Labour’s expense, as well as the Lib Dems whose tripling of tuition fees meant reneging on firm promises in 2010.

The ‘Media Blackout’ of the Greens

  • Much publicised plans to exclude the Greens (as well as the SNP and left-wing Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru) from next year’stelevised General Election debates have been a blessing in disguise for the party, with a petition against the plan reaching over nearly 300,000 signatures, while anger at the ‘BBC Blackout’ of the Greens during the European elections saw nearly 85,000 register their rage According to a recent poll, 79% of the public want to see the Greens on the TV debates, against Nigel Farage. Even Labour have been swayed by the pressure.

A self-perpetuating cycle

  • As these factors piled up, Green support has further grown – leading to more coverage, more members, and more support. Polls now frequently put the party ahead of the discredited Lib Dems, while the party’s only MP, Brighton’s Caroline Lucas, has forged a10-point lead over Labour in her constituency. It shows that Greens can win, and can be popular, too.

A shift to the left

  • 2014 has seen the Greens pitch themselves as a serious party of the left  consciously and openly. Not only has it won over thousands of former Liberal Democrat and Labour voters, it is the expression of a trend that has been in course for several years now. As such, it’s both a principled and pragmatic move, which when bolstered by progressive alliances with the SNP and Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru, significantly contributes to the #GreenSurge.

2015 and beyond

All this is in addition to the Greens’ growing social media attention (#GreenSurge, and #InviteTheGreens for the TV debates, have frequently ‘trended’ on Twitter), as well as its rapidly expanding infrastructure in terms of staff and local branches across the UK as a whole.

Moreover, the Greens’ embrace of crowdfunding and small donations is bolstering these factors, and has the potential to lead to a democratisation and expansion of party funding in the UK –pitching the Greens as a party separate to big business.

What are the implications of these developments? Firstly, it could see more Greens elected next year, including Bristol’s Darren Hall. But given that in 2010 the Greens achieved just 1% of the vote, keeping hundreds of election deposits with a result of even 5% or more would be a breakthrough for the party on both sides of the border. After that, the Green surge could be unstoppable – going into the Scottish election in 2016 (where they’re set to win 10 MSPs) and beyond.

A difficult road ahead

The challenge, however, is to retain this energy and radicalism as the parties grow, internalising the thousands of new members and to not only elect more representatives, but more importantly to use this new dynamism to achieve real change – as it already is. Avoid the centralisation that institutionalisation and organisational growth can bring will pose difficulties for the Green movement, heightening pressures on internal democracy and through increased media scrutiny.

All the while, it must be remembered that the aim of increasing support isn’t for its own sake, but for making a real difference to people’s lives in Britain and beyond. Uniting with other progressive parties is and should continue to be part of this. That is why the Greens’ definite shift to the left in 2014 has been so central – the Greens are now the only major self-declared left-wing party.

There are major stumbling blocks however which shouldn’t be ignored. The electoral system is woefully unfair, meaning opportunities for large-scale seat gains are unlikely. The Greens still suffer a personality problem, with few voters knowing anyone other than Caroline Lucas or leader Natalie Bennett. And mainstream partisan debate appears to be shifting to the right the more that figures such as Farage fill the airwaves. There’s also still a huge psychological gap between the numbers who would support the Greens if they thought they could win, and those who would vote for them now – 26%would vote Green if they thought it was a ‘worthwhile’ vote. Breaking that psychological barrier has to be at the core of Green strategy in upcoming elections.

But there’s significant cause for hope. Something exciting is bubbling under the surface of British politics. The party system is breaking apart – ironically with the help of the enemy of the left, UKIP. People are becoming active in party politics again, finally inspired to engage with a previously discredited ‘formal’ politics.

If 2015 will be anything like how 2014 has been for the Greens, then it will be a good year indeed…