Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Labour ponders shooting itself in the other foot

I’ve said it before, but reality unaccountably failed to bend to my will, so as it’s in the news again I’ll say it again.

Labour’s electoral college for choosing its leader means there can be a split result (party members voting one way but union members and/or MPs voting more strongly the other way), and a new leader can come to office facing jeers of ‘you’re the choice of the unions, your own party members didn’t want you’. This is what happened to Ed Miliband and it’s embarrassing.

Now there are moves afoot to give the wider public a say in leadership elections, by allowing them to register as supporters for free:

How registered supporters could be involved in leadership elections will not be detailed tomorrow, but [Peter] Hain said they could be given their own section in the electoral college of MPs, individual members and affiliates.

Please, no. The party should scrap the electoral college and have everyone’s vote going into the same pot. Otherwise the risk of embarrassment will grow.

Making a big show of reaching out to members of the public who are not normally into party politics is fine. But if they’re going to be given a say in party elections, it will risk looking terrible if they can then be outvoted.

Don’t put the party in a position where a future leader can come to office facing the even more embarrassing jeers of ‘you’re the choice of the party machine, the public didn’t want you’.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Libyan aftermath: not in his name

What follows is rather jumping the gun – and a lot more firepower besides – but it struck me as potentially significant, so here you go:

I do believe that David Cameron wants Libya to become safe, peaceful, stable, free and democratic, and he’s made a difficult decision sincerely in support of that. But I’m less sure about his deeper political position.

Before all this, his occasional speeches on foreign affairs had been notable for their implicit sneers at (a caricature of) Blair and Bush: “I am not a naive neocon who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet”.

His push for military action therefore struck many as a change of heart. But the same scepticism of foreign entanglements is still there. I was struck by one thing he said in the debate yesterday:

This is different from Iraq. This is not going into a country and knocking over its Government, and then owning and being responsible for everything that happens subsequently.

I find this unsavoury: it sounds as though the key point is not whether Libya goes to hell after the bombing is done but whether we (or, in practice, he) can avoid blame if it does.

Probably the greatest failing of the Iraq war was the negligent planning for post-Saddam. The result was bloody. One lesson you could take from that is that we should stay out of the Middle East; another lesson is that if we do go to war, we need to be very aware of the social, religious, ethnic and institutional background and think much more thoroughly about what follows any military action.

A third possible lesson, which might appeal to a consummate politician, is that when it’s hard to predict what will happen beyond the short term, you should take care to establish that people won’t say it’s your fault.

I hope we don’t get to find out who would be blamed for disaster.

Necessity is the mother of invention

Resolution 1973 allows the use of “all necessary measures… excluding a foreign occupation force” to “protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” and to “enforce compliance with the ban on flights”.

So, as David Cameron says, “the action has the full and unambiguous legal authority of the United Nations”.

The thing is (and never mind exactly how one defines “occupation” and “civilians”): who decides which measures do and don’t count as “necessary”? In practice, the governments taking those measures get to make those calls. One couldn’t rule on every possible path through the fog of war in advance, and there’ll be no UN tribunal at the end of it to assess every bomb dropped. So, in reality, “unambiguous legal authority” blurs into what the governments think they can make plausible. Bombing tanks outside Benghazi? Taking out air force bases? Destroying a government compound in Tripoli? Killing Gaddafi?

What is Cameron’s rationale in establishing what’s necessary? This:

Targets must be fully consistent with the UN Security Council resolution. We therefore choose our targets to stop attacks on civilians and to implement the no-fly zone, but we should not give a running commentary on targeting and I do not propose to say any more on the subject than that.

(And just look at this poor wretch of a Foreign Office minister getting Paxmanned [from about 27’00].)

There’s something of a Humpty Dumpty-ish “it means just what I choose it to mean” quality to this. While bombings and raids are ongoing, Cameron will often refuse to elaborate, implicitly demanding our trust. More broadly, he’ll come up with whatever justifications are needed to maintain a sense of legitimacy about this campaign. Every war leader does this.

