Saturday, September 30, 2006

“We’re a bit shaky and wobbly”

So says David Cameron, who – in promoting an image of himself as someone with a good image – has now become a human metaphor for political spin. He’s turning himself into a brand whose USP is that it is a brand. (Oh yes, and it happens to be the intellectual property of the Tories. But never mind about that. Look! Shiny!)

Would you buy a used party from this man?

I should say, in fairness, that the above quote is about his new ‘webcameron’ blog rather than his leadership credentials or programme for government – but to credit the man, I think it’s a soundbite with legs.

He adds: “Watch out BBC, ITV, Channel 4, we’re the new competition.”

Now, even new Labour, for all its media obsession, never actually identified itself as the media. But this raises a tricky question: if the Conservative Party is becoming a commercial media outlet to rival ITV and the rest, will it be subject to the same broadcasting regulations on political impartiality?

A most daunting thought. If that were so, then Cameron would be restricted from advocating any specific policies, and –

Oh. I see…

Shaky. Wobbly.

Friday, September 29, 2006

How wrong can you be?

Norm Geras (reacting to Stephen Unwin’s response to Joan Bakewell’s review of Richard Dawkins’s book on god – keep up at the back), says:

“Unwin writes that to be an atheist is to proclaim a form of certainty. It can involve that, but it needn’t. You can be an atheist on the grounds that you’ve not yet seen (or felt) a compelling reason, piece of evidence or anything of any other sort to persuade you of the existence of a divine being. That is still an open and fallibilist form of belief. It’s not the same as certainty of the non-existence of God; it’s just an attitude of economy - not to accept the existence of entities for which you can find no persuasive arguments or persuasive anything.”

There are two different distinctions that aren’t quite kept apart here (at least, not explicitly): beliefs held with unshakeable certainty versus those held in an open, fallibilist way; and absence of belief in god’s existence versus presence of belief in god’s non-existence.

Unshakeable certainty is usually best avoided if you want to stand a decent chance of being right. Getting yourself into a mindset whereby you will disregard any logical or empirical considerations to the contrary means that the correctness of your belief depends entirely on luck – on whether you happened to stumble across and embrace a dogma whose contents are factually accurate.

Now it is, as Norm says, perfectly respectable to withhold belief in something on the grounds that you’ve found no compelling reason to so believe. Occam’s razor will keep your face clear of all sorts of unsightly, straggly, uncontrollable hairs. And it is of course far harder to give evidence of absence than to establish absence of evidence.

But it’s also perfectly reasonable to be firmly and positively (but not dogmatically and unshakeably) convinced in the non-existence of something. That’s my own attitude to god: not only is there no good argument for god’s existence, but also there are strong grounds (the problem of evil) for affirming that there is no such being. Now, I might conceivably be wrong; there are certainly finer minds than mine, and if somebody thinks of a compelling response to the problem, then that would force me to think again.

One thing to note is that the problem of evil isn’t science; it’s philosophy. It still relies on rigorous logical thought, and even depends on observable data – but the observations are pretty basic, and as far as I know there’s no scientific way of measuring right and wrong, good and bad. But because the rigorous logical thought is essential, this isn’t ‘just another faith position’, as some theists like to say about atheism. The problem of evil has been discussed in different forms over centuries, by people with a vast range of opinions. Some of them have argued well and some badly. But the conclusion that it proposes remains open to debate.

My strong confidence in atheism is a result of the contestable process of analysing philosophical arguments for and against. But my belief is not unshakeable. In fact, its inherent shakeability is what gives me the strong confidence in the method that led me to it. The method is made less fallible because its fallibility is assumed. Reason beats faith because, in this way, it can guard against being captured by unlucky guesses.

Apropos of nothing

“Conservative leader David Cameron is to tackle ‘head-on’ claims that he is all style and no substance.
He will use his party’s annual conference, which starts in Bournemouth on Sunday, to stress his commitment to developing serious policy ideas.
There will be no specific policy announcements at the four-day rally, a Tory spokesman confirmed.”
BBC Online.

I wish I could write with such effortless command of irony…

New Labour, old Labour, real Labour

The Labour Party allowed itself to succumb to an ideology from its fringe, which disastrously perverted its understanding of the world and its own self-image.

And I’m not talking about the 1990s. An excellent piece in Prospect by Siôn Simon MP argues:

“The greatest, but most unheralded, Tory triumph during the period 1979-92 was their ruthlessly successful destruction of Labour’s historical reputation. Such that by 1992 it was generally accepted that Labour’s short periods in office had been disastrous, characterised by economic calamity, crazed ideological demagoguery and trade union power gone mad. The period when Labour did go off the rails was 1980-83, under Michael Foot, culminating in the longest suicide note in history. … From this springboard that we fashioned, the Saatchis and Kelvin Mackenzie astounded us with backflips and pikes while we floundered untutored and incapable in our armbands.”

The article’s a mix of autobiography and political analysis – and I think it’s right. Harold Wilson famously said: “The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing.” In the 1980s, it was nothing.

The zealous confidence of the hard left joined forces with Conservative Central Office and the right-wing press to entrench an image of Labour as extremist ideologues. This idea penetrated deeply and widely: nine years of blood, toil, tears and sweat under Neil Kinnock, perhaps the party’s finest ever leader, wasn’t enough to exorcise the demons. The public in 1992 didn’t trust Labour to be a moderate, progressive government – and too many in Labour still couldn’t trust a moderating leadership to be progressive.

Tony Blair changed this. Building on Kinnock’s and John Smith’s work, he changed Labour’s outlook and the popular view of Labour. But at the same time, he partly legitimated the negative historical view. The look and feel of Blair’s Labour was very different even from that of Smith’s. This change of image was greater than the political changes, making it seem like a bigger break with Labour’s past, even its immediate past, than it really was.

The narrative of ‘new and ‘old’ Labour propagated the idea that this was something truly discontinuous and that everything that had gone before could be grouped together as the old. The notion of the ‘sell-out leader’ versus the ‘true-believer activists’ didn’t exactly hamper Blair’s electoral strategy. But it also cultivated a suspicion that new Labour, rather than the early 1980s, was the aberration.

Labour in 1997 felt so different that it made 1992 and 1983 Labour look similar. But in policy terms, the Blair–Kinnock distance is pretty comparable to the Kinnock–Foot distance; and in terms of core values, which don’t change with circumstances as policies must, Foot is clearly the odd one out. (Looking further back, Blair is far more plausible than Foot as a political descendant of Wilson or Hugh Gaitskell.)

The new Labour modernising project was uncomfortable for a lot of the party, and seriously traumatic for some: it was the last dose of shock therapy (perhaps not as strong as the sum of Kinnock’s many reforms, but much more sudden and concentrated). It persuaded the public to give Labour the chance to prove it could be that moderate, progressive government. Success – despite some needless misjudgements – has also shown (most of) Labour that the best way to be the people’s party is to make sure you have the people on side.

Gordon Brown’s job – and that of his cabinet – will be to make sure we don’t forget this. Reclaiming the mainstream for social justice wasn’t a temporary one-man act: it was getting back to what Labour is really all about. We lose sight of that at our peril.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Blairites and Brownites want a fight

But not the one the media are talking up. The biggest audience cheer during Brown’s speech and the biggest cheer during Blair’s were for the parts where they talked about taking on Cameron’s Tories.


