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."