Sunday, 28 February 2010

Alcohol is *not* a public health concern

Public health is a serious issue, and one that merits government intervention. The smogs that led to the Clean Air Act were debilitating to many Londoners. A universal habit was causing serious harm to the health of many, and it was right for the government of the day to pass legislation to force the many to chnage this habit and preserve the health of the populace.

Alcohol does not fall into this category. If I get blind drunk in my living room, my neighbour does not become ill. My drinking affects only my health. Therefore, there are no public health implications at all. It is therefore very frustrating to see Obnoxio's report on Andrew Lansley's new green paper on public health - "A Healthier Nation". This is full of "innovative strategies", "national campaigns harnessing the latest behaviour change research", which are of course "delivered by providers" who will work towards "successful new public health strategies".

Obo expresses exactly my thoughts, albeit somewhat more forcefully than I would, when he says "No. No. No. Just f***ing NO!".

The fundamental error is in seeing alcohol as a public health issue, which it is not. It is a public order issue. If my neighbour drinks himself to an early grave, then that is his choice. I have no more right to tell him that he should not do that than he has to tell me not to go on track days because motorsport is dangerous.

Of course, if he and his mates get themselves blind drunk in public and make me or my family feel threatened, then we have a problem. We don't have a public health problem, though, we have a public order problem. It is not a problem that is solved by raising the price of a pint (for all of us) and putting on adverts nagging us (all) not to drink. It is a problem that is solved by arresting those who are drunk and disorderly. It is solved by dragging them before the magistrates. It is solved by the magistrates having the power to sentence them appropriately. It is solved by the magistrates regaining the power to issue (and revoke) liquor licences. It is solved by giving residents the power to apply to magistrates to revoke or alter a liquor licence. It is solved by making clear to a local sheriff and to local magistrates that the tone and nature of their town is their responsibility and that they will be held to account.

Instead, liquor licences are now a local authority planning issue, and I have no idea how I might challenge one, or whether I can.

That local authority then grants or renews the licence with no first-hand knowledge as to whether this is a good or a bad idea.

Magistrates are bound by a centralised set of sentencing guidelines that, in practice, prevent them from making a real difference.

Police know that there is no point arresting someone for drunken behaviour; they will then have to fill out the paperwork, be off the streets for the rest of the night, then either release them or fill out even more paperwork in order to put them before a magistrate who will not be able to do anything about it.

Ask yourself which is likely to have the greatest effect on drunken behaviour;
  • increasing the price of a pint by 50p, putting up lots of posters, and showing lots of adverts, or
  • making sure that (a) customers know that if they get drunk and kick off, they will be arrested and put before a magistrate within the hour who will be able to see video evidence of their disorderliness for himself while they are still drunk, and will be able to sentence them in a way that will hurt, and (b) that the publicans know that their next licence renewal will be before a magistrate who has had to give up many of his or her Friday and Saturday nights to deal with his customers, who has seen the state in which they left his establishment, and who will have some awkward questions to ask.

And the best thing about this? No new laws are needed. Just repeals of New Labour laws, and better management.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

A Call to Commenters

Blue Eyes tweeted recently that "Nobody comments on my blog anymore". How can he say that?, I thought. After all, I visit pretty well every day, and I've appreciated & agreed with several of his recent posts. Like this one, this one, this one, and especially this one.

Then I thought for a moment. Whilst I had appreciated those posts, I hadn't actually commented on them. I hadn't left a comment. Blue Eyes was right. I hadn't even left a comment along the lines of the one Blue Eyes left here.

Why is this? Why do I read a post that I agree with, and then just move on? I think the reason is that I subconsciously think that a comment which just says "Yes, absolutely right, thanks" is not worth making. A comment without any real intellectual content is somehow pointless; I am, after all, adding nothing to the discussion.

I don't think I'm alone in this. Often, the posts here that attract a long string of comments are those where an early comment is made that disagrees with something that I said. Then, others wade in to disagree with the commenter and agree with the post, and a real discussion starts. But when there is nothing to argue with, it feels like there is nothing to comment on. The xkcd analysis as to what motivates us on the Internet is, as ever, spot on.