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Getting Lost

I suppose I could write about the boss man’s speech, but… you know the score. He’s very good at speeches, but people don’t trust him and he’s on his way out anyway.

So: the end of Lost, series 2 cranked the weirdness up a couple more notches. I’ll not spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, but we found out – or rather, we saw without understanding – what happens when the button doesn’t get pressed.

I prefer my brain’s version: several weeks ago, I had a Lost dream. I think I’d come in from the pub, watched that day’s episode and then gone to bed. In the dream, I was in charge of typing in the numbers and pushing the button. But I couldn’t get them right… the clock ticked down to zero and stopped, and there was a moment of deadly calm. Then I heard a noise behind me, and so I spun round.

It was a nerdy speccy guy from IT. He said: “You’ve crashed the server, have you?” Shaking his head, he reached round the back of the computer, and turned it off and then on again.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Getting Brown into focus

People are talking about Frank Luntz’s focus group for Newsnight yesterday. A Labour-leaning group of voters was shown pictures, biographies, speeches and interviews to gauge their thoughts on possible Labour leaders.

A year ago, Luntz ran a similar Conservative group, which placed the little-known David Cameron well in front. This year, he found little support for Gordon Brown; John Reid was clearly ahead. Cue panic/schadenfreude at Brown’s unelectability. Is this justified?

No. I used to work in qualitative market research, and I know better than to trust generalisations from one small focus group. So, are there grounds for thinking that this group was unrepresentative?

Yes. We know from a very recent Sunday Times/YouGov poll of 1500 people that voters favour Brown over Reid by 23% to 10%; Labour supporters prefer Brown by 51% to 9%. But when Luntz, at the start of his group, asked for initial attitudes, just seven of the 30 participants went for Brown while 17 were for Reid. So the group was disproportionately biased from the start.

A focus group can be good for telling you why the people who think X do so; but it’s far too small to reliably tell you how many people generally think X. To illustrate this, a similar group run by ICM for the Guardian – their equivalent last year also favoured Cameron – produced many of the same attitudes to the Labour contenders, but numerically preferred Brown to Reid.

Cometh the hour…

Cherie Blair is Labour’s Prince Philip: a tactless liability who is notable only through marriage. (She’s also the only person in the party with a smile weirder than Gordon Brown’s.) But let us, unlike the rabid media sheep, never speak of her again.

Otherwise, I think yesterday was a good day. If you’re reading this, you’ll have seen some of the coverage already. I’ll start with one piece of background. In a Guardian/ICM poll last week, David Cameron came out as more likable than Brown on several criteria. But Brown has a clear lead on “Who is likely to make the right decisions when the going gets tough?”

Gets tough? The going is tough. There are two giant developing superpowers threatening to suck jobs away from us. There are weak states incubating terrorism. There’s dire need for a workable post-Kyoto climate/energy agreement. We have to make our schools and hospitals better able to respond to people’s needs in a way that doesn’t crowd out the poor. And we need those poorest people to benefit more and more from a strong economy.

We need a PM with the will, experience, passion and expertise to take all this on.

But we also want an election-winner. Brown will have to boost his popularity by playing to his strengths, his embodiment of substance over spin – or as he put it yesterday, “service” over “spectacle”. His best strategy is simply (not that it’s simple) to govern well, to tackle the challenges mentioned above. Also, as I argued last month, to redistribute power under the Labour banner – an agenda the Tories have been talking about, but that their knee-jerk anti-statism means they cannot fulfil. Brown seems to get this:

“…in the new century people and communities should now take power from the state and that means for the new challenges ahead a reinvention of the way we govern: the active citizen, the empowered community, open enabling government. … I want a radical shift of power from the centre.”

True, at the moment, none of Labour’s possible leadership contenders is as well liked as Cameron; he’s adeptly sailed with a fair wind behind him this last year. Which means we need a leader who can make the weather.

I think Brown’s the man.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

“To eat in or take away?”

How exactly does one "eat" a cup of coffee? That, apparently, is what I’m now doing.

I regret to inform you that I’m not chewing it properly.

Spending poverty and social mobility

Neal Lawson is at it again. I should know better than to rise to the bait, but some of his latest effort gives me the chance to discuss a couple of interesting research papers. Here we go:

“Poverty levels judged by household spending have risen since 1997, while social mobility has gone into reverse. New Labour is running desperately hard just to stand still at the levels of poverty bequeathed by Margaret Thatcher.”

Now, if I wanted to construct a couple of sentences that were extremely disingenuous but not outright lies, in order to rubbish the government’s record on poverty and social exclusion, I’d probably come up with something like this. Although I’d have made more of an effort to avoid the conflict between the first claim (poverty up) and the third (poverty unchanged).

Let’s take them one by one, then.

(1) “Poverty levels judged by household spending have risen since 1997”

This alludes to a study published in April by Institute for Fiscal Studies researchers, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (see here and here).

While poverty is normally measured in terms of income, this study looked at household spending levels, with a poverty line defined as 60% of the median. The researchers suggest that it might be illuminating to look at it this way. According to their figures, the proportion of households in ‘spending poverty’ went up and down (mostly up) pretty consistently with the proportion in income poverty for 20 years or so, but since Labour came to power, spending poverty has risen while income poverty fell.

I’m sceptical about the significance of this spending measure. For ‘spending poverty’ to increase while income poverty falls (as has happened), it means that richer people are increasing their spending-to-income ratio faster than poorer people, and/or that poorer people are increasing their saving-to-income ratio faster than richer people. So poorer people may be building up more savings and/or paying off more debt (which sounds like a good thing), and richer people may be spending more of their savings and/or running up debt faster (which, what with them being richer, is presumably not huge cause for concern).

Isn’t it good that poorer people can have more savings and less debt? Think about what would have to happen for the figures to be the other way round. If spending poverty fell but income poverty stayed constant or even rose, then poorer people would have to be eroding their savings and getting into more debt. Bad thing, no?

Lawson doesn’t say why he’s chosen to mention the spending poverty levels rather than income poverty; he has, however, managed to find an obscure and non-standard measure of poverty that can be waved around to make the government look bad. I wonder why?

(2) “social mobility has gone into reverse”

Presumably this refers to a study [PDF] published last year, which found that “intergenerational mobility has fallen over time in Britain; equality of opportunity declined for those born in 1970 compared with those born in 1958.”

The research looked at age cohorts born in those two years, divided up into sub-groups based on family income in childhood, and then asked where on the income scale these children were in their early 30s. The result was that “many more children from the poorest quarter remain in [the] poorest quarter as adults in the more recent cohort. Likewise among the most affluent far more stay among the most affluent as adults than was the case for the earlier cohort.”

I’ve seen several commentators remark on this finding, and making the classic media mistake of confusing ‘when things happened’ with ‘when information became public’. There was much criticism of the government for presiding over a fall in social mobility – which Lawson repeats now. But anyone who’s read a Polly Toynbee column on childcare should know that what happens in your earliest years has the biggest impact on your adult life. That Lawson doesn’t bother to take this into account before dumping the blame on Labour is a pity.

Look at the chronology of those born in 1970: they spent their early years under the Heath government, starting school under Wilson and then Callaghan. They went to secondary school under Thatcher, and in 1986-87 some went on into further education and some into the workforce. A minority completed university under Major, typically graduating into the labour market as unemployment rose to 3 million. When they were 27, Blair came to power and stuck to Tory spending limits, as promised, for two years. Labour’s redistributive policies only really got going in 1999. Then, one year later, the income measurements used in this study were taken.

