Sunday, August 31, 2008

What’s Darling up to?

Alistair Darling’s interview has caused a bit of a kerfuffle. He said, among other things, that people are “pissed off” with the government, which is evidently true, and that economic conditions “are arguably the worst they’ve been in 60 years” – while this is the bluntest government assessment yet of the very real problems, that “arguably” surely bears the weight of a lot of hyperbole.

Some think that this may turn out to be a “Geoffrey Howe moment” – an intervention by a former loyalist that could precipitate the PM’s downfall.

Others think that, as these remarks may have undermined Gordon Brown’s imminent political strategy, the result will be Darling’s sacking in the predicted autumn reshuffle.

I’m not convinced. Because another thing he said, most unusually for a minister, was on that very subject:

Frankly, if you had a reshuffle just now, I think the public would say, Who are they anyway? You name me a reshuffle that ever made a difference to a government…And you can't be chopping and changing people that often. … I'm not expecting one imminently. I do not think there will be a reshuffle.

Perhaps Darling’s just angling to keep his job. There’s been reshuffle speculation over the summer, some of which has suggested that Darling might be shown the door. This interview means that such a move would be (a) pre-rubbished and (b) seen as punishment for, as George Osborne puts it, “letting the cat out of the bag” about the state of the economy.

I think that while Darling’s comments are awkward for Brown (not to mention for Darling himself, for the rest of the government, and for those of us party members who think that exaggerated doom-mongering is the job of the opposition), they make it harder for Darling to be sacked anytime soon.

Whether that was his intention, though, I cannot say. Maybe he’s just politically inept and didn’t mean anything by it.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

This, at last

I have a language question for you.

There’s a particular usage I hear very commonly in the media, and I’m sure that it’s wrong. Or maybe it’s just my personal usage that’s up the spout.

Here’s an example, from a report in the Telegraph:

Exactly a year ago, the "feel-good factor"… stood at a relatively modest minus 15 per cent. It now stands at minus 62 per cent and has stood stubbornly at minus 60 per cent or worse since last April.

So, does ‘last April’ mean: (a) April 2007 (April of last year); or (b) April 2008 (the last April we had)?

Obviously, the writer here intends (b). But I’m completely, utterly set on (a). April 2008 was this April. But on my understanding, the quote above would be meaningless.

What do you think?

Friday, August 29, 2008

McCain picks Republican as running mate

A nation is stunned.

Heart-rending tedium

Today, I am mostly formatting a preposterously long bibliography for a report we’re publishing. The worst thing is that the author has clearly gone to pains to get all the references formatted in the same way. The wrong same way…

Freeman TA. Heart-rending tedium. Freemania 2008 29 August. [accessed 29 August 2008].

I could have worked for MI6, you know. Or been a lumberjack. I’m just saying.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

‘Responsibility deals’ and the parable of the bears

The new Tory plan to fight obesity was announced yesterday by Andrew Lansley (whose name I sometimes think is suspiciously close to being Angela Lansbury, but never mind that).

It involves the use of something called a “responsibility deal”:

Participants in Responsibility Deals would be drawn from businesses and business-representative bodies, NGOs and the voluntary sector, academic institutions, regulators, government bodies and investors. They would tackle important societal issues by agreeing on a shared understanding of what the issue is, what needs to be done and who will do what, and by when.

The idea is that these deals will get businesses to do nice things (stop advertising alcohol to teenagers, cut the fat content of food, recycle more, cut carbon emissions, etc.) without the need for government coercion. Regulation will only be a “last resort”.

Good performance within the terms of a deal would be rewarded with “a lighter regulatory touch”.

But companies will get to say what demands – sorry, requests – should reasonably be made of them, and the NGOs and other participants will be pressurised into doing more themselves and demanding – sorry, requesting – less than what they think is right:

The process would be discursive and companies would therefore have the opportunity to argue their case for why certain expectations were realistic or otherwise. The process will also be designed to bring pressure on other parties to play their respective roles and focus on outcomes over ideology.

Involvement will be voluntary, but if businesses don’t want to take part, it will “reflect poorly” on them: they will be asked to “clarify or explain their position should they not wish to contribute”. This obviously sounds very tough indeed.


Business involvement should not be over-complicated, since this would increase costs and the likelihood of non-participation.


Representatives of British communities as a whole would be taking responsibility for ensuring that the right conditions are present to drive change.

You might think that this all seems a bit woolly, that it amounts to getting businesses to specify what the government is allowed to ask them to do, and that if they then do that, they get allowed to do other things that the government previously didn’t want them to do, and if it doesn’t work out then excuses will be preferred to actual blame. It might seem preposterously toothless and designed to let businesses get away with as much as possible while creating the impression that they, and the Tory government that lets them get away with it, are socially responsible.

The finding of our review is that many companies would welcome Responsibility Deals.

No kidding.

But wait! There is, after all, the possibility of regulation if a deal doesn’t work. But this is mentioned only as the “last resort”. Companies may well act more responsibly without regulation, but the threat of it if they don’t play ball must be real – otherwise they’ll not do anything that endangers profits. This threat will be pretty much empty coming from a minister ideologically opposed to regulation, who has personal responsibility for making sure the ‘responsibility deals’ they have brokered work, or at least are seen to be working, or at least are seen in their own narrow terms to be working. The minister will have a strong incentive to negotiate and then monitor and then renegotiate each deal in a way that they allows them to claim success. Regulation will only follow from their public admission of personal failure. Not a credible threat.

