Sunday, November 21, 2010

Promissory notes

Vince Cable’s brain may be starting to melt under the pressure:

Business Secretary Vince Cable has denied breaking promises on university tuition fees, insisting the Liberal Democrats' pre-election pledge to oppose any rise was not binding. …
Dr Cable said the Lib Dems "haven't betrayed anybody" and that the coalition agreement struck with the Tories was their only binding commitment.
"We didn't break a promise. We made a commitment in our manifesto, we didn't win the election. We then entered into a coalition agreement, and it's the coalition agreement that is binding upon us and which I'm trying to honour," he said.

First, the pledge that the Lib Dems proudly signed didn’t require them to “win the election”. It was: “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.” Cable could have honoured this promise had he been the only Lib Dem MP in a parliament where the Tories had a majority of 200.

Second, the coalition agreement is no more “binding” than their manifesto. Neither is legally enforceable; both are political statements. What happens if either is broken? The Tories/voters respectively would/will have to decide, ad hoc, how they want to react. That’s all.

Third, given this, the statement that the coalition deal is more important than anything they had previously said to the public to win votes is not going to foster much trust in their reliability in the future.

Fourth, the coalition agreement doesn’t commit them to support raising fees. It says: “We will await Lord Browne’s final report into higher education funding, and will judge its proposals” based on several criteria, including “the impact on student debt”. Either they abandoned their anti-fees promise well after the coalition deal, or they contracted out this “judging its proposals” to the Tory part of the government, or they were just lying so they could back out of a promise they’d never really meant.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My dependency culture

My name is Tom and I live a life of economic dependency.

I depend for my livelihood on all the strokes of luck – most obviously my parents’ dedication, a hefty amount of genetics and a good, free education – that gave me the qualities I have. More immediately, I depend on an economic system that values these qualities, so that there have (mostly) been job vacancies in the right place at the right time, with a level of pay that covers my needs and even my tastes.

On top of that, I’m willing to work to earn this pay; for this, I’ll take some personal credit (although plenty of people worse off than me have stronger work ethics). But apart from that, I’m responsible for none of the circumstances that allow me to convert my willingness into comfort.

My job, while mostly tedious and often frustrating, rarely places too much strain on me – and is occasionally rewarding. Now and then, if I do something particularly well, I might feel proud of what I’ve achieved. But a moment’s reflection tells me that the more pertinent feeling is gladness at a situation where I have the ability to achieve such things and the opportunity to use that ability (and to sell it for a decent price).

I’ll never be rich, but I’m still dazzlingly lucky. What separates me from all the people who’d like to work but can’t, or want decent work but can only find back-breaking, soul-destroying, minimum-wage drudgery, is sheer chance. They may be dependent on benefits to keep the wolf from the door; I’m dependent on the coincidence of supply and demand that happens to define my labour as valuable. The labour market may more or (often) less efficiently rate our merit as employees, but it isn’t a fair judge of our virtues as people.

Moral crusaders against ‘dependency’ need to remember this.

(This train of thought, if you can call it that, was set off by two good posts from Peter Ryley and Paul Sagar.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Missing voters: one cheer for Clegg

This is absolutely right:

Up to 3.5 million potential voters are to be targeted by the government as it seeks to ensure that the "missing millions" who fail to register are given a voice in elections, Nick Clegg will announce today. …
Clegg will say: "It is not good enough to simply ignore the millions who aren't registered, especially when you look more closely at where the problem is worst: among the young; among black and ethnic minority communities; in areas with high social deprivation."

Good. I hope it works.

My quibble is how this fits with the timing of the government’s boundary review, which seeks to cut 50 MPs and equalise constituency sizes. The review will take place before any voter registration push, and so the new constituency sizes will disregard these millions of people. The result will be to more deeply entrench an electoral system that under-represents “areas with high social deprivation”.

But it’s nice that Clegg now admits this.

Presenting an image

In order to understand a political U-turn, you need to get answers to both of these questions:

  • Why have you taken the new position?
  • Why did you take the old position?

For instance, Nick Clegg on tuition fees has been trying to focus on the first question, allowing him to plead the necessity of tough decisions, while avoiding the second: the issue of whether his pre-election promises were idiotic or dishonest.

In the case of David Cameron’s very recent decision to put his personal photographer and film-maker on the public payroll, and his decision today to take them off it again, the only explanation we have so far is:

A source has told the BBC that Mr Cameron now accepts it "sent the wrong message" to employ them at a time of public sector job cuts.

