Apr 05 2015

Electoral Predictions

As something of a political anorak and a member of a political party, I thought I should make some political predictions for the 2015 General Election (polling on 7th May).

It’s difficult to call between Labour and the Tories as to who will have the most seats post election. The polls show a pretty much dead heat, and I don’t see either party making great gains or loses over the campaign. Labour have had a built in advantage which means that they get more seats for the same percentage of the vote as the Conservatives. It’s not clear if Labour’s “Scottish Problem” removes this advantage. My hunch is the Tories will do a little better than the polls are suggesting but both will have something around the 270 seat mark with Labour in the lead.

As a Liberal Democrat eternal optimism is something of of a pre-requisite. I joined the party when it had 22 seats and 22% of the national vote. I anticipate we’ll still get more than that after this election. I’m holding out for about 40 which is in excess of what pollsters predict. My reason for this optimism is that Liberal Democrat votes are local votes, and once in place Liberal Democrat MPs are difficult to dislodge, basically because they do a good job for their constituents (see here). 

The most interesting thing will be the SNP. I’m finding it a bit difficult to believe the predictions of an SNP landslide in Scotland, perhaps erroneously. My thinking is that they lost the independence referendum by some margin outside the central belt. It’s possible that the rise of the SNP vote represents a wider disaffection with Labour, not seeing them as representing Scottish interests in Westminster. I’m really struggling to believe they will exceed 50 seats but this is my biggest opportunity to be really wrong. Dropping the SNP seat count will benefit Labour.

UKIP will get nowhere, I actually have a bet with someone that they will have no further MPs beyond the two they currently have by defection. I anticipate they will poll relatively highly (i.e. above 10%), similarly the Greens who I don’t think will get a further seat. I suspect many will be jolly glad that UKIPs votes don’t convert into seats, perhaps fewer will be pleased when the same thing happens to the Greens for the same reason.

The likelihood is that no one party or even pair of parties (aside from Labour and Tory) will have sufficient seats to form a stable coalition. The key interesting thing is whether SNP or Liberal Democrats will have sufficient seats to make a coalition government, or at least a confidence-and-supply government with either Labour or Tory. It’s difficult to see the Liberal Democrats going for another round of coalition with the Tories with any enthusiasm, I see a fair chunk of the party being happy to try it with Labour. I’m not sure Labour will want coalition, they appear to have ruled it out absolutely with the SNP.

A Labour – SNP coalition would very definitely not be what we voted for, no English or Welsh voter could have voted for the SNP. The SNP is standing no candidates outside of Scotland. The party leader, Nicola Sturgeon, is not standing for a Westminster seat. The votes SNP MPs make in Westminster will often not effect their constituents, only those of English and Welsh constituents (see here). The SNP has shown little interest in matters south of the border other than to blame the English for all their woes, and to ensure that English students in Scottish universities pay English levels of fees whilst Scots, and indeed students from the rest of the EU, don’t. Not a happy guide as to how they might treat English interests in future. I can see a Labour-SNP coalition being quite damaging for Labour since I can imagine both Tories and Liberal Democrats will make a great deal of this lack of mandate.

Left thinking people, on the whole, appear happy with the electoral status quo. And so too do the Conservatives, the clue is in the name. But truly the Westminster system is broken, the Scots benefit from a fair degree of independence from Westminster with elections held using proportional systems at both local and national level. The rest of the UK could do with the same. 

Nov 17 2014

Feminism

A couple of days ago everyone on twitter (and off) was very excited: ESA landed a probe called Philae on a comet shaped like a duck. I was going to write about the appropriateness or otherwise of ESA project scientist  Matt Taylor’s shirt – it featured quite a few scantily-clad ladies.

On the face of it the story should have been: man wears offensive shirt on TV, people point out that it’s offensive, man removes shirt, man apologises. That is what happened, Matt Taylor seems a nice enough chap who made a mistake which he rectified and gave, what I’d consider, a proper apology.

The moment has passed, better writers than me have written a lot about the incident, but it has highlighted a theme.

The women that said the shirt was offensive received a torrent of abuse, including threats of sexual violence, and the men who did exactly the same thing didn’t. Friends on twitter did experiments where one (male) tweeted exactly the same thing as his (female) partner and got completely different responses: immediate abuse, continuing over 48 hours in the case of the woman, very little for the man. I’ve been moderately vocal and received pretty much nothing in terms of abuse, certainly in the first instance. It’s all very well saying that people should report abuse then move on, or that the threats are empty. But overwhelmingly it is women being threatened, not men. Twitter’s reporting mechanisms are restrictive and they appear unconcerned. And a threat is empty until it isn’t, and then it’s too late.

