Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Political Issues

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on December 11, 2014

(If you’re the kind of person who needs trigger warnings for things, the following post almost certainly contains a mention of whatever triggers you, but doesn’t contain any graphic descriptions or endorsement of those things…)

There have been many things in politics that have depressed me over the last few years — the loss of the AV referendum, Labour playing silly buggers and blocking Lords reform, the Lib Dems’ collapse in the polls… there have been a lot — but I don’t think I’ve ever been as thoroughly, utterly, depressed by politics as I was today when filling out a YouGov poll.

After the standard questions came:
Which of these policies do you think would be better for the country:
a) Raising the minimum wage to the living wage
b) Banning all immigrants from claiming benefits until they’ve been here for four years?

In case anyone’s wondering, I chose a. I don’t know what the effects of ensuring people in low-paid jobs earn enough to feed, clothe, and house themselves would be, other than some poor people having food, housing, and clothing, but I suspect overall there would be fewer negative effects than there would be from letting people starve to death on the street because they’re foreign.

Then there were a whole bunch of questions about torture. “Do you think torture is ever justified?” “Should the UK co-operate with other countries in the use of torture?” “Should the UK make use of information it knows to have been obtained by torture?” and so on.

In case you’re wondering, the correct answers to those questions are “no”, “no”, and “no”.

Because this is what we’ve come to, in 2014, that these are questions that need to be asked. These are partisan political questions, about which there is debate.

I had hoped, until relatively recently, that we had as a society decided that it was probably a good thing not to let people starve to death if they lose their jobs. Apparently not, if we’re talking about waiting *four years* before people can claim benefits. Apparently if someone moves to this country, say to marry someone she loves, follows all the rules, becomes a citizen, pays her taxes, works hard and contributes to society, but then after being here three years she gets hit by a car and paralysed from the waist down, it is a matter for *debate* as to whether society should allow her to keep paying rent and eating food.

And note the wording of the YouGov question (as best as I can remember it) — the question implicitly accepts that both choices offered are good ones, it’s just that one might be a bit better than the other.

And again — torture? As a matter for debate, where people can argue in favour of torture without having people scream “holy shit, get away from me you fucking monster!”?

And this has been happening over and over again recently. The big political debate of the last few months — in the US, but infecting our politics too, as US politics is prone to — has been “is it OK for the police to gun down unarmed teenage boys in cold blood if they’re black? How about choking unarmed black men to death? Is that OK?”

Again, this is not something that we should be having a debate about. This is something that should be settled.

So a few pointers to add to the political conversation at the moment:
Leaving unemployed and disabled people to starve to death is bad. Yes, even if they’re foreign.
Leaving people to drown is bad. Yes, even if they’re foreign.
Murdering people is also bad. Yes, even if the murder is racially-motivated. In fact that’s one of the worst kinds of murdering. Don’t do that.
Raping people is also bad. Yes, even if you’re rich and powerful.
Torturing people is bad.
Revealing the most intimate details of people’s lives, like naked photos of them or (if they’re trans) their pre-transition name, without their consent, is bad. Yes, even if they were in a film.
Threatening strangers that you will do any or all of the above to them or their families is bad. Yes, even if they disagree with your opinion about a video game.

Those are the ONLY correct opinions on these matters. I am not normally much of a moral absolutist, but these are not things that really admit of any nuance. There are many, many, *MANY* grey areas in politics and morality, but those aren’t among them.

If we can’t, as a culture, even agree on the wrongness of murder, rape, and torture — if we can’t take those as axioms from which we can proceed — how the hell are we ever going to get the ability to solve the *hard* problems?

(CalDreaming posts tomorrow and Friday, Batman and Cerebus this weekend…)

“Immigration” is not “Immigrant”

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on November 27, 2014

There is a speech that the leaders and prominent figures of all political parties have given recently that makes absolutely no sense. It goes something like this.

UKIP are vile, and what they stand for goes against everything that makes Britain great. Make no mistake, their brand of narrow-minded xenophobia is not what the British people stand for, it’s not what the [insert party name here] party stands for, and it’s not what I stand for. We must take a firm stand against UKIP, and tell Nigel Farage that you can love your country without hating others.

