31 December 2011

Alcohol Minimum Pricing is OK, but can't we do better?

Alcohol is an addictive drug, with 1.5 million dependent users in the UK. There is nothing liberal about drug addiction. A life enslaved to a chemical is not a life with liberty.

Drinking is also a primary means of recreation and a national pastime. It is illiberal to restrict the recreational behaviour of adults when it is only themselves that may come to any harm.

Inevitably, when the issue of alcohol minimum pricing is raised, liberal opinion is split. Ewan Hoyle has made the case in favour, while Mark Thompson has made a harm reduction-based arguments against. As much as it matters, I support open-minded trials of alcohol minimum pricing to discover whether the benefits of such a policy would outweigh the negatives.

However, there seem to me to be flaws with alcohol minimum pricing within what its proponents wants to achieve. A price floor means that the alcohol supply chain gets to take all of the additional revenue that will be made from alcohol sales. This money may well end up being spend on more aggressive advertising campaigns by producers - something of an own-goal when the aim is to reduce alcohol consumption.

It would be far better if the government simply* raised alcohol duty. That way, a price floor would be created through tax, but the revenue would be taken by the government to fund rehabilitation services and education on the dangers of alcohol.

Clearly it is politically difficult to raise alcohol duty by such a large amount, so I would also make alcohol exempt from VAT at the same time. VAT is favoured by economists because of the way it encourages efficiency in the supply chain, but when it comes to addictive drugs, efficiency of supply should be of least concern. As a nice bonus, a switch from VAT to duty would also help put pubs and supermarkets on a level playing field. It is common knowledge that alcohol is cheaper in supermarkets than at the pub. Supermarkets are the epitome of an efficient supply, while pubs provide the added value of a social space in which alcohol can be consumed. With VAT, pubs pay more tax than supermarkets on alcohol that is equally as addictive.

* I say "simply", but the system of alcohol duty is far from it. The IFS has produced the chart below which shows the ridiculously complicated effective rates of alcohol duty currently imposed. All forms of alcohol should be treated like spirits, with taxes levied at a consistent rate relative to its ABV strength. This chart should be subtitled, "when lobbyists take control of the tax system".

25 October 2011

Lib Dems Must Resist Any Further Restrictions Around 'Legal Highs'

The ACMD has today called for further punitive laws to be enacted to tackle the growing number of new psychoactive substances being marketed an consumed in the UK. It wants analogues of already illegal drugs to be banned in the assumption that they will have similar effects.

The coalition agreement does state that the Lib Dems will enable legislation that "will introduce a system of temporary bans on new ‘legal highs’ while health issues are considered by independent experts."

We have already done that. This exact legislation was part of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act which passed earlier this year.

Liberal Democrat policy was recently brought up-to-date at this year's conference with the passing of a motion on protecting the community from drug harms. The party's stance is now crystal clear. Any further drug policy legislation that can be voted for by Lib Dem MPs must involve:

• an independent panel to assess our current drug laws,
• a switch to the 'decriminalisation' approach which has shown beneficial outcomes in Portugal,
• or a legal framework to enable a strictly controlled supply of cannabis.

Now we must be practical. We should not outright ignore the work of the ACMD - that was the attitude taken during the dying years of the Labour government. However, if the Conservatives wish to progress with any further drug restrictions with us in government, they must also be open to considering some of our party's drug policies too.

3 October 2011

50p Rate Blah Blah Blah

Maybe the 50p rate of income tax paid by the highest earners on incomes over £150,000 is bringing in a few hundred million a year. Maybe it isn't. Either way it won't be raking in billions.

What the debate about the 50p rate is all about generating headlines without really changing much. The government fiddles about with a few hundred million to grab headlines all the time. The government will spend £680bn this year. Throwing a fraction of one per cent of its tax raising and spending power changes nothing fundamental about the impact government has. The Coalition's commitment to raising the personal allowance to £10,000 (as promised by the Lib Dems) is a much bigger shift that will cost the Treasury £17bn once it has been realised (and benefits lower earners the most). Now that's what I call income tax reform.

There is nothing wrong with rewarding success - cutting the 50p rate to 40p would do this a very little bit. There is also nothing wrong with wanting to see the richest pay more of their fair share - keeping the 50p rate would do this a very little bit.

But given the trivial size of the change, it's frustrating is seeing progressives get drawn into this debate.

Yes, income tax is progressive and is directly linked to the ability to pay. Yes, the marginal rates look stupid when plotted on a graph and a few tweaks would make it technically fairer:

However, any changes to income tax of this nature would only affect a tiny amount of the money earned by the richest 5% shown in this graph:

Getting into a heated debate about the top end of income tax is like arguing over the position of a few grains of sand in a sandcastle, when what the argument should be about is what overall shape the sandcastle should actually be.

As an example, take property. The richest 5% of property owners have a hugely disproportional amount of wealth compared to the rest of us.

Fiddling with income tax will do nothing to redress this inequality. If anything it will distract attention from the fact that such a huge wealth disparity exists.

It is measures like Vince Cable's mansion tax that would really get the ball rolling on redistributive taxation.

(Hat-tips: Adam Corlett for the marginal income tax rate graph and ALTER for the income and property distribution charts from this PDF.)

6 September 2011

Who's Getting Their Way On Spending Cuts?

Before the general election, all the main parties agreed that the deficit needed to be tackled over the next 5 years. The country couldn't go on spending £1 in every 4 raised just on debt interest.

The IFS scrutinised the deficit reduction plans of the three main parties in the run up to polling day. They calculated that the Conservatives were pledging £96bn of spending cuts by 2015, while the Lib Dems would cut £80bn.

We now know that these two parties would form a Coalition government. In October they announced their Comprehensive Spending Review. Its figures show that the Coalition will cut £81bn from government spending by 2015.

I know my readers are intelligent souls, so I'll leave you to work out whether £81bn is closer to the Lib Dem £80bn or the Tory £96bn.

Let's not forget Labour in this. The IFS calculated they would make £82bn of spending cuts, only the slightest bit different from the Coalition's £81bn. Labour now oppose every single cut the Coalition is making.

1 September 2011

Another Anti-Immigration Myth Blown Out Of The Water

This was the Daily Express's frontpage on November 2nd 2007.

This myth has been circulated in our mainstream media for the last four years. There are more examples here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Oh and here:

It is total nonsense. The 'maths' to make this myth work is basically equivalent to saying 2 - 2 = 4.

Thankfully, Left Foot Forward has today brilliantly destroyed this argument by doing the same calculation with disabled people.They took 219% of all new jobs last year!

27 August 2011

The Net Migration Trap

Fraser Nelson's analysis of the latest net migration statistics is generally sound:

He correctly identifies that "the inflow to Britain has stayed steady, but the number emigrating from Britain has fallen" (which many other journalists got wrong).

He also states that "Cameron has a snowballs's chance in hell of meeting his target" of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands. That's true too. The immigration reforms brought in by the Coalition will already be deeply damaging on both an economic and humanitarian level. But they don't go far enough to cut net migration to such a low level. ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie has spotted why: "At every turn the Lib Dems have frustrated Damian Green and Theresa May's efforts". I'm appalled by what has been done to the already horrid immigration system left by Labour, but I dread to think how awful it would get if the Tories weren't reined back by the Lib Dems.

However, some of Fraser Nelson's analysis raises more questions than it answers. He decides that "Cameron should only ever have pledged to stem the inflow". This is problematic though, in two ways.

