Thursday, July 31, 2008

Good Old Boy #65

Thanks to Andreas in the comments for this one, a response to David Miliband's article on Comment is Free:

I'll be voting Labour at the next election and I'll tell you why.

I'm 85 and been in and out of hospital frequently since 1992. I can say categorically that things are infinitely better now . Back in 1992 not just a long waiting list but when you got a date you had to ring up on the morning to see if there was still a bed. 2 times out of 3 there was not. Now medical procedures have improved and speeded up. When the consultant says "we'll have another look in six months" you get an appointment in precisely six months. In the nineties a medical exam under anaesthetic meant three days in hospital now you go in at 8AM and sent home 4PM. Many internal examinations are now done by endoscopy and you only spend a couple of hours in hospital. I know because I served on a Health Service Committee that the long waiting lists were due to lack of funding.

I'm also voting Labour because I'm better off. Yes things are tighter than they were 12 months ago but I'm a damn sight better off than 12 years ago. Then my pension just about covered day to day living, now there is some over for the odd luxury.

No doubt the above will cause apoplexy among the majority who contribute to Cif. I get the impression they are nihilists or anarchists and anti-government and within six months of a change of government the bile and invective will be as OTT as it is now.

Btw will those who use the silly phrase "NuLabour" do so in the opening sentence. I can then skip to the next comment because I know their unoriginal contribution will be the same old rubbish that all users of "NuLabour" spout.

The same applies too to those who use BLiar, Broon Harperson et al. If you've got a constructive point you want to make it is not improved by unoriginal Private Eye name calling.

Clause 1 socialism

This is an excellent idea, making it an explicit part of the job of all Labour MPs to keep in touch with the people they represent, and getting rid of the ones who don't.

Resolution from Mitcham and Morden CLP:

Draft Resolution

"In light of the loss of the Glasgow East constituency at the recent bye-election, Labour needs to examine reasons for that loss.

While there will be many reasons nationally that could be identified, one factor that can be addressed by party members is the absence in a safe Labour seat of any organization worthy of the name.

It was revealed that when the bye- election was called, the records of peoples voting intentions held by the local party were non existent. This was despite the former Labour MP serving for nearly thirty years.

Making contact with electors and listening to their concerns is a fundamental duty for Labour. Only by doing this can we hope to be a successful campaigning body.

This Conference believes that it is amongst the main duties of a Member of Parliament to lead the local Party in developing extensive contact with the electorate, through regular telephone and face to face canvassing in order to determine local concerns, aspirations and preferences.

This Conference believes that a reasonable level of contact and identifications is at least 30%. Further, a failure to develop extensive contact in this way with constituents is a failure of the Member of Parliament to fulfill their responsibilities as a political representative for the constituency.

In light of this and as a matter of urgency, this Conference mandates all Regional Party Secretaries to request information of the levels of contact and voter identification in each constituency and to send validated returns to the National Executive of the Labour Party by 31 March 2009.

This Conference believes that any Member of Parliament sitting for a constituency, which is not able to demonstrate a contact rate of more than 15% by 31st March 2009 should be considered ineligible for reselection, or where already reselected, for re-nomination as a Parliamentary Candidate.

The National Executive Committee is, by this resolution, mandated to reopen all selections where the constituency and the Member of Parliament have failed to pass the 15% hurdle. Further, the National Executive is mandated to prevent sitting Members of Parliament in such constituencies from being included in the shortlist for selection by reason of inadequate contact with their constituents and poor performance of their duties as a Labour representative. Further, such Members of Parliament shall be excluded from standing again in any constituency.

The aim by the General Election after next is that this contact rate shall be in excess of 30% if the sitting member wishes to stand for re-election."

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Far out contrarianism

Prospect Magazine claims to have 'acquired a reputation as the most intelligent magazine of current affairs and cultural debate in Britain'. Given the state of the competition, it wouldn't be hard.

But as ways to lose a reputation for intelligence go, this month's cover story is as good as it gets. It's by a 'public intellectual' called Edward Luttwak, who was last spotted writing about how Barack Obama would be a bad choice as President because he is an apostate Muslim.

It's about how in fact President Bush's foreign policy will be seen by future historians as a great success (and Iraq recognised as a sideshow). He argues that '
"You are with us or with the terrorists" was the right slogan and the right policy'. It almost goes without saying that the article is an absolute total mess of bad faith arguments, unsupported claims and so on.

The Prospect blog gleefully admits that this is a piece of 'far out contrarianism' which they hope will get people to read their magazine. So much for the approach of trying to sell a magazine with the strategy of 'here are some intelligent and thought-provoking articles that you might learn from'. It's almost enough to make the New Statesman look good.

