Wednesday 23 December 2009

Christ you're bored

If you've come here looking for entertainment over the festive season, you must be having a really shitty Christmas. So you might appreciate this:

and you'll definitely appreciate this:

Friday 18 December 2009

Class War II: XFactor Boogaloo

Once upon a time, the middle class screwed over the working class with a bit of panache. Corn Laws, child labour in t'mill, trench warfare, "the service economy" - it all had a certain zip and sting. Nowadays, we persecute the lower-orders in ways that make up in lazy contempt what they lack in aggression. Specifically, we're getting in a pissing match over the Christmas No. 1.

In the red corner, people buying music they actually like. In the blue corner, people buying music to piss on the chips of the people in the red corner. And RATM's newfound fans are signing up to the facebook group in droves, let's not forget, as part of a protest about songs being sold on the merits of marketing campaigns rather than musicality. Sweet suffering Christ, have we no decency?

I mean seriously, buying a song whose sole attribute is the refrain "Fuck you I won't do what you tell me" just because you were told to on Facebook? This is the counterculture now?

Monday 7 December 2009

Class War, Huh, What Is It Good For?

Good God y'all.

Looks like the battlelines are being drawn. If you're not sure which side of the barricades you belong on, a short fill-in-the-blanks quiz based on the latest Mel Philips piece should help you decide. Simply replace the blank with one of the following: A - Working; B - Upper; C - Middle:

It is the ________ class whose children are discriminated against by the rigging of university admissions against candidates from high-achieving schools.

It is _______-class aspirations for their children which have been attacked by the war of attrition waged against grammar and independent schools.

It is the _______ class whose ethic of professionalism - whether in medicine, education, the law or other disciplines - has been under sustained attack by government interference in order to snuff out the independence of mind and spirit which is one of the principal sources of ________-class robustness.

How you scored:
Mostly As - don't take the piss.

Mostly Bs - well done, comrade. You gut the last banker, I'll hang the last Master of Fox Hounds.

Mostly Cs - Bad luck. If you can't already smoke a cigarette blindfold, I'd start getting some practice in.

That anyone, even Melanie Philips, can suggest with a straight face that doctors and lawyers who can afford either to pay the fees for or live in the cachement area of a high performing school are somehow "middle" class is a joke. Here's the bottom-line: if your personal income is over £50K, you are not only one of the top 10% of earners in the UK, but you are quite comfortably one of the richest tenth of one percent of people who have ever been born.* Anywhere, ever. If your response to being in this situation is to get resentful that people worse off than you are getting government support for e.g. childcare while you miss out on tax-breaks on your second home, then you are whining in a rather unattractive fashion. If you think that you or your financial situation are in any way a priority for government, you're either phenomenally ignorant about your good fortune, or you're pathetic. Good news! You're well-off, and you're going to stay well-off. Even if you have put your child into a state school, or only pay half the deposit on his first home, you're still going to be sitting pretty damn pretty. So don't keep sticking your hand out.

The language of priorities isn't just for politicians. All of us need to start wondering whether "policies that will see me right" are really the same as the policies needed to help the country.

*Probably. Don't be fooled into thinking I'm making that statement on the basis of rigorous economic and demographic analysis.

Thursday 3 December 2009

"I just want to hear the son of a bitch deny it"

As has been well-publicised just now, the HSE website includes a section on Health and Safety myths, debunking various outrageous anecdotes - including, by happy chance, those used by Cameron in yesterday's speech. A certain juvenile type of mind would find that terribly amusing, but the fact that this site is clearly struggling to make headway is symptomatic of the way we process information. Basically, we can't handle negatives.

A couple of years ago, the US's Center for Disease Control issued a leaflet which listed various "common knowledge" facts about the vaccine and labelled them as "True" or "False". Can't get much clearer than that, right?

When University of Michigan social psychologist Norbert Schwarz had volunteers read the CDC flier, however, he found that within 30 minutes, older people misremembered 28 percent of the false statements as true. Three days later, they remembered 40 percent of the myths as factual.

Younger people did better at first, but three days later they made as many errors as older people did after 30 minutes. Most troubling was that people of all ages now felt that the source of their false beliefs was the respected CDC.

These findings have been replicated in various other experiments: we just don't seem to attach negative markers to memories. You may have experienced this yourself: telling someone a story about how you e.g. went out and thought you'd left the iron on (but hadn't), and finding out later that they no longer trust you around home appliances because they remember the story but haven't filed it under "fiction". Or, for a more fun version, start introducing your friends to people they fancy with the words, "This is Geoff, who's never had chlamydia."*

The implications for this are fairly massive. For one, it goes some way to explaining why the HSE can't get a break. More seriously, it shows how easy it is to spread falsehoods even when you're trying to fight them. The more you talk about, for example, how MMR doesn't cause autism, and there are no good studies that link MMR to autism, and that studies that do link MMR to autism are flawed then the more you're linking MMR to autism in people's minds. Denying false allegations is such a natural response as to be almost reflex, but if that's all you do then you're just going cement the falsehood in some people's minds.

Instead, if you've got a point to make, make that point. Don't say "MMR doesn't cause autism," say, "MMR is safe". Instead of "Immigrants don't steal your job" try "Immigration makes us better off". As LBJ pointed out, there's no weaker position to be in than denying something that's not true.

*NB, this works better if your friend is actually called Geoff.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Placebo politics

With the emergency budget safely pencilled in for after the election, there's clearly no need for the Tories to discuss economic policy any more. Moving down the list of key priorities, the next giant to slay is, naturally enough, Health and Safety legislation. Cameron's speech comes as a timely reminder of how tired we all are of a government that's obsessed with cheap, populist initiatives rather than addressing the big issues facing Britain today.

And they don't come much bigger than this: bureaucracy is killing the village fete. I'm going to repeat that so the full horror can sink in: bureaucracy is killing the village fete. Or in other words, the people in charge of organising village fetes are such gullible, lazy, pigshit-thick inbreds that not only do they believe they'll have to fill in reams of forms to get a tombola permit, but they are so scared by the prospect of reading, understanding and completing said mythical forms that, like the selfish bastards they are, they'd rather see the whole village go without the much-anticipated, long-remembered once-a-year thrill of winning a bottle of Tizer at a coconut shy than crease their illiterate brows in thought, or sweat over a row of tick-boxes.

It hasn't occured to them that the popular conception of Health & Safety as bureacracy's war on common sense is outrage porn peddled by right-wing tabloids who are still institutionally aghast at the Factory Act. It might have occured to Cameron, but if it has he's doing his best to hide it. For example, if you're going to kick off your speech with dramatic anecdotes about kids being forced to wear goggles to play conkers, you could have the decency to point out that this nonsense has been debunked by the HSE:

This is one of the oldest chestnuts around, a truly classic myth. A well-meaning head teacher decided children should wear safety goggles to play conkers. Subsequently some schools appear to have banned conkers on ‘health & safety’ grounds or made children wear goggles, or even padded gloves!

Realistically the risk from playing conkers is incredibly low and just not worth bothering about. If kids deliberately hit each other over the head with conkers, that’s a discipline issue, not health and safety.

Cameron does, eventually, admit that the problem lies not with the HSE, but with employers and councils who are a) wilfully ignorant of the regulations and b) terrified of being sued. In fact, he's even prepared to admit that maybe we're all a bit to blame for being so keen to sue over accidents. But that doesn't mean he won't blame the HSE, or commission a report on how quickly workplace safety regulations can be overturned. As Boots recently admitted in a different context, just because what you're selling doesn't work doesn't mean people won't queue up to buy it.

Monday 23 November 2009

Not as exciting as I first thought

Probably for the best, but the headline: "Hunt for Scottish sharks officer" refers to a recruitment drive, and not a tragically ironic tale of a man feared to have made the ultimate sacrifice in his quest to protect an endangered but lethal species.

Similarly, "Shuttle astronaut becomes father in space" isn't quite as groundbreaking as you might have expected. It's almost like they're doing it deliberately.

Friday 13 November 2009

Tom Swifties

By way of light relief (and because Tom Freeman seems to have the franchise for Uxbridge English Dictionary):

"I'm off angling," said Tom acutely

"I'm going to swim to the Isle of Wight," said Tom insolently

"Sergeant, take the prisoner downstairs", said Tom condescendingly

"I'm determined to air-cool this small biting insect," said Tom fanatically

"Sorry, but I've got to let you go," said Tom discerningly

...and, by way of variation:

"But I don't want to eat whale meat," Tom blubbered.

Thursday 12 November 2009

Winds of change

As a follow up to the below, I've come across a more directly applicable study on people's susceptibility to be swayed by the "local" majority. This study from the LSE shows what happens if you feed people slanted news on an issue (in this case, the EU). Astonishingly enough, being presented with consistently biased information does change the way you think about an issue. But it does it gradually:

Michael Bruter, a senior lecturer in European politics at the school, fed a steady diet of slanted newsletters about Europe and the European Union — either all good news or all bad — to 1,200 citizens of six countries over two years.

