Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Category: Politics

Britain’s voting system is delivering what the public want

Hello hung parliament: Britain is back into deals and power arrangements, after just two years of Conservative majority. Another election in 2017 is a possibility if things fall apart.

The question I want to explore is this: is the first-past-the-post system (FPTP) delivering what voters want?

FPTP is one of the main criticisms of the UK political system. Each MP just needs to win the most votes in a seat, which can mean that they need to win far fewer than half the votes to be elected. That means smaller parties can pick up lots of votes, and get no seats, and results are skewed towards the winning party.

The most egregious example of this is the UK Independence Party – UKIP – in the 2015 election. With 12 per cent of the overall count – 3.8 million votes – they won just a single seat. FPTP clearly screwed UKIP in 2015.

This is nothing new. The Liberal Democrats have always suffered in this way, and their manifesto invariably contains a section on voting reform, moving to systems such as single transferable vote.

Whatever the merits of other systems, the question for the British people is not just about smaller parties. Does FPTP skew the result towards one or both of the two main parties, Conservative and Labour?

To assess whether FPTP is delivering an unfair outcome, the best measure is to look at the percentage of seats won compared to the percentage of votes won. This takes into consideration the different number of seats available in each election, and (importantly) voter turnout.

A perfect system would deliver a score for each party of 1. That would mean votes translate into seats at exactly the same rate. A score above 1 means the party gets more seats for their votes; a score less than one is the opposite, the party gets fewer seats per vote.

The Lib Dems have clearly suffered, with their scores in the last 10 elections running like this: 0.25, 0.16, 0.38, 0.44, 0.43, 0.42, 0.17, 0.15, 0.14, 0.13.

UKIP’s 2015 result was 0.01 – far worse than anything the Lib Dems have endured. (The Green party’s score in 2015 and 2017 was 0.04 and 0.10 – also a terrible ratio).

Some smaller parties lose out – that’s clear. Others do better – the Scottish National Party have in the last two elections got around 1.8 – in other words, close to twice the seats that their vote share suggests. Sinn Fein, the DUP and Plaid Cymru have also all scored above 1. The lesson is that smaller parties do well if their vote is concentrated in a region, rather than spread out over England.

But I think the bigger issue is whether the main parties are getting seats far out of proportion. That’s a more alarming question, as it has far greater impact on whether a party can force through legislation that half the country doesn’t want.

The latest election has in fact delivered the fairest set of results in the last 40 years (looking at the last 10 general elections). The Conservatives got 1.15 seat share per vote share; Labour got 1.01. This is the only time in the data that I’m looking at that the winning party was below 1.2. FPTP is not the problem here in terms of delivering voter intention. In fact, a hung parliament is exactly reflective of the votes cast. Continue reading

Electing the leader of 1.3bn

I’ve written before about the similarity, in pure number terms, between the Catholic church and China – same number of citizens / devotees (1.3bn), similar number of rulers (boils down to around 300).

The recent election of Francis I and of Xi Jinping brought it home again – but the comparison between the processes couldn’t be starker.

The Chinese rubber-stamp of Xi was ostensibly transparent – we know the number of votes. The Papal Conclave, on the other hand, is a mystery.

According to the Washington Post, Xi received 2,952 out of 2,956 votes cast by the National Party Congress – three abstentions and one brave dissident.

The Papal Conclave, on the other hand, had 115 electors – of which at least two-thirds, or 77 cardinals, were needed to elect Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope. But the ballots are burned, so we will never know any margin of victory, or how the voting progressed over the five rounds until the majority was gained.

So we have on one hand a process that is ostensibly transparent, but a total stitch-up – Xi has been leader-elect for years; and on the other other, a perfectly democratic, lobbying process that is utterly secure and opaque, within a confined theocracy cum-oligarchy.

It might not be perfect, but I know which I’d prefer to be a part of.

London mayor race: how Boris was lucky with the missed 2nd preference

Background: Boris Johnson has been re-elected moyor of London for a second term, beating Ken Livingstone by a narrow margin.

Boris Johnson is very lucky to be re-elected. Why? Because the biggest second-preference vote was “no-one”. If voters had used their form to the full, he could have easily lost. Here’s why:

First round votes:

Boris Johnson CON 971,931
Ken Livingstone LAB 889,918
Jenny Jones GRN 98,913
Brian Paddick LD 91,774
Siobhan Benita IND 83,914
Lawrence Webb UKIP 43,274
Carlos Cortiglia BNP 28,751

So, no overall majority, but Boris is ahead. However, count up the non-Boris, non-Ken votes and you have 346,626.

On the second preference votes, Boris won:

First preference votes Second preference votes Total
Boris Johnson 971,931 82,880 1,054,811
Ken Livingstone 889,918 102,355 992,273

But total up the second preference votes distributed – it comes to 185,235. That leaves 161,391 votes left “on the table”. Boris won by 62,538.

