29 September 2009

AV Smoke and Mirrors

So Gordon Brown has pledged to have a referendum on voting reform if* Labour wins the next election.

But hold your horses. The voting system up for grabs would be Alternative Vote. AV is not proportional, and is not really any better than the current FPTP system.

No independent body is suggesting a change to AV, so for Brown to choose this system for a referendum is simply trying to distract the genuine debate over making the result elections properly represent the way the public voted. Indeed, UnlockDemocracy has come out firmly against:
Parliament will remain as unrepresentative – and subsequently unresponsive – as ever. There is no demand amongst the wider public for this change and it is hard to see how a referendum on the subject will actually motivate people to come out and vote.
And Channel 4 News's Gary Gibbon sees right through this ploy:
if AV (alternative voting) had been used in the 2005 general election it would have given Labour an even bigger majority – 86 seats rather than 64 on Electoral Reform Society projections
The Lib Dem spokespeople need to get out there right away and trash this gerrymandering hoax.

* That's a big if, by the way.

Labour Steal BNP Policy

In his final conference speech as Labour leader, Gordon Brown has announced that teenage parents are to no longer be given council houses, but to be placed into supervised homes instead.

Greg Stone, Lib Dem PPC for Newcastle East, made an excellent spot: this sounds just like the policy of a rival political party... the BNP.
...there be no council flats and no welfare benefits available to unmarried mothers... Instead they will be placed in ‘mother & baby homes’. Here they will receive academic education as well as parenting classes, plus courses covering all aspects of their social development. The homes will be run by ‘matron’ type figures. The homes should not be ‘institution’ like, but at the same time there will be rules which must be adhered to; such as a curfew of approx 9pm, a dress code which states skirts must come to at least the knees & no cleavage to be on show. Failure to comply with the homes’ rules will result in the mother being sent to prison, and the baby being taken in to care.
The BNP's policy was thoroughly fisked by Unite Against Fascism, and Charlotte Gore had a good rant about Labour adopting this idea.

25 September 2009

My Colour Scheme: Vote!

A few passers-by have commented on the colour scheme I use for my blog. Feedback has ranged from "beautiful colours" to "it has given me epilepsy".

So what do you think? A poll has popped up in the right-hand column of this page. Let me know what you think.

If the consensus is it needs changing, then I'll have another look at it at some point.

So what are you waiting for? Get voting!

...and feel free to use the comments if you have any specific objections (or compliments!)

Will People Vote For A Change?

The 'Vote For A Change' campaign is writing to David Cameron asking him to support a referendum on electoral reform. Cameron supports the existing first-past-the-post system, however reformers (like me) argue that this system doesn't properly represent the will of the electorate. The graphic shows the result of the 2005 general election was distorted by first-past-the-post. Labour gained far more MPs than their vote should allow, and the Lib Dems and others gained far fewer. Cameron wants to keep the current system as it is highly likely that the Tories will get the same unfair benefit at the next election that Labour enjoyed last time.

However, what their letter calls for is a referendum. I question whether this is the best strategy to get what we want.

The most likely scenario that a referendum would come about in the foreseeable future is if Labour call for one to be held during the general election ballot. Senior Labour figures have been openly raising speculation about whether it will happen. They have every reason to be considering it. In the polls, Labour are lagging behind the Tories by 16+ points, suggesting they are heading for a crushing defeat at the next election.

But the reason they are considering it now is the very same reason why a referendum could go horribly wrong for those of us who want reform. Labour will be painted by the Tories as using their last breath of power to desperately fiddle with the electoral system just to give them more power. And their assessment would be correct. If Labour were serious about reform they'd have made good on their promise years ago. Given Labour's unpopularity, many people may vote 'no' as a vote against Labour. If the result of a referendum was 'no', it would be devastating for the cause, probably putting it back half a century or more.

I want electoral reform. There needs to be a referendum on it (the public must have their say on such a fundamental change). But if Labour call for it now, isn't there a real risk of the Tories using Labour's unpopularity to get their way?

