The State of This (Union)

It’s only hubris if I fail. – Julius Caesar

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On the 18th of April, Theresa May called an election which was not required, so she could increase a majority she already had, so that she’d have a mandate she didn’t need to negotiate with an EU delegation which doesn’t care about such mandates.

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How Scotland Votes: A Guide to the General Election

A Guide to the 2017 General Election

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Once more unto the polls, dear friends, once more.

Thanks to Theresa May’s call for a snap election we find ourselves going again back at the polling stations on June 8th to elect our representatives to the UK parliament, just two years after having done so previously. Time, then, for another of my impartial and non-partisan guides for first time voters or those who have not voted in some time and wish to know how to vote. As with my other voting guides, it will not be the place for this article to lobby for any particular vote. I’ll leave that to other blogs (such as, but not limited to, Scot Goes Pop, Wings Over Scotland and Wilderness of Peace) and to other articles.

Background

Whilst this is a UK wide election, the focus here will be on Scotland as that’s where I am and where I know best. It has been a time of great change in this country over the past decade or so, particularly in the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum which saw a great divide in the landscape of the party politics of Scotland and a substantial surge in support for the pro-independence parties. The swing from the 2010 results to the 2015 results were dramatic enough to have carved a place forever in the history books and to have shocked many who were trying to predict the results ahead of time.

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Since then, the rise of the Conservative and Unionist vote in Scotland, largely gained via that party’s cannibalisation of their former allies, Labour and the Lib Dems, has been the talk of the political water fountains. With the SNP sitting about as high as they possibly can in the rankings, most are asking how far their support will or will not erode and who will pick up any seats they may give away.

First: Register To Vote

This is the most important thing. If you are not registered to vote, you cannot vote. There is no “on the day” registration in Scotland and the deadline for the Council elections is 23:59 on May 22nd. If you are registered, you are likely to have received a polling card by now telling you where to vote. If you haven’t or if you know that you are not registered, then information on how to do so is here. Even with the relatively high turnouts seen in Scotland lately, it’s still often the case that more people do not vote than vote for the winning candidate in a seat. Get out and have your say.

Unfortunately, unlike the Scottish Parliamentary elections, the EU elections and the Scottish local elections, this vote is not open to 16 and 17 year olds nor to non-UK, EU citizens. Westminster is yet to catch up with the opening of the electoral franchise to these groups. If you find yourself in this situation the only thing I can suggest is that you lobby your friends and family who can vote to consider your needs along with their own and to continue to demand that things change in future elections.

How To Vote

Of the various election methods used in Scotland’s various elections, the one used in the General Election is both the easiest to explain how to fill out a ballot and the easiest to count and come to a result. For this election, Scotland is split into 59 constituencies as shown below.

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In each of these constituencies several candidates will be vying for your vote. Despite the attention given to the political parties both in the media and in practice within government, technically you will not be voting for a party on your ballot sheet. You will be voting for a person to represent your constituency in the House of Commons and that person may or may not be a member of a party.

When you go to cast your vote, either at the polling station or via a postal vote, you will be presented with a ballot paper which looks something like the one below.

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The candidates will be shown in alphabetical order according to surname and below their name will be shown their registered address and either the name of the party to which their belong (if any) or a slogan chosen by the party which represents something about them. The party’s logo may be shown to the right.

You may cast your vote by placing an X in the box beside your preferred candidate. Do not make any other mark on the paper and do not rank candidates in preference order as you may have done in the council elections as this will invalidate your vote.

Once done, put your ballot in the box and you’re done.

Counting the Votes

Once the polls are closed and the ballot boxes unsealed, it’s time to count the votes and decide who wins each seat.

The General Election is counted using the First Past The Post system, or FPTP. This system has the advantage of being very easy to count and always decides a single winner who will represent that seat.

In this system, the ballots are simply piled according to the X’s and whomever gains the most, even by a single vote, wins. There is no need to win a majority of votes (that is, over 50% of all votes cast) or anything like that. This does lead to the inherent unfairness of FPTP as one can easily see that in a race between, say, four nearly evenly matched candidates, the winner will be the one who receives just slightly over one quarter of all votes cast. In fact, Alasdair McDonnell of the SDLP did precisely this in 2015 winning the seat against six other candidates in Belfast South with a total of 24.5% of votes cast and currently holds the record for the lowest winning percentage of votes in a UK General Election.

This allocation of seats means that parties can win a large number of seats based on a relatively small percentage of the overall vote. Since WWII, there hasn’t been a single UK general election where the winning party has received more than 50% of the overall popular vote. When it comes to forming a government, the party with the most seats generally has the first chance to try to do so and, with only a few exceptions, it is generally the case in the UK that the winning party is able to form a majority government and rule alone. The previous Conservative government had a majority government despite only receiving 36.1% of the overall UK vote.

The limits of FPTP also mean that parties which have small but concentrated votes, such as the Lib Dems and the Greens of England and Wales, can receive seats by winning those individual constituencies whereas parties like UKIP can receive a broad level of support across many constituencies without winning any single one of them.