Several women I know simply don’t comment on “contentious” issues online because they know what response they’ll get. And this happens again and again and again and again and again and again.

Over the last few years on twitter I’ve come to realise that women lead different lives to me, they experience a whole bunch of things that I’ve never even contemplated as a risk. Since I joined I’ve learnt of:

  • the woman stuck in a pub toilet with men outside threatening to gang rape her;
  • the woman who cycles to work in London who gets groped and catcalled on a regular basis;
  • the women who never finished their PhDs because their male supervisors considered them to be sexual prey;
  • the women in science communication who were never quite sure whether whether they were published on merit or because the editor of that website had designs on them;
  • the women who don’t go on scientific field trips because basically they are too dangerous;
  • the women at conferences who think carefully about getting into a lift alone with a man;
  • the woman that won’t walk along the canal towpath in broad daylight;
  • the woman who wants her named removed from a football ground if they re-employ a convicted and unrepentant rapist and gets rape threats in return;
  • the woman who was sexually assaulted on a train;
  • the women who said it would be nice to have women on banknotes, and were threatened with rape;
  • the woman who supported immigration on Question Time and received abuse, and a bomb threat;
  • the woman who was going to give a talk about the portrayal of women in computer games but was cancelled because of the death threats made against her and the audience;
  • the woman who has suffered domestic violence;
  • the women who were groped by a senior party official, who never showed any remorse when uncovered;
  • the women who doesn’t wear headphones in the street;
  • the woman who gets followed on the London Underground;

Some of these are high profile public incidents, others are not but they are all women doing ordinary, unexceptional things. They’re spread over a number of years, and I follow a fair number of people. But nevertheless, regardless of public statistics, they are something that never impinged on me in the past.

I didn’t like the term feminist because it always brought to mind those women that told me everything men did was wrong but now I realise I was wrong. The feminists are the people that speak up and say “That thing you are doing is wrong“, the women in that group are attacked mercilessly in a way the men aren’t. I allowed my impressions of those women to be dominated by their attackers.

Apologies for being so slow on the uptake, I’m trying to do better in future.

Sep 01 2012

GCSE results through the ages

This year there is a fuss because GCSE pass results have not gone up as anticipated. Ultimately this turns out to be an issue with a new English exam which was marked generously in the January sitting when compared to the June sitting, thus relatively disadvantaging the later sitting in this year.

But aside from this, here is an graph showing pass rates for GCSEs since they started in the late eighties:

304

(source: BBC News)

A steady increase in those achieving grades A-C from 40% when the exam was introduced in 1988 to over 60% now. Never mind the unfairness within this year, what about those disadvantaged by taking the exams a few short years ago?

This behaviour is also reflected in A-level results, below is a graph showing the percentage of A grades since the 1970s.

304

(source: BBC News)

We examine students for several reasons:
1. To provide confirmation that they know certain things in order to be accepted onto further courses or employment;
2. To provide “ranking” information so we might pick the “best” candidates either to accept onto a course, or to employ;
3. To measure the performance of schools, arguably this is a serious misuse of examinations.

It would appear our examination system is focused on 2 rather than 1 but is not sensitive because ever more people are awarded higher grades each year which means distinguishing the best students is ever harder, and the graphs above suggest we cannot make year to year comparisons.

Previously A grades at A-level were awarded as a fixed proportion of the cohort, similarly the other grades. So for example the students with the top 8% marks were awarded an A grade. This scheme has some merit: it assumes that that students have the same performance distribution year on year and uses this property to derive grade boundaries.

My performance at work is graded in a similar way; in my case this is a poor scheme – there are no objective measures of my performance against my colleagues in the form of an exam. Furthermore the distribution is enforced in groups of less than 20 people; there are statistical tests to establish whether a distribution of grades matches a prescribed distribution – these tests come with a caveat that they are invalid for samples smaller than about 50.

However, for a schools examination system these problems are rather less relevant: we have an objective examination system and a cohort of thousands. The current system asks us to believe that every year students are getting better and better: todays A-level students are three times as good as the A-level students of the 1980s, and the GCSE students of today are 50% better than those of the 1980s. Most people outside the education system will find this difficult to believe, and not just because they took their exams in the “olden days”. For the record: I took my A-levels in 1988, and the old fashioned O’ levels in 1986 prior to the introduction of the GCSE.

The current scheme has a strong whiff of political necessity: how can you show your changes to the education system are a success if your marking system is such that grades are awarded in fixed proportion? The current system allows you to show year on year advances, like the production of tractors in the Soviet Union.

