June 2016 Guide: the moment of truth for the UK and EU.

Yesterday saw me write a little guide of sorts regarding the upcoming devolved nations’ elections on the 5th May, covering who can vote, how to vote and providing some context in relation to each regional election. I briefly mentioned that the next few months will be both busy and important, for not only do Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales go to the ballot box to vote in their legislative members and consequently governments, there is also the small matter of the UK electorate heading to the polls to cast their decision on a huge subject: whether or not the UK should continue to remain a member of the EU. As I published the post, I realised that this was a matter requiring its own guide post. So cue me sitting in my university’s library this morning.

Let’s look at the context behind the campaign, before I discuss the technicalities involved, such as who are the main campaign groups, and who can vote in the referendum.

Last Friday (15th April) saw the official launch of the campaign, with both Team Remain and Team Leave now gearing up for what will be quite the fight. It seems surreal to consider that the oft-promised referendum will finally take place on the 23rd June. Cast your minds back to last year, and the Westminster General election campaign. The Conservatives won to establish a majority government, but one of their party pledges within their manifesto was to commit to holding an in-out vote on the UK’s membership of the EU by no later than 2017.

How long ago that pledge seems now, and I cannot help but wonder whether the party regrets this, given the very evident division in both Cabinet and Parliamentary party being played out so very publicly. History repeating itself, perhaps? From Thatcher to Major, the Conservative Party never fails to go to war with itself on the issue of Europe. 2016 is no exception, as Prime Minister David Cameron is finding out. There have already been high-profile interventions on the future of the Prime Minister in light of a vote in favour of leaving the EU (Mr Cameron is campaigning to remain within the EU.) Most noticeably, one Ken Clarke took to airing his view last weekend, the first during the official campaign season. He remarked:

“The prime minister wouldn’t last 30 seconds if he lost the referendum and we’d be plunged into a Conservative leadership crisis which is never a very edifying sight.”

Again, cast your minds back to last year’s election – David Cameron stunned many when he offhandedly declared he would not seek a third term as Prime Minister. The result as been that he may have weakened his hand in the campaign, in that should he lose the referendum, there will be calls for his resignation.

Now, the referendum will be framed around the following question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” Essentially, the UK electorate is being asked if the UK should continue its membership of an organisation we joined in 1972 when it was called the European Economic Community.

I am going to pause briefly at this point to raise an issue of contention. Much of the media coverage of the EU referendum debate and campaign has talked about ‘Britain’s membership’ with the EU, and I feel I need to point out this is incorrect. Britain alone is not going to the polls, the UK is. The United Kingdom comprises of Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. To use ‘Great Britain’, which only comprises of Scotland, Wales and England denotes that voters in Northern Ireland have no say, when they do. But anyway, let’s carry on with the guide.

Regarding the above posed question, Mr Cameron accepted a suggestion from the Electoral Commission in 2015 to change the offered responses from ‘Yes/No’ to ‘Remain/Leave’.

The referendum campaign has been preceded by the Prime Minister’s negotiations which took place with European leaders in a bid to secure a better deal for Britain’s relationship with the EU. That was a task and a half, and the concessions he returned to the UK with did not exactly go down well, with many within the Conservative party feeling he had not asked for enough, and had delivered on even less.

The Electoral Commission has since designated an official Remain campaign group and Leave campaign, which will be allocated funding from public money for campaigning. On the 13th April, we were informed Vote Leave has been designated as the official lead campaign for ‘Brexit’. It has the support of cabinet ministers and prominent Conservatives including Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Chris Grayling, and is chaired by the Labour MP Gisela Stuart. On the Remain side, the Electoral Commission confirmed that Britain Stronger in Europe will be the lead campaigner. This is the group that has been co-ordinating the campaigning activities of the Prime Minister, but yet also involves senior figures from the other major political parties. It is interesting to note that its application for the designation was uncontested.

Lead campaigners are permitted to spend up to £7 million – far higher than the standard £700,000 limit during elections – as well as a free mailshot to every household in Britain and a £600,000 public grant. What has already gone down like a lead balloon was the announcement that every household in the UK will receive a leaflet from the Conservative government urging them to vote Remain. This will cost some £9.3 million, and you guessed it – it will be funded by the taxpayer.

Separate from campaign groups, each political party is permitted to spend money in the referendum. Spending limits are linked to the number of votes won at last year’s General election, therefore the Conservatives can spend the most – up to £7 million – followed by Labour (£5.5 million), UKIP (£4 million) and the Liberal Democrats (£3 million).

Smaller parties from the devolved nations such as the SNP, the Greens, the DUP, and Plaid Cymru will be allocated £700,000 each to spend. Now, given almost every major political party is campaigning to stay in the EU, this surely will be to the disadvantage of those backing Brexit.

There will now be a ten-week period of official campaigning, which as I noted commenced last Friday. It’s going to be a long ten weeks indeed, judging by the media coverage. Yet as I noted previously, the Conservative pledge from last year promised to hold a referendum no later than 2017, therefore Mr Cameron did have until the end of 2017 to hold the referendum. He had in fact previously pledged not to rush into the vote until he had secured a satisfactory deal from his renegotiation. However, perhaps aware that it is better to hold the referendum sooner rather than later to ensure the Conservative party and thus the Conservative government can somehow come together again after bitter division, the decision was made to hold the referendum this coming June, which was the earliest opportunity. This was made in part due to the UK Parliament eventually ruling out holding the referendum on the same day as the Scottish, London, Welsh and Northern Irish elections on 5th May. (Yet party leaders from the devolved nations were not impressed at the decision, seeing as how the June referendum threatens to overshadow regional legislature elections.) Intriguingly, there were -and still are- fears that the tide of public opinion could swing against EU membership if the migration crisis continues to spirals out of control during the Spring and Summer months, making an earlier referendum even more critical to the Prime Minister’s hopes of keeping the UK within the EU.

