Sunday, 2 March 2014

Keep these people locked up until they pay up

With very few exceptions (railway electrification; gay marriage), the present government has so far done very little good, and a lot of harm.

Home Secretaries, meanwhile, of whatever political hue, rarely do anything but harm. You have to go back nearly 50 years for the only exception I can think of, Roy Jenkins.

It therefore comes as quite a surprise to find myself welcoming a proposal made by Home Secterary Theresa May.

According to the London Evening Standard, Ms May is going to introduce default sentences for convicted crime bosses who fail to pay back their illicit profits. Furthermore:
New legal agreements and closer cooperation will be sought with Spain and the United Arab Emirates — two countries in which £200 million of British criminal assets are estimated to be held. There will be similar deals with West African governments and other nations such as Pakistan.
It is years ago now that I was outraged to discover that professional criminals have often been able to stash away the loot from their crimes and gain access to it once they are out of jail.

As I wrote nearly five years ago in Let Ronald Biggs die in jail,
My proposal is that professional gangsters should never be let out of jail until they have paid back everything they stole. They should certainly remain locked up until they have said where the loot is stashed and allowed the authorities to recoup it.
There ought to be a new kind of sentence, such as "20 years (say) or until the amount stolen is fully paid back, whichever is the longer". Ms May's new proposal does not appear to go quite that far, but it is a step in the right direction.

What, I hear you ask, is a woolly old lefty liberal like me doing supporting heavier penalties, a stance generally regarded as "right-wing"?

The answer is that I draw a sharp distinction between professional criminals -- organised gangsters -- and the general run of casual or petty offenders who make up so much of the prison population. As the various prison reform groups having been pointing out for decades, many of these people are more inadequate than evil, and often simply mentally deficient. Arguably, little purpose is served by locking them up.

And, as I wrote in my earlier piece,
If society had its moral compass right, [hardcore professional criminals] would be more vilified even than paedophiles, rapists and random killers. Many of the latter, it can be argued, are sick. There is something wrong with them: they are psychopaths, or their brains don't work properly; they are mentally ill, whether temporarily or permanently. 
No such defence is available to the professional criminal, who is perfectly sane, knows exactly what he is doing, and is motivated by sheer greed.
I don't entertain much hope that these people can ever be reformed. They simply need locking away for as long as possible, and above all must not be permitted to benefit from their evil activities.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

NCCL, Harman, Hewitt, PIE, and the 1970s

I hold no brief at all for Harriet Harman or Patricia Hewitt as Labour politicians. Indeed, as it happens they both featured in a list of the 15 most irritating women on the planet that I wrote nearly six years ago.

Nevertheless, in the light of the present fuss arising out of the Daily Mail's nasty smear campaign, the following needs to be said about the NCCL all those decades ago.

At the time in question (1970s), I was part of the leadership of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE), an organisation which, like PIE, was affiliated to the NCCL. I attended many NCCL conferences in those years.

For an organisation to be affiliated to the NCCL is not at all the same thing as the NCCL being affiliated to the said organisation. The NCCL was not an affiliate of PIE. PIE was an affiliate of the NCCL. It was a one-directional transaction. Much of the press coverage in the last couple of days has been quite misleading on this point.

One paid one's membership fee and received papers and publications, and the right to attend the NCCL annual conference and table resolutions. I don't recall that it gave any kind of direct line into NCCL policymaking. If you wanted to shape NCCL policy you had to make your case on a resolution at the annual conference and get it passed on a vote of those present. Even then, it was quite likely that the few overworked staff would not get round to acting on it.

Hundreds of bodies were affiliated to NCCL and it would have been unreasonable to expect the half-dozen or so office staff to "vet" every organisation applying for affiliation to check whether its policy was in line with that of the NCCL. There was never any such expectation. That just was not how the system worked.

The idea that PIE successfully "infiltrated" NCCL and used NCCL staff like P. Hewitt and H. Harman as mouthpieces for its ideas is therefore wrong. Contrary to what the Mail has tried to insinuate by selective quoting from certain documents, NCCL policy -- on, for example, the age of consent -- did not reflect PIE's aims. For a long time the NCCL argued for an age of consent of 14, much higher than what PIE was agitating for (ten, or zero, depending on whose account you read, but either way a completely unacceptable idea to everyone else).