Over time, Bruter found, and without exception, the readers subconsciously adopted the bias to varying degrees and changed their view of the EU and of themselves as Europeans, a few of them in the extreme. Surprisingly, they didn't register any change right after the newsletters stopped — not until full six months later, when they had obviously let down their guard.

This, then, is why it matters that, (e.g.) the Sun is supporting the Tories. Not because it can order its readers to vote accordingly, but because it can decide the story it wants to tell them. Then they'll make up their own minds accordingly. But of course, this has to be a somewhat subtle process. Step over the line between impartial judgement and naked character assassination, and people quickly start to question the quality of the information your feeding them. And in the present case, it seems the Sun has made people think better of Gordon Brown, which is no mean feat nowadays. But only, I suspect, as far as that one story goes. In one month's time, this incident will be firmly in the past but the one-sided narrative, and its effect on voters, will remain. The best way to destroy reputations is erosion, not demolition.

Friday 30 October 2009

Deeply polarised debates

Because human beings are basically awesome, we're now able to build models of how political opinions take hold in a society by applying what we know about how ferrous metals become magnetised. How cool is that?

It works like this: you create a virtual society made of agents who have one bipolar attribute: they're either going to vote Blue or Red. Then you give them two means of making a decision: either external (mimicing political campaigning) or internal (driven from each agent's interactions with other agents). Then you use the external influence to set some initial conditions (say, 55/45 in favour of Blue) and then observe how your internal mechanisms affect the final outcome.

In the basic model, each agent is influenced by a local majority, so that they tend to vote for the same party as the agents they interact with. (This, of course, uses the techniques invented to understand magnetisation.) The basic model, however, is banal. As you can imagine, the initial majority usually stays the winner.

What's interesting is when you throw two new types of agents into the mix: "contrarians" (who vote against the local majority) and "inflexibles" (who never change their mind). These agents are hugely and disproportionately influential. For example, if you have more than about 1 in 6 contrarians, you end up with a 50/50 split. Similarly, if your inflexibles only vote Red, you only need that 1 in 6 to gain a Red majority as the vacillating Blues adapt their position by trying to meet them half way.

This is of course only a model. But I think you can see some current debates where a minority's utter unwillingness to compromise has given their position more influence that it might deserve, e.g: teaching creationism in schools; that immigration is basically a problem; that global warning is some kind of elaborate scam; that fruit and nut chocolate is anything other than an abhorrent mockery of all that is good and pure in this world. None of these positions has won influence on its merits: instead they've won favour because a) their proponents refuse to compromise and b) their opponents don't.

So contrary to what JS Mill/your better instincts/your parents might have told you, the way to win an argument is not to reason sweetly with your opponent, take their opinions on board, or otherwise engage with them. That only works if they're playing the same game. If not, you just have to stamp your feet harder, and yell louder, than they do.

Monday 26 October 2009

Lessons of history

From yet another article about the BNP:

This has led to concerns that Griffin has become too powerful. Several senior BNP members quit after he overhauled the constitution to make his position as leader practically unassailable.

Clearly, there are times when you can take emulation of Hitler too far.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Why not to bother watching Question Time tomorrow (or any other time, come to that)

Matthew Taylor shows why having the BNP on Question Time is pointless, when he explains his concept of the "transcendent moment in debate". Essentially, it's the point where all parties (finally) see what the debate is actually about - the fundamental difference between the sides. He quotes this example:

During the proceeding of the US Federal Panel on the use of human tissue in research he [Professor Michael Sandel] had asked an opponent of stem cell research whether he saw any fundamental distinction between using stem cells from a five day old embryo and taking the organs from a five year old child. The opponent had pondered and to his credit had said ‘no’. At this point, many undecided people on the panel had felt they had got to the heart of the difference between the two sides. It didn’t tell them what to believe, but it got them to see the basis for each side’s argument.

This is exactly what won't happen on Thursday night, or in any debate with the BNP. Griffin would rather French-kiss Trevor Phillips than publicly admit that his party's core political aim is a white-only Britain. And, indeed, has said so.

There’s a difference between selling out your ideas and selling your ideas. The British National Party isn’t about selling out its ideas — which are your [the KKK] ideas too — but we are determined now to sell them. That means to use saleable words.'...[selling our ideas] basically means using saleable words… free­dom, security, identity, democracy. Nobody can criticise them. Nobody can come at you and attack you on those ideas. They are saleable...If you hold that [fascist policy] out as your sole aim to start with, you’re going to get nowhere. So, instead of talking about racial purity we talk about identity.”

So, whatever happens on Thursday night, we're not going to see the BNP's policies laid bare. Instead, Griffin will mouth off about "our boys", "the working class", "terrorism", "jobs" and "Westminster insiders" in a manner so vague and platitudinous that he'll be more or less indistinguishable from the average Question Time panellist. Which makes the whole event something of a pointless circus.

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Moronic Questions To Which The Answer Should Be Bloody Obvious

From the Mail:

Miracle or hoax? Russians puzzled as phrases from the Koran start appearing 'spontaneously' on baby's skin

You've worked out the answer just by reading the full headline. The Mail bothers to go into detail, but still fails to reach the obvious (or any) conclusion.

The one part of this story I do believe is this quote from the mother:

'Ali always feels bad when it is happening. He cries and his temperature goes up. It's impossible to hold him when it's happening, his body is actively moving, so we put him into his cradle. It's so hard to watch him suffering.'

I'm sure it is harrowing to watch your child writhe in pain. If only - if only! - there were some way she could stop her child being tortured twice a week. Should prayer fail, she might like to at least try not to (let people) rub chilli into her baby's skin. I'm no medic, nor theologian, but I suspect that might help.

This story is not about events beyond our understanding. It is not a challenge to our modern understanding of the world. It's the story of a baby being regularly abused by delusional obsessives and/or manipulative bastards for the sake of attention and status. But the Mail, which is normally so quick to demand that someone think of the children, won't just come out and say so. I can think of a number of possible reasons for this: it might be because unthinking respect for "faith" makes it unpalatable to suggest that the devout may be stupid or criminal; it might be that in the Mail's hierarchy of values "ooh, that's weird" trumps "save the baby!"; it might be because it's happening a long way away to someone very different from the editorial staff or readership and therefore counts as intriguingly exotic rather than meaningful. So, in the spirit of this post's title, let me ask a MQTWTASBBO of my own: The Daily Mail: Pandering, Ignorant or Prejudiced?

Thursday 15 October 2009


Tom Freeman has a couple of good posts about the arbitrary and unfounded nature of the retrospective limits being imposed on MPs expense claims. But I think there's an interesting exception to one of his conclusions, specifically that:

If politicians see the public and the media angrily demanding severe punishment for such a group, then they will do whatever it takes to make those people suffer.

As he points out, it's difficult to argue the applicability of this rule to asylum seekers. But there is a group who seem to skate. They've profited at direct cost to the taxpayer for actions that, although legal, were unquestionably ill-judged and arguably immoral. In their defence, they can only say that, "everybody else was doing it" and, "it wasn't against the rules". The public and the media have indeed angrily demanded severe punishment for them. But every time this has been discussed, both parties have reluctantly declined to make the finance industry suffer: we've had promises to "look in to" bonuses which are "unreasonable"; the statesman-like decision not to impose windfall taxes on bonuses has reluctantly been taken; radical reforms such as Tobin taxes have been carefully reviewed, then shelved.

All of these decisions may well have been the right ones - that is to say, proportionate, just, and unswayed by popular sentiment. It's simply curious that the political gravity which now demands that MPs pay back excessive gardening bills doesn't pull so strongly when the potential scapegoats are the high-flyers of the financial industry. There's a certain logic to this from opposition: if he'd spent time calling for penalties on bankers, how could Cameron appear at conference and say that "too much government" is to blame for the financial crisis? But from the government's perspective, there's just as much naked political value to be had from keeping the public's attention focused on the bankers' role in getting us all here. Instead, all discussion of that seems to be off the table. Even as Lloyds is calling for another £5bn from the government as part of a scheme to avoid paying for toxic asset insurance delivered by that same government.

There's obviously some downside to calling for the heads of bankers, in a way that there isn't for venal MPs. But what?

Tuesday 29 September 2009

Convicted Criminal To Be Sentenced Shocker

The world was plunged into shock and confusion yesterday, when a man who had pled guilty to a crime was told he would face sentencing. The move quickly proved controversial:

"He may have committed a crime, but isn't he the real victim here?" asked one total moron. "You have to look at the mitigating circumstances - he's rich, he's famous, his friends are rich and famous, he's an artist, the people arresting him are American... should such a man really be punished?"