And now we turn to the interesting and surprisingly convoluted issue of just who exactly is eligible to vote in the June referendum. This is an important point, as there are expectations of a record high turnout. And as we know, every vote counts, so knowing who can vote and thus who to target is vital. The simple answer is: if you are eligible to vote in Westminster General election, you are eligible to vote in the EU referendum. But it becomes a tad more difficult in relation to non-British citizens. I will start from the most straightforward case, that of British citizens.

British citizens over the age of 18 will be able to vote – unless they have lived outside of the country for more than 15 years. In spite of a campaign to extend the franchise to 16 and 17year olds, given the permanent reduction in the voting age in Scotland for the country’s own referendum in 2014, the UK Parliament voted to retain the existing franchise for Parliamentary elections. The consequence of this decision means that some young people who were able to vote in the Scottish independence referendum will not be able to vote on future of the UK’s membership of the EU.

Others affected by the decision not to change the franchise are British people who have lived abroad for more 15 years. For the third time, cast your mind back to last year, and the Conservative manifesto. The Conservatives had a commitment to introduce ‘votes for life’, meaning that despite living outside the UK, a citizen of same could still vote in the elections. The Conservative manifesto also include a pledge in relation to extending the franchise and making it easier to vote from abroad to British citizens who live abroad permanently. However, the government has not acted upon either commitment, and it is hard to see why: many living outside of the UK are either working abroad, or retired abroad, and Europe is a top destination for both. Surely these people who generally wish to see the UK remain within the EU, given that they are utilizing the EU’s free movement of persons pillar?

EU citizens will not be able to vote, unless they hail from Cyprus, Ireland or Malta. I know, I know. It’s very specific, but this is because the issue had become rather politicised, with some arguing that as the outcome of the referendum will affect them directly, they should be permitted to vote whilst others argued this was a vote solely for the British electorate to have their say. Since all but a select few EU citizens can vote, we are again presented with the strange scenario whereby EU citizens can vote  in local, devolved and EU elections in the UK, and were able to vote in the referendum on Scottish independence, but cannot vote in the summer.

Citizens of Ireland and Commonwealth countries, however, can vote. (Are you lost yet?) This presents the paradoxical situation in that Irish citizens, who are of course EU citizens, can vote, unlike many of their fellow non-British, EU citizens. (So if I availed myself of my right to dual-nationality, and had an Irish passport, I could still vote.) It becomes more confusing when you realise it is not just Irish citizens living in the UK who can vote. Oh no. The remit extends to Irish citizens living overseas, but are registered to vote in Northern Ireland, and have been so in the past 15 years.

Moreover, Commonwealth citizens who live in the UK, having leave to remain in the UK or who do not need it are also eligible to vote in the summer.

I had previously mentioned the citizens of Malta and Cyprus qualify to vote. This is because of the peculiar situation they find themselves in: both are members of not only the EU, but the Commonwealth as well.

Citizens from British crown dependencies, such as Jersey, and British Overseas Territories, such as the British Virgin Islands, are also eligible.

But Leah, I hear you ask. That’s all well and good, listing off who can and who cannot vote. Yet why tell us? Is it really that important? Well, I could simply answer that being in the university library from eight this morning means I wanted a break from revision, and decided to write as much as possible to prevent having to return to the books. However, the real answer is that I find it rather fascinating.

You see, there are so many groups eligible to vote, each bringing different narratives and perspectives to the debate. That is interesting enough in itself, but we have to consider the extend this layered franchise can influence the overall outcome. I personally am intrigued to see how the Commonwealth citizens vote, for example. Some Commonwealth voters, could be inclined to vote Leave, believing the argument that leaving the EU would allow the UK to strengthen its ties with the Commonwealth and facilitate Commonwealth migration to the UK.  On the other hand: with regards to the Irish contingent, the Republic is not keen on the UK withdrawing from the EU, ‘Brexit’ could affect their rights as well as their country’s economy and so desire a Remain victory. Essentially though, it is anyone’s guess, which is what makes it so interesting. It is hard to determine the impact that the above non-British voters will have, simply because they hail from diverse countries and backgrounds. Moreover, we are not sure as to the scale of the potential turnout, either. There are over one million foreign voters, but their turnout rate is unknown, and there is some evidence that they are less likely to register for elections participation than the rest of the population.The fact of the matter is, by excluding the majority of EU citizens from the electorate, there is a real possibility that the Prime Minister will lose votes for Remain.

Overall, the campaign is messy, with each side of the debate strongly fronting their own messages, complete with subjective statistical use and carefully constructed arguments and language use. The electorate is caught in the middle and probably none the wiser, unsure which argument to follow and which Team to join. It is going to be a a very long ten weeks, and with the polls constantly in flux, June looks set to be unpredictable. Not quite what we would like, given the historic moment and sheer importance of this referendum. My advice is this: if you are undecided, keep a clear head and try to research the EU as much as you can. If you are already committed to one side, double check your facts and arguments. And my most important piece of advice of all, for all? Vote.

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May 2016: devolved elections guide.

The whispers of promises are trickling through the devolved regions of the UK. It is that time once more: regional elections, and everything has surely kicked off, given the amount of media coverage now devoted to campaigns. As I noted previously, Scotland and Wales join Northern Ireland in heading to the polls on the 5th May, and I had promised that I would write a post about the devolved elections. So let’s get stuck in.

There is no doubt that the coming months will be busy, and important ones for the UK electorate, with elections for police and crime commissioners, regional and local governments and four cities electing a mayor on 5th May. And of course, we cannot forget that tiny matter of the UK’s referendum on its future within the European Union, taking place on the 23rd June. Democracy will be in action, as those eligible to do so exercise their right to vote. As regular readers may know, this May marks my first time voting in Northern Ireland’s regional elections. I am looking forward to taking part in electing representatives to the Assembly, and I feel passionately voting. I feel that we are most fortunate to be able to have our say, to have the opportunity to vote, and so I will confess to being perplexed at those who do not drop that little slip of paper into the ballot box. Did you know that the Electoral Commission has previously estimated that up to 7.5 million eligible voters are not registered to have their say? That number staggers me. 7.5 million people across the UK are not on the electoral register, cannot exercise their right to vote and thus arguably are not participants of our democratic society.

