AV? No thanks!

A couple of pieces I saw this week piqued my interest in advance of next week’s vote. Firstly, Compass‘s Joe Cox and Tom Griffin argue that a yes vote is the best means of frustrating the policies of the coalition government (Martin Kettle has also argued similarly); while Hilary Wainwright argues in The Guardian that AV will not only improve the quality of political debate but will symbolise a vote for change.

I start from an interest in, and support for, electoral reform, but I just can’t bring myself to vote for AV. I’m not convinced that short-term political interests are worthy reasons to bring in this famously ‘miserable compromise’ as a new voting system, although I can of course see the tactical reasons for that; and neither am I at all convinced that AV is a much-needed ‘baby step‘ towards a better electoral system than the one we have already. This is a mature democracy and one in which, furthermore, we already have proportional representation voting systems in place, both for elections to the European Parliament and, up here in Scotland, to the Scottish Parliament – so it’s not as though we’re actually in need of something which helps us dip our toes in the water of electoral reform. And neither are we in need of being patronised, either.

We’re not being asked to vote for electoral reform based on proportional representation, we’re only being asked to vote for one, and one only, variant of electoral reform. It’s not a starting point for a wider debate about electoral reform; it’s an end point – not the end, obviously, but an end. People who argue that electoral reform might evolve into a better voting system if only we first took the opportunity to implement AV are surely deluding themselves: I can’t see the electorate having much of an appetite for repeating this embarrassing slanging-match-passing-as-political-debate in the forseeable future. This is not a situation of ‘vote yes to AV – get electoral reform’: voting yes to AV means the alternative vote is exactly what we get. And neither do I want to imagine that what was offered to the LibDems as a price of getting them to support the Tories in government is, in this area and for the foreseeable future, debate-defining.

For all its faults, first past the post is based on the principle of one person one vote. Every vote counts, and counts once (pace Tammany Hall). That’s the crux of my opposition to AV – some electors, but not all of them, get a second bite at the cherry when their candidate falls. That doesn’t strike me as at all in line with democratic principles – and neither does it strike me as at all rational: the people whose alternative votes are deployed are the ones who have voted, in order, for the weakest (and not only the wackiest), fringe-like candidate(s). That’s simply not credible. It’s not about candidates ‘pandering to extremists‘ but it does give a potentially determining power to those who vote for small parties and, in the first place, only to the voters of such parties. I can fully envisage some unholy scenarios of how that might pan out in practice and I can’t understand why I’d want to vote for that.

Abstentionism has never been my tradition, so I’ll be putting my ‘x’ firmly in the ‘no’ box next Thursday. Given who I will then be allying myself with, though, I will be washing my hands very thoroughly afterwards…

And then, once AV is dead and buried, the campaign for proper electoral reform goes on.

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Private and public debt

I’m catching up late with this, but this is indeed an excellent post (and, indeed, blog) on the Office for Budgetary Responsibility’s revision of its forecasts on what is going to happen to private debt over the next few years. As public debt is being reduced, private debt is now likely to expand.

Inevitably, government cuts to public services will lead to people paying for them separately, thus squeezing household finances further and driving up household debt; while an economy actively flirting with depression will cause further problems to household debts as people lose their jobs, on top of the impact of the falling value of real incomes, as people seek to maintain living standards as far as possible. That’s not rocket science – except, it would seem, to a government intent on blazing a path back to the 80s.

This may well spell bad news for the 2012 pensions reforms: rising private debt, on top of household savings apparently resuming pre-recession trends, is likely to cause further pressures on peoples’ ability to save (more) for their retirement. At the same time, rising debt is likely to increase pressures for people to have access to their pension pots early. This has already been the subject of a Treasury consultation. Evidently, pensions are not savings per se – rainy days are what savings are for; pensions are for your retirement – but seeking to encourage people to save more while engaging in policies that are driving up their debts is an unhealthy and short-sighted combination.

At the wider, political level, we may well here be sowing the seeds of a future financial crash – but it is clear that the intentional driving up of private debt, despite the lessons of what the economy has been through in the past few years, itself underlines the sharply ideological nature of this government’s intensifying onslaught.

[Edit 1 April: And for living proof that, if you sit an infinite number of bloggers down in front of an infinite number of keyboards, you will get, if not the works of Shakespeare then more or less similar posts, within almost literally seconds of posting this, I discovered that Duncan Weldon over at False Economy had made most of the same points, and better, and with more links, too. Damn!]

Ofcom becomes Off-com

Ofcom today confirmed plans for a 28%+ cut in its budget over the next four years – with the vast bulk being front-loaded: 22.5% of that cut will come in 2011/2012, with a cut of £27m, taking the overall budget to £116m.

We need to see Ofcom’s forthcoming Annual Plan – due out ‘shortly’ – to see what this means in practice (although the confirmation of the dimensions of the cut seem to indicate that this draft is likely to be substantially unchanged), but (on the back of the experience of year-on-year budget cuts) Ofcom believes it can nevertheless maintain its ‘capability and effectiveness’ in delivering ‘effective and targeted regulation’ and, as if to prove ‘business as usual’, it chose today to launch a new consultation on Openreach’s wholesale pricing. Though this tells us little other than that the regulator is on-message.