So we will not let hatred win. We will win by making a case for our values, [insert party here] values, the traditional, forward-thinking, British values, that make Britain and [insert party here] great. We must stand up to Nigel Farage and say “No more!”

But at the same time, we must recognise that people have real, legitimate, concerns about immigration, and those concerns must be dealt with. Fairly, responsibly, [liberally/progressively/conservatively]. That is why I am pleased to announce that [if I get into government I will ensure that/I have pushed in government to ensure that] from 2015 all immigrants, children of immigrants, and people who have touched an immigrant, will have to wear a sign round their neck saying “unclean!” and ring a bell whenever they are in public.

It is by fair, moderate, sensible, [progressive/liberal/conservative] measures like this that we can tackle people’s legitimate concerns, while still keeping the benefits of immigration, and maybe stopping our last three voters from switching to UKIP oh shit did I say that out loud?

That’s far less paraphrased than I’d like.

Now, the worst thing about this speech is not the mealy-mouthed refusal to take a stand without immediately contradicting it, nor the craven abandoning of every principle in the face of the electoral juggernaut that is UKIP, whose greatest success to date has been to return two incumbent Conservative defectors to the seats they already held, with a reduced majority, but wearing a different rosette. It’s not even the unnecessarily cruel policies these speeches announce.

No, it’s that these cruel policies are pure theatre. They’ll hurt people, but they won’t deal with the problems they purport to solve. And the people making these announcements know that. They don’t intend them to.

Do you see the bait and switch there? “People have genuine and real concerns about immigration, therefore we will punish immigrants

Now, let’s accept for a second the politicians’ argument, that they’re not aiming these policies at racists or xenophobes, but only at those people (and they do exist) who have reasonable concerns. We’ll ignore for now whether those concerns are right or wrong, and just accept that. Those concerns generally amount to “there are too many people from abroad coming into Britain”. There are nuances — some are concerned about pressure on public services, others about housing, others about jobs — but they boil down to “too many people are coming here”.

(Again, I’m not saying those people are *right* to have those views — I’m a liberal, and tend to be in favour of free movement. But one can hold those views without necessarily being racist, and those are the people those speeches purport to be aimed at.)

Now, if you are presented with the problem “there are too many people coming here”, there are things that can be done about that. They range from changing the requirements for skilled worker and student visas slightly at one end, to UKIP’s policy of an all-out ban on any new immigration at all, including withdrawing from the EU in order to completely close the border.

I’m not saying those would be *good* things to do, but they would go towards solving the actual problem they claim to be dealing with. Too many people coming in — stop people coming in.

But no politician is ever actually going to do that. The Tories won’t because the City is so dependent on free(ish) movement, Labour won’t because so many public services rely on cheap immigrant labour, and the Lib Dems won’t because the majority of the party are still Liberals who believe in freedom of movement and internationalism.

So what we get instead is persecution of those already here. Making life difficult in a myriad tiny nasty bureaucratic ways for people who already live here won’t stop more people from coming — you only stop people from coming by, you know, stopping them from coming. Life in Britain is already, frankly, fucking horrible for immigrants (as my wife would tell you at great length, and she’s a white English-speaking immigrant and thus doesn’t get the worst of it). Anyone still moving here is doing so because they have a very good reason, and won’t be put off by pettiness like being unable to have a translator when taking a driving test.

It just makes people’s lives needlessly worse, but lets the politicians look like they’re “responding to people’s concerns” and “being tough on immigration”.

It’s not fooling anyone, least of all the people they actually want to fool, who are moving to UKIP in greater numbers all the time. Either actually deal with anti-immigration people’s actual concerns, however politically unfeasible that would be, or (the option I infinitely prefer) just say “no, we’re not doing that, we need immigrants”, and just stop trying to patronise voters. Unless, of course, the aim isn’t actually to attract the reasonable people with reasonable concerns about immigration, but to attract the bigots — in which case, again, just be honest and say “we hate the foreigns, they talk funny and they smell”, don’t try to pretend to be more principled than that.