But even this provokes fear, or at least the public affectation of fear, from business. Richard Lambert, Director-General of the CBI, has said:

The proper role of government is to create certainty in the market and maintain a clear distinction between compulsory regulation and voluntary action. Where necessary, the government should regulate clearly and enforce the regulations strongly. There is a risk that responsibility deals would confuse this issue, by being almost a form of regulation by proxy, and would lack credibility.

See how even these tame, voluntary, nominal checks on corporate behaviour are received! “Regulation by proxy”! Toothless this may be, but the business lobby will keep punching it in the mouth to make sure no teeth can ever develop.

The parable of the bears

The Minister for Ursine Defecation convenes a group of bears and other forest-dwellers to discuss the issue of bears shitting in the woods. The squirrels voice their dislike of this happening where they’re trying to forage for acorns, and ask for it to stop. The bears listen politely, and then say: “We’re bears. We shit in the woods.” The minister asks if there’s any way the bears might be able to shit somewhere else. The bears growl.

The squirrels nervously suggest that the bears might consider shitting only in certain designated parts of the woods, not right next to where all the oak trees are. The bears flex their claws. The minister thanks the bears for taking on the squirrels’ point of view, and offers the bears the option of being allowed to eat ramblers if they’ll consider not shitting near the oaks where the squirrels are foraging.

The bears um and ah, and say it’s only fair if the squirrels make some concessions too – for instance, that tapping noise they make as they break into the acorns is pretty annoying. The squirrels sigh, and say that they’ll leave their acorns in water overnight to soften them up – the taste will suffer, but it’ll reduce the noise. A responsibility deal is agreed.

Six months later, the group reconvenes (beginning with a minute’s silence in memory of the dead ramblers). The squirrels complain that the bears are still shitting near the oak trees, but the bears protest that most of them – bar a few laggards – have relocated their shitting. Indeed, the red meat from the ramblers is giving them constipation, so there is (in real terms) less shit than in previous years. The minister diplomatically remarks that official figures from Ofshit won’t be published until the end of the year, so it would be premature to make any negative assessments of the deal.

The minister then goes off and cuts down all the oak trees near where the bears live. The squirrels are forced to relocate to a less desirable and increasingly overcrowded part of the woods, but one in which there are no bears. The key outcome of the responsibility deal has been achieved! The bears make a large donation to the Tory Party and, while the minister is promoted to become Secretary of State for Leopard Spot Alteration Prevention, they continue to shit in the woods.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Bring me the head of ‘Mr Patrick Chang’

I’ve received an email from a ‘Mr Patrick Chang’ of Hang Seng Bank Ltd, Hong Kong:

Greetings of the day to you. It is understandable that you might be a little bit apprehensive because you do not know me but I have a lucrative business proposal of mutual interest to share with you.

So far, so standard. Yet, for some reason, I read on. Towards the end it (almost sweetly) says:

Please if you are not interested delete this email and do not hunt me because I am putting my career and the life of my family at stake with this venture.

It had never occurred to me to hunt down and murder the sender of a spam email, but it’s actually not a bad idea.

So: I have a business proposal to you. If you will acquiesce to bring me the deceased head of ‘Mr Patrick Chang’, I will pay you US $100.000.000 million dollars. Please send me your bank account details and I shall wire the money to you, upon my receipt of a small handling fee necessary (US$200 dollars) to cover the costs of this transaction.

This proposal is entirely legal and acceptable and will be guaranteed to proceed without troubles.

The abnormality of politics

Septicisle comments on the ongoing sniping – mostly from bloggers and the occasional newspaper columnist, but sometimes from Tory frontbenchers or anonymous Blairites too – that Gordon Brown is [insert your favourite psychiatric disorder here]. Basically it comes down to: Brown doesn’t talk or act in the way that we expect our political leaders to, therefore there must be something wrong with him. Septicisle says:

More than anything, this perhaps comes down to what you regard as the qualities that a politician should always have on display. We seem increasingly to want our politicians to always be presentable, to always instantly know what to do, and at the same time to be incredibly open with everyone. In short, we never want them to put a foot wrong, be off-message, or be consumed with anything other than constant public service. This, more than anything, is what is currently delivering us identikit politicians, overwhelming upper-middle or upper-class, with next to no experience other than from within political parties, all of whom look more or less the same and indeed, offer more or the less the same. They can deliver a speech brilliantly, pretend to empathise, emerge as brain-shatteringly normal or at least act like it, and pass the barbecue test, but none of this qualifies them in the slightest to actually run a country. Surely we ought to have learned this lesson by now, whether by the examples of either Bush or Blair, yet we seem more than ever to lap up the spin we so profess to detest while railing against the outsider, the abnormal, those who don't seem to fit in.

I want to add three things to that. First, to come across as so smoothly and assuredly ‘normal’ when one is so consistently in the public eye isn’t ‘normal’. While celebrity itself must be disconcerting and stressful in many ways, a mere sporting, pop or TV star doesn’t have to stick so thoroughly to a particular line: you can get drunk in public, you can make stupid comments, and if your album only gets to number 2 in the charts, you don’t lose your job. Not so in politics.

Second, to seek power (as all political leaders do) isn’t ‘normal’. To get into the higher echelons of this game requires uncommon drive. Furthermore, to hold and exercise political power makes you less normal – Thatcher and Blair had their personal oddities before they set foot in Number 10, but their years at the top manifestly made them less ‘normal’.

Third, and perhaps aptly in Democratic convention week, is what Congressman Matthew Santos told that convention a couple of years ago:

We all live lives of imperfection and yet we cling to this fantasy that there’s this perfect life and that our leaders should embody it. But if we expect our leaders to live on some higher moral plane than the rest of us, well we’re just asking to be deceived.

