Saturday, December 19, 2009

Why are parties of the Right sceptical of climate change?

Scepticism about climate change is said to be growing in the party most likely to win the British General Election, a party of the Right. What drives this scepticism?

Parties of the Right are not necessarily anti-green. While generally avoiding legislation that would impose restrictions on economic growth, they tend to contain a good proportion of people who want to preserve green spaces, minimise pollution, and maximise energy efficiency. There are also some who fear dependence on fuel imports from unstable regimes, and so would favour encouragement of the renewable energy industry.

But it is clear that many on the Right are vehemently against the scientific consensus on climate change. The blogosphere is full of fierce attempts by those who aren't climate scientists to dispute the evidence, without any apparent awareness that these arguments have already been examined in great detail by researchers over several years and using multiple sources of evidence. Which is why there is now a scientific consensus. Of course all knowledge is open to question; but we have to make decisions on the best-tested knowledge, and rehashing old arguments without engaging with the actual evidence is not the way to proceed.

These people are not stupid. So why is there such fervour against climate change, on the Right specifically?

Here are some suggestions (from a British perspective, although perhaps similar suggestions might apply to the US, Canada, Australia and elsewhere)...
  • Fear of costs. Fear that action to combat climate change will be very costly in the short-term. There are much larger costs if climate change turns out as science predicts, but labelling the science as uncertain, exaggerated or bogus means these costs can be ignored. It may not happen, so why take the hit? And even if it does happen, how do we know that we could prevent it?
  • The Left are loving this. Fear that there is a left-wing agenda afoot to use climate change as an excuse: for creating greater EU & UN powers at the expense of national governments; for re-shaping the economy along anti-capitalist, statist lines; for undermining the oil, nuclear and airline industries specifically; and for greater taxes on the rich and technologically adventurous.
  • Britain will be overtaken. Fear that Britain will be out-manoeuvred by developing countries into accepting restrictions on its economic activity that will allow (for example) China, India and Brazil to overtake.
  • Opposition. Those on the Right have been out of power in Britain for over 12 years, and are now accustomed to opposing the agenda of the current left-leaning government. Moreover, there is a strong tradition of muscular contrarianism amongst opinion-forming columnists and bloggers.
Are there other reasons?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Reflections on the threat to Exeter democracy

Some personal reflections on the news that the Boundary Committee for England has advised that Exeter should lose its city council in favour of a huge unitary Devon council.

I'm not going to go into the hugely complicated details of the whys and wherefores of how we ended up in such a ridiculous anti-democratic situation. It's easy to blame the parties in Exeter, the parties in Devon, the Boundary Committee, and the Secretary State who initiated this unwanted process. But I'm prepared to presume that all were trying to do the best as they saw it.

And all is not yet lost: John Denham, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, won't be taking a decision on what should happen for six weeks, allowing representations from all interested parties. It is also in doubt whether there is time for legislation to be passed before the General Election.

But I've followed the story closely, read through all the documentation, and I want to make three points about the process we've been through. (Section and page references are to the document "Advice to the Secretary of State on unitary local government in Devon", 7 December 2009, pdf available via this link)

1. Democracy should be the main concern

The function of local government is not just delivering services. Otherwise we could abolish councils altogether and have a team of civil servants dictating how much gets spent on which services and what policies are to be enacted.

The financial aspects of local government are therefore important, but so too are the democratic mechanisms by which those in power are held to account by those who are subject to that power.

So how are democratic ideals reflected in the criteria the Boundary Committee were given to evaluate proposals for changing local government in Exeter?

Proposals needed to...
- be affordable
- be supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders
- provide strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership
- deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment
- deliver value for money and equity in public services
The first and fifth criteria are not about democracy ("equity" was interpreted solely in terms of access to services).

At first glance, the second, third and fourth criteria seem to be about democratic accountability. But actually they're not:

For the second criterion, the Boundary Committee interpreted "support by a broad cross-section" as finding instances of support amongst a variety of partners and stakeholders in the consultation process. They did not consider whether the proposals would result in ongoing popular support for whatever local government administration happens to wield power in the future. If, say, elections repeatedly returned Devon mega-council administrations with sharply differing policies to those favoured by the 125,000 inhabitants of Exeter, the Devon mega-council would be seen as lacking a democratic mandate in Exeter. But the Boundary Committee's interpretation of this criterion meant that this consideration was ignored.

For the third criterion, the Boundary Committee didn't see democracy as an integral part of "strong" and "effective" strategic leadership. Indeed, their assumption seems to have been that a substantial part of "strategic leadership" is a high-profile leader, rather than a council that builds wide consensus towards a clear, sound, agreed strategy. Meanwhile, their main concern about "accountability" seemed to be that having different councils responsible for different services tends to "blur" who is responsible for which service, rather than the more democratic concern that abolishing a city council decreases the extent to which the people of the city can call its representatives to account. Clarity of responsibility is important for democracy, but that's not the same as democracy.

For the fourth criterion, neighbourhood "empowerment" looks promising, but it is clear (section 2.18 onwards) that this is interpreted as "clarity of roles and responsibilities", good communication with residents, and "community forums" that "reflect community identities" to enable views to be heard. This ended up in a proposal (section 4.27) to create a "Community Board" for Exeter that would, inter alia, develop "vision", implement a community action plan, influence budget allocations, promote community cohesion, hold the Devon mega-council to account, shape local planning policy and act as a sounding board.

The Boundary Committee is vague on how such "Community Boards" would be appointed, despite describing them as "a well thought out approach to localisation" (p. 15). As far as it is concerned, the Devon mega-council is democratically elected, so it is up to that body to ensure that Community Boards are representative of the communities they cover. So, in essence, Exeter's Community Board would be a glorified sub-committee of the Devon mega-council, with no direct democratic mandate from the people of Exeter.

