Saturday, 17 September 2011

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Railway poster of the day

The Bournemouth Belle was a Pullman train, introduced by the Southern Railway in 1931. Unusually, it ran on Sundays only at first, but became daily in 1936. Journey time from London to Bournemouth was 2 hours 9 minutes, running non-stop from Waterloo to Southampton. By 1939 it had been speeded up by three minutes. The brand lived on under British Railways until the south-west main line was electrified in 1967, as a result of which you can now do the journey, hourly throughout the day, in 1 hour 45 minutes, albeit with more stops and not in such luxury -- certainly no restaurant car these days: the most you can hope for is a sandwich trolley. No train now runs non-stop between London and Southampton.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Police sirens in the night, and the collapse of civilisation

Like most people, I have been shocked by the events of recent days in London and other cities. Shocked, and profoundly disturbed.

To look at the matter first from a selfish point of view, it has suddenly become apparent that one is not safe in one's home. There simply are not enough police for them to cover everywhere at once. The trouble has largely stopped in the last few nights, but that is only with extra police drafted in from elsewhere, all leave and rest days cancelled, 12-hour shifts, and police moved to this task from almost all other inquiries and responsibilities. Quite obviously, they cannot keep this up for very long. Once police dispositions revert to normal, the whole trouble could start again.

And while the looting of shops has taken centre stage in the TV coverage, it has been less widely reported that in some places ordinary houses and blocks of flats have been torched by gangs, apparently just for the hell of it. Some completely innocent people have lost their homes, as the police either stood idly by or were nowhere to be seen. This seems to me a good deal more serious and worrying than a few thousand people stealing shoes and telephones from chain stores, utterly disgraceful though that is: it is quite simply an outrage.

It has often been said that the first duty of any government is to protect the population. In this respect, the powers-that-be have plainly failed.

For the first time since moving back to London from abroad five years ago, the boyf and I have wondered if we did the wrong thing.

Looking at the wider social issues, there has been a torrent of analysis in the posh prints over the past week. The most persuasive articles are those pointing out that many of the likely underlying causes are not new, and that the matter is multifaceted and complex, defying simplistic solutions. Thus, the situation obviously cannot be attributed primarily to government spending cuts; but equally obviously they are not going to help, especially those aimed at youth clubs, playing fields, and other relatively cheap ways of keeping young people occupied.

Another thing that clearly doesn't help is large-scale youth unemployment, a continuing blight not only here but across most of Europe.

But these essentially "economic" and "political" arguments do not really do it for me. I am more interested in the "cultural" explanations, involving arguments about long-term moral decline, the collapse of respect for authority, the disintegration of the idea of society as something to which we all belong (pace Mrs Thatcher), and the eclipsing of notions of solidarity and fairness by those of greed, selfishness and materialism -- and an ever-coarsening popular culture, obsessed with "bling" and "celebrities", that endlessly encourages people to think that they should be judged by the objects they possess.

In short, civilisation is falling apart. This cannot fairly be blamed on the present government, or the previous one -- it is clearly a longer-term phenomenon than that -- so party-political point-scoring is pretty irrelevant at the present time. The media have a lot to answer for, in my view, for where else does the "popular culture" come from?

But politicians cannot escape all blame, and the same goes for many of the other "important people" in society, of whom greedy bankers and City fatcats are only the most obvious examples. Peter Oborne is very persuasive in The moral decay of our society is as bad at the top as the bottom when he points out that

"the criminality in our streets cannot be dissociated from the moral disintegration in the highest ranks of modern British society. The last two decades have seen a terrifying decline in standards among the British governing elite. It has become acceptable for our politicians to lie and to cheat. An almost universal culture of selfishness and greed has grown up."

Oborne goes on to describe the Financial Times's glossy weekend magazine How To Spend It as "repellent", something I have always felt myself, but I never imagined I would see a commentator from the Right echo my thoughts. He goes on to lambast tax-avoiding millionaires like Richard Branson and Philip Green, as well as senior parliamentarians such as Francis Maude and Gerald Kaufman who made extravagant expenses claims and have escaped unscathed.

Of the Prime Minister, Oborne writes:

"The tragic truth is that Mr Cameron is himself guilty of failing this test. It is scarcely six weeks since he jauntily turned up at the News International summer party, even though the media group was at the time subject to not one but two police investigations. Even more notoriously, he awarded a senior Downing Street job to the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, even though he knew at the time that Coulson had resigned after criminal acts were committed under his editorship. The Prime Minister excused his wretched judgment by proclaiming that 'everybody deserves a second chance'. It was very telling yesterday that he did not talk of second chances as he pledged exemplary punishment for the rioters and looters."