Ofcom is already in the process of finalising cuts to 170 jobs – 19.5% of its workforce as at 31 March 2010 (see Table 6) – and it’s difficult to believe that this will not have an impact on regulation in the sector. Cuts to Ofcom’s governance structure and the closure of its Consumer Panel have already been made, while I note that those employees remaining in the companies defined benefit pension plans are faced with the loss of future accrual on top of a two-year pay freeze. We are also likely to see the loss of Ofcom’s role in encouraging digital participation and rationalisation of its research programme.

Time will tell. The earlier removal from last year’s Digital Economy Act of a greater role for Ofcom in promoting investment in the industry is already a critical loss since this would have counter-balanced the existing statutory duty to promote competition which is proving problematic to the shape and direction of the industry. The impact of a smaller – perhaps more focused – regulator on the dynamism of the industry is yet to be seen, as will be its ability to compel the government to see through its ambitious plans for the communications industry (about which this blog has previously been critical – see, for instance, here). The signs are clearly not hopeful – but the ideological gap between what I’ve just said about the role of the regulator in driving the industry forward and the practical reality of the government’s market-driven approach is immense.

Marching on together

There are probably as many reasons to march tomorrow as there are cuts. Of all the reasons set out in the megabytes of bandwidth devoted to this, I liked Accidental Academic‘s perhaps the best.

The TUC’s largest mobilisation for decades will see hundreds of thousands on the streets of London demonstrating opposition to the government’s ideologically-driven cuts programme and in support of a better economic alternative. Sadly, I’ll not be among them – for reasons which include a certain indolence in getting myself organised in time; and weekends being sacrosanct, combined with a lot of travel at the minute from my Perthshire eyrie. Both reasons which are insufficient in themselves, and outweighed by the number of reasons why I should be out there. Though I will be there in the spirit (or, otherwise, in the Armchair Army (First Chairbourne Division)).

The False Economy and March for the Alternative websites have done a terrific job in the mobilisation in providing reasons for people to get out there, and the use of Twitter (@March26March) has been terrific in adding a steady drip feed of messages to stiffen resolve and provide backbone. The TUC has dealt well with the organisational and logistical difficulties in rallying this number of people in one place – as have thousands of ordinary trade unionists up and down the land.

Above all, probably, is the simple message that taking billions out of an economy faced with recession – and this week’s OBR report provides more proof that this economy is on the slide, compared to where it was six months ago – is neither sensible nor a strategy. ‘Marching for the alternative’ sounds to me  a campaign theme that it’s been pitched exactly right and it’s clear what the TUC is marching FOR, as opposed to what it is marching AGAINST.

And the campaign theme? Well, James’s Sit Down for me (obviously!); for everyone else: Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up (equally clearly). But for everyone, whether in the armchair army or the mobile marching one, how about dusting off Billy’s Between the Wars? The call for ‘sweet moderation’, when confronted with an ideological onslaught of the simplest, most caustic public-sector-bad, private-sector-good type being exhibited by the Tories and their yellow Tory mates, remains a strongly relevant call to arms for middle Britain.

For those going tomorrow, have a great day: and have a sing out for me! And make it massive (hat-tip: @kmflett).

CPI indexation: a saving or a cut?

A couple of days after Liberal Conspiracy disclosed the – denied – revelation that BBC journalists are being instructed to use ‘savings’ rather than ‘cuts’ in their coverage of government announcements, it came as something of a surprise that call me Dave spoke to his party conference promising ‘less debt, more saving’: it seems to me that less debt, more cuts is exactly what the ConDems are all about.

But – taking the promise at face value – if we can look forward to a government that seeks to encourage saving, then perhaps we can look forward to this government, after all, turning away from the proposed switch to indexation of pensions in payment by the Consumer Price Index rather than the Retail Price Index. The sleight of hand switch to a lower value indexation for future pensions increases in defined benefit schemes announced last July is no less than a government-inspired theft of workers’ occupational pensions. It will rob pensioners of thousands of pounds, with the loss rising with every year of retirement, leaving them more dependent on means-tested state benefits and taking crucial spending power out of the economy. And if the government can do that, to those who are pensioners already as well as to future ones, and in the face of pensioners’ expectations as to what they have been paying into all their working lives and frequently in spite of private scheme-based agreements on how indexation will be dealt with, why should they bother with a pension?

A DWP consultation on this issue as regards private sector occupational schemes closed last week: if the government is serious about encouraging more saving, it will have the courage to do away with this proposal and respect pensioners’ continuing rights to a pension indexed in line with RPI.

Mayday! Indeed…

What better place to look for some informed comment on the Tory plans to relocate the May Day bank holiday to later in the year than the TUC’s ToUChstone blog?

Paul Sellers’s post hits all the right notes on the issue, but I also learned – courtesy of ToUChstone commentator Adrian Cruden – that the UK actually came into being, as a result of the Act of Union of 1707, on 1 May. And so it did. What better day indeed to celebrate ‘UK Day’?

(Meanwhile, Adrian has some interesting, and radical, alternative suggestions of his own for a Bank Holiday date later in the year.)

A lesson in nationalisation

The players of Stirling Albion, a supporters trust-owned club, have agreed to go without wages for the month in support of the fans’ attempt to support their club, which has gone without revenue for some months on account of the adverse weather which has led to games being postponed.

An interesting contrast with the position of bankers on their bonuses – not even wages – in the state-held banking sector.

Looks to me a prime justification for the value of full nationalisation and workers’ control over this country’s banks…