International law is a morass of grey areas. In the end, the only authority that will matter to him is moral authority, as defined partly by him and partly by public opinion.

But I hope it works. I hope the cost in lives is minimal. I hope Gaddafi is deposed quickly; given the coverage of the amateurish-looking rebels, it appears that the likeliest way for that to happen is for the army leadership to turn against him. And I hope the successor regime is benevolent.

If I have to be on one side of the fence, then I’ll come down in favour: with no military intervention, Gaddafi would have finished crushing the rebellion and then redoubled his repression. As it is, some other series of events will happen. In the short term, things will be better (or less bad); in the long term, nobody knows. But I hope people smarter than me are thinking hard about it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The weight of a vote and the strength of a preference

“And for dessert, sir?” the waiter asked. I ummed and ah-ed and then said: “The chocolate cake, please.” “An excellent choice.”

Two minutes later he returned to tell me they’d run out. I looked at the menu a little longer, and picked the sticky toffee pudding. “Certainly, sir, another fine dish.” And he was right: in fact, their selection was generally pretty good all round.

Shortly, he came back, a little sheepish, to tell me the toffee had come unstuck. I pondered again. “Then I’ll take the crème brulée.”

Alas, it turned out that the blowtorch had blown a fuse. After he’d finished grovelling, I looked at what they did have left – hot fudge sundae or nettle tart – and found my decision very easy. So hot fudge sundae I had, and while it was no better than passable, I was deeply glad to have avoided the nettle.

Now, where was I? Oh yes: Danny Finkelstein [£] makes a number of sound points about the AV referendum campaign, including a sensible response to one common canard about AV (which he opposes):

I don't agree with the "no" campaigners that I am voting more than once. Everyone gets the same right to express their other preferences.

Quite right. But then he goes and spoils it all by saying:

But there is a serious - in my view, fatal - objection… The system gives my fourth preference the same weight as someone else's first preference. And it shouldn't.

Two things:

First of all, it’s a mistake to think that what matters most to a voter is the pick of their favourite. What about someone who thinks Labour is marginally better than the Greens, the Greens marginally better than the Lib Dems, the Lib Dems marginally better than the Tories and the Tories vastly better than the BNP? Here, the real passion, the strongest choice, only appears at the fourth preference. Just as I found in my badly stocked restaurant.

Under AV, picking a first preference is answering the question ‘Who do you like the most?’ Picking a second preference is answering the question ‘With your first choice unavailable, who do you like the most?’ And so on. I don’t see why the later questions should be less important and people’s answers accordingly less significant.

Secondly, under first-past-the-post, we already have people picking their second, third and lower preferences – it’s called tactical voting. Plenty of people have done it at one point or another. Under this system, you look at all the candidates, mentally rank them in order of preference, then pick the highest-ranked one who you think has a real chance of winning and write an ‘X’ next to their name.

And your second- or third- or fourth-preference vote will carry as much weight as my first-preference vote. So the putative unfairness Danny attributes to AV also exists under FPTP, albeit in a less obvious form. But I don’t think it’s unfair.

Unless we require voters to award each candidate marks out of 100 (and do it honestly, which of course is unenforceable), there is no way for a ballot paper to distinguish enthusiastic, overwhelming endorsement from grudging, borderline, best-of-a-bad-bunch acceptance.

Monday, March 14, 2011

I’ve got a little list

Nick Clegg, September 2010:

Clegg feels he is "constantly being urged by commentators, by party activists" to "express identity by tearing strips off the Tories" and by brandishing "trophies of achievement to show the Liberal Democrats have secured this or that concession".
One of the big points he wants to make to his party is that "this temptation" ought to be resisted. "The moment we get drawn into that sort of dynamic, two things will happen. Firstly, it will actually make us seem more irrelevant than we are because it will perpetuate the idea that the point of being in the coalition for the Liberal Democrats is to have a little shopping list of achievements, the assumption being the rest of it is Conservative policy. The truth is much more radical than that. All the big judgments are genuinely jointly taken by David Cameron and myself. That's why I didn't want to have a department, that's why I'm a hop and a skip from his office."

