Defending the Indefensible

Israel’s actions today were unjustified. In launching an operation to take control of the flotilla of ships seeking to take aid and materials to , an operation in which at least 10 people died, the Israeli army has behaved in an entirely unjustified manner.

Some may think my language excessively moderate. Others have already used term like ‘massacre’ ‘war crimes’ ‘barbaric attack’ and variations on these. I avoid them because I believe that where Israel/Palestine is concerned it is best to lower, rather than raise the volume, to deal in facts rather than in slogans. If nothing else, easy slogans make it too easy for the defenders of Israel to ignore the critique. In this case, where the facts so clearly fail to justify the IDF’s behaviour, we need to make full use of them.

The flotilla was the latest attempt in the campaign, led by the Free Gaza Campaign, to break the blockade of Gaza. There have been several ships sent during Israel’s 3 year blockade (of which more below), and while most have been stopped, some have been allowed through (see here ) in moments when the Israeli government decided to be a little more tactical, or perhaps more importantly, before Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister.  The Flotilla, the latest of such attempts, was bringing in necessary

“cement & building materials, medicine & medical equipment, wheelchairs, school & art supplies, playground & sports equipment”

Israeli spokespeople have claimed that in reality, there is no blockade, and had the activists simply brought their cargo to an Israeli port, Israel would then have brought them to Gaza. This is disingenuous. While Israel is allowing in what it terms humanitarian aid, the amount, and items allowed in are strictly controlled. It is estimated that the permitted deliveries to Gaza represent a mere 20% of imports before the blockade began in 2007, and that’s without considering the greater need for materials for reconstruction due to the war of January 2009. Just as importantly, Israel bans all materials for building for entering Gaza, including cement and glass. The reason is to make it impossible for Hamas operatives to build more weapons, but has the effect of stopping Gazans from rebuilding their houses, schools and public building, or from restoring any semblance of normal life.  It would be one thing for Israel to stop actual weapons from entering Gaza; quite another to ban materials that are necessary for maintaining society.

Within Israel’s stated policy of maintaining the blockade, they had the option of simply stopping it from reaching Gaza. They could have sent naval ships to surround the flotilla, enclosing it, and then, once it acquiesced, escorting it to the Israeli port of Ashdod. If, following such an action, the flotilla had fired upon the navy, showing that it was seriously armed, the IDF would have been then justified in taking control of the ships, being then, a more genuinely self-defensive act. Why did they not do this? Presumably, because it could have led to an embarrassing stalemate, and kept the issue in the news for the several days it might take to resolve. Ironic, given the terrible publicity they have now received.

Instead of this, Israel opted to send in soldiers to take control of the ship, in international waters, making the act entirely illegal. In taking such action, in the middle of the night, it was almost inevitable that there would be resistance, and with it, the risk of fatalities. Perhaps if the organisers had been absolute saints, carefully trained in non violent resistance, the deaths could have been avoided. Certainly the activists should have been more fastidious in ensuring they gave no provocation to the Israeli troops. There can be no justification in illegally invading a ship, an action which is extremely likely to lead to injury and death, in a situation where the ship is not attacking you, is not carrying arms and has no violent intent.

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On 55%

We are starting a period, that like 1997, is a paradise for fans of constitutional reform. The new coalition, artfully dubbed ‘ConDemnation’ by the Mirror, is embarking on a set reforms, several of which seem to have written on the back on envelope. This of course is constitutional reform UK style – don’t bother with a constitutional convention, independent enquiry, or even all party agreement. If you’ve got a majority in Parliament, go ahead and change the rules. The next government can always change them back again. Simple, ineffective, usually ill thought out, and piecemeal. That, apparently, is the way we like it.

One such reform currently proposed is to institute fixed term parliaments. This has been a long-standing demand of reformers, and should be viewed sympathetically. Until now, the Prime Minister had the power to call an election whenever he or she chooses, within a maximum time frame of 5 years since the previous election. This gives a substantial advantage to the incumbent, allowing them to go to the polls when things are going their way, and avoid the electorate when things are not going to plan. This part of the proposal is widely supported, and naturally is the part that David Cameron is eager to promote:

“I’m the first prime minister in British history to give up the right unilaterally to ask the Queen for a dissolution of Parliament. This is a huge change in our system, it is a big giving-up of power.

If we had a presidential system this would all make perfect sense. The president would be elected for a fixed term (as in the USA), would seek to get his/her programme through the legislative arm, and would face the voters at the end of the term. The UK, however has a parliamentary democracy.