I have never met anyone who wasn’t “psychologically flawed”.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Falling educational inequality

There’s a very good piece in the Guardian today about educational inequality. I had a go at fisking Michael Gove’s attack on the government’s “unfair” policies last week, but people with far more factual knowledge than me have done a better job: Dr Ruth Lupton and Dr Natalie Heath of the Institute of Education.

"Gove is wrong about the direction of inequalities," says Lupton. "Data from the Youth Cohort Study shows that the gap in five A*-C attainment in GCSEs between highest and lowest social classes was 40 percentage points in 1989, rising to 49 in 1998 and down to 44 by 2004. So you could argue Labour is just undoing the damage that the Tories did.

"There is a good deal of other recently published data that shows that, on key indicators, the social class gap has reduced slightly since 2004. Taken as a whole, Gove's document shows extreme carelessness or disregard for truth and accuracy. He is right that inequalities are too high, but we need a proper debate about this, and what to do about it. If he wants to be taken seriously, he should withdraw this document and re-enter the debate when he has a better grasp of the evidence."

Lupton's principal concerns are about Gove's treatment of Sats scores. Far from the gap widening between pupils eligible for [free school meals] and the rest, she says, the reverse is actually true. While Gove says the gap in English has risen to 21 percentage points, Lupton says it has fallen from 26 points in 2002 to 21 in 2007. Similarly, while Gove says the gap has widened from 16 to 20 for maths and from 10 to 15 for science, Lupton claims it has narrowed from 17 to 15 for science and from 23 to 20 in maths.

Lupton and Heath’s full response is here.

Monday, August 25, 2008

It’s the taking part

Bravo to Afghanistan, Egypt, Israel, Moldova, Mauritius, Togo and Venezuela, jointly at the bottom of the medals table with one bronze each – although this doesn’t count the 117 nations that got no medals at all.

Particular congratulations to Afghanistan: Rohullah Nikpai’s bronze in the men’s 58kg taekwondo is their first ever medal. Indeed, the fact that the country’s Olympic delegation consisted of just four athletes meant that their 25% medal rate comfortably beats those of the USA (18.5%), China (15.6%) and even dear old Team GB (15.1%).

No we can’t

As the US convention season begins, with the polls putting Obama narrowly ahead, I’m reminded that the Democrats are perhaps the most powerful election-losing force in the modern world.

Allow me to introduce Clintons4McCain. This group identifies itself as “Volunteers...Who worked for Sen. Hillary Clinton's cause and who donated, gave tirelessly of our time, effort and energy, and watched her bullied out of the campaign by sexism, misogyny, reverse racism and mockery.”

Their ‘Mission Statement’ says:
We ask democrats to ponder: should the ISSUES or policies that have come to define the Democratic Party to democrats, be the reasoning you accept the party’s selected candidate? Even if it means sacrificing such values of respect, honor, loyalty and democracy itself?
Followers are told to vote for a democrat to protect the Supreme Court, abortion, environment and human rights issues, but what if it is fear mongering designed to keep democrats in line?
What if issues usurp democracy as a means of achieving a goal of power over the concerned governed? Should it be rewarded with your vote by going with the party and in this case their selected not elected candidate?

And they are not at all discouraged by the fact that Clinton herself has endorsed Obama; indeed, that energises them. Under the heading ‘What Hillary Really Wants’:

It's amusing to see Senator Hillary Clinton now parroting Obamaphiles, saying people who voted for her should be voting for Obama…
…Senator, remember who we are fighting for. Obama doesn't represent that. Just because Obama -- who appears to have no core values of his own -- basically stole your platform, your ideas, your staffers and the nomination itself, does not mean we have anything at all in common with him.

We simply do not trust Obama, Senator. Please stop selling us -- and yourself, short. They have told us to "get over it" and to "fall in line," called us "angry old white women" and there is simply no way any of that's going to happen. We WILL be voting for McCain come November, if you are not at the TOP of the Democrat ticket for President. …
We will vote for Senator McCain and help defeat what we believe is evil in our midst and send a message loud and clear that we will be heard and we will not tolerate bigotry, separatism and everything else Obama clearly stands for.

I’m not sure if block capitals are a good way to persuade readers that you’re NOT ANGRY, but there you go. They also add that “sour grapes make great wine”, although surely wine is the kind of elitist drink that a truly American candidate would want nothing to do with?

Not for the first time, I wonder at the religiosity of American politics. These people seem to view Clinton as a prophet turned apostate, and so the Devil that has tricked her into selling her soul must be driven out by any means necessary.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Team TF

Even an olympophobe such as me can appreciate that ‘Team GB’ appears to be doing pretty nicely out in Beijing. Like any envious git, I would like to cash in on some of this success. But, like any lazy git, I can’t be bothered to go through the years of training required to become a world-class athlete.

The solution is obvious. I will change my name by deed poll to ‘Team TF’, then sit back and wait for the gold medals, public adulation, sponsorship deals, OBE and knowledge that I am officially better than Johnny Foreigner (Team JF?) to roll in.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Georgie Osborne and the Factoids of Fairness

George Osborne has released a Tory dossier called An Unfair Britain. This explains in detail how unfair it is that Labour won the last three elections, how unfair it is that while they’re in government they get to implement policies and stuff, how unfair it is that even now they’re still in government, and how unfair it is that Osborne can’t get his facts straight or his sums to add up properly.

I paraphrase slightly. Officially, this “compelling dossier… shows that across the board, Labour's policies have made Britain more unfair”.