Against all odds analysis gets more stupid

Delighted to discover from reading today's Guardian that some people appear to have read 'ten terrible arguments about the Labour leadership', and thought it was a to do list, starting from the top.

But the response to David Miliband's article has been a whole new level of stupid. My favourite being 'look at the comments on the Guardian's website in response to his article, they are all negative. This means that even people who read the Guardian don't like David Miliband'.

So just for the avoidance of any doubt, there are two separate groups of people. There are Guardian readers, who buy and read the Guardian newspaper (hence the name), who mostly work in the public or voluntary sector, would like Labour to be a bit more left-wing but not too much and so on. Their favourite political columnist is Polly Toynbee.

Then there are people who leave comments on the CommentisFree section of the Guardian website. There is extremely little overlap between these people and the ones who buy the Guardian, since they haven't yet invented a permit or something to stop right-wing loons from being able to go to the Guardian's website. If David Miliband wanted to get positive comments from Comment is Free, his article should have covered the following subjects:

*The holes in the so-called 'official' account of 9/11
*The National Health Service - a socialist conspiracy
*Why all politicians are evil and corrupt
*The need to scrap ID cards, CCTV cameras and the rest of the Big Brother state
*The plot to make the English people slaves of the European super state

Or put more simply, the way to tell a Guardian reader apart from a CommentisFree poster is that no Guardian reader has ever used the phrase 'ZaNu Lie-bour'.

So what do the comments on Miliband's article tell us about his prospects of being a future Labour leader? Absolutely nothing.

Plz can we have some proper news instead of yet more of this 'sources close to the minister failed to deny blah blah blah'? Surely there is a kitten stuck up a tree which has just been rescued by Brave Fire Fighters, or something like that. Please?

Right wing Tories against left wing guide books

No one is paying attention to the Tories at the moment, as it is much more fun for journalists to write about how the government is getting on with the job and listening to the people.

But the speed with which the Tories are lurching to the right now that they don't feel that they have to hide what they really think is actually quite something. Just one little example - they issued a briefing earlier this week about how 'Old Labour is back', and one of the pitifully few examples of this they scraped off the barrel was that the government had given in to trade union demands not to privatise the Royal Mail. Remember back in the old day of, erm, April, when the thing that the Tories cared most about in all the world was opposing the closure of post offices? That was then and this is now.

For sheer, unadulterated, old skool Thatcherism gone mad, check out this article by Greg Hands. The subject of his article is why guide books are so left wing.

Why guide books are so left wing. Whadda you mean, you'd never noticed?

The Lonely Planet for Britain in 1994 was uncomplimentary about Mrs Thatcher, and the Lonely Planet for the USA claims that Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal was quite successful and doesn't think that George Bush has been a very good President. The Lonely Planet for Egypt is an apology for radical Islamism. The entire Lonely Planet series is owned by the BBC (nuff said). And the restaurant reviews only recommend restaurants which are run by Marxists.

So when the Tories talk about their plans to tackle poverty, save the environment and improve the NHS, worth remembering that their representatives are more worried about left wing guide books.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Ten terrible arguments

One of the things about losing a by-election is that it offers commentators the chance to regurgitate a kind of Greatest Hits parade of terrible advice for the Labour Party. In no particular order, here are the top ten:

1. "Gordon Brown has to go because while he is very bright, he is not charismatic and people think he is a bit weird and a policy geek. Labour's next leader should be David Miliband."

2. "Labour should spend upwards of £1 million which it hasn't got on holding an election for the next leader. This is a better use for money that Labour doesn't have than communicating with the electorate or hiring organisers to mobilise campaign volunteers."

3. "Labour should spend the next few months having an internal debate about its future, with lots of candidates standing with more or less identical policies. This worked really well during the Deputy Leadership contest."

4. "Gordon Brown should resign and be replaced by the one who announced that he wasn't up to the job of being Prime Minister."

5. "Labour should hold a general election this year under a new leader, because it is better to be guaranteed to lose an election now then probably lose an election in two years time."

6. "Labour could change its leader, and carry on governing until 2010 with the same policies, and this would be likely to lead to a better election result."

7. "The next leader of the Labour Party should adopt a radical set of policies completely different from the ones Labour was elected on in 2005, based on demands from the trade unions around making it easier to go on strike. This will make Labour more popular."

8. "The one who the Tories really fear is James Purnell."

9. "Labour MPs are more likely to be re-elected if they spend their time talking to journalists and each other about who the next leader should be rather than spending every possible moment available campaigning in their constituency."

