Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday 26 February 2012

Graeme Archer is being unfair to the Greens

I'm a fan of Graeme Archer, He was always one of the best contributors to Conservative Home and very much deserved his Orwell Prize win last year and the subsequent column in The Telegraph. His pieces are usually thought provoking and I find myself sometimes persuaded by him in a way I wasn't expecting.

But a piece he wrote recently for The Telegraph about the Green party in Brighton strikes me as unfair in a particular respect. Not for the main thrust of his piece. I have no experience of Brighton politics, so I can't comment on his assertions about their apparent left-wing and in his view rather odd priorities. What I can comment on though is this part of his piece:

The BBC gives Caroline Lucas a status her nationally unpopular Green Party doesn’t deserve; she is ubiquitous on Question Time. (If you think that’s Tory hard cheese: two of Brighton & Hove’s three parliamentary seats are represented by Conservatives. When was either Mike Weatherley or Simon Kirby invited on to the corporation’s flagship current affairs programme?) 

It is very unfair on the Green party to suggest they are getting disproportionate coverage on a programme like Question Time. The party nationally got 0.9% of the vote at the last General Election which proportionally should have given them 6 MPs or so. Instead they got one. And that's the first time they have ever had one in this country despite a similar performance at other General Elections. But there is evidence that that vote is very much depressed precisely because of that electoral system. In the most recent European Parliament elections where a more proportional system actually is used, lo and behold they got 8.6% of the vote.

The BBC's job is to reflect a wide variety of views. A party that can poll nearly 10% in a national election (when smaller parties have a better chance of getting representation) surely deserves a decent crack of the whip?

But we can go a bit further than that. Thanks to some recent research by Unity from Ministry of Truth we know Caroline Lucas actually appeared 7 times from January 2009 until the start of this month. That's 112 episodes. With 5 panelists in each episode. So proportionally she has had 7/560 of the slots. That's 1.25%. Which is pretty close to their vote in the General Election. And way, way less than would be deserved from the party's performance in elections where voters know their choices will likely actually count, in other words what their true support in the country is likely to be when tactical voting is stripped away. If anything I think there is a case to be made that the Greens are not represented enough.

I fear that despite his talents, Graeme is a bit too ensconced in the bipartisanship of the Westminster game to see this.

Sunday 12 February 2012

Proof the government prefers dogma on drugs over harm reduction

In engaging with the debate about drugs policy with politicians and ministers you regularly find that they will claim there is no contradiction between encouraging abstinence of substances and reducing harm. They insist that their policies are compatible with harm reduction.

I have come across evidence that this simply is not true.

The UK Cannabis Internet Activist website has been trying to engage the Department of Health in a discussion about running a campaign designed to reduce harm caused currently by the propensity of those taking cannabis to smoke it with tobacco. They have launched a campaign called Tokepure which encourages people to not do this and is trying to educate people about the issue.

Predictably though the government is not interested in helping with this campaign.

Derek Williams of UKCIA wrote to Anne Milton the responsible minister via his MP and received the standard templated reply explaining the government's position on drugs and explaining that there is not to be a campaign run from government along these lines. Mr Williams replied explaining in his own words "the very obvious reasons why getting cannabis users to drop the tobacco would be a good idea, supporting my case with reference not only to population studies of cannabis users but also to information put out by her own department."

The reply Mr Williams received from Ms Milton included this snippet which is instructive:

If, as Mr Williams suggests, we were to advocate that people smoke cannabis without tobacco, we would be … putting people at risk of harm.

This seems quite bizarre. Mr Williams went out of his way in his correspondence to make it clear that he would be happy with a campaign that simply told people not to mix tobacco with cannabis, not a change in government policy to cannabis use itself which Mr Williams fully accepts can itself be harmful. His point is, it is more harmful still to use cannabis with tobacco.

Further correspondence yielded a further reply from Ms Milton:

Cannabis can damage both physical and mental health and it would be irresponsible for anyone to suggest there is a “safe” way to smoke cannabis

This would appear to completely miss the point. Mr Williams is not saying smoking cannabis without tobacco is safe. He is saying it is safer. Surely this is a trivial and obvious point?

