Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday 30 November 2012

David Cameron may just have made the biggest mistake of his career

The details almost don't matter. His plaintive cries of "Won't somebody please think of the independence of the press" will fall on deaf ears. David Cameron has made the wrong call on one of the main issues that he will be remembered for.

When the phone hacking scandal kicked off last year Cameron was a bit slow off the mark and allowed Ed Miliband to carve himself out a niche as doughty defender of those who had been wronged by a rapacious media. But as our PM has consistently demonstrated, right from when he first made that electrifying speech at Conservative conference in 2005 which probably won him the leadership when his back's against the wall he can come out fighting.

I was in the Strangers Gallery on that day last July when Cameron made his speech in response to the hacking crisis in the Commons. It was another top notch political performance. In exactly the same way as he has managed to find the right tone for responses to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and the Hillsborough Inquiry, he managed it on that day too. I was heartened to see how much the Prime Minister "got it". He understood that the press was out of control and he set up the Leveson Inquiry to tackle this precise problem.

In a few minutes yesterday with his denial of implementing Leveson in full including the required statutory underpinning he pissed all of this away.

A couple of key vignettes from yesterday's coverage of this stick in my mind.

The first was Jane Winter one of the phone hacking victims during the "Hacked Off" press conference who was almost in tears as she explained how she felt "betrayed" by Cameron. In correspondence with Ms Winter, the PM had promised to implement the proposals "as long as they are not bonkers". A small amount of statute to ensure the press abide by the rules that they are allowed to set themselves is not bonkers. Everyone can see that it is not bonkers, even those who disagree with statute. Everyone can see that the PM has not adhered to either the spirit or even the letter of his promises on this issue.

The second was on BBC's This Week last night where Michael Portillo highlighted in 30 seconds just how pointless the whole exercise of Leveson has been now that Cameron has made it clear he will not be backing his key recommendation. His view is that we might as well not have bothered. The press now have nothing to fear and can basically go back to business as usual was his analysis. I'm not sure this is 100% right. There is still political pressure for the press to reform. But without a way of ensuring they stick to their promises I am sure it is only a matter of time before they revert to type. They always have done in the past after the many inquiries there have been in the last 70 years. Without statute there is absolutely no reason to suppose they will not do so again. Charlotte Church articulated this point particularly well on Question Time last night.

I suspect Cameron thinks that he will take some heat for this in the short term but that with the press on side it is worth it for the dividends he will reap in positive coverage come the next election. I think he is wrong. The public will not easily forget the avalanche of evidence that was presented to Leveson and reported on at the time in intricate detail. The families of Milly Dowler, Madeleine McCann and all the others who were wronged by the press will linger long in the memory.

We know there is a majority in parliament for statute. Labour, the Lib Dems and at least 50 Tory MPs want to see it. The only block to it happening is the man in No 10 because he has the power of initiation for legislation. The buck stops with him.

No politician would relish the idea of being aligned in any way with those who have damaged the lives of victims of crime. Unfortunately for Mr Cameron, whatever his motivations and arguments that is the impression people who pay little attention to politics (i.e. most people) will be left with.

He had the chance to do something to rein in the press and help prevent future abuses. He chose not to. That's all that will matter to many people.

He may just have made the biggest mistake of his political career.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

What is a "lifestyle illness"?

My MP, Dr Philip Lee has been using the bully pulpit of his office to argue that those who suffer from "lifestyle illnesses" such as those that are correlated with drinking and diet like type 2 diabetes should have their right to free prescriptions removed. Said the good doctor:

‘If you want to have doughnuts for breakfast, lunch and dinner, fine, but there’s a cost.’

This is the sort of thing that to some might seem reasonable at first glance but quickly unravels as soon as you start to look at the detail.

Firstly, how on Earth do you prove that something is a lifestyle illness? Of course Dr Lee has picked out a ridiculously extreme example of someone who eats doughnuts for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I would expect there to be pretty much nobody who does that in this country. But even if they did, how would you prove it? If they were going to have to pay for their diabetes treatment they would surely deny that their diet was so poor and that they had caused it.

Secondly, how can you even define a lifestyle illness? As my parliamentary representative will surely know illnesses are often made up of different components and have multiple causes. In some cases a pre-existing or congenital problem can be exacerbated by environmental factors. There may be some people who are susceptible to certain illnesses who will end up being punished as a result of perceived "lifestyle" components that may have had little or nothing to do with their problems.