And finally:
"Let's bear in mind that many of the youths in our inner cities have never been trained in decent values. All they have ever known is barbarism. Our politicians and bankers, in sharp contrast, tend to have been to good schools and universities and to have been given every opportunity in life."

Britain, he concludes, "needs a moral reformation". I cannot but agree -- but where will it come from, and how will better values be instilled in the populace? I wish I could see a means to that end.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Sea otter of the day

This sea otter is having its lunch. The sea otter is unusual in that it eats while lying on its back in the water.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Back to blogging

I am emerging from three months' silence on this blog that was partly though not wholly the result of the No vote in the AV referendum, which sent me into a bit of a decline from which I am now recovering.

By voting day it was clear that we were going to lose, but the extent of the defeat was a shock. This is how I felt about the result:

I also felt:
(1) angry about the outrageous lies put about by the No campaign and its lackeys in most of the press,
(2) even more than ever inclined to think that referendums are a bad idea,
(3) doubtful as the value of any sort of political activity, which in my case always seems to turn out to have been a waste of time.

One small crumb of comfort was that my London borough was one of half a dozen places in the country where the Yes vote actually won. Most of the others were also in London, plus Oxford and Cambridge I think. This reinforces my belief that London is not in England. Someone or other made a half-serious suggestion that in those places, at least local elections should be conducted by AV.

Nick Clegg has a lot to answer for. Settling for an AV referendum as the price for Lib Dem participation in the coalition was a reckless gamble, and if I were a member of that party I think I should have wanted him to resign the leadership when the gamble so spectacularly failed. It is now clear that no proper thinking had been done beforehand about what terms the party should insist on if the opportunity arose. AV just happened to be on the table because it was previously bandied about, in a half-arsed way, as a possible compromise with Labour (not the Tories), and that was not because anyone in the LD party actually wanted AV but because one or two significant Labour figures, such as Alan Johnson, had earlier made favourable noises about it. Once the negotiations with Labour were clearly going nowhere for all sorts of other reasons, the idea ought to have been dropped.

The end result for party politics is that the LibDems appear to have self-destructed as an electoral force with nothing much to show for it. Many of the supposed "liberal" achievements of the coalition, though certainly welcome, were things the Tories were committed to doing anyway (no Heathrow expansion, no ID cards).

But more important to me than the fate of one party is that electoral reform is now off the agenda for the rest of my lifetime, so I am now condemned to spend the rest of my years in a profoundly undemocratic polity with no prospect of any significant improvement.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Train of the day

Here is the original (1970s) rolling stock on the Brussels metro, now looking slightly dowdy. When I first lived there in the 1980s, it took me a while to get used to the phenomenal speed at which these trains accelerate away from the platform, compared with the London Underground. Incidentally the service is much better now than it was then. At the time, the interval between trains was only 20 minutes in the evening -- hopeless for a city metro -- and it was being threatened with being closed down in the evenings altogether, under the then right-wing Liberal national government. Things got a lot better with Belgium's new federal structure, when in the early 1990s the new Brussels regional asssembly took over responsibility for local transport in the capital. Devolved regional government is good for transport -- look at Scotland and Wales recently, and indeed London compared with the rest of England.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

A very short film on what to do about the referendum

Hello undecided voters! If you watch no other video clips about voting systems, please watch this one by TV's Dan Snow:

Thursday, 21 April 2011

AV too complicated, innit?

I like this, from UncleMikey at (click on the image to enlarge):

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

"No to AV" and its campaign to deceive the public with a torrent of downright lies

I was just sitting minding my own business, watching International Youth Football from South America on Eurosport2, when a leaflet arrived, headed "Keep One Person, One Vote". That sounds reasonable, I thought -- but is anybody suggesting otherwise?

It turned out to be an astonishingly mendacious piece of propaganda from NO2AV. And there was the first falsehood right there on the front cover -- the suggestion that the Alternative Vote does *not* involve "one person, one vote".

Of course AV also means one person, one vote, and it has been pointed out a million times by now that under AV everybody has only one vote, which is counted again at each stage of the counting procedure, so all votes in each contest are counted the same number of times. Anyone who suggests otherwise either hasn't understood how the system works, or -- more likely in this case -- understands perfectly well how it works but is trying to deceive the public.

Most outrageous of all is that the leaflet solemnly regurgitates the barefaced lie that AV will require voting machines and hence extra public expense. How can they get away with this, when it has been formally clarified by the authorities that machines will not be used or needed? Isn't there anything in electoral law that forbids deliberately making assertions that are verifiably the opposite of the truth?