The thinking behind her position becomes clear later in this second reply though:

The Tokepure argument is clear – that people should be advised that smoking cannabis and tobacco together is more harmful than smoking cannabis without tobacco – as is the government’s position - that cannabis and tobacco, whether smoked together or separately are dangerous and should not be used.

The thinking however is hopelessly muddled. The two things are not contradictory. Both cannabis and tobacco can be harmful (or in the minister's words "dangerous"). That does not negate the fact that smoking them together is more harmful.

Sadly what this reveals about government drug policy and its approach to harm reduction is that it is driven by dogma. For all the claims that its policies are compatible with harm reduction this is shown to be untrue here. Smoking cannabis with tobacco is more harmful than just taking cannabis. That is a fact. Yet because of the "just say no" approach the government takes it refuses to acknowledge this for fear of "the message it would send out".

It is worth bearing this in mind the next time a minister claims they are in favour of reducing harms caused by drugs. Their record suggests that in practice this is not the case.

You can read Mr Williams's full exchange with Ms Milton and his thoughts on it here.

This post was first published on Left Foot Forward.

Friday 10 February 2012

The day the blogosphere went mainstream

I had an interesting experience this morning in my car. I was listening to Today on Radio 4 and one of the main stories was that three Conservative cabinet ministers had called for the health bill currently going through parliament to be scrapped. One of them was also calling for Andrew Lansley to be sacked as Health Secretary.

Seismic stuff. Of course it was all anonymous but there is no doubt that a call like this is very serious for the government. I would now be surprised if the health bill is not radically changed if not dropped altogether.

But the most eye-catching thing for me as a blogger was the medium through which these ministers decided to air their views. It wasn't through a national newspaper. It wasn't through one of the political correspondents of one of the TV channels. Instead it was via the Conservative blog ConservativeHome.

In a post entitled "The unnecessary and unpopular NHS Bill could cost the Conservative Party the next election. Cameron must kill it." the site's editor Tim Montgomerie reveals the thoughts of the ministers that contacted him and calls for the bill to be scrapped and Lansley to be moved on. He argues forcefully that Cameron's best move in opposition was to detoxify the issue of the NHS and his biggest mistake in government has been to allow this work to be reversed.

Everyone who has had dealings with Tim will tell you that he is very polite and very straight dealing. He is also generous and has linked to posts on my blog on numerous occasions. Nobody will be in any doubt about the veracity of what he has reported.

You could almost hear the gritted teeth from Nick Robinson as he explained about the grass roots blog and how it had the exclusive on the radio!

There are many from the fourth estate who still think that blogs are for cranks and losers in their mother's basement. You only have to listen to some of the testimony at the Leveson inquiry to hear this. But what Tim has done with ConservativeHome is build up a website with a very wide readership (from politicians and people who are supporters of all parties and none) where Conservatives can air their views in a frank way and get feedback on them. Even before today it was very good at setting the agenda but today for me is the day it went mainstream. By giving the story to Tim the ministers have allowed him to frame how this debate is being covered in the wider media today and also has the hook of being from a site that is predominantly grass roots. It could well have fired the starting gun on a process that will kill one of the government's major pieces of legislation. You don't get much more mainstream than that.

I expect other correpsondents from the press, TV and radio media will be taking note of this and they may well not like what they see.

Sunday 5 February 2012

Why I know (some) drugs will eventually be legalised

There was a storm in a pint glass this week in Westminster over a beer spotted in the Strangers' Bar called "Top Totty" featuring a cartoon of a scantily clad woman wearing bunny ears. There had been a furore after Labour MP Kate Green highlighted the nomenclature and styling of the beverage in the House of Commons. It has now been withdrawn from sale.

This spat reminded me of something that I have always been aware of but had sort of crept to the back of my consciousness for the last few years. Part of the story was quoting how the drinks within the Palace of Westminster are subsidised by the tax payer. Quite substantial amounts of money are spent on subsidising food and drink (including alcohol) each year. A recent newspaper article showed that pints of beer can be subsidised by up to £1, reducing their cost to politicians and their aides and guests by around a third.