First, it changes your motives for wanting reforms to the system. If you are worried about immigration because of the pressure it puts on public services, infrastructure, the number of jobs available to British workers, these are better dealt with by looking at net migration, as this tracks the change in population size. If you only want to cut immigration, it changes your agenda to the more cultural arguments against immigration. It would be hard to defend such a policy without sounding like Enoch Powell.

Second, the government can only control non-EU immigration. EU immigration, after a lull during the recession, is back to its mid-2000s strength. It could even be that reducing non-EU immigration causes EU immigration. Oops!

Fraser Nelson also uses this odd argument - "Governments of free countries can't stop people emigrating". Why is it a right for people to migrate in one direction but not the other? (Of course what's really happening is that the government is responding to voters' selfish demand that they can move freely whilst insisting other people can't. That's nothing to do with freedom.)

So it would appear the government is trapped by its own net migration target. They even had a golden opportunity to make life much easier for themselves when the Home Affairs Select Committee suggested removing foreign students from the immigration statistics (they are much more like visitors than migrants). The government rejected the offer. Talk about own goals! Fraser Nelson says that Cameron "deserves the flak he'll get". Quite.

But we are where we are. Labour's already tight immigration policy will be further tightened by this government. The reality is that migration is a natural part of an increasingly interconnected world. Our border controls are futile against this overwhelming force. There's evidence that the wasted human potential created by immigration controls is stopping a boost to global GDP of between 67% and 147%. That's $39 trillion at the bottom end. The global economy could really do with that boost right now.

10 August 2011

Why Don't CAMRA Practice What They Preach?

CAMRA have a long history of saying they promote responsible, healthy drinking. Their latest press release is no exception:

At the Great British Beer Festival today, CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, has welcomed the Government's decision to introduce a 50% excise duty reduction on beers at or below 2.8% ABV from October 2011 in a move that will allow consumers to enjoy a lower priced and lower strength pint in their local.

CAMRA predicts the introduction of low strength beers - dubbed the 'People's Pints' - in pubs could be a huge boost to the licensed trade in light of new consumer research - out today - showing how 1 in 2 regular pub goers would like to see more pubs selling a low strength beer option.

Building on the success of a campaign which CAMRA has been leading since 2009, further new research has shown how pub goers would like to see more pubs selling low strength beers due to factors such as the ability to help regulate drinking levels, their more refreshing taste, their low calorie content, and their lower cost.

Last weekend saw the CAMRA-run Great British Beer Festival, which showcases 300 of the UK's finest real ales. Therefore you would expect CAMRA would be keen to showcase these "People's Pints" at its grandest event.

I'm a real ale drinker myself, and while I've been to the Great British Beer Festival in several times in the past, I didn't make it this year, so I don't have a guide in front of me. Handily though, their website provides a complete list of all the beers available. I went through it, and discovered that not a single beer available at the Great British Beer Festival was below 2.8% ABV.

The lowest ABV beer available was Bateman's Dark Mild, 3% ABV (FYI, it's a Cyclops-style dark mild, black in colour with a roasted smell and taste). Once you get up to 3.4% ABV there was a good selection available.

I can't find the June 2011 CAMRA Omnibus Survey where the statistic comes from, but let's trust that it's true that 1 in 2 regular pub goers say they want these less alcoholic beers. However what people say they'll do and what people actually do are not the same thing. I strongly suspect that breweries know that only beers above 3% ABV will find a market.

One possibility is that 3% ABV is the flavour cut-off point. Anything below this tastes bland, and there is a minimum level of alcohol content required as a base to bring out those delicious, complex flavours. However, CAMRA's own press release contradicts this:

On the eve of the Great British Beer Festival CAMRA conducted a taste test to find out whether beer experts could differentiate between a low and mid strength real ale. In a tasting consisting of real ales from 2% to 3.5% ABV, even a panel of experienced drinkers did not manage to correctly differentiate the products.

Who am I to argue with the panel of experienced drinkers?

This therefore suggests a different rationale - real ale drinkers don't just drink for the flavour, they drink to get drunk. To be clear, I'm no puritan - indeed this explanation would correlate with my own experience of real ale drinking.

There's plenty of evidence to suggest that this is what's going on too. Looking at the other end of the ABV spectrum available at the Great British Beer Festival, we find:

Black Sheep Riggwelter (5.9% ABV)
Raw Grey Ghost IPA (5.9% ABV)
Titanic Nine Tenths Below (5.9% ABV)
Thornbridge's Jaipur IPA (5.9% ABV) and Raven (6.6% ABV)
Acorn Gorlovka (6% ABV)
Flowerpots IPA (6% ABV)
Peerless Full Whack (6% ABV)
Spectrum Old Stoatwobbler (6% ABV)
Twickenham's Daisy Cutter (6.1% ABV)
Greene King's Abbot Reserve (6.5% ABV), Old Crafty Hen (6.5% ABV) and Very Special IPA (7.5% ABV)
Elland 1872 Porter (6.5% ABV)
Brains' Strong Ale (6.5% ABV, "exclusively available at the GBBF")
Arbor's Yakima Valley American IPA (7% ABV)
Inveralmond Blackfriar (7% ABV)
All Gates Mad Monk (7.1% ABV)
Brodies' Superior London Porter (7.1% ABV)
Yates' Yule Be Sorry (7.6% ABV)

All are more than double the 2.8% ABV CAMRA say they promote. And those are just the casks. For that extra-special headache, there's always a bottle of O'Hanlon's Brewer's Special Reserve 2010 (12.9% ABV).

Finally, here's a photo from that you'll see on all the pages their website:

'Nuff said.

CAMRA need to drop the pretence. They should acknowledge that their members like getting drunk.

This Is The Youth Of Today

9 August 2011

Yesterday on Twitter... #londonriots

I went through three stages of emotion looking at my Twitter feed yesterday - confusion, amusement, and then downright despair. I find it hard to comprehend what's been going on in London, what motivates these rioters, what the cause is. Twitter answered none of these questions. What it did expose was how nasty and callous some political activists can be.

I must first address the jokes. Most were tasteless, some were stupid, few were funny, and all were unnecessary. I can understand why people make jokes in an incomprehensible situation. It's a way of coping. But looking back over them, I can't help feel that those who wrote them probably ought to question their appropriateness. I'm one of them. I tried to make light of the heaviest of situations. I shouldn't have.

However what really angered me, and what provoked me into hitting the 'new post' button right now, is seeing the political agendas being tagged onto these horrid events. I saw my allies do it as well as my opponents.

Left wingers stated that this proved that the government's cuts were having devastating repercussions.

Right wingers stated that this proved that multiculturalism has failed, and that the youth of today had no morality.

Liberals stated how this proved that allowing the government to tread on our civil liberties causes serious repercussions.

Fascists stated how this proved that immigration had ruined our way of life and must be stopped.

Anarchists stated how this proved that if the government is allowed to steal property, it will mean citizens stealing each other's property too.

I saw all of these exclamations yesterday. If I was being kind, I'd file these opinions as "guesswork at best". As they tumbled onto my screen, I tried to make sense of them. But it was like trying to find meaning in randomly generated numbers. As they continued pouring in, it actually became funny. I began chuckling at the desperation some people clearly must feel to constantly justify their political persuasion. But they didn't stop. As London went up in flames, along with countless livelihoods, there were still people determined to manipulate the situation to preach their political gospel.

Why are these people interested in politics? I thought the whole point of it was to secure positive outcomes for people's lives. When the worst hits, and all you're thinking of is the propaganda, why are you doing it?