10. "He's tanned, he's rested, he's ready. Bring back Tony Blair."

Bottom up economics

Robert Reich explains the differences between McCain and Obama on the economy.

McCain (and the Republicans and the Tories) believes in 'top down economics'. Top down economics holds that you should give generous tax breaks to the rich, so that they will work harder and invest more, leading to more growth and more jobs. You should also give tax breaks to large corporations, reduce their payroll costs, and impose fewer regulations on them, so they can compete more successfully in global commerce and create more jobs. The best way to reduce energy costs for ordinary people is to lower taxes on oil companies and give them more land to drill on. And fourthly, the best way to deal with the crisis in credit markets is to insure large Wall Street investment banks against losses.

But in a global economy, very few of the benefits of helping people at the top pass down to ordinary consumers.

Obama prefers bottom-up economics. This says that the growth of the economy depends largely on the productivity of its workers. They are rooted here, while global capital and large American-based global corporations are not. Workers' productivity depends mainly on their education, their health, and the infrastructure that connects them together. Good jobs will be created not because taxes or wages or regulatory costs are low (there will always be many places around the world where taxes, wages, and regulatory costs are lower) but because the productivity of workers is high. The answer to higher energy costs is found in creativity and inventiveness in generating non-oil and non-carbon fuels and new means of energy conservation. Finally, in order to avoid a recession or worse, it's necessary to improve the financial security of ordinary people.

Same old Tories

Tory Chris Grayling is going to give a speech tomorrow claiming that the gulf between rich and poor is at its widest since Victorian times.

The Daily Telegraph reports, 'Describing the Toxteth area of Liverpool, he will say: "I can show you streets where no one works, street corners where drug dealing is the main business, children being brought up in squalor, a caged up pub with pitbulls as bouncers - gangs, knives and guns in abundance."'

Unemployment, crime and child poverty are all problems in Toxteth as in many other parts of the country. But all the people I talked to who live and work there say that things are so much better then they were ten or fifteen years ago. If he really cared about understanding what policies make a difference and what more needs to be done, Grayling could talk to people who lost their jobs in the 1980s and are now back in work, the dedicated community activists and local councillors who work to sort out the problems, and he could go and see the places where the drug dealers used to gather which have been reclaimed for the whole community.

But, of course, he won't. Because the Tories don't want to have an honest debate about reducing inequality and acknowledging that things are better now in Liverpool than under Maggie Thatcher or John Major, but more needs to be done. Instead, they want to stop the policies which have worked, and instead blame people in Liverpool to get votes in wealthier parts of the country.

Same old Tories, in other words.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Good Old Boy #64

From here:

"In 1803, [Thomas] Jefferson purchased a slice of land from Napoleon. How much land? Honestly, neither the French nor Jefferson really knew. And neither knew what that land contained.

To begin the long task of finding out, Jefferson dispatched Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their long expedition across the west. And while Jefferson was unsure of how far they'd be going, or what wonders they might find, there was one thing he had hopes they would see. Mastodons. A large mammal, covered in shaggy fur, ten feet tall at the shoulder, and a rather close relative of the modern elephant.

Why would a man as smart as Thomas Jefferson expect to find a fur-coated elephant still hiding in the parts of America that were not then well know? Because he'd seen the bones of mastodons and other large ice age creatures, and in his day, most people, no matter how bright, did not believe that it was possible for an Animal to go extinct. If mastodons were not to be found in the parts of the country settled by Europeans, then they must be somewhere else. Even several decades later many people did not accept the idea of extinction.

Extinction threatened the "great chain of being," which could not tolerate missing links. Like the inhabitants of Easter Island who cut down the the last tree in confidence that there had to be more trees, you know, somewhere, the people of Jefferson's America knew that mastodons were still out there. They were merely hiding."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

NEC election results

Congratulations/commiserations to Ellie Reeves, Ann Black, Christine Shawcroft, Peter Kenyon, Peter Willsman and Peter Wheeler, elected as the constituency representatives on Labour's NEC.

An interesting reflection of the current views of Labour activists - three women topping the poll, 5 candidates from the centre-left Grassroots Alliance elected to 2 from Labour First (Ellie was endorsed by both)...

...and, most importantly, if you are a man seeking election within the Labour Party, the winning strategy is to be called 'Peter'.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Taking personal responsibility

Barbara Ehrenreich's new book 'Going to Extremes' includes my new favourite fact.

In America, as in Britain, lone parents are told by right-wing people that marriage is important for reducing poverty.