That is not all. The Electoral Commission has also warned that the British government’s new rules in relation to individual registration has actually resulted in more people to disappear from electoral rolls. Students, for example, must now sign themselves up individually rather than being included in a hall of residence mass registration or as part of their family’s household, meaning that there are fewer young people are on the electoral register. Moreover, there are those people who, unaware of the new changes, may simply assume that they are still registered. Despite the registration process being more straightforward than before, the Electoral Commission says 40% of British voters are unaware they can register online in just five minutes. And as the Commission itself said:

“Online registration has made it much easier for people to register to vote, so it’s vital everyone knows it exists…”

You see, fun fact: no one is automatically registered on to the electoral roll. In 2014 the system underwent a change in an effort to reduce fraud. The result being that whole-household registrations no longer happen, so that every person must now sign up individually. Now, most people who were already registered were transferred to the new system, but a minority were not. Letters were sent out to inform people whether or not they were on the register, but generally it is safer to contact your local electoral registration office to find out, instead of assuming you are still registered.

Before I launch into the various upcoming elections taking place on the 5th May, I thought I would share the interesting little differences between the devolved regions in relation to voter registration and voting. (The little details interest me, I make no excuses for this.)

Regarding the registration process, voters in England, Scotland and Wales are able to register online or through posting a registration form to their local electoral registration office. These paper forms may be accessed online, or collected from the local electoral registration office. In Northern Ireland however, only the latter option is available – we are not able to register online, which I have noticed has proven to be a source of frustration to many recently. We can but hope that Northern Ireland will eventually provide this online option. However, for all of the regions, it is possible to apply for a postal, or proxy vote using a postal form. (When I initially considered spending longer in the US last year, I had considered applying for a proxy vote to ensure I had my say in determining my local MP.)

Differences between the nations comprising the UK are also evident in relation to who can register to vote. Anyone over the age of 16 is eligible to register, but you must be 18 before you can actually vote in Northern Ireland, Wales, and England. This includes British citizens, qualifying Commonwealth citizens (those who have leave to remain in the UK or do not require leave) and citizens of the Republic of Ireland who residing in the UK. Yet in Scotland, 16 year olds and 17 year olds are now allowed to vote in Scottish elections, following the change in law for the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014.

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My poll card for the upcoming Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. This is confirmation of my being on the electoral register.
And now, let us turn to my breakdown of the upcoming elections occurring across the UK on the 5th May.

Firstly, the following elections will be taking place:

  • Scottish Parliament;
  • Welsh Assembly;
  • Northern Ireland Assembly;
  • Local council elections in England;
  • Mayor of London and London Assembly;
  • Police and crime commissioner elections; and
  • Mayoral elections in Bristol, Liverpool and Salford.

Yes, even though England does not have a devolved government, it is still going to the polls in certain areas on the same day as the devolved nations. I will cover England first, before working through the aforementioned devolved nations.

England

England will see a lot of council elections taking place.

A third of council seats are up for election in 32 of 36 Metropolitan boroughs. Fun fact: all but five of these are Labour held, and include: Barnsley, Birmingham, Bolton, Bradford, Bury, Calderdale, Coventry, Dudley, Gateshead, Kirklees, Knowsley, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, North Tyneside, Oldham, Rochdale, Rotherham, St Helens, Salford, Sandwell, Sefton, Sheffield, Solihull, South Tyneside, Stockport, Sunderland, Tameside, Trafford, Wakefield, Walsall, Wigan, Wirral and Wolverhampton.

Moving on- twelve district councils have all of their seats up for election. These are mostly are Conservative controlled towns, like Colchester, Gloucester and Woking. Seven district councils have half of their seats up for election.

In addition, there are a further 52 councils which see a third of their seats being contested. These comprise of a mix of mostly Labour and Conservative controlled towns across England. They include: Adur, Amber Valley, Basildon, Basingstoke & Deane, Brentwood, Broxbourne, Burnley, Cambridge, Cannock Chase, Carlisle, Castle Point, Cheltenham, Cherwell, Chorley, Colchester, Craven, Crawley, Daventry, Eastleigh, Elmbridge, Epping Forest, Exeter, Fareham, Gloucester, Gosport, Great Yarmouth, Harlow, Harrogate, Hart, Hastings, Havant, Huntingdonshire, Hyndburn, Ipswich, Lincoln, Maidstone, Mole Valley, Newcastle-under-Lyme, North Hertfordshire, Norwich, Nuneaton & Bedworth, Oxford, Pendle, Preston, Redditch, Reigate & Banstead, Rochford, Rossendale, Rugby, Runnymede, Rushmoor, St Albans, South Cambridgeshire, South Lakeland, Stevenage, Stroud, Tamworth, Tandridge, Three Rivers, Tunbridge Wells, Watford, Welwyn Hatfield, West Lancashire, West Oxfordshire, Weymouth & Portland, Winchester, Woking, Worcester, Worthing and Wyre Forest.

To conclude the council elections, three unitary councils – Bristol, Peterborough, Warrington – will see all their seats up for election, whilst 16 others have a third of seats under contest, including: Blackburn with Darwen, Derby, Halton, Hartlepool, Kingston-upon-Hull, Milton Keynes, North East Lincolnshire, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Reading, Slough, Southampton, Southend-on-Sea, Swindon, Thurrock and Wokingham.

And finally, saving the most well-known for last: in London there are 25 Assembly places up for grabs, as well as the main role of mayor. Will Sadiq Khan reclaim the post for Labour, or can Zac Goldsmith somehow manage an upset against predictions, and take the role for the Conservatives? I must say, my money (if I were a gambling gal, which I am not) is on Mr Khan.

And now, let’s take a look at the Celtic nations, starting with Scotland.

Scotland

In Scotland, the nation will vote to elect 129 members to the Scottish Parliament (‘MSPs’). The Scottish Parliament went into dissolution on 24th March 2016, thereby allowing the official period of campaigning to get underway.