I suggest that the current government has a microscopic share of the responsibility for the decline in income mobility found in this study. But you needn’t take my word for it. The same researchers published another paper [PDF] earlier this year, investigating the factors behind the fall. They looked at educational achievement, labour market participation in early adulthood, and psychological traits at school age. “The variables we use are able to explain three quarters of the rise in the intergenerational coefficient, with the increased relationship between family income and education and labour market attachment explain[ing] a large part of the change.”

In other words, most of the change can be explained by things that happened well before this government came to power. (If you were tempted to say that their “we… explain three quarters” would still leave one quarter to blame on Blair, I’d reply that no, it leaves a quarter to blame on everything – other than those few factors named above – that took place from 1970 to 2000.)

(3) “New Labour is running desperately hard just to stand still at the levels of poverty bequeathed by Margaret Thatcher.”

Now I know John Major wasn’t a particularly memorable prime minister, but there’s really no excuse for Lawson to skate over the grey years as if Labour were somehow responsible for everything that’s happened since 1990. As rebuttal, I think it apt to quote this week’s report [PDF] by Lawson’s own think-tank, Compass:

“Under successive Conservative governments poverty rose remorselessly. Between 1979 and 1996 the number of households without any assets doubled to 1 in 10. New Labour has sought to decrease poverty, and it is now 2 million below its peak of the mid-1990s.”

Why he chooses to ignore the better-informed report by two of his colleagues (for which he wrote the foreword) and instead spread defeatism about Labour’s policies raises serious questions about his motivation.

Having demolished the farrago of misrepresentation that Lawson somehow managed to cram into two brief sentences, I offer two conclusions: (a) Labour has significantly reduced poverty and there are no grounds for saying that it has reduced social mobility. (b) Neal Lawson is not a ‘critical friend’ of Labour, seeking to ‘renew’ the party; he is an enemy, seeking to get the party into opposition. His public statements are really only intelligible on this assumption; they seem carefully designed to rubbish the government’s successes and reduce its popularity.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Over Hill and Dale

Two nice people have been nice to me in the last week or so.

(1) Dave Hill, the journalist and novelist who blogs at Temperama, has asked me to write a post about England. This isn’t something I usually think about that much, but when I have, it’s been in an uncertain, puzzled sort of way – which itself is telling. Many thanks to Dave for giving me a nudge to think in an interesting (to me anyway) direction, and for propagating the contents of my head. The piece is here.

And a selection of Dave’s fine Guardian CiF work is here.

(2) Iain Dale, Conservative blogger and bookseller, has rated Freemania the 27th best Labour-supporting blog in the country. Or possibly the world. The ratings are of course his own subjective opinion, so it’s not as if I’m now officially demonstrably brilliant or anything. But compliments are always welcome.

I grew up in a Labour family in the 1980s, and was bemused but relieved to find at university that many Conservatives are actually decent people who have little or no inclination to bite the heads off poor people’s babies. Iain looks to be one of these.

Friday, September 22, 2006

BBC2 Thursday night comedy

I’ve watched two episodes of the new series of Extras without laughing once. I mean, it’s not bad, but it’s also very clearly not good either.

That Mitchell and Webb Look, on the other hand, is much better. A sketch show, so naturally hit and miss, but with just enough hits to keep me happy. I especially liked the heroin addict opening his Christmas presents. (Aunt: “I know how much you like heroin… I did get you some last year too, but I thought well, why not again?” Gran: “It’s some nice cocaine for you, dear – that is the one you wanted, isn’t it?”)

And then Newsnight had coverage of procedural motions at the Green Party conference… priceless.

Why not just nuke the Muslims?

This morning, John Humphrys interviewed [go for the 8.10 interview] Abu Izzadeen, who heckled John Reid a couple of days ago.

There’s a tradition among mainstream media interviewers of going soft on extremists, whether from the BNP or Islamist groups or brutal dictatorships. I believe the theory is that, by conveying distaste in your tone and giving these people relatively free rein to spout their stuff, you’ll give them enough rope to hang themselves; listeners/viewers will see how awful their arguments are.

So it was in this case; and that theory does work to a degree. But as I listened to this guy, whose self-confidence was in inverse proportion to his intellect and his decency, I longed for some of the forensic cross-examination that Humphrys wouldn’t have hesitated to inflict on, say, a Lib Dem pensions spokesperson.

Izzadeen repeatedly refused to condemn or endorse 9/11 or 7/7, bleating instead that it wasn’t his place to talk about justification. But he was more than happy to froth about the unjustified ‘crusading’ mass murder of Muslims – he could have been torn apart on this inconsistency.

Or his insistence that he wouldn’t seek to promote his Islamist views in the UK through democratic means, because he believes in sharia – rule by the law of god – whereas democracy is rule through the actions of man. But by that logic, any means that he might use to promote his version of sharia would necessarily involve human action and human decision. Another weak spot that wasn’t probed.

Perhaps most of all, he said many, many times that Bush and Blair were engaged in a war against Muslims. What baffles me about claims that the West is utterly against Islam and seeks to destroy Muslims is this: we have an unbelievable amount of firepower at our disposal. We could nuke Damascus, Tehran, Beirut, Baghdad, Riyadh, Mecca, Medina, Islamabad, and carpet-bomb any number of other places. None of the countries concerned could retaliate in kind: Pakistan’s nukes can’t be fired at long enough ranges.

The death toll could easily run to tens of millions, never mind the paltry 100,000 often quoted for Iraq. And we wouldn’t have to worry about exposing ground troops to risk. At the same time, we could introduce internment or even martial law against all the Muslims living in Western countries. So: if this is a war against Islam, why don’t we exploit that fact that we can very easily inflict vastly more damage on the enemy? Why don’t we just nuke the Muslims?

Because, and if you’re in any doubt, I suggest you read this a couple of times, we don’t want to; because it’s not a war against Islam.

Because people like Izzadeen need to be able to sell the lie that Islam is their exclusive property, so that they can define friend and foe, so that they can be treated as spokesmen, so that they can surf the wave of martyrdom chic without the inconvenience of having to blow themselves up. They’re armchair terrorists.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Campbell condensed

Ming the witless has delivered his party conference speech. I’m not impressed.

(1) “A quarter of sixteen year olds drop out of education with no qualifications.”

False. The correct figure is 1 in 20, not 1 in 4.

(2) “The gap between rich and poor is wider than at any point under Margaret Thatcher.”

Vague, as he doesn’t define his terms. But the ONS gives us some harder figures, which tell a different story. Table 27 here looks at the disposable income ratios of the 10th decile to the 90th, and of the 25th to the 75th.

In both 2003/04 and 2004/05, the gap between the 10th and the 90th was smaller than in any year since 1987; the gap between the 25th and the 75th was smaller than in any year since 1986. (I grow increasingly bored of refuting people who say that there’s been no redistribution and no fall in poverty under Labour. Luckily, I have a massive boredom threshold.)

(3) “…there will be no peace in the Middle East while the Palestinians are subject to daily humiliation, settlements are expanded on the West Bank and the Palestinian people have no viable homeland they can call their own. As long as this continues, Israel’s legal and moral right to live in peace behind secure and recognised borders will be undermined.”