True, nowadays an age of consent of 14 would itself be seen as unacceptable to most. But that was the NCCL's carefully argued policy at the time, nothing to do with PIE, and I remember Patricia Hewitt speaking in favour of it. I don't know if Harriet Harman ever did -- she came rather later. If the Mail and its ilk want to attack anyone on this score, it should be Hewitt rather than Harman. But Hewitt is no longer an MP so of course that wouldn't serve the Mail's purpose, which is to smear the current Labour leadership.

I'm sure that, if pressed on the PIE question at the time, NCCL people would have said, in the phrase usually attributed to Voltaire, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". In other words, for NCCL it would have been essentially a question of freedom of speech, the principal aim of the organisation since its founding in the 1930s.

Since those days, freedom of speech has become much less fashionable. But fashions come and go, and one cannot reasonably judge the past according to the fashions of today.

The Mail also produced a document signed by Ms Harman in 1978 on a different topic -- the possession of child pornography. People have forgotten that at that time the mere possession of such material was not yet an offence. There was a proposal to make it one, and as I understand it the Harman paper was NCCL's attempt to influence the wording of the legislation, agreeing with the idea of making possession illegal but trying to prevent such cases as people being prosecuted for taking pictures of their own children in the bath (unsuccessfully, it would appear, since there have subsequently been such cases).

For a refreshingly fair and level-headed take on this whole story, see this piece today by the Conservative commentator Iain Dale.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Ten reasons why I am different from most people

1. I do not have a smartphone.

2. I do not have a Facebook account.

3. I do not like beer or tea.

4. I loathe the whole British pub culture thing. Why does everyone have to crowd round the bar? Why should the tallest people with the most "presence" get served first? In what way is the continental cafe system, with its waiters, not obviously more efficient, fairer, and less stressful? And the system of "buying rounds" is sheer lunacy.

5. I think the entire popular culture sucks, and has done for at least 3 decades. Why has nobody written a decent tune since about 1975? What makes people think Andrew Lloyd Webber and Elton John have any talent?

6. I have never once done drugs, whether hard or soft. Not making a moral point, just a factual one.

7. I really enjoy not having a motorcar. I liberated myself from its tyranny in 1981. (By the way, the motorcar has come close to destroying our civilisation.)

8. I hate shopping.

9. I can do spelling, punctuation, grammar and syntax. I seem to be about the last remaining person in the whole English-speaking world who understands about hyphens.

10. I check my e-mail only twice a day max.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Eight questions about the BBC crisis

1. Q. Can the BBC recover from this crisis?

A. Yes, probably, but that doesn't alter the fact that the quality of its journalism is declining, and has been for some time, in my view. That is probably due at least in part to budget cuts. Quality journalism costs money. They have clearly got rid of too many experienced journalists for comfort. They maybe ought to have ring-fenced the news and current affairs budget and instead made bigger cuts in the excessive layers of management bureaucracy, which have obviously burgeoned over the years, as happens in all large organisations (see Parkinson's Law). There are too many bean-counters and, as in most aspects of life today, the bean-counters have too much say. David Dimbleby was good on this point this morning in his interview with John Humphrys on the Today programme, as also on the subject of ridiculous management mumbo-jumbo. Private Eye has been banging on about that practically every fortnight for many years (see "Birtspeak 2.0"). Unfortunately, though it produces some good satirical programmes from time to time, the BBC is immune to satire about itself.

2. Q. How is morale at the BBC?

A. A statement just out from the NUJ says: "Morale is already at an all-time low". Ha ha ha ha! Every BBC person I have ever met has told me that morale was at an all-time low -- starting with my cousin in 1962, when he showed me round Bush House, where he was working as what was then called a Technical Operator. That's half a century ago. Morale is *always* at an all-time low.

3. Q. What went wrong at Newsnight?

A. My guesses:
(a) Budget cuts (see above).
(b) Experienced people too hastily "recused" because of the Savile affair.
(c) Inexperienced hacks too young to know that the incorrect McAlpine story has been around for many years and had already been gone into several times by different people and found to be completely without foundation, based as it was on mistaken identity. (It was a different McAlpine -- see this piece co-written by the excellent Bob Woffinden even though it appeared in the generally dreadful Mail On Sunday.) It was, indeed, a quite unforgivable lapse and to me an astonishing one.
(d) Clambering aboard the child-sex-abuse hysteria bandwagon in a panic, without paying enough attention to checking the details.