It would be truly unbelievable for the Boundary Committee to imagine that such a Community Board offers a better model of local democracy and empowerment than our current city council.

If democracy had been the main concern of this review, than the financial aspects would naturally have been a big consideration because the democratic mechanisms would need to be evaluated for cost-effectiveness. But by ignoring democracy, the Boundary Committee ended up focusing solely on the delivery of services.

So, in summary, democracy was not the main concern of this review of local government, and was consequently ignored by the Boundary Committee. The result was a proposal that constitutes a massive reduction in democratic representation and accountability.

2. The status quo should be an option

Two proposals were examined by the Committee:
  • a county unitary authority, aka the Devon mega-council (i.e. all of Devon, except Plymouth and Torbay)
  • a "two unitary pattern comprising Exeter & Exmouth and Rural Devon", aka the Greater Exeter proposal
This method of evaluating proposals (i.e. whether or not a proposal "has the capacity" to deliver specified outcomes) does not allow a systematic comparison either with the status quo.

The current setup is that Exeter has a city council that looks after the city's housing, planning, parking, environmental health, museums, libraries, parks, waste collection and so on. It seems fit-for-purpose, has one of the lowest council taxes in the country, and has a democratic mandate from the people of the city. Most importantly, the folk of Exeter can chuck the current buggers out if we don't like what they're doing in the city.

Meanwhile, we also have a Devon county council that is responsible for schools, social services, roads and a few other things that are typical of county councils. This council also seems fit-for-purpose, and is able to defer to Exeter when that makes sense. Despite being based in Exeter, though, it seems (to me) a slightly remote entity.

A sharper division between the two councils might arguably be helpful, and I personally would prefer more powers over Exeter moving from the county council to the city council; but in essence, there's no obvious problem to be solved here. Centralising all decision-making in a mega-council would in principle save money, but then of course so would centralising all decision-making in Westminster, and we don't do that.

So if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Indeed, the Boundary Committee notes (p. 13) that 61% of responses received during consultation were in favour of continuing with the current local government structures.

But the Boundary Committee was very clear (p. 12) that their remit was not to compare new proposals with the status quo, but simply to assess the capacity of the new proposals.

Conversely, many Exeter residents would feel disenfranchised if their elected City Council is abolished without a vote. And this sense of powerlessness would only grow when in the future there is some decision that the mega-council takes that goes against the interests of Exeter. There will be no democratic buy-in.

I predict that under a Devon mega-council, Exeter residents would grow resentful of their inability to decide their own affairs and those in rural Devon would grow resentful of what they would claim to be Exeter's preferential treatment.

3. The process should be democratic

I wrote above that the review was unwanted, and that there is no obvious problem to be solved here. I might of course be wrong about that. There might well be a groundswell of opinion in favour of change. The point is we just don't know. The 125,000 people in the city of Exeter have not been asked, and there are no plans to put the options to the vote.

Apparently, there was "strong opposition to removing Exeter from the rest of the county for local government purposes". How could the Boundary Committee know how strong the opposition is? It carried out no surveys. How strong was the opposition to abolishing Exeter's council? They don't know.

Instead, we have had two consultation exercises that have been managed by an unelected quango consisting of 8 people. It is not clear that submissions to the exercises have been either representative or properly taken into account. Huge sums have had to be wasted on lobbying by the respective councils, on responding to the process and on the legal challenges. This all comes out of our taxes, both council tax and general taxation.

The Committee admits (p. 12) that they did no systematic comparison of the proposals under consideration with the status quo. The balance of the submissions to the consultation exercise was in favour of the status quo. Indeed, many were strongly against the Devon mega-council idea. Yet the level of support for the different options was ignored. Where is the democracy in this?

Moreover, this method of evaluating proposals also does not encourage competing proposals to be compared systematically. This is a serious flaw.

The Appendix to the Committee's advice contains a breakdown of the preferences expressed by submissions made in the consultation exercises. Bearing in mind the caveats about lack of representativeness and quantitative intent, this data shows that 61% want the status quo; 15% want the Devon mega-council; and 11% want some form of Exeter unitary. Given that the consultation made clear that a simple Exeter unitary was not a proposal under consideration, it is possible that this option might have garnered more support than this.

Why am I labouring this point about the level of support for the different options? Well, precisely because of the reason the Committee ended up with its conclusions.

The Committee decided that the Devon mega-council proposal has the capacity to deliver the Secretary of State's five specified outcomes (the list beginning with "be affordable", above). And that the Greater Exeter proposal would be likely to deliver four out of the five. The one it wouldn't is "be supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders".

Specifically, looking at the crucial page 29 of the advice document, it is clear (when the status quo is excluded as an option) that the bulk of submissions from Exeter - including the University, the City Council, the Chamber of Commerce, the residents associations - want some form of unitary status for Exeter. But many submissions from outside Exeter - typically county-level organisations such as the Devon & Cornwall Police Authority and the Devon Primary Care Trust - were strongly opposed to this option.

So, to try to make the point as clear as I can...

As far as the Committee can tell based on its limited data on public opinion:
  1. The status quo is the preferred option of the majority.
  2. If the status quo isn't possible, the people of Exeter would prefer a unitary Exeter to a Devon mega-council.
  3. If the status quo isn't possible, rural Devon would prefer a Devon mega-council to a unitary Exeter.
But the net result is that because of the way the review has been set up, the advice that goes to the Secretary of State is for a Devon mega-council. That is, Exeter not only loses its chance for unitary status, it loses what democratic autonomy it already has. Which is a minority view by quite some margin!
    Why can't it be the people of Exeter who decide if they want their city council abolished?

    Final Thought

    It is open to the Secretary of State to decide on any of the options, with or without modification. Or he can take no action.