This is either stupidly worded or a despicable apology for terrorism. Certainly, Israeli treatment of Palestinians and occupation of land is unjust. And, as a matter of observable fact, it undermines Israel’s practical ability to “live in peace behind secure and recognised borders”. But there can be no acceptable grounds for denying that the people of Israel have an inalienable “legal and moral right” to do so. I hope for the Lib Dems’ sake that it was stupidly worded.


A ‘lifestyle’ piece at MSN (I swear I don’t normally read these things, it just popped up after I closed my hotmail, honest) has the headline: “Secrets To Happy Single-hood”.

The first line reads: “It’s only when you’re content that you’ll meet The One. Here, our expert shares a plan to help you do just that.”

I’m sure there’s something conceptually wrong with this somewhere.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Compass needs to find its bearings

Compass is a “democratic left pressure group” – at least, that’s what it presumably is in those moments when it’s not serving as a media platform for Neal Lawson to attack the government while gushing about David Cameron (e.g. “The anti-Tory wave that swept New Labour to power to 1997 is still rolling. It is the wave Cameron is trying to ride when he talks up public services, the environment and now redistribution” or “Of course Cameron will keep pitching to the left of New Labour because that [is] where the centre ground is”).

Anyway, today, we find that Hetan Shah and Jonathan Rutherford of Compass (it’s not just a one-man band) have written a report, The Good Society, in which they claim:

“New Labour has achieved important reductions in poverty, and has managed to implement a number of socially liberal measures. But it has never made a serious challenge to neo-liberalism by seeking active political support for an alternative, democratic – and hegemonic – vision of the good society”

But in their Guardian article introducing it, they claim:

“New Labour has failed to stem the tide of poverty growth because it never challenged the reign of free markets by seeking active support for a democratic vision of the good society.”

One of these is half true and half woolly, and the other is half false and half woolly. Now the wool looks consistent, and I daresay forgivable, but what puzzles me is this. Why do Compass-ites, when they clearly are capable of intelligent thought and factual knowledge (I’ve skimmed bits of the report – looks like some decent stuff there), turn into anti-government attack dogs when they have media access to a wider audience?

It just isn’t true that the government has failed to reduce poverty. In fact, for me, it’s their greatest achievement, even though I want them to do much more on this front. So why do these people, who seem to know the truth, and who could perfectly well say “yes, well done, but…” instead start waving a big stick made of lies designed to let the Tories steal some of Labour’s support and demotivate the rest of it.

There are people on the left who are utterly uncomfortable with power; they would rather be in an academic debating society or a street protest movement than a government. They don’t want to make the compromises of power; they don’t want to be held responsible for the inevitable mistakes. They managed this very successfully for most of the 20th century, and I hope that nowadays they’re fewer in number. If not, then Lawson may well prove right about one thing: “David Cameron will not win the next election. Labour will lose it.”

Yeah, dude, and they suck as well

Headline from the Times today:

Cameron party members blow

But apparently it's to do with quantity rather than quality.

Jonathan Steele: fair and balanced

Jonathan Steele, 6 July 2006:

“Thank goodness for the Swiss. Alone in Europe, their government has dared to condemn what the Israelis are doing to Gaza. It is collective punishment, they say. It violates the principle of proportionality. Israel has not taken the precautions required by international law to protect civilians. …
“Its statement stands in contrast to the European Union's shamefully muted voice. … The EU's response? Vague expressions of ‘concern’ and calls for ‘restraint’.”

So, we’ve established a principle. Disproportionate reactions that involve collective punishment of civilians and breaches of international law are wrong and should be condemned utterly. Good stuff.

19 September 2006:

“It is true that the [Sudansese] government, as often happens in asymmetrical war, overreacted in its use of force when rebels attacked. The so-called janjaweed militias that Khartoum organised and armed did not distinguish between civilians and guerrilla fighters. They burned huts, raped women and put tens of thousands of civilians to flight, forcing them across the border into Chad or into camps inside Darfur. But the rebels also committed atrocities, a fact that was rarely reported since it upset the black-and-white moral image that many editors preferred.”

But look, these things happen. And you have to take into account the government’s side of the story, and how very nasty the rebel groups are – they need to be condemned utterly, you know.

6 July:

“ the moment has surely come for Europe to break from its useless policy of backing the US and Israel. The Olmert government… seeks only domination, not negotiation. Whether the ultimate agenda is to starve all Palestinians into fleeing to Egypt, Jordan and even further afield, or merely to keep Gaza as a prison of the unemployed and the West Bank as a bunch of Bantustans, Israeli policy mocks every UN resolution on the conflict.
“The EU should admit that the Palestinians have no partner for peace.”

Another excellent principle: you’ll get nowhere treating a dishonest, power-hungry government as a partner for peace, especially if they’re using starvation as a weapon against a whole ethnic group and mocking UN resolutions.

19 September:

“Some of the displaced say Khartoum should have to pay families compensation. Others say the peace deal has no enforcement measures and fails to protect people who want to go back to rebuild their villages. But the answer is to conduct more talks, not resume the war.

“Fear of arrest is said to be one reason why Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, has blocked UN troops. Even if a UN force were still 90% African, he might think it could include a western-piloted snatch squad tasked to capture him or his Darfurian lieutenants.”

But come on now, reasonable people can surely thrash these things out with another round of negotiations, can’t they? And it’s quite unrealistic to expect everyone to jump through all these ‘international law’ hoops just because a few UN resolutions say they should.

6 July:

“Israel must renounce violence”

A third fine principle from our man of Steele.

19 September:

“Khartoum feels betrayed by the US. After making a peace deal in the south… it expected US sanctions would be lifted.”

Those Americans, eh? Completely untrustworthy. You go to all the trouble of stopping brutalising the south of your country just because they ask you to, and then they turn round and start moaning on about how you’re now doing the same thing in the west. Bloody neocons.

28 April 2006:

“Beware the hypocrisy of international allegiances

“Human rights organisations and private citizens are right to press their own and other governments to adopt higher standards of democratic behaviour, but they need to be rigorous, even-handed and aware of history.”

Well… sometimes.

[See also Norm Geras on Steele’s campaign of apologetics.]

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Small Tory landslide, not many noticed

Apathy–disdain coalition beats support and opposition into distant second and third places

David Cameron has been backed by more than nine out of 10 of Conservative members who voted on his mini-manifesto statement of aims and values. But nearly three quarters of party members (73%) did not bother to vote. Of the 65,000 who did take part, 92.7% voted in favour of Mr Cameron's vision and 7.3% voted against.”

Cameron described his almost 25% endorsement as “overwhelming…a united party going forward”.

In other news: Lib Dem MP says new tax plans are “a slippery slope towards more right-wing draconian policies”.

Update: In other other news: Bad-tempered ageing Scottish cabinet minister says: “I have... no personal ambition to attain any other high office”.

Long shots: a challenge

Andrew at WongaBlog describes a nice coincidence in which a parcel for him went undelivered and was then ‘returned’ to someone who hadn’t sent it to him, but who knew him anyway.

Which reminded me of the biggest coincidence I’ve ever been involved in:

When I was 13 and at school in Cambridge (UK), one of my best friends moved to Canada because his dad had got a job there. They got their visas, school places and a house sorted out, and so the dad duly turned up at his new place of work. He obviously wanted to get to know his new colleagues, and it turned out, much to his surprise, that the guy in the next office had lived in Cambridge in the early 1970s…

In my house.

Can anyone better that?

Monday, September 18, 2006

Walking the walk (or, The need for speed)

Matt C spots, shoots, and mounts the stuffed head of a personal bugbear of mine: people who walk slowly.