Five parties had MSPs in the previous parliament: Scottish National Party (SNP) led by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish Labour Party led by Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Conservatives led by Ruth Davidson, Scottish Liberal Democrats led by Willie Rennie, and lastly the Scottish Greens, led by their co-conveners Patrick Harvie and Maggie Chapman.

The Scottish Parliament uses a system called the Additional Members System, designed to produce approximate proportional representation for each region. There are 8 regions, each sub-divided into smaller constituencies, and there are a total of 73 constituencies. Each constituency elects one MSP by the plurality (first past the post) system of election. Each region elects 7 additional MSPs using an additional member system. A modified D’Hondt method, using the constituency results, is used to elect these additional MSPs.

The SNP, the Scottish Labour Party, the Scottish Conservative Party and the Scottish Liberal Democrats are fielding candidates in all constituencies. The SNP are predicted to remain the largest party, and may in fact gain votes and seats off the back of its landslide victory in last year’s Westminster General election. If 2015 is repeated, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats could be in trouble. We may end up with the situation whereby the Scottish Conservatives overtake Scottish Labour in terms of seats in Holyrood.

This promises to be an intriguing and exciting election; note that the SNP are floating the idea of holding another Scottish independence referendum in the near future should they be returned to government.

Wales

Wales will take to the polls to elect members of the National Assembly for Wales (AMs). It will be the fifth election for the National Assembly, the third election taken under the rules of the Government of Wales Act 2006 and the first since the Wales Act 2014.

The previous election in 2011 resulted in gains for the Welsh Labour Party, which gained four seats compared to the 2007 election and currently holds 30 seats, exactly half of the Assembly, one short of an overall majority. The party also secured a swing in its favour of over 10 percentage points. The Welsh Conservatives are currently the largest opposition party with 14 seats, a net gain of two from 2007, but former party leader Nick Bourne lost his seat. The junior party in the government coalition, the nationalist Plaid Cymru, suffered a drop in its vote, losing 4 seats and its place in the coalition, with the Labour Party choosing to govern alone after their gains. The Welsh Liberal Democrats lost significantly in the popular vote and returned five AMs, a loss of one.

In elections for the National Assembly for Wales, each voter has two votes in a mixed member system. The first vote is for a candidate to become the Assembly Member for the voter’s constituency, elected by the first past the post system. The second vote is for a regional closed party list of candidates. Additional member seats are allocated from the lists by the d’Hondt method, with constituency results being taken into account in the allocation. The overall result is approximately proportional. Altogether, 60 AMs are elected from the 40 constituencies and five electoral regions, creating an Assembly of 40 constituency AMs and 20 additional AMs. Every constituent is represented by one constituency AM and four regional AMs.

Fun fact: the previous restriction on the ability to stand in both a constituency and a regional list was lifted by the Wales Act 2014. The 2014 Act also removes the ability to dual mandate with the House of Commons; an Assembly Member will no longer be allowed to also be an MP.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, my little corner of the world, the electorate will head to the ballot box to elect members of the Assembly (MLAs).

Now, there is a bit of explaining to do in relation to the elections being held in 2016. You see, under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 – consider this a constitution of sorts for Northern Ireland – elections to the Assembly were originally for a four-year term, thus there would have been an election due in May 2015, four years after the 2011 election. But following the introduction of the UK Fixed Term Parliaments Act, this date would have clashed with the 2015 UK General Election. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections were postponed for a year to 2016 to avoid this clash. 

In May 2013, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers announced the next Assembly election would be postponed to May 2016, and would be held at fixed intervals of 5 years thereafter. S7 of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014 specifies that elections will be held on the first Thursday in May on the fifth (rather than fourth, as previously) calendar year following that in which its predecessor was elected. And so here we are, heading to the polls on the 5th May 2016, five years after the last Assembly election.

Nine parties (and a number of independents) held seats in the Assembly under the previous mandate. The DUP (originally lead by Peter Robinson, who has since been replaced by Arlene Foster) were the largest party overall, and the largest Unionist party with 38 seats and had acquired 29.3% of the vote in 2011. The second largest party overall, and the largest Nationalist party was Sinn Féin, who held 29 seats and had gained 26.3% of the 2011 vote. Gerry Adams is the President of the party, but since he left to enter the Dáil in the South, Martin McGuinness is de facto party leader in the North. The third largest party was the SDLP, originally led by Alasdair McDonnell, since replaced by Colum Eastwood. The SDLP had 14 seats, and had won 13.9% of the vote in 2011. The fourth largest party was the Ulster Unionist Party, led by Tom Elliott until 2012, when he was replaced by Mike Nesbitt. They had had 16 seats after winning 12.9% of the 2011 vote, but by the time of the Assembly’s recent dissolution had 13 seats, reducing the party to the fourth largest.

After the traditional Unionist/Nationalist designed parties, we have the Alliance party, led by David Ford. They had held 8 seats, from the 7.7% share of the 2011 vote. Jim Allister of the TUV held the party’s sole seat, as did Steven Agnew of the Green NI. UKIP held a seat in the guise of David McNarry, and the party which promised so much but sadly burnt out, NI 21, had one seat held by party leader Basil McCrea. McCrea and McNarry will not be contesting their seats this coming May.

Each of the 18 constituencies elects six members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) so there are a total of 108 MLAs.  These elections use a system of proportional representation, known as the Single Transferable Vote (STV) with voters ranking candidates in order of preference. Under STV, candidates are elected according to the share of vote they receive, the size of the electorate, and the number of seats to be filled. Voters may rank candidates in order of preference, giving each a number, and they can choose as many or as few as they like. For each constituency a ‘quota’ must be determined which establishes the minimum number of votes a candidate requires to be elected.