Now, except in the movies, most women in America in receipt of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families will end up marrying blue collar (working class) workers. But wages for blue collar workers have been falling in America for many years, and a single wage would not be enough to lift the family out of poverty.

So Ehrenreich calculated just how many blue collar workers a TANF recipient needs to marry in order to lift her family out of poverty. The answer turns out to be 2.3, which as she points out, is illegal.

So it turns out that marriage isn't a viable route out of poverty. And those moralists who preach that women ought to take personal responsibility for their lives would be the first to condemn any woman who married three men, or, heaven forbid, three women who were jointly married to seven men. It's quite literally a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't.

The wrong idea at the wrong time

James Purnell and Johann Hari wrote today about a welfare reform strategy which will help people who can work find jobs which are good for their health and well-being, and provide greater support for those who can't work. I think that sounds really good.

But there seems to have been a mix up, because the Welfare Reform strategy which the government published today bears no relation to the above objectives, and instead is a load of right-wing rubbish based on incorrect assumptions from a banker who knows nothing about welfare policy, which has 'thrilled' David Cameron (now there is an unpleasant image), and is opposed by anti-poverty campaigners.

The draft paper was leaked to Sky News on Friday, and the official paper was published today. There's one interesting difference between the two which caught my eye.

In the draft, it claimed that 'the evidence shows that a conditionality regime is essential, whether unemployment is falling or rising' (point 11 of the executive summary, with no link to any research or other evidence). That was omitted from the official version.

This is kind of technical, but also important. 'Conditionality regime' refers to reducing or stopping people's benefits if they don't comply with the requirements to seek work, get treatment for drugs, do training or other things which their advisers tell them to.

Supporters of this claim that it helps increase levels of employment at times when the overall number of jobs in the economy is growing. Even they usually acknowledge that it isn't designed for times when overall unemployment is rising (and if there was evidence that this would work, then presumably the government would not have removed section 11 from the report).

This goes absolutely to the heart of Purnell and Freud's approach to welfare reform. As long as the number of jobs around is increasing, you can get more people into work by changing their behaviour to make them 'work-focused'. But it doesn't matter how 'work-focused' individuals are if the number of jobs is shrinking. What will end up happening in that case is that more people will be living on benefits which are deliberately set at a level too low to live a dignified life, and face further cuts if they don't comply with requirements to seek jobs which don't exist. This is demoralising for them and for the advisers who have to deliver these policies.

Supporters of this particular piece of welfare reform will try to make the claim that it might sound tough and mean, but that once you get over the initial reaction and look at the detail, it is in fact progressive and will end up helping people. They will also portray opponents of it as kind hearted but soft headed lefties who aren't prepared to take tough but important decisions.

This isn't one of those issues. The more you know about it, the worse it gets. Freud and Purnell's approach gets the balance wrong between helping people and bullying them, and it is being introduced at a time when the state of the economy makes it most likely to fail. It is, in short, the wrong idea at the wrong time.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Election campaigns: It's all about the glamour

The Sunday Times sent a journalist to work undercover on the Labour campaign for Glasgow East. You can read the resulting article here, though it is not advised for those with an allergy to insufferable smugness.

The shocking revelations included:

*The Labour Party does not ask detailed policy questions before allowing volunteers to deliver leaflets for them!

*The campaign office was not high tech!

*It is sometimes hard to make sense of the maps that you get given for leafleting and find all the streets on the list!

*Some Labour Party campaigners are inclined to be pessimistic about whether Labour will win! Campaign staff were telling activists that the election might be close!

*The worst thing anyone said about our candidate was “She’s nice, just don’t get on her wrong side. Scary woman.” Also, she makes jokes which our hero doesn't appear to have understood.

*Volunteers don't get reimbursed for petrol expenses, and aren't encouraged to hang around the campaign centre having their lunch!

Apparently this means that Labour are in disarray, and it is Trouble for Gordon Brown, which is probably just as well, as that was what his editor was going to print regardless of what his investigations had turned up.

Brendan the journalist also reports that there are 1,000 SNP activists and they get free food and drink. He knows this because one of their activists told him (good fact check skills, after all, it's not like the SNP has any previous form in claiming more activists then they actually have).

Maybe things are different for other political parties, though I very much doubt it. But stripping away the hack journalism and the immense self-regard of the author, what Brendan describes are things which happen in every election campaign, win or lose.