    I would humbly suggest to him on the basis of the three points above that the Boundary Committee have done what they have been asked to do, but that this exercise has shown that there is no groundswell of popular support for the abolition of Exeter City Council.

    Monday, December 7, 2009

    Bad news for Exeter

    The Boundary Committee has just published its advice that Exeter City Council should be abolished in favour of a single council for Devon. Not good news.

    It's now up to John Denham, the Labour MP for Southampton Itchen, who is currently Secretary of State for "Communities and Local Government" to make a final decision on what happens to Exeter's city democracy.

    Saturday, November 28, 2009

    Some tweets

    For no other reason than an attempt to discern patterns in my interests, here are some selected tweets from the last week or so...

    CrossCountry trains need to be pumping heat into the carriages at sauna levels because...?

    New blog post: Exeter has a Tory county council, a LibDem city council, a Labour MP & a Sword of Damocles

    Wha...?! Blogpost by @DuncanStott recalling that over 60% of Lib Dem MPs back NHS Homeopathy

    Great post by Millennium Elephant on Doctor Who and the Waters of Mars

    Quote of the day from @sarabedford "Sometimes only schadenfreude will do!"

    Oh no! I must've forgotten to vote in the elections for the EU govt, and now I don't know the new President's policies.

    Just dropped a small piece of chocolate on the floor. GUTTED [my most heartfelt tweet]

    News from 2011: Chief Mathematics Advisor says politicians are inumerate. Ed Balls backs him 150%

    Justin Webb R4 26.06.09 "I'm useless when it comes to science and maths". Is journalism the kind of profession where that doesn't matter?

    Super Mario Bros Wii getting good reviews e.g. But then again Anyone played it?

    Not entirely sure what #xfactor #scd #pdc really are. Fairly sure I don't need to care. [less subsequent hate-mail than I was expecting]

    powerful stuff RT @HrothgirOD Why I think Bishop Spong is awesome #atheist #athesim Only downside - one more god than me

    Why are vampires, visions and fame such preoccupations of 21st century humanity?

    This has been bugging me for 2 weeks. Ollie thinks he's Josh #TheThickOfIt Were the speechwriters Sam, Toby & Will not heroic enough? [sadly, no answer to this one]

    Free the data RT @jamesgraham RT @libcon How to commit a global warming fraud [RT'd]

    Save us from the dogmatists! Roy Hattersley & @iaindale say minority govt = compromise = bad legislation [RT'd]

    Is the "revelation" of a No10 Iraq cover-up actualy going to change any votes?

    #elevatorpitchesforblogs Guido Fawkes "What if a troll was occasionally sent gossip?"

    C4News story about Murdoch & Microsoft - I wonder if Google's current dominance depends on future of open web?

    #climate prof on @channel4news comes across as slightly stumbling but unworldly & genuine. Shame media now go ad hominem against science

    @HrothgirOD Perhaps our civilization's remnants will be washed up on the shores of an ice-free Antarctica...

    Did your Labour MP vote against the 10:10 campaign on the orders of the Labour whips? has the votes

    RT @sarabedford A Christian's take on British Humanist Association's latest campaign @PlsDontLabelMe

    @campbellclaret BBC 10 o'clock news doesn't think its audience is clever enough to cope with leaders' CBI speeches

    Extreme Précis: attemtping to summarise Clegg's speech to the CBI [RT'd]

    On secret £61bn loan, Vince Cable: The Govt has treated taxpayers like children while expecting them to foot the bill

    Guido's cod-libertarian bile factory is a new rallying point for #climate sceptics

    Brigstocke has crowd on his side with witty reasonableness... oh no! he's gone too far #bbcqt #fantasyreenactmentofbbcqtbeforeitsevenstarted [I thought this was my best effort this haul!]

    Melanie Phillips booed by Twitter on climate change. Desperate applause in studio #bbcqt #fantasyreenactmentofbbcqtbeforeitsevenstarted [Most accurate prediction]

    Does #bbcqt decide Scottish panel using Scottish General Election vote%? Labour(40%):1 on panel,SNP(18%):1,LibDem(23%):0,Tory(16%):2

    Does #bbcqt decide Scottish panel using UK seat%? Labour(55%):1 on panel,SNP(1%):1,LibDem(10%):0,Tory(31%):2

    Does #bbcqt decide Scottish panel using UK vote%? Labour(35%):1 on panel,SNP(2%):1,LibDem(22%):0,Tory(32%):2

    Does #bbcqt decide Scottish panel using MSPs? Labour(46 MSPs):1 on panel,SNP(47 MSPs):1,LibDem(16 MSPs):0,Tory(16 MPs):2

    Does #bbcqt decide Scottish panel using MP numbers? Labour(39 MPs):1 on panel,SNP(7 MPs):1,LibDem(12 MPs):0,Tory(1 MP):2 [RT'd]

    @bbcquestiontime Would appreciate some help in answering the questions posed in the last few tweets.

    RT @Forgotten_Man: I wonder when #bbcqt and #thisweek will ask a Scientist about climate change rather than a politician. [RT'd]

    hehehe RT @serafinowicz Cause of death: Autopsy

    Andrew Neil, one of the most cynical news journalists in the UK, asks why there is so much cynicism around.

    Audio progs I can't listen to on public transport because I laugh out loud like a nutter: Adam&Joe, Mitchell&Webb, The Unbelievable Truth

    Scary. @TimMontgomerie disbelieves #climate science; & even if true, disbelieves solutions; & even if solutions, disbelieves political will

    Shocked, angry & a little confused as to why there isn't a dedicated Tiger Woods TV channel to cover the crisis 24/7 [RT'd]

    How likely is hung parliament with Lab, Con, LibDem the seat ranking & Con, LibDem, Lab the vote ranking? Inspired by

    Conclusions? Slightly obsessive on climate change. Not quite a political nerd, but a distinct danger. Needs to get out more.