Others say he's already suffered enough: "Since fleeing the US after pleading guilty to the assaulting a thirteen year-old, he's been forced to have a successful career, live in the South of France and miss the occasional award ceremony. More than that, some lowbrow oafs still think of him as a rapist, and not a visionary artiste. What more atonement can you ask of a man?" protested some utter clown.

What ever the rights and wrongs of sentencing this particular convicted criminal, there can be no doubt that the whole issue raises some troubling questions about our justice system. Should we sentence convicted rapists? Is it better, after they've done a runner to avoid a hefty jail sentence, to just let them be? What sort of signal does it send to society if we persist in having judges pass sentence on people who merely happen to be convicted criminals? These are complex and difficult moral questions - the one point on which we can be sure is that there are no easy answers.

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Don't matter how many times you get burnt, you just keep doin' the same.

Chris Grayling has taken a certain amount of flack for comparing "broken" Britain to Official Best Ever TV Show "The Wire". This is a mistake. I don't mean that it wasn't a mind-numbingly stupid comparison to make - clearly it was. Whether you focus on the massive disparity between crime rates in Baltimore and Manchester, or the deep unwisdom of using as political ammunition a show which dwells heavily and negatively on opportunistic politicians who'll say anything to get elected, it was a bloody silly thing to say.

But focusing on this superficial stupidity runs the risk of ignoring the much greater, and more dangerous, fundamental stupidity that lurks deep within Grayling's full speech. I say stupidity: I'm tempted to add "and lies". But it's possibly just a cock-up.

Ostensibly, this speech was prompted by an eye-opening evening spent with a special police unit in Manchester. After Grayling's breathless anecdote about what life's really like on the mean streets, he starts tying his own in-depth experience to the grim reality, as revealed by statistics:
Since Labour came to power, the level of violent crime in Britain has risen dramatically, by 70 per cent.

This is, as far I can tell, complete bollocks. Crime figures, happily, are released in July - here is the trend in violent crime:

Those of you not trained in statistics may not see it immediately, but the important point to note is that while Grayling said the figures were going up, they are in fact doing something statisticians refer to as "going down". They have been doing so since just before Labour came into power. They are now at their lowest level since 1981. Grayling could hardly have been more wrong. But hey, "duking the stats" must be one of those trends that comes over the Atlantic too.

In case you're wondering, that's not the really stupid bit. Because, armed with his anecdotes and his tendentious statistics, Grayling goes on to make the following observations:

"We have delved deep into the small print of the official figures on crime and social deprivation - and the picture that emerges is stark...Nationally every single one of the areas that rank at the top of the list for deprivation is in the top ten percent for crime...Because it is the social breakdown in our most deprived communities that creates the environment in which crime can flourish, in which disillusioned young people turn to a gang culture, in which violence just becomes a norm. "

Let the word go forth from this time and place: in August 2009, the Conservatives finally realised there was a link between deprivation and crime. I know, I know. I didn't think it would ever happen either. But surprised as Grayling clearly is by this unprecedented finding, and as tragic as it must seem to him that no-one had ever before thought to "delve into the small print of the official figures" to wrest this nugget of wisdom from the murk, he isn't letting it put him off his game. Here he stands, appalled by the uncanny similarities between modern Britain and a headline-bait TV program, gripped by an insight that revolutionises our understanding of criminology, fired up with the need to change this cycle of neglect - what revolutionary answers does he offer us?
  1. Bribing couples to get married;
  2. Locking up more teenagers and/or teaching them to kayak;
  3. Getting people off benefits into jobs that don't exist, using American policies shown not to work.

Just so we're all clear, this is the actual policy of the people who will be in power this time next year. So while the idiotic comparison to The Wire is worth a little pointing and laughing, the real message of this speech is a lot less amusing. This is the same approach the Tories had last time they were in power - if you're wondering how it worked out, the graph above should offer a hint.

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Plus ca change

Seeing as the world and his wife covered the Stephen Hawking blooper, I'm shooting for something that falls on the other side of the good/original dichotomy. Specifically, contrived historical parallels.

Here we have a modern account of life among the private security contractors of the Green Zone:

Along with having young men armed to the teeth, most of their outfits have bars ... A couple of years ago at one of the compounds inside the British embassy, around 50 young guys got into a fist fight. They were young and obnoxious, many were on steroids and there they were with guns and beer, which should never mix ... Another time, I was in one of the compounds celebrating a birthday for one of the lads and it was obvious all night that something was going to kick off. There were the tight T-shirts, the Americans, the Brits and the attitude. Sure enough, a brawl erupted.

And here we have Dumas' description of the Musketeers and their ethos*:

Loose, half-drunk, imposing, the king’s Musketeers, or rather M. de Tréville’s, spread themselves about in the cabarets, in the public walks, and the public sports, shouting, twisting their mustaches, clanking their swords, and taking great pleasure in annoying the Guards of the cardinal whenever they could fall in with them; then drawing in the open streets, as if it were the best of all possible sports; sometimes killed, but sure in that case to be both wept and avenged; often killing others, but then certain of not rotting in prison...

Assuming for the moment that this parallel has any merit, should we conclude that:

a) we're all a lot more susceptible to the influence of our surrounding than we like to think and that given the right circumstances any of us could degenerate into a hard-drinking street-brawler, or
b) there's always going to be a group of nasty bastards who are attracted to situations that offer them weapons, booze, an arbitrary tribe, regular opportunities for mayhem and a distinct lack of oversight, and that dealing with these apes is just one of those perennial problems any society worth the name has to cope with?

And if it is b) is there some way we can continue the plan of corraling them into a secure compound equipped with numerous and well-stocked bars and arsensals and just letting them have at it - but without involving the locals?

*Ethos was of course the "Fifth Musketeer", but his career never recovered from being cut out of the final draft.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

We'd probably have killed Douglas Bader too

As the US lurches towards some form of national health-care provision, there are many among its more intelligent and perceptive citizens who worry about the possible ramifications of having the government involved in medical decisions. Sarah Palin, for example, has already spoken out against the "death panel" model of universal healthcare, which had hitherto enjoyed widespread support.

But perhaps the clearest argument against government involvement comes from this piece in the Investors Business Daily which looks to some rather worrying implications of the UK model:

The U.K.'s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) basically figures out who deserves treatment by using a cost-utility analysis based on the "quality adjusted life year." ...
People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.

Although, to be fair, it's not like his accent gives him away.

Wednesday 5 August 2009

People - what use could they possibly be?

The new proposals on citizenship have kicked off the usual well-informed and dispassionate debate about immigration and integration. Perhaps the bizarrest response was Frank Field's, in which he seemed to assert that the UK has all the people it's going to need for the next 25 years, so we can stop letting any more in now:

It is the growth in population that is the major challenge.
The UK population will, on the government's own estimates, grow to more than 70 million in less than a quarter of a century. Seventy per cent of this growth will be due to migration. This increase of 7 million is equivalent to the building of seven new Birminghams

Now, I admit, at first glance that sounds pretty bad. Seven new Birminghams? Isn't that over-egging the pudding just a little? But consider this - these new Birminghams will be populated by people who are not Brummies. Given our apparent concern over citizens who don't speak English properly, these new-fangled Birminghams already represent clear progress.

Impenetrable accent aside, just what does Frank hold against Birmingham? What's so horrifying about the prospect of more of them? It's a large, thriving city, the third best place in the UK to start a business, the fourth-most visited city by foreign visitors and, apparently, the 55th best city to live in in the world. (He said, carefully maintaining his poker face.)

Throughout his article, Frank proceeds from the assumption that, somehow or other, if we let in too many people, Britain will be imperilled and/or impoverished. Or something. He doesn't present any justification for thinking this, nor does he spell out exactly what these negative consequences are. He just takes it as read that the last thing Britain can afford is any kind of population growth - particularly if it's driven by immigration. Now, for all I know, this may be true. But it may equally be unfounded, knee-jerk parochialism. Without more of an argument, it's difficult to tell.

One of his underlying arguments might be (and I'm guessing here) that too rapid population growth will stretch our resources, and effectively impoverish us all. After all, if population growth outstrips the performance of the economy, we can only end up worse off. Happily, Frank has given us some figures to help us work out how likely this is. The UK population is currently 61 million. In "less than quarter of a century" it will be "over 70 million." Assuming that "less than quarter of a century" means "24 years" and that "over 70 million" means "71 million", this handy Compound Annual Growth Calculator tells us that under this nightmare scenario, the UK population is going to grow by - brace yourselves - 0.63% a year.