But there is one feature of modern election campaigns which was missing in his account. Ever since the invention of the mobile phone, there are always some people who for whatever reason find themselves having to go out canvassing or leafleting, but know that their talents are wasted on that sort of thing. So they spend as much time as possible taking Very Important Phone Calls and as little time as possible actually doing anything useful. But I rather suspect that they are Brendan's sort of people.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Good Old Boy #63

Professor Richard Lenski is an evolutionary biologist. His research drew the unwelcome attentions of the man who runs Conservapedia, who made all sorts of criticisms of his work from a creationist perspective and demanded to see Lenski's research. Lenski gave a polite response, which led to a further tirade and set of bullying demands.

This prompted a lengthy, beautifully written and totally crushing response from Lenski:

It begins:

"I tried to be polite, civil and respectful in my reply to your first email, despite its rude tone and uninformed content. Given the continued rudeness of your second email, and the willfully ignorant and slanderous content on your website, my second response will be less polite. I expect you to post my response in its entirety; if not, I will make sure that is made publicly available through other channels.

I offer this lengthy reply because I am an educator as well as a scientist. It is my sincere hope that some readers might learn something from this exchange, even if you do not.

First, it seems that reading might not be your strongest suit given your initial letter, which showed that you had not read our paper, and given subsequent conversations with your followers, in which you wrote that you still had not bothered to read our paper..."

My favourite bit is:

"But perhaps because you did not bother even to read our paper, or perhaps because you aren't very bright, you seem not to understand that we have the actual, living bacteria that exhibit the properties reported in our paper, including both the ancestral strain used to
start this long-term experiment and its evolved citrate-using descendants. In other words, it's not that we claim to have glimpsed "a unicorn in the garden" - we have a whole population of them living in my lab! []
And lest you accuse me further of fraud, I do not literally mean that we have unicorns in the lab. Rather, I am making a literary allusion. []... "

and the letter finishes with four postscripts, culminating with this:

"P.P.P.P.S. I noticed that you say that one of your favorite articles on your website is the one on "Deceit." That article begins as follows: "Deceit is the deliberate distortion or denial of the truth with an intent to trick or fool another. Christianity and Judaism teach that deceit is wrong. For example, the Old Testament says, 'Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.'" You really should think more carefully about what that commandment means before you go around bearing false witness against others."

Via Crooked Timber, the whole correspondence can be found here

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Privatise state funerals!

Here is the introduction from my new pamphlet on the case for privatising state funerals, based on research that I did for the Taxpayers Alliance and the Adam Smith Institute, which is due to be published in the Daily Express:

I see that the wicked Marxist government of Gordon Brown has delivered the ultimate insult to Lady Thatcher by proposing to offer her a state funeral. Through her life, the blessed Margaret Thatcher was a tireless foe of inefficient state monopolies which crowd out the private sector. A state funeral is likely to impose unnecessary burdens on the taxpayer, and there are thousands of small businessmen who would be able to do the job better at a fraction of the cost. In addition, there is the very real risk that strike action by feather-bedded public sector workers could delay the preparation for the funeral, or even disrupt the funeral itself.

Therefore, I propose that the preparation for the organisation of Lady Thatcher's funeral should not be given to the dead hand of the government, but should instead be privatised, with the contract being awarded to the lowest bidder.

It is further proposed that a one off levy, or poll tax, would be the most appropriate way to meet the costs of the funeral, in light of the great affection in which the majority of the people in Surrey across the land regard the woman who is quite rightly regarded as the saviour of our nation. Such a levy should be set at the same level for everyone, so as not to penalise success or reward failure.

In addition to the costs of the funeral, the money raised by this poll tax will be used to meet the costs of the police, who will be asked to offer the same vigorous response to the tiny majority minority violent and extremist protesters as they did when the Communist-backed National Union of Mineworkers attempted to make Great Britain submit to the tyranny of the trade unions.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Choose life for elephants

Tomorrow the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species will vote on whether or not to allow China to become a licensed ivory buyer. At the moment, only Japan is a licensed buyer.

The ban was first imposed in 1989 after the number of African elephants fell by more than half in one decade.

148 MPs, from John McDonnell to Michael Howard, John Spellar to Charles Kennedy, have signed the Early Day Motion against the trading and for the elephant. The vote will be tomorrow, and the British government rep is Joan Ruddock.

More information and details of the campaign from the International Fund for Animal Welfare is here.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Judging more, understanding less

Yesterday, David Cameron claimed that, "We, as a society, have been far too sensitive. In order to avoid injury to people's feelings, to avoid appearing judgmental, we have failed to say what needs to be said. We have seen a decades-long erosion of responsibility, of social virtue, of self-discipline, respect for others, of deferring gratification instead of instant gratification."

