Archive for April 2011
With polls consistently showing a clear lead for ‘No’ in the upcoming AV referendum I’ve been thinking. Might there have been a better way for the Lib Dems to move the country towards PR (Proportional Representation)? I will be voting for AV, I think that it’s an improvement over FPTP and that is my main voting criteria. That being said, I don’t think there’s anyone out there who is truly enthusiastic about it. It’s no more proportional than FPTP and feels a bit like tinkering around the edges. This has, in my opinion made it much harder to sell to the electorate and made it more open to attack from the No Campaign. What worries me is that a ‘No’ vote could well put paid to any chance at electoral reform for a long time.
What the Lib Dems really wanted was proportional representation (specifically Single Transferable Vote [STV]), but that simply wasn’t on the cards. Labour was unwilling and incapable of delivering it and the Conservatives refused point blank. However, I do wonder, what if instead of demanding AV nationally the Lib Dems had demanded STV for local elections? Obviously I wasn’t privy to the coalition negotiations, but I suspect it would have been much more acceptable to the Conservatives.
I think it would have had several advantages:
- No need for a referendum – changing the system for local elections isn’t that big a thing compared to Parliamentary electoral reform.
- It’s proper PR, so it wouldn’t be seen as an AVesque half arsed improvement.
- When local government didn’t collapse it would (hopefully) boost support for Parliamentary STV.
- No future electoral reform campaign could involve arguments that STV is too complicated for voters to understand if they’d been using it for a while already.
- Presumably the Conservatives would see it as much less of a concession and so it might have been possible to get something like Lib Dem tuition fee policy into the coalition deal (I’m actually reasonably happy with the current government tuition fee changes, but it would have helped the Lib Dems).
This post from Politicalbetting.com has some interesting data on the party system and how it relates to electoral reform. Its idea is essentially that with the decreasing level of two-party dominance in the UK, based on foreign experiences, a move from FPTP is almost inevitable. However, if AV is voted in then there is a good possibility it will halt that process. If you accept that, then STV for local elections would almost certainly have been a better idea. A future referendum on full PR would have been very likely and STV already being in use could only have helped the ‘Yes’ campaign win.
In conclusion, I feel I should reiterate, I will be voting for AV. I think it’s a better system and I think a ‘No’ vote would interfere with future reform. I just think we could have done better following a different path to PR in the first place.
Pretty much every country in Europe has a far-right political party. Their rise has worried politicians and observers around the continent and in some countries they have even ended up as part of governing coalitions. In France polls indicate that the National Front’s Marine Le Pen has a decent chance of making it to the second round in the presidential elections. In the recent Finnish elections True Finns came third with 19% of the vote and in 2010 the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) came third with 15% of the vote.
Most people will agree that the rise of these parties is undesirable, but this begs two questions. Firstly, what makes a party part of the far-right and secondly what is the best way to deal with their increasing strength?
In my opinion what sets them apart is a particular brand of socially conservative and unpleasant nationalism (with strong racial undertones) combined with somewhat incoherently populist economic policy. It is, however, worth noting that you do get some quite significant differences between them. For example, the Italian National Alliance (direct descendants of the Fascists) are not actually particularly anti-immigration while the Dutch PVV, other than its anti-Islam stance, is more Thatcherite than extreme-right.
Oddities aside, there remains the question of how to deal with them. As far as I can see it there are four options, not all of which are mutually exclusive:
- Not bothering.
One could argue that parties of the far-right are a legitimate occurrence in a democratic political system and as such don’t need to be ‘dealt with’. Instead they should be treated like any other political party, ignored if they’re sufficiently small, and as they grow included in debates, coalitions etc. I have a certain amount of sympathy for this approach, in a democracy the views of the voters are meant to be represented and if enough people vote for a particular party… However, parties of the far-right (and left, but that’s a different matter for another day) do stand outside the normal consensus and often hold very unpleasant views. Treating them as if they are just another party is probably giving them credit they don’t deserve.
- Ignoring and excluding them.