The 2016 Assembly election shall be the first since the end of ‘double jobbing’, or the practice of having a dual mandate. This is again due to the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014, which prohibits someone being elected to the Assembly who is also a member of the UK House of Commons or the Irish Dáil Éireann. At the time the Act was passed, there were three such dual-members: the DUP’s Sammy Wilson (MP for East Antrim and a MLA for East Antrim) and Gregory Campbell (MP for East Londonderry and a MLA for East Londonderry) and the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell (MP for Belfast South and a MLA for Belfast South). Wilson and McDonnell resigned from the Assembly after being re-elected to the House of Commons in the 2015 election. Campbell, who was also re-elected as an MP, recently announced his retirement from the Assembly

Police and Crime Commissioners

Voting will take place in 40 police areas in England and Wales, excluding London, where the Mayor is classed as the PCC for the Metropolitan Police.

There are also separate governance arrangements for the City of London police, and Manchester, where the role of PCC is set to be abolished in 2017, and replaced by a directly elected mayor.

And thus concludes my equivalent of a May 2016 guide. I would advise you to follow the elections, if they are relevant to you, because the formation of a new legislature and government is important. This is especially true for fellow law students, given that the both the newly-elected governments and legislatures will propose policy which will result in the creation of bills and law.

Rest assured that I will be following the election in Northern Ireland carefully. As a first time voter, I am excited to finally be able to take part. But this also promises to be an exciting election, with the potential to see the political landscape shift. The 5th May could be a very interesting day indeed. We must wait and see the outcome of the devolved elections. Until then – make sure you vote.

Something democratic this way comes.

Leaflets through the letterbox. Party political broadcasts on the television. Posters on lampposts. Smiling canvassers braving the temperamental weather. It can only be one thing: it must be election season in Northern Ireland.

Yes, come the 5th May the electorate of Northern Ireland shall take to the polling stations, ready to submit their vote in the standard black ballot box. For some, it shall simply be a case of ‘same old, same old’ whereby they will vote according to the traditional dividing lines of tribal politics. For others, it marks the opportunity to vote for change, to vote for something new – perhaps opting for the periphery parties, who reside outside of the main five in the Northern Irish political scene.

For myself, this is rather the exciting moment. The 5th May will mark a red-letter day for me, in that it shall be my first time voting in the Assembly elections. (The Westminster General Election in May 2015 was my very first time voting, full stop.) I finally have the opportunity to have my say in electing my local representatives to Stormont, after years of waiting and watching my family members to to the local polling stations. The political aficionado that I am, you may rest assured that I am eagerly following any and all election coverage available.

When I was younger, my primary school would close for the day of the election. I can recall accompanying my parents to our polling station, and watch as they dropped their ballot slip into the black box. It seemed strange to young me that these pieces of paper could dictate who would enter government. I used to think that to count the votes, and announce who had won must be the most exciting job available. I also used to look upon the candidates, resplendent with their party rosettes as they stood outside the polling stations, attempting to garner a few last-minute changes of heart and gain additional votes. I remember staring at the candidates, and feeling sad because they all looked so eager, yet nervous, and I knew that not all would elected. (I was evidently a sensitive soul.)

Whilst I have aged, and adopted a more cynical world-view over the years since, I still do think that to be the local election officer is a important job. When I was in secondary school, following both the Assembly and Westminster elections, I tried researching the possibility of volunteering to count votes! Also over the years, I realised how fortunate I am to have the right to vote, and thus how important it is to utilise my right to vote. Moreover, as my interest in politics grew over time, I began to realise how intriguing it is, and how politics shapes our society. Consequently, I am fascinated by policy and decision-making.

Election time in Northern Ireland is a curious affair in comparison to the other devolved legislatures (which incidentally enough, also head to the polls on the 5th May, as I will discuss in a later blog post). This seemingly stems from the practice of politics here in general, along with the roles historical context and differing narratives play. Politics here is not as straightforward as the other UK regions. It runs deep; it can be the bedrock of communities, and will often be hotly debated in bars and cafés and buses. I often feel as though we are born with an instinctive understanding of tribal politics in Northern Ireland. Some of my earliest memories include coming to the realisation that you could distinguish one community from another by looking out for the particular flag being flown from a lamppost, or what colour the kerbstones were painted.

I mentioned previously the timeless practice of tribal politics – given the tumultuous history of The Troubles, Northern Ireland politics has roots in a ‘us versus them’ mentality. The general rule of thumb for generations was simple: if you were Catholic, you voted for a Nationalist party, such as the SDLP, or Sinn Féin; if you were Protestant, you voted Unionist for the Ulster Unionist Party, or the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). You either supported Northern Ireland remaining within the UK, or you desired to see a unified Ireland. You sympathised, perhaps even supported the use of violence – the armed struggle – by paramilitaries, or you simply wished to see stability in government and society. Regardless, community divide was evident, with each side wary of the other. Now, the Good Friday Agreement, the Peace Process and the passage of time have assisted in overcoming this divide, and bringing communities closer. But the ancient fear and dislike which can be triggered by the ‘us versus them’ mentality is still lingering. And this tends to be capitalised upon by political parties during election season.

For example, the message of the DUP in relation to the roles of First Minister, and Deputy First Minister during the campaign relies on tapping into the old Unionist fear of Republicanism. Arlene Foster, the leader of the party and who occupies the post of First Minister, has opted to argue that there is a fear Sinn Féin could become the largest party at Stormont, and thus have Martin McGuinness nominated for First Minister. The party therefore is asking the electorate to consider both Ms Foster and Mr McGuinness, and to ask themselves who they would prefer to see in the position of First Minister.