Nick Clegg, March 2011:

Would a Government without Liberal Democrats have ended child detention? Got an extra ten billion out of the banks? Would it have held a referendum on the voting system? Or put up capital gains tax? Ordered an inquiry into torture? Brought in a pupil premium? Or replaced Control Orders? Would a Government without Liberal Democrats have cut taxes for the poorest?
I don’t think so.

I can’t see the Tories being happy with this.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Stroppy editing

I reckon that what my psyche really needs is a bit more fragmentation. So I’ve started another blog, focusing on things I’ve come across in my work as a copyeditor/proofreader/general editorial dogsbody. All anonymised, to spare the blushes (and the sacking).

I like my work in theory, but in practice it often annoys me. Hence the title: The Stroppy Editor. It’s of niche interest, but it’s my niche, so there.

Political meanderings and intermittent silliness will continue here as usual. But posts like this and this and this will in future appear in the other place.

War and democracy

A propos of Libya, Tony Benn, John Pilger and others write to the Guardian warning against any military action. One thing they say is:

The disaster in Iraq should have taught us that military intervention cannot hasten democracy.

For one thing, this seems an overgeneralisation from one example. West Germany post-1945 springs rather quickly to mind.

But more than that, one may agree that the Iraq war caused a disastrous loss of life and was utterly wrong while still doubting that the country would have made faster progress towards democracy if there had been no war.

War does not in itself bring democracy, but can – in some circumstances – remove obstacles to it.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Vegetables, rodents and the man responsible for a Mickey Mouse government

Matthew d’Ancona says:

One of the great Spitting Image sketches portrayed Margaret Thatcher dining out with the Cabinet. “Steak, please,” she says. “How would you like it?” inquires the waiter. “Raw,” replies the Iron Lady. “And what about the vegetables?” he asks. “Oh,” she says, “they’ll have the same as me.”
One of Mrs Thatcher’s most cunning tactics was to distance herself from the government she led when it was under-performing. Routinely, she would refer to her own administration as “they” – signalling that her deeper loyalty lay with the electorate. Now, in a smoother, less combative fashion, David Cameron is borrowing this very technique.

And, a day later, Cameron pops up on the One Show. When asked about the “bit of a rodent problem at Number 10”, he joked:

Don’t talk about the Cabinet like that!

A couple of months back there was much chatter in and around Labour circles about whether using the phrase “Tory-led government” would make criticisms stick better than “coalition”. I joined in myself. On reflection, this was inane.

The government’s (and the Conservative party’s) strongest political asset, and the name that Labour needs to tar with all government failures, is David Cameron. Never mind Clegg: there are more votes and more seats that need to be won from the Tories and that will require knocking down their figurehead. He can’t be allowed to float above the day-to-day grind of governing, a hands-off national leader rather than a politician. Because whether he delegates or micromanages, he’s still in charge and he’s still responsible.

Monday, March 07, 2011

A long time ago in an office far, far away...

I’ve staged a few more Lego Death Star office scenes. By making it a satire on working life, I’ve convinced myself that playing with toys is a legitimate pastime for a 34-year-old. Result!

I’m going to try to do one of these every Monday. I imagine they’ll be hit and miss, which is at least better than a stormtrooper’s shooting.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

C what he means

Damian (who, incidentally, made a point worth taking seriously about my AV explanation) has just tweeted this:

It’s not what you think it is.

(In that post, he asks: “Is the World ever going to grow the fuck up about sex?” I believe I’ve proved that the answer is no.)

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

No flies on Gaddafi

One of the most troubling things about the situation in Libya is the proposal to make the country a ‘no-fly zone’. The sheer amount of pesticide required would surely bankrupt NATO, as well as causing severe harm to the environment and public health.