When I heard this, I was immediately reminded of another Tory politician who believed exactly the same. The way John Major put it was a bit more succinct, though - 'we need to understand a little less and condemn a little more.'

Cameron is saying is that what John Major, Michael Howard, Norman Tebbit, Maggie Thatcher and the rest of them got wrong was that they were too sensitive, too inclined to avoid appearing judgmental and didn't want to injure people's feelings.

Fifteen years ago, John Major summed up the Tory Party of the time - nasty, bigoted, narrow-minded and not interested in helping people sort out problems. The newspapers might report all this stuff about the 'broken society' as some new thing. But all the slick marketing in the world can't change the fact that the Tories haven't changed, nor that social policies based on being insensitive and condemning more represent an approach which has failed utterly whenever and wherever they have been tried.

How not to win an argument

The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust decided that they wanted an opinion poll which 'proved' that Teh People have turned against the idea of locking up terrorist suspects for six weeks.

So just to make sure that the people would give the correct answers, when they commissioned ICM to conduct polling, they got the interviewer to read out a paragraph summarising the arguments against this policy, then two other questions designed to associate the policy with locking up innocent people, and then to present five different options, with six weeks being the longest of the options on offer.

Mission accomplished, in one sense, in that only 38% picked the option of six weeks. Cue the press release saying that 60% support detaining terrorist suspects for no more than 28 days.

There's nothing wrong with using opinion surveys to test out different messages and arguments to see how they influence the decisions that people make (indeed, this is usually a much better use of opinion polling then trying to find out what public opinion is at any given moment). For example, the survey included a question which asked people who supported the government's policy whether they would change their minds in the knowledge that six weeks is as long as the prison sentence which someone convicted of burglary or assault serves. This fact on its own persuaded 35% of people to change their minds.

But what the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust have tried to do is to claim that the public are already being persuaded by the arguments of opponents of six weeks detention without trial, rather than that it could be won given the right arguments. I agree with them on the issue, but finding out that as long as people just hear only our side of the argument, then a majority will agree with us isn't actually very helpful. When in a minority, it is better to find out how to win people over, rather than declare that you are the majority.

What would have been much more valuable would have been if they had started with a neutral question about the issue, and then tested out different arguments to see which the most persuasive were. It wouldn't have got as good a headline, but it would have been a much better contribution to the debate and a much better resource for campaigners for civil liberties.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Good Old Boy #62 plus important message for those concerned about animal welfare

The MPs who chose to keep shopping at John Lewis at the taxpayers' expense have provoked some irate responses. But none, I would wager, quite as magnificant as this one:


I think this is deeply unfair. It is well known that Elliott Morley MP gives help and affection back to those who show kindness and affection to him.

Incidentally, my view is that if you are a trade unionist, you should continue to pay into the political fund to support the Labour Party which has done and continues to do a lot for animal welfare, and you should also consider adopting an ele-fant.

If you are not a trade unionist, then you should both join a trade union and adopt an ele-fant.

A better quality of welfare reform

The Welfare Reform Green Paper is going to be a real treat, judging by James Purnell's interview in the Times today. Apparently, "private companies will be brought in to get the long-term unemployed back to work – and will be paid by results. People who refuse to take jobs or go on training courses will be stripped of benefits. There will be no excuses for disabled people or lone parents if they are able to work. Drug addicts will be forced to seek treatment or lose money."

What is really galling is the difference between the tough talk aimed at people on low incomes, which is all about what We The Government expect of Them, the little people, and the gormless praise of the private sector, “When people talk about privatisation that seems old-fashioned...It doesn’t matter if they make a fortune doing it, if they get the job done.”

The problem with this isn't the rhetoric (though that would be embarrassing if coming from a right-wing moron in a hurry let alone someone who fancies himself as the next leader of the Labour Party), it's that these policies won't work if all the extra responsibilities are placed on people who are out of work, and the only responsibility for the private sector is to turn up and bid for new handouts from the government.

Purnell and his advisers don't appear to understand what life is actually like for people who can't find a job, who are out of work because they are sick, who have deliberately chosen to live on less money in order to have more quality time with their kids, or, indeed, what it is like working in a job at the bottom end of the labour market.

Government ministers frequently cite research which shows that being out of work is bad for people's health, compared to having a job. Hence his idea that GPs should send their patients to job advisers rather than medicine. But this research is not a like for like comparison of the options which are actually available to people.

When Purnell talks about 'work', he is thinking of the kinds of jobs that he and the people that he is friends with do - interesting and rewarding work, nice colleagues, a supportive boss and the chance to work flexibly and balance work with caring responsibilities, and the chance to change jobs if a better opportunity comes along. These kind of jobs are indeed better for your health than being unemployed.