The counter-argument is this: if not now, when? The Tories are opposed to reform, and will never call for a referendum. Assuming they get in, it may well be over a decade before the Tories are out out of governemnt, and it pains me to say it but it currently looks more likely to be Labour rather than Lib Dem who will take over. Recent history has shown can't trust Labour to hold the referendum while they are popular.

However this is all speculative. Five years is a gigantic time in politics: there could be a hung parliament; the Tories might only be popular for one term; a Lib-Lab pact may be formed to oust them in 2014/15. A referendum under these circumstances would be far more winnable.

So I have my concerns over a sudden referendum. What do you think?

24 September 2009

Jeremy Hunt: BBC-Bashing Coward

The Conservative Shadow Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is developing a worrying habit. In his two years in the post, he has come out with numerous criticisms of the operation of the BBC. These include:While these comments did raise an eyebrow (the left one, to be precise), I let these go as they are criticisms on economic grounds... two are about cutting costs and the other about competition.

However his criticism today can't go unchallenged. Hunt has said that the BBC has an "innate liberal bias" and should increase the number of conservatives to their news-gathering team.

This crosses an important line. Given that it is funded by government via the licence fee (something I disagree with by the way), the BBC must be impartial from government interference in terms of its editorial policy. Similarly, the BBC must remain politically impartial given the way it is funded by force.

By no means is the BBC perfect. Their reports do on occasion contain bias. However this bias varies in its political outlook: sometimes statist, sometimes liberal; sometimes socialist, sometimes conservative; too often centrist. However there is no other organisation that does impartiality as well as the BBC. ITV News's constant moral outrage drives a statist agenda. Sky News's frequently yet subtly pushes its right-wing owner's motives. And of course newspapers don't even try.

So I reject Hunt's assessment. However I object much more strongly to him adding pressure on the BBC to bend to his political persuasion. In all likelihood he will be the Culture Secretary within a year's time, and behaviour like this will cast doubt on the BBC's political neutrality. Of course, this may be Hunt's real agenda: to weaken the BBC so that it can be cast to the scrapheap.

It is also incredibly cowardly of Hunt to choose to point his daggers at the BBC. Because it must remain impartial, it can't defend itself. Meanwhile, the rest of the media hates it as it is an untopplable competitor, and smears it at every opportunity.

Conversely, the genuinely biased news outlets get a free ride: politicians daren't criticise the constant distortions and fabrications of the newspapers, because they fear reprisals. Most newspapers are rabidly right-wing; I wonder why he chooses not to criticise them?

If Hunt genuinely wants to sort out bias, he would gain much more credibility of he spoke out about the huge distortions in the press, rather than attacking the animal that can't fight back.

Criminal Love

Baroness Scotland's "illegal" immigrant cleaner Loloahi Tapui and her British husband Alexander Zivancevic have unsurprisingly been arrested on suspicion of immigration offences. Baroness Scotland has been hoisted by her own petard; excellent karma. But I have a great deal of sympathy for Loloahi and Alexander.

The Daily Mail uncovered details of the couple's background last week. In summary, Loloahi arrived in the UK on a student visa, remained in the UK after it had expired, managed to marry in a C of E church, gained a marriage certificate and therefore could appear to be a British citizen and gain employment.

Put yourself in the shoes of Loloahi. She (completely legally) spent a year in the UK. During that time she would have been an active member of society. She met loads of new people, become friends with some, and entered a relationship and fell in love with one of her acquaintances. Similarly, Alexander also met and fell in love with her. Completely normal behaviour, and surely a very positive thing to happen in their lives.

The year passes by and her visa expires. We don't know if she attempted to renew her visa and failed, or if she suspected that trying to extend her right to remain in the UK would be futile. But she wanted to stay with the man she loved.

Yes, I know, it sounds like the plot of a corny love story. But in stories where a couple's love overcomes the forces that are pulling them apart, we always root for love; it is part of being human. So we should all be rooting for Loloahi and Alexander.