And I’d remind Nick Clegg, especially, that there are as many *pro*-immigration voters as *anti*-immigration ones, and they don’t have all the major parties and a minor one that gets overrepresented on TV chasing after them. Maybe, just maybe, if he started making speeches that said “I won’t be needlessly horrible to vulnerable people” instead, we’d get back into double digits in the polls? Just a thought…

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How to do Constitutional Reform Totally Wrong

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on November 14, 2014

According to ITV:

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has unanimously agreed to recommend:

    Online voting (including on smart phones)
    Quicker ways of registering to vote (including on the day of an election)
    A huge programme of devolution as well as mandatory voting
    Extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds

Where to begin with the wrongness?
I’m more-or-less in favour of giving sixteen and seventeen year-olds the vote. I don’t really care one way or another, but fine,

Huge programme of devolution — show me the details. I don’t like the “DevoManc” stitch-up, but I’m entirely in favour of proper devolution.

But there are two big, HUGE, problems here for me — two problems so massive that I am actually angry and wanting to punch something.

The first is compulsory voting. I am absolutely, utterly, in favour of everyone who has the ability to vote using their vote. You won’t find a bigger supporter of the democratic process than me anywhere in the world. But I am utterly in favour of people CHOOSING to use their vote. It is utterly abhorrent to force anyone to take part in the process. There are many people with strongly-held convictions that stop them from participating in elections, whether because they believe the system to be illegitimate and that their participation adds a veneer of legitimacy, or because they hold religious beliefs that forbid them from taking part in secular government. To force them to take part in something that goes against their conscience is something no civilised society should do.

There are also, though, those who just can’t be bothered — surely they should be compelled to vote?
Firstly, because of the harm principle — “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (sorry for the sexist language — quoting John Stuart Mill). Refusing to vote causes no-one any harm, so no power should be exercised to force people to do it. That, to me, is an absolute.
But also because from a purely pragmatic point of view, people who can’t be bothered to vote will tend to have uninformed opinions, and to vote frivolously, because they don’t think their vote matters — if they thought it mattered, they’d vote.

So compulsory voting forces people to go against their deepest convictions, weakens the democratic process, and does so for no actual gain.

I have voted in every election since I turned eighteen — every council election, every EU election, every stupid local referendum about mayors or speed cameras that gets ignored anyway, all of them. I believe exercising my democratic rights to be hugely important. But should this rule be brought in, I would consider it my duty as a liberal and a democrat to take part in peaceful civil disobedience and refuse to vote. I’m a liberal, and I’m against this sort of thing.

But I wouldn’t even need to refuse to vote, it turns out, because the committee plans to take my vote away from me, by making it trivially easy to steal, or for someone to coerce me into voting for a candidate I don’t support. The introduction of online voting would be an utter disaster — as Dave Page puts it, “verifiable, anonymous, online — pick two”. Read his post — he made all the points I would have made about online voting a month ago. Basically, if you want to have online voting, you either give up the secret ballot, give up ever being able to check that the vote you think you cast actually went to the person you wanted to vote for, or (most likely) both.

This cretinous, foetid, outrage of a plan is what you get when you have a constitutional committee consisting of nine Labservative MPs, an SDLP member who might as well be Labour, and Jeremy Browne, the single most authoritarian Lib Dem MP in Parliament. Please God let these proposals be shredded, because as it is if they get accepted we might as well give up any hope of ever having a functioning democracy in this country.

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Imposition of Identity, English Parliaments, and “Englishness”

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on November 6, 2014

At Alex and Richard’s wedding a little over a week ago, I got into a discussion about devolution, inspired by the recent decision of the North-West Liberal Democrats to declare independence from the English party. This was entirely as moderate and reasoned as you would expect a debate on such an abstruse procedural matter among Liberal Democrats at a formal occasion like a wedding to be, by which I mean it ended with me and Jennie Rigg screaming incoherently at someone who I’d never met before, but who Jennie knows well.

The reason for this is that this person (who I won’t name as I’m probably misrepresenting him) believes that England exists, while Jennie and I (and Mat, who managed to remain calm) do not.

More specifically, he believes that England as a coherent country makes sense. I don’t remember many of his arguments, and I certainly don’t want to straw-man him, so please accept from here on in that I am misrepresenting him horribly, but that I *am* representing arguments I’ve seen elsewhere accurately. I’m talking here about a generic argument, rather than a specific person’s argument.

The argument is that if we have further devolution to Scotland and Wales, there must also be devolution to England. Not because it makes sense from a pragmatic point of view — an English Parliament would have a 90% or thereabouts overlap with the UK Parliament — but because “English identity needs to be represented”.