There are so few facts about what is going on and the events that led up to it that we can't draw any conclusions. I don't pretend to have no gut instincts myself, but no-one needs to know about the contents of my gut. The only thing I know for certain is that anyone drawing proof of any underlying political argument from this is telling you more about themselves than they are about society.

And yes, it may be that one or two of the answers that are out there may turn out to be accurate. I can guarantee that whoever wrote them will let you know about the accuracy of their insight. But that random number generator will also occasionally give the correct solution to a problem too.

5 August 2011

Full Text of the Lib Dem Conference Drug Decriminalisation Motion

Protecting individuals and communities from drug harms

Conference notes:

1) That drugs are powerful substances which can have serious consequences for the individual user and society in general; and that it is therefore right and proper that the state should intervene to regulate and control the use of such substances as it does the consumption of legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco and both prescription and over the counter medicines.

2) That the misuse of drugs can blight the lives of individuals and families and the purchase of illegal drugs can help to fuel organised crime.

3) The need for evidence-based policy making on drugs with a clear focus on prevention and harm-reduction.

4) There is increasing evidence that the UK’s drugs policy is not only ineffective and not cost effective but actually harmful, impacting particularly severely on the poor and marginalised.

Conference further notes:

A. The positive evidence from new approaches elsewhere including Portuguese reforms that have been successful in reducing problematic drug use through decriminalising possession for personal use of all drugs and investing in treatment programmes.

B. That those countries and states that have decriminalised possession of some or all drugs have not seen increased use of those drugs relative to their neighbours.

C. That heroin maintenance clinics in Switzerland and The Netherlands have delivered great health benefits for addicts while delivering considerable reductions in drug-related crime and prevalence of heroin use.

D. The contribution of the ACMD to the 2010 Drug Strategy consultation which states that“people found to be in possession of drugs (any) for personal use (and involved in no other criminal offences) should not be processed through the criminal justice system but instead be diverted into drug education/awareness courses or possibly other, more creative civil punishment”.

E. The report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy whose members include former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, former heads of state of Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and Switzerland, the current Prime Minister of Greece, a former US Secretary of State and many other eminent world figures, which encouraged governments to consider the legal regulation of drugs in order to, “undermine the power of organised crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens”.

F. That the United Kingdom remains bound by various international conventions and that any re-negotiation or new agreements will require international co-ordination.

Conference believes:

i) That individuals, especially young people, can be damaged both by the imposition of criminal records and by a drug habit, and that the priority for those addicted to all substances must be health care, education and rehabilitation not punishment.

ii) Governments should reject policies if they are demonstrated to be ineffective in achieving their stated goals and should seek to learn from policies which have been successful.

iii) At a time when Home Office and Ministry of Justice spending is facing considerable contraction, thereis a powerful case for examining whether an evidence-based policy would produce savings allowing the quality of service provided by these departments to be maintained or to improve.

iv) That one of the key barriers to developing better drugs policy has been the previous Labour government’s persistent refusal to take on board scientific advice, and the absence of an overall evaluative framework of the UK’s drugs strategy.

v) That the Department of Health should take on a greater responsibility for dealing with drugs.

Conference calls for:

a) The Government to immediately establish an independent panel tasked with carrying out an Impact Assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, to properly evaluate, economically and scientifically, the present legal framework for dealing with drugs in the United Kingdom.

b) The Panel should also consider reform of the law, based on the Portuguese model, such that i) possession of any controlled drug for personal use would not be a criminal offence;

ii) possession would be prohibited but should cause police officers to issue citations for individuals to appear before panels tasked with determining appropriate education, health or social interventions.

c) The panel should also consider as an alternative, potential frameworks for a strictly controlled and regulated cannabis market and the potential impacts of such regulation on organised crime, and the health and safety of the public, especially children.

d) The reinvestment of any resources released into effective education, treatment and rehabilitation programmes.

e) The widespread provision of the highest quality evidence-based medical, psychological and social services for those affected by drugs problems. These services should include widespread availability of heroin maintenance clinics for the most problematic and vulnerable heroin users.

30 July 2011

Dark Days

Well it's hard to be happy
in a world that's so cruel
where the weak just get weaker
where the powerful feud
where the children go hungry
while the soldiers stand by
lay down your weapons
take hold of your lives
and when will we learn
that it's hate that breeds hate
only love is the cure
don't leave it too late
get up, and feel it
the truth that won't wait
if we choose to do nothing
then we take all the blame.

27 July 2011


First, a breakdown of those acronyms:

HS2 = High Speed 2, a proposed high speed rail link that will directly London Euston to Birmingham, then later to Manchester (and Leeds).

WCML = West Coast Main Line, an existing rail link connecting London Euston to Birmingham and Manchester (and than up to Scotland). It also has stations at many other places in between. It's the most important railway line in the UK.

FPTP = First Past The Post, the electoral system used for general elections. The UK is split up into 600 constituencies, and each elects a single MP with the most votes. Most constituencies are safe seats where the same party always wins, but a few are marginal seats where the constituency frequently changes hands. It's the marginal seats which pick who governs, so the views of the swing voters here count more than anywhere else.

There is a big dispute over whether or not HS2 should be built. Opponents point to its £30bn price tag and the damage it will do to the countryside. Proponents emphasise the prospects for

The WCML carries all sorts of trains. As well as some services stopping at the towns on its path, it is used for the current fastest services from the major cities to London. The diagram below shows a typical hour use of the line.

The key thing to note is how many trains full of intercity passengers zoom straight past places like Crewe, Rugby, Northampton, Milton Keynes and Watford. HS2 provides a better alternative for these trains, freeing up capacity for trains to serve large towns. It is in the self-interest of people in these towns to see HS2 built.

The people whose self-interest is not served by HS2 are the people who live in the small towns and rural areas that the line will speed through but not stop anywhere near. However I'm unaware of the proposed HS2 route going anywhere near a marginal seat. The route seems to be entirely through Tory safe seats.

Conversely, the WCML-served Crewe, Rugby, Northampton, Milton Keynes and Watford are all towns containing marginal seats. So in order to gain power, it is in the self-interest of politicians to prioritise the views of residents of these places at the expense of the residents in safe seats.

To the lobbyists campaigning for HS2's construction, I'd be making sure that the residents of the WCML towns are aware of the benefit HS2 will bring them. The politicians will respond accordingly.

15 July 2011

How Tabloid Misinformation Makes Our Country Worse

Our understanding of the world comes from the media. Yet opinion polls that ask about how things are show the public are highly misinformed.

Here is a clear example of this effect:

Asked to estimate the proportion of foreign-born people living in the UK, the average guess is 29.4%. The true figure according to OECD data is 10.8%, lower than Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada and the USA.

How do the public become so misinformed about the scale of immigration?

Here is yesterday's Daily Mail frontpage:

Millions of people will have seen this frontpage headline. However, the numbers are simply untrue. The Office of National Statistics has started to explicitly tell reporters that it is incorrect to use their figures in this way, after countless instances of misreporting by the tabloid press. The Daily Mail deliberately ignored this warning.

This has been going on for many years, and a false perception is created. The government, keen to appease the negative feelings generated by this misinformation, therefore has to respond with promises to reduce net migration to below 100,000.

The consequences of their immigration clampdowns are numerous on both a human and economic level. The latest student visa restrictions will cost the economy around £2.4bn - money we can ill-afford to lose in these uncertain economic times. The family visa restrictions will mean the ability to live with a foreign partner with will depend on income - your wedding vows may have said "for richer or for poorer", but that will now legally not be the case for some.