If those 161,000 votes had gone 70-30 to Ken, it’s Ken in City Hall. Quite a big ask, but do-able. There were lots of people who voted for the less-likely candidates for first choice, and then either didn’t put an “X” in the box for their second choice, or voted for another minority candidate. Perhaps they didn’t like either Boris or Ken – fair enough, but those 46 per cent have just lost the chance to make a big difference in the outcome of the election.

It shows how courting minority parties – just as Sarkozy and Hollande have had to do in France – can be the difference between winning and losing.

 

John Terry vs Chris Huhne, Fred Goodwin vs Johann Hari: why it pays to wait

I can’t help thinking about four recent falls from grace. In essence, two are about awards, the other two about pre-emptive punishment. In all cases, we could benefit from being less hasty. I’ll explain why.

Let’s start with pre-emptive punishment. John Terry was stripped of the England captaincy while pending an investigation over racist abuse. Chris Huhne quit the cabinet following charges over his wife taking speeding points for him.

In these cases, the alleged crimes are totally different, but the principle is the same. Should someone step down from high office (the cabinet, the captain of English football) before their case is heard? And in both instances, the MP and player can remain just that. Why not go further – if they are not acceptable to lead the team, should they even be in it? If Huhne is not fit for cabinet, should he represent his constituents in Parliament?

Yet it was over the Terry case, the more morally worrisome and noxious case, and over an individual with prior bad behaviour (violence, infidelity), that Fabio Capello, England manager resigned. Capello said it was unfair to pre-judge the case. And surely, he has a point? If Terry is innocent, will the FA give him back the captaincy? About as likely as Capello managing England again.

Terry may be an odious person, certainly. But this is all the more reason to not give him the captaincy in the first place.

Which brings me neatly to getting things right in the first place.

Fred Goodwin was stripped of his knighthood. Johann Hari was forced to give back his Orwell prize for journalism.

In both cases, it seems the witch-hunt was hugely enjoyable for the press and public alike. Goodwin is an unrepentant, apparently unpleasant banker. Hari is a delusional journalist, protected by the Independent who should have sacked him when his dishonesty came to light.

In both cases, their prizes inflated their egos and should not have been given. Neither man can be blamed for accepting. If you are a multi-millionaire banker dealmaker, or a fêted journalist, darling of the left, a gong is exactly what you think you should be getting.

And yes, in both cases, a few checks would have made all the difference. Did Hari’s article stand up to scrutiny? It fell over pretty fast, as soon as a light was shone on his sources. Why give knighthoods to sitting CEOs? Why not wait and see if their deals work out, or if they bring a bank (and the country) to its knees?

In all four cases, it pays to wait, check and not jump in. Should Huhne still be a minister? If Terry was a good choice for captain before (he wasn’t), he still would be now. Hari should not have been awarded the Orwell prize; Goodwin should never have got close to a knighthood in the first place.

A banker, a footballer, a politician, a journalist. Very different crimes or charges. These men are problematic, certainly, but our eagerness to award or judge makes the problem far worse.

The many names of Gaddafi

You can hardly miss the colonel who has run Libya for the last 42 years. But how do you spell his name?

Due to there being no formal way of translating his name from the Arabic, Col Gaddafi (FT spelling) has many viariants. This has been written about here, and lots of other places, but I thought I would take the time to try to quantify it.

Using ABC news‘s list of all the variants they could find, I removed the extraneous bits, and cut all the variants of “Muammar”, leaving just the Gaddafi bit. I then deduped the list. This whittled their 112 names down to 41. I then ran each name through Google, making sure to get the exact name and not one they were suggesting.

Here are the results:

Variant Google results
Gadhafi 104,000,000
Gaddafy 94,800,000
al-Qaddafi 27,200,000
al-Gaddafi 24,800,000
el-Gadhafi 11,900,000
Kaddafi 11,000,000
Gaddafi * 3,250,000
Kadhafi 3,070,000
Gadafi 1,770,000
Qaddafi 1,360,000
Gheddafi 1,010,000
Gadaffi 873,000
Kadafi 563,000
al-Kad’afi 387,000
Al-Kaddafi 339,000
al-Kadafi 332,000
Kad’afi 300,000
Khadafy 285,000
Qadhafi 231,000
Khaddafi 153,000
Ghaddafi 148,000
Ghadafi 113,000
Qadafi 96,800
Kadaffi 89,500
al-Qadhafi 85,900
al-Khaddafi 84,100
Khadaffy 80,500
Ghadaffi 61,400
Gadafy 57,300
Gathafi 47,900
Qathafi 44,900
al-Qadafi 30,300
Qadhdhafi 25,300
Al-Gathafi 23,300
Gaddhafi 16,600
Kazzafi 8,650
al-Qadhdhafi 6,580
Ghaddafy 5,480
Quathafi 4,070
Qudhafi 649
Qadthafi 199

* Most frequently suggested by Google

So there you have it. Gadhafi is the clear winner, with 104m. And yet it’s not the most frequently suggested by Google. That’s Gaddafi. Why?