So, law makers take taxpayers money to subsidise their consumption of a dangerous mind altering drug. One that is known to cause the death of thousands and thousands of people every year.

Contrast this with how users of cannabis amongst the population that elect those representatives are treated. This is a mind altering drug that is by most scientific opinion less dangerous than alcohol (although still of course not without its risks). Users and suppliers of the drug can be fined and in some cases imprisoned. They can receive a criminal record and can potentially have their lives ruined by this. In the vast majority of cases the much bigger risk of harm to the individual from cannabis is from the way the law will deal with them than the intrinsic danger of the drug.

The imbalance in this situation comparing the two has always been glaring but is thrown into even sharper relief in the context of those same law makers taking money from tax payers to subsidise their drug of choice whilst incarcerating others who choose a less harmful drug.

In the long term this cannot persist. I can understand (even though I do not agree with) those who think drugs such as heroin should remain illegal. But ruining the lives of users of cannabis with criminal records is utterly unjustified by any scientific or moral yardstick. The same in my view applies to drugs like MDMA (ecstasy), magic mushrooms and newer "banned" drugs like mephedrone.

Even public opinion is swinging in favour of legalising and properly regulating cannabis use. A poll commissioned by Lib Dems for Drug Policy Reform 18 months ago demonstrated 70% of people would like to see that in one form or another.

I can't say when it will happen. Perhaps the catalyst will be more and more US states decriminalising cannabis use which is increasingly likely to happen in the next few years. Perhaps more countries such as Portugal will demonstrate the benefits of treating drugs not as a criminal justice issue, but a health issue for those who struggle with problematic use. But one way or another things will have to change eventually.

And the hypocrisy of our MPs taxing us to subsidise their use of a mind altering substance whilst jailing those using a less harmful one will end.

As natural justice says it must.

Saturday 4 February 2012

Is Climate Change really happening?

We seem to have ended up in odd place regarding the debate about Climate Change.

It appears that the majority of scientists that work in the field of climate say that the climate is changing and that there is a large anthropogenic component to this change caused by greenhouse gases emitted by human activity.

There are however a significant minority of scientists and others who think that either the whole thing is overblown and/or that there is either no, or very little evidence that humans have contributed to this.

Both sides have lots and lots of data to back up their assertions. And it seems to me that often these data contradict each other even when they seem to be talking about the same thing. For example I often see seemingly authoritative statements that several of the hottest years on record have occurred in the last couple of decades. But then there are articles like this one from James Delingpole in the Daily Mail that claims there is evidence from the Met Office that there has been no warming for 15 years. Both of these cannot be true.

There is then the political dimension.

Broadly speaking those on the left and liberal wings of politics tend to believe that Climate Change is real, man-made and a serious threat. Broadly speaking those on the right think either it's not that serious a problem or in some cases that the whole idea is a left wing conspiracy. I'm talking about grass roots and activists here by the way. The leaderships of all the main political parties are broadly in agreement that there is a problem and it needs to be tackled.

Now I understand this is a highly complex issue. The ecosystem of the entire planet is not something that can be easily understood. But the point of science is to run experiments and tests to try and find the truth. However difficult this is, it is made much harder if views on the potential reality of the situation are informed by ideology.

But that is what appears to be happening. As far as I can tell, the left wing seems to be happy with the fact that the solutions to the problem are essentially collecitivist in nature. We all need to stop using as much energy, use renewables more locally, share resources more, restrict what business can do for the good of the planet etc. And the right are deeply unhappy with most of these solutions. So they question the fundamental nature of the premise and conclude that it is a stitch up.

I am a Lib Dem. I run a business that deals with energy efficiency in buildings. I basically believe from what I have seen that mankind has contributed to this problem and that we need to do something about the problem.

But am I being hoodwinked? There are millions of people who think I am.