Also whenever I hear these sort of pronouncements it is always things like diet, drinking and smoking that are fingered as the culprits. But what about those who go skiing and break a limb? Should they pay for e.g. pain medication while their leg sets? After all they chose to go skiing. Nobody made them go hurtling down a mountain on a couple of twigs. In the same way as nobody forced our fictional diabetes sufferer to gorge on doughnuts for every meal. What about someone who went jogging regularly and had a heart-attack? Should they pay for their heart medication? Nobody forced them to put that extra strain on their vital organs.

Before long you just realise how unworkable suggestions like these are. It is almost impossible to even define what a lifestyle illness is and even if you could, there are many different causes. Trying to separate out the "deserving ill" from the "undeserving ill" would be a task of Sisyphean proportions.

I'm somewhat disconcerted to discover that the man who my fellow constituents elected to parliament, a qualified doctor no less seems to not be aware of this.

Disestablishment of the Church of England may be closer than we think

The British constitution is a curious beast. It can lie slumbering for many years, hardly changing at all and then suddenly change quite radically. We have seen this happen with events such as votes for women and the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and London. What seemed fixed and permanent turned out not to be so after all.

We may be slowly moving towards such a turning point with the current situation in the Church of England. This week the church voted not to allow women bishops. There has been lots of sound and fury from members of the church themselves (64% of the electoral college actually wanted change but they needed a 2/3rds majority) and inevitably politicians of all sides even from those MPs who you would ordinarily expect to defend it.

The CofE is currently exempt from equality legislation and there is discussion that this should be addressed. There is also talk of not allowing the bishops to remain in the House of Lords whilst the gender anomaly remains (there is a petition asking for this here). On the other hand there are some who argue that parliament should keep its nose out of the affairs of other institutions.

The primary reason for all of this consternation from those outside of the church is because of the fact that it is established. It is intertwined within our constitution in a way that other institutions are not. So politicians feel a duty to make comments on its composition and potentially even legislate in order to address concerns.

At this point I think it is worth considering the wider problem of the fact of its establishment in the first place. Britain has changed quite dramatically in the last century. Our population is made up of people who practise a plethora of religions and increasingly no religion at all. A survey at the turn of the current century showed that almost half of our population claimed no religious affiliation at all with only around a quarter considering themselves members of the established church. Roughly 5% are Catholics, and 5% of the population are now Muslim for example.

With such a religiously diverse and increasingly non-religious demographic mix the establishment of the church is an huge anomaly in itself. At the moment politicians are restricting themselves to discussions about trying to make sure Anglicanism keeps itself up to date and relevant in terms of its internal processes. But I think this latest episode could be the first step along a process of eventual disestablishment.

The demographic trends are not in favour of the church. Across the world there is strong evidence that religion is in severe, perhaps terminal decline. The idea that there should be a special place within our constitution for one particular religious outlook is increasingly anachronistic.

Another factor that is worth considering here too is the view of the current heir to the throne. The Prince of Wales has made it clear that when he eventually becomes King he will not consider himself "Defender of the Faith" as his predecessors have but instead wants to be declared "Defender of Faith". This dropping of the definite article is highly significant and is a sign that our next monarch himself perhaps understands how the current settlement is unsustainable in the longer term.

I appreciate we are probably a fair way away from full disestablishment at the moment. But like with other large constitutional changes that we have seen in the past I would not be surprised if within my lifetime we see it happen.

The wafer-thin loss of the vote on women bishops has just made it that little bit more likely.

This post was originally published on The New Statesman online.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Why some prisoners should have the right to vote

There is some confusion about exactly what the government's draft bill on prisoner voting will contain on Thursday. What there is no confusion about, however, is that our MPs are strongly opposed to any move to extend the franchise to inmates. In February last year, they voted by a majority of 212 (with only 22 against) to retain the current ban.

There are some who say it is foolish for our politicians to behave in this way as it will result in a confrontation with the European Court of Human Rights. That argument does not cut much ice with me. I don't think we should legislate on this because Europe is telling us to. We should legislate on it because we are a liberal democracy.

When people are locked up for crimes in this country they already have lots of things taken away from them. Their liberty. Their right to see their family and friends whenever they please. Usually their job and their home. Their basic choices about what to eat, when to eat, where to eat and so on. It is right to deprive those who have committed crimes serious enough to warrant a jail sentence of these things. But why should they should automatically have their right to vote removed too?

