31 August 2010

Government Acknowledges a Key Anti-Prohibitionist Argument

A Home Office press release from 19th August (don't say that this blog isn't at the cutting edge of political comment! *ahem*) gives a bit more detail on the legislation that will enact a temporary ban on legal highs (my emphasis):

The government will introduce new legislation which will enable police to confiscate suspected substances and the UK Border Agency will seize shipments entering the country. The penalty for supply will be a maximum of 14 years in prison and an unlimited fine. Possession of a temporarily banned substance for personal use would not be a criminal offence to prevent the unnecessary criminalisation of young people.

This is significant: the government has acknowledged that a drug offence has a negative impact on (young) people's lives and is taking steps to avoid unnecessary criminalisation. This is accepting that there is credence in one of the anti-prohibitionist arguments.

In a way, this raises more questions than it answers: Why is it OK to criminalise suppliers to "send a clear message", but not possessors? And why is prosecuting drug possession necessary criminalisation for some substances, but unnecessary for others?

Anyway, regardless of the answers to these questions, the temporary ban on legal highs remains a deeply illiberal authoritarian measure: it will persecute those who import and sell potentially safe substances. Chemicals will be found guilty until proven innocent at the whim of the Home Secretary of the day. It goes against the Lib Dem manifesto commitment for an evidence-based drugs policy.

But at least this bad law's cloud has a silver lining.

25 August 2010

IFS Study Shows What Won't Happen

What matters most in politics - How the decisions made will affect people? Or which parties happen to have announced which policies? If you're the IFS, it seems you think the latter matters more.
The IFS have taken the government's Emergency Budget from June in isolation and shown that the policies announced in it will have a regressive effect on their own.

However, the public won't simply be affected by the June Budget. The previous government also held a Budget just a few months earlier in March. This has two implications:

1. The policy decisions from June weren't made in a vacuum - they were adding upon policies that had just been announced in March. The June Budget did not reverse any of the March Budget, with the one exception of cancelling Cider Duty rises.

2. The impact on people's livelihoods will be total effect of both March's and June's Budgets. The IFS have ignored the impact of March's Budget and only reported on the impact of June's. This is not what is going actually happen to people.

So while this is of little economic relevance, it is more arguably of political relevance. It may tell us about the values of the new coalition government (albeit in a very limited way - see point 1 above). I hope the IFS realises it is engaging in a primarily political debate rather than an economic one.

Worse, by choosing to present the statistics in this way, it is providing ammunition for Labour to use against the Tories and Lib Dems. Given the IFS prides itself on its neutrality, this is a rather surprising decision.

UPDATE 11am: The IFS's report does contain the correct graph that includes the effect of all tax and benefit changes. This is the one that we should be focussed on.

Let me be clear - this is still a regressive picture, and it is not a graph I can take any joy from. It still shows that some of the poorest households will be among the hardest hit. Sadly that is just the nature of benefit cuts - cuts that would have been made whoever was in power. However it does appear that some of the more wealthy, particularly in deciles 7, 8 and 9, will not be feeling their fair share of the pain.

I have redacted my last criticism of the IFS. The full report is far more balanced than I gave the IFS credit for. It is End Child Poverty who have chosen to highlight the misleading graph.

19 August 2010

AV Ballot Marking Must Be More Flexible

Thanks to a prompt from Liam Rhodes, I've had a quick look at the bill that will introduce the AV referendum (because I rock).

Here is what it says about how an elector should mark his/her ballot paper:

(1) In Schedule 1 to the 1983 Act (parliamentary elections rules), after rule 37 there is inserted—

“How votes are to be given

37A (1) A voter votes by marking the ballot paper with—

(a) the number 1 opposite the name of the candidate who is the voter’s first preference (or, as the case may be, the only candidate for whom the voter wishes to vote),

(b) if the voter wishes, the number 2 opposite the name of the candidate who is the voter’s second preference, and so on.

(2) The voter may mark as many preferences (up to the number of candidates) as the voter wishes.”

This isn't good enough. There will be some voters who choose not to use their lower preferences and will continue to mark their ballot using the traditional 'X'. Their vote should be valid, and be considered to be the same as a number 1 with no other preferences.

Some voters may accidentally miss out a number, e.g. mark their preferences with the numbers 1, 2 and 4. Mistakes like this should not invalidate the ballot, and the preferences should be reallocated as if the 4 was a 3. The bill doesn't make this clear.

Some voters may even do unexpected things like mark their ballot papers with fractions, or roman numerals. It needs to be made clear that these ballots, when a clear numerical preference has been shown, should be considered valid.

