Saturday, 30 May 2009

Voting Reform

At the moment, you can hardly go to BBC News without seeing another story about an MP standing down. With parliament being so denuded by the expenses row, the need for reform of some sort is clear.

One direly needed reform is the replacement of the current system for electing MPs. Currently, MPs are elected by pre-defined constituencies through first-past-the-post voting. Unfortunately, first-past-the-post tends to seriously pervert democracy thanks to something called Duverger's law.

Duverger's Law states that a first-past-the-post elections will almost invariably result in a system where only two parties have any significant political clout. This is largely due to people having to tactically vote for candidates they don't like but have a better chance of winning than their real favourite.

In the extreme, this can lead to the absurd situation where there is a third party that would be preferred by the majority of voters, but nevertheless fails to be voted into power. Voters know that unless everyone magically switches to the new party in the same election, the vote will be split and some truly undesirable party will win instead. Meanwhile, the established parties have little incentive to serve the people effectively, as only a truly titanic public discontent could permanently keep them out of the running.

Unfortunately, whenever the topic of alternate voting systems crops up, certain people will start scaremongering about the dangers of such "untested" systems. But in reality, it's hardly the case that everyone is using majority voting.

In Switzerland, for example, the National Council is elected using a somewhat complex but largely effective system of proportional representation: people vote for individual candidates, whose party affiliations determine the number of seats each party gets. Within each party bloc, the candidates with the most votes get seats. For example, if you vote for candidate A of party X, A may not get a seat, but you've at least helped someone else from party X get a seat, instead of indirectly helping party Y.

In Ireland, elections use single transferable vote, which is another system that ensures you can vote for a less popular candidate without wasting your vote. In STV, you simply rank the candidates you like in the order you'd most see them elected. If your first choice can't get a seat, your vote is transferred to your second choice, and so on.

In both systems, you can safely vote for the person you prefer without fear that you're actually propelling their opposite into office. Single transferrable vote would be the most preferable, since it allows people to vote for any combination of individual candidates, and avoids giving undue power to political parties.

The introduction of a new voting system could also coincide with the abolishment of constituencies. But if that's not palatable, STV works just fine for electing a single representative. (In that case it's usually called instant-runoff voting.)

The only real problem with introducing a new voting system is the potential for voter confusion, as unfortunately happened in Scotland in 2007, when the introduction of STV caused a significant number of people to incorrectly fill in their ballot paper. But much of the blame can be laid on organisational mistakes and people plain failing to read the instructions, and the confusion has died down since.

In England, there were serious attempts to introduce STV in both 1884 and 1917, but they ultimately came to nothing due to a lack of support from the political establishment. [1]

To be frank, this is hardly surprising. It's not in the interest of those who have been propelled into power by the current voting system to change anything about it. Any change is likely to decrease their chances of being re-elected. And such established politicians can simply claim that any voting system that is not the current one, no matter its obvious benefits, no matter how well it works in other countries - is unsafe.

But right now, with UK politics in the state it is, we might stand a chance. What can you do?

  • Join the Electoral Reform Society, who are campaigning for the introduction of STV in the UK.

  • If you have one, write to your MP, asking them to bring up and support voting reform in the commons.

  • If you have a vote, please use it. Yes, the current system isn't amazing, but if you don't vote, the crazies' votes will count for more.

[1] Nina Barzachka - "Explaining Electoral System Change: The Adoption of Proportional Representation in Belgium and Its Rejection in Great Britain", p 28-31, University of Virginia, 2007

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Urgent: Forcible Removal of Sima Valand

Sima Valand, an Indian woman who entered the UK legally with her husband in 2006, is due to be forcibly removed from the country at some point today, Wednesday 20th May. What did she do to merit this? After enduring 15 years of physical and sexual abuse from her husband and his family in India, in 2008 she suffered a horrific rape at his hands. Sima found the amazing courage to report him to the police and he was convicted and sentenced to a long prison sentence.

Even while living in the UK, Sima has received many threats of assault and murder from her husband's family. She applied to the government for asylum as it is clear that, should she return to India, she will be in danger. Sima was brought up in Sudan and has few relatives of her own in India now. Nonetheless, the UK government thinks it is acceptable to return her to the country. She was supposed to be forcibly removed on the 8th of May; this was postponed, for a reason not publicised, till today, the 20th.