But I'm wrong in thinking this. Blue's quick comment on my EU post did indeed add something to the discussion. Specifically, it added some encouragement for me. So I'm going to try and change. I'm going to try and comment every time I appreciate a new post. Starting now (ulp!). I'll apologise right now in case the comments become dull and repetitive, but I hope they encourage everyone else just as Blue's comment encouraged me.

And while I'm apologising, I'll say sorry for not commenting on any of these posts by Stuart Sharpe, these ones from Raedwald, or these from Dungeekin, or endless ones by JuliaM (who blogs too fast for me to keep up!), all of which were appreciated.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Saying wherE U stand.

Blue Eyes and I kind of ganged up on Stuart Sharpe on Twitter last night. Stuart had the temerity to suggest that the principle of "No taxation without Representation" could not apply here as we were represented. Blue Eyes and I pointed a suspicious finger at the EU to show that we are, at least in part, taxed by a body in which we have no effective representation.

That made me think that I haven't really commented on the EU yet, in all the time that this blog has been running. There are a paltry 5 posts so far tagged "EU", from which only a general impression of my views might be gleaned.

So here goes.

I am, at heart, a Europhile. I love visiting the rest of Europe; I think the ability to travel freely across the Continent is an excellent freedom and have taken advantage of it. Economically, I see European markets as important, both in terms of the opportunities they present to our businesses and in terms of the benefits I can gain as a consumer from the competitive pressure it exerts on our economy. My choice of cars stands as testament to my appreciation of the benefits of intra-EU trade. My chosen profession is also one of the most Euro-integrated professions of them all.

I am also a virulent Eurosceptic. In part, this flows from my inbuilt omniscepticism; if someone wants to change things significantly and irrevocably, my natural reaction is to ask "why?". Scepticism has a bad press these days; it is usually equated with a dogmatic resistance to change, but it is in fact a necessary check on overenthusiasm and blind dogma. So when the EU announces that it wants to extend its "competence" to a new area, I expect our politicians to examine critically whether this is a good idea or not; will the EU be able to do this better than national governments, and will it in fact do it better? I do not expect them to roll over and sign up to whatever is requested.

Taking these views together, I am therefore very firmly in favour of a European Union of the right type. I am also strongly against the actual European Union that we seem to have.

To me, it is obvious that we should have a European Union with a strictly and narrowly defined remit, to ensure minimum standards of co-operation between member states, in those areas. For example, to require that all nationals of an EU state must have the freedom to travel and work in any other EU state and that states must allow the free movement of EU-originating goods that meet a specific EU quality standard.

What we have, instead, is a Commission with an expansive attitude to a vaguely-defined remit, a huge and ill-spent budget, and no real form of democratic control.

British debate on the subject of the EU seems to be similarly split. Those supporting continued British membership and greater British involvement point to the things that attract me to the concept of an EU (and quietly regard the EU that we actually have as being the best of a bad job). Those wishing to leave point to the failings of the EU (and ignore the real benefits that could accrue from a better EU). Neither side really acknowledges the other's argument. Both are right, and yet both are wrong - if taken in isolation.

And my considered opinion? We should be members of a better, more limited, more focussed, more democratic EU. We should work to achieve this. If it takes our withdrawal to force the EU to change (or prompt the creation of a new Union), then so be it.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Fairness for all

Master P is off school today. He got slightly crushed playing rugby yesterday. He still won, though.

Anyway, he found our copy of the Mr Bean videos and watched this one this morning:

Part 1:

Part 2:

It struck me that socialist concepts of fairness end up working like the bus stop. There's always someone who thinks he has a good reason to be ahead of you in the queue. Then, when the bus finally arrives, it stops at a random point along the line.

(What you don't see in the Youtube clips is the bit at the start, where Mr Bean is the only one unable to get on the previous bus, but wanders off to post a letter while he's waiting for the next one. while he's briefly away, she arrives...)

Monday, 22 February 2010

Who to believe?