But, for worse or better, that’s the system we’ve got at the moment. I hope this guide helps folk understand it and helps you cast your vote on June 8th. If you haven’t voted before or were planning to not vote, I hope you turn out and have your say.

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We Need To Talk About: A Financial Transaction Tax

“We bailed out the City 10 years ago when the crash came, we poured hundreds of billions of pounds into it. Since then £100bn has been given out in bonuses in the City. So we are asking for a small contribution…to fund our public services.” – John McDonnell MP

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Last night, Labour announced one of their keynote policies ahead of the 2017 General Election. A financial transaction tax on the City of London. Time for a blog to outline just what in the name of Jim it actually is and what it’s supposed to do.

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Council17 – The Aftermath

That’s the council elections done then.

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Well, that’s the voting done. The “fun” bit is going to happen over the next few days as the negotiations work out. Not one of the 32 councils in Scotland have a majority control with major Labour fiefdoms like Glasgow and North and South Lanarkshire all falling to that party’s continuing collapse. Not safe, though, were SNP councils like Dundee which has also slipped out of majority control. The rise of the Conservative and Unionists (who have been benefiting from the second half of their name even in spite of the first) has been remarkable even if all they’ve been doing is cannibalising the other Unionist parties rather than making any substantial gains on the other side of the constitutional divide.

The Greens had a good time of the elections, increasing their seats from 14 to 19. Incidentally, we’re now the largest party on Orkney Council (albeit because all the other councilors are independents). My own branch of South Lanarkshire failed to get any candidates elected although I have to give my personal thanks to the 139 people who placed their trust in me with their 1st preference votes. It was a great experience being a candidate. Who knows. It may not be my last time.

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As it stands now, South Lanarkshire will be represented by 27 SNP councilors, 21 Labour, 14 Conservatives, 1 Lib Dem and 1 Independent. With 33 required for a majority there will now be a weekend of intense negotiations over who goes where. Whilst they’ve lost their control, Labour will now be the kingmakers here. It will be their choice whether they side with a party with whom they share many or most of their values when it comes to local issues or whether they’ll side with a party with whom they share precisely one value over which their councilors will have precisely zero ability to effect.

This will be the story going on in many more councils across Scotland and I cannot predict how they’ll turn out, only that if Labour does decide to ally itself with the Tories one more time for one more stint at short term gain then their final death as a party is inevitable. They will have thrown away their last reason to exist in Scottish politics. And they wouldn’t be missed by many, not even their “allies”, once that happens.
Glasgow will be an interesting story in this regard. With the tally there being 39 SNP, 31 Labour, 8 Conservative and 7 Greens and with 43 needed for a majority there is no possibility of a Labour/Tory Alliance conspiring to keep control of this city. Instead it seems inevitable that the SNP will be the part of control here, it just remains to be seen if they’ll form a formal or informal coalition with Labour or with the Greens to get there. Obviously I’d certainly be hoping for the latter but, as with all in politics, I guess it’ll depend on the price asked by all sides involved. No matter what, Glasgow is ripe for exciting possibilities for change. Too many areas of the city have been neglected for too long and there are great opportunities and assets there just waiting for someone to have the courage to take on the challenge of exploring them. I’d personally like to see something like the Community Buyout scheme recently promoted by Common Weal given a shot. You can read about that here.

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Now IS The Time

PM Theresa May has called for a UK General Election to be held on June 8th. Because the UK is completely united behind her vision of Brexit and now is not the time for divisive politics..or something.

This election does have to get over the stumbling block of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act which requires a 2/3rds majority in the Commons to overrule but Labour have already announced their support for that move. It must be hard for them. If they do it, they’ll get a drubbing. If they don’t, they’ll be crucified in the press.
Whilst I don’t think the Tories will find the prospect of kicking Labour whilst they are down to be an unwelcome one, I still don’t think that this is the primary motivation for this call. There’s little the Tories can’t do with a majority of a dozen or so that they could do with a majority of 50+.

I don’t think this is about Labour. This is a Brexit call. May will be wanting to legitimise the hardest-of-Brexits she’s angling for but which wasn’t in the last manifesto. She’ll also be wanting to harden the party behind that vision. I’d be watching the selection process very carefully to see how many of those back-bencher Remainer Tories get quietly (or not so quietly) purged from the ranks or at least get made to submit to the party will.

With regard to Scotland, this is a gamble which only makes sense if May isn’t considering Scotland at all. All it is going to take is the pro-independence parties (especially the one which holds all of the pro-indy seats at the moment) to put up their 2015 manifesto as read and state that this General Election is about the choice between the hardest of Tory Brexits and Independence. Once they return a majority (I wonder how David Mundell is feeling right now) then no-one can deny that mandate for a referendum without ridicule.

SNP support probably isn’t as strong as it was in the wake of the Surge inflated 2015 election but FPTP will still work in its favour. The chances of returning a majority of seats by themselves is still substantial.

