Thursday 10 June 2010

Questions to which the answer is quite clearly "No"

Following in others' footsteps here, but this (from, where else, the Mail) is too good an example of the genre to pass up:

Dear Mrs Clegg, Is your Spanish employer's plan to despoil what is left of our countryside with horrid wind turbines revenge for the defeat of the Armada?

Although before we scoff too hard maybe we should remember that "Revenge is a dish best served cold" is originally a Spanish proverb. Damme those dogs of Spain!

Friday 21 May 2010

Epimenides the Cretan rides again

Men lie more than women. We know, because we asked women how often they lie and they said they hardly ever did. By contrast, men admitted fully to all their many lies.

Methodologically speaking, sometimes you just can't win.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Now is not a good time

I know intellectually that I won't have every election over the course of my lifetime go the way I want it. Frankly, that would be as unhealthy for the country as it would be freakishly unlikely. So I accept that from time to time, party/ies I don't want in power will be in power.

It's just that I very much see this as something that happens at an unspecified point in the future. They can win some other election that hasn't happened yet. I'll settle for winning those that take place in the present. That's only fair, right?

Tuesday 11 May 2010

God is on the side of the big battalions

Hilarious as it's been to watch the Tory and media reaction to the Lib Dem's sudden revelation that they know the value of the cards they're holding - and it really, really has been - the sad truth is that, like its namesake, a rainbow coalition is more illusion than reality.

It's not enough to scrape across the threshold of parliamentary majority - to actually govern in any meaningful sense you need a majority that can withstand the occasional shock. Such as heart attacks, sex scandals, sex scandals involving heart attacks, expenses fiddling or (entirely principled and in no way motivated by bribes of high office) defections. It's also a bonus if every disgruntled MP in your party (not to mention each of your "progressive" partners) doesn't know for a stone cold fact that there's a blank cheque with their name on it to be cashed at their leisure.

Tory + Lib Dem = working majority. Lab + Lib Dem + Green + PC + Uncle Tom Cobbleigh doesn't. Whether Brown's still around or not isn't the big issue. Whether they can actually govern is. The best possible outcome for a rainbow coalition is that they go more than a year before the wheels come off - at which point they'll have achieved a) an austerity budget that gets everybody upset and angry, b) some major compromises on each main party's core issues, c) nothing else.

There are many political and electoral arguments against a rainbow coalition. But the biggest obstacle is basic arithmetic.

Thursday 6 May 2010

Decisions, decisions

Astonishingly, the campaign seems to be over. As the everyone and his brother have remarked, it's been a lot more interesting than it should have been. When it started, I was faced by two very tempting arguments for doing something other than I've done in the last three elections I've been able to vote in.

The first tempation was not to vote. Not something I ever thought I'd find myself contemplating, but it was strangely beguiling. For one, I live in what is pretty much a safe seat - an initial impression daily strengthened by the complete absence of Tory or Lib Dem activity as the campaign wore on. There's been a lot of talk about how this makes my vote meaningless - the flip side of that is that abstaining comes at a low cost. Essentially, I can duck the whole issue without worrying that I'm failing to influence a crucial election. But this of course is just moral cowardice. Whether or not the future of the UK hinges on my vote, failure to exercise it just makes me a free rider. Someone has to vote, to use the power that ultimately rests with the citizen - letting other people do the hard work of choosing while I hold myself aloof is beyond apathetic. As much as anything else, I want the right to complain about the next government and I don't get to do that if I didn't participate.

The second temptation was not to vote Labour. This, frankly, was much stronger. There's a long list of reasons not to, which have been rehashed to the point of tedium over the past 4 weeks. For a Labour supporter disillusioned with some aspects of the Blair/Brown government, the most dangerous temptation runs something like this: "Labour are a force for good, but they've lost their way. Let them have some time in Opposition to clear out the dead wood, reinvigorate themselves and rediscover their political soul." In that way, you see, a vote against Labour is really truly a vote for Labour, if you think about it. Except of course it's not. There might be times where it seems like it doesn't really matter who's in power over the next five years, so that you can afford to take time to regroup. This is not one of those times. Whatever way you vote, you have to be voting for the party best placed to govern now. Other considerations are just jam tomorrow.