Many, many commentators, journalists and former Downing Street staff claim Gordon is a bully. Lord Mandelson says he isn't. Who, I wonder, should we believe?

Surely, the leader of the Labour party could not be a bully? After all, they are the party that:
  • tell us we can't smoke
  • tell us we shouldn't eat too much
  • tell us we shouldn't drink too much
  • tell us we must have 5 a day
  • tell us we shouldn't discipline children
  • tell us not to drive anywhere
  • tell us we can't protest against what they do
  • tell us we can't take photographs of buildings
  • tell us we can't take photographs of police officers
  • tell us we can't even discuss immigration because that would be racist
  • electronically strip-search us before we can get on an aircraft
  • routinely stop and search people who go out for the evening
  • want to snoop on all our emails & web usage
  • tell us they know best in all aspects of our lives

And we are expected to believe that the leader of this party is a bully? That he orders his staff around and shouts at them?

Surely not?

Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Best 4x4xfar (Ctd...)

If you recall, one of my New Year resolutions was that I was going to use the Land Rover to get out and get active. Well, I have progress to report!

I've now obtained a Maxxraxx cycle carrier, and it fits the Landy perfectly. I can heartily recommend the Maxxraxx; it is sturdy and holds the bikes rock solid (unlike most racks I have tried). It is also completely secure; the rack is firmly locked to the car, and the bikes are firmly locked in place on the rack. I feel confident to load up and then leave the bikes in place while I sort out other stuff (again, unlike most racks I have tried).

Here it is, in place on the Landy:

So, with three bikes on the rack and one in the cabin (Little Miss P's bike is too small for the rack), we all clambered in and set off for the nearest woods.

The next step is the iPhone app from these people, giving me OS 1:50,000 maps on my iPhone, together with that most crucial bit of any map that is always inexplicably omitted from the paper versions, a little flashing blue dot to show where you are:

Very useful for exploring woods you aren't familiar with.

Anyway, much riding later, and many deep mud patches later, we got back suitably tired and with the bikes showing the inevitable side-effects:

Back home, and we laid the bikes out, took one look at them and hosed them down very thoroughly. Then we took one look at the children....

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Gordon's Message

Apparently Gordon is not planning to focus on his government's record in the forthcoming campaign (no surprise there). So Labour's message to its campaigners is:


A Future Fail For All

Yes, that's Labour's actual campaign slogan (almost). But what should it really be? I had a few tries on Twitter last night:

"A Vague And Unverifiable Platitude for All".

"If We Act Like An Election Is In Fact On, Can We Distract You Into Giving Us A Few More Months?"

"Don't Ask Why It's Still Unfair After 13 Years".

"A Future Fair for All Our Clients".

"Starting on Fairness for All After Only 13 Years".

Any other suggestions?

Of course, if we're going to have "A Future Fair for All", does that mean it's my turn to be Prime Minister now?

Doublethink in action

This is seriously scary.

As posted by Leg-Iron, a US school district gave away free laptops to students. They didn't mention that as a "security feature", they had installed software giving them remote access to the webcam carried by the laptop. The laptop that the teenagers were taking home to use in private.

How did this come to light?

Blake Robbins, a student at Harriton high school, was hauled into the assistant principal Lindy Matsko's office, shown a photograph taken on the laptop in his home and disciplined for "improper behaviour".
Not illegal behaviour, presumably, else the police would have been involved. So the school saw fit to discipline him for engaging in legal activities at home of which the school did not approve. We don't know what the activites were (the mind boggles), but since when is it the school's responsibility?

Worse still, a spokesman said:

"The district never activated the security feature for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever," he wrote. "We regret if this situation has caused any concern or inconvenience among our students and families."
Err, yes you did. You showed Blake Robbins the evidence that you had. In what way can that be anything other than an utter blatant lie?

At least it couldn't happen here. Oh, hang on...

Friday, 19 February 2010

I Wouldn't Start From Here

To my eternal shame, I did once prefix some especially complex directions with the above comment. In my defence, the driver had just pulled up next to me and I needed time to think. We were also in Cambridge, and he wanted directions to the rail station which was on the other side of a rather horrible one-way system. So I do maintain that it was fair comment. His expression suggested that he disagreed, though.

