Voting Reform – First Past The Post

First Past The Post (FPP) is the system of electing our MPs, and, in England at least, most of our other elected officials. How it works is simple to understand. You are presented with a list of candidates and you put your “X” against the one you dislike the least. After the polls close the votes are counted and the person with the most votes wins. Dead simple, your dog could understand it, so why don’t I like it?

The first reason that I don’t like FPP is that it wastes my vote and thousands of other people’s votes. Where I live, in the area of South London that has Surrey as its postal address, if I vote the way I would naturally, for the Labour Party, my vote is wasted, it has no effect on the result of the election because it is completely outweighed by the Lib Dems and the Tories.

My guess is that roughly 25% of the population, in this area, would normally support the Labour party, about 35% would normally vote Tory and a slightly lesser percentage vote Lib Dem, with the remainder voting UKIP, Green and etc. So one in four of the local constituencies should have a Labour MP, err no…. Either Tory or Lib Dem. Strangely enough the current system probably means that the Lib Dems are over represented in this area due to a lot of Labour and Green supporters voting for them to try to keep the Tories out.

The second reason that I am against FPP is that it creates safe seats, where as the saying goes you could put a pig up as candidate and providing it was wearing the right colour rosette it would be elected. I know much has been written in the past day or two about the demise of the Liberal Democrats in the Barnsley by-election, but it does not disguise the fact that only Labour could win there, and that the winning candidate Dan Jarvis now has a job for life if he wants it. Unless of course he finds himself with  same accounting problems that his predecessor encountered. And again how many votes were wasted in this election? I would argue that every vote cast for a candidate other than the winner was wasted and about half the votes that were cast for him. The turn out for the by-election was 36.5% – roughly two-thirds of eligible voters stayed at home. Why? a wet and cold Thursday in early March probably did not help, but largely they stayed at home because the outcome was certain and they felt that it wasn’t worth the effort of going to the polling station.

If we want – and almost every politician of every hue say they want it – increased voter participation then we need an electoral system that makes every vote count for some thing.

The third reason that I am against FPP is that it encourages, even demands, tactical voting. In a two-way marginal seat, the supporters of the minority parties are almost obliged to vote against the candidate they like least, rather than voting for the candidate they like best. This depresses the vote of the minority parties and reduces their voice in the public square. For example at the last general election the green candidate for my constituency was a friend, and while my political leanings tip slightly more toward red than green, under any sensible voting system I would have voted for him, knowing that he would be unlikely to be elected in a single constituency vote, but knowing also that my vote is not wasted as my second and third preference votes, will still count if he is eliminated. This would give not only a fairer system of voting but also a clearer picture of the actual level of support for political parties. What happened in reality, I voted Liberal Democrat in the hope of keeping the Tories out. Which it did in this constituency, but for all the practical good it did the country, I would have been better voting Green.

The fourth reason I am against FPP is that it allows single party majority governments to be formed with considerably less than 50% of the votes cast, let alone the votes of 50% of the electorate at large. Even at its peak in 1997 Labour won 63% of the seats with only 43% of the votes cast. Admittedly the current coalition government took about 59% of the popular vote between the two parties, but this is genuinely the exception that proves the rule.

My conclusion about First Past The Post, it is better than no vote at all, but it is time that we ditched it in favour of a more democratic system that allows all voices to be heard and not just the biggest and loudest ones.

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Chickpea and Cauliflower Curry

(from a Michelin Starred Chef)

I found this recipe by Angela Hartnett in last weeks Guardian. She has been publishing a series of quick and easy dishes that are described as Angela Hartnett’s midweek suppers. This is the first one I have tried, not so much because I didn’t like the look of the others, it is just that this was the first vegetarian dish in the series. I decided to make it for lunch today. My Veggie Wife thoroughly approves of it and so do I. It is dead simple to make. All the ingredients should be available at your local supermarket, if you don’t already have them in your cupboard.

I served it with naan bread (bought from Tesco’s) and a slightly chilled Hook Norton Bitter

I’ve included the ingredients and the method below.

Ingredients

(Serves four to six)

1 whole cauliflower
3 medium onions
4 cloves of garlic
½ tsp chopped fresh ginger
2 tsp ground coriander
2 star aniseed
½ tsp ground chilli
4 curry leaves
2 tsp garam masala
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
1 tin of chickpeas*, drained
2 tbsp of chopped fresh coriander

Method
Remove the stalks from the cauliflower and cut into large florets. In a pan of boiling water, add the cauliflower and cook for five minutes. When ready, drain from the water and place back in the pan. Cover so it stays warm.