Please write to Steve Ridgeway, the CEO of Virgin Air, who are supposed to carry Sima Valand back to India, to ask him not to take her. Writing to Jacqui Smith, Secretary of State for the Home Office, is also very helpful. Details:

You can help keep Sima in the UK by:

1) Emailing/Faxing Steve Ridgeway, Chief Executive Officer Virgin Atlantic Airways and urge him not to carry out the forced removal of Sima Valand.

You can copy, amend or write your own version using this model letter.

Please be sure to include all the following details: “Sima Valand, Indian national, due to be forcibly removed from the UK on Wednesday 20th May 2009. Full flight details are being withheld from publicly circulated documents for Sima’s protection”.


Fax: 01293 444124 / +44 1293 444124 if you are faxing from outside the UK

2) Please send urgent faxes/emails immediately to Rt. Hon Jacqui Smith, MP, Secretary of State for the Home Office, requesting that the removal order is lifted and that Sima Valand is released from detention.

Please use this model letter or write your own version. If you do so, please remember to include HO ref: A1374200

Fax: 020 8760 3132 / + 44 20 8760 3132 if you are faxing from outside UK

“CIT - Treat Official” <>

More details on Sima Valand's case are available at the F-Word blog, here and here.

Saturday, 16 May 2009


Dear Dell,

I was very glad to see your new Della website. My wife has just bought one of your computers and can now keep track of her weight so much more easily!

I was wondering, though: I have a black neighbour, when are you going to make a website for people like him?


- David Stark

PS Oh no, wait. Let me rephrase that: WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING? Your "Della" website is a nauseating, patronising, sexist mess. Please stop insulting your potential customers with this garbage.

So Dell have recently opened a new sub-site called "Della" aimed at women in the most offensive way possible. Bereft of any technical information about their hardware, or indeed any information at all, the site instead includes "Tech Tips" about keeping track of your weight...

Unsurprisingly, most people aren't too happy about this - and indeed Dell have already backtracked a little - the most offensively stupid "Tech Tips" (like keeping track of your weight) are now gone from the site.

But the site itself is still up. It's perhaps unsurprising that Dell wanted a more "feminine" way to present itself to its customers, given the amusing "masculinity" of the main Dell site - with phrases like "engineered for maximum performance and scalability" and "HP and IMB should be very afraid". But a computer is a computer is a computer. There are no "girl computers" and "boy computers". And Dell doesn't seem to get that.

So what can you do?

In this case, it's very straightforward: go to the Della website, click on the little "Feedback" link at the bottom right, and leave them a message. Tell them that you're offended by their troglodyte sexism, mention that you're not going to buy a computer from such an unpleasant company, and tell them to shut that site down.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Rape crisis crisis

"Victims are not normally strong enough to tie themselves to the railings outside Downing Street, shouting 'this has happened and I don't have any help'. Survivors of sexual abuse don't want people to know what happened to them. They won't be marching to Whitehall."

 — Yvonne Traynor, chief executive of the south London branch of Rape Crisis

Back when he was campaigning to become Mayor of London, one of Boris Johnson's campaign promises was to increase funding for rape crisis centres in London. At that time, there was only one such centre in London - woefully inadequate for a city of more than seven million. Johnson stated his intention to provide £744 000 to set up an additional four centres.

Unfortunately, once elected, he proceeded to renege on his promise, and in fact provided no funding at all. As a result, the single centre is now facing closure.

To give you an idea of the disastrous impact this will have, in 2008, the centre helped some 320 women who had been raped. In the year 2003/04, the total number of rapes recorded by police in England and Wales was 13 354. [1] A back-of-the-envelope calculation based on the fact that London contains one seventh of the population of England and Wales yields about 1700 rapes per year in London.

And the one rape crisis centre that's trying to deal with this all is closing, thanks to Boris Johnson's complete lack of interest. Not that he's alone - thanks to funding cuts lack of enthusiasm from all corners, the number of centres has massively decreased in the last two decades. Instead, the government makes up its own domestic/sexual violence policies without bothering to consult anyone who knows anything about the topic.

What can you do about it?

I'm also contacting some other people who have written about this topic, and will do a followup post on what I learn.