But this raises another much more fundamental question, which is what good government is. For a lot of people, the measure of good government is how much their own lot in life improves. But I find it difficult to use this as a yardstick. I'm a middle-class mortgage payer in a dual-income household with job security. Yes, the effect the next government has on the economy will have a knock-on effect on my finances, but not as much as for other people. And that's not to say that I don't get any value from e.g. childcare vouchers, because I do. But I am not a priority for government action and to vote as if I were would be narcissistic. So my concern for what the next government will or won't do isn't whether it will make my life better, because frankly there are limits under any vaguely centrist government to how bad my life can get.* It's whether it will make life better for people who's lives can go from bad to worse, or bad to good, or tough to impossible. Now, there's quite a large extent to which the general health of the economy will contribute to that, so if the choice were between a party I thought would ruin the economy and one that would save it there would be no choice at all. But not being in that situation, my concern is to vote for the party that will do it's best to a) make sure that the pain of recovery is mitigated for those most vulnerable to it and b) make sure the gains of recovery are shared beyond those best placed to benefit.

I can't make myself believe the Tories fit that bill. And while I agree with the Lib Dems on lesser issues, I don't see that this is their priority. And for all that Labour have got things wrong in their 13 years, their record on fighting poverty and providing services is pretty good. More to the point, I think it'll continue to be better than the alternatives.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Brass trio

I figure I can get away with this on the grounds that I'm blowing other people's trumpets as well as my own. Anyhow, from Facebook:

Me: I don't know if there's an official term for people stranded by volcanic activity, but if there isn't I would humbly commend the phrase "Ash-strays" to your attention
Jon: For employers who are very relaxed about the impact on their business, and won't dock pay or enforce paid leave of stranded staff, might we call them magmanimous?
Tom: Incidentally, I assume Conservative supporters who are trapped overseas by the ash cloud and concerned they may not get back in time to vote in the election are blocked lavatories.

...I've just thought of one: if you're trapped by volcanic activity, that's a Pompeii circumstance.

If there any more entries in this narrow field of linguistics, please share them...

Friday 16 April 2010

I met a man the other day who told me...

...that Nick Clegg won the debate. So I suppose that makes that true.

That's a little unfair - he probably did win it. But now that everybody is telling everybody that he won it, he definitely won it.

In no particular order, here are the things that struck me about/during last night:

1) There are two more of these things to go. What will there possibly be left to say by the third?
2) Given that it was widely acknowledged that Vince Cable won the Chancellors debate because the Red and Blue candidates spent their time beating each other up and thus letting him rise above the fray, why did we get to watch the exact same thing happen this time? What price these debate strategists we hear so much about.
3) When Cameron was going on about "they'll waste your money to put up taxes", wouldn't it have been great for Brown if he had that very day had his position (i.e. thatCameron's plan threatened the recovery) endorsed by 55 leading economists? And had used those big guns to counter Cameron's pet business leaders, thus at least neutralising his opponent's Appeal to Authority? Sadly, he just didn't have that opportunity.
4) Some people can integrate pre-written jokes seamlessly into apparently extempore remarks. Brown can't, and should stop trying. I mean, seriously, read this transcript:

Now, there's been a 75% success in this project, so you can bring the reoffending rate down. But I do come back to this central problem that we face - I'm grateful, by the way, David, for you putting up these posters about me and about crime and about everything else. You know, there's no newspaper editor done as much for me in the last two years, because my face is smiling on these posters, and I'm very grateful to you and Lord Ashcroft for funding that.

What in Christ's name? Was it the word "face" that prompted him to abandon "the central problem" for an ill-constructed jape about Ashcroft and posters and ... stuff? You've only got a minute to answer, so don't waste it on laboured jokes. Play to your goddam strengths.
5) The challenge to provide guarantees on Education, Policing and Health. Apparently, it is Labour investment vs Tory cuts after all. It might work as a way to put Cameron on the spot once, on a question about the economy. Levering the police and schools into a question on health specifically just makes you look like you're not actually discussing the issue you've been asked about. What's really amazing is that it was Clegg, not Cameron, who walked through the open door of "being honest with the public" and promising big cuts and not just flannel. I suppose it's because Cameron is now being positive about the future and "Age of Austerity" stuff doesn't fit in with that - if so, that suggests that Labour are going back to the position that didn't work, while the Tories abandon the position that did.
6) Speaking of health, someone needs to hammer the Tories on the whole "making cancer drugs available" thing. For a man whose current mantra is the need for government spending to be efficient ("I think it's really important that we start focusing on what we get out of the money that we put in, because if we think that the future is just spending more and more money, we're profoundly wrong.") he seems strangely blind to the notion that some very expensive drugs are far from guaranteed to be effective and that there might be better (i.e. more effective i.e. making more people healthier) options to spend that money on. Such as MRI machines to improve screening services. Or a specialist nurse. Or a paediatric intensive care unit. It's almost as if these decisions combine fearfully complex cost-benefit analyses with agonising moral dilemmas. And I would give your eye teeth to see Cameron made to admit that.
7) Cameron's mum was a magistrate. I bet she was. Plenty of spare time and a firm belief that her judgement was what was needed to sort out the local riff-raff. She may even have been right. But this is where Cameron's Big Society leads - power flowing to people who are a) convinced of their own acumen and b) easily able to afford the time to run a school. This is not a random sampling of the population at all.
8) There are two more of these to go.