While the cauliflower is cooking, cut the onions into small pieces. Squash the garlic with the back of a knife to make it easier to peel. Chop until nice and fine.

In a pan, add a touch of butter, plus the onion, garlic and ginger, and sauté until golden brown.

In the same pan, add the dried spices and cook for a further five minutes.

Add the tin of tomatoes and  chickpeas and stir well. Then add the cooked cauliflower. Top up with 100ml of cold water and bring to a simmer for five to 10 minutes until the cauliflower is cooked.

Finish by adding the chopped  coriander. Serve on a warm plate.

*garbanzo beans if you are American.

Love Wins

Rob Bell’s new book ‘Love Wins’ seems to have stirred up an awful lot of controversy for a book that no one has read as yet (it’s not published until the end of March). It seems that some Calvinist/Reformed thinker/theologian in the United States saw the promotional video

and declared Rob Bell to be an Universalist. Some other deep thinker managed to sum everything up in a tweet; And a perfect storm arose in the blogo-twittersphere, or at least the Calvinist/Reformed micro-segment of it. Question, if you can sum a 300? page book up in a tweet, how come your sermons take so long?

Harvey Edser has been blogging on the theme of Universalism on and off for the past few weeks and covers it in greater depth than I could. Maggie Dawn and Fred Clarke – in two posts deal with the controversy and defend Rob Bell much more eloquently than I could so I will just point you in that direction.

All I want to say is watch the video I don’t think he says anything particularly evil, and if you are interested buy the book when it comes out. It will probably be, for a theological book  a good read, because it will have a narrative. If  nothing else, Rob Bell can tell a story and I think that makes all the Calvinist/Reformed thinkers and sitters in ivory theological seminaries jealous.

More Voting Reform – Single Transferable Vote (STV)

Anyone who has been reading my posts  on voting reform (if anyone has been reading them apart from possibly Grace) they will probably have noticed that I am trying to work out what I think  about it.

I am convinced that our current first past the post system is not good for democracy in the long, or even the short-term. I am not quite so sure what to put in its place, hence the series of posts.

“I am convinced that our current first past the post system is not good for democracy in the long, or even the short-term.”

This time I am going to look at the voting system known as the Single Transferable Vote (referred to from now on as STV to save typing). This is the system that has caught my imagination the most.

I’ll explain how I think it works, then look at the advantages and disadvantages of the system.

The STV is based on the idea of proportional representation and preferential voting. Initially your vote is cast for the your preferred candidate and then after candidates are either elected or eliminated, transferred to other candidates in line with the your stated preferences. The system minimises ‘wasted’ votes. You are also voting for individual candidates rather than party lists.

How it works

STV works by using multi-member constituencies. As with all alternative vote electoral methods, you rank the candidates in order of preference, 1 to however many candidates you care to vote for. You do not have to cast a preference for a candidate that you abhor. So you just number your preferences 1 to 11 and leave the twelfth candidate out. In the event of your preferred candidates being eliminated or elected your vote will not be transferred to them.

Candidates are generally elected using the following formula:

So in a constituency that elects 6 members, if there were, say 150,000 valid votes cast, each elected candidate would need to get 21,430 votes to be elected.

After you have cast your vote the system works like this:

All the First preference votes are counted, one candidate has 30,000 votes and is elected, but none of the others have enough first preference votes to get over the electoral thresh old. Candidate one has 8,570 surplus votes, so they are distributed among the remaining candidates according to the second preferences of the voters.

The votes are counted again and still no candidate reaches the magic figure, so the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and his or her second preference votes are redistributed among the other candidates. This process goes on until all the vacant seats are filled.

Ireland uses this system for its elections and if you want to see how this works in practice look at the results for the Dun Laoghaire Constituency in Ireland’s 2007 Elections.

The Electoral Reform Society has an example of a model STV Election here

Advantages

STV gives us as voters much more choice than any other system. We determine who is going to be elected. Under the current system part officials, especially in ‘safe’ seats, essentially decide who our MP will be long before we get a chance to vote. Under STV MP’s responsibilities will be more to the people who elected them than to their parties.

