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!