I can see the argument for not allowing long-term prisoners and those with life sentences the vote. But the majority of prisoners are serving short sentences and, at the time of any general election, most of them will be released before any subsequent election and hence will be affected as a free citizen by the government elected. In the case of referenda, which tend to come around very infrequently, those results could affect the prisoner for the rest of their life. Someone only a few months away from release in May 2011 will be now out and yet may never get the chance to vote on the electoral system used for the House of Commons.

Perhaps even more importantly, one thing that almost everyone across the political spectrum agrees on is that we need to reduce reoffending rates, which in 2011 were running at an astonishing 90 per cent for serious crime.

Giving prisoners the vote will not change this overnight. But treating them with a little bit more respect and giving them a stake in how their society is governed is likely to be one of the things that helps. If we want to reduce recidivism, we need to be willing to think outside the constricted box our politicians have placed themselves in on this issue. A good start would be for the government to acknowledge on Thursday that there is a strong, principled case for some prisoners to have their democratic rights restored.

Not because Europe has told us to, but because it is right.

This post was originally published last week on The New Statesman online.

Monday 26 November 2012

House of Comments is back baby!

We have relaunched the "House of Comments" podcast.

Some of you may recall that for about a year from 2009 to 2010 myself and Stuart Sharpe used to host a regular(ish) podcast where we discussed politics and other issues that were being debated in the blogosphere with one, two or three blogger guests each week.

Well it's back! With a slight change though. Stuart is no longer directly involved with the podcast having hung up his blogging boots some time ago. Instead I will be regularly joined by my new co-host and old friend Emma Burnell who blogs at Scarlet Standard.

I am a Lib Dem and Emma is a Labour member so we will have guests on from time to time, primarily from the right to try and balance things out a bit but sometimes it will just be me and Emma debating politics and current affairs.

We are maintaining the numbering from where the previous incarnation left off so Episode 38 "UKIP if you want to" was recorded yesterday evening and is out today. This week we cover the UKIP members Rotherham fostering case (and hypothesise about how it would have played out if they had been BNP members), sexism in politics following recent comments by Nadine Dorries and try to predict what the Leveson report on Thursday will recommend.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here (note - this is a new feed so if you used to subscribe you'll need to do so again).

Other podcasting software e.g. for Android can be pointed here to subscribe.

You can download the mp3 for the latest episode directly from here.

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

If you are a political blogger and wish to be considered as a future guest please drop me an e-mail at

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboo for hosting the podcast for us and especially to Audioboo's James O'Malley who has helped us out getting relaunched. James is also editor of The Pod Delusion podcast which is about "interesting things" and is well worth a listen too!

Saturday 17 November 2012

Pros and cons of switching from an iPhone to a Samsung Galaxy

Since January 2009 I had been an iPhone man. 3G - 3GS - 4S was my path. I had been reasonably happy at first. But there were things that niggled with me. Being a techy person I was frustrated at the limitations of the devices and the operating system.

So three weeks ago I purchased a Samsung Galaxy Note II (GT-N7100).

This post is a summary of my experiences switching from the iPhone/iOS world to the Samsung/Android world.

Some of my comments here will be the differences in the operating systems (iOS vs Android). Some will be differences between the devices themselves. Some will be the differences in the available software and what it can and can't do on each device. I have made no attempt to separate these out.

When it comes to screen size I am going to be fair and compare the Note II with the iPhone 5 seeing as that is the newly released equivalent (even though I only had up to the iPhone 4S personally).