I know, I know! An unnerving prospect that ought to strike panic into the heart of every man, woman and child across this fair land. But stiffen that upper-lip for a second like the true-bred Brit you are, or aspire to be, and consider what this implies for Frank Field's argument. He genuinely believes that over the next 25 years, Britain's GDP will be virtually stagnant; that this apparent economic underperformance will in no way affect the number of people who wish to come to live in this country; that GDP will grow faster with a static population than a rising one; that new citizens can only be a net drain on GDP. Either that, or he's not really thought about what he's saying.

Monday 27 July 2009

Slow going

It's been pretty slow here, I'm afraid. There are two basic, and possibly related reasons for this. The first is that as a new dad I find spending time with a drooling, incoherent poo-machine is both a higher priority and more fun than blogging*. The second is that there's not much going on in politics that seems worth talking about. Or rather, what people are talking about doesn't seem worth it.

Oh, there are big issues at stake. Huge issues. But (for example) the whole painful issue of the economy, the pace of recovery, bank supervision and the tackling of government debt seems to boil down to the Tories saying "we'll make big cuts, but don't worry, not in anything lovely" and Labour saying "Tory cuts, Tory cuts, fear them, fear them". Whoop-de-do. What am I meant to do with that? What's anyone supposed to do?

Well, the obvious answer is that they're meant to either run fleeing from the Tories crudely-wielded axe or cast a last, scornful glare over their shoulder at Brown as they side with the men on a mission. Stretching my optimism to breaking point, I'm kind of hoping that's not what's happening. Ignoring the many, many confounding factors for a fallacious minute, Labour's vote loss in Norwich North showed that simply shouting about cuts isn't enough to get out their vote. Meanwhile, the Tories limited gain in vote share suggests that they aren't firmly established as the natural party of government just yet.

The big question about the next election isn't "Who?" it's "How much?" Thinking back to the 1997 landslide, we had a nation fed up with a discredited, sleaze-bespattered government. So far, so tediously obvious historic parallel. We also had a reformed opposition led by a charismatic, media-savvy reformer. But I think that parallel is tenuous: New Labour had publicly fought some fairly major internal battles in a way that Cameron has not; more importantly there were some fairly clearly articulated policies as well. The "5 pledges" card may have been a gimmick - but what would today's Tory version look like?

The Conservatives' ability to articulate what they're actually going to do in government is going to make the difference between a victory and landslide. Similarly, Labour's ability to properly criticise the Tories will make the difference between a loss and a pasting. More importantly, either of these approaches will make the prospect of following the news something other than aggravatingly depressing.

*See? There's a perfectly good "drooling, incoherent poo machine"/bloggertarian/the other one's a baby gag there, but I just can't be arsed.

Monday 13 July 2009

Out of the mouth of babes

The financial district is (apparently) abuzz over a new report by Morgan Stanley Research into teens' online and media habits. The penetrating insights in this short document have rocked the world of media/business analysis to its very core:

[The] report was “one of the clearest and most thought-provoking insights we have seen — so we published it,” Edward Hill-Wood, executive director of Morgan Stanley’s European media team, was quoted as saying in articles in The Guardian and The Financial Times.
He wasn’t alone in thinking so: Mr. Hill-Wood said the research note generated five to six times the amount of interest of the team’s average note, with dozens of fund managers and a few chief executives requesting a copy.

So who is the genius behind this meisterwerk? Which freethinker shook off the hidebound shackles of recieved wisdom to deliver the definitive guide to teens' media preferences? Step forward Matthew Robson, a summer intern aged 15!, to give us the inside dope. So what were the big insights that had, until now, eluded the finest minds of the City? Brace yourselves:

Most teenagers watch television, but usually there are points in the year where they watch more than average. This is due to programs coming on in seasons, so they will watch a particular show at a certain time for a number of weeks (as long as it lasts) but then they may watch no television for weeks after the program has ended.

Teenagers listen to a lot of music, mostly whilst doing something else (like travelling or using a computer). This makes it hard to get an idea of the proportion of their time that is spent listening to music.

On the other hand, teenagers do not use twitter. Most have signed up to the service, but then just leave it as they release that they are not going to update it (mostly because texting twitter uses up credit, and they would rather text friends with that credit). In addition, they realise that no one is viewing their profile, so their ‘tweets’ are pointless.

Many teenagers use YouTube to watch videos...

How teenagers play their music while on the go varies, and usually dependent on wealth –with teenagers from higher income families using iPods and those from lower income families using mobile phones. Some teenagers use both to listen to music, and there are always exceptions to the rule.

I'm prepared to believe that this story is a trifle overhyped, and in particular that the CEOs of major media conglomerates are not, in fact, falling over themselves for a copy. But Morgan Stanley did see fit to publish this, and to publicly state that they've rarely seen clearer or more thought-provoking insight. If this is true - if they were genuinely taken aback to find that teens watch TV when the shows they want to watch are on, but don't when they aren't - then whoever is paying their salaries needs to seriously rethink their value to the company.

Friday 10 July 2009

What you won't read in the Times

Once again, the gaping moral void at the heart of Britain's democratic institutions has been laid bare. Our self-appointed moral guardians have, yet again, been caught out breaking the rules for their own profit. Despite all their fine words and lofty claims to serve the public, they have, blinded by greed, forsaken their moral responsibilities in pursuit of naked self-interest.

We all know how this story unfolds: the progressive drip-feeding of relevations, the shift from thin-lipped denial to red-faced excuse, the scapegoats, the forced apologies, the promises to reform and self-regulate. How long before we hear the same sad chorus again: "the problem was the system", "I believed it to be within the rules", "the proper authorities approved it so I felt it must be alright", "it was part of the culture"? How long before we see junior or unpopular figures publicly fired while the charmed inner circle merely apologises?

Now, more than ever, such false contrition will not be nearly good enough. A scandal such as this demands the resignation of senior leadership figures, if only to demonstrate that lessons have been learned. Moreover, the era of self-regulation must surely be over. The time has come for root-and-branch reform of an outdated system; the era of the gentleman's club is over. Our democratic process demands a new, independent and effective watchdog which can exert genuine control over those who would abuse their power.

Monday 6 July 2009

One of the finest minds of his generation

It's been quiet here, I'm afraid - partly because I've been on holiday, partly because I don't care about Michael Jackson. By way of dipping my toe back in the water, here is AC Grayling demonstrating the importance of being prepared to admit that your initial assumptions may be faulty:

"I recently retraced on foot a famous journey that William Hazlitt made from Shropshire to Somerset to visit Wordsworth and Coleridge. I spent two weeks slogging through nettle beds before I realised the bastard had taken the coach."

Thursday 18 June 2009

Paramilitary group threatens to blow up exclusive golf resort

Tom at Freemania can rest easy. We are well on the way to neutralising the threat of rogue planets. Ostensibly, NASA's mission to bomb the fricking moon is merely an experiment to detect the presence of water. But it's fairly evident that it's really the first tentative step in developing our very own Death Star.

And to think there are people who question the wisdom of funding space research. Yes, yes. We could spend the money on curing dread diseases, or feeding the starving. But isn't it better to know that we're bringing shock and awe down on the Eloi?

Tuesday 16 June 2009

The secrets of a healthy marriage

A story that combined cancer with "gender issues" was only ever going to provoke the tabloids to new heights; thus the response to the news that men are 40% more likely to die of cancer. While the Mail went for a fairly straight-forward "NHS panders to women while leaving men to die in a corner" line, the Mirror kicked back, put "Wives And Lovers" on the old iPod and advised it's female readers to Cancer-proof your man.

As in insight into how far marriage has come as institution, it's eye-opening. First, the underlying premise - it's the woman's job to keep her man healthy. Sure, men live less healthy lives and are more reluctant to visit the doctor, but isn't really down to their wives to protect them from their stupid, grunting ways?

Secondly, it's soon clear that women (perhaps not being cut out to win rational arguments) have to resort to more delicate means to influence their husbands:

And if all else fails, refuse to kiss him if his mouth isn't clean and minty fresh…
Make your man feel guilty about the fact passive smoking increases your risk too…
And give him an incentive - stash away the money he's saving by not smoking. If he's a 20-a-day man, that's £170 a month - plenty for a naughty night away in a posh hotel…
Instead of arguing about skimmed milk, just fill the full-fat bottles with the skinny equivalent - he'll never know…

So: emotional blackmail, giving sex as reward, withholding sex as punishment, lying. These are the tools by which the modern women makes her views known to her man. Haven't we come a long, long way indeed?

Thursday 11 June 2009

Mainstream or Extreme?

Over at Liberal Conspiracy, Unity has a crack at analysing the role of the media in fuelling support for the BNP. It's a typically painstaking attempt at getting to grips with a complex and nebulous problem.

I'm lazier. So here's a quick quiz. Using your skill and judgement, guess the source of the following headlines. The BNP website, or the Daily Mail?