At core I am a rationalist and I also have a strong skeptic streak. I am certainly open to the possibility that I am wrong about this. If the scientific consensus started to shift based on the evidence I would certainly consider doing so.

The problem is that is not happening. Instead views are polarising. Terms like "Climate Change Denier" and "Leftie Conspiracy" are tossed around like confetti. Both sides seem unwilling or unable to really listen to the other. I strongly suspect there is a large element of confirmation bias going on at the very least in the political arena. Those who want to believe it find the evidence that backs them up. Those that don't want to believe find evidence of the opposite.

Maybe that is the way it has to be. I tried engaging with James Delingpole on Twitter this morning after he tweeted a link to the above article. I was interested in his response to a question I had about how he responded to a broader question about scientific evidence relating to medicine on a BBC programme a while back. I tweeted:

@JamesDelingpole When you were asked about adherence to science in the context of if you were ill on that programme you didn't seem...
@JamesDelingpole have a very convincing answer. Why do you trust it for your health but not for this?

His response was:

@MarkReckons Lib Dim activist asks straw man question about parti pris, scientifically inaccurate BBC propagandist stitch up?

Maybe I was a bit too confrontational in the way I asked the question but I am genuinely curious about how someone would happily accept the scientific consensus when it came to say treating them if they had cancer but be utterly convinced it's wrong and a conspiracy when it comes to the climate.

Like I say, it seems to be very difficult to engage in a debate that does not quickly degenerate into ad hominem attacks.

So is Climate Change really happening? Or am I falling for a socialist conspiracy designed to take us all back to the dark ages?

Thursday 2 February 2012

Is Lib Dem MP gender balance problem exacerbated by FPTP?

I am very unhappy with the number of female Lib Dem MPs. 7 out of 57 is not good enough and we need to improve. The leadership programme which assists those from underrepresented groups to become candidates will hopefully help.

7/57 = 12.3%. So less than an eighth of our MPs are women.

The Conservatives have 48/307 = 15.6%. Labour have 81/258 = 31.4%.

Activists from the two other parties have pointed this out to me on numerous occasions. They are right to. It is embarrassing.

We definitely need more female candidates. In 2010 we only had 134 (21.3%). The Conservatives had 149 (23.7%), Labour 191 (30.3%).

But I looked more deeply into the 2010 general election data and discovered some interesting things.
Firstly, when you look at the total vote for each party, and then look at total votes for males and females for each party, Labour do best with 32.4% of their vote going to women. But second best are Lib Dems with 22%. The Conservatives, despite fielding more women and ultimately getting more female MPs proportionally than the Lib Dems only had 19.8% of their votes go to women.

I wondered why this was so I took all the votes for women for each of the parties and worked out what the average vote for females vs males was:

Conservative males: 17,811
Conservative females: 14,204

Labour males: 13,248
Labour females: 14,583

Lib Dem males: 10,739
Lib Dem females: 11,201

It would seem that Conservative women tend to be in seats that are more difficult for them to win on average than those for their male counterparts.

Finally a "what if" exercise. The other two parties have many more MPs than us. When it comes to improving female representation the marginal seats are endlessly discussed. But I just looked at the top 100 seats in terms votes won by each party. How many women were candidates?

Labour: 27/100
Lib Dem: 25/100 (although of course we only won 57 of them)
Conservatives: 9/100

We are only just behind Labour, even with their years of women only shortlists. The Conservatives are way behind. If for some strange reason their vote had dropped to a level where they only got 100 MPs they would have had 9 female MPs. Incidentally, if they had only 57 MPs like us they would have had only 5.

At the very least I would suggest this analysis shows things are more mixed than the "Lib Dems are worst at trying to balance gender for MPs" accusation you regularly hear. It would appear our old friend First Past the Post is exacerbating the problem.

That 22% of our votes went to female candidates but only resulted in around 12% of our MPs being female is typical of a majoritarian electoral system.  Perhaps if we had a fairer one, the representation of women and ethnic minorities would be further advanced than it currently is for all parties.

NOTE: Thanks to Pippa Norris for providing the electoral data.

This post was first published on Lib Dem Voice.