Pros of switching from iPhone/iOS to Samsung Galaxy Note II/Android

  1. Ability to add flash memory: This is one of the things that bugs me most about iPhones. You can get 16GB, 32GB or 64GB but at each memory increase point there is a hefty price premium. From Apple the price difference between 16GB and 64GB (sim free) is £170. So effectively they are charging about £3.54 per extra GB. On an iPhone there is no ability to add any external memory. On the Samsung I only opted for the 16GB model but there is a slot for a micro-SD card which can be up to 64GB. As soon as I bought the phone I ordered a 64GB card for just over £40. Which equates to around 63p per GB, or less than a fifth of the price that I would pay per GB on an iPhone. So for a small extra amount over the purchase price I now have close to 80GB of usable space which is more than enough for dozens of TV episodes and films, every digital photo and home video I have ever taken over the last 9 years and plenty of room left over for music, podcasts apps etc.
  2. Massive screen: Probably the single biggest draw to the Note for me was the size of the screen. It is 5.5 inches diagonally across with a resolution of 1280x720. This is compared to the iPhone 5 screen size of 4 inches diagonally with a resolution of 1136x640. Of course the iPhone has a higher resolution screen as a result of this but I never notice the resolution difference. What I do notice is just how much more useful having a massive screen is. Web surfing, reading e-mails, typing on the software keyboard (more on this later), watching video, playing games. All of those experiences are hugely improved on a screen that area-wise is not far off twice the size of the iPhone. It does make the Samsung a bit more unwieldy but I can still hold it with one hand and the pluses hugely outweigh that slight compromise in ergonomics.
  3. Widgets: Having been very used to the locked down way the home screens on the iPhone  work (icons only) moving to a system where you can have little mini-apps (widgets) running on the home screens has been a real joy. Weather, alarm, search bar, radio player, BBC News, Podcast shortcut, Twitter feed, video previews. They are just a few of the many widgets that are available. Perhaps the most useful one though (so useful I put it on my default home screen) is the "Assistive light" widget. This turns the camera flash on and off and makes it act like a torch. I had something similar on my iPhone but it took me running up an app, waiting a few seconds for it to start and then navigating through about 4 options to get to it. On the Samsung it's turn on and tap. 2 seconds maximum to a pretty powerful torch.
  4. Configurability: I was a bit annoyed the other day after I had tried several times to get the Samsung lock screen and PIN to act like they do on the iPhone. What I wanted was when I turn the phone off for the "swipe" screen to appear straight away when I turn it back on. That helps me for example to avoid accidentally opening apps when turning it on say by accident in my pocket. However I want a PIN too but only if say the phone has been off for 30 minutes, otherwise if I'm turning it on to check stuff more frequently than that I have to enter a PIN every time. Annoyingly there is no way to do this natively on the phone. But then I realised what I was doing wrong. I was thinking like an iOS person. Just because there is no way to do this natively doesn't mean there isn't an app for it. And 10 seconds googling found there is indeed something called "Delayed lock" available from the Google Play store. It works a treat doing exactly what I want and is even more configurable than the iPhone was in this area. Now it did cost £1.59 which is not ideal (that feature came free on the iPhone) but my point is broader than just this one annoyance. Whenever I came across bugbears like this on an iPhone (and there were plenty of them) there was no way around it (well apart from jailbreaking the phone but that can cause other problems with updates etc. so I didn't want to do this). I just had to put up with the limitations. Whereas on the Samsung there is often a third party solution. It is a mindset I need to get into more having been hidebound by iOS for so long!
  5. Swipe keyboard: This sort of fits into the previous point in that you can select different keyboards so it is configurable. However the swipe keyboard deserves a mention all of its own. I recall listening to the PC Pro podcast a couple of years ago when their technical editor Darien Graham-Smith was going on about how great this was. Just from the description I could tell I was going to like it but as I was on iOS I had no chance of using it. And lo and behold it is one of the best features about the Samsung. Instead of pecking away at the keyboard you simply swipe your finger around the keys you want to type almost drawing a shape between them. It is amazingly accurate. Not 100% but well over 95% in my experience and it does seem to learn too. Even when it gets it wrong there are several substitutes in a menu above the keyboard with a drop-down to access more if necessary. Makes text messages and knocking out e-mails on the phone so much easier. I would almost say switching has been worth it for this feature alone.
  6. Notification screen: Soooo much better than the iOS one. Massive amounts of configurability on there and quick easy routes to the apps reporting as well as shortcuts across the top for all the most obvious toggles like WiFi, GPS, Sound, Screen rotation, mobile data etc. Also a very handy shortcut to the settings at the top right.
  7. Settings: Again much more configurable than in iOS and also much more information available about every application from the app manager including permissions, breakdown of where the data associated with it is stored, cache, launch by default etc.