So let’s see, shall we? The dossier offers a torrent of statistics and factoids; here are some:

New Conservative Party analysis reveals over two million of the poorest pensioners will lose nearly £100 this year as the rise in Pension Credit is wiped out by inflation.

Well done Conservative Party analysers! Heating and food prices have shot up. But this has happened the world over; it isn’t an unfair Labour policy. Does Osborne want more money spent on pensioners? At the same time as he wants taxes to be lower and borrowing to also be lower? The laws of mathematics might have something to say about that. How unfair.

There are 2.5 million pensioners living in poverty (living below 60% of median income measured before housing costs…) which is 100,000 more pensioners than in 1997.

They’ve been wrong about this before. In reality, the number of pensioners below the poverty line so defined is either unchanged or 100,000 lower depending on whether they mean 1996/97 or 1997/98 when they say “1997”.Worse still, this is the number of pensioners below the poverty line. And there are now many more pensioners than there were back then, which means that the proportion of pensioners below this line is significantly down.

Labour’s increased use of complex means testing of pensioners has resulted in reduced take-up of benefits. … Between 1.2 and 1.8 million pensioners failed to take up their entitlement to Pension Credit last year.

But no figures are given for how many pensioners failed to take up Pension Credit before Labour introduced it.

Gordon Brown’s reckless borrowing – on and off the balance sheet – has simply shifted the burden of paying for today’s public expenditure on to the next generation.

Except that, as Snowflake explains, national debt as a share of GDP is now substantially lower than in 1997.

The gap in life expectancy in Britain between rich and poor is now at its widest since the Victorian era.

The BMJ paper that the dossier cites gives no figures for the Victorian era, but it does give life expectancy figures for more recent periods.

During 1995-97, life expectancy at birth for the richest tenth was 4 years longer than that for the poorest tenth. During 2001-03 (the most recent figures), this difference was 4.1 years. Between the two periods life expectancy for the richest rose by 1.5 years; for the poorest, it rose by 1.4 years: apparently a tiny increase in inequality.

But, as John Rentoul notes, those figures were disputed in a later issue of the BMJ, where it was pointed out that the margin of error in the numbers is plus or minus one year. A 0.1 year rise in the gap therefore seems meaningless – life expectancy has risen under Labour, for rich and for poor, by pretty much the same amount.

The gap in infant mortality rates between the poorest social groups and the population as a whole has increased since Labour came to power.

This one is technically true but less than horrific when you look at the detail. Since 1997, there’s been a small rise in the child mortality rate gap between the ‘routine and manual’ socioeconomic group and the population as a whole. However, and again, actual child mortality rates have improved for every socioeconomic group, including the poorest. More to the point, the overall rise in the gap since 1997 consists of an increase up to 2002, followed by a (slightly smaller) decrease since then.

There are 900,000 more people living in severe poverty than there were in 1997.

“Severe poverty” is a concept the Tories have fortuitously discovered, defining it as below 40% of median income. It’s a complete coincidence that they like to focus on this measure, because it makes Labour’s record look worse than if you looked at the improvements at the 50%, 60% or 70% thresholds.

The reference they give for their 900,000 figure is an “IFS calculation”, which is pretty sneaky. I can’t find where that number comes from, but figures 4.1a and b here show that the proportion of people (remember, the population has grown) in “severe poverty” more than doubled in the late 1980s and has pretty much flatlined since then – it is slightly up on ten years ago.

But, and this is why I say the IFS citation is sneaky, the IFS don’t think this 40% threshold is a good measure of poverty. They note that the surveys used to supply the income data are a snapshot, so “amongst those people recorded as having very low incomes there will be some individuals who would not generally be considered poor but who do genuinely have few sources of income in the short run. For example, there are a disproportionate number of individuals who are selfemployed at the very bottom of the income distribution, whose incomes tend to be erratic”.

In support of this, it turns out that “the level of material deprivation [covering things that households can afford to buy] for those with incomes below 40% of the median is lower than it is for those with incomes between 40% and 60% of median income”. They conclude that “‘severe’ poverty is probably the wrong term to attach to those with incomes below 40% of the contemporary median”.

Research by the Sutton Trust on social mobility has shown that a poor child born in Britain in 1970 is less likely to escape its upbringing than a poor child born in 1958

True. But what does it mean? The researchers also found that educational achievement, labour market participation in early adulthood, and psychological traits at school age could explain most of the fall in social mobility. The greatest determinants of life chances happen in the early years of life, and those born in 1970 were 27 when Labour came to power.

There are many more numbers and factoids, and I certainly accept that some of them hit the mark. But here’s the thing: given the vast array of different statistics that bear on inequality or ‘fairness’, it’s no surprise that the Central Office internet pixies can find several that show things getting worse – particularly if, as the dossier does, you pick whichever date comparisons make things look worst (now vs one, two, five, ten years ago – there’s no consistency, and many of the claims don’t have a past comparison at all). It would be staggering if any government could produce improvements everywhere you looked.

By contrast, under the Tories in the 1980s there was a spectacular worsening of inequality on pretty much any measure you care to look at. Thatcher’s so-called ‘fixing’ of the ‘broken economy’ involved ripping up the fabric of society. Next to this, Labour’s flawed record has been brilliant.

On other thing: Osborne quotes Gordon Brown as saying that “only the state can guarantee fairness”. The Tories have been trying to pin this quote on Brown for over two years, but to the best of my knowledge (and the best of my Googling), he’s never said it (if anyone knows better, do tell).

