Friday, 22 April 2011

AV and PR

The Elections, Parties and Opinion Polls (EPOP) group organised a panel on the AV referendum at the Political Studies Assocciation (PSA) conference this week. Although it occupied the graveyard slot in the conference it attracted a good attendance and provoked some lively discussion. But perhaps that says something about the geekiness of political scientists as one can hardly imagine that outside on a warm afternoon in West London people were discussing AV as they sipped a coffee or enjoyed an early pint before the holiday weekend.

It was agreed that the debate had often been simplistic, misleading and irrelevant, but then, as someone remarked, that is true of many political debates. It looks likely that the referendum will be defeated on a low turnout (especially in London where there are no other elections).

British people are relatively conservative and tend to favour the status quo. They have been told that AV would be complicated and expensive, although, of course, any form of democracy costs money. The poll evidence suggests that older voters are more opposed and they are more likely to turn out and vote.

Given that AV is really a modified form of first-past-the post, what would be the consequences of either a win or a defeat for PR? Some think that a win would not be what some have called a slippery slope to PR, but would end the debate. Voters would be coralled into two voting camps, leading to less representation of the diversity of the electorate. What seems more likely is that a defeat would end the PR debate as a live item for some time to come. But it has always been a debate among the political class anyway.

What seems certain is that variants of PR will remain where they are embedded in 'secondary elections' for the devolved assemblies, the European Parliament and the London assembly and mayoral elections. The defeat of the referedum might give an impetus to Lords reform as a sop to Nick Clegg. A largely elected upper house would use some form of PR, although when this prospect was mentioned a life peer in the audience went slighty green around the gills.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011


The slowing in the inflation rate was unexpected and good news. It means that the pressure is off the Bank of England to raise interest rates for now. Given that most households now have variable interest rate mortgages this will at least delay a further squeeze on household incomes.

What seems to have happened is that consumer resistance to higher prices persuaded retailers to reduce some prices. However, other cost pressures remain. The oil price goes relentlessly upwards. A 10-15 per cent in electricity and gas prices is likely in early summer.

Also most consumers don't perceive that inflation is not rising so quickly. This is not surprising when the cost of so many items is still going up. However, against the background of high unemployment this may not translate into significant upward pressure on wages.

The NHS dilemma

Two generalisations can be made about the NHS. All governments seem to think that organisational restructuring is the answer to its problems. And at the first whiff of the word 'reform' the medical profession is up in arms.

Andrew Lansley has come up with a technocratic reform of the NHS which is so complex that it is said that you can see it from outer space. Of course, the slogan 'Defend the Primary Care Trusts' is unlikely to get many people excited. But concerns that local hospitals might be made unviable by transferring business to the private sector is a more potent fear.

The underlying problems that the NHS faces are an ageing population; ever more costly medical technology and treatments; and an increase in the numbers of chronically ill. The Government is expanding NHS spending in real terms but at a much slower rate than before. This will make it difficult for the NHS to keep up with these challenges.

It is unlikely that the Lansley reform will fix these fundamental problems and there will be substantial transition costs. David Cameron is clearly concerned and he has reason to be.