This May will be a boost for female representation – but there’s a catch

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First published on Left Foot Forward

With less than a quarter of MPs currently women, a 50:50 parliament seems like a distant hope.

But there are grounds for optimism. Based on polling trends and an analysis of every party’s candidate for the upcoming election, the Electoral Reform Society has predicted that 192 MPs are likely to be elected this May – up 44 on the current 148. It would mean three in ten MPs would be women, the highest ever figure.

Parties are putting forward more female candidates than before, too, with every party except UKIP fielding a higher proportion of female candidates than parliament’s current make-up (see Table 1). And in target seats, Labour and the Conservatives are actually fielding a higher proportion of female candidates than their overall number, meaning they are clearly trying hard to get more women into the House.

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This is good news. The predicted boost this May would see us rising up the world ranking for female representation in lower chambers from 56th to 36th. We’d finally be ahead of Afghanistan and other countries with less-than-positive track records on gender equality.

But we’d still not be world leaders, by any means. And while moving from 23 per cent women to nearly 30 per cent is a welcome rise, there’s one big barrier that’s blocking future progress: our electoral system.

Under First Past the Post, there are hundreds of effectively uncontested seats where parties have a big enough lead not to worry about opposition. That means many MPs can act as ‘seat-blockers’, occupying their seats for decade after decade.

Here’s the catch: the longer an MP has been in situ, the more likely he is to be a man.

As you can see in Table 2, there are 67 MPs first elected in 1992 or before who are standing again this May. 59 of them are men. Having held their seats for over two decades, we can guess that most of these men will keep their positions effectively unchallenged.

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This is a major barrier in terms of increasing women’s representation in the future. We can’t allow the existence of safe seats to act as a block on reaching a 50:50 parliament. We need to reform our voting system.

Proportional representation isn’t a silver bullet, of course. It can only facilitate – rather than guarantee – more diversity in politics. But experience from other countries shows that nearly all of those with a high proportion of women in parliament use some form of PR. Moreover, larger multi-member constituencies would increase the likelihood that more women would be able to win seats, as voters would have a greater choice of winnable candidates. Under our current broken electoral system, less ‘traditional’ and ‘safe-looking’ candidates lose out.

Nonetheless, it’s good news that nearly 200 women will be elected in two months’ time. Let’s just make sure it doesn’t become a new ‘glass ceiling’.

Josiah Mortimer is Communications assistant at the Electoral Reform Society. Follow him on Twitter

Read the ‘Women in Westminster’ report here

Greens replace £1,000 black tie event with ‘lottery’ dinner

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First published this piece at Bright Green here

The Green Party of England and Wales has cancelled its controversial £500-a-head black tie dinner and replaced it with a ‘lottery’ donations appeal.

The event would have seen donors give £1,000 to enable themselves and a guest to attend.

All donors will now have an equal chance of attending a meal with the leadership – regardless of how much they donate to the ‘Breakthrough Appeal’.

The climb-down follows anger from members after the website Political Scrapbook revealed that a £1,000 per head ‘green tie’ event was being planned at a luxury hotel in London at the end of the month – with access to leadership figures. The story was also picked up by the Independent and Morning Star.

The event cost twice as much as the Conservatives’ recent black tie dinner, a fact which caused national outrage and threats of resignations if the event went ahead as planned.

Responding to comments on a post about donating to the party on Facebook, the Greens said last night: “Everyone who gives to the breakthrough appeal will be put into a lottery for one of the 150 tickets to the old Green tie event- now the Wear Something Green Gala Thank You Dinner’- equal opportunities for all!”

The move will be welcomed by activists, over a hundred of whom had signed a Young Greens petitioncalling for it to be cancelled. Both national co-chairs as well as other national Young Greens had signed the statement which said: “To hold an event explicitly open only to the wealthy, and to offer access to the party’s leadership at a price, is a betrayal of these values”.

Supporters responded positively, with one saying “This is why I love the Green Party. They admit when they’re wrong, listen to their members and make change for good.”