    Tuesday, November 24, 2009

    Extreme précis

    Not, you know, précising a text that is extreme, but trying to summarise in the way one might approach extreme surfing, extreme skiing or extreme ironing. With not quite the same risks of death.

    Slightly impatient with political verbiage around economics, but also baffled as to why yesterday's BBC 10 o'clock news failed to even mention the speeches by the leaders of all three main parties to the CBI, I decided to have a go at précising Nick Clegg's speech.

    At 2,237 words it's not a huge speech to start with. But I always like speeches shorter if possible.

    I managed to reduce his 5 main points to 5 tweets:-
    • LibDems on banking: Get bailed-out highstreet banks lending responsibly. Tax profits at 10%. More competition & mutuals
    • LibDems on the deficit: Labour in denial; Tories secretive. Instead, stop the spending on bad ideas
    • LibDems on capital spending: Invest in energy infrastructure to cope with new generation technologies
    • LibDems on promoting growth: Decentralise decision-making. Create a local/regional investment fund
    • LibDems on tax: Needs to be simpler & fairer. Reward hard work & initiative. Penalise polluters. A tax switch, not a tax rise

    That's a reduction from 13,289 characters to 545 characters (assuming people don't actually read URLs). That's a reduction of 96% in terms of characters (and of course even more in terms of subtlety and reasoning).

    Could the précis go all the way to a single tweet? Possibly, but I'm fairly sure I'm not up to the challenge of doing that while keeping enough of the detail in to make the tweet worth reading. It really does become a series of slogans. On the other hand, I didn't fancy bombarding my twitter followers with 5 tweets about a speech that they'd probably not be interested in; or if they were interested in, had probably already read.

    Oh well...

    Monday, November 16, 2009

    Exeter politics rather interesting

    Exeter is rather an interesting place to live politically. Our county council, Devon, is Conservative; our city council is LibDem; and our MP, Ben Bradshaw, is Labour.

    Yet even these facts hide further complexity. Devon County Council was LibDem until this year; on Exeter City Council there are roughly equal numbers of Labour, LibDem and Conservative councillors; and until 1997 the parliamentary seat was Conservative for much of its history.

    So what's happening at the moment?

    Devon County Council, which is based in Exeter, is having to make £20 million worth of cuts, including the loss of 500 jobs. Care homes look to be particularly badly affected.

    In relation to Exeter City Council, we continue to wait for the long-delayed results of the Boundary Committee's review of local government in Devon. Like a Sword of Damocles hanging over us, the city's 800-year-old rights to take decisions about its own affairs could be removed at any time, without a vote by its inhabitants.

    Having an MP from the governing party has not helped us with this issue, as with most other issues. Ben Bradshaw is a decent, well-liked chap, last week named Politician of the Year by Stonewall. He's often seen on his bicycle around the city, and he comes across very well both on television and in person. He claims far less in MPs' expenses than most of his colleagues; and he supported reform of the expenses system in 2008, well before the recent scandal.

    But as a member of the Government since 2001, he never votes against the party line.

    According to, Ben has voted for student top-up fees, ID cards, the Iraq war, nuclear power, the hunting ban, 90-day detentions without charge, and reduced Parliamentary scrutiny of new legislation.

    Recently, Ben has...
    • jumped on the media bandwagon that centred on misquoting Emma Thompson on racism in Exeter and the University of Exeter.
    • lent credibility to the ridiculous suggestion to sell off the Met Office, at just the moment when we need the Met Office most focused on research in climate change rather than commercial shenanigans.
    • supported the proposal for 10 new nuclear power stations around the country, including Hinkley Point, less than 40 miles from Exeter (as the wind blows).
    • (on the plus side) pleaded with Transport Secretary over the £2 million the city council has to find to fund the Government's concessionary bus fare scheme. But we're not in the clear yet, and he makes no acknowledgment that it was his government that imposed the scheme without funding it properly.
    2010 will herald elections for Exeter City Council and of course the General Election. Less parochially, it may be may-or-break year for our planet.

    We live in interesting times.

    Thursday, October 29, 2009

    Why is Any Questions better than Question Time?

    I'm sure this is an old, old debate. And some people might reject the premise, pointing to a greater audience for the BBC1 television programme Question Time than the BBC Radio 4 programme Any Questions. Question Time (hereafter "QT" to minimise confusion between the two programmes) also seems to me to have a greater sense of a national political theatre about it, more of a political "event": QT is often mentioned in the full range of news media, whereas Any Questions is only rarely mentioned.

    But I enjoy Any Questions much more: the discussions seem to be more interesting, deeper, more reflective than QT. Perhaps my preference is not widely shared, but I've been thinking a lot recently about why Any Questions ends up more satisfying to me, and decided it was time to write some of these possibilities down.

    1. The panel members
    I've no idea if there's any difference at all between the kinds of people invited on QT and those invited on any Any Questions. I haven't noticed a big difference. It seems unlikely, although QT has a reputation for some "stunt" invitations, such as soap stars and other celebrities, so perhaps there's a slightly narrower background for panel members on Any Questions.

    2. The number of panel members
    This might seem like a trivial thing, but I'm sure it's not. I can't remember exactly when QT moved from a panel of 4 to a panel of 5, but I remember thinking at the time that this would dilute the contributions of the members, make it harder for members to build an argument and comment on others' arguments, make it harder to chair, make it harder for the audience to follow arguments and distinguish the views. All in all, it would move the dynamics away from that of a panel towards that of 5 people being asked a succession of questions. On the positive side, I was hoping for a wider range of views and space for panel members from outside the usual political circles. My current view is that these expectations - both positive and negative - have been borne out.