  • The Curse of Cannabis Reaches Over Britain
  • Now EU Demands Total Control Over Britain's Immigration and Asylum Policy As Well
  • Exporting Terrorism: A New Dimension To Islamism In Britain
  • The Great White Backlash: Working Class Turns On Labour Over Immigration And Housing
  • Britons 'Lose Out On Jobs And Housing': Race Chief Inquiry Into Claims Of Bias Against Whites
  • The Great Lie: How Immigration Actually Costs Britain Money And Could Cause Huge Social Problems
  • Government Renames Islamic Terrorism As "Anti-Islamic Activity" To Woo Muslims
  • Crying "Racism" - Last Resort Of A Chancer

As a special bonus, can you spot the one Richard Littlejohn headline?

Monday 8 June 2009

Are we done yet?

For the past month or so, we've all colluded in making politics about palace intrigue rather than governing. In part, that was necessary - there was no way expenses scandals could simply be ignored - but in part it's been indulgent and narrow-minded. The Telegraph's glee in squeezing every last drop out of their windfall is one thing, but in general government, opposition and media have found it too easy to get caught up in the gossip of resignations and reshuffles rather than, for example, the nitty-gritty of industrial policy.

As a more or less direct result of politicians' and journalists' obsession with palace intrigue, the BNP now represent Britain at the European Parliament.

In some ways, Labour deserve the least blame for this. IF there is one group that has an excuse for devoting time and energy to question of whether Brown should lead the Labour party, it's the Labour party. But they do have to actually make a decision, and then stick by it. Either Brown stays and the rebels get back in line, or he goes and the new leader is given a mandate to change direction. Anything in between would be wallowing in their own effluent.

The media have been only to happy to keep talking about Westminster popularity contests. Partly because that's what their nameless briefers are talking about, and partly because, again, it's a lot easier to understand gossip about who's in and who's out or deconstruct the subtext of clothing accessories than it is to brief your viewers on the implications of economic policy. Besides, we the public lap up gossip while being easily bored by niche, technical issues like whether we'll be able to afford to bathe next year, so what's a poor editor to do?

The people who've suffered most needlessly through their relentless focus on Labour's internal strife are the Tories. Labour were portraying themselves as a shambles just fine on their own. This was the opportunity for the shadow front bench to make themselves look like a Cabinet in waiting. If they could only have wrested themselves from the spectacle of their opponents' slow-motion implosion, this was their chance to look like a serious, organised and prepared party of government. All they had to do was rise above the shoddy internal backbiting and demonstrate that not only did they know there were more serious problems facing the country, but that they had solutions to hand.

But they didn't. They settled for pointing and jeering and making sure everyone knew just how terrible Labour were. Understandable enough. But the end result was that, facing a never more unpopular government, they could barely shift their vote-share up from where it was five years ago. Mainstream voters stayed at home, having been given no alternative worth the name. And the BNP picked up two European seats - with fewer votes than they had last time.

There is, improbably, a glimmer of hope for Labour here. If they can get their act together and start talking about what they actually intend to do in government, they might start to look like people worth voting for. And if they can get people to focus on Tory policy rather than rhetoric, they might find it's a better basis for comparison than who looks good on YouTube.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

Using your power for good, not evil

My colleague Anna is taking part in a sponsored tug-of-war, for MacMillan Cancer Support*. Not something I would ordinarily bother you with, but in this case she's also thrown down a gauntlet to online sponsors :

Give me your best curry-related pop song title. Something like 'Poppadom Preach' by Madonna, or 'Rice Rice Baby' by Vanilla Ice.
The prize for the best entry(as judged by me) is pride and glory. Extra bonus points if I can't already find it online. Minimum £2 per entry, put the song title as your 'comment' when you donate.

Puns are frequently considered anti-social - here's your chance to show how they can help the community. Please share them here as well.

*Not coincidentally, our employer. Consider my interest declared.


What would have happened if we'd reached this institutional political crisis at a time when we weren't due to hold ostensibly unrelated elections? I like to think we'd have seen some definitive action by this point, and that Westminster as a whole would have got itself past the relentless drip-feeding of individual scandals, one way or another. But as it is, everyone's waiting for the other boot to drop.

Which is just silly. There's no possible result for Labour which won't lead Cameron to make a red-faced demand for an immediate general election. That speech is already written. There isn't, in fact, a hard and fast rule about the performance in rural/local elections and the general. There isn't some known vote share at which it makes sense to say, "Above this, Brown should keep his job; below it, he's got to go." In any case, the elections have become as much a referendum on all politicians as a popularity test for the parties - anyone who claims to be able to tease out the distinction between an anti-Labour vote and an general protest vote is deluded or deluding. And yet we're still hanging on, waiting for this supposed moment of clarity.

A big part of the recent scandal has been MPs' apparent inability to exercise their own judgement instead of relying on rules or official guidance. We've got the same problem here. Labour's own problems, and the damage done by expenses revelations, have been clear to everyone for the past two weeks. But nothing's been done about them, as the people involve wait for someone else to tell them how bad things are. If they can't form a judgement on that question for themselves, if they can only respond but not act, then how are they going to govern when there's no conveniently timed election to tell them how good their policies are?

Friday 22 May 2009

I've got the solution, now show me a problem

Martin Kettle's piece on political reform starts off sensibly enough, noting that the window for action is really pretty small as, after the election, the new government will find bigger fish to fry. But soon enough, we get on to electoral reform and discover once again that there is no political problem that a new voting system won't solve.

In this case, the "main advantage" of the AV system is that it will ensure MPs have a true majority of votes. Kettle doesn't actually say why this is an advantage; I'm going to guess that the idea is that it would encourage MPs to worry more about keeping all their constituents happy. This is probably true, in that MPs who rely on second or third preferences to get elected will want to maintain a minimum level of acceptability. That's why it's a bad idea.

MPs, frankly, should be prepared to make unpopular decisions. AV puts a campaigning MP in the position of persuading her 1st preference supporters that she's true to the ideals of her party, and her opponents' 1st preference supporters that she's a perfectly acceptable alternative to their party. It's a balancing act, with the concomitant risk of falling between two stools. Proponents will argue that this leads to government by consensus, which I don't doubt. But it's not a consensus based on winning the argument, just on finding an innocuous middle-ground: the consensus of the lowest common denominator.

Wednesday 20 May 2009


I've just recieved my first meme, from Tom at Freemania. Seven things I love, eh? Here goes:

1. My wife;
2. My son;
3. My self-preservation instinct;
4. Using bad jokes as a way of avoiding actually thinking;
5. Making a good pie - meat, not fruit, and from scratch;
6. The snowballing/tipping point sensation when the project you're working on starts to go right;
7. Making a good, coherent argument for things I believe in, even if I know it won't actually change anyone else's mind.

The next step is to pass this on, which will be exciting too, so let's try: Hopi, Don P, Shuggy, and Andrew at wongablog, who has also written an excellent rant about the current implosion at the heart of democracy.

Monday 18 May 2009

New proverb

The real story here is the totally awesome discovery of a fossilised whale in a kitchen counter-top. Finally, some interior decoration I can get behind. But as a bonus, the slightly breathless National Geographic narration has some hidden gems of its own:




I wasn't aware of the proverb, but I'm going to start using it. "I wasn't particularly looking forward to that conference, but actually I learned a lot - it was a real limestone counter-top in Italy for me."

Wednesday 13 May 2009

Decisions, decisions

It's a tricky time to be a Labour supporter. What with one thing and another the fire in the belly has been damped down a little, doubt is creeping in where certainty once held sway and preparatory teeth-gritting is already taking its toll on the nation's dental health. As a public service, therefore, I've prepared this handy guide for anyone (else) wondering what the hell the point of it all is. It'd probably be better done in flow-chart form, but that's the kind of presentational jiggery-pokery for which I have zero aptitude, so you'll have to cope with the Choose Your Own Adventure style instead:

1. In general, do you believe that the ideas represented by Labour are better for the country than the ideas represented by the other parties?

If Yes, go to 2. If No, vote accordingly.

2. Right now, do you believe that Labour ideas are better for the country as things stand than other parties' ideas?

If Yes, go to 3. If No, go to 5.

3. Do you believe that Labour, as currently led, can make these ideas happen?

If Yes, vote accordingly. If No, Go to 4.

4. Is there a plausible Labour leadership that you believe would make these ideas happen?

If Yes, go to 5. If No, go to 6.

5. Do you believe that the changes you want can happen in time to make a difference in the election?

If Yes, remember that it's not personal, just business. If No, go to 6.

6. Do you think parties are better placed to reinvent themselves in power than in opposition?

Vote accordingly.

(I'll admit this is a little crude, and arguably elides a distinction between the party's ideas and the party's leadership. But I think that these are broadly the questions anyone who would describe themselves as a Labour supporter needs to ask.)