Here’s another way of looking at the data with a Many eyes bubble chart. And here’s a bar chart. Basically, there’s one hell of a long tail.

Source: Google. Click to see full graphic.

The ever-expanding list of new countries

There have been a lot of articles about south Sudan becoming the world’s newest country, often with a slightly breathless tone as if it were as rare as a solar eclipse. But how often does this happen? Is it so rare to see the birth of a new country?

In some ways, yes, in others no. Yes, because there are only 190+ countries in the world or so, which means one addition is still significant numerically. No, because new countries appear more regularly than say, the Olympics, and the 20th century saw an explosion of new countries unlike any time before.

Here’s a chart of new countries since 1900. It’s got a few anomalies, such as Iraq in 2009, which seems odd as most people would consider Iraq to have been a country many generations prior to the US-UK invastion, but the data uses the year when the country is free from subordination, which works for most countries.

There are three big bursts: in 1945 after the second world war, where much of Europe was released from Nazi control; in 1960 as many African countries seceded from or were granted independence by France; and in 1991 as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia collapsed.

Here is the source (Wikipedia), and here is all my Excel crunching.

So is Sudan so remarkable? It is certainly interesting, and unusual given the circumstances – it isn’t the end of a big war or collapse of a superpower. But this is not a once-in-a-generation event, and there will be more to follow. Scotland? Alaska? Who knows, but I’m sure it won’t be too long before we see the UN country count at over 200.

What Sarah Palin has in common with Ludwig Wittgenstein

My college philosophy tutor* once told me why Wittgenstein was the most important philosopher of the 20th century. It was because he permanently changed the debate. All philosophers who came after him could agree, or disagree – but they couldn’t ignore him.

I’m worried that Sarah Palin’s Facebook page is going to become the modern equivalent of Wittgenstein on every news event –  you agree or disagree (in my case, strongly disagree), but you have to have an opinion. The latest use of her forum as a prism for news is the controversy over the Arizona shooting and whether she is inciting violence.

In fact, it’s not just her Facebook page. She has, like Wittgenstein, changed the debate, whether it’s via her silly comments on Twitter, or her TV show, or her book, or the fact that the entire 2012 presidential race will be in some way about her.

Sarah Palin has also one other thing in common with Wittgenstein – it’s all about language. Wittgenstein would have recognised her language games as having rules all of their own. Whether it’s the new word “betcha”, a conflation of two words (bet you) one of which is already a shortening, or “refudiate” with reference to the ground zero muslim centre, she’s mangling language like crazy. Allies or enemies? North or South Korea? What’s the difference? Palin didn’t know, but it changes nothing – her supporters couldn’t care less.

Sadly, Sarah Palin seems unlikely to follow Wittgenstein’s maxim which ended the Tractatus – “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. (Translation for Palinites: If you don’t know what you are talking about, shut the hell up.) Somehow I think we’re going to hear a lot more from her on things she knows absolutely nothing about.

* My tutor was Peter Hacker, the world’s authority on Wittgenstein and a wonderful philosopher in his own right. So he knows what he’s talking about.

300 to 1 (billion) – what China and the Vatican have in common

I’ve spotted an interesting similarity between China’s ruling party and the Vatican. Not their policies on anything controversial – that would be too easy, and rather crude. It’s the ratio of the ruling to the ruled.

According to my colleague Richard McGregor, China’s 1.3bn people are governed, indeed managed, by just the 300 members of the Central Committee of the Communist party of China.

And, as observed by Brian Appleyard in his recent piece on the Pope in the Sunday Times magazine, 1.3bn Catholics are told how to live by what boils down to a few hundred men in the Vatican:

For an obscure reason, the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics bow the knee to a capricious, largely Italian bureaucracy, which they believe is the gatekeeper of heaven. About 3,000 people work at the Vatican. This includes support staff. So, in effect, no more than a few hundred people run this city state, which aspires to care for every human being on Earth.

Now, I’m not comparing life in China with being catholic – it’s obviously spurious or even ridiculous. But the interesting thing here is the numbers. In simple terms, both China and the Vatican are in the business of setting doctrine, and trying to get it adhered to. China is a state which uses more forceful means, the Vatican basically plays on faith, and to a certain degree, guilt.  But 300 to 1.3bn? That’s 4.3m people per committee member or priest.

The modern US is approximately 400m governed by 435 in the House of Representatives, plus 100 in the Senate. India is a population of 1.1bn with a government of around 800 (545+250) – about 1.4m people per parliamentary member. And that’s a fairly extreme case.

Great empires come and go, but in terms of ruled to ruling, there’s been nothing like this.

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