Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

We Need STV, Not “PR”

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on October 21, 2014

(I hope the following is coherent — I’ve been sleep-deprived for much of the last week, and really don’t feel very good)

We no longer live in anything that could be made to convincingly pose as a two-party system, even if you squint a bit. Nor do we live in the two-and-a-bit party system we had from 1981 through 2010, where Labour or the Tories would get a massive majority and the Lib Dems would have a handful of seats.

At the next election, while the Lib Dems’ vote has haemmoraged, the party is still likely to get twenty or thirty seats — the same levels they were getting in the 90s — through targetted campaigning and the incumbency factor (I was predicting 35 until recently, and that’s still possible, but would require rather more competence in getting a liberal message out than we’ve seen). UKIP topped the poll at the European election and look likely to come third nationally, but seem unlikely to get more than (at the very most) one or two seats in the election. The Greens are polling better than they ever have, and may still overtake the Lib Dems in support, though I doubt it. And the Scottish National Party have more members than any UK-wide party now, I believe, with the Scottish Socialist Party and Scottish Greens all doing fairly well.

Some of this I’m very glad about, some of it I’m much less happy about — I’ve often said that I wish the two main parties in the UK were the Lib Dems on the liberal side and the Greens on the authoritarian centralist side — but all of it’s a fact. It’s looking incredibly unlikely that any party will even get as high a share of the vote as the low share the Tories got in 2010, when they got most votes but couldn’t get a majority without going into coalition with the Lib Dems.

In fact it’s possible, though not likely, that the following absurd situation could happen next time — the Tories come first in popular vote, but second in seats, Labour come second in popular vote but first in seats, UKIP come third in the vote but get no seats at all, the Greens come fourth but also get no seats, and the Lib Dems come fifth but get enough seats that they get to be the kingmakers who decide what party or parties form the next government.

I don’t think that’s going to happen — I think the Lib Dem vote will recover enough, and UKIP’s vote will drop off enough at an actual election, that those two parties will be pretty much neck-and-neck in the popular vote in May, with the Greens a distant fifth — but it’s not at all unthinkable.

Three years ago, after the massive failure of the AV referendum (still the most upsetting public event of my lifetime), William Hague was crowing at Conservative party conference that electoral reform was “dead for a generation”. Now the political system has become so chaotic and unpredictable that we’re starting to see kite-flying articles in the Tory broadsheets talking about how the Tories should consider putting “PR” into their manifesto for the next election. I don’t think that will happen, but electoral reform is not looking anything like as unthinkable as it did after the referendum — and if something as blatantly stupid as the scenario I outline above happens and we don’t get reform, I could see riots happening.

The problem is that the kite-flying we’re seeing talks about “PR”, not about a specific system. And this is dangerous. It’s partly the fault of the Lib Dems, for spending decades talking about “PR” rather than systems — and that was something that helped sink the AV referendum, when a load of thick bastards who thought they were being clever said they’d only vote for “full PR” without really knowing what the words they were saying meant.

There are actually at least three criteria that, in my view at least, need to be met to consider a voting system truly representative. Proportionality is one — the result should lead to roughly the same proportion of representatives for each party as there were people who voted for it — but it’s only one, and to my mind the least important of the three. The system should also be preferential — it shouldn’t discard as pointless all the votes that don’t go to the top two candidates, which the Biggest Loser system we’ve got now does — and it should allow people to vote for specific candidates, or more to the point *against* them. If you’ve got an incompetent representative, you should be able to get rid of that person even if they’re in a generally-popular party, and conversely if you’ve got a good independent candidate they should be able to win even without being a member of a party.

AV was my second-favourite choice, because it had both those latter two conditions. It isn’t proportional, but it is preferential, and it allows you to vote for individuals rather than parties. Other voting systems have these aspects in different measure. The only one I know of that has all three is the single transferable vote, or British Proportional Representation (to give it the name which would possibly sell it to more voters, and by which it used to be known). This is the system that the Lib Dems have always advocated, and it is also the one that the Electoral Reform Society, among others, campaign for.