This case is certainly not a one-off. A friend of mine has needed to jump through hoops in order to keep his foreign-born girlfriend (now his wife) in the country. It has cost them thousands of pounds, countless hours of bureaucracy, being questioned as if they were suspects of a crime, and they've needed to bend a few rules. But I know they don't regret it for a second as it meant being able to stay together. They were lucky that they could manage to keep together without breaking any laws, but those who aren't so lucky won't give up and will break the law. As Meatloaf sang, "I would do anything for love, but I won't do that". Perhaps 'that' means not flouting a country's immigration laws... although it does seem trivial compared to running to hell and back.

'Tough' clamp-downs on immigrants are meant to benefit British citizens. But not only do deportations have a terrible impact on the migrant's life, it also means tearing apart relationships formed with British people.

So looking back at Loloahi. She has hurt no-one. She was working and wasn't costing the taxpayer a penny. She has brought love to a British citizen. Why would anyone want to see her deported? I have no idea.

18 September 2009

Naughty Pie Chart Perspective

Lynne Featherstone's website is undergoing a revamp. The 'Under Construction' banners make it clear that this is a work-in-progress, but early indications are that this is a very nice job and is raising the bar for other MPs and PPCs.

Sadly however I must take issue with the pie-chart showing the vote in her constituency at the 2005 general election. It misleads the voter into thinking that her lead against Labour is bigger than it really is.

As you can see, a perspective has been added to the pie chart. The perspective has been chosen so that it puts the Labour sector at the 'back'. This makes the area of Labour's sector smaller. I did a quick hack of the image, and counted the pixels in each sector of the pie:

Compare these numbers to the ones shown on the pie chart from Lynne's site. The Labour vote visually appears to have been shrunk by nearly half. A clever but naughty trick.

In all likelihood this was done without Lynne's consent or approval. I also question whether we want to make it look like the Labour vote look smaller than it actually is. It might induce apathy in our vote if they feel there is less at stake. However the salient point I am making is that graphics should accurately portray the situation. We will lose the electorate's trust when we inevitably get caught.

This is a persistent problem. During the Norwich North by-election, the Conservatives fiddled with the height of the bars. The Sun recently misrepresented the result of an opinion poll by using the diameter rather than the area of circles to show the level of support.

I intend on producing some election graphics in the near future, and am also thinking of ways of quickly producing graphics during election night. I can assure you I won't be up to any of these naughty tricks!

UPDATE (17:15) - Simon Dickson, principal consultant at Puffbox (the designers of Lynne's new site), responded on his blog (in the comments):
No attempt to mislead with the graphic, purely a question of aesthetics. But if people feel it's misleading, we'll certainly take another look at it.
I am happy to take Simon's word on this, although I do think it should be corrected, as it is best to look impeccably clean. Let him know your opinion.

17 September 2009

Another Labour Drugs Fuck-Up

On his must read blog, Mark Easton reveals how the Home Office managed to waste six years of research and £6,000,000 reviewing drugs education in schools. What happened?
It emerges that they had failed to follow two of the most basic rules of such research:
• Make sure your sample is large enough
• Make sure you have a control group for comparison
This is troubling. For drug reforms to work, they need a competent government to do good research and create the necessary regulations around these dangerous substances.

Labour have been a total disaster around the issue of drugs. On top of the farce over the down-and-upgrading of cannabis, ignoring the advice on classifying ecstasy, and missing the opportunity to properly regulate legal highs, this latest fuck-up is the icing on the cake. And the signs are the Tories will be just as lamentable.

16 September 2009

'Heroin' Brand is Tainted

Further to my post yesterday on the benefits of prescribing heroin, I'd today like to reflect on the language used to sell drug reforms to the public.

In the mind of the public, the name Heroin is understandably associated with many negative connotations. It is linked to property crime, prostitution, gangs and decline. Heroin is seen as the cause of society's problems. So if a reformer says, "I propose giving Heroin to Heroin addicts," the immediate reaction is hostile, and there is an uphill struggle to break down that hostility and convince people it is a good idea.