We elect 650 representatives to the House of Commons, and they then vote in a government, usually the leader of the party with the most seats. A government is only sustained by their majority in the house of commons, voting for their programme. Should they lose that majority, either through by-elections or through MPs withdrawing their support, they face a ‘vote of no confidence’ and through this mechanism the government is brought down. In the past a vote of no confidence has almost always been followed by a general election. The prime minister, having lost the support of parliament, went to the queen and formally dissolved it.

What happens if dates of parliament are fixed? Lets say the current government was brought down by a vote of no confidence (say by the Liberals quitting) in 2013. The next election is not due until May 2015. What happens for those 2 years? In some systems, the right to dissolve parliament, and thus call an election is granted to a third party, the head of state. In Britain that would be, er the queen. While we don’t seem to quite want rid of the monarchy we don’t want them to have any actual power. That would just be embarrassing.

The logical approach seems to be, following a vote of no-confidence, there should be an attempt to put together an alternative government, whether merely under a new prime minister, or a whole new combination of parties. In the current parliament that would be a ‘rainbow coalition’ with labour, the liberal democrats and a few small parties. If the parties could agree such a coalition, they could then serve out the final 2 years of the parliamentary term. All well and good. But what if no alternative coalition could be formed? What if the labour party decided it was not in its interest to form a coalition for 2 years, as it fancied its chances in an immediate election. The logical solution would be a mechanism like this: following a vote of no confidence, there was an allotted period of time in which a new government could be formed (say 2 weeks). At the end of this period, if it had not been possible to form a new coalition, a new general election would automatically be called. This would bring the best of both worlds; the neutrality of fixed term parliaments and a clear mechanism for when a government falls in the middle of a term.

Sadly, this is not what has been proposed.

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An election about elections

On Thursday we’re having an election. You may have noticed. It’ll be held under our ‘First Past the Post System, the worst electoral system ever invented. If we get the voting right this time we should be able to change that system and make this the last election to be held in this fundamentally stupid way. Below I outline why it’s so bad and how we can ensure it gets changed. If you’re already convinced of the need for electoral reform skip to the bottom for some suggestions on how we might change it.

The Broken System

The BBC’s website has a great tool. Its allows you to input projected shares of the vote each party might get and see roughly how many seats they would receive from this. The results are rather startling. Lets, taking recent opinion polls, assume that the Tories get 34%, the Liberal Democrats 29% and Labour 28%. You’d assume that the Conservatives would get the most seats, and the Liberals would have slightly more than Labour, right? Wrong. The Conservatives would get 255, Labour 283 and the Liberal Democrats 83. Labour could easily have the most seats whilst coming third in vote share, and the Liberal Democrats will almost certainly get no more than half the seats that their vote share suggest they should. The most extreme example of this came in the 1983 election, in which the SDP (predecessor to the Liberal Democrats) got 26% of the vote but just 2.6% of the seats in parliament. The majorities of voters voted against Margaret Thatcher, the system delivered a whopping majority for the Conservative. So how the hell do these distortions happen?

Despite the fact that our government is national, making central decisions that apply over the entire country, our electoral system prevents us from voting nationally. We vote 646 local contests, the outcome of each being entirely independent of the others, as if we were a collection of islands seeing ourselves as fundamentally separate but occasionally agreeing to pool sovereignty. This uber-localism makes some sense when citizens feel strongly attached to a local unit for historical reasons, such as the American states. UK constituency boundaries however have no meaningful status, they frequently change from election to election, and most of us have no idea where one ends and another begins. So how does the constituency system so monumentally distort the national vote?

Imagine 3 constituencies, each with 10 voters, and each with the same 3 parties competing for their votes.

Seat 1 : Party A 5 Votes, Party B 4 Votes, Party C 1 Vote

Winner: Party A

Seat 2: Party A 0 votes, Party B 4 votes, Party C 6 Votes

Winner: Party C

Seat 3: Party A 5 Votes, Party B 4 Votes, Party C 1 Vote

Winner: Party A

So Party A wins 2 seats and Party C wins 1. Within each seat that seems totally fair.
If, however we add together the total votes from the 3 seats, a very different picture emerges.

Party A    10 Votes
Party B    12 Votes
Party C 8 Votes

Part B thus gains the most votes but gets no seats because its voters are spread out across the 3 seats rather than concentrated in 1. This model demonstrates what can happen across the whole country. That’s the basic distortion of the system, but here’s some particular problems it throws up.

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