4. Q. What about the Jimmy Savile business?

A. I think it has all been rather overblown. Clearly the man was a nasty piece of work, but we ought to be sceptical about the individual allegations in the absence of detailed proof. As the McAlpine case neatly illustrates, you cannot just take the word of abuse victims as gospel. You have to investigate each case carefully. Some of them are mistaken or confused, some are deliberately lying, etc. In fact I am seriously worried about the extent to which many people seem to be in denial about the rather obvious fact that, even with the best will in the world, it is very easy to misremember things that happened (or didn't happen) decades ago.

5. Q. Yes, but what about the BBC's responsibility in the Savile case?

A. It seems to me preposterous to be trying in 2012 to apportion blame for alleged goings-on in the Top of the Pops studio in 1964. Was the general culture too permissive in those days? Maybe, but certainly not only at the BBC. Can anything be done about it now? No, of course not. What matters is that all sorts of procedures are nowadays in place (and I think have been for some time) to stop it happening again.

6. Q. Should the Director-General have resigned?

A. Perhaps not -- although I remain gobsmacked that he did not glance at the front pages of the serious national broadsheets every morning. I thought all important people did that in all spheres of life. Anyway, he's gone now and we are where we are.

7. Q. Should Chris Patten also resign?

A. Certainly not.

8. Q. What should politicians now be doing about all this?

A. They should all shut up and leave some space for the BBC leadership to sort things out. The same goes for the rest of the media, several of whom have an obvious vested interest in making trouble for the BBC and whose coverage of the affair is therefore highly suspect.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Aaronovitch: Beware a modern Salem over child abuse

The following piece from two days ago by David Aaronovitch is too important to hide behind a firewall:

Beware a modern Salem over child abuse - Pursuing witch hunts is as dangerous as ignoring victims. Don't launch inquiries on the back of lurid claims

This is a difficult column to write, because a lot of people won't want to hear what it's going to say and some will accuse it of saying what it doesn't. And because it's provisional. It is based on a fraction of the research that would be needed to be completely sure of the case I'm going to make anyway — which is that we are in danger right now of passing from one kind of injustice to another.

The Savile affair was just the latest form to be taken by a phenomenon that sometimes seems to have been endemic to postwar British society. It was in the Catholic Church (here and abroad). It was taking place in boarding schools. It was happening in care homes. On mattresses above kebab shops. In BBC dressing rooms. In people's own homes. (Above all there, actually.) Children were being abused sexually or physically, or both. When the abuse was discovered we realised that many of the victims were either too ashamed or frightened to complain, or else had their complaints dismissed by agencies and authorities who did not want to listen.

The misery of abuse was compounded by the misery of disbelief. I remember watching the Channel 4 film Chosen a couple of years back, and tears of shame — though what had I to do with a posh little prep school back in the Sixties? — ran down my face. And something of a revolution in our attitudes towards this abuse and its victims took place in the 1980s, after which it became as possible to pretend that there wasn't a problem as it was to deny that smoking was a health hazard.

But. But it seems we have had to pay an unnecessary price for our new understanding. In Cleveland in the late 1980s, alongside real abusers, completely innocent people were deprived of their children on the basis of the beliefs and a faulty diagnosis of a paediatrician and social worker. Not long afterwards there was panic on Orkney and in cities such as Rochdale and Nottingham, amid claims that there were networks of abusers using satanic rituals as a pretext for acts of abuse, including infanticide and cannibalism. Books were written, front pages were splashed, serious conferences convened, in which dark caverns and human sacrifice were earnestly discussed.

When it all collapsed, as it had to, what was left was the continuous problem of the zealous imposing new histories on the impressionable. The care workers — sometimes the police — had implanted and rewarded the telling of fantasies. It wasn't exactly a new thing. "I saw Goody Osburn with the devil," says a child in Arthur Miller's The Crucible. When the Newcastle nursery workers Dawn Reed and Christopher Lillie won their libel case against an official inquiry team that had accused them of scores of acts of child abuse on the flimsiest of evidence, what emerged was a modern Salem of one accusation breeding the next.