    3. The questions
    It's only recently that I've wondered how different the questions are between the two programmes. The questions for both programmes come from the audience, and are presumably selected by the producers on the basis of popularity, topicality and the likelihood of a good discussion. My perception has been in recent years that QT questions have been tended to be more superficial; more focused on personality, trivia, gossip and petty politics and less focused on the political principles underlying decisions to be made; more provocative, but in a rhetoric-provoking rather than thought-provoking way.

    4. The cameras
    It's possible the sense of being looked at by millions rather than just hundreds puts people on the spot. The bright lights, the challenge of controlling one's facial expressions and mannerisms at the same time as thinking about what one is saying, the certainty that any slip will be instantly taken up and used for years by newspapers, television and YouTube... Many experienced speakers have appeared to turn into startled rabbits on QT. Conversely, some panel members seem to become more hectoring than usual.

    5. The chair
    This is often cited by friends as the biggest reason for why Any Questions is superior. David Dimbleby on QT, they say, is alternately bland or rude, interrupting perfectly reasonable responses to put irritating and unexpected side questions or to challenge the speaker with quotes. But I'm not sure than Jonathan Dimbleby on Any Questions is all that different. Jonathan is probably slightly more considered in how he puts his side questions, and but on the whole they detract from the discussion in much the same way. To be fair, both presenters are also often effective in cutting through waffle, or in keeping the discussion on track. I don't think they do a terrible job on the while. On Any Questions, when Jonathan Dimbleby is away, Eddie Mair and the late Nick Clarke have been better. And before David Dimbleby on QT, Peter Sissons was blander, and Robin Day was slightly sparkier with more charm. But I'm not sure the chair makes as big a difference as sometimes claimed.

    6. The audiences
    There have been some truly terrible audiences on QT, booing or shouting endlessly, intimidating panel members. There have been a few bad ones on Any Questions, but perhaps not quite so many, and typically much more restrained. Audience contributions on Any Questions generally seem calmer, more rational. Is this because a radio programme attracts a more cerebral audience than its more glamorous counterpart on television? Or is it another example of the effect of cameras mentioned above?

    Have I missed any other possibilities? Am I being fair? I've not backed up any of the assertions here with evidence, so this is all quite weak stuff. It's all perception. Has anyone carried out empirical research into differences between the discussions on these programmes?

    Update 1 Nov 2009

    Oh how could I forget this one...!

    7. The medium
    For me, neither programme seems to need 100% of my attention. I can't just sit and listen to Any Questions, or I'll get restless. Listening to it while washing up, walking or driving is perfect. And without the distractions of what the speakers look like, I'm free to focus on the arguments, the rhetorical devices, and what they're not saying.

    Meanwhile, watching QT while washing up, walking or driving are not options. However, maybe sometime I should try listening to QT while engaged in these activities, to see how the experience compares with Any Questions, and whether the pictures are adding or detracting. So occupy the excess brain-power that isn't needed in watching the programme, I've taken to Twitter or a couple of the live web chats. Unfortunately I've found that formulating intelligible sentences while continuing to watch and also trying to work out what I think of what others are saying on the internet is actually slightly more than I can cope with in order to completely follow everything that is being said on the programme. And so I think this split attention is perhaps reducing rather than enhancing what I think of the programme. However, my enjoyment of watching is definitely enhanced by these chats. So, slightly perversely, I end up thinking less of the programme, but enjoying it more.

    Thursday, September 24, 2009

    On not fixing a broken system

    • Photo by Get DownDon't campaign to clean up politics.
    • Don't campaign to tighten the rules on MPs' expenses.
    • Don't campaign to increase openness and enhance accountability.
    • Don't campaign to reform the electoral system.
    It's a mug's game. The system's broke. Don't campaign to fix it.

    Er... what?

    No, really. Do you think the electorate is stupid? Voters know that parties' promises on reforming politics are typically well-intentioned but over-sold. Devious people will always find ways to cheat the system. And politicians are seen as devious people.

    But we need to prevent the abuses of MPs' expenses that were discovered this year!

    The only reason these abuses were discovered this year was through the leaking of the information. Illegal, of course, but no jury in the land would have convicted. It'll be great if new systems stop these abuses, but it will always be the threat of discovery that will act as the real deterrent to future abuses.

    What about recall systems for MPs found guilty of breaking the rules?

    Again, great idea, but the details are tricky to get right. In the meantime, an MP who refuses to go hemorrhages support from their party, increasing pressure on them to go. Obviously it's not ideal, but if you're already of the view that "they're all as bad as each other", replacing one crook with another isn't going to help.

    But electoral reform... surely it's ridiculous that one party can get control over Parliament even if only a quarter of people vote for them? It's mad that in safe constituencies you could pin a blue or red rosette on a donkey and it'd still win!


    What kind of a reasoned response is that?!

    An honest one. If the voters were to consider the problems with the current system hard enough, a sizeable proportion might well demand just the kind of changes that many politically interested folks support. But they don't consider these problems, because they see them as secondary to their real concerns.

    Which are...?

    Maybe in another blog post.

    But surely the lack of engagement by the electorate in these issues stems from a failure of communication? A failure to get across to the electorate the importance of fixing a broken political system.


    Is that your catch-all answer then?

    OK. You tried to communicate. And maybe you failed. Or maybe these issues really are of secondary importance to most people.

    So you're saying do nothing to repair politics?

    No, by all means put forward sensible proposals. In fact you need to have some proposals to counter the argument that you don't care about the abuses and that you're just the same as all the other parties. Just don't expect the voters to care too much about your actual proposals or to fall over themselves to put a tick in your box on that basis. Besides which, all the other parties will also have proposals to drone on about.


    Nice try. But "meh" doesn't work as a response in that context.


    OK, well done. So there it does.


    Now you're over-doing it.