The way I see it, Labour needs to choose between two basic strategies. The first says that this is a good election to lose: let the Tories do the heavy lifting for a while, and get tarnished by office; meanwhile, Labour should regroup, rebuild and rethink. Then go into the next election cleaned, polished and fired up. The second says that the job of political parties is to win power; that even if Labour aren't perfect they're better than the alternative*; that the act of winning votes will, at this point, necessarily mean doing a fair chunk of reinvention, one way or the other; thus this election, like all elections, is a good election to win.

Tempting though the first strategy is, hoping for your time in the wilderness is rank defeatism; if you can't handle both being in power and doing serious thinking about your ideals, aims and strategies, you don't belong in politics.

* If you don't believe this then, however temporarily, you have ceased to be a Labour supporter.

Monday 11 May 2009

Gut vs Head, Round 2

Gut, Head, Head, Gut. We make almost all our decisions instinctively, or if you prefer, unthinkingly. We're disproportionately influenced by what we can easily remember, or what makes a big impression. Once we start telling ourselves a certain story about something, we only see what fits that story. Things that happen to us, once, matter more than things that happen to thousands of strangers, all the time. We put our faith in authority figures rather than question every single thing we hear*. We evaluate ideas we already agree with using different parts of our brains than we use for ideas we don't like. We flinch from unlikely, dramatic risks and run headlong into more likely, everyday risks. We over-estimate how much we know and how good we are at applying it. We are, collectively, a lot dumber than we like to think.

But hey, it's got us this far. So don't worry about it - you and your rag-tag collection of cognitive biases are going to do just fine. The problem is for people who want to persuade us to do things, and in this specific instance, people who want us to vote Labour at some point in the next year. These are the issues:
  1. We're bored with Labour in any case;
  2. The dominant story we filter politics through now is: Labour are an incompetent bunch of petty swindlers;
  3. The authority figures are against Labour/Labour has lost authority;
  4. The Conservatives look good.

These are basically Gut issues, and any hope Labour have of getting elected rests on tackling them head on. This, frankly, is not going to be easy. Take, to pick an issue at random, the economy. Back in the day this was a strength, and so the fact that people were beginning to wonder if Labour hadn't had long enough in charge wasn't an issue. Now both the poor performance of the economy and the suddenly impoverished government finances are, with less and more justice respectively, laid at Labour's door. Not only newspapers, but also impartial figures such as the Governor of the Bank of England and respected international bodies, have said that Labour got it wrong. The recession has not only caused people to doubt Labour's competence, but that doubt has become a good reason not to vote for them. (I never said Gut was stupid - not trusting the guy who led you into a swamp to lead you out again is a pretty good rule of thumb.) Finally, the Tories have made hay with the economy, particularly in using it to attack Brown's reputation - the source of his authority.

So what to do? Fixing the economy would be a good start; by the time an election comes around, we're predicted to be out of the recession. But hoping for a break won't be enough. If people are bored, give them a reason to be excited. Lay out what Labour will do with the economy. Start by stating the problem clearly. Don't weasel out of responsibility. Take it. But having established where we are, start talking about where we want to go. Talk about priorities. Who is Labour going to be worrying about in government? What's the plan for looking after them? Rather than say, "We're going to have to make tough decisions," why not make them, defend them and stick to them? Coming up with a sound plan for the economy, explaining it to people and demonstrating why it will work and why it needs to be done will go a long way to demonstrating some competence, rebuilding some authority, showing some principles and giving people a reason to support you.

This is the basis for attacking the Tories. Labour actually had one good day last week. PMQs went surprisingly well precisely because Cameron overstepped the mark and went after Brown personally rather than focussing on the issues. If Brown would claim to be a "Head" politician, Cameron is unquestionably a "Gut" one. Which gets him quite a long way. "Didn't fix the roof while the sun was shining", "Labour's Decade of Debt", constant calls for an apology from Brown: it makes an impression on people, and gives them powerful images to recall whenever they think of Labour and the economy. But I would argue that there's still an awareness that the Conservatives haven't actually set their own stall out yet, and that people want a bit more. Head actually has quite a strong appeal to Gut - we might not want to do the heavy thinking, but we're impressed by people who do (or look like they do.) If you've just led your followers into a swamp, pointing out that your rival's cunning plan to cut off everyone's feet won't really help is a perfectly valid argument.

I'm not pretending any of this is easy, or that people don't (rightly) need a lot of convincing. But if Labour want to win an election then that implies a belief that they'd be better at running the country than the Conservatives: they should be able to make a half-way convincing case for that proposition. Doing anything else with the next twelve months would be an unforgiveable waste of time.

*When the tribe's oldest hunter said, "Look out - there's a lion behind you!" the people who became ancestors weren't the ones who replied, "So you claim, but I'm going to need a little more than just your unsubstantiated say so."

Friday 8 May 2009

Gut vs Head

Dan Gardner's Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear offers a psychological model for how we, as ex-hunter-gatherers, make decisions about stuff. Apparently we have two separate modes of thought, which psychologists call System One and System Two and Gardner, with rather more of an eye on bestseller status, calls Head and Gut. Instinctively, you can guess what those mean and some careful thought plus a bit of research would tell you you were right.

Gut is where elections are won and lost. Head might sway politicos, journalists, academics and hobbyists/junkies; a full 1% of the population taken care of. Everyone else has better things to do with their time than read economic history or position papers, and so relies on headlines, soundbites and topical comedy shows to tell them what's going on.

Gut is what's killing Labour right now. Take the latest expenses revelations: while there appear* to be some genuine (fairly flagrant) abuses from various Cabinet Ministers, the accusation against Brown himself is pretty flimsy. £6,000 to brother for "cleaning services"! scream the headlines, generously larded with a near-audible,"Oh Yeah?". But Downing St have released what looks a lot like a contract for cleaning services, for the appropriate amounts, over the right time-period. Nor is it an exorbitant some of money for two years worth of cleaning. It probably is, in fact, exactly what it appears to be - an arrangement between two brothers to share a cleaner.

Doesn't matter. Who cares about the contract? That's not the point. We're surrounded by stories where £££ + "Odd Financial Arrangement" = Corruption. This story fits that pattern. And that is more than good enough for Gut. Head might think differently if it ever took a look, but it probably won't. As Gardner says, Head is a bright underacheiver - capable of greatness, sure, but far happier to sit back and let Gut do the driving. Proper thinking is a lot of effort, and who's going to do it on the off-chance that some politician isn't as bad as he's painted?

There's a point to this, but at the risk of creating an artificial sense of suspense, I'm going to leave it to my next post.

Friday 1 May 2009

Moving on

A senior Labour "loyalist" today stressed the importance to the Prime Minister of putting recent screw-ups behind him. The ex-Cabinet Minister announced that the best strategy for Labour was to focus on running the country and draw a line under the complete pig's ear they'd made of the past couple of days. "Labour have to stop making godawful errors of political judgement such as losing Opposition Day votes or backing down on expenses reform, and instead focus on governing the country. Not only do appalling cock-ups such as we've witnessed recently generate bad headlines on the day, but they also encourage political non-entities to bang on for days afterwards about what a mess Labour are making. This keeps the nation focused on the government's catastrophic series of mistakes, rather than positive stories."

The self-righteous egotist went on to say, "When you've had a week as bad this one, the last thing you need is some delusional narcissist to start harping on and on about all the mistakes you've made. But trust me, that's what'll happen after a series of screw-ups like this. Just when you think the press might be ready to move on, some pompous blowhard will pop up, flapping his badger-bearded gums and pontificating about just how wrong you're getting it and boom! - another day of bad headlines."

The self-promoting windbag, who apparently could find no other way to communicate with people who actually matter than to leak his every thought to the national press added, "The only thing to is draw a line under your woeful incompetence, start talking about anything other than just how feebly atrophied your political antennae have become, and hope that you can persuade people to forget your clumsy ineptitude. I'm saying this because I want to help Gordon Brown - and let's face it, he needs all the help he can get!"

"...After a disastrous week like that, I mean. Wasn't it awful? If I were him, I'd be praying people would just stop talking about it. He certainly doesn't need people dwelling on all the things he got wrong - that would be a disaster for Labour. So let's all stop banging on about it, and start doing something right. For a change."

Wednesday 29 April 2009

Same polls, different opinion

Hopi's been thinking about opinion polls; what they actually mean and, crucially, what sort of decision you should use them to make. I don't disagree with his conclusions, but I'm not convinced by his initial reading of the trends:

Hopi's take on this is that, "Looking at that graph, there appear to be two periods where an informed observer could see a settled will of the people emerging. In both cases, a disruptive event transformed the political situation. The emerging trends became irrelevant as peoples views of the parties changed." I think he's kidding himself , or at least confusing "settled will of the people" with "support for Labour". There's a pretty clear settled will of the people in that graph, and it's a trend that is going to stay relevant.