I could have written a similar article on other issues, for instance law and order. The tabloids lie to us, the public demand action based on misinformation, and the government act on false perceptions rather than the reality.

Never mind the celebrity gossip - this is how the tabloids make our country worse. I welcome the demise of the News of the World, and hope the rest of the gutter press follows suit.

11 July 2011

European Commission Considers Legally Regulated Supply of New Psychoactive Substances

Here's a statement from a press release from the European Commission (emphasis mine):

The Commission is considering various ways to make the EU rules more effective, such as alternative options to criminal sanctions, new ways of monitoring substances that cause concern, and aligning drugs control measures with those for food and product safety. In the autumn, the Commission will present a series of options in this respect.

These words are music to this drug policy reformer's ears. What is being actively considered here is a legal framework for the supply of new recreational drugs that spring up.

The problem of 'legal highs' is growing, with 115 new substances being identified in the EU over the last 5 years. Our hopeless drug laws can't keep up with criminalising more and more chemical compounds at an ever increasing rate. The drugs are typically sold as 'not for human consumption', even though they are produced with human consumption in mind. Clearly the current legislation is farcical.

No one denies that drugs can be dangerous, and each drug brings its own unique set of challenges for the health of the user and the wider effect on society. When talking of 'food safety' regulations, I hope the EC mean tighter rules than those covering, say, tinned tomatoes. The regulations should be modelled on those covering alcohol and tobacco as a bare minimum, to reflect the dangers of a drug.

The EC report also fails to consider what is causing the big increase in new pschoactive substances entering the market. The demand for legal highs is created by the illegality of more 'traditional' recreational drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine. The scientific understanding of traditional drugs is also stronger, at least when compared to a brand new legal high substance. We therefore could have a situation where there is a proper legal framework for supplying less well understood recreational drugs, whilst well-known drugs remain criminalised. It would be more successful if legislation were designed to fit around the best understood recreational drugs.

If the EC successfully produces legal high supply regulations, I would expect that some of the first drugs to make use of the regulations will see a reasonable number of users, which could steal the recreational drug market away from both criminal dealers and the unregulated legal high traders.

It is also interesting to note the language used by the EC in its press release. It promotes a non-criminal justice approach with the familiar rhetoric of populist drug policy: "tougher action", "protect our children", "rules must be strengthened", "make sure young people do not fall into the trap" etc. The communications staff at the EC may well have figured that the "tough" rhetoric will be needed to sell what is actually a pragmatic policy approach which faces up to the reality of a demand for recreational drugs. As long as the legislative outcomes are to be a success, I'm happy for the politicians to sell it to the press and public however they can.

Finally, it must be said that there's a long way to go with this yet. This is a highly emotive topic, and EC has many political hurdles to jump. I can imagine the Daily Mail having kittens over this - EU SECRET PLOT TO PEDAL KILLER DRUGS TO OUR CHILDREN seems an inevitability. Nevertheless, we are seeing pragmatic, non-dogmatic drug policy being actively considered by governments at all levels. Reformers are slowly winning the War on Drugs Policy.

P.S. This autumn's Lib Dem Conference will see a motion debated on the party's drug policy. Please urge your local party's conference representatives to attend the debate and vote for the motion, and if you're a
conference rep, make sure you urge yourself!

14 June 2011

In Praise of U-Turns

Governments have three options:

Option 1: Be a radical, reforming government, and plough on with the reforms you feel are right for the country even in the face of criticism and unpopularity at your ideas.

Option 2: Avoid any reforms that might be controversial to avoid deep unpopularity.

Option 3: Be a radical, reforming government, but be willing to change course to avoid making unpopular and flawed reforms.

Option 1 was clearly favoured by Thatcher, as espoused by her famous quote - "the lady's not for turning". The problem is that such a belligerent attitude is deeply divisive, and while you may win some praise for 'strong leadership', your reforms could create negative consequences that could be avoided if you'd listened to criticism.

Option 2 will no doubt avoid lots of negative press. But what's the point in getting into power, something you've worked for your entire life, only to not do anything with it? You also miss the chance to make changes for the better, simply out of timidity at making a decision.

Option 3 involves changing your mind, and therefore provides an easy opportunity to be attacked as being 'not in control', prone to 'U-Turns', and of 'weak leadership'. However the benefits are numerous - your more popular and less criticised reforms will get through and have a real impact, and the policies that change will end up being better for the country. While you may be painted as 'weak' as you change course, it is clearly stronger than not trying make changes in the first place, and it takes courage to alter your plans in the face of insults thrown from the opposition.

A U-Turning government is a more pragmatic government, a more courageous government, a more democratic government, and if we're to have any faith in democratic process at all, it should prove to be a more successful government.

So here's to listening, engaging, responding, reforming, and yes, U-Turns.

8 June 2011

Creating Opportunities In The Homelands Of Economic Migrants

If ambitious people in underdeveloped countries have no opportunities in their native country, they'll migrate to developed countries. If developed countries want to reduce migration, erecting border controls is not enough. There will still be ambitious people are still driven to improve themselves, and they'll cross borders illegally if that's what it takes.

So developed countries need to work with underdeveloped countries to create the conditions that will remove the need for the ambitious to be economic migrants, and instead gives them a chance of self-improvement in their homeland.

Take a look at this TED talk which describes a model to create cities that could perform this very function:

Free movement without borders is an end in itself for me, but to achieve this as a long term goal, the large numbers who fear large-scale immigration need to have their concerns addressed. Meanwhile, the government will only reduce net migration if it engaging in schemes like this.

6 June 2011

Facing Up To The Challenges Of The New Boundary Regime

It's time to dust the cobwebs off the blog, this time merely to suggest that the Liberal Democrats need to significantly reform the way we operate if we are to survive the upcoming national political climate.


The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 could have introduced two major changes to the way general elections. The voting system was subject to a referendum and subsequently rejected by voters, so only the constituency changes are now to go ahead. In summary, the changes are:

• Reduce the number of constituencies from 650 to 600;
• The electorate in each constituency will vary by no more than 5% (with a few exceptions for islands and sparsely populated areas of Scotland);
• The new boundaries are to be in place for the next general election and will be reviewed every 5 years (and with fixed term parliaments, that means boundary changes between every general election).

This is a big shake-up, and changes a lot about what we currently understand about what a parliamentary constituency actually is. To fit within the strict 5% variation limit, the Boundary Commission will need to radically change the nature of the political map, and change it regularly. Constituencies in your area could well be in a state of complete flux from election to election.


Article 4.3 of The Constitution of the Federal Party sets out how Local Parties must organise themselves. Basically each Local Party can be either a single parliamentary constituency, or a combination of multiple constituencies. Given these boundaries are liable to change every 5 years, our grassroots will need to reorganise itself every 5 years to fit to the ever changing boundaries.

This organisational problem is then compounded by research by Democratic Audit, which shows that the Lib Dems are likely to see the biggest proportion loss of MPs to the boundary changes. Unlike the Labour and the Conservatives who win swathes of neighbouring seats in their core territories, our seats are more isolated, so bringing in parts of other seats will generally hurt us harder. This effect is further strengthened when the focus of our campaigning is in our target seats at the expense of neighbouring no-hope seats.


So we need a more stable set of boundaries for our Local Parties can build up without having to frequently reorganise, and we need to spread our campaigning beyond the existing rigid constituency boundaries, with an eye on neighbouring wards that could be part of the battlefield for the next general election.