It's a common situation, though, to realise that the reason why the choice facing you is so difficult is that you made a stupid decision earlier, and that you are now facing the consequences of your own stupidity. My RAF flying instructors long ago emphasised thatyou must always try to keep an alternative option open, in case your initial decision proves to have been wrong. For example, take a parachute with you, and stay high up enough to be able to use it.

The current economic situation feels like an example of this maxim. Those who know me, know that I can always find a driving analogy - so here it is. Imagine it is a winter morning, and you are driving along a clear open stretch of motorway under bright blue skies. All is well, so you put your foot down. You reach a long sweeping bend, which you effortlessly glide around. To see two things ahead of you in the bend.

First, a large area of shadow cast over the tarmac by the embankment, in which the night's icy frost has not yet thawed. Second, a large pile-up just beyond the ice.

Now, if the other cars weren't sitting there, in their mangled glory, you could just about make it around the rest of the bend to the clear straight tarmac beyond with perhaps only a minor dent in your ego and a little use of the lanes either side. Equally, if the ice were not there, you could draw the car to a halt in the remaining distance. But you can't do both.

In this situation, it is pointless to engage in a binary dispute of the "should I steer or should I brake?" variety. The simple fact is, you need to steer precisely AND you need to brake hard. But you can't, and the reason is that, fool that you are, you charged headlong around a bend on a cold and icy morning and left yourself with only one option - to drive along a clear and open road. That option has vanished, and you are left with no (palatable) alternative options.

We are, economically, in an analogous situation. We need to reduce the deficit; it is too high, by any measure. The interest on the existing borrowing is eye-watering, and we are testing the patience of the people who are lending us this money. We also need to maintain expenditure; this is feeding money into the economy and to remove it will only make things harder.

So we need to do both. But we can't. Just as our hypothetical driver wanted to reduce his speed, but couldn't because he also needed to steer, we want to reduce the deficit but can't - because the economy is on an icy patch and now is not the time to make sudden large movements.

This is going to a bold statement, a huge claim, but here goes nothing: I think that this is the largest single error made by Gordon in his 13 years at the economic helm of this country. We should have slid into this recession with borrowing at an all-time low, ready (if necessary) to increase the deficit to maintain spending to cushion the hurt and ease our way out.

But Gordon made the wrong call and left us with no leeway, no alternative option if his "end to boom and bust" proved to be wrong. And now we face the consequences.

No! Not like that!

I've often called for reductions in tax. So one phrase in the BBC report that I linked to yesterday stood out:

Tax receipts dropped 11.8% compared with January last year
Can I just clarify, in case Gordon or Alistair are reading. When I said I wanted my tax bill to drop, I didn't intend you to do it that way.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Brace Yourselves

Because we are in for a bumpy ride. Both the BBC and Sky are reporting that the UK managed to increase its borrowing even further last month.

This is seriously frightening. January is not a normal month from the point of view of the public finances. It is a month when corporation tax is due and when most of the income tax due from anyone under self-assessment is due – in other words, all the taxpayers with the more substantial bills. Despite this, Brown and Darling still managed to spend more than their income. Not by a trivial amount, either – by £4.3bn. Granted, that is a “mere” £100 or so per taxpayer, but imagine what it would say about your personal finances if you spent more than your monthly income just on payday?

The reason for this disaster is simple. I’ve been sitting on this graph for a while, waiting for the right moment to post it. It originally came from the Spectator, a Fraser Nelson special, and it plots the changing levels of public spending and revenue over the recent years. Here it is:

Note the initial years of Gordon, when he kept to Conservative policies and prudence reigned. Note what happened in 1999 when his promise to keep to Conservative policies expired and he began to act like a Labour chancellor: Government spending took off immediately, and has outstripped revenue since 2001. Note (finally) that the previous rate of increase in taxation revenue started to weaken immediately.