I think it’s a deliberate misrepresentation, being used to paint Brown as a clunking top-down statist who thinks that everything should be done by central government, and that all anti-poverty policies have to involve throwing benefit money at people. Not so. On guaranteeing fairness, what Brown has actually said is:

Our voluntary organisations should neither be captured by the state nor used as a cut price alternative to necessary public provision…
Charities can and do achieve great transformative changes, but no matter how benevolent, they cannot, ultimately, guarantee fairness to all. Markets can and do generate great wealth, but no matter how dynamic, they cannot guarantee fairness to all. Individuals can be and are very generous but by its nature personal giving is sporadic and often conditional.
So fairness can be advanced by but cannot, in the end, be guaranteed by charities, however benevolent, by markets, however dynamic, or by individuals, however well meaning, but guaranteed only by enabling government.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Permanently, lasciviously, uncomplicatedly available

The Tories have recently found a new group of culprits – other than Gordon Brown – to blame for Britain’s Broken SocietyTM: “the instant-hit hedonism celebrated by the modern men's magazines targeted at younger males”. As Michael Gove says:

Titles such as Nuts and Zoo paint a picture of women as permanently, lasciviously, uncomplicatedly available. The images they use and project reinforce a very narrow conception of beauty and a shallow approach towards women. They celebrate thrill-seeking and instant gratification without ever allowing any thought of responsibility towards others, or commitment, to intrude.

Well said that man! So what, I ask, to my pantomime horror, is this?

GQ, a modern men’s magazine targeted at younger males, is plugging a book of interviews by its editor with dear David Cameron. It’s also plugging photos of “hot models” with “impossibly toned bodies in impossibly small underwear” in the latest issue. The GQ website has a presumably vast repository of such pictures, marketed under the slogan “So many babes, so little time”.

Beyond a quick pop about hypocrisy, there’s a bigger political point here.

I don’t read GQ, nor do I read Nuts and Zoo, which Gove singled out (if “read” is really the word). GQ is clearly more upmarket: the latest issue, alongside the babes, has articles on Barack Obama, Guillermo del Toro, what suits to wear this season, and a fancy new make of mobile phone. Nuts and Zoo, though, are unashamedly crass. Think of the Daily Star on speed. The non-babe articles seem to be mainly sport- or TV-related (with, I’ll wager, shorter and fewer words than the GQ pieces).

As so often happens when the Tories talk about social ills, there’s a subtext of class. Nuts and Zoo mainly get working-class readers, GQ middle-class ones. Are we worried only about the moral and social corruption of the former? In fact, I’d say a title like GQ does far more to make soft porn acceptable than do its more obvious, downmarket cousins. It carries (comparatively) sophisticated pieces so that it can get away with its “cast of sizzling supermodels”.

It gives young men the opportunity to indulge their baser instincts while still feeling socially respectable. A bit like Cameron’s project to decontaminate the Tory brand.

Brits medalling in the Far East

(Heading nicked from The Now Show)

Apparently there’s some sort of sporting malarkey going on in China. It has induced even Boris Johnson to talk some good sense:

If you believe the politicians, we have a broken society, in which the courage and morals of young people have been sapped by welfarism and political correctness.
And if you look at what is happening at the Beijing Olympics, you can see what piffle that is. Do not adjust your set: that really is a collection of smiling, well-balanced young British people, giving pleasingly self-deprecating accounts of how they have managed to haul in medal after medal after medal.

He goes on to note that most British Olympians (the ones in Athens four years ago, at least) were privately educated.

What that statistic tells me is that there is a huge untapped reservoir of potential athletic genius in the maintained sector.
Imagine if we ensured that children had better access to the facilities they need. Imagine if we stamped out the last vestige of the politically correct nonsense that for so long dominated the educational establishment, and militated against competitive sport, and its indispensable concepts of winning and losing.

Yes, yes, yes, political correctness. But don’t forget access to facilities, and the fact that that costs money. On which subject, Steve Richards has something to say:

I am excited too about another dimension to the Olympic triumph, as rare and unexpected as the growing tally of medals. For the first time I can recall in my adult lifetime, there is a consensus that public investment has made a pivotal difference. From Sky News to the BBC's Sports Editor Mihir Bose, the connection is being openly made between the lottery funding and the successes in Beijing.

If politicians had some nerve, they could use the events in Beijing to encourage a more mature debate about public spending. If voters can see a connection between investment and its consequences, they are enthused. They become excited to the point where they are willing to contemplate higher levels of spending. In the coming months, if the Government announced more cash to train athletes for the 2012 Olympics, there would be cheers all round.

This is not the case with the rest of public spending. On the whole, there is a prevailing sense that we pay into a great big hole marked "tax". The cash is lost, never to be seen again. A Government supposedly obsessed with public relations has displayed a strange complacency in its failure to show the connections with that big hole and the benefits.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Cameron and Russia: sitting down with the men of violence

David Cameron has condemned Russia’s behaviour in Georgia in the most quotable terms possible:

Mr Cameron has urged the international community to stand up to what he has described as Russia's "bullying" of a smaller country. "Russia has used massive and disproportionate force against an independent and sovereign democracy," he said.
"This is completely unacceptable under international law and we and our allies must not beat around the bush in condemning Russia very clearly. It looks increasingly as if Russia intends to topple the elected government of Georgia and to try and cripple that country."

But what, you may ask, can an opposition leader actually do? Well, there is something: he can send diplomatic signals.

In the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly, Conservative members sit not with moderate right-wing parties such as the German CDU/CSU or the French UMP, but alongside more hardline groups such as the Danish People’s Party, the Italian National Alliance and the Polish Law and Justice party.