Shock political news: people are fundamentally bored with Labour. I don't mean angry, or upset, or disappointed. They're just bored. That's the story of the first half of this graph, up to the Brown bounce. Labour weren't less popular than the Tories because they'd screwed up. The Tories were up because they were fresh - shiny new leader, new team, old guard safely back in the coffin - while Labour were looking increasingly stale. Cash for honours and sordid tales of Prescott's love life added to a view of a party that had nothing more to offer, and was too damn comfortable in office.

As if to prove that people's main problem was boredom rather than fundamental disagreement with Labour, along comes the Brown bounce. This wasn't a time of dramatic policy shifts or repudiations of past ideologies; it was a fresh lick of paint and a chance to start talking about the future, not the past. It didn't hurt that various crises allowed Brown to demonstrate gravitas and statesmanship, but the main point is that people had a fresh look at Labour and realised that actually, yes, they did trust these guys to run the country. Note that Blair announced his resignation almost a year in advance, and that the world and his wife knew Brown would succeed. Why then should there have been any kind of Brown bounce, if people were genuinely, fundamentally unhappy with Labour?

However, the underlying boredom with Labour didn't go away. Changing the leader gave the party a chance to redefine itself for the future, and show the electorate that it knew how to keep delivering what they wanted. But they needed to keep looking very good indeed. The inept handling of the snap election issue, coupled with the Northern Rock crisis, suggested to people that this wasn't a new era of high-minded competence, but more of the same aimless time-serving. (Of course, Brown's close identification with anything to do with the economy didn't help.)

If people were looking for change, innovation or vision from Brown, they weren't finding it. Political novelty was on offer elsewhere; as the failing economy pushed Brown onto the back foot, the Tories took the opportunity to a) shatter the bedrock of his political reputation and b) present themselves as the people with the new and exciting ideas. Various Ministers, MPs, journalists and bloggers took it upon themselves to critique these ideas, point out their inconsistencies or show that the sums didn't add up. However accurate and barbed these criticsims, they were beside the point. On one hand, a government mired in a deteriorating economy; on the other, an energetic opposition with a scheme, initiative or taskforce for every occasion.

At the end of 2008, Labour's fortunes were rising again. People had begun to feel better about the economy, and Brown was positioning himself as the man with the experience to handle a global crisis. But it didn't last. Internal and international disagreements about fiscal stimulus, a sandbagging by Mervyn King, rising unemployment... truth is, it didn't take a huge amount to reverse that trend. Labour no longer have the benefit of the doubt. As a rule of thumb, I'd guess it takes 3 positive news cycles to win a polling point for Labour, and only 1 to lose one.

The boredom factor is Labour's biggest problem now. It means that they to get everything right first time, every time. Even a small slip just encourages people to give up on them. Incumbent parties win elections with three messages:
  1. Look at all the great stuff we've already done;
  2. Here's all the great stuff we're going to do;
  3. Those guys will screw it all up if you let them.
But now no-one's listening to 1), no-one believes 2) and they're willing to take a gamble on 3) just to see what will happen.

Tuesday 28 April 2009

Cheap shot

Derek Draper is not only a gifted political strategist and interblog whizzkid, he's also a psychotherapist. In this guise, he pens a monthly column for Psychologies magazine*, offering wisdom gleaned from sessions with clients. There is much to learn from May's effort, which as his byline notes, is written by a man who "has returned to politics after taking a break":

"In my work with clients, after we have analysed the root causes of their issues and worked on tools to help them change their behaviour, they still seem stuck. At that point, even though it is a cliché, I find myself wanting to point out, "You are your own worst enemy...

There comes a time in everyone's therapeutic journey when...we need to take that vital last step of doing things differently."

But it would be simplistic to think that some people just can't help themselves. Through counselling and self-examination, we find that:

"Whenever we think someone is the wilful architect of their own destruction, the real explanation is that, without knowing it, they are following someone else's rules."

*Would you believe a dentist's waiting room story? Thought not.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

Finger on the pulse

When you wish to convince the British public that your expenses reforms will usher in a new era of probity, austerity and transparency, it is absolutely vital to emphasise that this is the way they do it in Brussells. The British public, and particularly the right-wing media who have been hounding you on this issue, have nothing but respect for European institutions and frequently praise them as evidence of good governance.

It's that deft populist touch we all admire.

Monday 20 April 2009

The difference between opinion and thought

This opinion piece by Melanie Reid is staggering in its wilful embrace of ignorance. From start to finish it contains no thought, no facts, no argument, no sense; it does offer denial, knee-jerk prejudice, mindless populism and slavish, empty-headed traditionalism.

In summary: a Dutch study has recently shown that for pregnancies without complications, home births are no riskier than having the baby in hospital. Reid's response, in favour of hospital births, encompasses the following arguments points bald assertions.
  • Women who choose home births are weird. And principled. But mainly weird;
  • Home births are currently rare;
  • Therefore, they are wrong;
  • Yes, the Dutch study shows that they're just as safe;
  • The Dutch are in the minority, therefore they too are wrong;
  • In fact, Holland is not in the real world;
  • It doesn't matter that home births are safe;
  • Hospitals are the bestest of all best places, and anyone not using one is delusional and hates women.
Had she merely stuck to writing these assertions out one after another and then pretending she'd formulated an argument, Reid would merely have come across as regrettably stupid. Happily, however, she chose to try and buttress her opinion with some reference to facts; in this case the complications attached to birth. This is where it would have helped enormously to do a minimum of research. Presented as evidence on her side is the history of deaths from puerperal fever. As you can see, even the most cursory research would have given Reid the following information:

  • The single most important risk factor for puerperal fever nowadays is Caesarean section;
  • Puerperal fever was, at its lethal peak, spread by doctors working in the new lying-in hospitals of the day;
  • Conversely, puerperal fever was rarer in home births than it was in hospitals.

It's one thing to write an opinion piece without ever formulating an argument; standard practice, almost. But getting such facts as you present so completely arse about face is just wallowing in ignorance for it's own sake, and reflects the fundamental weakness in paying columnists by the word instead of by the thought.

    Tuesday 14 April 2009

    A rotten bit of luck

    The thing that genuinely depresses me about Smeargate or whatever the hell we're supposed to be calling it is the suspicion that somewhere in McBride's and Draper's minds, and possibly a few other people's, a small voice is saying, "But it was such a clever plan. All this mess is just bad luck."

    What's happened inside your head, when you think that is how you get people to vote for you? My guess is a loss of conviction. If Draper and McBride had any genuine belief that Labour should/could win the next election because it has the right policies for the country, they'd have wanted to talk about those policies, and the Labour party. But they didn't - they wanted to attack opposition personalities. Setting aside the moral dimension of destabilising a political opponent by slurring his wife's mental health, the sheer narrowness of the tactic demonstrates the bankruptcy of ideas.

    Various bloggers will talk about what Labour really needs to do to get a good showing in 2010. I don't presume to know. But substance, strategy and vision would be a start, and they seem to be sadly lacking.

    Thursday 9 April 2009

    Help, Police

    The video seems fairly damning. A man, walking away from the police, is struck with a baton and then shoved to the ground, shortly before he dies of a heart attack. It seems massively unlikely that this is a coincidence, although I understand that courts work to a slightly higher standard when they're determining causality.

    The policeman in question looks to be facing a criminal trial: possibly for assault, possibly for manslaughter. This is something that will be determined by the courts, one way or another. Meanwhile, the police, as a whole, are facing a crisis of public confidence. This will be determined, in large part, by what the police do next. There are two separate concerns: one is the police response to public order, and the proportionate use of force. The second, more serious issue is the ability of the police to confront their own failings.

    Regarding the first, there does seem to be a culture that embraces the use of force to corral and control protesters. The comments on The Policeman's Blog give some insight into the insider's view, although clearly it's hardly a representative sample. Various (presumably) police attitudes include:
    • Protesters are dirty tax-dodging hippies;
    • If you go to a demo and get shoved about by the cops, it's no more than you should expect;
    • "Kettling" works: compare May Day 2001 with 2000 - much less violence, property damage etc. precisely because police did actively and forcefully control the crowd;
    • Crowd dynamics and control are not precise sciences; treating people as a herd rather than individuals is therefore necessary;
    • Public order is not community policing: it is all about using force to achieve your ends;
    • The officer who struck Tomlinson is damned unlucky - this happens all the time and it's only a problem because he had a heart attack;
    • The officer who struck Tomlinson was acting completely out of order and should be disciplined.