But most jobs available to someone who has a disability, mental health problems or caring responsibilities, or who hasn't worked for fifteen years, aren't like that. And Purnell's colleague John Hutton says that any attempts to give low paid workers more rights which might improve the quality of their jobs and promote their health and well-being would be a burden on business.

The overwhelming temptation is just to oppose this bill when it gets put forward this autumn. Problem with this is that it will pass with Tory votes, as the only problem the Tories have with it is that they would like to go a bit further and keep the issue as one to beat Labour with in the election. But I think a better strategy might be to try to amend it. After all, welfare reform is something that lefties should support, because no one can possibly believe that our welfare system is perfect as it is. And the principles of good jobs for all who can work, and support for those who can't are good ones. Here's three possible examples, there can be many more.

Purnell remarks that better childcare is needed - so why not amend the bill to include free childcare for working parents?

He says that work is important for promoting good health - so why not amend the bill to make sure that low paid workers get new rights which would help reduce stress and ill health in the workplace?

He says that 'the gap between rich and poor matters' - so why not amend the bill to make sure that everyone who works full time can earn enough to fully participate in society?

Friday, July 04, 2008

Why are the Taxpayers Alliance lying about crime?

The Taxpayers Alliance have a new report out about crime. It goes like this:

Stage 1: Data analysis using government figures about costs of different crimes, broken down by region to derive a cost per head of crimes in that area
Stage 2: (Mumble, mumble)
Stage 3: Therefore we need to cut bureaucracy and elect local police chiefs, just as the Conservative Party want

What's interesting is that there was literally no attempt made to connect the 'research' that they did with the conclusions. They didn't compare their cost of crime figures across different years, they didn't compare with other countries, they didn't compare different policing strategies or anything. Nor did they weight the figures they got for any of the socio-economic factors which the report itself mentions will affect the results. It's either that they don't know what actual research is, or they don't care.

So when Matthew Sinclair, policy analyst at the TaxPayers' Alliance, says that the report showed that local police forces should be freed to set their own performance targets, rather than rely on centrally imposed targets, he is lying. Because it shows nothing of the kind. The information that they collected has no relation to the conclusions which they've drawn from it.

None of this, of course, prevented the Daily Express, Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph from copying out the Taxpayers' Alliance's press release and passing it off as news. This sort of nonsense is cynical and corrosive. Regardless of your political perspective, an important issue like how to reduce crime should involve finding out what works, using proper research methods.

So here's Paskini's law of pamphlets: When a campaigning group makes claims which they can't back up it's usually because the actual facts don't support their case.

UPDATE: Matt Sinclair responds, here.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Does Obama loom like the god-king Xerxes?

Tim and I had an idea for a best selling book recently. It would be a history of the struggle against Islamo-fascism. Volume one would cover the period from Alexander the Great to Justinian. We'd done our market research, which revealed a large and potentially extremely loyal audience of people who enjoy reading military history and aren't too fussy about trivial historical facts such as when Islam was founded, just as long as they find the overall narrative comforting.

Once we'd bought our crayons and made a start, there wouldn't be much need to do any historical research so the first volume could be written quickly, and there would be scope for almost endless additional volumes. Furthermore, if anyone tried to criticise us for getting any of the facts wrong, we could attack them as appeasers of Islamo-fascism and possibly also as liberal elitists. This would help to generate controversy, and make our readers even more likely to buy volume two.

But it turns out that others have had the same idea. It takes a true scholar of history to turn the war between Sparta and Persia in the fifth century BC into a chapter of the struggle against Islamofascism, but that's exactly what the 'Modern Conservative' blog has done, via here. The author tells the story of brave Spartans fighting for slaveholding monarchy democracy against Xerxes and his army, who are little different from the modern Islamofascist hordes. And in a piece of analysis too brilliant and subtle to comprehend, the Persians are not only Islamofascists but also examples of the leftist enemies within who hate our freedom. This is based on extensive research of having seen the film '300'.

It ends with an inspiring rallying cry:

"You are the tip of the spear. You are Leonides.

Feel like the left is too powerful? Keep fighting.

Does it seem like their arrows are blotting out the sun? Fight in the shade.

Does Obama loom like the god-king Xerxes? Never kneel.

And so I say to the left:

We are the tip of the spear. We will fight you. We will never yield."