  8. Back button: Such a simple thing but at the bottom right of the device is a hidden button that only becomes visible when you tap it. It is the functional equivalent of a browser "back button". So in an app if you've gone to a sub-menu and you tap it it will go back to the higher screen. If you've jumped from one app to another (e.g. tapping on a link in Twitter that has opened a browser session) tapping back will take you back to where you were in Twitter. I would say 90% of the time this button operates in exactly the intuitive way I would expect. Occasionally it does something a bit unexpected but I am still getting used to all the quirks and compared with the iPhone which has nothing like this (no the Home button does not count!) it is a huge leap forward.
  9. Context button: In a similar fashion to the Back Button, on the left hand side of the phone is a context menu button. Depending on which app you are in this will behave differently usually bringing up various menu options but again very very useful and a big leap forward compared to the iPhone which again has nothing like this. Context options on an iPhone appear in all sorts of different places in apps. This is a known, set place for them an most apps take full advantage of it.
  10. It looks at you!: Now this one may be a bit freaky to some people but it turns out to be a very useful feature. When reading on my iPhone in bed at night I used to have to lock the screen rotation to portrait if I was reading on my side with the phone tilted. But with the Samsung there is an option called "smart rotation" which uses the phone's front-facing camera to look at your face, determine where your eyes are and decide what rotation is best given the orientation of your face! And it works surprisingly well, especially in the dark which is when I tend to need it most.
  11. File system access: As a techy it always used to irritate me that on the iPhone I had very little access to the file system. The only area directly accessible was the photo folder. Whereas on the Samsung I can access almost everything. This means I can plug it into my PC and treat it essentially like a USB drive copying files to and from it. It takes a bit of nous to know where things need to go but it is mostly intuitive e.g. a folder called "Music" for music etc. It's very fast copying too. Films can be copied onto there in less than a minute. Oh and there is a built in app (and also proprietary ones) that allow access to the file system directly on the device too so you don't need to be plugged into a PC to browse it.
  12. Apps update in the background: RSS feed apps, podcast apps and anything else that needs to be regularly updated have the ability to update in the background. So for example I have my RSS feed application update every 30 minutes periodically. My podcast application (Beyond Pod) updates at 3am every morning and I have configured it to only download when there is a WiFi connection so I am not going to find when I am away for the night somewhere without WiFi that it burns through my mobile data allowance. It is a world away from how I used to update my podcasts using iTunes and having to sync all the time. Which brings me to...
  13. No need to sync: In fact there is no sync application provided. I believe there is one available to download but the phone, applications and the entire ecosystem is designed never to need to. Three weeks in and I am not missing this at all, indeed it is a real bonus not to have to continually remember to sync my phone with my PC. I now plug it when I want to e.g. to copy video onto it.
  14. Downloading files: On websites now when there is a file available to download I can click it, see it download in my notification screen and then when ready open it. If it's an MP3 it can be listened to, a PDF can be read and so on. iPhones are so locked down you cannot do this in this way.
  15. Choice of apps for opening files and links: When clicking on links or files you are usually given a choice of which apps to use and the ability to say "Always" or "Just once". So much better than iOS which if it was able to open would simply use the default (usually its own application).
  16. Pop-out video player: When playing videos you can tap a button and the video pops out into a small window that can be moved around and stays on top while you use another app. E.g. I can play Solitaire while watching a downloaded TV episode or film.
  17. Split screen: Some apps (only a small subset at the moment) can be run split screen at the same time as another one. The split runs horizontally across the middle of the screen or vertically if you have the phone rotated. I believe this feature is only available on the Note because of the large screen size and to be honest at the moment it is of limited use until more apps are programmed to make use of it. Could be very useful eventually though.
  18. Pen: Or as Jennie Rigg calls it "The poking stick". A bit like the PDAs of yore the Samsung has a built in stylus or "Pen" as it calls it. This allows you to scribble notes, draw pictures, annotate calendars and do all sorts of other stuff. There is also a fascinating feature within the Note application that allows you to go into "formula mode". There you can write out formulas (e.g. y=x2) which will then be recognised and with a tap on the "Search" button it will take you to Wolfram Alpha, look up the formula and provide you with information such as solutions, graphs and all manner of other useful stuff. I've even tried it with differential equations and it is surprisingly good at interpreting my scrawl. I've no idea how far this scope goes but it seems like it is very wide-ranging indeed. Now I have not done maths like this since university in the mid-90s so this is a curiosity for me rather than something I would use for anything practical but I suspect there will be students all over the world that will find this invaluable. I know I would have done when I needed to know this stuff!
  19. Miscellaneous niceness: Animated backgrounds, built in FM radio (only when headphones are plugged in - they are the antennae!), when headphones are plugged in a bespoke menu with relevant apps appears, flash websites work.