This is a stark visual explanation of what Dave meant when he used to criticise Gordon's failure to fix the roof while the sun was shining. The simple fact is, Gordon has been accumulating debt since 2001. This means that when the bust came in 2008, we were already seriously in debt.

So whether you agree with increased public spending in recessions or not (and I admit that I can see the rationale for it), the fact remains that for this recession, we had already spent the money. So we started the recession weak, far weaker than we should have been. Gordon crippled us before we even went into the recession, and now we are seeing the effect of this.

I know I've posted this before, but take another look at George Osborne's response to Labour's plans, Tory Bear style:

Who looks wrong now?

And finally, we are told that everything will be OK, because Gordon and Alistair are going to halve the deficit in 4 years. Let's assume he does that. Let's assume he does it steadily, at the same rate of reduction each year. Let's assume that GDP remains steady and does not suffer a double dip. Let's (finally) assume that he continues after the deficit is zero, allowing him to pay off debt. Even if we make all these (favourable) assumptions, one fact remains. Starting (as we are) in 2010 with a deficit of 13% and a public debt of 60% of GDP, we reach a simple conclusion:

The UK Economy will look like Greece does today, in only 5 years.

That's all we have. 5 years.

Modern Media

Do all news reports look the same? Charlie Brooker investigates:

(With thanks to Constantly Furious)

Friday, 12 February 2010

You're not fooling anyone, Gordon

Go and have a read of the latest from the Diary of a Geek in Oxfordshire.

Always worth reading, this time Dungeekin has turned his attention to the somewhat unseemly display that is to be Gordon Brown's Valentine message to the voters. Whilst I, and others, accept that the emotions he displays in his Piers Morgan interview are without doubt genuine, and the cause of those emotions to be truly tragic, their sudden appearance just weeks before Gordon's first General Election needs to be called is, to put it midly, somewhat suspicious.

Dungeekin echoes my thoughts when he says:
This is one of the most sickening, revolting pieces of political posturing I have ever, ever seen. I simply can't find the words to express just how repugnant this is, and how contemptible a 'man' Brown has become in his desperate scrabble to maintain his position.

Best Summary of Science, ever

I'm just going to offer a quick link to today's xkcd comic:

The two lines that struck me are the middle section:
In science you can't publish results you know are wrong, and you can't withhold them because they're not the ones you you wanted.
and the rollover text:
You don't use science to show you're right, you use science to become right.
Would Al Gore and the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit please take note.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Why Labour Wants AV

The BBC have published an analysis of what the effect of introducing AV would have been on the 2005 election. This is interesting - we can compare it to the actual results to see what the effect of various systems.

In short, we find this:

Or, to put it differently, AV in the 2005 election would have been even less proportionate than first-past-the-post. It would introduce still further bias in favour of Labour into our system, and would make life even harder for the Conservatives.

So next time someone asks what the Conservatives have against electoral reform, look at the above figures in this way: If we ask which systems an utterly cynical and self-serving politician would prefer, and in what order, the answers would be:

Gordon Brown: AV, FPTP, PR
Nick Clegg: PR, AV, FPTP
David Cameron: PR, FPTP, AV

Two of those lists match the relevant party's stance. Only one party is not adopting the stance that is in line with their own self-interest.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Funny, or Visionary....?

I vote "funny", but I'm (usually) an optimist.

Equal before God?

I find the upset over comments by Pope Benedict XVI on the subject of our proposed equality laws somewhat confusing. I commented briefly at Letters from A Tory, and want to amplify that comment a little.

What Benedict said (as I understand) is that the proposed laws caused him some concern in that they might require the Church to give equal treatment to (for example) homosexual applicants to positions within the Church. Previously, religious organisations have been exempt from such requirements. From the chorus of disapproval that his comments have sparked, it would rather seem that this is an intended effect of the legislation rather than an "accidental" one.

Let's look at that a little more closely, as it highlights the nature of modern "equality". Ms Harman seemingly wants a homosexual man to be equally able to become a Catholic worker as any other man. The result is that he would then attend the Church's various groups and, potentially, assist in promoting the Church's teachings. Teachings that include the view that homosexuality is wrong.