Historically, Unionist parties have always been the largest party, and have always occupied the post of First Minister. The second largest party, traditionally a Nationalist one, will have their leader nominated for the post of Deputy First Minister. Whilst there is no legal difference between the two posts in terms of powers and responsibilities, there is symbolism at play. And what you need to understand is that in Northern Ireland, symbolism is extremely important. To have the first Nationalist First Minister would symbolise the end of dominant Unionist – and generally Protestant – rule in Northern Ireland. Unionists are thus being encouraged to fear their identity would be under attack should this be the case – note that Northern Ireland was established through the deliberate selection of Northern Irish counties which had a Protestant majority. Given that Martin McGuinness has called for a referendum to be held on Irish unification in the aftermath of this summer’s EU referendum, you can see how the DUP could be concerned about the future of Northern Ireland. This concern has been present for a while, and may not necessarily be ill-founded as past Assembly elections illustrate that Sinn Féin are slowly but surely gaining votes overall. The irony is that for all the calls to arms issued by the DUP against Sinn Féin, the Executive works on the basis of power-sharing. Depending on their proportion of received votes, multiple political parties may receive a Ministerial portfolio. In recent years, the DUP and Sinn Féin have held the majority of portfolios between them, due to being the largest Unionist and Nationalist parties respectively.

However, staunch tribal politics is not as strong as it used to be. You see, the generational gap is growing, and young people are utterly exasperated at the status quo. Young people feel that Stormont is trapped in stalemate politics, lacking in functionality and efficiency. We feel alienated by the ‘us and them’ discourse, and feel that Northern Ireland is preoccupied with the past to the detriment of the future. We desire change, desire to see Northern Ireland become the country it has such potential to be. We are worried about employment opportunities, and the threat of increased tuition fees. Moreover, we are not impressed with the politicisation of every issue and every Department within the Executive. The young generation will have its say come the 5th May, and throw into the mix the periphery parties, including The Greens, and we have a different ballgame entirely.

It should be noted too that Members of the Assembly (MLAs) are elected according to a system of proportional representation called Single Transferable Vote, or STV. Under STV, candidates are elected according to the share of vote they receive, the size of the electorate, and the number of seats to be filled. Voters may rank candidates in order of preference, giving each a number, and they can choose as many or as few as they like. For each constituency a ‘quota’ must be determined which establishes the minimum number of votes a candidate requires to be elected. This means that each constituency tends to see a variety of candidates elected to post, and thus ensures a more representative and reflective Assembly. It also means that parties will carefully scrutinise each constituency to calculate their chances, and will seek to utilise preference votes. This is not a simple case of first past the post like the Westminster elections, oh no. This is more complex, more intriguing, and has sometimes resulted in House of Cards-esque actions to ensure victory. For example, everyone knows at least one story regarding a Lazarus, whereby people seemingly rise from the dead to vote. This year, we have accusations from the ex-DUP party member Ruth Patterson, who argued that the use of rival DUP candidate Emma Pengelly’s maiden name on posters so they read ‘Emma Little Pengelly’ was deliberately done to ensure her name is bigger, and easier to see. It is worth noting there is no love lost on behalf of Ms Patterson: she was expelled from the DUP after using media to air her complaints over Ms Pengelly’s co-opting into the South Belfast seat vacated by previous occupant Jimmy Spratt.

Nominations for the NI Assembly elections closed on Tuesday 12th April, with 276 candidates contesting 108 seats. The most competitive, and therefore battleground areas are North Belfast, East Belfast, South Belfast, and West Tyrone with each having 18 candidates contesting six seats. On the other side of the spectrum, the least competitive constituencies are Mid Ulster, South Down and West Belfast, with each having 12 candidates contesting six seats. My own constituency is South Antrim, traditionally a Unionist stronghold with a minority Nationalist presence.

From now until the 5th May, campaigning shall truly be underway in Northern Ireland. It remains to be seen whether change really will come about; something which our politicians have not achieved despite the infamous Haass talks and the equally-infamous Fresh Start Agreement. There is the potential for interesting upsets in certain constituencies, which could result in a change in the political landscape at Stormont. As for myself, I will be keeping an eye on the general campaign, and will relish the chance to finally place my faith in my chosen candidates, and submit my ballot slip. I am a strong proponent of devolution: Northern Ireland did not endure years of violence and instability to ever return to the days of Direct Rule. So for all that I may complain about Stormont’s performance in the past mandate, or even during the mandate yet to come, I will always feel some measure of pride that we have the Assembly and Executive, and it was the people of Northern Ireland who elected the MLAs.

 

New Jersey’s new proposal: the Distracted Walking Bill

Envisage the scene.

It is half past eight in the morning. I have spent half an hour in my university’s library, no doubt printing an Amazon-forest worth of documents, and I am now on my way to my internship. This requires a ten minute walk through Belfast, through some busy streets populated with commuters, yawning students and the odd rally driver-esque cyclist. The walk requires me to avoid car drivers sneaking down little alleyways who care not for pedestrians. The walk also requires me to ensure any words not fit for overhearing are muttered under my breath, as I come to the conclusion it must be genetically impossible for the people of Belfast to walk at a decent pace, or in a straight line. (Do you remember the video for Bittersweet Symphony, when The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft walks straight ahead down entire streets? Consider me the 2016 equivalent, sans moody glare and Nineties’ hair.)

Now, I do not mind the early morning walk. I actually enjoy it, because it helps me wake up and there is something soothing about seeing a city come to life in the morning. What does bother me, however, is the modern technological equivalent of the primary school game, ‘heads down, thumbs up’: texting and walking.

I am a member of Generation Y. I grew up using technology which was constantly developed and updated. I watched as mobile phones in particular went from being veritable bricks, to flip phones, to touchscreen smartphones. Just because my generation witnessed the growth of the smartphone and its daily necessity status in our lives does not mean I am willing to overlook those who commit the ultimate sin amongst pedestrians. The amount of times I have had people walk into me, or witnessed others suffering a similar fate of being ruthlessly and mindlessly mown down by those with their gaze firmly affixed downwards is incalculable. Forget the laws of the road. There should be a movement to establish the laws of the street.

Honestly, I have had enough of people who are so devoted to their mobiles that they cannot spare a thought for those around them. This is especially true in the mornings, when we are all just trying to reach our desired destinations in our respective weary states. Blearily we stumble from one road to another, walking for traffic lights to change colour. When we do not have to avoid cars, we have to dodge those with mobiles surgically attached to their hands.