And then there’s Northern Ireland which is still without an Assembly. Yes, in normal times the General Election dynamics are somewhat different but between the prospect of Brexit and Direct Rule these are far from normal times. I won’t even pretend to try to predict what will happen there.

So what’s the “best case” scenario for May? A quelled party, a silenced opposition and “the regions” don’t make too much of a racket as they follow the UK into the hardest of Tory Brexits and all the cuts, Austerity and pain that will bring. Tory rule will dominate for a decade or more.

Her “worst” case? She loses her majority and the mandate for Brexit. Government crumbles, resignations happen and all the while Article 50 – which was triggered by a “united” Britain less than a month ago keeps on ticking down towards May 2019…

Interesting times.

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How Scotland Votes: A Guide to the Scottish Council Elections

Disclosure and Disclaimer: I am currently standing as a candidate in the council elections. Be assured however that this post shall be objective and party neutral. This is a guide as to how to vote, not to try to convince you to vote for or against any particular person or party.

A Guide to the Scottish Council Elections

One of the most read articles on this blog was a guide written in 2015 which tried to explain the mechanics behind how one votes in the Scottish Parliamentary Elections and how those votes translate into seats. With the voting age in Scotland being dropped to 16 and the upsurge in political interest in Scotland there will undoubtedly be a substantial number of people in the country who will be voting for the first time and will want to know how to do it. This article is for them and those who will be speaking to them in the days to come. As said in the disclaimer, this article will not be advocating any particular choice on who to vote for and will not be discussing options such as “tactical voting”. These are topics for other articles and other blogs.

Background

Scotland is presently organised into 32 regional authorities called councils (some call them “local” as they are currently the lowest level of effective government in Scotland but this would be erroneous as they are many times the size of actual local government in other comparable democracies)

These councils are elected every five years with the last election being held in 2012 under the proportional representation voting system known as Single Transferrable Vote, or STV. The next election is on May 4th 2017.

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Results of the 2012 elections by highest 1st preference vote in each ward. Yellow – SNP, Red – Labour, Blue – Conservative, Orange – Lib Dem, Green – Green, Grey – Independent

For the purposes of electing councilors, each regional council is split into multiple wards based on the population size of the council. Each ward then elects either 3 or 4 councilors. Due to the relatively small size of each ward and the proportional nature of the vote it is far easier for a non-party “independent” councilor to be elected (often based on either local popularity, past experience in council before leaving a previous party or by campaigning on a particular local issue) than is the case during either the Scottish Parliamentary elections or in the UK General Election.

First: Register To Vote

This is the most important thing. If you are not registered to vote, you cannot vote. There is no “on the day” registration in Scotland and the deadline for the Council elections is April 17th. If you are registered, you are likely to have received a polling card by now telling you where to vote. If you haven’t or if you know that you are not registered, then information on how to do so is here.

How To Vote

This is the easy bit of STV. Rather than the fairly opaque nature of the AMS system used in the Scottish elections where you are faced with two ballots which are both marked in the same way but are both calculated differently, STV presents you with a single ballot paper which will look a little like this:

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The candidates will be listed in alphabetical order by surname with their home address* and their party affiliation, if any, underneath. Also present may be a party logo or a slogan representing a core issue of the candidate/party.

As with the Scottish election constituency vote and the UK General election (but unlike the Scottish Parliamentary Regional vote) you are not strictly voting for a party in these elections but for a person who may or may not be a member of a party. As there may be multiple people standing in a ward representing the same party, it is therefore important to consider the candidate as a person alongside their affiliations.

To actually vote is straight-forward. You do not simply mark one box with an X as with other elections, but instead RANK the candidates in order of preference using a discrete number for each 1,2,3 etc. You may not give two or more candidates “equal” rank. You do not need to rank every candidate. Once you get to the point where you’d prefer none of the remaining candidates to get elected, you may leave their boxes blank. This is sometimes known as “vote till ye boak”. Do not make any other marks on the ballot paper as this may result in your vote being invalidated and rejected. Once completed your ballot paper may look something like this:

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Note: Preferences listed here are for illustration only and do not represent an endorsement, recommendation or author’s personal preference.

And once you’ve dropped your completed ballot into the box or sent it away via your postal ballot, that’s it. Simple. The seats are then allocated out such that the candidates elected are the ones deemed highest ranked by the largest number of people

* To be eligible to stand in local elections, one of the requirements is that a candidate must live, own property or work within the council boundaries. Note that the requirement applies at a council level, not a ward level.

The Hard Bit: Counting the Votes

Here comes the tricky part. Counting the votes and translating them to seats. This is a far more mathematical exercise than the FPTP system used in the UK elections (which is trivial. Person with the most votes wins the seats, the party with the most seats wins the government) and more complicated even the d’Hondt system used in Scotland and the EU elections (which can be tabulated with a pen and paper if you have to). If you’re reading this on the front page and want to delve into this maths, then click below to unfold. If not, I hope this has been useful and good luck to your chosen candidate(s) in May.

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