Oh yes, and the United Russia party of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev (hat tip to Denis MacShane).

The so-called European Democrat Group is chaired by a United Russia member, with Tories sitting as honorary president (Baroness Knight, original author of Section 28), vice-chair (David Wilshire MP, another key Section 28 sponsor), political officer (Robert Walter MP) and co-treasurer (Christopher Chope MP, who as a minister championed the poll tax even after Major replaced Thatcher).

If the Tories so vehemently oppose this Russian aggression, why do they persist in sitting with the party that sent the tanks into Georgia? Why doesn’t Cameron pull his people out of there?

(Update: Labour Matters takes up the cudgel.)

Growth and inflation in the UK and abroad

Via Snowflake, I see that Eurostat has published a new set of economic growth figures. Here’s what’s happened over the last four quarters in the UK, the Eurozone, the USA and Japan (quarterly GDP growth, %):

The UK isn’t holding up at all badly – we’ve so far avoided any periods of stagnation or contraction. The USA screeched to a standstill at the end of last year and has since started to recover, while Japan and continental Europe are now getting into trouble (the French, German and Italian economies all shrank in 2008Q2). By contrast, UK growth has slowed but not – yet – severely.

It also occurred to me to have a look at inflation over the last year. I can’t find up-to-date data for Japan (although their inflation has for years been much lower than other rich countries’), but here are the figures for the UK, the Eurozone and the USA across the last 12 months (CPI, % change on a year earlier):

Again, the UK looks unremarkable by contrast; there’s been a general inflationary surge over the year. During this period, the rate of inflation has risen by 1.5% in Germany, 2.3% in Italy, 2.6% in the UK, 2.7% in France, 3.1% in Spain and 3.6% in the USA.

And the future? Last week, the Bank of England issued its latest quarterly report. Its central projections are quite gloomy: for inflation to go “substantially higher over the next few months” and for growth to slow to near-zero by the end of the year. But there are two glints of a silver lining.

First, the projection is that, in the new year, inflation “falls back sharply to a little below the 2% target in the medium term” as the recent leap in food and energy prices works its way out of the system. Second, and a bit more technically, these are projections, not predictions: the Bank is saying not that these things will happen, but that they will happen on certain assumptions. Most important of these assumptions is that the Bank’s base interest rate “moves in live with market expectations, which are for [it] to be roughly constant over the forecast period”.

Given the time taken for interest rate changes to affect inflation, and the fact that inflation is now projected to fall much more dramatically from early 2009 than most observers had thought, this strongly suggests that interest rate cuts will before long be on the cards in order to avoid an inflation undershoot in late 2009/2010. The further consequence of such rate cuts would be higher-than-projected GDP growth in 2009.

To mix metaphors: we’re not yet out of the woods, but it’s darkest just before the dawn, and there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Clothes maketh the photo-op

Michael Gove trails a forthcoming announcement of the new Tory policy on what not to wear:

It is better to have a leader who is good at PR to one who wears the wrong clothes when he goes to East Anglia.

He adds:

We need to maintain a sense of policy seriousness.

Of course.

Reminds me of my very favourite George Osborne quote:

Just creating the positive image of David Cameron as a relaxed family chap who enjoys cycling has taken months of effort. You'd be amazed how much time has to be spent on creating simple images for the media and then the voting public.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A-level standards row as ugly fat kids get top grades

Universities, employers’ organisations and other commentators united today to condemn the latest set of A-level results, which shows a record rise in the number of unattractive and overweight students getting straight A grades.

Quentin Leer-Sneer, picture editor of the Times, commented:

It simply beggars belief that all these spotty, fat, cheaply dressed pram-faced chavs are really earning these grades on their own merit, when they are surely better suited to a life of menial supermarket work, manual labour, or preferably crime and unemployment. Certainly any exam system that suggests we should publish photos of them to celebrate their so-called ‘achievements’ is a national disgrace.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Of which I know little

Obviously, the most important things about the fighting in South Ossetia are that people there are being killed and that the political future of tens of thousands is at stake.

But there are other victims, too. Victims closer to home. Cosseted victims, whose suffering – while undetectable using conventional means – is no less real for being contemptibly small.

Commentators. Pundits. Newspaper columnists and bloggers. Many of these people have turned on their TVs in the last few days and thought “Huh? Who? Where?” As the international community has called for restraint, so the opinionators have called for an atlas. Well, for Wikipedia, to be honest (South Ossetia is just under a fifth the size of Wales, you know).

These people depend for their very existence on being able to produce a regular flow of commentary on the great matters of the day. Take T, for instance.

T is a small-fry blogger who like to think of himself as reasonably well-informed. A week ago, he knew that South Ossetia: (a) is in Georgia; (b) unless North Ossetia is the one that’s in Georgia; (c) has a separatist movement, I mean, they all do round there, don’t they; and (d) I’ve been to Hungary a couple of times – that was in the Soviet bloc too, so it’s probably nearish.

But now, T is struggling to fit the recent violence into an overarching geopolitical narrative for the benefit of his six regular readers. Please give generously, etc. etc…

Liam says that, in a way, “it’s good to see a news story that most bloggers have to engage with without preconception or prejudice - something most of us bring to most stories as a matter of course”. True. Although you can bet that a fair few will engage with it based on ‘Russia bad’ or ‘West bad, Russia anti-West, therefore Russia good’ mindsets.

I’m going for a third option: there’s just no way I’m going to get myself in a position to say anything substantive or insightful about this in a hurry, so unless it drags on, and I dearly hope it doesn’t, then I’m going to sit it out. Hopefully a Tory frontbencher or an archbishop or somebody will say something preposterous very soon and provide subject matter more up my street.

