The Ashdown Diaries 1997 - 1999: lessons for electoral reform.





The Project.

20th-century Britainwas the Conservative century, because the progressives were split between two parties, Labour and Liberals. After the 1997 general election, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown was determined to heal that split and give back to Britain the representation of what he saw as their natural progressive majority.


This re-alignment was called the Project, tho it tended to mean two different things to the two parties to it. To Labour, it was often couched in terms of merger. The Lib Dems resisted being swallowed up, leaving Labour without a radical rival to lever them to real change. To the Lib Dems it meant proportional representation, leaving Labour with the fear that once theyd got it, the Lib Dems would turn their back on Labour and put their Tory opponents in power.

Ashdown assures a dubious Labour of two-term support of ten years. Ultimately, he is concerned with parties working together, for pluralism against tribalism.

There are plenty of amusing cartoons in the book. The cartoonists seem to like Paddy. The frame that made me laugh out loud was from Steve Bell (featured april 1999) on the resignation as Lib Dem leader. He draws a rather oriental-looking Ashdown, who knows Chinese and their inscrutability, shown to his own party over coalition with Labour.

Blair addresses him: "Paddy - I'd like to thank you for your helping to de-tribalise British politics."
Blair's business suit sports a necklace of teeth (about the size of his own) and shrunken skull pendant. A long bone pierces the nose almost to the length of flying ears, together with the obligatory mad-eye.


While still in opposition, with Blair impatient for power, the Labour and Lib Dem leaders had become friends, apparently sharing political ground. Volume 2 of the Ashdown Diaries chronicles the persistent and admittedly obsessive lobbying of the Prime Minister by Ashdown.


What is remarkable is how much time that the beleaguered Premier was prepared to extend to responding to Ashdown's concerns. 
Did it make any difference?


Paddy Ashdown modestly says that the term “control freak” was all that he contributed to the common parlance. The phrase remains popular because it's all too relevant.  I've used it many times, would never have guessed who I owed it to, and no doubt shall go on using it. 

Actually, it’s rare for any known person to mint a phrase at all. The history of popular lyrics offers: See you later, alligator. And that was in use in Louisiana before the song was written!


Ashdown was warning the Labour government, at its highest level, in its first few months of office, against being control freaks. But this didn't stop the Prussianisation of Britain, with thousands of new laws and an onslaught of petty officialdom to criminalise and penalise ordinary citizens.

In the first two years of the New Labour government, the Diaries give the impression that Paddy is dealing with normal, if slippery, people. The heat of the kitchen has not had time to get to them, as later lurid accounts would have us believe. I can believe some of them, actually, because the sustained pressure of government, especially the pressures the government itself exerted for the misguided attempt to control public relations, would be bound to fray nerves.

Party Lists for British Euro-elections.

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Ashdown's liberal counsel was water off a duck's back. In view of this, one has to wonder whether his tackling the government on constitutional reform really made much difference.

Proportional representation (of a degraded sort) was already agreed for the Scottish and Welsh assemblies.  And PR for the European elections in Britain was required by continental partners, who did not want to see the partisan balance of the European Parliament biased by the British first past the post system.

And it is difficult to believe that Labour had over-looked that they would lose Euro-seats under FPTP. Ashdown was there to keep prodding them on the issue. He was concerned that the Tory majority in the House of Lords would sink PR by continually throwing it out. But he doesn't give their reason, because it was a closed list system of PR.

The Lords moved open lists. But open lists can still elect candidates, as party nominees, without even getting any personal votes. This was admitted in the first Euro elections debates back in the 1970s. The Lords may have forgotten this but it seems Labour hadn't.

Ashdown also notes that the Labour leadership would want PR because it allowed them to cull some of their MEPs. They did and it was a bad example of control freakery. One of the victims wrote a book that dared to criticise how the Labour movement kept it in the family with regard to office-holding.