    Tuesday, September 22, 2009

    Vote to save the planet

    The British General Election in 2010

    Dear Voter

    You lucky thing. Not so long ago, you would have had no say in who made the decisions about your country. In 2010, your vote could decide the future of the entire world.

    Photo by itspaulkelly

    OK. Perhaps that's putting it a little dramatically. But look at the facts. The best scientific evidence we have suggests that without massive and sustained global action on carbon emissions starting now, our world will change quickly and irreversibly for the worse.

    Maybe you think there's some uncertainty about the science. Maybe you think it'd be better to wait until the evidence is clearer. Maybe you think little old Britain shouldn't act while America and China are dragging their feet. Maybe you think it's all fine and dandy being concerned for the environment when times are good, but what about jobs? Maybe you think new technologies will solve the problem. Maybe you think climate change might at worst bring Mediterranean weather to our cold damp country.

    If you believe any of these things, search Google. You'll find plenty of people who will agree with you. But also take a little time to hunt down the counter arguments (e.g. the Met Office, the Royal Society, New Scientist, and the IPCC), and decide for yourself. If afterwards you still believe these things, I doubt there's anything I could say to change your mind, so goodbye, bonne chance. I hope in the end it'll turn out you were right after all.

    If you're still reading, then the question is: Who should you vote for to do what's needed to fight climate change?

    At election time it's easy to be fooled into thinking that you should be voting for the politicians with the best sound-bites, the best put-downs, the best haircuts. Despite all the fine words, though, neither Labour nor the Conservatives are prepared to do what's necessary to fight climate change, if that means compromising on the economy.

    Why? Because they know that the economy is the most immediate issue that most voters care about. They know that saying they're against new roads and runways would be unpopular. They know that taxing carbon emissions would be unpopular with motorists, holiday-makers and consumers of gas and electricity. They know that tightening regulations on energy efficiency would increase the costs of building new homes, hospitals and schools.

    Labour and Conservative politicians are going to tell you grimly and sincerely that tough measures are needed in order to sort out public debt and so build a strong economy. And they're right. But they are placing economic prosperity above the fight against climate change, because they think that's what you want.

    Is that what you want? Is it?

    Tuesday, July 28, 2009

    Broadsheet: A coalition is right for the next general election

    Labour needs to go. The Conservative Party is the natural party of government. However a Conservative-LibDem coalition is the best outcome for the next election.

    It is clear we are reaching the end of the Labour Party's time in office. Its failures have included: the mishandling of bank regulation; costly, unnecessary wars; an over-complicated tax regime; wasteful spending on public services; and rules on MP's expenses that have brought Parliament into disrepute.

    The rank-and-file of the Conservative Party knows what needs to be done: the reintroduction of calm, sensible administration rather than frantic law-making, overweening bureaucracy and throwing other people's money at problems.

    Yet David Cameron seems to be continuing the spinning and posturing of the Blair years. He delights in wrong-footing Gordon Brown, but does not seem to be able to lead. One of Cameron's closest advisors, his PR chief, left the News of the World after some very sleazy practices. Cameron's prospective Chancellor is a gaffe-prone lightweight. Cameron's highly-paid policy guru obsesses about "style" and "the brand" rather than actual policy. This spin works wonders: Cameron somehow came out well from the MP's expenses scandal, despite the unacceptable expense claims of his most senior parliamentary advisor and Cameron's own questionable expense claims.

    Somewhat surprisingly, the Liberal Democrats offer an attractive alternative to Labour. They have been proposing for some time the measures that are now accepted as necessary to clean up British politics. None of their MP's have been "flipping" state-funded second home mortgages. They have, in Vince Cable, the most widely respected candidate for Chancellor. They are instinctively opposed to ill-thought-out foreign escapades and big government. They are also the party most likely to be able to get Europe doing something useful for a change: saving the country from the damaging effects of climate change by obtaining global agreements on carbon emissions.

    Of course the Liberal Democrats won't win the General Election. But that doesn't matter: a Conservative-LibDem coalition would combine the strengths of the conservative majority file with the sensible liberal approach that the country needs right now, while mitigating the worst excesses of Cameron's spin machine.

    Sunday, July 26, 2009

    What you don't want to hear

    Conservative leader David Cameron has said the "scale of the economic mess" he would inherit if he became prime minister was "incredibly daunting". Mr Cameron told the BBC he was "looking the British people in the eye" and saying public spending had to be cut. (BBC News)
    Photo of David Cameron by net_efekt
    A common criticism of politicians is that they simply tell voters what they want to hear. To some extent this is a reasonable thing for politicians to be doing: they need voters to find their statements agreeable. And to some extent it is reasonable to criticise them for this: voters need politicians who articulate sound policies rather than populist policies.

    But politicians have learned that if they are all being tarred with the accusation that they just say what voters want to hear, a way of standing out and appearing competent is to be up-front about unpleasant realities.

    Tony Blair and New Labour did this with their so-called "hard choices". John Major did this with his "If it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working".

    Yet recent polling suggests that the people don't know whether they want higher taxes, cuts in spending or no change. There is no best sound-bite at the moment.

    But this might change. As the views of economists, pundits and politicians begin to converge on higher taxes and cuts in spending, the war of words will be about who can sound the sternest about what needs to be done and how Labour is best-placed to do it because they've got the experience, how the Conservatives are best-placed to do it because Labour got us into this mess, and how the LibDems are best-placed to do it because fresh thinking is needed.

    And so we come full circle: politicians will once again be telling us what we want to hear, but this time it will be about "austerity is necessary" rather than "stability is enough".

    Wednesday, July 8, 2009

    And so Battlestar Galactica is over

    And so Battlestar Galactica is over.