This tactic is fairly self-explanatory. You starve your nation’s far right party of any publicity. You refuse to discuss their policies, exclude them from coalitions and essentially treat them as both illegitimate and a minor irritation. This could certainly be effective, but only up to a point. For example, in the UK the BNP is pretty insignificant, to the point that (recent European elections aside) they are a genuine irrelevancy on a national or even regional scale. On the other hand, you can’t ignore a party that looks like it might come second in the French presidential election, or one that can pull 15% of the vote in a proportional electoral system. In Belgium more moderate parties had some quite serious problems trying to keep Vlaams Blok (now Vlaams Belang) out of coalitions, forcing ideological rivals into repeated grand coalitions.My problem with the tactic of ignoring and excluding parties of the far-right is that it plays right into the hands of one of their central propaganda themes. These parties thrive on the parts of the electorate that feel disenfranchised and left out of the progress of the last couple of decades. They love to bang on about how the establishment parties want to keep their own cosy oligopoly and conspire to keep the far-right out of the national discourse because they know that the ‘silent majority’ supports it. By excluding them from normal politics, treating them as something different and refusing to acknowledge their points the centrist political parties basically confirm the claims of the far right.
- Debating them.
By this I mean criticising their policies, being willing to engage with them to a certain degree. To the woolly liberal intellectual type (i.e. me) it appeals. Mature political systems should be able to deal with unpleasant opinions and demonstrate why they are wrong. In principle this is great, but from my experience what it normally seems to entail is either hysterical denunciations or basically handing the debate over to the far right. Worst of all is the tactic most mainstream British politicians seem to adopt; a combination of ignoring and ‘debating’ them. They will make a big fuss about how evil the BNP and its policies are, but then say that they should be ignored. So you get the worst of both worlds. The BNP get talked up by attempts at ‘debating’ their policies, and still get to play the ‘we’re so persecuted’ card.
- Addressing their concerns.
I’m coming at this from a slightly paternalistic view point; what I mean here is not pandering to the xenophobic elements of the far right’s platform. I mean doing more to help the disenfranchised elements of the population whose support is leaking away to the far right. Shield them from the impact of the changing structure of the economy and globalisation etc. The anti-immigration sentiment is, in my opinion, a symptom of deeper problems rather than a cause in its own right. The problem with going down this road is that it’s expensive and essentially ignores economic reality. There comes a point where failing industries simply can’t be propped up. If no one is willing to buy the things at the price you can sell them at then your industry will die sooner or later. You can delay it by transferring wealth from the rest of the economy, but you can’t prevent it forever.
I suppose active oppression is also an option, but for parties which claim to buy into democratic government I think it’s completely inappropriate and not really worthy of serious discussion.
Predictably I can’t make up my mind about which option tactic I prefer. I think for very minor parties ignoring them is the best option, but that’s only going to work when you’re dealing with parties that get less than 5% of the national vote. Once they start going beyond that I think you have to engage with them to some degree. What I don’t like is tactics based around taking their ground off them, á la Sarkozy with his burka ban. I think that when the mainstream parties start trying to copy the far right’s rhetoric on immigration they simply lend credibility to it without actually changing anyone’s votes.
Perhaps treating them as a normal party is the best tactic. Once they actually get into any position of power and have to start thinking about governing they tend to either moderate themselves very rapidly, see their support evaporate or both.
I’ve watched the American Right tangling itself into a knot over Obama’s birth with a great deal of amusement. For those of you that don’t know about the issue, to be President of the USA you have to be a ‘natural born citizen.’ Meaning you have to have been born a citizen. A significant proportion of Americans believed that Obama was actually born elsewhere (generally Kenya). Presumably this went with him being an evil part of the worldwide Muslim-socialist-atheist conspiracy. Anyway, as far as I could see most of this belief (despite strenuous denials) was founded in the fact that he’s half black.
Recently Donald Trump, in his slightly odd presidential bid (he’s apparently more suited to be President than the other candidates because he’s made more money than them), has been making lots of noise about Obama’s birth. This is interesting because normally the prominent Republicans try to play things both ways. “Oh, I am sure Obama was born in the USA, but there are unanswered questions.”
Up until recently Obama’s tactic for dealing with the issue seemed to be to ignore it. He released his short-form birth certificate a long time ago and it’s legally valid for all purposes. Presumably the thinking went that the Birthers just made themselves look like idiots and so it would be best to let them get on with it. As Napoleon put it, “never interrupt your enemy when they’re making a mistake.” Of course not having the actual original birth certificate wasn’t enough for these people (the originals aren’t normally released in Hawaii), despite all the other evidence in favour of Obama so they kept on complaining.
Today Obama released the original birth certificate. What interests me now is whether this will turn out to have been a sensible move. It should take out the central plank in the Birthers’ argument, but even more usefully to the Democrats, the Birthers, being nutters will probably continue to believe. People who believe in absurd conspiracies will ignore any evidence and just say that it’s all part of the conspiracy. By giving them exactly what they want Obama will almost certainly profit from them looking even more idiotic in future. It’s also likely to cause division in the Republican Party as the ones who actually want to win the presidency distance themselves from the more extreme half of the party and so risk being labelled as RINOs (Republicans In Name Only).