For reasons that will hopefully never become clear, I should stress that the above are all personal opinions and in no way a reflection of my employer's position.

Thursday 8 April 2010

Like Quasimodo, it's misconceived but it does ring a bell

So today's big idea is the National Citizens Service for 16 year olds, a radical plan for changing the lives of young people that will offer them the hitherto undreamt of opportunity to spend two whole months of their summer on:
  • a residential course,
  • "team building exercises"
  • local volunteering
Why hasn't anyone else thought about trying this before? Volunteering. For 16 year olds. With residential courses. To pick a name at random, the Duke of Edinburgh must be kicking himself. Or didn't they do that at Eton?

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Vote Tory or the cancer patient gets it

One of the really fun things about having a kid is that you get to see just how hard-wired some of our more irrational behaviours are. Take my first stab at a genetic legacy (please): having learned that he could use his hands to maneouvre slices of banana into his face all by himself, he (as we all did) started trying this trick with everything: breadsticks, bacon, chips (fine), olives (hilarious), pickled beetroot (messy but fun, in a "vampire baby" kind of way), spoons, wooden balls, rabbit poo and assorted choking hazards (panic inducing, primarily for obvious reasons and secondarily in a "can I clean this up before his mother sees him" kind of way). Similarly, he's learnt that crying is a good way to a) alert us to genuine pain or discomfort or b) get attention when he's mildly bored. The point being that once we find a trick that works, we'll keep reusing it until either we run it into the ground or someone's pulling a lego brick out of our throat.

As with my incontinent, wobbly, emotionally manipulative offspring, so with the Tories. This latest wheeze of not raising National Insurance after all seems to have struck a chord (surprisingly for a cynical pre-electoral bribe), and so it's being used to attack Labour not only on the economy, which at least makes a crazy kind of sense, but also on health, which is both bizarre and unseemly. It's bizarre because it seems we're now to rely on efficiency savings paying for both reduced tax reciepts and extra spending on healthcare at the same time.* It's unseemly because it makes a simplistic, populist billboard slogan out of the genuinely complex issue of how we choose to fund treatments on the NHS. To hear the Tories tell it, you'd think that the only reason cancer patients die in this country is that a coterie of evil bureaucrats and soulless beancounters won't let them near the medicine cabinet full of wonder-drugs that will cure their disease, grow their hair back and improve digestive transit to boot. In reality of course, there is no such cabinet - there's a number of drugs which have shown some success in some patients with some specific conditions. Their manufacturers are only too keen to trumpet their efficacy, but more disinterested observers are less convinced that we'd actually see any benefit for our money. In a time when efficiency is all the rage you might think the Tories would want to establish what kind of value for money they were getting, but apparently that's not the point.

Well no. The point is rather distasteful - to use the suffering of cancer patients as just one more improvised weapon in the ongoing bar-brawl that is a general election. It's hefty, it's near at hand, so break that Ming vase over your opponent's head and finer feelings be damned.

*As far as I can work out, the argument goes something like this: We fund the NI non-rise by finding cuts and "efficiency savings", but because NHS-as-employer isn't paying tax to the government, it can now spend that money on cancer drugs in its role as NHS-as-provider-of-state-funded-healthcare. Meanwhile the government has less money because it isn't getting that tax but the overall NHS budget hasn't changed. So effectively the NHS has become more expensive, especially as any savings made within the Department of Health are already ear-marked for funding front-line services, so the savings that are paying for keeping NI static and thus for more cancer drugs are being made by quite different departments. I can see that Paul's come out of the deal quite well, but Peter seems a little out of pocket. Now, if the Tories simply came out and said that they were going to increase spending to fund these drugs, that would be one thing, but given both the current situation and their rhetoric over the past 18 months, they can't. So we get this three-card trick whereby efficiency savings pay for both reduced tax reciepts and extra expenditure at the same time.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

What is "fair" anyhow?

While trying to work up some enthusiasm for the budget, I made the mistake of looking at the Mail. Inevitably, I learned that those most at risk from today's announcements were the middle class. But I learned something else as well:

If we stretched ourselves to buy a house near a good school, we were called pushy. So, to punish us for being caring parents, they introduced a lottery for school places so all would be equal. That's equally stupid.

That's right - I learned that the purpose letting poor children go to good schools is to punish rich parents who love their kids. After all, what other reason could there possibly be?