    I'm left feeling meditative. About the events of the last few episodes. About how all the details of the plot hang together. About the characters, their bittersweet lives and awakenings. And most of all about the many desperate journeys: the mythic flight from Kobol to Caprica, Earth and the other colonies; the doomed story of the Pegasus; the tragic peace-keeping mission of Earth's Final Five; the fraught escape of the ramshackle fleet from the 12 colonies to Kobol, to New Caprica, to Earth, and to New Earth; the inexorable journey of Cylons from mechanoid to Centurion to god-fearing sentient; and the long journey of “humans” from Hera to us.

    A most unusual sci-fi experience. Not the huge emphasis on technology, strange new worlds, aliens and space battles that one normally expects. These elements are there, for sure, just enough to pique curiosity, but not enough to detract from the subtle meditations on themes such as identity, mortality, politics, religion and destiny. It is a truly amazing achievement to have succeeded in incorporating these themes in an entertaining, action-packed TV show for a mainstream audience.

    It's entirely possible that some subtleties are entirely in the mind of the viewer rather than in the intentions of the creators of BSG. But that's irrelevant. BSG was made in such a way that it renders such meditations quite normal.

    I'm left with many questions. And that's also as it should be. Perhaps some will be answered by my thinking harder, or by internet forums. Perhaps others might be answered by any new series, although there is a sense of completeness to BSG that leaves me wanting to avoid more complications. But the show's aesthetic fits with there being mysteries that might never be resolved.

    And these questions keep me there, in that universe, where Adama holds it all together seemingly by sheer will-power; where both Cavil and Starbuck battle inner demons to self-destruction; where Baltar cannot help himself; where machines console themselves by projecting imaginative realms; where virtual beings tweak history; and where everyone is on a journey they don't understand.

    Friday, June 5, 2009

    Exeter update

    Congratulations to my MP Ben Bradshaw, who has been promoted to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. He's a likeable, eloquent chap, often seen cycling between appointments in Exeter.

    It's just a shame Ben belongs to a government that was responsible for the illegal invasion of Iraq, that often fails to resist authoritarian measures, and that is stumbling over the climate change.

    Meanwhile, the Devon County Council elections have produced little change in Exeter. Four Labour holds, three LibDem holds, one Conservative hold, and one gain by the Conservatives from the LibDems (Duryard and Pennsylvania - look who failed to mobilise the student vote).

    What should have been the overriding issue of the campaign - fighting Devon County Council's plan to abolish Exeter City Council - was scarcely discussed.

    British Government abolishing ministry for universities

    So it appears that universities are now subsumed entirely into the business agenda. From being part of the education ministry until quite recently, higher education is now overseen by the “Department for Business, Innovation and Skills”, whose remit is “to build Britain’s capabilities to compete in the global economy” (BBC News)

    Surely state support for science should be more than just about business, at a time of threats from climate change, infectious disease and discoveries of earth-like planets.
    Surely state support for higher education should be more than just about business, at a time when we are seeing afresh the importance for our society of the development of ethical integrity, personal growth, creativity and critical engagement in democracy.
    Surely state support for research in the humanities and social sciences should be more than just about business at a time when work purely dedicated to furthering the knowledge and capacities of humankind is being devalued by a narrow commodity agenda.

    Devon Election Results (2)

    Further to the overall view of yesterday's election results for Devon County Council, there are some surprising things about the 21 electoral divisions that changed parties.

    All but three changed from LibDem to Conservative. But talking about a "swing" from LibDem to Conservative could be a bit misleading. Of course this does look like what happened in a few places. For example, in Holsworthy Rural, the LibDem share of the vote went down by 22 percentage point and the Conservative share went up by 18 percentage points. But in other divisions, the situation is more complex.

    A good example is Seaton Coastal. In 2005, the LibDem had a majority of about 900. In 2009, the Conservative had a majority of 135. But, bearing in mind that the turnout almost halved, look at the share of the vote. The Conservative share of the vote actually remained exactly the same in both elections. The reason they won is that the LibDem share went down by 17 percentage points. The UKIP vote went up by almost the same amount.

    This pattern of the LibDem vote going down and the UKIP vote going up ocurred in many of the seats won by the Conservatives in Devon. That's not to say that other factors weren't in play - the Labour vote getting cut, the role of Independents, votes for the Greens - but this does look like a major factor.

    Devon Election Results

    Some reflections yesterday's elections to Devon County Council...

    On the face of it, a clear transfer of councillors from LibDem to Tory:

    Caveat: These figures, taken from DCC's website, include the results of three by-elections since 2005.

    These figures might lead you to a headline of "Conservatives up by 78%, LibDems down by 58%". A massive endorsement of David Cameron, you might think.

    But if you look at share of the vote, rather than councillors, a different story appears:

    Some observations:
    1. The massive majority LibDems have enjoyed in Devon over the last four years was based on slightly fewer votes than the Conservatives received.
    2. Far from a massive endorsement of Cameron, the Tory vote went up by just 4%.
    3. Support for Labour halved, yet they received the same number of councillors.
    4. Almost four times as many voters supported UKIP, the Greens and others as supported Labour, but their views are represented by fewer councillors than Labour.

    Tuesday, May 12, 2009

    You've got to love our grandees

    You may have noticed that Tory Members of Parliament have been charging the taxpayer tens of thousands of pounds for the cleaning of their moats, the purchase of horse manure, the mowing of their paddocks, the installation of their chandeliers and the sustenance of their pedigree dogs.

    It's at times like these that we need to listen to those voices reminding us of some traditional values...

    • Get tough on those who don't the difference between right and wrong.
    • Stand against big wasteful government.
    • Clamp down hard on those who scrounge off hard-working taxpayers.
    • Stop the European gravy train.
    Now where are those voices? Who is going to speak out in favour of these traditional values? Oh whoops... they're precisely the ones who've been exploiting the system....