Now, if the man concerned was once a practising homosexual but now resisted that temptation, then there is obviously no conflict there. Christian teaching is that we are all subject to temptation but must resist. However, as I understand the Church's position, such a man would not now be excluded from consideration. So, we must infer from the reaction that Labour want to be able to force the Church to take on someone who is openly and actively homosexual.

Someone who, in short, will then be an utter hypocrite.

Is this Labour's definition of equality? The right of all to be hypocritical? If so, what does it tell us about New Labour and, especially, Ms Harman?

The fallacy inherent in the criticism of the Pope lies, of course, in the distinction between the sin and the sinner. Christianity has long been able to distinguish the two, hating the sin but loving (and forgiving) the sinner. Socialists seem unable to tell the difference, though, so they assume that someone who objects to homosexuality therefore hates and condemns the person. Again, that tells us more about them than about the people that they in turn condemn.

Or, to put it another way, this whole fuss just shows us that New Labour seem surprised to have discovered that the Pope is, in fact, Catholic.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Oh Please

This is the sign posted in M&S just below some crackers that they are selling for Valentines' Day:

I'll just quote that in full:
"Crackers are governed by the Explosives Act 1875 Fireworks (safety) regulations 2004. It is a criminal offence to sell a product containing explosive to any person under the age of 16 years."

Yes, you read that right. Our government spent its time in 2004 regulating the sale of crackers to under-16s.

It didn't take a long, hard look at regulating banks. Why should it do something like that?

It didn't look at Parliamentary expenses to check that they were reasonable and not being fiddled. Why should it do something like that?

It wasn't ordering helicopters for the Army in Afghanistan. Why should it do something like that?

(and so on....)

No, our wonderful government had solved every major problem, so that all that was left for it to do was to make sure that under-16s couldn't buy table crackers.

Watch and be amazed

Jim Devine:

Right then Jim, let me understand this. You knowingly presented a receipt for "stationery" that you had faked, which you knew related to staff costs not stationery. You thought this was ok because someone that you won't name in the Whip's office (not the Fees Office, of course) said it was ok. It didn't strike you as odd, at all?

And you expect us to swallow that story?

Good luck in Court. You'll need it.

(Hat Tip: Old Holborn, via Leg-Iron)

Friday, 5 February 2010


Just before he left for the evening, my Practice Manager mentioned a small fact that had been drawn to his attention today. I tweeted it quickly at the time, but it deserves more attention than can be given in 140 characters.

The fact is that my firm, which has a mere 23 staff, has had to cope with the absence of at least one of them (and sometimes two or three), continuously for the last 3 years. Or, to put it differently, the last time when all our staff were present & correct was slightly over three years ago.

The reason is simple - a combination of maternity, paternity and sick leave. Whilst a degree of that is perfectly justifiable, and I for one would certainly never begrudge a reasonable level of leave for most of these reasons, the entitlement to these forms of leave has increased significantly under New Labour. Paternity leave, for example, did not exist at all ten years ago when my first child was born; I was only able to take a mere few days holiday. Maternity leave is the big winner, though - it is roughly double what it used to be.

Now, there are arguments in favour of this state of affairs. However, I want to bring home the real effect of these policies. The effect on my firm has been that roughly 5% of my staff have, at any one time, been absent. If we assume that New Labour have roughly doubled staff leave entitlements (which I would say is about right, on the whole), then 2.5% of my salary bill goes on staff who are not there as a result of New Labour's laws*. Add in the cost of temporary staff to cover for them and our back of the envelope calculation is back up to 5% or so.

So, dear reader, if you are in employment and are wondering where your last pay rise vanished to, there is your answer. Unwind those employment regulations and I will have a budget for an instant 5% pay rise for all my staff.

Ah, you say, but I am an evil capitalist employer so if I am released from the need to fund this, I will surely just keep the money. You may be right, to a degree. So let us assume that I save the cash. My profits will then increase commensurately, which will translate to an increase in my income. The same increase will apply to my income tax, of course - which I will pay at 40-50% instead of the 20% paid by the majority of the staff who would have received the pay rise. This means that the tax paid by the business on that 5% of the salary bill will double. All that money, there for the Government to invest wisely**.