    A mixed bag, but coupled with the comments about the police being "up for it" beforehand and you're left with the distinct impression that, to say the least, the police and general public have somewhat differing perspectives on the use of force at protests. (That is, depending on who the force is being used against.) For me, one of the most worrying aspects of the video is that the assaulting policeman has covered his face with a balaclava that (presumably) is part of standard gear. I have no doubt that this helps immensely in a) making riot police look more intimidating and b) giving those police confidence. But the decision to project that image reveals quite a lot about the relationship the police have or want to have with demonstrators.

    There is an important question of public policy here: as pointed out by a commentator at the Policeman's Blog, once you've established that attending a demo carries a strong risk of being detained, corraled or even assaulted then you've had a more or less chilling effect on political protest. The overall attitude is not that the protest will happen, and the police need to keep an eye on troublemakers: the protest is trouble, and the police need to control it and minimise it.

    Police self-policing has long been acknowledged as a bit of a paradox; it takes a very rigorous adherence to principle for a body devoted to law and order to treat its own members as potential criminals. But it already looks like the various lessons that could have been learned from the Menezes shooting have been given a miss: the police already stand accused of giving out misinformation, attempting to control the media reporting and being very reluctant to consider that they might be at fault. The IPCC also seems to have been slow to decide that this needed independent investigation. Trust in the police is crucial to the whole concept of policing by consent; it's built on knowing that the police can and will self-correct when they get it wrong.

    Tuesday 7 April 2009

    In Labourspace, no one can hear you pontificate

    Web 2.0 is all shiny just now, and ostensibly dominated by the Conservatives (or at least, the minuscule portion that can claim to be political is.) Therefore, Labour are beefing up their online operations in order to a) engage with the ordinary voter and b) fight for the tactical high ground. At first blush, this seems reasonable enough, but somebody, somewhere, should really have asked a couple of pertinent questions:

    a) Is a strong pro-Labour online presence really something we can will into being?
    b) Do the Conservatives actually gain any electoral advantage simply because literally dozens of middle-aged males are exchanging Harriet Harperson jokes or hosting the same Dan Hannan video?

    Whatever the answers may be, the fact is that Labour are making a concerted effort. Hence LabourList, and now Labourspace. LabourList was a place for discussion, debate and deliberation; Labourspace is the place for action.

    The concept is simple: one logs on, sets up a campaign and then, er, campaigns for it. On Labourspace itself, on facebook and twitter, on blogs and in the media. Get the most supporters and you win. Again though, there are a few questions that might have been asked first:

    What's a campaign? Currently on the site we have proposals for everything from an international open borders policy to ending NHS parking charges, from re-introducing wolves to Scotland to re-nationalising the railways. Some people have specific goals, others just feel bad about stuff. Some people are trying to re-write national policy, others are looking for a grant. Charities, not surprisingly, are using this to raise awareness. There are differences between campaigning, lobbying the government and drafting policy, but whoever's behind this hasn't actually thought about what they're asking people to do. If they want campaign ideas, it's up to them to provide the policy framework for people to campaign in. If they want to listen to the voice of the people, they should only ask questions if they're prepared to use the answers. If they want a general policy forum, they need to weed out contrarians, spoilers and idiots. This site does none of these things. A more focused approach (say, helping local councillors co-ordinate approaches to, for example, fuel poverty) might have produced some valuable ideas that could actually be used. What we've got is too broad and ill-defined to produce results.

    What's this got to do with Labour? Seriously. Any government could run a site like this. In fact, this one already did - the National Petition nonsense. There's no requirement that any of the campaigns have any connection whatsoever with existing Labour policy, or traditional left-wing principles, or New Labour values or anything else with even a vague connection to the Labour party. Ed Milliband makes a point of commenting on as many campaigns as possible; his two longest responses are to clarion calls for a) re-nationalising railways and b) an English parliament. Without looking, see if you can guess whether he's for or against. Which brings us to...

    What do you win? This is, at bottom, a popularity contest. Plugged-in social networkers who get the most supporters for their campaign get their "ideas bought to the attention of senior Labour politicians". Really? If you were capable of running a popular nationwide campaign, it would already be bought to their attention. That's what campaigning is. But in any case, let's say you are successful. Either your idea flies in the face of government policy, in which case it gets ignored, or it's more or less acceptable, in which case... what? You get a photo-op with a relevant junior minister? The manifesto gets re-written? A law gets passed? How can this help the Labour party? Support the winning campaign, and they're being craven populists, taking direction from a handful of bloggers. Ignore it, and they're denying the will of the people.

    There's no point in asking a question unless you know what you're going to do with the answer. Labourspace, even if successful, won't do anything for Labour but create a new problem.

    Thursday 2 April 2009

    What do you want, and when do you want it?

    Sam Leith and Don Paskini speak sooth about protest marches.

    From Sam:

    Face paint and world music and "giving the power back to the people" is not going to have any effect on the world whatsoever. Left to themselves, "the people" will sit in fields practising their polyphonic singing and scratching their furry parts. If they want to get anything done on a scale large enough to be effective, they get together and elect leaders. For want of a better word, I propose calling those leaders "politicians".

    Imagine, for a minute, that you are the leader of a G20 country - Canada, say, or South Korea. Imagine further that you have taken a couple of minutes out of your swollen schedule of dialogues, photo-ops and dinners to watch the protest - either on camera or in person. Hordes, or at least myriads, of marchers have taken to the streets, banners high. Clearly, they have something on their mind. Maybe, just maybe, they're saying something you should hear. They are, after all, the people. What is their message? Is it:

    a) Hang The Bankers
    b) Abolish Money
    c) No Third Runway
    d) End World Hunger
    e) Free Palestine
    f) Troops Out of Afghanistan
    g) Nationalise The Banks
    h) Stop Climate Chaos
    i) All of the above
    j) All of the above and more

    What do you do? What can you do? Shrug your shoulders, turn on your heal and go back into your meeting with the angry Frenchman. He may be a stubborn pain in the arse, but at least you've got a basis for negotiation.

    Thursday 26 March 2009

    Demagoguery 2.0.

    Charlie Brooker's Newswipe - a Daily Show-esque look at both news and its programming - was predictably good last night. If you missed it, you can catch it here: particularly good is his comparison of the coverage of a) 20 violent Islamist protesters disrupting a soldiers' welcome in Luton and b) 1000s of marchers coming out for peace in N. Ireland.

    As always, it's easier to go with the simple and the shocking if you want people's attention. The Northern Ireland march might have got more coverage on a slow news day, but somewhere in Germany an idiot teenager shot up his school, and that obviously demanded hours of coverage. (The clip from Newswipe of a psychologist explaining to an interviewer the media's role in these recurring shootings is pure gold.)

    Not every story is violent or catastrophic, but it's better if you can make it so. Hence, we all know now that a government gilt auction FAILED yesterday morning for the first time in SEVEN years. This is a BLOW FOR GORDON BROWN and clear evidence that the MARKETS FEAR GB DEBT. Given that the media's narrative on Brown is now "What a loser", this story fits quite well with a) what they want to tell us and more importantly b) what we want to hear.

    Niggling little details about the term of the debt, it's relationship to QE policy, the amount actually sold or the current state of the gilt markets, which by adding context and information detract from the simplicity of the story, are downplayed or ignored entirely. The point, after all, is not to keep the viewer/reader informed about the state of the economy. It's to let us know who's winning.

    Mr Eugenides quotes an instructive comment from the blog of Daniel Hannan MEP, regarding a much-viewed clip of him excoriating the PM:

    The days when a minister gave briefings to a dozen lobby correspondents, and thereby dictated the next day's headlines, are over. Now, a thousand bloggers decide for themselves what is interesting. If enough of them are tickled then, bingo, you're news. Breaking the press monopoly is one thing. But the internet has also broken the political monopoly. Ten or even five years ago, when the Minister for Widgets put out a press release, the mere fact of his position guaranteed a measure of coverage. Nowadays, a politician must compel attention by virtue of what he is saying, not his position.

    It's all a bit unsettling for professional journalists and politicians. But it's good news for libertarians of every stripe. Lefties have always relied on control, as much of information as of physical resources. Such control is no longer technically feasible

    Yes, yes. No doubt, people who already don't like Brown are tickled to watch someone have a go at him. It's good old-fashioned entertainment. It's not really political news though - Hannan was after all, merely rehashing the Tory line on Brown, somthing that is getting pretty regular coverage as is. A press release from a Minister might well be pointless fluff - or it could detail actual policy. Which might be quite boring and technical, and not use any nautical metaphors at all . But just giving people the fun bits isn't news. People with an interest in politics (by which I mean, voters in a democracy) need to get the boring nitty-gritty as well as the theatricals. The news machine and it's audience are collaborating to avoid that, in much the same way that a stressed-out mother might ask the kids if they want to just get take-away tonight. But pretending that news-as-entertainment is a vital step forward to freedom and prosperity is like claiming KFC is diet food.