    Friday, April 3, 2009

    Broadsheet: David Cameron is not up to the job

    The pundits are obsessed with how terrible the Labour Government is. It is, of course, terrible. But is David Cameron actually capable of doing what needs to be done? He says what people want to hear, but where's the evidence he's actually going to deliver?

    Here's what needs to be done:

    • Stop wasteful government spending, by giving tax-payers the power to make their own decisions in their area about hospital closures, school closures, post office closures, bobbies on the beat, housing developments and bin collections.

    • Save the country from the damaging effects of climate change. Farming is under threat. Houses that are near rivers, near flood-plains and near the sea are under threat. Get Europe doing something useful for a change, and sort out carbon emissions internationally.

    • Cut red-tape on business, and regulate only as much as necessary to protect us from the crooks and incompetents. And stop interfering in people's lives.

    • Less tax. Higher, simpler, fairer pensions

    David Cameron's all spin. Vote for the party that's actually campainging to do what it takes.

    Monday, March 30, 2009

    Is it fair to call our politicians corrupt?

    Hands in the till, noses in the trough, riding the gravy train, fiddling the expenses, cheating, crooked, sleazy, corrupt, dishonest...

    There are lots of examples we can cite to justify such accusations.

    But in Britain, as far as we know, nearly all politicians stick to the rules, the rule-breakers are punished, and the rules are being progressively tightened to catch misuses of taxpayers' money. Transparency and punishments should be greater, but that's not the point.

    No, the real story is that the people in power lack judgement. They fail to see that the rules do not currently prohibit behaviour that the public perceives as wrong.

    This failure might, in itself, be sufficient reason to doubt their value as decision-makers, unless they possess other skills of great worth. So let's see... financial acumen no, diplomacy no, understanding of science no, commitment to a free and free society no, powers of persuasion no, competence in running services no...

    Monday, March 23, 2009

    How do you decide who to vote for?

    Who's got the best policies?
    Who's been proved right in the past?
    Who's everyone else voting for?
    Who did I vote for last time?
    Who looks least like a bunch of losers?

    Tuesday, March 17, 2009

    Who's going to do the right thing on climate change?

    Politicians want our votes. They tell us that only they care enough to be trusted to sort out schools, hospitals, crime, terrorism, the economy, and tax cuts. And somehow, magically, only they and their friends are competent and honest.

    But climate change is different.

    If the government screws up education, the NHS, the economy and so on, it can all be put right sooner or later. But if politicians get it wrong on climate change, our planet is wrecked for good.

    Saturday, March 14, 2009

    Instinctive responses

    Labour Conservatives LibDems
    Economytreat companies as state contractorslet business do what it wantsregulate only when necessary
    Climate Changemake the right noisesmake the right noisesdo the right thing
    International Relationssuck up to the powerfultalk toughbuild consensus
    Schools, Hospitals, Policecontrolgive control to the bossesgive power back to local communities
    Freedom versus Terrorismauthoritarian governmentauthoritarian governmentfreedom
    Taxationlower before an election, stealth taxes afterlower, whatever the cost to the economyfairness

    Friday, March 13, 2009

    They're all the same

    Labour Conservative LibDems
    Had a plan five years ago to prevent the Credit Crunch
    Voted best on Climate Change by the Green Alliance
    Scrap Heathrow expansion
    Scrap university fees
    Against illegal Iraq war
    Scrap authoritarian laws on detention, ID cards, and storing the DNA of innocent people
    Scrap tax loopholes for the super rich
    Give power back to local communities to make decisions on hospital closures, school closures, post office closures, the police, housing developments and bin collections
    Higher, simpler, fairer pensions
    Invest in a proper public transport system

    Monday, March 9, 2009

    Who's best to fix the economy?

    No idea. No, really. I'm not an economist, a business guru or a financial expert.

    And the economists, business gurus and financial experts screwed up anyway. So it's anyone's guess who's best to fix the economy.

    Except... unlike stocks and shares, can't we use past performance as a guide for the future?

    Less than two years ago, the Labour government was telling us how brilliantly it had done
    and the economists were telling us how everything was wonderful. And the Conservative party said nothing because it was raking in cash from speculators. So much for the "Official Opposition".

    It's all very easy, after the event, to point out that the years of growth were an illusion, created by irresponsible lending. But none of the politicians pointed that out at the time, did they?

    Er... except this guy. Since 2003. And his analysis of the situation is widely regarded as the best there is.

    OK, he doesn't look like Brad Pitt. And his party the LibDems only got 22% of the vote at the last election, compared with 32% for the Conservatives.

    But I know who I'd like to have clearing up this mess.

    Thursday, March 5, 2009

    Police helping terrorists

    Boing Boing reports on the case of the British man arrested under terrorism laws for photographing a sewer cover.

    The main points here are:
    • He was held in a police cell for two days, his home was searched, his computer was confiscated for analysis, his fingerprints and DNA were taken.
    • There was no evidence he was photographing a sewer cover.
    • He was freed without charge.
    • Photographing a sewer cover is not against the law.
    • His fingerprints and DNA remain stored, despite this being against the law.
    This case illustrates how the police are helping terrorists:
    1. By wasting resources like this, there are less resources available for genuine anti-terrorism operations.
    2. By bringing the law into disrepute like this, the police are reducing levels of public support for legitimate anti-terrorism measures in the future.
    3. By compromising the openness of our society like this, the police are letting the terrorists control the agenda.

    Wednesday, February 25, 2009

    Secrets and Truths

    It's often said by those who take away a freedom from intrusion in exchange for the promise of some kind of protection that "Those that have nothing to hide should have nothing to fear." The current British government often says this in connection with ID cards, the DNA database, and the monitoring of phone calls and emails.

    So when the current British government refuses to release the minutes of cabinet meetings in 2003 at which ministers discussed war with Iraq, we have to ask "What are they trying to hide?"