It should be emphasised that this oligarchic vindictiveness is only possible with party list systems where the party bosses make up the lists and if you are out you're out.  It is different with the single transferable vote, where in Ireland deselected politicians have often been endorsed by the voters, because with the transferable vote voting for them does not split the party vote and there is proportional representation of individuals not just parties.


STV gives power to the people to defy party managers, so it is no wonder if they hate it.


Indeed, one has to ask oneself why could not Labour or the Lords simply introduce the system already in use in the UlsterEuro elections? There the single transferable vote application of genuine proportional representation represents individuals proportionally and in consequence parties also.

And one has to ask oneself why Ashdown does not point out to Labour that STV is already in use and would naturally extend from UlsterEuro elections to Euro elections for the whole United Kingdom?

I think the answer has to be that Ashdown knows already that STV is anathema to the Labour Party. So much so that it goes without saying.




How Labour got out of its promise to the Lib Dems of a Commons PR referendum.

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The second volume of the Ashdown Diaries witness the death and destitution that war brought to ordinary folk in the Balkans. The author is an expert in military matters but I am not, so I don’t make any comment, tho I recognise the volume’s use as a prime historical source.


Before foreign humanitarian crises took over, Ashdown single-mindedly tried to keep Tony Blair on course for introducing proportional representation for general elections. He continually reminded the Labour leadership of their pre-election Cook-Maclennan agreement to hold a referendum on proportional elections in Labour's first term of office.


This involved setting up a commission to decide the electoral reform for Westminster. There followed a tenacious struggle by Ashdown to ensure that the terms of reference or remit were adequate to produce a sufficiently proportional voting method.


In view of the fact that the Jenkins commission’s recommendation never was put to a referendum in all the 13 years that Labour remained in office, it may seem that Ashdown's pursuit of a satisfactory remit was wasted effort.

But I don't believe that this was entirely the case. When electoral reform showed itself in Canada, it was plain to see that they were influenced by these very terms of reference. On the basis of their like, the British Columbia citizens assembly came up with the single transferable vote, which is a truly representative system of proportional election, proportional representation in the literal sense of the word, not merely proportional partisanship in disguise.


On the other hand, the limitations of such terms of reference were shown up by the way they were interpreted in the Ontario citizens assembly on electoral reform.  But in that case, the government stepped-in right away to impose their own interpretation and the assembly was rushed.

I have dealt with the Canadian assemblies fully on other web pages.


Despite the ultimate failure of Canadian electoral reform to date, Ashdown's efforts on the remit might be said to be still sending out a few ripples 14 years later. That is because the British Columbia citizens assembly was nominated, out of an international field of innovations in democracy, as among the last seven entries for a German prize.


In my postscript to the page, Against The Jenkins Report, I try to reconstruct how the recommendation had come about. The Ashdown Diaries make it possible to fill in a little more detail.

The first thing that we learn (on 11th of June 1997) about the Lib Dems choice of voting method for Westminster is that Paddy Ashdown and Richard Holme were considering a compromise with Labour should they not be able to get PR in the first term. This was to be a two-stage approach. The first stage was to be the Alternative Vote. The second stage was to add party lists to give the under-represented Liberal Democrats more seats.

And in the end, this was the system, AV Plus, that the Jenkins commission recommended, tho Jenkins didn't believe in a two-stage approach.

On the eighth of October 1997, somehow The Independent got hold of the two-stage approach, tho only five people knew about it. They were Blair, Mandelson, Jenkins, Holme and Ashdown himself.

It is important to realise how early the AV Plus system was broached, by an extremely limited number of leading people including the chairman of the future commission.

The fact is that this system was nowhere in use in the world and no one was asking for it. But there already was a system successfully giving proportional representation in Ulster (tho only re-introduced in a crisis) as well as the Irish Republic, and to many professional bodies in Britain. This system, the single transferable vote, is used by the Liberal Democrat party itself, their traditional and prefered system.

But, as discussed above, the diaries pass over STV without a mention by the Lib Dem leadership.