Cons of switching from iPhone/iOS to Samsung Galaxy Note II/Android

  1. No mute button: This is irritating. I used to be able to mute my phone just by reaching into my pocket and flicking the very handy mute switch. Now I have to turn the phone on swipe down and tap. Might not sound like much but I do miss my mute button!
  2. Crashes: My iPhones were not immune from crashing but the Samsung seems to do so more often. I also sometimes find when installing apps that they behave a bit oddly until I reboot. For example I noticed this with the "Delayed Lock" app mentioned earlier. I guess it's the downside of a more open system. Also the "TouchWiz" built in Samsung front end for Android seems to throw its toys out of its pram a couple of times a day. I am hoping that once I stop installing so much new stuff this will settle down but it is a (minor) annoyance.
  3. Ergonomics: The iPhone because of its smaller and more compact form factor was easier to handle. There were some games (e.g. Drop7) that I could play on it single handed. That is not really possible on the Samsung. It generally requires two hands to do anything more simple than selecting a podcast or reading on it. This is a trade-off for all the benefits having the bigger screen brings.
  4. The Pen is too sensitive: One of the "features" of the pen is that the phone senses it even when you are just hovering it above the screen. This makes it harder in my view to accurately write, draw and scribble stuff with erroneous etchings appearing in places I didn't intend them to. I cannot find a way to turn this sensitivity down/off either although I am willing to concede there may be a way that I have missed. I looked pretty hard though!
  5. Noises: I can't find a way to turn the noises off when e-mail arrives. Minor annoyance and I am quite getting used to it now but it wasn't ideally what I wanted. Maybe there is a way to do this but I am buggered if I can find it. The obvious setting by the way before anyone comments does not work.
  6. Tap to top: Supposedly you can double tap on the top of the phone and this will scroll to the top in e-mail, twitter etc. like tapping on the top of the screen does on an iPhone. Doesn't work. At least it doesn't on mine and looking on forums I am far from the only one. Maybe I've set something wrong but I don't think so. Living with it at the moment. A moderate niggle.

And that's about it.

You can probably tell from the sheer amount of pros vs cons that I am not regretting my shift out of the Apple ecosystem into the brave new world of Samsung and Android.

I would certainly recommend the move for anyone like me who is frustrated with the lack of openness that Apple products have built in. You do however need to get your hands a bit dirty with settings, configurations and manual file copying to get the most out of the Samsung so if you are frightened put off by that you might be better off sticking with iOS.

For everyone else, you should consider joining me when you're next ready to upgrade. I doubt you'll regret it!

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Head of comedy attends internal BBC climate change meeting!!!111

Tom Chivers has a piece today in The Telegraph which argues that the BBC does not need to be balanced in the debate on climate change because the facts aren't balanced.

He makes reference to a meeting that the BBC held to review its editorial policy on this subject a few years ago.

In the comments below the piece, thefilthyengineer makes an excellent point regarding one of the attendees of this meeting:

Well they did include:
Jon Plowman, Head of Comedy.
And that's not a joke. I have the full list.

HEAD OF COMEDY!!!!!!??? What on EARTH was he doing at a meeting like this!!!???

YOU COULDN'T MAKE IT UP!!! I mean COME ON BBC, what the sweet Jesusing FUCK are you playing at!!? Having the head of a department so frivolous attend a meeting on something that is not directly related to comedy!??

What do you mean the BBC needs to have balance in comedy output too? What, programmes like "Have I Got News For You" and "The News Quiz" need to try and maintain balance in their guests and it would be a good idea for managers overseeing this process to be up to speed on and input into these policy decisions?



Sunday 11 November 2012

Super soaraway hypocrisy


Two years ago:

Hattip @scolvey on Twitter

Linkage for Sunday, 11th November 2012

The big lesson from the US election is not a new one, but a very old one - Andrew Rawnsley

Debunking Two Nate Silver Myths | Good Math, Bad Math

So much the "liberal bias" in the US media. If anything the polls were biased in favour of the GOP:

Doing politics in plain sight | Shifting Grounds - Excellent piece on how politicians need to speak in plainer language from Emma Burnell

Excellent take down of The Daily Mail by Martin Robbins - From recent The Pod Delusion 3rd birthday party bash that I sadly couldn't attend in the end.

What You Can Get Away With (Nick Barlow's blog) » Blog Archive » Thoughts on internal elections

David Cameron, Phillip Schofield and mob justice in the age of the internet – Telegraph Blogs

Burn them! Burn the funny-looking, the strange, the loners! They might be paedos! All of them! – Telegraph Blogs - Dan Hodges is increasing in my estimations as a columnist. This piece is an example of how good he can be,

Heresy Corner: A prophetess named Janet - Heresiarch on Janet Daley's delusions

Phillip Schofield's List shows the danger of treating internet rumours as news

The way we look at women is worrying, even when it's women doing the looking - Deborah Orr

Is Tom Watson in danger of fuelling a new paedophile panic?

++ SHOCK! HORROR! LIB DEM MP CAUGHT UP IN NEW EXPENSES ROW! via @libdemvoice - Stephen Tall exposes a non-story from the Manchester Evening News

Victory for Pot Means Beginning of the End of Our Crazy Drug War - The Daily Beast

The end of the Tea Party? - I reeeally hope so!