My favourite personal story involves a professionally-garbled lady exiting the local train station, her mobile in one hand and the handle of her ridiculously tiny wheeled suitcase in the other. She promptly walked into me, before sharply enquiring whether I could mind where I was going. The irony was she was asking me this with her gaze firmly on her phone’s screen – although she glanced at me for all of two seconds, just enough time to permit me to think that if she had have been Medusa, I would have turned to stone. I simply sidestepped, letting Madam Wheelie advance forward, whereupon she promptly collided with another person.

Of course, let she who is without sin cast the first stone: I too have on occasion walked with mobile in hand, but more often than not I am reduced to carrying it as it is a sad fact of life that women’s coats suffer the scourge of faux pockets. (But that is a rant for another time.) Otherwise, I make a point of not replying to a text or whatnot until I have reached my destination, and can sit down out of people’s way. This is not me being a sanctimonious so-and-so. This is me being considerate of those who are walking the same streets.

Now, note my words above regarding the establishment of ‘laws of the street’. Apparently I am not alone in this, for a politician in the US state of New Jersey recently introduced a bill which seeks to ban texting whilst walking.

The proposed ‘Distracted Walking Bill’ would seek to ban pedestrians from walking and texting simultaneously. The measure was introduced by New Jersey Assembly Congresswoman Pamela Lampitt, and aims to reduce the number of pedestrian deaths as a result of distraction from mobile phones.

The law would ban people from walking while texting on any form of electronic communication device unless it is totally hands free. Those caught could face fines of up to $50 (£35), 15 days imprisonment, or both- the same penalty as jaywalking.

Assembly Congresswoman Lampitt believes her bill is necessary in terms of accident prevention and also in raising awareness of the dangers of texting whilst walking. She has recently argued that:

“Distracted pedestrians, like distracted drivers, present a potential danger to themselves and drivers on the road…

“An individual crossing the road distracted by their smartphone presents just as much danger to motorists as someone jaywalking and should be held, at minimum, to the same penalty.”

She added that half of the proposed fine would be used for ‘safety education’ about the dangers of walking and texting. She also cited a National Safety Council report that shows distracted walking incidents involving mobile phones accounted for an estimated 11,101 injuries from 2000 through 2011.

The study found a majority of those injured were female, and most were aged 40 or younger.  The most prevalent activity at the time of injury was found to be talking on the phone, whilst texting accounted for 12 percent. Nearly 80 percent of the injuries occurred as the result of a fall, while around nine percent occurred from the pedestrian striking a motionless object. The most common injury types included dislocations or fractures, sprains or strains, and concussions or contusions.

Experts have claimed distracted walking is an increasing problem around the world, with people becoming more and more dependent on technology for both personal and professional reasons. They have also noted that pedestrian deaths have been rising in recent years.

This noted rise in deaths coincides with other US states introducing bills targeting pedestrians and/or bicyclists. For instance, a bill pending in Hawaii would fine someone $250 if he or she crossed the street with an electronic device. Similar bills have, however. also failed in Arkansas, Illinois, Nevada, and New York.

Douglas Shinkle, the transportation programme director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, summarised the legislative landscape: ‘thus far, no states have enacted a law specifically targeting distracted bicyclists or pedestrians.’ However he added that ‘a few states continue to introduce legislation every year.’

In relation to the bill proposed by Assembly Congresswoman Lampitt, there have been those criticising what they see as unnecessary overview by the state government. Generally, opposition to the bill focuses on the question of how easily the law can be enforced by authorities who will have more serious matters to deal with.

A hearing on the proposed measure is yet to be confirmed, but it is intriguing to see that there have been responses to the problem of ‘distracted walking’, seeking a solution through legal means.

At least, that has been the response in the US. In Europe, a different solution was sought. In Antwerp last year, ‘text walking lanes’ were introduced for a trial period for those pedestrians who walk the walk whilst texting the talk.

The scheme involves providing these pedestrians with their own designated lanes, which are marked with ‘text walking lane’ in English on a number of busy pedestrian shopping streets in the city centre. The plan is to determine whether the creation of these lanes will lead to a decrease in the number of accidents which occur due to distracted walking. Should this be found to be the case, the designated lanes will become a permanent feature of the city.

I have to admit that despite my frustrations with my fellow walkers of Belfast, I do not feel that moving to legislate against so-called ‘distracted walking’ is the right solution. It seems too heavy a reaction to criminalise those who rely heavily on their mobile phones. Whilst proposing such a bill would ensure raising awareness of the dangers around walking and texting, criminalisation of same would surely be a step too far. Besides, as my study of jurisprudence last semester showed, sometimes people simply do not take heed of the law -underage drinking is a good example.

Would I advocate Belfast emulating Antwerp, and establishing designated texting and walking lanes? Goodness knows, Belfast has enough issues with lane designation as it is. Simply mention ‘bus lanes’ to a car driver, and Hell hath no fury. Should there be an introduction of another designated lane, there may just be open revolt. Perhaps someone would even take a photograph of the lane whilst merrily walking by, and not in it it, and upload this photograph to social media with the hashtag ‘#breakingthelaw’…

A Tale of European Market Unity: part two.

You may recall that recently I wrote about the proposed merger between the London Stock Exchange (hereafter the LSE) and Deutsche Börse. I outlined the arguments which supporters of the proposed merger were putting forward, discussed their reasons for supporting the merger, and concluded that the political climate would make for an interesting context.

This story had been running since late February of this year, when both the LSE and Germany’s Deutsche Börse were forced to admit they were in talks after news of their discussions were leaked. It was then revealed that the pair were in fresh talks to create a so-called ‘European powerhouse’ via a staggering £21bn merger. Unsurprisingly, given the current European economic and political climate, this apparent ‘merger of equals’ is likely to be closely monitored by European politicians. This is especially true as we edge closer to the run-up to the EU referendum in the UK.

This is not the first time such a merger has been proposed. The exchanges had first agreed to merge in 2000, before a rival bid for the LSE from Sweden’s OM Gruppen scuppered the deal, only to be rejected anyway. Then in January 2005, the LSE rejected a formal £1.3bn offer from Deutsche Börse.