Like Matt, I walk pretty quickly. Strolling is all well and good when you have decent scenery and fresh air, but both are in short supply in central London. I just want to get somewhere. It would be nice if there were fast and slow lanes on pavements, but it’s even worse going through tube stations, where you can’t cunningly side-step into the gutter and power ahead:

“A short lady drifted in front of me. I could feel the anger rising. Bile began to drip into my bloodstream. I swallowed and slowed.
“I tried to plan my path. She was walking slowly but not so slow as to be dangerous - merely mildly irritating. And that irritated me more. I opted to overtaking on the inside and quickened my pace as I headed towards her left side, ready to lean against the wall as support during my aggressive move. But she swayed towards the tiles that line the circular passageway and I dropped back. Thwarted. Bitch.”

I feel your pain, Matt. When I get stuck behind somebody whose motor skills seem to be part dinosaur, part sloth, part root vegetable, I find that it takes a huge effort of will to stop myself from walking in exaggeratedly slow, high steps, as if to emphasise (to all the people who aren’t looking at me) how frustrated I am and how unreasonably slowly this cretin in front of me is moving. Sorry, ‘moving’.

But it’s ridiculous: if I have to reduce myself to pantomime tiptoe-ing to match someone’s speed, then they really are going too slowly, aren’t they? And the dissonance between my rising blood pressure and my enforced slowness is clearly a health risk: I could easily have a heart attack or brain embolism in such circumstances. I might even be at risk of physically exploding with inexpressible fury – then people would think I was some sort of suicide bomber and, as the final gasps of life slowly passed from my lips, the last thing I’d see would be a crowd of Independent readers looming over me, wanting to understand my grievances.

But I might at least take down the slow bugger in front as well. They’d never get clear of the blast in time.

Go back to your constituencies…

…and prepare for broadband!

From the BBC:

[Lib Dem] Campaigns chief, Ed Davey, says: “We are an open, democratic party. Blogging is something Liberal Democrats feel very comfortable with.”
It is not, he claims, an activity that comes naturally to the “control freaks” of Labour.
“I could not imagine Gordon Brown as a natural blogger,” he adds.

Well, you know, I couldn’t imagine Ed Davey (or for that matter Ming Campbell) as a natural cabinet minister. I’d rather Brown focused on running the economy than on blogging.

But I’m being unfair. Davey understands that blogging isn’t the number one Lib Dem ambition in politics:

“I am not going to say it is more important than getting on the Today programme or Newsnight – but we do take it seriously."

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Darfur or against?

For a reason stupider than I care to go into, I wasn’t at the Darfur protest today. The lunchtime news said there were hundreds of people at the Sudanese Embassy in London, which I suppose isn’t bad going for a cause that doesn’t have Bush or Blair as its chief bogeymen.

Perhaps it also reflects the fact that – assuming the killers refuse to stop killing – there are no comfortable answers.

I’ve read a fair amount of reportage and commentary on Sudan over the last couple of years, but I have yet to see a decent attempt at a cost-benefit analysis of sending in a large UN force to provide security in Darfur and disarm the militias without the consent of the Sudanese government.

The slaughter and starvation organised by that government is an atrocity beyond any justification, and since Bosnia and Rwanda I’ve tended to be part of the ‘something-must-be-done’ brigade. But I don’t believe in supporting any action to stop deliberate evil, regardless of the unintended consequences.

Can somebody say with confidence that fewer people would die as a result of an invasion and occupation? Would there be no protracted insurgency based on the rival militias? Would the rest of Sudan not lurch towards civil war? Would al-Qaeda not be drawn like a pyromaniac moth to a flame? Would the civil conflicts in Chad and Uganda, already connected up to those in Sudan, not be inflamed further?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. If somebody knows some good thinking on these, I’d like to see it. Because, if Sudan won’t accept the UN force mandated by resolution 1706, I have no damn clue what would be the best thing to do.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Is the Pope an Islamophobe???

A gripping bout of ‘my imaginary friend’s bigger than yours’ has broken out, with the drearily eager ‘offence’-taking and hasty ‘clarifications’ of ‘respectful’ intent.

As I believe either Thomas Aquinas or Avicenna said, “Cos I gotta have faith...”

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The House of Union

Two tricky constitutional questions may have the same answer: the ‘English question’ arising from devolution (which I discussed yesterday) and House of Lords reform.

I argued that the ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL) proposal would wreak constitutional havoc if applied to the Commons, but also acknowledged that there are grounds for recognising the legitimate concern here. My suggestion is that we apply a similar principle to a reformed upper house.

It’s overwhelmingly agreed that the Lords needs reform, and the likeliest grounds for consensus seem to be around a set-up in which some sort of majority is elected and the rest appointed, with the provision that it is only a revising chamber, without the power to indefinitely frustrate the will of the Commons. I’ll accept this.

Clearly party representatives must be present (I’d suggest 60–70% of the total); these should be elected, to avoid the grubby situation in which party leaders have powers of patronage (not to mention for simple reasons of democracy). But as the current House of Lords demonstrates, there are many independent people with experience and expertise in many professions and walks of life whose presence in a second chamber is greatly beneficial; these people are disinclined to join in electoral party politics. These members should be appointed by some sort of commission operating at a clear distance from the control of party leaders.

To promote greater resistance to populism and the whips, it would be worth giving members long terms to serve (although not life terms). Perhaps the elected members could be chosen by thirds at successive general elections; this would give typical terms of about 12 years. And thirds of the appointed group could take their places shortly after each election.

I propose that the elected members be elected proportionally on the basis of the current multi-member European parliamentary constituencies: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the nine English regions. The proportionality (as well as the independent appointees) should guarantee that no party will have a majority. And the regional basis for election is vital for the new chamber to be able to reflect the results of devolution – both the different degrees thereof currently in existence and any future regionally based changes.

When a bill applies to some areas but – because of devolution – not others, the members representing those other areas would not vote. As I said yesterday, the principle would be that a member may vote on a bill if and only if either (a) it directly applies to his/her constituency or (b) it covers a policy area that, for his/her constituency, is the business of the UK Parliament.

The appointed members – who are there purely for their own merits and who have no representative role or geographical base – would be able to vote on all matters.

We could call the new chamber the House of Union, based as it is on the nations and regions of the UK, both bringing them together and recognising their different positions in the union.

Because I’m applying the EVEL principle to a second, subordinate, revising chamber, it would not have the dire consequences that I described yesterday in relation to the Commons. A government with a UK majority would keep its majority in all policy areas, and the legislation/implementation conflict would not threaten the coherence of government. MPs in the Commons would all remain equal – the elected/appointed split in the House of Union means it would define different kinds of member from the outset, so incorporating a range of types of responsibility would not disturb a pre-existing equality.

It is true that the unaltered Commons would be supreme, able to overrule any amendments or defeats from English members of the House of Union, and so EVEL purists may be dissatisfied. But the truth is that even with the existing devolved administrations, Westminster retains supreme sovereignty. The Scottish Parliament may legislate all it likes, but it does so solely because the UK Parliament chose to devolve some of its own powers – and it could take them back, if so inclined. Final power over Scotland (and Wales, Northern Ireland and London) still lies in the Commons, even though it now lies dormant.