Article 3.3 of The Constitution of the English Party gives us a way forward. It additionally allows Local Parties in London to organise themselves along Borough lines rather than solely constituency lines. This should be extended to all district-level government.

This has numerous advantages: Local authority boundaries are far less fluid, saving a lot of time and energy when boundaries change. They give a reasonably well-established outline of existing communities around which to organise and campaign locally, and naturally give the boundary of a specific council for the Local Party to target at all times. More broadly, tying Local Parties to Local Authorities generally fits better with the Lib Dem commitment to localism, and could cause a small shift in culture away from national politics and towards local issues (not that I feel this is really a problem as things are).

There is one big disadvantage that needs tackling: Whereas constituencies are reasonably constant in size, districts vary massively - from the tiny Isles of Scilly with just a couple of thousand people, to huge Birmingham with a population over a million. There would need to be flexibility in any new rules to allow small districts to merge and large districts to split, but this should be done on other tiers of local authority boundaries.

Another problem is with electing the parliamentary candidate, but this could be the time when Local Parties organise themselves for the general election on the forthcoming election's boundaries, so that the membership is worked out and a candidate elected.

Needless to say there are multiple other issues that would need addressing were this to happen. But the cost of not adapting to the new landscape may mean a lack of coordination and self-inflicted defeat. It's time for the party to start planning ahead and ensure that it is fit for purpose in the future.

I feel this may be the time to draft my first conference motion... Eek!

14 March 2011

The 5,000 Labour Voters Who Secured This Tory - Lib Dem Coalition

When the results came in after last year's general election, one thing became clear: the only stable coalition on the cards would be between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. Given the Tories and Labour are too belligerent to work with each other, the one remaining alternative would be between Labour and the Lib Dems. But the election result didn't allow for this: Labour seats + Lib Dem seats only comes to 315, but 322 MPs are needed for a working majority (accounting for Sinn Fein MPs not taking their seats).

With 7 more MPs, the Lib Dems would have been able to form a coalition with Labour. So if 7 of the Con/LD marginals were won by the Lib Dem instead of the Conservative, a Labour - Lib Dem coalition would have been a real option.

So in these 7 seats that where the Lib Dems came closest to beating the Conservative, Labour voters who didn't vote tactically for the Lib Dems actually voted to ensure that Labour weren't in power. The totals shown are the number of Labour to Lib Dem switches needed to defeat the Tory:

1. Camborne and Redruth: 67
2. Oxford West and Abingdon: 177
3. Truro and Falmouth: 436
4. Newton Abbot: 524
5. Harrogate and Knaresborough: 1040
6. Watford: 1426
7. Montgomeryshire: 1185

That's a total of 4,852 Labour voters who ensured Labour were out of power and helped the Tories in.

If you think this is stupid, I agree. Under AV, Labour voters would have been able to vote Labour as their 1st choice and Lib Dem as their second, making sure their vote didn't do the exact opposite of what they intended. This is yet another reason to ditch our broken political system and vote Yes in the AV referendum on May 5th.

10 March 2011

Ternary Plots of the General Election in England

Here are plots of the top 3 party vote share for most of the English seats from the general election plotted. Seats in the red zone were won by Labour, blue zone by Conservatives, and yellow zone by Lib Dems. The lighter triangle in the centre represents seats won with less than 50% of the vote, so shows the seats that will be affected by AV at a 3 party level.

I've shown English seats only, as results in Scotland and Wales distort the picture due to the additional presence of the Nationalist vote, which would require 3D to show properly. I've also filtered out constituencies where parties other than Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems don't form the Top 3 parties to avoid a misleading picture.

The data comes from this incredibly useful spreadsheet which I come back to time and time again.


Not shown: Barking, Brighton Pavilion, Buckingham, Cornwall North, Dagenham and Rainham, Devon North, Devon West and Torridge, Thirsk and Malton.
Con: 185 over 50%, 110 under 50%.
Lab: 89 over 50%, 100 under 50%.
LD: 20 over 50%, 22 under 50%.

For comparison, here's the projected result from 2005:

Not shown: Barking, Bethnal Green and Bow, Boston and Skegness, Brighton Pavilion, Burnley, Dudley North, East Ham, Hornchurch and Upminster, Liverpool West Derby, Mansfield, Morley and Outwood, Poplar and Limehouse, Sedgefield, West Bromwich West, West Ham, Wyre Forest.
Con: 101 over 50%, 102 under 50%.
Lab: 146 over 50%, 119 under 50%.
LD: 15 over 50%, 33 under 50%.

In a future post, I'll identify zones on the 2010 chart which I see as having different dynamics at the next election.

7 March 2011

Robin Hood Tax Propose Mythical Banker Taxation

Here's a screenshot from a new widget from the Robin Hood Tax campaign:

So a 100% Tax on something worth £7.2 billion would raise £7.2 billion for public spending, would it?

Short answer: No.
Long answer: Noooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

Here's some content harvested from Wikipedia:

A 100% tax rate will also generate no revenue because at such a rate there is no longer any incentive for a rational taxpayer to earn any income, thus the revenue raised will be 100% of nothing.

How Representative is Parliament?

The whole point of representative democracy is that the MPs we elect to Parliament will represent the will of the people who elected them.

There are lots of ways to test this. One way is to see how many votes are represented by an MP. This is done by adding up all the votes that were cast for the candidates that got elected to Parliament. This can then be compared to the votes that didn't get represented - the sum of the votes that weren't for a candidate that got elected, and also the votes that didn't get used. Together, these make up the members of the public that aren't represented in Parliament.

From this spreadsheet (which only has seats in Britain, so these calculations don't include Northern Ireland), here are the totals for each group from last year's general election:

Represented votes: 13,695,495 (31%)
Unrepresented votes: 15,315,206 (34%)
Didn't vote: 15,435,593 (35%)

From these findings we can state the following:

• Over two-thirds of the public are not represented.
• Only a minority of voters are represented.

This isn't good enough. The decisions taken that affect all of us are being made by people who don't get close to representing the majority of us. There are many possible solutions, but there's one action you can take to improve this: Vote Yes in the AV referendum on May 5th.

How It Will Help

Here's why there are so many unrepresented votes (also called wasted votes) under the old First Past The Post system. These graphics are largely based on this handy Guardian animation.

Even though candidate A got more votes than the other candidates, most of the votes cast go to waste and aren't represented by the winner. This is what happens in two-thirds of constituencies across the country.

Here's how things will change under AV:

With AV, there is less waste, because it is guaranteed the winner will represent the majority of the final vote. That's because even though candidates C, D and E lost, that doesn't mean their voters' voices are silenced. This is why the MPs who win under AV will have to be more representative than under the old system.

Nobody's pretending AV will solve everything. There will still be people who choose not to vote under any system (although when the old system means there's little chance of your vote being represented, you can't blame them for not bothering). But when an opportunity comes to improve the representativeness of Parliament, we've got to take it.

1 March 2011

Lies, Lies and More Lies from #No2AV

Here's the first thing you'll see on No2AV's website today:

I've pointed out three unequivocal lies that they are peddling. I'll go through them:

LIE 1: The Electoral Commission (which runs elections) don't say we'd need buy expensive voting machines - Channel 4 News has looked into this and rated it as 'Fiction'. Even if we did, they wouldn't have to be bought from Electoral Reform Services Ltd (the commercial arm of the Electoral Reform Society, which has been campaigning for change to the voting system since 1884 and is helping to fund the Yes campaign). A quick Google found plenty of other providers.