The unattractive (because complicating) truth is that sometimes people do lie about being abused. Sometimes it's for money, sometimes for attention, sometimes because that's what they infer their listeners want to hear. Or they're genuinely mistaken. Or fantasy has become solidified as fact, the dream as daylight. Now there are elaborate protocols to make sure that the testimony of children is uncontaminated by the prior judgment of adults. But for someone who may have created their story years ago, no such safeguard can exist.

So we must not dismiss allegations, but they can never be taken or repeated with anything other than the most tedious sobriety. And that, if you like, is a generic rule applying to all situations. This week's specific horror concerns child abuse in care homes in North Wales. For this, there is a second thing that needs saying. One fairly persistent modern meme in conspiracy theories is the idea of the paedophile network of powerful men. I say this not because such an accusation must always be false, but just to point out that the idea is somehow attractive. It unties some knots for us. And I know of no case where it has turned out to be true.

On Tuesday night, the Channel 4 News anchor Cathy Newman asked a Conservative MP about the accusation that there had been a hidden political dimension to child abuse in the 1970s and 80s. This had been claimed by Steven Messham on Newsnight days earlier and raised at a Prime Minister's Questions last month by the Labour MP Tom Watson. Was there, she asked, "danger for the Conservative Party that these allegations may not concern isolated figures in the party?" A paedo network, in other words.

That morning I'd spoken to a senior journalist at the BBC who'd covered the North Wales care home abuse story in the early 1990s. He had heard the Messham allegations several times over the past 20 years, was deeply sceptical about them and could not see what had suddenly impelled Newsnight to put them on air. Or rather, he thought he could see: Savile.

Nevertheless, based, as far as I can see, solely on Mr Messham's appearance, the Government on Tuesday announced what was, in effect, a re-inquiry into the exhaustive Waterhouse Inquiry into abuse in North Wales care homes, which had reported in 2000. The announcement repeated Mr Messham's solicitor's line that Waterhouse had had too limited a remit to inquire properly into the idea of an abuse network.

I have to say that having read chapter 52 of the report I find it quite hard to accept that claim. I also note that John Jillings, who chaired the first local inquiry, in the early 1990s, into abuse in North Wales, had no recollection of Mr Messham claiming that a senior political figure was one of the abusers. Mr Messham has claimed abuse at the hands of many, many people.

A second inquiry will look into previous police investigations into child sexual abuse — which may be more appropriate but seems to have been dreamt up on the hoof. Meanwhile the net buzzes with speculation fed by the Messham and Watson appearances as to who these evil Tories may be. Some of these sites are lurid and preposterous. But then, in Parliament on Tuesday Mr Watson, having made claims about paedophile links to No 10 and in government, suddenly raised the bar to refer to child "rape and torture" in Whitehall.

This was worrying. But more worrying still was a line in a letter Mr Watson sent to Mr Cameron before the inquiries were announced. "Your advisers will tell you to be wary of 'opening the floodgates'," he wrote. "They are wrong. Their decorous caution is the friend of the paedophile."

That's what you become if you don't join in the clamour, but ask first for the evidence — "the friend of the paedophile". I saw Goody Aaronovitch with the devil.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Monday, 16 January 2012

Metro map of the day

Latest rapid transit map from Singapore. The system has expanded hugely since I was last there only a few years ago. The thick lines are heavy metro, the thin lines are light rail (in the DLR sense, not street trams). UPDATE: Whoops! Apparently this is the proposed final network, not yet all in place.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

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

Bicycles (and trams) dominate in Utrecht

Why can't it be more like that here?

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.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

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.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Trams of the day

Or streetcars, as they call them in America. This is silent film of them in Washington DC in the early 1950s. These have long gone, but there is now a plan for a new tram system there.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

What the hell is going on?

Let us be clear: Julian Assange is an arrogant, self-important twat. But even arrogant twats have the right not to be extradited on trumped-up charges. Does anyone seriously believe in the accusations of rape? And what on earth is Sweden playing at? It is almost the last country one expects to see doing the USA's dirty work for it.

I don't of course buy the argument that the Wikileaks operation is morally justified on freedom of information grounds. Not all information can or should be in the public domain. Certainly we ought to be told in general terms what governments are doing in our names, but it is remarkably naive to think that that means every piece of paper can be published.

But there does seem to be an element of "shoot the messenger" in the reaction of our various dear leaders, a sort of mixture of outrage and panic. The clearly guilty party is the US government employee who leaked the stuff in the first place, rather more than Wikileaks for broadcasting it.