The power of the all-UK Commons over England will remain more direct – but then the ability of the English voice in the upper house to check that power will also be direct and immediate. If the House of Union rejected (with English votes) an England-only measure passed in the Commons (with help from Scottish and Welsh MPs), this would stand as a clear political warning to reconsider. If the Commons chose to disregard the will of the English as expressed by the upper house, then those English MPs responsible (most of any Commons majority would be English) could be held liable electorally.

EVEL purists may reply that this does not remove the anomaly that riles them, as the supreme Commons remains unchanged. But the risks of changing the Commons as they desire are too great. There is not going to be a perfect, rationally consistent formula to remove all the unfortunate quirks of our evolved constitution, which is an intricate web of compromises successively made between different interest groups, as well as between principles such as accountability and efficacy. My proposal (as well as democratising the upper house and removing patronage) intends to ease the concern in question by acknowledging the facts of devolution, but without giving rise to the serious problems that EVEL would create.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

English votes for English laws?

The West Lothian question, aka the English question, has been raising its head lately. It’s said to be an unfair anomaly that, for instance, a Scottish MP can vote on education policy for England but an English MP cannot vote on Scottish education. It’s argued that, for the sake of logic and fairness, Scottish MPs should lose their voting rights on England-only matters.

(This England-vs-Scotland presentation oversimplifies, as there are different degrees of devolution to different parts of the UK. The consistent, principled way of putting it would be to propose that an MP may vote on a bill if and only if either (a) it directly applies to his/her constituency or (b) it covers a policy area that, for his/her constituency, is the business of the UK Parliament. The principle is about symmetry and reciprocity rather than national/regional disagreements. But for simplicity’s sake, I’ll stick with discussing the proposal as it’s usually presented: ‘English votes for English laws’, or EVEL.)

Much of the Conservative support for, and Labour opposition to, EVEL arises from the certainty that it would weaken Labour’s parliamentary voting strength. But regardless of such understandable yet ignoble motives, there is a fair point to the proposal – and also serious problems. Here are a few.

Incoherence of government

A major concern is what would happen under this system if one party had a UK majority in the House of Commons but another party had a majority of English MPs (in practice, Labour and the Conservatives respectively). The government would be able to pass its bills in areas such as economic policy, defence and social security but not in areas such as health, education and transport. This means that in the latter areas, the official ‘government’ can’t really govern; instead the opposition can drive through a substantial legislative programme with bill after bill in these areas. But all the while, the civil servants charged with implementing these laws are answerable to their ministers, who are of the official governing party.

Neither party is truly in government here, as far as these policy areas are concerned; nor is there an unofficial quasi-coalition of the two. Ministers, with their executive powers, would have a political incentive to obstruct the passage of ‘opposition’ bills and to thwart the effective working of such laws once passed. In turn, the opposition would have a political incentive to saddle ministers with populist but unworkable laws to operate. In fact, there is no coherent government here. Policy stagnation would be the least bad plausible outcome; more likely is the replacement of policymaking with politicking.

English ministers for English departments

Some opponents of EVEL have assumed that it would require preventing Scottish MPs from holding ministerial posts in areas where powers had been devolved to Scotland. Supporters of EVEL mostly reply that this would be a separate issue and there’d be no need for it to happen. The unappetising consequence of this would be that a Scottish MP who was Education Secretary would have to take his or her bills to parliament not as an equal, not as a participant in the legislative process, but as a supplicant.

But more importantly, for the EVEL lobby to take this position requires abandoning their prized principle. If there is an unfair anomaly with legislative powers, there is, by identical logic, an equivalent problem with executive powers. Devolution did not just create the Scottish Parliament as a voting body; it also created a Scottish Executive, consisting of ministers with powers of their own. At Westminster, there are likewise ministers with executive powers. In both cases, ministers are drawn from the legislature.

So the equivalent anomaly is: why should a Scottish MP be able to become Secretary of State for Education and wield executive power over English policy, while an English MP cannot hold a position of executive power over Scottish policy?

The case for ‘English ministers for English departments’ is thus exactly as strong as that for EVEL. (Note that as well as covering specific areas such as health, education and transport, it would also, by insuperable logic, cover the posts of Chancellor and Prime Minister, whose responsibilities range across all departments. This view has some support in the Shadow Cabinet.)

This would end the democratic equality of parliamentary government: if, on grounds of geography, certain MPs are barred from holding high office – and certain voters barred from electing someone who might hold high office, or even standing themselves – then the union will lose legitimacy. If the English tell the Scots (and the Welsh) that they can never aspire to lead their country, will they not instead aspire to form a country that they can lead?

We are not talking about mere legislative chambers; the composition of the Commons determines the identity of the Prime Minister, and the other ministers are then appointed from the ranks of those elected to Parliament (similarly in Scotland). The executive is thus inescapably rooted in the legislature. The Commons, through its role in determining the government and through the equality of its members, is the vital organ that democratically binds the executive to the people of the UK – the whole UK. It is not just a glorified voting machine with detachable parts.

EVEL, as well as the logically concomitant ministerial restrictions, would destroy the equality of MPs, and thus destroy the democratic character of the parliamentary link between executive and electorate. As William Hague put it in 2000: “Parliament is the essential and definitive link between citizen and government and should remain the institution at the heart of the nation's democratic system”. We should not let EVEL into our heart.

The confidence dilemma

But there’s also a truly fatal flaw hiding in the EVEL idea. Say that a government has a UK Commons majority but the opposition has an English majority. The government proposes an education bill, which – applying only to England – is defeated. Suppose the government then tables a motion along the lines of ‘This House has confidence in the government’s education bill’. If a government loses a confidence vote, it falls, so this should surely be a national and hence whole-Commons matter. But if so, then the government could bypass the whole point of EVEL by putting forward such confidence motions every time it loses a vote under the system.

Alternatively, if EVEL still applied in such cases on the basis that education policy was an English matter, then the opposition could at any time table a no-confidence motion couched in terms such as ‘This House has no confidence in the education policy of the government’ and bring down the majority government. For the UK government to be toppled by a parliamentary minority would be obscene. It’s true that either of these procedural tactics would be devious and underhand, but we can hardly rely on party business managers to refrain from such partisan tricks. The dilemma is inescapable: EVEL would destroy either itself or parliamentary democracy.

In sum, I share the former Conservative Scottish Secretary Malcolm Rifkind’s attitude to EVEL: “That would be a nationalist solution to a unionist problem. It would weaken rather than strengthen Britain.”

Rather than insist on EVEL as a matter of logical symmetry and never mind the consequences, or point at the practical problems and assume that the issue can thus be ignored, we do need to acknowledge that there is a real source of discomfort here. And it will be tackled, sooner or later, well or badly. We should find a less damaging way to address it. I think there’s good scope for a compromise between those wanting a new post-devolution settlement and those fearful for the unity and efficacy of the Commons and the government. I’ll post my idea tomorrow. [Update: see here.]

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Habitat’s Law

You will walk through every department at least once before you find the exit.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

I have a dream (and the dream has me)

Michael Frayn had a nice discussion of the links between narrative in dreaming and in writing in yesterday’s Guardian (excerpted from his forthcoming book The Human Touch):

“The story, like the dream, as any novelist or playwright will tell you, develops a logic of its own that begins to generate events of its own accord. The author finds himself in the same position as his characters, swept along by events he can no longer quite control.”