  • Fewer votes are ‘wasted’, either by being cast for a candidate with little or no chance of being elected, being cast as surplus votes for a winning candidate.  What this means is that most, if not all, voters will be able to identify representative that they helped to elect. This link in turn helps to increase the representatives accountability.
  • Post election STV gives voters a choice of representatives to approach with their concerns, rather than just the one, who may be indifferent or actively opposed to the concerns of the voter. Indeed in some cases the representative may be the cause of the concerns.
  • Competition, we are constantly told, is a good thing, and generally this is the case. Competition to provide a good service to constituents is no different.
  • Because there are no safe seats under STV,  candidates cannot be complacent and parties must campaign everywhere, and not just in marginal seats. This also means that candidates with in a party must find their own voice. It is extremely unlikely that if a party puts up a full slate of candidates (i.e. six candidates for a six member constituency) they will all be elected. So candidates with in a party will have to be able to sell themselves to the electorate as well as their party manifesto.
  • Because we rank candidates, the most disliked and/or extreme candidates cannot win, because they are no good at picking up second, third and lower-preference votes.
  • There is no longer any need for tactical voting. Vote for the candidates you want, not against the candidates that you don’t want.
    All my life for some reason or other I have managed to find myself living in Conservative/Liberal Democrat marginals. All my life this greenish, left leaning voter has been voting Lib Dem, in the hopes of keeping the Tories out. Under STV I will no longer have to do this.
  • Because there will be a more sophisticated link between a constituency and its representatives,  there will be an increased incentive to campaign and work on a more personal and local level, but also, the constituencies are likely to be more sensible reflections of where community feeling lies.

Disadvantages

To be honest I don’t think there are many. Most of the ‘disadvantages’  cites by supporters of ‘first past the post’ such as loss of connection between the representative and the constituents are red herrings. True STV is much more likely to give rise to coalition government, but current examples aside, is this necessarily a bad thing. However there are some potential problems.

  • If a representative dies in office, or resigns how do you replace them?
  • Counting of the votes will take longer than under the current system (or AV) so the results will not be declared on the night of the election.
  • In some parts of the country, notably the Scottish Highlands STV will result in massive constituencies.
  • Some voters find doing anything other than putting an ‘X’ in a box to complicated for them, therefore there will be an increase in spoiled votes.

To my mind none of these disadvantages come anywhere near to outweighing the advantages of  STV.

Summary

Give my choice STV is the electoral system I would choose. Unfortunately it is not the choice that we are being offered. The choice is between the current system (first past the post) and the Alternative Vote.

Boris Bikes

I had my first ride on a Boris Bike today.  Boris Bikes, (or to give them their proper name The Transport for London Cycle Hire Scheme) for those of you who may be unfamiliar with them, is a scheme set up about a year ago, that allows you to hire a bike for short periods at a nominal fee. It was inspired in the main by the Parisian Velib scheme. It costs £1 to register for a day and after that journeys of up to half an hour are free.

Boris Bikes
TfL Hire "Boris" Bikes

My first job of the day was at the top end of the Kings Road and my second one was at the other end. I suppose I could have walked or taken the bus, in fact I was going to walk, but as I was passing a bank of docked bikes inspiration struck. It takes about 60 seconds and a credit or debit card to obtain an unlocking code, and punch it in. Pull the bike out of the dock and you are off, London is your oyster. Actually if bike hire could be tied  into the Oyster Card scheme that would be brilliant.

I was quite impressed by the bike. The riding position is very upright but comfortable. They are heavy but you get the feeling that if you were in collision with a double-decker bus, it would be the bus that came off second best. (Disclaimer – I strongly  recommend not putting this theory to the test). There is something about them that encourages a relaxed, literally no sweat, style of riding. The three gears are more than adequate for any hills that you will find in Central London. I wouldn’t choose one for a full day ride in hilly countryside, but for short (up to half hour) trips in London they are brilliant. I was slightly disappointed that I couldn’t fit my rucksack into the luggage carrier, as I don’t like cycling with a pack on my back. But my rucksack is quite big, and for the ten minutes each way it wasn’t too bad.At the other end you just put the bike back in its docking station and leave it. When you want to use a bike again you just put your credit card into the reader, it checks that you have already paid and issues you with a new unlock code, and off you go again.