In a statement seen by Bright Green, the party said:

We are currently conducting a wide range of fundraising activities across our membership and supporters involving a variety of crowdfunding, appeals and events. As part of this basket of events we planned to hold a Green Tie dinner event for donors. After feedback from our membership, supporters and donors, the Green Party Executive decided not proceed with this event.  Instead there will be equal opportunity for all donors of the Breakthrough Appeal(1) to be one of 150 who will join our leadership and candidates for a ‘Wear Something Green thank you event’.  

The ‘Wearing Something Green thank you event’ will be held on the 28th of March in London (venue to be confirmed). 

We hope that our membership sees this as a Green approach to a sustainable future. Further comments will be welcome from all those who support the Green Party, and will be considered to help instruct our approach to fundraising.  

(1) Any donor who has given over £5 to the Green Party Breakthrough Appeal, by the 12am on the 20th March, will be randomly selected to join the party.   This includes any donor who has given over £5 to The Green Party Breakthrough Appeal and any of the below:

•’Give Everyone a chance to Vote Green’ National Party Crowdfunder

•General Election Planning Appeal 

•’Help us reach our full potential’ Young Greens Crowfunder”

Could this set a precedent for the party to stick to democratic methods of fundraising?

UPDATE: Georgia Elander, Young Greens press officer and co-ordinator of the YG petition to get the black tie event cancelled, has now commented on the news, telling Bright Green:

“I’m incredibly glad that the party has decided to make this change. The original event was a clear error of judgement, and for it to have gone ahead would not have been acceptable.

“However, the fast and positive reaction to complaints from members is really gratifying. It shows that the party is still very much a grassroots one, held accountable to its members.”

Brighton Council fails to pass cuts budget after Green rebellion

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Green-controlled Brighton & Hove City Council failed to set a budget last week after six Green councillors voted against implementing cuts.

This could be the first example of councillors refusing to set a budget because of opposition to austerity since Liverpool’s Militant-controlled Labour council in the 1980s.

The move came at the budget setting meeting last Thursday (26th Feb), in a meeting which went late into the night,  the Argus newspaper has reported.

It follows Brighton and Hove Green Party members unanimously voting in January to demand Green councillors refuse to pass another cuts budget, as Bright Green reported at the time.

Another budget setting meeting will take place this week to try and end the deadlock. As a minority-controlled council, Labour and the Conservatives could unite to set their own budget, and if no budget is set then a budget will be implemented by a council administrator, it is understood.

The Argus reports on Thursday’s full council meeting:

“With the Greens proposing a referendum-inducing 5.9% rise and a Conservative freeze failing to gather enough support, it was the city council’s third party Labour’s 1.99% rise which became the only likely outcome – but it did not happen.

Labour’s plans relied again on sufficient support from Green councillors, with leader Jason Kitcat attempting to convince enough of his colleagues to pass a budget on the night and avoid further delays and uncertainty.

The three budget options were all voted down at the first attempt.”

Green council leader Jason Kitcat, who is not standing for election again this May,  condemned Green councillors who voted against setting a budget which involved further cuts, according to the report.

We’re also hearing that the Tories and Labour voted down a Green proposal to protect services for the vulnerable by getting rid of paid party political advisers, as well as a proposal for a 6% rise in council tax to prevent further cuts.

More updates to come.

Follow the Bright Green site for coverage of the result of the upcoming council vote on Tuesday. 

Is this a breakthrough for the anti-austerity movement? Does it set a precedent for Green councillors across the country? And where next for Brighton Greens and the council? May’s election there will be interesting indeed…

Do you live in Brighton? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

UPDATE: One of the original ‘Liverpool 47′ Militant councillors who refused to pass cuts budgets in the ’80s has sent her solidarity. A sea-change for the left – and something to unite around?

Perhaps Left Unity will now be even more inclined to back Green candidates this May after pledging to support an anti-austerity alliance.

Note: The title of this piece was changed from the initial ‘Brighton Council votes against cuts and refuses to set budget‘ after some rightly pointed out that it was not the administration as a whole which voted against a cuts budget, but was the result of the ‘Brighton Six‘ – the rebel Green councillors.

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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.