Now, I have problems with this for a few reasons. The first is that I don’t think decisions on the best way to govern should be based on intangible things like “identity”, but on more pragmatic factors like “do the people here speak the same language, do they have the same economic needs”, that kind of thing. My own view is that the level of devolution should be to areas somewhere in size between the old historic counties and the current European Union regions — “Yorkshire” and “Cornwall” make sense to me as lumps-which-can-be-governed, but “Lancashire” doesn’t, and “the North West” feels like more of a sensible unit in that case. But those sort of sizes, anyway — regions which are, if not homogeneous, at least small enough that people in different parts of them are aware of issues that affect people in the other areas.

But even putting aside the pragmatic factors, the question of identity is one I find quite infuriating. Because yes, there is an “English identity” — but it’s not an identity that actually incorporates huge swathes of England. Rather, when people talk about England and the English identity, nine times out of ten they live in, and are talking about, the Home Counties. In the case of a legislature, this would be poisonous — in fact we know it already is, because we live in a country already where laws are made by and for London with little or no concern for the rest of the country. I suspect that would be replicated in the case of an English Parliament, and I don’t see how Penzance, Newcastle, and Hebden Bridge benefit from having laws and regulations made to benefit London, whether those laws are called “British” or “English” (nor for that matter do I see that laws and regulations that benefit Penzance would necessarily be particularly helpful for Newcastle or Hebden).

But even on its own terms, if identity is what matters, the fact is, a large chunk of English people don’t consider “English” to be a meaningful identity. During the Scottish Independence referendum, the comment I saw more than any other from English people living, roughly, north of the Trent or the Dee was “take us with you!” — and, indeed, most Scottish Yes voters I talked to said “oh, we’re not trying to get away from the North, it’s the English we’re trying to become independent from”.

It may not be the case for all of us — perhaps not even a plurality — but there are *millions* of people in the north, and also in Cornwall, who feel a far greater affinity with Scotland and Wales than with those parts of England that people usually mean when they talk about “the English identity” and “Englishness”. Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds are closer to Glasgow not only geographically but also culturally and economically. Wales feels far less foreign to me than Oxford does.

There are many, many people who feel this way. I won’t, of course, say that there is no sense of Englishness outside the Home Counties — of course there is — but I know a LOT of people from Yorkshire, for example, who don’t think of themselves as English, as having anything in common with the South.

Any form of devolution based on concepts of “identity” has to take into account the fact that different people have different senses of identity. In the case of Englishness, there is a large group that doesn’t want to be part of that identity — but that identity can only exist by erasing and subsuming those people.

And this is what happens if you build systems based on identity, rather than based on practicalities. Ignore the “English identity” and you’re ignoring one group’s wishes. But the alternative is to impose that identity on people who in many cases already see themselves as being oppressed and ignored by the very people doing the imposition. Quite apart from the sheer futility of it as a legislature, an English Parliament would be seen by many, many people in the North as yet another case of something being done for London’s benefit, and imposed on the rest of us against our will.

The argument for an English Parliament boils down to an emotive one — that people’s feelings about England matter, that they’re not important. But by even making the argument that way, by framing it in those terms, the people making it are also saying that the feelings of those who disagree with them *do not* matter, and *are not* important. And we’ve already heard that rather a lot.

I’m British. I’m a Northerner. I’m an (adoptive) Manc. I’m a European. But I’ll never be English, and you can’t make me.

We Need STV, Not “PR”

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on October 21, 2014

(I hope the following is coherent — I’ve been sleep-deprived for much of the last week, and really don’t feel very good)

We no longer live in anything that could be made to convincingly pose as a two-party system, even if you squint a bit. Nor do we live in the two-and-a-bit party system we had from 1981 through 2010, where Labour or the Tories would get a massive majority and the Lib Dems would have a handful of seats.

At the next election, while the Lib Dems’ vote has haemmoraged, the party is still likely to get twenty or thirty seats — the same levels they were getting in the 90s — through targetted campaigning and the incumbency factor (I was predicting 35 until recently, and that’s still possible, but would require rather more competence in getting a liberal message out than we’ve seen). UKIP topped the poll at the European election and look likely to come third nationally, but seem unlikely to get more than (at the very most) one or two seats in the election. The Greens are polling better than they ever have, and may still overtake the Lib Dems in support, though I doubt it. And the Scottish National Party have more members than any UK-wide party now, I believe, with the Scottish Socialist Party and Scottish Greens all doing fairly well.