In the meantime, these pieces by Thomas de Waal on the conflict and by Anatol Lieven on the background (hat tip) seem pretty good. But then, I wouldn’t really know.

Oh, OK, two tiny attempts at having thoughts of my own: first, if Russia, in championing the separatists, is accepting the principle that post-Soviet national borders are malleable, then how’s that going to play vis-à-vis Chechnya? And second, giving out Russian citizenship to a load of South Ossetians is a really crafty way to allow yourself to say that the situation there affects your own nationals.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The ups and downs of being a house price bore

This graph, based on the Halifax house price index [XLS], shows the two price peaks of May 1989 and August 2007, and how prices rose to and then fell from those peaks.

The blue line runs from May 1987 to May 1993, and the red goes from August 2005 to last month. The peaks are marked as month 0 on the X axis, and the percentage of peak value that prices are at is on the Y axis (both peaks count as 100%, although of course the 2007 one was much higher in actual money terms).

Two things are obvious: last time round, the rise was much faster (1988 in particular was crazy); and this time round, the fall is much faster (most notably the last five months).

A few numbers to illustrate: the total peak-to-trough fall back then, taking a full 45 months, was 12.7%. In the 11 months so far since the recent peak, prices have fallen 11.2%. If this month replicates July’s 1.7% drop, then that will equal the total 1989-93 fall.

The 11 months to July have wiped out 16 months of preceding rises; but last time round, the entire 45-month fall wiped out just nine months of pre-peak rises.

What puzzles me is why the much more sudden rise back then, which you might think would be less sustainable than the more gradual one this time, should result in a much gentler decline than the sharp downturn we now see. But perhaps I’m being a fool in even quarter-expecting rationality from the market

(I’d have liked to average the Halifax and Nationwide house price indices, as I did once before, to get a broader picture – but the Nationwide one only goes back to 1991.)

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Going for bronze

Jo Swinson argues that British Olympians – and their supporters – should have lower expectations:

Time after time, psychology has taught us that our happiness is dependent on our expectations. Research from the University of Colorado has shown that bronze medallists, who were often not expecting a medal, were judged happier than the silver medallists expecting the gold. Similar results occur in relation to exams: students who achieved a C, but expected a lower grade felt better than those who achieved a B, but expected a higher grade

True, but it doesn’t mean that a conscious strategy of ‘let’s expect ourselves to do worse than we actually think plausible, and then be pleasantly surprised when we do moderately well’ is the kind of doublethink that one can deliberately pull off. Furthermore, is there a connection between expectations and actual performance? Defeatism may not inspire achievement.

(Jo Swinson MP is foreign affairs spokeswoman for the party that, we must assume, hopes in the next two years to score a record 24th consecutive general election bronze.)

Thursday, August 07, 2008

How to raise election turnout

At the end of polling day, distribute all uncast votes evenly between the candidates.

A lot of people may not care who gets elected, but the idea of a computer or a bureaucrat getting to use their vote for them would cause such consternation that they’d go along to make sure it didn’t happen.

If the votes were split evenly between all candidates, then it wouldn’t make a difference to the outcome; for the purpose of deposit retention, we could specify that candidates needed to get 5% of the directly cast votes.

You may not like any of the parties, but I bet there’s one you loathe more than the others. Fancy taking, say, a one in six chance that your vote goes to them?

Then again, this idea – like almost all ideas proposed to increase turnout – assumes that voting, rather than being sufficiently engaged to want to vote, is the key thing.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Weighty words

It’s political correctness gone fat:

Parents of primary schoolchildren will start getting letters next month telling them how fat their children are under Government plans to tackle childhood obesity. But however much they weigh, no child will ever be described as “obese”. … The department [of Health] said that research had shown that the term was a turn-off, so instead it will use the term “very overweight” for those children whose body mass index exceeds 30, in an attempt to enlist parents’ support.

Tam Fry, of the Child Growth Foundation, said that it was “prissy” and “namby-pamby” not to use the right word. … “I find this particular line from the Government tiptoeing through the daffodils,” he said.

Of course, just the other week, David Cameron was saying: “We talk about people being ‘at risk of obesity’ instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise.” And yet here we are, retreating further still from clear talking. Right? Wrong.

A paper in the BMJ last month looked at people’s perceptions of their own weight – not in terms of measured stones or kilos, but whether they class themselves as underweight, about right, somewhat overweight, etc. – and how these have changed in recent years.

In 1999, 43% of the population had a BMI that put them in the overweight or obese range, of whom 81% perceived themselves to be overweight or very overweight. In 2007, 53% of the population had a BMI in the overweight or obese range, of whom only 75% reported themselves to be overweight, very overweight, or obese.

So, as the incidence of overweight and obesity has increased, the proportion of overweight and obese people who recognise themselves as such has declined.

The researchers (from UCL’s Health Behaviour Research Centre) suggest two explanations:

Social comparison is likely to play an important role in the development of societal weight norms, resulting in the threshold for perceived overweight rising in line with increasing weight in the population. …
Another possible explanation relates to the type of images that often accompany media and health information. Photographic illustrations often depict severely obese people, untypical of the overweight population. This might act as false reassurance for those who are “merely” overweight, implicitly reinforcing a perception that messages about healthy eating and exercise are not aimed at them.

The same misperception, we may assume, also prevents many parents from recognising that their children qualify as obese. So giving them hard information could – in some cases – be a useful eye-opener.