Plagiarism in defence of liberty is no vice at all, so I think we might steal some of that for our opening chapter. Next up: Alexander wins Battle of Arbela, declares "Mission Accomplished"

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Good Old Boy #61

David Clelland, MP in Gateshead, has been in the news for writing to one of his constituents telling him to 'stick his vote wherever it best pleases him'. His whole letter is here and is Good Old Boy-tastic. I particularly like the phrase 'I suggest you stand for election and test the popularity of your views. I am very relaxed about contesting them and letting the people decide'.

The constituent who received this letter has popped up on the 'Liberal Burblings' blog to explain that he was "annoyed at the fact that he refuses to justify his voting and engage with his constituents on important issues like civil liberties." So here's a tip for anyone who wants to write to their MP and engage with them on the issue of civil liberties, or any other subject.

Don't be a dick about it.

Mr Scott's letter included choice phrases like the following:

There is an old saying "Do not attribute to malice that which can easily be explained by stupidity" which frankly is exactly the view I took for a long time.

"Do you have any principals [sic] that you believe in other than blind loyalty to a supposedly socialist but increasingly fascist like party?

I just do not understand why anybody should have the right to prohibit consensual sexual behaviour at all, least of all a bunch of old puritans in parliament

I hope you start to think for yourself at some point and I will keep an eye on your voting record. If you keep towing the party line on blatant incursions in to our civil liberties then you can kiss my vote goodbye and you can also count on the fact that I will be convincing everybody I know in Gateshead to do the same.

If you write to someone and call them stupid, malicious, increasingly fascistic, an old puritan, someone who doesn't think for themself, and finish up by announcing that unless they do exactly what you want (which you equate against all evidence with being the views of the wider community), you won't vote for them, then you shouldn't expect to get a detailed and thoughtful reply about counter-terrorism and anti-crime legislation. It's not like the constituent's letter included any actual arguments or examples to support his case.

MPs don't mind getting letters which could have been written by the Speak Your Brane comment generator - most of the time it will end up being their bag carriers who answer them anyway, and it is always easy to ignore anyone who writes and claims that everyone in Gateshead is disgusted by the criminalisation of violent pornography or some such.

The kinds of letters which MPs really pay attention to, and find both a delight in one way and an utter pain in another, are either those which ask for help with sorting out problems, or the ones from people where the author has really taken the time to think through their case and support it with evidence, is polite, but which leaves the clear impression that their vote is up for grabs depending on the quality of the answer.

Happily for MPs, they don't get many of that sort of letter.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Green jobs for British workers

George Monbiot previews Oliver Tickell's new book, Kyoto2: How to Manage the Global Greenhouse:

"Tickell proposes setting a global limit for carbon pollution then selling permits to pollute to companies extracting or refining fossil fuels...These firms would buy their permits in a global auction, run by a coalition of the world's central banks. There's a reserve price, to ensure that the cost of carbon doesn't fall too low, and a ceiling price, at which the banks promise to sell permits, to ensure that the cost doesn't cripple the global economy. In this case companies would be borrowing permits from the future. But because the money raised would be invested in renewables, the demand for fossil fuels would fall, so fewer permits would need to be issued in later years.

Tickell calculates that if the cap were set low enough to ensure that the world became carbon neutral by 2050, the total cost of permits would be about $1 trillion a year, or roughly 1.5% of the global economy. The money would be spent on helping the poor to adapt to climate change, paying countries to protect forests and other ecosystems, developing low-carbon farming, promoting energy efficiency and building renewable power plants."

This is useful and interesting work, as ideas which often start out seemingly on the fringes of political debate or hopelessly utopian (global limits on pollution!? administered by the world's central banks?!) often end up either with everyone pretending that they agreed with them all along, or forming the basis for more achievable policies. The policy debate can move quite rapidly in times of economic difficulty.

This also seems like a significantly better idea that the one Monbiot used to support of 'Contraction and Convergence', which involves rationing the amount of carbon that each individual uses. As Tickell points out, running a permit system for a few thousand companies has many advantages over trying to run one for a few billion individuals.

Another Green idea that I like, one which seems a bit more achievable in the short term, is the 'Green New Deal'. As I understand this, it is about the government investing lots of money in things like renewable energy, energy efficiency, public transport and conservation. The adaption to a carbon neutral world where emissions are 80% or more below current levels is going to have to happen at some point, and now seems like exactly the right sort of time to invest in new public works programmes and creating new, good quality 'green collar' jobs.

And when Mr Tickell's pollution limit is finally agreed, there will be $1 trillion being spent every year on building new renewable power plants, developing low carbon farming, promoting energy efficiency and the rest of it. If we had already built up expertise in doing all of this in the UK, that sounds like an awful lot of opportunities for Green jobs for British workers, all round the world.