When Jenkins tells Ashdown that Tony Blair, in line with his party, was opposed to STV, Ashdown does not even bother to record the substance of Blair's lengthy and crucial rejection. That would be consistent with Ashdown's being only too familiar with the fact. It was not news to him.


On sixth of November 1997, the appointed chairman, Roy Jenkins wanted to know whether the PM would at least be minded to accept what he might recommend. He asked for discussion with Blair and Ashdown before the commission's decision was finalised.

On sixth of May 1998, Jenkins told Ashdown:

"He went through a long explanation of why Blair wouldn't give us Single Transferable Vote (STV) and AV was not acceptable…"


When I saw this diary entry, I thought: Where did that come from? There was no previous mention in the diaries of STV as a prospective system.

I thought about this for a while and make a guess what happened. As discussed on my page about the Jenkins report, there was considerable support from contributions for STV but virtually none for AV Plus. 

In my postscript to that page, I mentioned the rumor that Jenkins went to Blair with something recognizably like STV.  And Blair's response was that it would be "put on the top shelf."


I know by myself, which research confirms, that people think they know all about voting method, don’t see anything wrong with it, and don't think it's worth bothering about, until they're obliged to study it. 
Jenkins had been obliged to look at the evidence he'd received and it appears to have made some impression on him, however transient. 
But of course Ashdown wasn't on the commission and didn't himself feel so obliged to note down what was told him.

On that same entry (6 may 1998) Jenkins tells of two conditions for a new voting system: "it must be workable and durable; and it must secure Blair's agreement."
Since Blair wouldnt accept STV, as far as Jenkins is concerned that was a veto on STV.

Nor was Blair laid-back about this. On 4 march 1998, Ashdown "asked Blair to confirm that he would support the outcome of the Jenkins commission.

T.B. Of course I will, provided it contains what we think it will."

In the event, Blair didnt support the AV Plus recommendation. Tho, Blair was one of only five people who knew of this 1997 Lib Dem leadership compromise with Labour, and so had plenty of time to say it wouldnt do. And this let-down happened even tho Jenkins obliged Blair by not recommending the single transferable vote.

No doubt this seems bad faith on Blair's part. But the Lib Dem leaders had themselves to blame for by-passing public discussion, which would have given a salutary warning of the merciless criticism of AV Plus, they could expect from a referendum campaign.

It would have saved a lot of trouble to people who made submissions, including the majority who were never mentioned, not even merely counting what voting systems they supported, if the British people had simply been told beforehand that Blair in particular and his governing party in general werent going to have STV and the so-called Independent commission would abide by them rather than the public.

We are at least entitled to know Blair's long explanation why he wouldnt give us STV. This, after all, was the decisive submission to the commission. It should be made public, so that all can decide for themselves whether Blair's reasons were justified. "Roy the diarist" no doubt put this exchange on record.


On 17th of September 1998, during a long conversation at Chequers, Ashdown warned Blair that:

“There are some purists for PR in my party who may reject Jenkins on the grounds that it is not STV - and they have the power to call a special conference.”

Ashdown notes that Blair was "astounded."

Ashdown remarks of his party's constitution: "We are slightly more democratic than you.

TB (laughing): Well, we'll have to do something about your constitution, then."

Ashdown, also laughing, rebukes him.
This passage offers one more hint of the extent that the Labour leader was prepared to sabotage the democratic voting method. In itself, it may not seem much but it adds to the other evidence, such as in my postcript to my page, Against the Jenkins report.

You have to realise also how inertial is the Labour party, how rooted in its collectivist conformist past, even tho none of the parties are now mass movements of ordinary people exerting an influence on the rich and powerful few. Rather they are the tools of the latters lobbying, of which their stands at party conferences are just the most blatant signs. Theyve even turned-up at the Lib Dems since they entered coalition in 2010.