LIE 2: First, Nick Clegg is not going to be Lib Dem leader forever. Second, the Lib Dem leader only gets to "choose the government" if there's a hung parliament, and as Prof John Curtice has pointed out, "only in 2010 – when first-past-the-post also failed to deliver a majority – would a hung parliament have occurred under AV" since 1983 when pollsters started asked about second preferences. Third, it will be you who decides whether or not there is a hung parliament. Fourth, the Lib Dems are only in a kingmaker position if Labour and the Conservatives refuse to work with each other.

LIE 3: No2AV have made up the figure of £250m. £130m of it is for those fictional voting machines. £90m is the cost of the referendum itself (and that doesn't magically get refunded if you vote No), and the rest is for "voter education", based on the education costs of STV, not the simpler AV.

I also take issue with the suggestion that AV is "unequal" and not "one person one vote". AV elections have multiple rounds until the winner with over 50% of the vote is found. In every round it is one person one vote. I won't call this a lie, as it's more spinning the truth.

No2AV have had all this pointed out them repeatedly. For instance, I left a comment a week ago on their 'blog' piece attacking Nick Clegg. (Why can't they play the man not the ball?) It was instantly "flagged for review" and still hasn't been published. I've contacted them repeatedly on Twitter to ask why not, to no reply.

Despite all this, No2AV say they act "the spirit of open and honest debate". There's little sign of it so far.

26 February 2011

Alcohol Needs a Less Dangerous Competitor

Millions of people in the UK (including myself) will get wasted on alcohol this evening. There's something inherent in humans (primates?) that makes being intoxicated an insatiable desire.

For many of us, it will be reasonably harmless fun, or at least nothing that a few ibuprofen, glasses of water and rashers of bacon in the morning won't sort out. In the process, many of us will make new friends, or improve the bond between existing friendships. Some of us will meet someone we end up falling in love with, and some of us will get laid.

But with all this, there are some serious downsides. A significant number of us will end up in hospital after an alcohol-fuelled attack, or spend the night in a police cell after being induced into violence. There will probably be a few deaths on the road caused by drunk driving. And in the long term, more and more of us are binging on alcohol too often, which is leading to higher rates of liver disease, as well as causing dependency and addiction.

Most of us know about these risks, but our instinctive enjoyment of inebriation makes the risks worth it. But that in turn means all these significant social costs won't go away unless there's a significant policy change that shifts society's relationship with alcohol.

The medical establishment's attempt to see minimum alcohol pricing didn't stand a chance up against the alcohol industry's powerful lobbying. Anything that could reduce our ability to get hold of our beloved alcohol is a hard sell politically, as our centreground-chasing politicians are terrified to do anything that will hit the wallets or lifestyles of swing voters in marginal constituencies. I admit experience shows that what I am about to suggest won't be any easier politically.

Those of us who seek inebriation tonight have little choice in the drug we take. Alcohol is the only legal means we have to artificially induce euphoria. The other options have been made illegal, which means tracking down a drug dealer and buying substances of unknown chemical composition, with the risk of getting caught and having the full weight of the law come down on you. Millions of (normally young) people every year take that extra risk, but a big majority of us don't.

However, given the huge problems alcohol will hand to the police and paramedics tonight, isn't there a better drug we could all be taking? I think there is.

Ecstasy is less toxic, less addictive and kills its users at a lower rate when compared to alcohol. The latest research (caution: only one trial) suggests that ecstasy may not have the negative effect on the brain that was once thought. Instead of making us violent towards each other, it would make us empathetic and 'loved up'.

This means there would lead to less violent crime and anti-social behaviour, and less pressure on health resources if users switched drugs.

However, it would mean users switching substances. Alcohol and ecstasy simply don't mix. Alcohol takes away from the stimulant effect of ecstasy, but both drugs place a great strain on the kidneys and can cause dehydration and overheating, so taken together compounds the immediate health risks. This in turn would mean the alcohol lobby would pile all its resources from stopping this from happening, because ecstasy would be a major rival to its substance-monopoly in the recreational drug market. The Daily Mail et al would also be morally outraged (for profit) at the mere thought of this.

I want to be clear:

• Whilst ecstasy remains illegal, I wouldn't suggest going near it. You don't know what's in it, and you don't want to give your money to criminals, or end up with a criminal record yourself. Sadly I doubt anyone who takes illegal drugs will ever bother heeding these sorts of warnings.

• I'm not advocating a switch of legal status of alcohol. That doesn't tend to work out too well.

• I'm also not suggesting that all alcohol users would be better using ecstasy. They are different drugs that induce different effects. Alcohol is primarily a depressant, whereas ecstasy is a stimulant. The issue is that alcohol at the moment is being used as a stimulant drug, which is having the negative consequences we see in our town centres at weekends. Frankly, many revellers would be better off taking ecstasy than alcohol.

In conclusion, my question is this:

When alcohol is a more dangerous and antisocial drug than ecstasy, why is ecstasy illegal?

I know which I'd rather be taking tonight.

18 February 2011

William Hague: Reckless or Dishonest?

William Hague, today:
[AV] is the worst of all worlds. Even if one was going to embark on changing the electoral system this would certainly not be the system to move to.

You can argue for the current system, as I do, on the grounds that it is decisive. In the vast majority of elections it produces a clear decisive result with the party getting the most votes in the country becoming the government. Or you can argue legitimately for a proportional system, as in Germany for instance, where the seats won by the parties in Parliament is in pretty strict accordance with the votes received in the country.

The trouble with the Alternative Vote system is it's neither of those. It could produce - it is likely to produce if enacted - election results which are more indecisive, or more disproportionate, or even both at the same time, and be more complex and expensive to operate into the bargain.

So it is the worst of every world.

Then why are we having a referendum on this "worst of all worlds"AV system?

William Hague, May 10th 2010:
In the interests of trying to create a stable, secure government we will go the extra mile and we will offer to the Liberal Democrats, in a coalition government, the holding of a referendum on the Alternative Vote system, so that the people of this country can decide what the best electoral system is for the future.

That's right, it's the Conservatives' negotiating team who chose the referendum to be on AV. Hague was one of the "top four" negotiators for the Conservatives.

So why did he pick a referendum on AV when he could have picked a more "legitimate" proportional system? The Lib Dems would undoubtedly grabbed at the chance of a referendum on PR.

There are two possibilities:

1. Hague deliberately risked our country being subjected to what he considers to be the worst possible electoral system. This is a profoundly reckless attitude to our democracy.

2. Hague actually prefers AV to PR, which is why the referendum is on AV. This makes his comments today deeply dishonest.

I think number 2 is far more likely to be the explanation. The truth is that the Tories would be content with AV, but will say anything to keep hold of their precious FPTP system that many others despise.

16 February 2011

AV has Something for Everyone

Another argument from No2AV is that the Alternative Vote is a 'voting system that nobody wants'.

This isn't true. Labour's manifesto [pdf] pledged a referendum on AV on the basis that the system will "ensure that every MP is supported by the majority of their constituents voting at each election".

Press a No2AV supporter on this and they'll explain that they meant to say is that it wasn't in either of the Coalition partners' manifestos.

This is true. The Conservatives have long advocated keeping the current First Past The Post system, whereas the Liberal Democrats have long campaigned for a move to the proportional Single Transferable Vote system.

These two systems have two key distinctions:

• FPTP takes place in single member constituencies, where one MP is elected to represent all the people in the area. STV would have multi-member constituencies, where multiple MPs would be elected that would represent a wider variety of views of people over a bigger area.