From this we can see that the answer to both my questions above is: ‘To make me look good.’

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Useless polls on the tuition fees protests

This week has offered an excellent case study in what effect public protests – including small but prominent violence – have on public opinion. The Sunday Times YouGov polls this weekend and last asked about the government plans for tuition fees.

Unfortunately, the two polls used very differently worded questions, so the results are not comparable. A pity.

For what it’s worth, last weekend’s poll found 11% in favour of universities setting whatever fees they wanted, 26% in favour of the government policy of a £9,000 fee cap, and 50% in favour of a lower cap or no fees at all. It also found 51% in favour of and 32% against the government policy on repayments of student loans (raising the earnings threshold to £21,000 and having higher earners pay more interest).

This weekend’s poll, using very different wording to set the background, had a single question that covered both the increase in the fees cap and the raising of the repayment threshold; 35% supported this, 52% opposed it.

There’s not really anything we can conclude from that.

The new poll did ask about the protest, though:

Earlier this week there was a violent demonstration against the proposed rise in tuition fees, which included protesters invading and damaging the building containing the Conservative party's headquarters. How much sympathy do you have with the demonstration?
I sympathise both with the demonstration and the direct action against the Conservative party headquarters – 13% (inc. 20% of 18-24-year-olds)
I sympathise with the demonstration, but not the damage caused to the Conservative party headquarters – 52% (inc. 47% of 18-24s)
I do not sympathise with the demonstration, nor the damage caused – 32% (inc. 23% of 18-24s)

Do you think this week's demonstration against tuition fees and the violent scenes at Conservative party headquarters helped or damaged the protesters' cause?
Helped their cause – 11% (inc. 18% of 18-24s)
Damaged their cause – 69% (inc. 58% of 18-24s)

Neither of these, though, comes close to being a measure of how the protests actually changed public opinion – if at all.

And there was a standard question about whether you think the government “will be good or bad for people like you”. Before the protests, 29% of people said good and 48% said bad; after, 28% said good and 48% said bad. Basically, no change. But among 18-24-year-olds, last weekend 24% said good and 46% said bad, while this weekend 27% said good and 40% said bad. This suggests a swing towards the government among those likeliest to empathise with the protests, but breaking the poll down into age groups means you have much less reliable sample sizes (about 130 in each poll).

I don’t think this tells us anything. A wasted opportunity.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

“An important diagnostic tool”

Sometimes the stuff I have to edit for work is borderline incoherent, sometimes it’s full of painfully misjudged jargon and sometimes it barely even exists. This sort of thing can exasperate and entertain me in equal measure.

But the latest gem is none of these; it’s a simple yet massive failure of perspective:

In medicine, identifying changes in handwriting may provide an important diagnostic tool to monitor neurological disorders and motor function.
In the case of Lord Nelson, British Naval Officer, his handwriting changed dramatically after the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife (1797), when he lost his right arm.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Something new every day

Guy Keleny’s superb Errors and Omissions column in the Independent has delighted me today, by giving me a piece of knowledge that makes sense of a little bit of the English language – and that immediately makes me wonder why I hadn’t already realised it.

Living things are categorised by kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species (‘keep playing church organs, for god’s sake’). Scientists normally use the last two of these to identify organisms: Homo sapiens, Panthera leo, Tyrannosaurus rex, Staphylococcus aureus and so on. The genus identifies the wider group and then the species narrows it down.

What Keleny reveals (in the process of making an entirely different point) is that the adjective for species is specific and that for genus is generic.

Obvious, really.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Government uneasy about allowing prisoners to vote

A Conservative minister said:

Look, we’ve got these people locked up for the very good reason that they can’t be trusted to be responsible on their own. Fortunately, their collapsed poll ratings make it impossible for them to leave the coalition until they’ve served the full five-year sentence – so frankly, it’s the safest place for them.
Yes, we want to reform them into decent, law-abiding right-wingers, and we’re making good progress. But allowing them to have a say over the government’s policy direction before they’re properly rehabilitated would just mean they’d revert to their bad old ways.

Entente cordiale for now, but we may fall out later…

Congratulations to David Cameron for his negotiating skills. I can’t help but feel we’ve got the better end of this deal:

The UK and France have signed treaties agreeing to military co-operation including testing of nuclear warheads. One centre will be set up in the UK to develop nuclear testing technology and another in France to carry it out.