I was going to go on and point out all the other things that are wrong with this leaflet, at best deliberately misleading and at several points just plumb wrong. But somebody else has done the job for me, in graphic form, which you can see here.

One significant point not adequately covered is the scare story that AV will assist extremists such as the BNP. The fatuous Tory peer Baroness Warsi -- evidently not keen to have the issue clouded with mere facts -- has been pushing this line. It's not just wrong, it is the opposite of the truth. One of the main advantages, perhaps the only real advantage, of AV is that (provided people understand how to use it effectively) it *prevents* a poorly supported candidate "coming through the middle" and getting elected on a small percentage of the vote because opposition to him or her is split too many ways. That is how BNP candidates have occasionally got elected in local council elections under first-past-the-post.

The only way the BNP can get elected under AV is if either (a) their candidate gets 50% of first preferences, which isn't going to happen, or (b) the BNP gets quite a lot of first preferences and then also picks up most of the second preferences of all those candidates who have performed in the first count less well than the BNP. This also seems extraordinarily unlikely (because Greens and LibDems and Respect types are never going to put the BNP as their second choice, though I suppose a few UKIP supporters might).

So with AV we would be moving from a system under which the BNP can occasionally get elected by a fluke, to a system under which they have no real prospect of being elected at all. No doubt that is why the BNP is actively campaigning for the "No" side in this referendum -- a fact that seems to have passed TV's Baroness Warsi by.

The shameless gangsters at NO2AV have also put out a spectacularly misleading TV broadcast, clearly designed to confuse the viewer and provoke groundless fears. You can see a version of it, adapted to point out some of its faults, here.

I am not claiming here that AV is wonderful. Actually it is not a very good electoral system. There are much better ones, but they are not on offer in this referendum. The point to keep in mind for this 5 May vote is that, of the two choices before us, the present system, first-past-the-post, is plainly inferior to AV -- so deeply flawed in fact that almost anything, not excluding the tossing of a coin, might well produce a fairer result.

Two articles worth reading, among many on this subject: this by TV's Andrew Rawnsley, and this New Statesman editorial.

And see also this piece by Neil Harding on the agonies of tactical voting, which AV would make unnecessary.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Railway station of the day

Time-lapse pictures of Elstree and Borehamwood station having its platforms extended to take 12-coach trains. This is part of the Thameslink upgrade programme.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Personalities against fairer voting

According to a website called Labour No to AV, if you vote "No" in the forthcoming referendum you will be in company with the following exciting intellects, all vying with each other to be at the very cutting edge of contemporary political analysis:

Margaret Beckett!
TV's Hazel Blears!
David Blunkett!
Margaret Hodge!
TV's John Prescott!!
John Reid!
Dennis Skinner!

It is also interesting to note that of the small parties, the only one campaigning against AV is the British National Party.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Lies and smears about electoral reform

A very good article by John Kampfner in yesterday's London Evening Standard, This referendum is about a lot more than vote reform:

Ultimately this referendum, on May 5, comes down to different visions of Britain. The "yes" campaign tends to be supported more by the young and optimistic. The "no" brigade is comprised mainly of Conservative Right-wingers who hate any form of change. These people opposed devolution for Scotland and Wales (now accepted as normal) and other forms of social change of past decades that have become part of the fabric of British life.

I hope he is right about that, because if so, the "Yes" side should win quite easily. Certainly the "No" campaign has got off to a lamentable start, with an irrelevant and mendacious focus on the supposed cost of changing the system. And they are also talking demonstrable nonsense about the system itself. Tom Newton-Dunn, who surely privately knows better but is presumably doing Rupert Murdoch's bidding, affects to believe in The Sun that AV is too complicated. Are they seriously suggesting that the British are too stupid to number candidates 1, 2, 3 in order of preference, as the Irish and the Australians have been quite capably doing for many decades? Is this really the best they can do?

As this campaign gets under way, I begin to feel that maybe it matters more than I thought it would. I mentioned the other day pro-STV friends who think AV almost an irrelevant diversion, so inferior is it to STV. While there was some force in that viewpoint in the abstract, now that the referendum is actually happening I suspect that it will be a disaster for progressive politics if the "Yes" side now loses.

Finally for today, may I commend a blog post by Neil Harding entitled 10 Facts About The Alternative Vote.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Changing the voting system

TV's Andrew Rawnsley has written quite a good piece about the forthcoming referendum on the Alternative Vote. In his view, the current polls are more or less meaningless; either side could easily win; and support on both sides is so far soft.

I must say I am a bit depressed to find that even some of my LibDem friends, who (like me) have been agitating for electoral reform for decades, are lukewarm about this particular proposal and, while they will vote yes if they can be bothered to vote at all, they won't be positively campaigning for it. This is because they want STV, and think AV is so inferior to STV that it is scarcely any better than what we have at the moment.