Now lets twist that sentence slightly: "I propose giving Diamorphine to Heroin addicts". It means exactly the same thing, but it sounds less worrying. We already prescribe Methadone to Heroin addicts, and Diamorphine is more effective and has fewer negative outcomes. Methadone prescription doesn't suffer from anywhere near the levels of hostility compared to Heroin Diamorphine prescription.

Of course journalists will inevitably ask, "aren't Diamorphine and Heroin the same thing?", but that depends on how you define Heroin. We can disassociate the two words by saying, "Not really. Heroin is a street drug, and the strength and purity of street drugs is variable, which is what makes it extra-dangerous. Diamorphine is a clinical drug with a fixed strength, so it doesn't suffer from these dangers." The liberal use of language can make drug reforms easier to stomach and make it politically easier for governments to adopt beneficial reforms.

Sadly it may now be too late to re-brand prescribed heroin, but using with other names for the drugs under reform could help win the propaganda-war on drug-policy. For instance, "legalise MDMA" might not sound as scary as "legalise Ecstasy".

15 September 2009

Reporting The Politics Game

And today's top story is....

Gordon Brown Says a Word!

This is the first time he has said the word "cut" with reference to what Labour will do with spending in the future. The Tories say he is now in "full retreat" on his previous position on spending.

Is this really the most important thing happening at the moment?

Let me be clear: the Prime Minister outlying his overall plan for Government spending in the coming months and years, indeed a different plan from the Government's previous policies, is important; quite possibly today's top news story. What is not of primary importance to the country is that he has used a particular word that he was using a few months ago to attack his opponents. That is interesting, and yes it is newsworthy, but it is not the most salient event.

This may seem like I'm being fastidious. However I think it is vital that politics is reported in a manner that has relevance to the public.

Impending spending cuts are very relevant: it means we may experience a drop in the quality of public services; it means that we aren't going to be as heavily taxed in order to reduce the country's deficit; it means that some public sector employees' jobs are at risk. Brown has changed his position, performed a U-turn, gone into reverse gear, backflipped, rotated pi radians, but this doesn't have anywhere near as big an impact on people's lives, and each time it is reported as the primary event, it makes politics seem that little less relevant.

I am not saying party political manoeuvring, political gossip, personality clashes and the general Westminster soap opera should go unreported. It is of interest to people who follow politics and is why some people open their newspapers and switch on the news bulletins each day. However political journalism is consumed by a wider audience than this, and the prominence aspects of a story get should be given careful consideration.

I have a sketchy memory of a recent BBC report. I can't remember the exact story, but I recall it was the announcement of a new economic policy. The anchor asked the correspondent, "so what about the politics of this," and the correspondent talked about how this could potentially wrong-foot the opposition, how it showed Brown trying to regain the narrative, blah blah blah. I thought to myself how anyone who wasn't a Westminster geek would find this at all relevant, and how it would reflect on their view of politics.

Politics affects people, and in a democracy it is crucial that the public feel it affects them. Election turnouts are dwindling, the feeling that all politicians are "the same"/"in it for themselves" is swelling. Disillusionment in politics is cause for real concern - see the BNP's successful election to the European Parliament caused by reduced turnout. I see this issue, as well as the problem of people's votes not meaning anything, as the root of the erosion of our democracy.

So, on the off-chance there are any journalists wandering by, I present to you my modus operandi for a good political report:
  1. A headline overview of the policy;
  2. An explanation of the important details of the policy;
  3. If required, a description of who in society it will affect;
  4. If interesting, what this means in terms of political parties and their personnel.
Our democracy is in your hands. (Eeeek)

Prescribing Heroin Win Win Win

There is one thing that seems to be agreed upon when it comes to heroin addiction: the current approach isn't working. However opinion is of course divided on the answer as to whether a 'tougher' or a 'softer' approach is required. Cue the usual rational carrot vs. reactionary stick argument.