• FPTP requires the voter to mark their ballot for one candidate only, and the most votes wins. STV allows the voter to rank several candidates in order of preference so that the winners have a bigger consensus.

AV shares features of both FPTP and STV - it has the single winner feature of FPTP and the preferential ballots feature of STV. While AV is not seen as the perfect system for the Tories or the Lib Dems, it has features which both parties like.

Yes, this does make AV a miserable little compromise. But compromise is a good thing when it means everyone getting a bit of what they want. It is blatantly fairer than one side having it all their own way.

14 February 2011

The Daily Mail's Reckless Association of Homosexuality and Paedophilia

I'm not going to go into the rights and wrongs of Dr Hans-Christian Raabe's farcical appointment-then-sacking from the ACMD. For good summary of the background to this story, see Mark Easton. It suffices to say that it appears Dr Raabe was sacked for writing a paper that links homosexuality to paedophilia. As Tom Chivers explains, there is no link:

The University of California’s psychology department does a very good “facts about homosexuality and child molestation” section, and I’ve taken the following from there. First, the idea of “homosexual [or heterosexual] paedophiles” is not really an accepted one in psychological circles: “many child molesters cannot be meaningfully described as homosexuals, heterosexuals, or bisexuals (in the usual sense of those terms) because they are not really capable of a relationship with an adult man or woman. Instead of gender, their sexual attractions are based primarily on age. These individuals – who are often characterized as fixated – are attracted to children, not to men or women.”

Further, among those who are not solely attracted to children – those known as “regressed” child molesters – seem to be no more likely to be homosexual than the rest of the populace.

Sadly, it is still common to associate the two, despite the evidence. Paedophilia is clearly immoral behaviour, so it is up to those who value honest, factual reporting to counter the damaging myth that it is an any way linked to homosexuality.

Unfortunately the Daily Mail (and its Sunday sister paper) can't be relied on to provide such reporting. Their 'journalists' James Slack, Iain Drury, James Tozer, Stephen Glover, Peter Hitchens and Melanie Phillips have all written articles on Dr Raabe. All the articles mention his 'research', often uncritically pronouncing his work as 'academic' or 'scientific'. An unsceptical reader would be left with the clear impression that there is a clear evidence showing a link between homosexuality and paedophilia, when there is no such link. I consider this to be reckless.

In particular, Peter Hitchens and Melanie Phillips attempts to add more credence to this link by citing a government report. On Sunday, Hitchens wrote:

Who said these words? ‘Approximately 20 to 33 per cent of child sexual abuse is homosexual in nature.’ I will tell you.

It was the Home Office, on Page 14 of Sex Offending Against Children: Understanding The Risk, published by the Policing and Reducing Crime Unit in 1998. I have a copy.

You can have a copy too. The document is available on the Home Office website [pdf]. The specific words cited by Hitchens and Phillips are simply referencing a paper called ‘The heterogeneity/homogeneity of pedophilia’, a study from 1988. So what we have here is a single 23-year-old study. That's all Hitchens and Phillips are using, albeit with a drizzling of irony that the Home Office happens to have mentioned this paper (once, 13 years ago).

The aforementioned University of California's page on the subject has far more citations, including literature reviews that incorporate many more studies. The overall body of evidence shows there's no link. The science shows that sexual attraction to children is a different phenomenon to sexual attraction to adults (male or female).

That's why the same Home Office report cited by Hitchens and Phillips explicitly states in the very same paragraph:

Individual studies must be viewed cautiously before generalising from them.

The Daily Mail's inability to exercise such caution is likely to spread homophobic views amongst its readership.

11 February 2011

Freedom Bill - Now and Then

Two years ago, the Liberal Democrats launched a draft Freedom Bill.

Today, the Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister announced a real-life Freedom Bill.

Let's go through the 2009 list of measures to see how progress is going:

• Scrap ID cards for everyone, including foreign nationals - Already scrapped by the Coalition, but for British nationals only.

• Ensure that there are no restrictions in the right to trial by jury for serious offences including fraud - In the Bill.

• Restore the right to protest in Parliament Square, at the heart of our democracy - Fail.

• Abolish the flawed control orders regime - Already replaced by 'Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures'.

• Renegotiate the unfair extradition treaty with the United States. - Fail.

• Restore the right to public assembly for more than two people. - Fail.

• Scrap the ContactPoint database of all children in Britain. - Already scrapped by the Coalition.

• Strengthen freedom of information by giving greater powers to the information commissioner and reducing exemptions. - In the Bill.

• Stop criminalising trespass. - In the Bill.

• Restore the public interest defence for whistleblowers. - Fail.

• Prevent allegations of "bad character" from being used in court. - Fail.

• Restore the right to silence when accused in court. - Fail.

• Prevent bailiffs from using force. - Fail.

• Restrict the use of surveillance powers to the investigation of serious crimes and stop councils snooping. - In the Bill.

• Restore the principle of double jeopardy in UK law. - Fail.

• Remove innocent people from the DNA database. - The Bill makes good progress, but suspects of serious crimes could still have their DNA retained for three years.

• Reduce the maximum period of pre-charge detention to 14 days. - Permanently fixed in the Bill.

• Scrap the ministerial veto that allowed the government to block the release of cabinet minutes relating to the Iraq war. - Fail.

• Require explicit parental consent for biometric information to be taken from children. - In the Bill.

• Regulate CCTV following a Royal Commission on cameras. - No specific mention of a Royal Commission, but further regulation is in the Bill.

So out of 20 items on the original Lib Dem draft Bill, 8 are happening, 3 are happening in a limited form, but 9 have yet to see any progress.

The situation basically looks like this:

There are also several bonus freedoms that are to be restored in this Bill:

• It will be illegal for a vehicle to be clamped or towed away by anyone but the police.

• Restrictions on stop and search powers.

• The Vetting and Barring scheme will be scrapped.

• Old convictions involving consensual gay sex will be stripped from criminal records.

• There will be no more restrictions on the times when a marriage or civil partnership can take place.

And that's still not all. In 2012 the Ministry of Justice plan to introduce a Defamation Bill to reform our suffocating libel laws and a Repeal Bill to remove unnecessary laws from the statute.

Given that the Lib Dems didn't have any of this as their Top 4 priorities in their manifesto (much to my disappointment), I'm delighted we've made significant progress in all these areas. My only concern is that the Your Freedom website had little to nothing to do with any of programme, but perhaps the Repeal Bill will take more inspiration from the public suggestions.

No2AV are Quoting Irrelavent Australian Polling

The No2AV campaign are circulating the findings from an Australian opinion poll commissioned by the right-wing Insitute of Public Affairs. On the face of it, the findings are devastating for the Yes campaign:

More than half of Australians would support FPTP, according to a Newspoll. Only 37% favoured the current preferential system. #no2av
Bad news? Not exactly.

If you've been following the AV referendum polling done in the UK, you'll be aware that the wording used in the question can significantly alter the outcome.

This is the question [pdf] as asked by Newspoll. The emphasis in bold is theirs, not mine*:

Currently, elections for the Federal House of Representatives, or lower house, use a preferential voting system. This is where voters indicate an order of preferences for all candidates, and these preferences are taken into account when deciding which candidate wins. (PAUSE). An alternative system would be "first past the post", where voters only vote for one candidate and the candidate with the most votes wins. Would you personally prefer…?

1. A preferential system,
2. A first past the post system
The form of AV preferential system used in Australia forces voters to indicate a preference for every single voter. The form of AV that will could be used here in the UK won't have this feature. You will be able to indicate a preference for as many or as few candidates as you like.