And we need to start advocating for British Proportional Representation now, and constantly, and explaining the difference between that and just “PR”, which isn’t “full PR”, but is “only PR”. There are many proportional systems out there, and some are profoundly undemocratic. The Bloody Stupid d’Hondt System (to give it its full name) that we use for the European elections, for example, is hideously undemocratic even though it’s proportional — voters get to choose from lists of candidates chosen by the parties, with no control over which individual their vote helps elect. This moves control and accountability away from the voters and toward the party leaders. We all remember times when unpopular individual politicians from all sides have been kicked out by their local voters because of their personal unpopularity, even when they’ve been important figures in their parties (naming no Michaels, Peters, or Lembits). We’ve also seen, less often but occasionally, strong independent candidates get elected. Having a PR system like d’Hondt would ensure that that could never happen.

We need proportionality, but it must be balanced by the ability to vote for individuals. We need to make sure that if we do get electoral reform as a result of the current mess, it’s not a stitch-up that transfers power into the hands of four voters named David, Ed, Nick, and Nigel.

No to PR, yes to STV.

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Progress Report On The Novel

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on October 17, 2014

I know nobody likes to read process posts by writers, but I feel a sense of obligation to the people who have backed my Patreon campaign to let them know about my non-blog writing, so you’ll get this every so often.

My plan has been, and still is, to email every one of my backers the work in progress in 5000-word chunks, before shopping it around to publishers, but it’ll be a little while before I get that first 5000-word chunk done. I actually have something like 10,000 words written so far, but much of that is character notes and plot outlining.

I’ve written chunks of what were intended to be the first three chapters, but the plans have changed slightly since I wrote the first half of chapter three. Thanks to feedback from Plok and Gavin R I now have some ideas as to how to solve the problems with lack of inclusion of women (and, happily, all the women with whom I’ve discussed the actual plot idea have said something along the lines of, to quote one, “that sounds like a cool enough idea that I would read it anyway despite it being a sausage-fest, so I say let it come out how it wants” — that from one of my most outspokenly feminist friends, who I’m not naming just because it was a private email and I haven’t asked for her permission to quote it), but those ideas mean, essentially, vastly expanding the setting of the book and slowing the pacing, so what I was planning as a tight 80,000-word book (the lower limit of what’s acceptable to send to genre editors these days) is now probably going to be somewhere around the 110,000-word mark, which has meant that what I thought was chapter three (the one that starts with the bald man reading a letter, for those who will read it) will now probably be chapter seven or eight, if not later.

Given the massive structural changes I’ve had to make before even getting much down, I’m going to hold off letting backers read the story until I have at least 15,000 words or so of it written, and then send them 5000 word chunks 10,000 words in arrears.

And that 15000 words will take some time to write. I’m currently researching the works and biographies of three different novelists, reading some background about a political movement, reading a huge amount about a military institution, and doing all the other kinds of research one needs to do when mixing fiction and reality (for example I had to hunt around to find an appropriate newspaper crossword, from within a fairly specific window of time, which would have a clue I could use to make two different character points when introducing one of my protagonists. Happily I found one, but it took some time). So the novel is not going to be written overnight — this isn’t going to be a NaNo thing. But it’s being worked on.

AndI think people will like it. It’s far, far more straightforward than my first novel — a fairly linear plot, with good guys, evil villains, the fate of the world as we know it hanging in the balance, daring escapes, and all that stuff, but it will also have some real ideas in it, I hope. I think it’s going to be fun.

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Linkblogging For 16/10/1

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on October 17, 2014
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California Dreaming: For What It’s Worth

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on October 15, 2014

“There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear…”

The story of how Buffalo Springfield formed is one of those too-good-to-be-true rock legends. Stephen Stills had met a musician called Neil Young on a visit to Canada in 1964, and admired him greatly. Young had travelled to New York — apparently to look for Stills in Greenwich Village — in 1965, where he’d met Richie Furay and taught him one of Young’s songs, Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing.

Between late 1965 and early 1966, Furay and Stills tried to form various bands, with the usual LA musicians — Stills played with Van Dyke Parks for a while, and was also in a band called The Buffalo Fish with Peter Tork — but they talked occasionally about Young, and the two of them had worked up an arrangement of Clancy. Then one day the two of them noticed a hearse in the street, and Furay said “You know, I bet that’s Neil” — Stills had told him that Young drove a hearse.