Whether you are in employment or not, if you use public services or pay tax yourself, these regulations hurt you. There is my point. These regulations have a definite and distinct cost, and that cost is not just borne by nasty rich evil capitalists who can afford it easily.

The cost falls on you. It falls on all of us.

*to remain competitive, and encourage good staff to return in due course, we are quite generous with salaries during permitted absences. Gordon's recession means that may have to change, however.

**don't laugh.

Nagging Worries

On balance, I think it is good news that the Paddies have reached an agreement at Stormont. A long-term end to the violence that marred the UK for so long can only be good. There will still be arguments, I am sure, and the form of government that will rule Ulster is by no means ideal, but it must be better to argue in the Stormont chamber than to blow up the innocent.

I have one worry, though, and it is a humdinger. There is a clear message in today's news for those in England who are (justifiably) angry at constitutional unfairnesses such as the West Lothian question, which is that they should (i) get some guns, (ii) get some explosives, and (iii) find some Scots.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

An Alternative Way of Voting

So Gordon is going to announce today an intention to introduce the "Alternative Vote" to UK elections. Hmmm.

Let's get the surprising bit of this post out of the way quickly. I agree with him. Yes, you did read that correctly; I agree with something Gordon Brown is saying.

The "First past the post" system, i.e. just electing the candidate who has the most votes, has the huge advantage of seeming simple and straightforward. It is easy to explain. It is easy to understand. However, it stifles change. Let's say, for example, that I were to suggest creating a new political party; one that was generally centre-right albeit distinct from the Tories. Let's say, hypothetically, that I did it after a Spring General Election this year had produced a hung Parliament and hints of a fresh poll were in the air in the hope that a clear mandate would be given to one party or the other.

Doing so would be suicidal, frankly. My new party would, at best, suck votes from the Tories and help Labour back in. So it would be the absolute worst time to do it.

Yet such circumstances are the precise time when new parties are needed. When politics is in a state of flux, when people are reconsidering their attachment to the established parties, when there has just been a massive collapse in the people's respect for the political system, that is the time when people are both motivated to create a new party and willing to give one a chance. Yet our voting system means that the risk is too high. Better to settle for David than risk getting Gordon.

Or, to put it differently, if I realised after the event that my honest effort to improve British politics had had the effect of returning Gordon to power, I could never forgive myself.

Alternative vote is different, though. For those not au fait with the idea, it allows voters to provide a second preference vote. They might, for example, vote first for the Patently Party, and second for the Tories. Then, if my candidate did not get an overall majority, s/he would be eliminated and the second preference votes transferred to the Tory. So if the centre-right vote was 60%, split as 40% for the Tories and 20% for me, we would still keep Labour out.

In short, people could risk trying a new party. The atrophied rigidity of British politicss that I objected to previously could be broken - if people wanted to.

So I'm in favour of the AV system, in principle.

As for Gordon's announcement, I'm less impressed. A Prime Minister facing a likely defeat in a General Election that is weeks or months away, who has never faced the electorate or obtained any form of democratic mandate, suddenly wants to change the electoral system. Something that has not been a priority for 12 years (and was not a priority when the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill was published) is going to be rushed through with a vote next week. Oh really.

More seriously, this is a major change to an important part of our constitution. Even though I am of the view that the change is right, I don't think it should be introduced now. There will be many people who will need to think carefully about this idea; there are many potential pitfalls that we need to consider before intorducing it. Although I think it is a good idea, until I have heard from these people and heard the potential counter-arguments I don't know it's a good idea. Yet Gordon apparently wants the idea to be rushed through by attaching it to an existing Bill. Let's just consider that for a moment - he wants to change the entire basis on which MPs are elcted by way of a minor amendment to a pre-existing Bill?

It's the right idea, introduced at the wrong time, in the wrong way, by the wrong man.