Riverside Vegetaria

Riverside Vegetaria* has long been one of our favourite restaurants and as we have eaten there three times since Christmas (four if you include Christmas Lunch), I have decided that it is about due for a review. We don’t normally eat there quite that regularly as Kingston is a good half to three-quarters of an hour journey from where we live. Recently however circumstances have led us to eating there  almost every Sunday, or at least that is how it seems.

Today, my brother-in-law and his wife had come to visit us. They are both carnivores, so our original plan was to take them to an Italian restaurant as we can usually find something that Mrs johnm55 (who is a veggie) can eat on an Italian menu. However when we arrived the queue was out the door and we were told it would be at least half an hour for a table. The brother-in-law didn’t fancy queueing so suggested that we try Riverside as Mrs johnm55 had been raving about it.

The first thing to note about Riverside is it’s setting. It is right on the river, and especially in summer the setting is, idyllic is probably going slightly over the top, but it is very attractive. The second thing is the service, which is always friendly and as efficient as it needs to be. The third thing is how do they manage to get as many tables into such a small space.

The fourth thing is the food. The menu is fairly eclectic, but does tend to have a bias towards food from the Indian Sub Continent. Also, and this is not a criticism, this is a traditional vegetarian’s vegetarian restaurant (vegans are also well catered for), as opposed to  a place like Terre a Terre in Brighton which has a more obvious appeal to omnivores, whilst still remaining vegetarian. So how did a couple of carnivores, or three if you count me, get on?

The women decided to skip the starters and stuck to the wholemeal garlic bread, which always arrives with the drinks. My b-i-l decided to have the Cream of Broccoli Soup and I had the Organic Spicy Vegetable Balls with Coriander Sauce. The Cream of Broccoli soup was pronounced as very enjoyable, but different to what he had expected. I pointed out that here a V beside a dish means Vegan not Vegetarian, so the unexpected taste might have been down the lack of cream, which he agreed was a possibility. My Spicy Vegetable Balls were excellent. They were two  balls of finely shredded carrot, onion and potato, well spiced, dipped in a light batter and deep-fried.  The Coriander Sauce that they were served with, tasted of fresh coriander, just enough chilli, cumin and ground coriander. I had never ordered them before, but will do so again.

The main courses arrived. My brother-in-law and I ordered the same thing, the Masala Dosai, my sister-in-law went for the Green Lentil and Vegetable Curry, and Mrs johnm55 decided that she was having the House Salad. Normally the House Salad has Cottage Cheese, but as she doesn’t like cottage cheese, they replaced it with a rather large quantity of avocado. I was an impressive plate of vegetables, fruits and nuts, accompanied by a jug of dressing. My sister -in-law was in the meantime tucking into her green lentils with obvious enjoyment.

My Dosai was as I expected it to be. The Dosai is a bit thicker than you would normally be served in a South Indian restaurant but nicely crisp on the outside and stuffed with a tasty, spicy, potato filling. Accompaniments  are a vegetable curry and a very good coconut sambar.

We debated having puddings, but decided that we were all full enough.

So how did the carnivores get on? I enjoyed my meal at Riverside as I always do, my brother and sister-in-law, thought it was excellent and said that they wished that they had something like it near where the live, so all in all a success.

The bill, including a bottle house red (which was perfectly drinkable, if nothing spectacular) came to £67.50, but as we have been eating there a lot recently we had a 20% discount card so only paid £54.00.

Because I am a bit of a coffee aficionado (or possibly snob) and sometimes have been disappointed by their coffee we walked along to Carluccio’s for coffee.

It was raining fairly heavily otherwise we would have gone for a walk along the river to help a very pleasant lunch go down

*If you click-through to the restaurant website I don’t think it has been updated recently and my feeling is the prices are slightly higher than those shown on their sample menu.

2012 Olympic Road Race Route

The route for the 2012 olympic road race has been announced and I am quite looking forward to it. Originally it was planned to be a boring tour of London’s tourist land marks, that could only have been made marginally exciting if the riders had been forced to complete the course on ‘Boris Bikes‘. But now they are going to send it out into the Surrey Hills and more specifically it is going to go up Box Hill. The Men’s race will do nine laps and the Women’s Race twice.