It was, in fact, Neil Young — he’d travelled from Canada to California to find Stills and Furay, but had no idea where they lived, and so was driving around aimlessly. And he’d brought a friend — bass player Bruce Palmer, with whom he’d been playing in a band called The Mynah Birds.

The four formed a band with drummer Billy Mundi, who quickly left to join first Maston & Brewer and then the Mothers of Invention, and was replaced by Dewey Martin, who had been drumming for the Modern Folk Quartet up to that point.

Now all they needed was a name — and there are disagreements about how the name came about. Everyone agrees that the name came from seeing a Buffalo Springfield steamroller, but no-one agrees whose idea it was. Young says that he, Stills, and Parks were walking down the street when they saw the steamroller, and that either he or Stills noticed the name. Stills says that Richey Furay noticed the name. And Van Dyke Parks says that he noticed the name and that the band members are either lying or delusional when they say otherwise.

I tend to believe Parks myself, not least because he’s the only one who has any memory of thinking of it himself — in everyone else’s story it was someone else, not the person telling the story. What everyone agrees, though, is that whoever had the idea mentioned it to Dewey Martin, and that it was his enthusiasm that made the rest of the band agree to the name.

After a short tour as the support band for the Byrds, Chris Hillman persuaded the owners of the Whisky A-Go-Go to take the band on for a six-week residency, which in turn led to the new band getting signed to Atlantic Records. Their first single, a version of Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing with Furay on lead, was a local hit, but was nowhere near commercial enough to make a dent in the rest of the country.

Their first album was recorded in a hurry, and with the band’s managers (who had no record production experience) as producers, and no-one was very happy with it. The band wanted to rerecord the whole thing, but the record company wouldn’t let them — they did, however, allow the band to supervise the mono mix, which the band members rightly say is better than the stereo.

On its release, the album had very little success, but then the “riots” on Sunset Strip happened.

Whether these riots really deserved that name is an open question — the police had imposed a 10PM curfew on the area of LA around Sunset Strip, where most of the clubs playing rock and roll music were, including the Whisky, and a mass demonstration took place at Pandora’s Box, on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights, to protest this on November 12 1966. As Micky Dolenz put it at the time “a lot of people and journalists don’t know how to spell ‘demonstration’ so they use the word ‘riot’”, and it certainly seems that it was more a case of the police provoking peaceful demonstrators than anything violent.

Whatever the case, though, the “riot on Sunset Strip” quickly became part of the folklore, and turned up in many songs. The Standells released a single with that title, and the riots were also mentioned in Plastic People by the Mothers of Invention, in the line “I hear the sound of marching feet, down Sunset Boulevard to Crescent Heights, and there, at Pandora’s Box, we are confronted with a vast quantity of Plastic People”.

Stephen Stills responded quickly, and within a couple of weeks the band were in the studio recording For What It’s Worth, which has gained a reputation as a protest anthem but is rather more ambiguous than that, talking of people “carrying signs/mostly saying ‘hooray for our side’” and warning against paranoia and gaining a persecution complex.

The single was released in January 1967, six weeks after the riots, and quickly became a top ten hit for the band, and one of the most recognisable hits of the decade. The band’s first album was quickly reissued with the opening track replaced with the new hit single.

It wasn’t all good news, however. The band’s higher profile made them targets, and Bruce Palmer was soon arrested for marijuana possession and deported back to Canada. His place was filled briefly by Ken Forssi of Love, before Jim Fielder of the Mothers of Invention took over. Palmer would be back, but this would be the first in a whole series of line-up changes in the band…

For What It’s Worth

Composer: Stephen Stills

Line-up: Richie Furay (guitar, vocals), Dewey Martin (drums, backing vocals), Bruce Palmer (bass), Stephen Stills (guitar, vocals), Neil Young (guitar, vocals)

Original release: For What It’s Worth/Do I Have To Come Right Out And Say It, Buffalo Springfield, ATCO 45-6459

Currently available on: Buffalo Springfield, Atlantic CD

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