The rule of the minority

With a referendum on electoral reform announced, the spotlight turns on those MPs who did not secure

Britain will go to the polls on 5 May 2011 to decide whether we should change the way we vote.

The referendum was an important concession wrung from the Conservatives by their Liberal Democrat partners, and while it remains uncertain precisely how the two parties will align themselves for the campaign on the matter, the setting of the date is an important milestone in our electoral history.

The Labour leadership candidate David Miliband has strongly backed the reform, singling out the Alternative Vote (AV) system as his preferred option. On the Today programme this morning he said:

I think that it's important that we move to a system where every member of parliament has at least 50 per cent of the vote of their constituents.

Miliband himself received just over 52 per cent of the vote in his South Shields constituency, but a sizeable majority of his parliamentary colleagues were not so lucky. According to figures from the Electoral Reform Society, 434 MPs received less than 50 per cent of the vote -- that's 434 MPs who would be relying on redistributed preferences for a mandate under AV.

Some of the big names in this group include Ed Balls, Hazel Blears, Jon Cruddas, Ben Bradshaw, Danny Alexander, Oliver Letwin and David Davis.

The Conservatives have 179 MPs with less than 50 per cent of the vote but Labour has 181, or just over 70 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party. This last figure perhaps demonstrates why Labour is not whole-heartedly in favour of the referendum -- lots of previously safe seats would become very hard to predict under a new system.

Miliband's fellow leadership candidate Andy Burnham is not backing the reform, and is quoted in the Guardian as saying: "It is not my party's job to prop up the Liberal Democrats by helping them win a referendum that is important to them."

Had the most recent election been conducted using AV, the Labour Party would actually have has the smallest shift in its numbers, moving from 258 MPs to 262. But the Tories would have been even further from a majority, at 281, while the Liberal Democrats would have increased their share to 79.

A combined Lib-Lab government would thus have commanded a comfortable majority of 341 and kept the Tories out of Downing Street.

Full details of predictions under different voting systems are available from the Guardian's data blog.

But perhaps the most arresting aspect of the statistics produced by the Electoral Reform Society is the trend over time. In 1979, 32.4 per cent of MPs commanded less than 50 per cent of the vote, a number that has now more than doubled to 66.77 per cent.

With the 2010 election producing the highest ever number of MPs with less than 50 per cent of their local vote, the case has never been stronger for ditching the first-past-the-post system and restoring the link between constituency and MP.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.