Now what I find exciting about this is first the fact that Box Hill will hopefully break the race up a bit. It is not a particularly long or even steep hill, at least compared with the mountain climbs in the Tour de France, but by the time they have climbed it nine times at race speeds, even the professionals will be beginning to feel it in their legs. My feeling though is that the long basically flat run in to the finish on the Mall will probably allow the race to come back together again for a spectacular sprint finish.

The second thing that I find exciting is that these are the roads that I ride my bike on. If I go out for a ride without any specific destination in mind I almost invariably end up going up Box Hill. The pros are going to be struggling up the same hills that I struggle up – only they will be struggling up at about three times my pace.

But what I really want to know is will they make it compulsory to stop for a cup of tea and a cake at Allison’s van in the Headley Heath car park? It is a compulsory stop for every other cyclist who rides round the Box Hill loop.

The Season Starts Here

It’s not the Tour de France but Le Grand Prix d’Ouverture La Marseillaise as far as I am concerned marks the start of the road race season.  It was won by Jérémy Roy (Fra) FDJ. None of the big names like Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans or Thor Hushovd were there. In fact it was mainly French riders competing. But the fact that this year it took place on the same day as the World Cyclocross Championships tells me that winter is on the way out and spring and the Spring Classics is on the way.

The World’s Cyclocross was won in brilliant fashion by Zdenek Stybar. He first attacked on the fifth lap (of eleven)and only Sven Nys could stay with him, the attacked again with four laps left dropped Nys and soloed to victory.

Isacc Asimov on Global Warming (from 1989)

You think that concern about Global Warming is a new phenomenon? Think again.

From Climate Progress

Photography and the Digital Age

My mother has somewhere in her photo box this photograph of her great-grandfather (or my great-great grandfather) William Elliot. He was born (probably) in 1817 and died in 1897 . I don’t know exactly when it was taken, but he looks to be  around sixty  so I think it was probably 1880 give or take five years. It was around that time several of his sons emigrated to New Zealand, so my guess is that it was taken in order that they would have a memento of him.

William Elliot
William Elliot

Looking at William Elliot’s photograph the thought occurred to me, that this may well have been the only photograph ever taken of him. I find it to be a powerful and evocative image. It is carefully composed, and although I am sure he is wearing his Sunday best, it includes elements that show that he was a shepherd, his dog, his crook, and he has his plaid over his shoulder. It would also have been costly to produce. I have no idea exactly how much, but my guess is at least a days wages and possibly more than a weeks. It is a valuable image in every sense of the word.

Do we still make valuable images, in the sense of images that are worth valuing,  today?

As the digital camera, either as a standalone device, or built into our mobile phones, became ubiquitous the volume of photographs taken has since multiplied by a factor of gazillions.

When I was a child, being allowed to take a photograph, with mum and dad’s camera was an unusual event. I might waste a shot by taking a picture of my finger. That wasted shot still had to be processed and paid for. Today four-year olds  happily snap away with mum’s digital camera, because we know that we can just delete any and every image that doesn’t work and keep the one or two that we find amusing.

In all of this we have, I think lost sense of the value that a photograph can have. We rarely take time to compose photographs, we just snap away, knowing, hoping, that one of the 6035 images on the SD Card might just be worth keeping. I don’t think that we in general even think about what we are photographing, and I am not even convinced that we even look at, let alone look properly at the images we produce.

Quite a while ago, before I owned a digital camera, I was sorting through a pile of snapshots that I had taken on holiday. I found that I could barely identify the location of quarter of them. I made a conscious decision that day to take less photographs and make more sketches. When I look back through my sketch books I can recall exactly where I was when I made that sketch. I can remember what was happening around me, and what I was feeling at the time. Because I took ten minutes to sit down and actually look at what I was recording, rather than two seconds to push a random shutter.

I’m not saying don’t take photographs, I still take, I might even say make, but that sounds a bit pretentious, photographs. I know that there are some things that can’t be easily captured in a sketch but are caught in a photograph. What I am saying is look at what you are photographing before you take it. Look at the result after you have taken it. Exercise some kind of quality control before you dump the latest batch of photos on Facebook or Flickr. Possibly restrict the number of shots you allow yourself to take to say 20 per day to force yourself to choose your subject.

If you do manage to produce a valuable image, get it printed, because my mother’s copy of William Elliot’s photo will still be around when my digital copy as vanished into hyperspace.

Random thoughts, ramblings and rants

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