I fear that the rules laid out in the bill as it stands are too prescriptive, and will lead to ballot papers being wrongly rejected.

A Question for Majority Government Supporters

The supporters of retaining First Past The Post all seem to be supporters of majority government - where only one party is in control of the government and makes all the decisions that face the country. One of their main arguments against changing away from FPTP is that it would increase the chance of coalition governments - where several parties work together, compromise and moderate each other in the national interest.

I have a question for the Conservative and Labour politicians, members, activists and supporters who wish to retain majority government. Why do you want to guarantee that your main political rivals - whose values you oppose - are guaranteed to have periods of unfettered power over the country?

Because this is what supporting majority government guarantees. The option of (a small fraction of) the electorate to kick out unpopular majority governments and replace them with another will inevitably mean at times kicking out your party and installing your rival.

The effect of this means that Labour FPTP supporters are saying that it was right that Thatcher got unmoderated control of the UK in 1979, and Tory FPTP supporters are saying it was right that Blair got unrestrained power in 1997.

And if you don't support that, yet still support majority government? That must mean you want your party to have power over the country forever. That's not democracy, that's dictatorship.

17 August 2010

Your Freedom - Why Did They Do It?

The government's Your Freedom site is an embarrassing mess. It is full of suggestions that are wither well-rehearsed opinions on the issues of the day, nothing to do with restoring liberty, or repeat suggestions. The whole project has basically become an online stress ball for people who believe what they read in the papers.

So what's the point? Practically none of the 'ideas' there are even slightly inspired. I really hope that the government didn't set the site up as a cynical gesture to give the false impression of fake interest in the views of the great unwashed. The public's response if nothing of substance comes of the site will be equally cynical, and the government is pretty brain-dead if it didn't realise this.
But Cameron, Clegg and their spads aren't stupid.

So allow me to indulge in a little fantasy: isn't it possible that they need the public to suggest things that the government itself doesn't want to be seen suggesting itself? If there was a can of worms the coalition feel needs opening, but doesn't want to be the ones to first tug the ring-pull, this website would be the ideal cover.

Now what can of worms could the coalition have in mind? Allow me to delve deeper into my happy fantasyland: what if that issue was drug policy reform? It's not totally crazy - both the Prime Minister and his Deputy have a history on this. David Cameron went on record before he became his party's leader talking about the decades of failure of drugs policy and the need to consider alternatives, as did Nick Clegg in his MEP days. The problem is those pesky tabloid journalists who would tear them and all their distant relatives a new one if they dared suggest any course other than prohibition. However if a consultation took place triggered by overwhelming public demands from the Your Freedom website (which was always bound to attract suggestions that prohibition should be repealed), this would be politically more manageable.

OK, back to reality - I think this is all unlikely! It's both too Machiavellian and would be too good to be true. But if it does happen, I reserve the right to shout 'I TOLD YOU SO' whilst grinning wildly (and possibly drooling slightly).

Anyway, stay tuned for my next blogpost on how the moon landings were faked ;)

Germany to Allow Medical Cannabis

Germany's Centre-Right/Liberal coalition government is to introduce laws that will permit the supply and use of cannabis for medicinal purposes.

Doctors could write prescriptions for cannabis, and pharmacies would be authorised to sell the plant once the law had been adjusted, a member of the junior coalition party, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), said Monday.

Marijuana would also be permitted for use as a pain reliever for the terminally ill in hospices and other care facilities, making it a legal part of their emergency pain-relief stocks.

This is yet another European country relaxing their drug laws (a little).

Can you think of any other Centre-Right/Liberal coalition governments that could choose to take similar drug liberalising steps? Hmmmmm...

My New Favourite Derivative Work

Take this bland pop crap from Justin Bieber...

...and time stretch it to make it 800% slower. The result is this 35 minute ambient masterpiece:

J. BIEBZ - U SMILE 800% SLOWER by Shamantis

So simple, but so effective. It reminds me a bit of the Brian Eno track used in the Lib Dem's "28 Days Later"-esque election broadcast. Try playing them together; it works rather nicely.

One of the many cultural revolutions the Internet has sparked is the explosion in derivative works. From mash-ups to remakes to photoshops to remixes, the creativity of some people knows no bounds. I hope this gets considered as the Lib Dems develop their policies on IT and IP over the coming 12 months.

I can't put the wider case as well as this video - 20 minutes well spent, I promise:

Prohibition Doesn't Add Up

Alex Angus* MacQueen's excellent Channel 4 series "Our Drugs War" concluded last night. The last episode was the most interesting, which demonstrated how the illegal drug trade has created government corruption in Afghanistan on an unimaginable scale.