But why insist on using the word ‘obese’? The definition of obesity is having a height in metres at least 30 times greater than the square of one’s weight in kilograms – not an immediately meaningful concept. Is there no easier way of communicating that your child is so very overweight that there’s a health risk? Yes: just say that.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Ask the internet

Can anyone help me with this? I have an ageing mobile phone handset, and before it dies on me I’d like to save the photos I have stored on it to my PC. Now I’m damned if I’m going to shell out on some special cable that I’m only going to use once, so here’s my question:

Is there some sort of (free) web-based service where I can set up an account, text the photos to it, and then download them? Or any other solution.


Yes, we have no hallmarks of a banana republic

Spending during the general election campaign period is limited by law… But there are no rules governing how much money can go to promoting candidates outside the official election period. Under the government's Party Funding Bill, spending would be strictly limited as soon as a candidate was selected.

This policy has widely been seen as targeting so-called ‘Ashcroft money’ – hefty pre-election funding for Conservative candidates in target Labour-held seats. The Tories oppose this restriction, and in doing so they seem to have accepted an interesting principle:

Tory frontbencher Francis Maude said: "For a governing party to rig election rules just months before an election in order to cling on to power has all the hallmarks of a banana republic. It is quite proper for the Electoral Commission to raise concerns over such partisan moves by the government, and there is also a real prospect of a legal challenge in the courts against such flawed new laws."

Why is it that this is a “partisan” attempt to “rig election rules”? The proposed new rules would apply to all parties equally. The answer can only be that, because of the unique way the Conservative Party is funded, it would hit them harder than other parties. But surely they’re not just engaged in self-interested special pleading? No, I cannot possibly countenance the thought.

So this is the principle they must be working on: any proposal that, while nominally applying across the board, would in fact disproportionately hit one party’s fundraising/spending strategy, is illegitimate and must be opposed. It’s a bit like indirect discrimination, I guess.

The Tories will apply the same principle, we can be sure, in rejecting any attempt to curb union funding of political parties. Won’t they…?

Monday, August 04, 2008

Couple of good things

Don Paskini explodes three myths about the Tories, for the benefit of Guardian readers (and writers):

  1. 'Cameron has shifted the Conservatives on to the centre ground'
  2. 'The Tories have promised plenty of action on poverty and inequality'
  3. 'It's impossible to know how far the Tory agenda would be delivered in office, or how successful it would be'

[Update: Liam sternly takes issue with Don - worth a read too.]

Paulie speaks up - ’cos no other bugger’s doing it – for representative democracy and party politics:

in a country in which public debate has told us that....
  • there's no real difference between the parties
  • they're all in it for themselves
  • they're all greedy / dodgy
  • voting is a waste of time
  • we're more interested in Big Brother, innit?
... and so on, the fact that *anyone* voted at all is something of a miracle.

The fact that 61% turned out [in 2005] shows what is possible if politicians in general were to put up a bit of a fight on behalf of representative government.

Unnamed sources forget whose friends they are

Friends of a Cabinet minister today struggled to recall on whose behalf they were purporting to brief. The unnamed sources said that they were close confidants of a senior Labour figure who has been mentioned in connection with the party leadership.

One of the friends said that the minister, whoever he or she was, was keen to be seen not to rock the boat, but wasn’t ruling out making an on-the-record statement in the event of further speculation. Speaking on condition of anonymity and incoherence, the source said that the minister felt that his or her time “may well be about to come, unless it doesn’t”.

Another friend remarked that the minister thought the government’s situation was “almost worthy of comment”, but when pressed could not confirm which minister this was. “I have a lot of friends, it’s sometime hard to remember who’s said what, you know. Especially when so many of us don’t have names.”

The first source added: “Yes, I think it was at a barbecue and we’d all had a bit to drink. But they definitely said that. Or something like it.” The second ministerial friend then turned and said: “Well, you were over on the other side of the garden, looking after the kids – what would you know?” “Actually, I hate to say this, but I’m not sure you’re even that good a friend of whichever one of them it is,” the first replied. “I didn’t see you at the new year’s eve party.”

Both could agree, though, that they were not friends of Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly. “Can’t bloody stand her,” they said. “And you can quote us on that.”

Sunday, August 03, 2008

And another thing

This blog is two years old today. Gosh.

I should probably have something pithy and insightful to say about that. Oh well, maybe next year.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The tea dance

There’s a plate of biscuits, many of which are chocolatey in nature, a little distance from my desk; they are leftovers from a meeting and are now for general office consumption. Being a sweet-toothed face-stuffing git, I naturally want to scoff a load of them. But unfortunately I also have some remaining semblance of a conscience, so I can’t really justify to myself simply going up and grabbing a fistful, nor even going to get just one (repeatedly) without some sort of socially acceptable pretext.

I now find myself getting up for cups of tea at a remarkable rate, and as I pass the biscuit plate, which I concede involves taking something of a diversion, I modestly pick one up. In fact, I even offer to get other people teas as I go (although my failing memory means that I neglect to offer biscuit-fetching), so basically I’m being altruistic as I gorge myself.

Shortly, phase 2 of my plan will kick in, as the substantial quantity of tea I’ve already had works its magic and gives me another perfectly legitimate reason to get up.

As they say, a happy worker is a productive worker.

Don’t miss the solar eclipse tonight!

A few hours ago, there was a total solar eclipse, as the moon entirely obscured the view of the sun for a couple of minutes. But it only covered Canada, Russia and China.

I am pleased to announce, though, that later today there will be another total solar eclipse right where you are, as the Earth rotates to block your view of the sun entirely. Astronomers predict that this phenomenon will last for several hours, so you should have plenty of opportunity to catch it.