However, the timing of this current proposal is better than those in the past – from a general EU perspective. Europe’s economy is craving a true single financial market. Moreover, there is a risk that the US and Asia will become key global players to the detriment of the EU, ultimately edging the EU out. From a UK perspective, however, the timing is awkward, for as previously mentioned, there just happens to be the same issue of the UK going to the polls to determine the future of the UK’s relationship with, and within Europe.

But interesting developments have occurred since my initial post on the subject, and I thought to share these in a post today. Remember, dear fellow Law students, this is a key area of interest in relation to commercial awareness.

Firstly, we had the announcement that the LSE and Deutsche Börse had reached an agreement in their proposed ‘merger of equals’. In a shared statement, the exchanges called the all-share transaction ‘an industry-defining merger.’ Carsten Kengeter, CEO of Deutsche Börse said, ‘as a combined group we will create a European player that will compete on a global basis.’

 However, we also had the news in conjunction with the announcement that there were competing bidders, including the owner of the New York Stock Exchange, Intercontinential Exchange (hereafter ICE). Shares in the LSE jumped nearly 9% to a record high of £29.14 in early trading after the owner of its New York rival said it was considering an offer for the company, subsequently sparking the prospect of a bidding war. Arguably, the ICE was unsettled at the prospect of a merger, given that such a merger would result in the creation of a European powerhouse which would challenge the American markets.
While the U.S. firm must have been aware it would face political and corporate pushback if it attempted to break up the European proposed merger, it would appear ICE  believed that LSE shareholders could have been persuaded by a higher offer. However, under UK takeover rules, ICE was required to submit a formal offer for the LSE by no later than the 29th March, something which did not occur. Deutsche Börse was required to submit a formal offer by the 22nd March, and it announced the agreement with LSE on the 16th. However, chief executive of ICE,  Jeff Sprecher did comment on the same day that:
“We have access to capital and an expectation by our investors and customers that we’re going to continue to evolve and grow and use those capital markets”

Which could be viewed as a subtle means of saying ICE has not exactly backed away just yet.

Now, ICE had been honing its arguments against the merger ever since declaring an interest in bidding for LSE soon after the news leaked of the proposed deal. This is unsurprising. After all, the merger would combine the LSE’s share trading operation with the German exchange’s Eurex derivatives business, creating the third largest exchange operator in the world in terms of stock market value. The arguments can be summarised as follows:

  1. Size alert: this basically focuses on how the potential combination of the two largest exchanges in Europe would dominate the equities trading and clearing markets, setting prices and dictating conditions to investors and companies. ICE supporters were prepared to argue that its combination with LSE would in fact be more pro-competition.
  2. Europe’s smaller exchanges: this argument followed the line that the newly established merger of equals would dominate over medium-sized exchanges, such as France’s Euronext. This essentially was an overt overture to the French government to challenge the Anglo-German merger.
  3. ICE’s deal would not be a ‘tax inversion’: there had been some floated suggestions that ICE would structure its offer as an inversion. Yet this a controversial scheme, one that allows bidders to lower their tax bills by essentially moving their domicile to the country of the target company. The U.S. government hates inversions and has tried to quash them. ICE insiders strongly emphasised the Atlanta-based company decision to not follow such a route.

In order to commence a bidding war and break up the deal -which, it must be noted, is favoured by both boards- ICE has to present a superior bid comprised mostly of cash, as Deutsche Börse is preparing to offer a mixture of cash and shares. Regulatory and political arguments will only come into play if the bids from LSE’s different suitors are deemed to be credible.

Intriguingly, the argument in relation to the smaller European exchanges evidently gained some traction regarding the French Euronext. French economic newspaper Les Echos ran a story saying Euronext was concerned about the news of a merger between Deutsche Börse and the LSE, stating that ‘Euronext seems as isolated as ever’. According to the newspaper, Euronext is considering possible self-defence strategies, including the option to reach out to other smaller stock exchanges in Southern and Eastern Europe, such as the Bolsa de Madrid in Spain. Moreover, Euronext was contemplating its own future in terms of a possible purchase. The newspaper noted the possibility that Euronext could itself be bought by another foreign stock exchange cannot be excluded, and reiterated that in 2014, the French stock exchange had established an objective of ensuring it would not be purchased by a foreign stock exchange.

Such concern and action is only the beginning of the road for the proposed merger. There are many political, financial and regulatory hurdles to contend with. Given the magnitude of the proposed merger, and the significant financial consequence of same, there will be many questions asked of both exchanges.

The public announcement of the agreed deal is merely the first step for LSE and Deutsche Börse. They will have to contend with Brussels regulators, national governments, shareholders, potential interloping rivals. They must persuade shareholders they will be an all-conquering global combination, whilst also easing fears among competition authorities about their large market share in several areas.

Oh, as previously mentioned, there is just that small matter of the UK’s EU membership referendum. Given that the deal, for all that it proposes to be a merger of equals, Deutsche Börse would actually own 54.4% of the merged holding company, compared with LSE’s 45.6%. There have also been efforts made by German politicians and businessmen to gain additional concessions, after there have been claims of a lopsided deal because the holding company would be based in London. Eurosceptic politicians will undoubtedly seize on the deal, and use it as evidence of the UK ceding power and authority to Europe. Unease among British politicians about the merger saw several Commons Treasury committee members suggesting recently that they will question executives.

And it is not just British politicians which will criticise the merger. There are growing concerns within the German political sphere, too. German politicians and businessmen are voicing their resistance amid fears that Frankfurt’s status as a financial hub will be lost, as the holding company would be based in London. The German exchange’s home district is also lobbying to retain the exchange’s head offices amid concerns about the  merged group’s shareholder base coming from predominantly English-speaking countries.

It will all make for an interesting few months, especially as we head closer to June. It is worthwhile to keep an eye on developments in this case, for the outcome will have financial and political consequences.