However I'd like to return to a statistic from the first episode, which is that a paltry 1% of heroin is successfully seized by UK authorities. The UN estimate that to have a significant impact on the drug trade this needs to be raised to at least 60%.

Lets combine this with the current annual £1.5 billion budget the UK government spends on drug law enforcement.

So to get to 60% heroin seizure, the budget for drug law enforcement needs to be raised to £90 billion. This would make drug enforcement about the same size as the NHS, and would mean an extra £1,500 in tax per head every year.

But wait! The £1.5 billion is for enforcing all drugs, not just heroin. So the budget would need to be increased to significantly more than £90 billion.

But wait! This ignores the law of diminishing returns. The 1% currently being seized will be some of the easiest heroin to find. So the budget would need to be increased to significantly more than significantly more than £90 billion.

But wait! 60% was the bottom end of the UN's estimate. It may need to be up to 70% seizure rate to have a significant estimate. So the budget may need to be increased to significantly more than significantly more than significantly more than £90 billion.

Frankly, the exact number is irrelevant. The government has a deficit to reduce, and is trying to cut departmental budgets, not give them a 6000% increase.

Trying to solve the problem of heroin abuse by law enforcement is futile. We desperately need to start trying alternatives.

*UPDATE 11am - oops, thanks Ewan!

4 August 2010

John Denham - A Fisking

After an excellent analysis by Martin Kettle on Labour's cynical political games over the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, it was inevitable that Labour would send a Welterweight spokesperson into the ring to respond.

John Denham strapped on his boxing gloves, and produced this effort. Sadly his argument has more holes in it than machine-gunned Emmental.

Off we go:

I've been an electoral reformer all my political life. Chairing the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, I'm hardly likely to "play fast and loose" on this issue, as Martin Kettle alleges

Martin didn't criticise you personally in his article, John. (By the way, check out that link - their website hasn't been updated for 5 years. Rather telling...)

Our support for a simple AV referendum bill is unconditional. But there is no philosophical, legal, practical or parliamentary reason for combining the referendum with boundary changes: it's simply that the changes favour the Tories, who won't support the Lib Dems' referendum without them.

What? First there's no "practical or parliamentary reason", but then John concedes that the Bill needs to stay in its current form to get the Tories to support the referendum - that's an excellent practical reason to have a single Bill. By the way, the suggestion that the changes will favour the Tories is highly contestable.

But he's right to say that the case for reducing the number of MPs and equalising constituencies should be considered on its merits, not from party advantage.


It does take more Tory votes to elect a Tory MP.

True. There are 33,000 votes per Labour MP, and 35,000 per Tory MP. Oh yeah, and 120,000 votes per Lib Dem MP. It is that third number (and the equivalent numbers for the other minor parties) which is the outrageous discrepancy that needs be removed from Britain's electoral process.

The real answer is the more proportional system that the Tories won't countenance.

Sorry, are you saying Labour will? Ha! Why did Labour do nothing about it for 13 years, despite promise after promise in your manifestos? Why did Labour vote against the proportional STV system earlier this year?

Most electoral reformers have concluded that AV for the Commons and an elected House of Lords is the best attainable constitutional reform at the moment,

You'd best vote for it then, John.

but this pragmatic response doesn't allow the Tories to use "fairness" as the basis for rigging the boundaries.

I repeat: the suggestion that altering the boundaries will favour the Tories is highly contestable.

Kettle (and Nick Clegg) seem to argue that if Labour tried and failed (as we did) to register these voters, no other party need even bother.

Blatantly untrue. The coalition will be introducing individual voter registration in an attempt to tackle this problem left by Labour.

Voters want their MP to represent an identifiable community: current constituencies are mostly centred on real places.

This is a minority concern at best. Most voters don't know who there MP is, never mind which constituency they live in or where the boundary is drawn. I know of no empirical evidence that backs up John's claim, so it is just as valid for me to argue this: what voters really want is to ensure the electoral map is drawn up in a way that ensures a fair level of representation, no matter where you live.

But here is the most outrageous claim:

And the coalition parties will instruct the Boundary Commissions to respect the boundaries which favour them.

This is a smear, pure and simple. There is no reason to believe this to be true. No-one has any idea of what boundaries the Commission will come up with, so it is ridiculous to assume dishonour of this kind before the process has even begun. The only time any political party has engaged in gerrymandering of this scale was the Labour Party in the late 60's.

It is to John Denham's discredit that he has sunk so low.