Interesting to see for all the fuss about "Joe The Plumber" in 2008, when he stood as a candidate in 2012 he got thrashed

And finally: Ladies and gentlemen. We've all been waiting for it. I give you the Mitt Romney Butt Plug:

Saturday 10 November 2012

"How STV resembles the Grand National" or "Why Prateek Buch deserves his FPC place"

I stood in an election recently.

It was for the Lib Dems Federal Policy Committee.

I lost.

The elections use Single Transferable Vote and I was in the bottom quarter of candidates in terms of first preferences. I was eliminated fairly early on during the count. I make no complaints. It was my first time in an internal election like this and I have learnt some useful stuff that will hopefully mean I have a better shot next time.

One person who did not lose in the FPC election however was Prateek Buch. He was elected from the 63 candidates who stood to one of the 15 places available. He is a good candidate and has done lots of high quality work, not least in the area of one of my particular hobby-horses, drugs policy.

However if you look at the election tables which show how the STV count progressed (available here) you would not have guessed at the end of round 1 of counting that Prateek would have been elected. At that stage, after only first preferences were counted he was in joint 27th place, way off the pace.

But this is one of the great things about STV. Of the just over 1,200 voting reps who make up the electorate 19 wanted him on the committee as their first choice. There were more voters who wanted other people on as their first choice. But as the count progressed, something interesting started to happen. As lower preferences from eliminated candidates began to be redistributed and surpluses were also factored in, Prateek started to inch up the pecking order. Slowly at first, but by the time we get to the latter stages of the count he is really piling the transfers on. In this phase he is regularly getting 2, 3 or 4 transfers and this pace keeps him in contention. In the end he just pokes his nose over the finishing line bagging 14th place with 64.05 votes. If he'd been 3 transfers shy of this he would not have got onto the committee.

Tracing this through it does show to me how a transferable electoral system can be a thing of beauty. It actually does take on the auspices of something like a horse race. You can see at each stage who is keeping up and who is falling behind. You can also see which horses have fallen at each stage (I fell at fence 12 for example). Perhaps it is because I am a psephological geek but it was rather exciting to go through the stages and observe how the fortunes of different candidates fared as it progressed.

It is invidious to try and say what would have happened if this election has been run using first past the post. Voters would have voted differently and it is never clear how the final result would have differed. What is clear is that Prateek may only have had the first preferences of 19 voters, but there were many more than that (more than 3 times as many) who preferred him to many of the other candidates. He may not have had as deep support as some of the much higher placed candidates such as Lord Rennard or Evan Harris. But he certainly had a decent breadth of support. Crucially his wider appeal as a candidate put him above most of the candidates who after the first round looked like they were better placed.

During the AV campaign last year, one of the criticisms used by the "No" camp was that transferable systems "allow losers to win". That was always based on a specious reading of how AV works and used an extremely narrow definition of "loser". It was essentially anyone who did not have a plurarlity of votes after round one. AV is effectively just a single member variant of STV but it does also allow a candidate with a breadth of support to win even if a plurality (although not a majority) of voters prefer another candidate as their first choice.

I have to say that I am much happier with a process that allows such sophistication in voting preferences and for all that information to feed into the result.

Prateek Buch very much deserves his place on the committee.

As for me, I clearly need many more first preferences next time I stand to have a chance. It's all very well having a breadth of support, but you have to stay in the race long enough for them to count!

Thursday 8 November 2012

Linkage for Thursday, 8th November 2012

Just because you’re winning around Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity doesn’t mean you’re winning around America excellent from @DPJHodges

If she's such a fan of CSI, how come she didn't seem to know the basics about forensics and investigation techniques?!

Why Nate Silver Won, And Why It Matters

Oh, Lovely: This Voting Machine in Pennsylvania Isn't Accepting Votes for Obama

The GOP thought that the rhetoric and positioning of 1980 and 1984 could win again in the America of 2012.

Hurrah for Colorado! 57% vote to legalise and regulate marijuana like alcohol.

Was this advert complaining how little money Lambeth council have been given by the govt paid out of council funds?

Not sure why Guido is defending the tabloids on Savile: (my comment here:

Labour's return to the right | John Kampfner | Comment is free | The Guardian

Google expects Apple to block its not crap iOS maps app • The Register

To promote the living wage, we need to reform the tax system

The living wage is fine as far as it goes, but the Lib Dems can be bolder via @libdemvoice

This latest Tory rebellion was not just cynical, it was completely bogus | Andrew Rawnsley | Comment is free | The…

Should Alice marry Bob? » The Spectator

Program Your Own Mind 2: Avon and Somerset PCCs - Variety and choice!