On the other hand, there is the risk that Obama will have given credibility to the movement by leaving the release for so long. He is under no obligation to pander to ridiculous demands, but that doesn’t mean that US voters wouldn’t think he should. Interestingly, Donald Trump seems to have switched to demanding to see Obama’s educational records. Apparently Trump ‘heard’ that Obama was a terrible student, and lots of much smarter people that he knows didn’t get to go to Harvard. Perhaps once you give the slightest concession to people like that they take it as an invitation to make even more ridiculous demands.
Hungarian government has just used its 2/3 majority to pass a new constitution. It’s absolutely outrageous. Obviously being a nice hand-wringing liberal type, I don’t object to constitutional amendments as such, but here…
The most egregious failure on the part of Fidesz (the ruling party) is their apparent inability to obtain any consensus. If you want to introduce a completely new constitution then you need to get it accepted across society and the political spectrum. Otherwise it is likely to be doomed to failure and be seen as a blatant attempt to strengthen your own party’s position. In this case not one MP from parties other than Fidesz voted for the constitution. Jobbik (nasty far-right types) voted against it and the MSzP (centre-left) and LMP (fluffy green liberal types) boycotted the vote.
It’s bad enough that Fidesz ignored the need to get a cross-party consensus, their actual organisation of the constitutional rewriting has been an utter shambles with last minute revisions taking place and the outside world not even sure what the final text of the constitution is. Treating such an important document in such a cavalier manner is hardly the mark of a good government.
After the passing of the controversial media law and various other shenanigans which appear to cement Fidesz’s power at the expense of Hungary’s openness and democracy, I’m hardly surprised. I am, however, extremely distressed.
I’ve found Eva Balogh’s blog to give very interesting and up to date views on the current state of Hungary’s politics.
I’ve always had a bit of thing for competition policy (yes I know, I’m a geek) and obtaining iTunes has inspired me to write a bit about it. More specifically tying and bundling. Bundling is when two products are sold together while tying describes a situation in which one product can be bought separately but the other cannot be bought without buying both. In the case of iTunes I was caught by a tying situation. You can get iTunes on its own, but you can’t get an iPod without having iTunes.
Competition policy is essentially about consumer protection and aims to prevent businesses from taking advantage of consumers. Or at least as much as is possible while maintaining a balance with the need to provide a good business environment. Tying and bundling can be problematic when a business uses a dominant position in one market (MP3 players in the case of Apple) to then lever themselves into a stronger position in another market. This can give them an unfair advantage over other businesses and may give them the opportunity to abuse their dominant position. Continuing with the example of Apple, I was quite happy using Windows Media Player before, but since my new iPod requires me to use iTunes I’ve had to switch to that. For most people the inconvenience of using two different media players would outweigh any annoyance at having to switch everything over and so the original provider is cut out of the market. A lack of competition is bad for consumers because it reduces the incentive to innovate and opens the market up to abuse from the dominant business.
The classic example of bundling is Microsoft, using Windows. First with Internet Explorer and later with Windows Media Player. By bundling these programs with Windows, Microsoft was able to use Windows’ massive market share to extend their dominance into other markets. It might be hard to remember these days, but if you go back 6 or 7 years Internet Explorer was basically the only browser people used and that was as a direct result of it being packaged with Windows. The Microsoft case is also worth remembering because of the massive penalties imposed on it by competition authorities (€497 million in 2003 by the European Commission).
However, it’s important to remember that tying and bundling are not necessarily bad. Depending on the circumstances they can be harmless, or even quite sensible. The European Commission’s guidance on tying/bundling provides a useful illustration of how such activities can be judged. Essentially four things would be considered. The first of these is whether the business is dominant in the relevant market – a business that does not have market dominance is not going to be able to get an unfair advantage. Secondly, the products involved should be distinct from each other. In other words, if they were available separately consumers might well buy one or the other. Preventing businesses from selling very closely related products together would be rather unfair. Thirdly, there need to be foreclosure effects. This means consumers being shifted away from other products by the tying or bundling. If there are no foreclosure effects then it means that whatever the business might be trying to do, they certainly aren’t succeeding at market abuse. Finally, the Commission also considers whether there are any efficiency justifications for the tying/bundling.
To conclude, tying/bundling isn’t always prohibited, and regardless I think iPod Touches are pretty damn good!