Some of this I’m very glad about, some of it I’m much less happy about — I’ve often said that I wish the two main parties in the UK were the Lib Dems on the liberal side and the Greens on the authoritarian centralist side — but all of it’s a fact. It’s looking incredibly unlikely that any party will even get as high a share of the vote as the low share the Tories got in 2010, when they got most votes but couldn’t get a majority without going into coalition with the Lib Dems.

In fact it’s possible, though not likely, that the following absurd situation could happen next time — the Tories come first in popular vote, but second in seats, Labour come second in popular vote but first in seats, UKIP come third in the vote but get no seats at all, the Greens come fourth but also get no seats, and the Lib Dems come fifth but get enough seats that they get to be the kingmakers who decide what party or parties form the next government.

I don’t think that’s going to happen — I think the Lib Dem vote will recover enough, and UKIP’s vote will drop off enough at an actual election, that those two parties will be pretty much neck-and-neck in the popular vote in May, with the Greens a distant fifth — but it’s not at all unthinkable.

Three years ago, after the massive failure of the AV referendum (still the most upsetting public event of my lifetime), William Hague was crowing at Conservative party conference that electoral reform was “dead for a generation”. Now the political system has become so chaotic and unpredictable that we’re starting to see kite-flying articles in the Tory broadsheets talking about how the Tories should consider putting “PR” into their manifesto for the next election. I don’t think that will happen, but electoral reform is not looking anything like as unthinkable as it did after the referendum — and if something as blatantly stupid as the scenario I outline above happens and we don’t get reform, I could see riots happening.

The problem is that the kite-flying we’re seeing talks about “PR”, not about a specific system. And this is dangerous. It’s partly the fault of the Lib Dems, for spending decades talking about “PR” rather than systems — and that was something that helped sink the AV referendum, when a load of thick bastards who thought they were being clever said they’d only vote for “full PR” without really knowing what the words they were saying meant.

There are actually at least three criteria that, in my view at least, need to be met to consider a voting system truly representative. Proportionality is one — the result should lead to roughly the same proportion of representatives for each party as there were people who voted for it — but it’s only one, and to my mind the least important of the three. The system should also be preferential — it shouldn’t discard as pointless all the votes that don’t go to the top two candidates, which the Biggest Loser system we’ve got now does — and it should allow people to vote for specific candidates, or more to the point *against* them. If you’ve got an incompetent representative, you should be able to get rid of that person even if they’re in a generally-popular party, and conversely if you’ve got a good independent candidate they should be able to win even without being a member of a party.

AV was my second-favourite choice, because it had both those latter two conditions. It isn’t proportional, but it is preferential, and it allows you to vote for individuals rather than parties. Other voting systems have these aspects in different measure. The only one I know of that has all three is the single transferable vote, or British Proportional Representation (to give it the name which would possibly sell it to more voters, and by which it used to be known). This is the system that the Lib Dems have always advocated, and it is also the one that the Electoral Reform Society, among others, campaign for.

And we need to start advocating for British Proportional Representation now, and constantly, and explaining the difference between that and just “PR”, which isn’t “full PR”, but is “only PR”. There are many proportional systems out there, and some are profoundly undemocratic. The Bloody Stupid d’Hondt System (to give it its full name) that we use for the European elections, for example, is hideously undemocratic even though it’s proportional — voters get to choose from lists of candidates chosen by the parties, with no control over which individual their vote helps elect. This moves control and accountability away from the voters and toward the party leaders. We all remember times when unpopular individual politicians from all sides have been kicked out by their local voters because of their personal unpopularity, even when they’ve been important figures in their parties (naming no Michaels, Peters, or Lembits). We’ve also seen, less often but occasionally, strong independent candidates get elected. Having a PR system like d’Hondt would ensure that that could never happen.

We need proportionality, but it must be balanced by the ability to vote for individuals. We need to make sure that if we do get electoral reform as a result of the current mess, it’s not a stitch-up that transfers power into the hands of four voters named David, Ed, Nick, and Nigel.

No to PR, yes to STV.

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