I also want STV, but the hard fact of life is that we are not going to get it anytime soon. I am of the "anything is better than nothing" view. We all know that AV is not a proportional system. It can sometimes produce distorted results, just like first-past-the-post (FPTP). But breaking the stranglehold of FPTP is surely a good thing in itself, and introducing the principle of preferential voting likewise. Numbering candidates in order of preference is better than the all-or-nothing choice of the present system, and could be a step towards STV: all that would be required to move from AV to STV is to join existing constituences together into groups of, preferably, five. The voters by then would have got used to the idea of numbering the candidates 1, 2, 3 and so on.

Even if STV proves to be beyond our reach, AV is still better than what we have because it very largely removes any incentive to attempt to vote tactically, i.e. the voter can safely write down his or her true preferences without having try to guess what everybody else is doing.

As Roger Mortimore of IPSOS-Mori points out in an excellent new paper, A Guide to the Alternative Vote (PDF), it's not true that it it impossible to vote tactically under AV, but the effects are unpredictable and it is difficult to see how in practice a candidate or party could organise it. They might try, but the important thing is that for the ordinary elector there is no point in it.

Andrew Rawnsley meanwhile thinks that the more people hear about preferential voting the more they will like it, so he is optimistic that the campaign could produce a majority for change. Certainly David Cameron's speech on the subject last week was a disgraceful tissue of lies which the pro-AV camp ought to be able to demolish quite easily.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Saturday, 5 February 2011

No evidence supports NHS reforms

The other day in The coalition so far: good or bad? I expressed, among other things, some doubts about the government's proposed NHS reforms.

It's worse than I thought. The excellent Ben Goldacre of "Bad Science" fame (best known for his brave and relentless skewering of the claptrap that is "homeopathy") now writes in Andrew Lansley and his imaginary evidence that there have been 15 major reorganisations of the NHS in 30 years. An upheaval every two years! What an absurdly wasteful and inefficient way of carrying on. Yet, according to Goldacre, no real attempt was made to measure the effectiveness of any of these "reforms". And so there is no evidence to support what the government now wants to do.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley keeps talking about "evidence" to back his proposals. Goldacre shows that there is no such evidence. In reality, nobody knows whether they will improve things or make them worse.

Friday, 28 January 2011

The coalition so far: good or bad?

A recent blog post by Neil Harding lists what are, in his view, The ten worst (and five best) things the coalition have far.

He is particularly upset about the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance and the cutting of numerous budgets, all moves that will, by and large, hurt the poor more than the rich. The increase in VAT also attracts his opprobrium. I am inclined to agree with most of this. How can the government possibly claim that VAT is progressive? Why not raise the money instead by increasing income tax on the rich? Why can we not be more like Scandinavia, whose economies incidentally are consistently more successful than Britain's?

Neil is also highly sceptical about the proposed NHS reforms, and I fear he may be right. It is unclear how it will improve services, and seems more likely to waste public money than save any. An article in this week's British Medical Journal bluntly describes the whole scheme as "mad". All past evidence is that major restructuring of large organisations hardly ever delivers the advantages claimed, and seriously damages efficiency while the upheaval is under way.

On the plus side, Neil Harding approves of Ken Clarke's "Prison doesn't work" stance, and I very much agree. Some of us have been trying to make this argument for more than 30 years, but know-nothing tabloid kneejerk populist yelling always seems to win the day over the calm appraisal of facts in the area of law-'n'-order. We wait to see whether it will really be any different this time.

Defence cuts, and raising the income tax threshold, are positive moves as far as they go; but, as Neil points out, the defence budget could be slashed far more than this without any discernible disbenefits to the country as a whole. Some jobs would be lost. But the present level of defence expenditure -- on pointless macho toys like aircraft carriers and Trident missiles -- is a remarkably expensive way of sustaining a few hundred thousand jobs.

On big item missing from his "good things" list, I think, is transport. Rather remarkably, the coalition has stuck so far to its determination not to expand airport capacity in the south-east, in the face of a great deal of doomist bleating from the vested interests concerned. Also, Philip Hammond as Transport Secretary is proving a good deal less of a "petrolhead" than most of us feared. Not only are Crossrail and Thameslink going ahead, and a certain (albeit too limited) amount of railway electrification also; but the man has actually been going around saying that railways are an essential part of the economy's infrastructure, and have to be invested in whether they make a "profit" or not. This is about as different from the usual Thatcherite dogma as you could reasonably get, and deserves more credit than it has so far received, especially in the present economic circumstances.