Reported in The Mail on Sunday (february 2011), the new Labour leadership of the two Eds, Miliband and Balls have the shadow cabinet treated like pupils who must put their hands up in class, and fill in a form, like a school sick note, before they are given leave to speak to the public.
The mentality of control freaks has not abated.


There were also people outside the Lib Dems, supporting STV but rejecting AV Plus. (I was one.) Ashdown wanted an early referendum on the Jenkins recommendation, because, as he put it, he didn't want time for the rats to get at AV Plus.

Ashdown's affection, for the old boy, shows in his generous praise, and wouldnt allow him to make hurtful judgments on Jenkins report, even had he been patient of the details of electoral reform, wherein the devil lies.

This is where the "rats" come in useful for the public interest and I wasted no time to get at AV+. Hence, my webpage: Against the Jenkins report.

Tony Blair’s autobiography, A Journey, doesn’t even index the Jenkins commission. This reminds of the saying that history is written by the winners. Jenkins is described as “intelligent” presumably because a Jenkins, confessedly disappointed in Blair, said Blair was a second-rate intellect. And Blair says he “loved” Jenkins, presumably because Jenkins last essay admitted that Hugh Gaitskell, another Labour leader - and as many times election loser on much bigger respective proportions of the votes than Blair as three-times winner - was the only politician he ever loved.




Will the Lib Dems be fooled again on Commons PR?

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The key to understanding members of parliament is that they want to keep their seats safe from elections. That is why, en masse, they voted down STV in the 2010 Constitutional Reform Bill. That is why Labour's Plant report recommended anything but STV. And the preliminary Plant report made no secret of the reason. STV allows competition between candidates of the same party, in effect universal primaries. That's the end of safe seats in the patronage of party bosses.


The Jenkins report praised both Labour's Plant report and its Conservative variant the Blake report specifically because they keep the single member system, tho in different ways. The euphemism is that single member constituencies preserve the "link" between an MP and his constituents, meaning that MPs monopolise a constituency each, which is just how they want it but not how the majority of people left unrepresented want it.


It is most unlikely any politician, Labour or Tory, could get himself elected leader, without bowing before this sacred vested interest.  When David Cameron was getting himself elected leader of the Conservative party, he made plain that he would be keeping the single member system, which guarantees that a candidate has a monopoly of his party's representation. That means no competition for the public's affection from candidates of the same party.


If a third party wants to break into the magic circle of the two-party system, with seats more in proportion to their votes, then they deem it prudent to steer clear of STV’s competitive elections. Or so they largely have done for the past 35 years since 1975.


Labour peers filibustered the bill for a referendum on the Alternative Vote on the fifth of May 2011.  After the 2010 general election, Alan Johnson stated in a Guardian article his intention to convert Labour MPs to the long-denied referendum on the Jenkins commission recommendation. He claimed that AV Plus is the democratic voting system.

Johnson is a protege of Blair and assuredly can be as little relied on. The question is whether the Liberal Democrats, having been once bitten, will be twice shy or twice bitten. From Labour's point of view, it must be well worth trying.

The Lib Dems only say that STV is their prefered system. They know perfectly well that Labour and Tory won't have STV if they can possibly get away with not having it. And so the Lib Dems accommodating nature, towards their two bigger brothers, opens the way for landing the British people with another ineffective voting system, this time for the House of Commons itself.

Labour has nothing to lose from this ploy. They win Lib Dem support and possibly votes, for the promise of the AV Plus referendum, helping get themselves back in power. Suppose Labour actually hold the referendum next time. No problem for Labour. All the fatal flaws in the Jenkins recommendation are revealed in the referendum campaign. The Lib Dems are made a laughing stock. And very likely they lose.

Why additional or mixed member systems are basicly self-defeating.

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Let me very briefly mention yet again the nonsense of additional member systems, like AV Plus, which goes to their very root. Additional or mixed member systems combine some members elected on a majority count and other members elected on a party proportional count.  These are two incompatible principles of winner takes all versus power-sharing between the parties.