It struck me as I was reading that dream narratives are a little like confabulation. This is the process by which the brain generates assumptions to fill information gaps or gloss over unexpected contradictions. It can be seen in individuals who are unaware of their memory impairments: asked what they were doing yesterday, or how some current situation came about, they’ll immediately come up with a hypothesis that seems plausible to them, even if utterly false and indeed circumstantially impossible. But they’ll have great confidence in it, and may develop a string of new confabulations to support it, if pressed.

In other cases, patients with Anton’s syndrome deny their own blindness, producing explanations such as poor lighting, or not really paying attention, to account for their failure to see things. The same can happen in many other types of cognitive, perceptual or motor impairment.

Confabulation is sincere assumption, not deliberate invention – the invention is going on at a level beneath conscious control, and the outcome is truly not thought of as lying or make-believe. Facts or explanations are demanded, and so they are supplied.

But while it’s usually associated with brain pathologies (medial frontal lobe damage has been implicated), there are grounds for thinking that ordinary people confabulate a lot of the time. Social psychologists have shown that questions such as ‘Did you enjoy the party last night?’ are often answered not via an examination of one’s specific memories, but by drawing on common sense and background information about what such parties are like and how one usually finds them. (NB such confabulated responses – in effect, confident common-sense guesses – are often accurate, or at least close enough for it not to matter; thus they go unnoticed.) Also, situations can be devised in which people’s behaviour is demonstrably manipulated by the experimenters, but those manipulated produce honest justifications for their actions in terms of their own preferences – explanations that can persist even when the manipulation is made explicit.

What does this have to do with dreams?

Dream narratives (mine, at least) are often disjointed, switching from one scenario to another, although this disjointedness itself often displays some continuity. For example, I dream that I’m on a train, where I meet an old school friend. Then we get off the train and we’re at our old school. The thematic continuity smooths over the physical impossibility of the switch, and I don’t react with shock.

Two thoughts on this. First, the dream me is reacting not unlike a confabulator; presented with a situation that ought to be inexplicable, automatic justifications kick in to forestall any questions and maintain an air of normality. It’s perfectly reasonable that the school should be at the train station. (My old friend and I might not even have got off the train; we might just have suddenly appeared at the school I was thinking about, with the more intelligible explanation of the switch silently slotting into place.)

Second, the dream environment itself, not just the me character in it, seems to be constructed in the same off-the-cuff way that confabulation works. Sudden events develop into more complex flights of fancy that make sense as long as I don’t look too carefully – which I don’t, as my impossibility detector has been turned right down. Situations arise, shaping my reactions to them, which then shape the situations.

As in waking life, the dream-me feels quite distinct from the dream environment; but both are driven forward together in a narrative generated by the mechanisms that produce coherence (or rather, that disguise incoherence). Frayn ponders whether to think of a dreamer as the actor, director, writer, theatre proprietor, audience… I think that what I’d want to say here is that, when dreaming, a psychologically dissipated version of me is both the improvising actor and the unwittingly the stage.

He describes how dreamer and author get entangled in their own creations:

“Although the author began by telling the story, and the dreamer by dreaming the dream, the story has ended up by telling the teller, the dream by dreaming the dreamer.”

Another creation analogy occurs: are dreams what the world would be like if god had medial frontal lobe damage?

Friday, September 08, 2006

Abolish inheritance attacks

We know who’ll inherit the crown
So scrapping just drags us all down
Regicide is folly
And Charles Clarke’s a wally
For trying it (early) on Brown

Have a good weekend!

Reasons to be cheerful

(1) New curbs on ‘covert selection’ in schools

The DfES is consulting on a new School Admissions Code:

“Examples of unfair practices and oversubscription criteria that the new Code will ban are:
• taking account of a parent's financial status or occupation or educational or social background;
• taking into account parents ability to financially or otherwise support the school;
• taking into account former family connections with a school.”

(2) ‘Get your bombs out of our religion’

From a new report by Chatham House:

“Al-Qaeda is facing a very serious challenge to its legitimacy and, because of its terrorist activities, is less popular than it could be in the Muslim world. Rather than increasing its support among Muslims, Al-Qaeda has witnessed increased support for moderate non-violent factions within the Islamist movement”

(3) It’s Friday

Nuff said.

Labourick no. 3

Gordon Brown’s sworn a loyalty oath;
Tony Blair’s said he’ll quit, so they both
Can agree on the most
Vital thing, which is post-
Neo-classical endogenous growth

(See previously here – where I’m getting some great submissions – and here.)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Another labourick

So he’s not given an exact date
But a month here or there won’t change fate
Now we know he’ll be gone
Can we please just get on
Or are we too driven by hate?


Now, I’m extremely tempted to join in all this leadership timetable debate thingy. It’s a meaty personality issue and it’s ever so easy to find yourself captivated by it, like a pair of deer playing chicken, frozen in each other’s headlights with their feet on the accelerators, driving straight towards mutual annihilation. [Note to sub: please render simile intelligible before posting.]

But I’m not convinced that another bloke offering his tuppence-worth is going to help matters much, when what we should be talking about is things like how the minimum wage is increasing, and proper, important policy stuff like that. But dammit…

So, to set up a constraint on myself, as of now any comments I make on the leadership kerfuffle will be made in the medium of limericks.

He dropped vague hints he’d go in a year
Thinking none of his rivals would fear
But the brown hit the fan
And despite his élan
He may shortly be out on his ear.

Hmm. This really isn’t likely to constrain me, is it?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Just stop it

The madness and uncertainty has gone on far too long already, and done too much irreparable damage. If there isn’t some serious movement by the end of the month, all hell will break loose.

At a meeting last night organised by the Euston Manifesto Group, Hratche Koundarjian of the Aegis Trust warned that if things carry on as they are – both on the ground in Sudan and across the ‘international community’ – then in ten years or so, we’ll be able to watch Hotel Darfur in the cinema. We’ll step, blinking, into the daylight, wondering how such a horror could have happened and vowing: ‘never again’.

The Sudanese government, which has been coordinating the slaughter, starvation and mass eviction of civilians in Darfur since 2003, with a death toll in six figures and millions driven from their homes, has rejected last week’s UN Security Council resolution 1706.

This authorises replacing the painfully limited African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur with a larger UN force that has a more robust mandate, including authorisation to use “all necessary means… in order to support early and effective implementation of the Darfur Peace Agreement, to prevent attacks and threats against civilians”. The AU mission will expire on 30 September, and so the UN force needs to be moving into place before then. It will no doubt have limited success even if adequately resourced, but without it there will be disaster.

The Darfur Peace Agreement signed in May by the Sudanese government and some of the rebels is imperfect, but encompasses a ceasefire as well as promoting the dialogue and power-sharing necessary as part of a longer-term political settlement.

But now President Omar al-Bashir has refused to accept a UN-mandated force, claiming it would be “part of a comprehensive conspiracy for confiscating the country's sovereignty”. If the UN went in without Sudanese acceptance, chances are there would be carnage; it’s most unlikely that there’s the political stomach for a de facto invasion. But if the AU leaves and the UN can’t or won’t go in, then there’ll be carnage of a different sort, as Bashir’s government, its proxy militias and the least compromising of the rebel groups ramp up their violence.

And, as Kofi Annan says: “The international community has been helping about 3 million people in camps and elsewhere and if we have to leave because of lack of security, lack of access to the people, then what happens?”

Even if powerful, Western countries won’t be supplying troops for political reasons, they will need to provide funding and logistical support; most immediately, they must maximise the diplomatic pressure on Sudan to accept the UN force (perhaps via China, which has huge oil contracts with Bashir and has been notable for its foot-dragging in the Security Council).