Given that we won't "indicate an order of preferences for all candidates" if AV is adopted, it is wrong to suggest a poll that asks about an system where voters "indicate an order of preferences for all candidates" is relevant to our decision.

* I have quoted the question's text exactly as written and formatted in the poll's report. The poll was conducted over the telephone, so was read out by "fully trained and personally briefed interviewers". It is clear that the words emphasised in bold are intended to be emphasised when read out by the interviewer.

13 January 2011

Unbelievable UKIP By Election Leaflet Squeezes BNP Vote

Kudos to Michael Greenfield for uploading a bunch of Oldham East and Saddleworth by election leaflets. I want to highlight UKIP's effort.

As a Lib Dem member I'm obviously opposed to what UKIP stand for, but even leaving that aside, there are three things in particular I have an issue with:

1) Using the result of the national European Election result as indicative of what may happen in a local by election is misleading. The issues are different, the electoral system is different, and the electorate is different. But at least they have labelled the bar chart, so this is my smallest quibble.

2) Stating that "Every week, 5,000 new people come to the UK to live" without stating the number number of people who leave the UK, which reduces the number to 4,100. They then blame this on the fact that citizens of new EU countries (Poland and Latvia) can move here. But these A8 countries are only responsible for net migration of 12,000 per year, which is only 5% of total net migration. The biggest contributors of net migration are foreign students (whose fees keep our Universities running and contribute £8bn to the economy).

3) This is the one that triggered me writing this post: UKIP are explicitly squeezing the BNP vote! By writing "Wasted vote" over the BNP column on the bar chart, they are actively trying to get the thickos and fascists who vote BNP to switch to UKIP. And it's not even true! The BNP beat UKIP in this constituency in 2010 by 2,546 votes to 1,720. The tactical racist vote is for BNP, not UKIP.

So I guess my message to UKIP is this: When your main competition is the BNP, perhaps it is time to reassess what you stand for.

11 January 2011

Fisking Chris Williamson on AV

Chris Williamson, the Labour MP for Derby North, has laid out why he is against introducing AV. Here is my response to his points:

The central plank of the ‘Yes to AV’ campaign is disingenuous because its claims about AV being fairer than ‘First Past the Post’ are based on a false premise.

AV will make no difference to a large number of constituencies where candidates secure more than 50% of the votes cast. Even in the last general election - where popular support for the parties was closer than normal - more than a third of the candidates had over 50% of the vote.

No-one is suggesting it will make a difference in the safest seats where the winning party gets ~50% or more. But the big difference will come in all the other seats, where the winner will need to get the backing of a bigger number of voters to get elected. I don't see why MPs are afraid of this: why are you scared of trying to get more people to vote for you ahead of your opponents?

In the other constituencies, introducing AV could see second or even third placed candidates ultimately winning. That is the very antithesis of democracy. Our existing system is considerably more democratic by comparison and is well understood by the electorate at large.

AV will elect the candidate with the most overall support. Some MPs came first but with more than 2 in 3 electors voting against them*. Those 2 in 3 could between them prefer someone else. Why should 1-in-3 minority voters get their way ahead of 2-in-3 majority?

How can it be right for fringe party supporters to have their vote counted several times, while those backing mainstream candidates only have one vote counted? By any measure of fairness that is just plain wrong.

Every vote is counted the same amount. The last place candidate gets knocked out, their votes redistributed, then every vote for the remaining candidates is counted again.

Furthermore, at a time when the country is facing unprecedented cuts, this whole debate and referendum is a colossal waste of time and money, particularly when very few people actually want electoral reform. I have campaigned for the Labour Party in every local, European and general election since 1976 and I can honestly say nobody has ever raised this issue on the doorstep.

If it is a waste of time and money to have a referendum on AV, why did your manifesto call for a referendum on AV? Your constituents may not have specifically mentioned electoral reform, but I bet they've mentioned MPs' expenses and expressed apathy at politics and politicians. The two are deeply interlinked. The way we do democracy in this country needs root and branch reform, so that the public no longer feel taken for granted.

The Labour Party is Britain’s best vehicle to deliver progressive change and the outcome of the last general election offers an historic opportunity to rebuild Labour’s progressive credentials. That is why I am working for a majority Labour government at the next general election by appealing to those progressives who voted for other parties. By muddying the electoral waters through the introduction of AV, the guy ropes of Labour’s progressive big tent could be cut even before it is fully erected.

I don't care what effect AV will have on any specific party. I want a system that's fair to voters, not one that puts some parties above others. You care about the effect it could have on Labour. Fine, but don't pretend you are picking the electoral system out of fairness rather than self-interest.

The Liberal Democrats, who are responsible for installing this vicious right-wing administration, hope that AV would create continuous coalition government and give them the chance to be perpetual kingmakers.

No-one really knows what effect AV will have on creating majority vs. coalition governments, but assuming your guess is right, the only reason that the Lib Dems are kingmakers is because Labour and the Conservatives belligerently refuse to work with each other. Don't blame the Lib Dems for your own belligerence.

But Liberal Democrats are not a national party and their support in a few regional enclaves is inadequate to propel them into government without doing shabby little deals behind closed doors. Their shameful pact with the Conservatives will create untold hardship to millions of citizens and is damaging our economic recovery.

Absolute tosh. The reason the Lib Dems don't get many seats is because their support is too spread across the country, with too few regional enclaves. FPTP rewards divisive parties with strong regional enclaves. That's why Labour automatically win most seats in the urban North, and the Tories win most seats in the rural South. If Labour is your idea of a national party, remind me how many seats you won in South England last year?**

I'll tell you what is a shabby deal: a single party taking the reins of the country when most people don't want them. But that's what happened in 2005, when Labour got into power despite 65% of the country voting for against you. The same thing has been happening for decades. No wonder people feel so disillusioned by politics. At least with a coalition, the majority of people voted for the a party that's in power, even if that means the parties coming to a compromise. I agree that parties should be clear about their priorities during the election so that voters know what they can expect if their preferred party goes into a coalition. (By printing their top four priorities on the front cover of their manifesto, and getting all of them into the coalition agreement, that's exactly what the Lib Dems did.)

Do we really want to increase the prospects of Liberal Democrats having influence in future governments, when under our existing system they could and should be virtually wiped out? I think not. That's why I don’t want to see them being thrown the lifeline of electoral reform.

That's nicely partisan of you, but don't forget, if we go back to two party politics, for every majority Labour government there'll be a majority Tory government waiting in the wings to have it all their way. You may feel the Lib Dems aren't dampening the excesses of the Tories enough - well that's an argument to make sure the Lib Dems get more of their fair share of influence rather than less!

AV is bad news for democracy, bad news for progressive change and bad news for the millions of people who need the return of a Labour government at the earliest opportunity.

Well at least you're being honest in the last part of that sentence - your opposition to reform is based on what's good for Labour, not what's best for the country as a whole. The majority of the country has never ever voted for Labour.*** We have never wanted you in complete control of the country, and we never will.

* Chris Williamson is one of these MPs. He got just 33.0% of the vote at the general election. His seat, Derby North, is now a three-way marginal, with the Conservatives on 31.7% and the Lib Dems on 28.0%. So in the last election, FPTP may well have allowed him to cling on to his job. I'll leave you to judge what is motivating his resistance to reform now.

** The answer: In the South of England, Labour won just 8 seats out of 139 (5.8%), or 1,124,507 votes out of 7,067,683 (15.9%).

*** To be fair, in 1945 the country came very close: 49.7% voted Labour. That's still not a majority though!