It has to be understood that this inconsistency of aims is mutually defeating. The majority count in the single member constituencies is rendered meaningless by dual candidature, because losing candidates are elected any way with the second votes for a party list. 
The Richard report on the Welsh assembly condemned this breach of the voters fundamental right to reject candidates.


Likewise, the proportional count of the list votes is compromised by the fact that a large party, that wins more than its share of seats in the First Past The Post constituencies, in principle, might simply change its name to qualify for a share of seats from votes for the party lists.


That is the extreme case (reductio ad absurdum) but the point is the ambiguity of how different is different? Why should a junior partner that is not much different in its views from the bigger party be given seats to represent views not much different from those already over-represented in the single member system? That is when the junior party would not get that share of list seats, if it bore the same name as its senior partner.


In other words, party proportional representation offered by additional member systems is liable to be a sham, disguising an over-representation of mainstream views comparable to an out-right simple majority system.

Moreover, this ambiguity in AMS, that does not know whether it is either majoritarian or proportional, offers the scope for endless acrimonious dispute.


For instance, when a right-winger like Iain Duncan Smith became Tory leader, he expressed his belief that the Liberals are just like the Labour Party and didn't deserve proportional representation.
In the 2010 coalition with the Lib Dems, he could hardly sustain that belief. But there are plenty of people who believe that the Tory-LibDem coalition is an
OrangeBook (laissez-faire liberal) sell-out of the Lib Dem leadership to the Tories.

It is alleged that in Italian elections, front parties to another party were deliberately set-up to garner a disproportionate share of the vote.


In short, an additional members system, in attempting to be proportional, does not resolve whether a coalition is really the disproportionate representation of one party with stooge party. And in attempting to be partly majoritarian, AMS becomes a minoritarian system of losers elected by dual candidature to the party lists.


And that is only the beginning of AMS troubles as the basic inconsistency throws up more dilemmas thru-out the whole sorry unscientific system, which Ive discussed on other web pages (such as my review of the Arbuthnott report).



Politics as a calling to public service.

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There has to be a completely new attitude towards politics. Politics should not be just another career of personal promotion or self-advancement. Politics should be a calling towards public service. The general public gets on with its own business and is not expected to concern itself with the problems of the community outside the time it can spare from its own affairs. If the politician puts his own everyday life concerns first in the normal way, he should not be in politics.


The country needs to develop a democratic infrastructure with information-rich standing polling stations incorporated into the public library system, which should be extended, when feasible, to all centres of population and ring-fenced from the present austerity measures, that threaten its destruction by half, to the infamy of the Coalition. This would make cheap campaigning possible, and deliver us from tax exiles volcanic cash clouds over marginal seats during general elections. 

Cash for access to the parties and their leaders for lobbyists, biasing public debate in any way, should not be allowed.
All special interests should be democratically represented in the second chamber, so that all can be fairly heard but none privileged. The Lords should not be a perk for party fund-raisers.

A religious devotee feels a calling to serve the poor. Politics, like religion, is a call that not everyone can answer. A politician's first duty is to serve others and the public interest before his own. If you cannot do that, then you have no business to be in politics.

Politicians shouldn't be paid more than the average wage for their work. Representative payment will keep them in touch with the difficulties in getting by, that ordinary people have to go thru.

An average wage for MPs would also be an incentive to make the country as a whole richer. For instance, Britainsent up in smoke its chemically valuable fossil energy resources, doinglittle or nothing to develop renewable energy resources, such as the best tidal resources in the world for electricity generation, which it could have started developing half a century ago, as France did with its limited tidal resources. 


To say nothing of the ground-breaking research nowadays into photovoltaic cells, with the prospect, thru this and other ingenious means, of moving towards personally owned energy-generation and financial freedom from the failed command economy exemplified in the fixation on centralised energy generation.


Nuclear power is a lazy and ill-bred fouling the nests of your descendants with radioactive pollution.



Richard Lung.

1;4;5; 28 February 2011.



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