The government’s brutality in Darfur is based on the pretext of putting down armed rebel groups, and indeed atrocities are certainly not limited to the one side. But the massive and deliberate targeting of civilians is disproportionate in a way that dwarfs what recently happened in Lebanon. So where the hell are the protests?

On Sunday 17 September, there will be an international Day for Darfur. Demonstrations are being organised across the globe, including at the Sudanese Embassy in London, in support of a stronger peacekeeping force, increased humanitarian aid and implementation of the Darfur Peace Agreement. You could do worse things than go along.

In late spring and early summer 1994, the Labour Party was too busy worrying about its leadership to get angry about Rwanda. The government of the day had no such excuse; it just had the knowledge that there was no public or media interest.

Now a terrible choice approaches. Hotel Darfur: salt or sweet popcorn?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The naked blogger

Calm yourselves. I’m typing this in a respectable office and I’m appropriately dressed. Nor have I become Jamie Oliver.

It’s just that I’ve been on holiday the last two weeks and I decided not to bother shaving for the duration; I got a decent amount of facial hair going. But, needing to appear respectable again, I got the razor out yesterday and hacked it all off. Afterwards, looking in the mirror, I frankly felt naked and very exposed without it. (Had my chin always been that boring?) Also I looked about ten years younger. Part of me wonders whether maybe I should make it permanent - albeit appropriately tended. No before-and-after mugshots to vote on, I’m afraid.

(After the first week it did start getting a wee bit ginger, mind…)

Monday, September 04, 2006

Sophistry on redistribution

The Centre for Policy Studies has issued a report [PDF] by one Charlie Elphicke (hat tip to Chris Dillow), suggesting that the government has redistributed from poor to rich: “the poorest households in Britain are now paying a higher share of tax and getting a lower share of benefits than before Labour came to power”.

Which sounds bad. The calculations are based on ONS figures. In more detail: “In 1996/97, the poorest fifth of households paid 6.8% of the total tax take. This rose to 6.9% in 2004-05. Meanwhile their share of benefits has fallen from 28.1% to 27.1%.”

This is an odd way of looking at it. In fact, while I daresay the calculations are technically accurate, the decision to look things in this way is specious, perverse and politically motivated.

Elphicke makes no attempt to explain why these figures are the ones that matter. The share of total tax paid (or benefits received) by a given part of the income distribution has not been an object of government policy under either Labour or the Tories. Even given such a general approach, he does not try to justify the focus on quintiles rather than quartiles, deciles or even percentiles.

He makes no effort to argue that if the tax and benefits system had stayed as it was, then it would have continued to give and take in the same proportions as it did in 1996/97, nor does he try to contend that changes to the tax and benefits system since then have caused the changes he notes.

These particular numbers are the result of the interaction of thousands of economic factors, some affected by government policies other than those on taxes and benefits, and some beyond the control of government. So on top of the spurious choice of statistics for comparison, Elphicke heaps a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

One of the key changes since 1996/97 is that unemployment is a good deal lower. As such, we should expect that the poorest will now be receiving relatively fewer benefits and paying more tax, because more of them are in work and earning money. A return to mass unemployment would certainly reverse the trend that Elphicke so deplores.

It turns out that ‘the poorest fifth’ in 2004/05 is not nearly as poor as the equivalent group in 1996/97 – in no small part owing to the improved employment situation. Using the figures given by the CPS, we can calculate that their share of total original (pre-tax and -benefits) income has risen from 2.6% to 3.1% – an increase of 19%. Their share of total tax paid has risen by just 1.5% (from 6.8% to 6.9%).

Thus the increase in the poorest quintile’s original income relative to the rest of the population far outweighs the small rise in their share of the tax bill. Their improved position also contributes to the small decline in their overall share of benefits (although the level of benefits they receive has significantly increased).

Elphicke does not mention changes to levels of tax or benefit rates, or shifting thresholds, or altered eligibility criteria. Without this, his case is empty. In fact, his case is also wrong. A simulation by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that changes to tax and benefits policy between 1996/97 and 2002/03 did reduce inequality by redistributing in the poor’s favour, relative to what would have happened had the system stayed the same.

(Update: I’ve just found where I put this [PDF]. According to research by John Hills, Director of the LSE’s Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion:

“Comparing the 2004-05 tax and benefit system with the 1997 system adjusted for price inflation, the poorest tenth are on average 24 per cent better off than they would have been, and the top tenth slightly worse off. Against an alternative comparator of the 1997 system indexed by earnings growth but without reform, the structural changes of the last seven years are more clearly redistributive: the bottom tenth is 11 per cent better off than it would have been with this alternative, but the top four tenths are worse off.”)

Elphicke’s judgement is that “the impact of the Government’s policies resembles those of the Sheriff of Nottingham, not Robin Hood”. The rhetoric is as risible as the analysis. Indeed, it seems that the sole purpose of the analysis is to provide an excuse for the rhetoric.

Saturday, September 02, 2006


I have a letter in the Times today, about the leadership comments Tony Blair made in yesterday’s interview.

Elsewhere, Martin Kettle has some thoughts on Labour’s predicament, arguing as I do that the succession’s timing matters less than the party’s overall direction. He suggests that “the forthcoming period of weak, terminal leadership under Blair actually offers a much better space for this necessary kind of Labour renewal than the period of strong new leadership under Brown”.

Well, maybe. There’s certainly nothing to lose (apart from some headlines about splits and rivalries) in discussing the future agenda rather than when we can get rid of Blair. One concern I have with this is that for a party renewal to really feel like a renewal, it would be better for it not to be associated with him. I’m not sure he grasps how severely public opinion has turned against him, meaning that there’s a risk of his unpopularity polluting any new political agenda he might try to steer.

Perhaps the answer would be just to start ignoring him. The party can have an unofficial debate about its direction – to a degree it already is – but without bothering either to involve him or to try forcing him out post-haste. Starve him of the oxygen of publicity and all that – I’m sure there are still some useful things he can quietly do in his last months of government. (Some want him out before next May’s Scottish and Welsh elections for fear of a bloodbath, but I think a mid-third-term government is going to get a pasting no matter who’s in charge, and it might be better to be able to scapegoat Blair for the losses.)

This is probably unrealistic; the personality issue is just too captivating for many of us to leave alone for long. And Blair’s current approach – saying vague things about leaving “ample time” for his successor and that he won’t “go on and on”, while ‘friends’ tell reporters off the record that he means to go next summer – won’t quell the speculation. This tactic relies for its success on the assumption that Blair and his anonymous briefers are well trusted. You reckon?

Friday, September 01, 2006


Brett at Harry’s Place lays into the new regulatory guidelines allowing homeopathic products to claim efficacy at treating specific conditions. I hoped for a moment that this news might – like the ‘remedies’ – have nothing to it, but it seems to be true.

Some people liken homeopathy to snake oil, but snake oil does at least contain real snake.

The BBC’s report has a comments box soliciting opinions: “Do you think homeopathy works? Have you tried it? What are your experiences?”

These questions are of course biased in favour of the ‘personal experiences’ that all placebo cults trade on. Why not ask: “Have you conducted peer-reviewed double-blind clinical trials proving the efficacy of homeopathy?”

I tried to submit this comment… but it didn’t work.

Maybe I should have watered down my criticism.