Today's news brings a boost to the carrot camp: a trial run at prescribing heroin to addicts produced a big reduction in crime levels. More than half of all crime is drug-related, so any measure that can stop drug addicts needing to commit crimes will hugely benefit society.

However there are still some crumbs for the stick crowd. Heroin prescription currently costs £15,000 per addict per year. Their argument follows: as taxpayers we should not see our money spent on heroin prescriptions when we have decided not to spend money on life-extending cancer drugs.

As already pointed out by Anton Vowl, MTPT and no doubt others, that don't make sense. The cost of using the criminal justice system to pursue heroin addicts costs significantly more, even if it was effective (and we have 40 years of failure to show it isn't). A bit of Googlage found this report (pdf) from the year 2003/4 which states:
the economic and social costs of Class A drug use are estimated to be around £15.4 billion in 2003/04. This equates to £44,231 per year per problematic drug user. Problematic Class A drug use accounts for most of the total costs (99%, or £15.3 billion).
£15.4 billion... and guess who's paying! This number is also five years old now; it is likely to have risen in line with the rise of Class A drug use. It also only covers England and Wales.

Now this is for all Class A drug use, but lets adopt a similar policy was adopted for Britain's 280,000 addicts of all Class A drugs, and assume providing their prescription costed about the same as the current cost of prescribed heroin. That would cost £4.2 billion. It won't eradicate the economic and social costs, but they would be massively cut.

Transform Drugs Policy Foundation recently performed a much more rigorous cost-benefit analysis (pdf). They found that with the same number of drug users, the net saving of providing legal supplies of drugs would be £10.8 billion. Prescribing heroin will save the taxpayer money.

Finally I would like to ask: what if there wasn't a saving? What if the cost-benefit was neutral, or even slightly negative? My view is this is still worth doing, because it would make people happier. The chaotic life of a drug addict and their children, the misery of being a victim of crime, the impact of prostitution on a community, the spread of infectuous diseases, and the lure of gang culture... these are all symptoms of the criminal drug trade. Getting the drug dealers' customers an alternative way to get their fix will have a real impact on all these sources of misery, and make our society a better place to live.

2 September 2009

The Media Third-Rails Compassion

The media, including the BBC, has clearly decided that Megrahi should not have been released. For the record, I disagree, and while my opinion has motivated this headblurt, the rights and wrongs of the decision are not what this is about. I want the media to hold all politicians to account and give all opinions a fair fight. I have found the media to be severely lacking in the debate over the Megrahi release.

The only politician to defend the decision to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds was the decision-maker himself. MacAskill gave many interviews and faced robust questioning over the decision. Good.

No other politician has made the case for compassion. The 'not our decision' position taken by Gordon Brown and his Cabinet, and also by MacAskill's fellow Scottish Ministers, has also been robustly challenged by the media. Again, rightly so.

The other postion adopted, most prominently by David Cameron (so much for compassionate conservatism) and Nick Clegg, is the anti-release position. They argue that Megrahi's crimes were so terrible that dying in prison is the only just option. I have yet to hear Cameron, Clegg or any other politician arguing for Megrahi's continued detention during an interview have their position challenged. (Please please please point out any examples contrary to this statement that I have missed; I have been dying for an interviewer to question this opinion.)

The media has decided that not releasing Megrahi is the correct answer. On this evening's BBC News at Ten, Nick Robinson finished his analysis by remarking:
The one thing that I was struck [by] as I went through every word of this is at no stage did anyone suggest: why don't we simply say,
(dramatic pause)
"no, we won't release him".
His words clearly implied that the compassionate option was the wrong decision and that the politcal implications would be far less severe if Megrahi had not been released. Whether the political agenda would have moved on by now if a different position had been taken can only be speculated upon, but if Nick Robinson is right, the conclusion must be that if the government wants an easy time from the media, show no compassion.