Mitt Romney's narrow paths to the White House » Spectator Blogs

We need the right to recall MPs more than ever - Spot on. The government needs to fulfill its commitment on this

I saw the police violence at Orgreave. It's time for the truth to come out | Ken Capstick | Comment is free |…

An open letter to Melanie Phillips

We’re All A Package Of Good And Not-So-Good Attributes - Chris Bowers - Dale and Co.

Howzat?! Charlotte Henry takes down one of her critics in forensic fashion

BMJ Group blogs: Journal of Medical Ethics blog » Blog Archive » All Right, Peter: I’ll Bite


Even a superstorm is no excuse for journalists not to check Twitter trolling | Heidi Moore

"Is this math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better?"

Monday 5 November 2012

Is the number of jobs the right measure?

Jobs, jobs, jobs.

More jobs, fewer jobs.

Employment up, unemployment down.

Employment down, unemployment up.

Statistics on how many jobs there are and how many people are employed in them are thrown around like political confetti in our national discourse. It is axiomatic that "more jobs" is better and "fewer jobs" is worse.

I am not immune to this feeling. Of course I feel better if I see employment rising and unemployment falling. I run a small business and any signs that the economy is improving is good news as far as that is concerned.

But in the longer term, is the number of jobs the right measure?

I listened to a podcast recently from Freakonomics Radio entitled "We the Sheeple". I've been a fan of the Freakonomics guys for a good while now. I am aware that some of their claims do not always stand up to scrutiny but they often make me think about things in a different way to how I would ordinarily do so and from a different perspective.

In this podcast, Stephen Dubner interviewed Bryan Caplin, author of "The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies". I think the title speaks for itself. He talked about a number of policies and positions that political candidates take because they have to in order to be elected but which is his view are economically irrational or in other ways make little sense.

The most resonant point he made for me was how the number of jobs in an economy is always, always seen as a vital measure and how if the number is not high and increasing politicians promise to fix this. But in Bryan's view this is irrational for the long term economy.

He gave the example of the industrial revolution. During that period, a lot of jobs were lost as farms and factories became mechanised. He then pointed out how if that was happening today, there would be a huge outcry from the voters about how they were losing their jobs and politicians would feel duty bound to promise to do something about it. But the only thing they could really do in the short to medium term would be to implement laws to slow or halt technological progress. If politicians had been successful at doing this 200 years ago then our advancement could have been severely hampered.

The people who lost their jobs and their descendants did find other work to do eventually. It's just that it wasn't obvious at the time what that work would be.

We are in a similar position now. There is a huge revolution taking place in terms of manufacturing moving away from our shores and service and computer related industries evolving at a rapid pace. Some of these changes involve the loss of jobs. It it inevitable. And it is far from clear what jobs will replace them. But without this evolution our advancement as a society will be held back.

I realise I am dangerously close to saying that "unemployment is a price worth paying". But actually it is more fundamental than that. We essentially have no choice in the matter if we want to advance, just as those industrial pioneers in the 18th and 19th centuries did not.

Bryan is of course right about the political ramifications of this. No politician is going to stand on a platform of "Fewer jobs for now, uncertainty for the future!".

There is not really an answer to this. Politicians have to win elections and society needs to advance. What is fascinating is to watch how these tensions are resolved when they rub up against each other. The best politicians are the ones who can walk this tightrope and not hamper our long term future with short term measures whilst reassuring people we are moving in the right direction.

Friday 2 November 2012

Hasn't David Gauke got a point?

The New Statesman is highlighting a "Quote of the Day" from Treasury minister David Gauke today regarding the child benefit cuts (taken from an interview by Paul Waugh and Sam Maccrory on Politics Home):

"I think there’s a lot of people who are in favour of reducing the deficit but then when it’s something that affects them there can be a degree of fiscal nimbyism."

Well hasn't Gauke got a point? This will affect the top 15% of families. You can't get a much more progressive attempt to cut the benefits bill.

Of course people are going to complain when their benefits are cut but I'd rather it was this than further cuts elsewhere in the benefits system. If I had my way "universal benefits" like the winter fuel allowance and free bus passes would also be means tested.

I'm not claiming the way in which this policy is being implemented is good by the way. It's very messy but the principle that cuts should fall where possible on those with the most income is surely one the New Statesman should be applauding?