Aug 22 2012

Expertise in the House of Lords

House of Lords reform is now in the news, with the recent introduction of a Bill followed by a vote in favour of a second reading but the withdrawal of the timetable motion which would smooth the passage of the bill through parliament*. In this post I’d like to address a recent report published by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) on the impact of the proposed reforms on expertise in the House of Lords. CaSE is an advocacy organisation which is run with the support of a wide range of universities, learned societies, charities and technology companies.

The CaSE report on the House of Lords is well worth a read, it has a nice summary of what is meant by expertise, the proposed reforms, international comparisons, opinion from a survey of a small group of Lords and some specific examples of the influence of the Lords in the area of science and technology: specifically the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill (2008), Health and Social Care Bill 2011 (adding research as a core goal), and the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee Report on Nuclear Research and Development capabilities (2011).

The report ends with some proposals which, are as follows:

  • a 30% appointed House of Lords, rather than 20%;
  • a fully independent Appointments Commission;
  • more employees with STEM degrees in the civil service supporting the House of Lords;
  • increased not decreased resources for the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee;
  • compulsory training in STEM for MPs and Lords.

As an aside, it is possible that professional politicians are indifferent to the statement in the report that the Lords have provided the present government with fifty defeats in 2 years, in support of the idea that they are an important revising chamber, but to me it seems like a poor way to win friends and influence people in government.

Returning to the measures proposed: two of these measures I support, one requires some clarification and two I don’t support. I support a fully independent Appointments Commission, this is the logic of a largely elected upper house with an Appointments Commission whose role is to populate the non-elected element. I believe the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee requires at least flat resources.

I provide my objections to increasing the proposed level of appointments from 20% to 30% in following bullet form:

  • The House of Lords is a largely political house which carries out a political function: it provides a check on legislation originally drafted in the House of Commons. In my view this means that it should be elected to give democratic legitimacy to the role it plays. The current proposal for Lords reform contain an allowance for 20% of the upper chamber to be appointed, including Bishops from the Church of England, I see this as a necessary concession in order to gain wider acceptance which goes against democratic principles. The figure of 20% broadly matches the number of crossbench Peers in the current house, expanding this concession is  undesirable;
  • my second objection is against special pleading: this proposal is asking for special treatment for a particular group in society (scientists and engineers), if it applies to them why not to other groups? Should other religious groups have guaranteed representation? What about the lucrative football industry?
  • the contents of the report do not provide supporting evidence for the level of appointments they propose; indeed James Wilsdon’s section on expertise highlights how expertise is available to the Lords via the civil service and the committee system and quotes Lord Rees in saying that “we are all depressingly ‘lay’ outside our expertise”;
  • Once you’ve gone to the trouble of appointing scientists to the House of Lords are they actually going to turn up to vote? Lord Rees, Lord Krebs and Baroness Finlay are explicitly mentioned by the report, they have attendances to vote of, respectively 12% since 2005, 9% since 2007 and 39% since 2001.

If we, as scientists and engineers, want more representation in the reformed, elected House of Lords we should be standing for election, not pleading for special treatment.

The proposal for more scientists and engineers in the civil service requires some more investigation: are scientists and engineers applying to the civil service? If not I can imagine why: long ago as a shiny, new graduate I considered applying to the civil service but my strong impression was that the types of jobs available would not match my skills. Except in specialist areas there are no labs in the civil service, and the alternative on offer seemed to involve rather more essay-style writing for which I, trained as a scientist, was woefully under-prepared.

Compulsory courses in STEM for new Lords and MPs are superficially attractive, a voluntary course was offered following the 2010 General Election, with an uptake of 12; given this low take up it seems to me that such a course is not falling on fertile ground, I know my approach to such compulsion in work-related courses: rather surly looks and a considerable antipathy to what the company has forced me to learn.

The Tories have long opposed bringing an elected element to the House of Lords despite the Coalition Agreement we can expect them to provide luke-warm support for the proposed reforms. Labour have long had the reform of the House of Lords as a policy, they made significant changes in 1999 principally to remove the hereditary (frequently Tory) Peers but, once they had addressed the disadvantage they felt, they appear to have lost interest in further reform. We can expect Labour to make every appearance of supporting reform of the Lords whilst doing everything in their power procedurally in the Commons to block the proposed changes and indeed use those procedures to disrupt other government legislation. Except for a few recidivist Liberal Democrat peers we should expect to see uniform support for the House of Lords reform from Liberal Democrats in parliament.

The way this Bill will die is by none of the supporters of Lords Reform accepting anything but their own Lords Reform proposal.

References

CaSE House of Lords and Expertise report, June 2012

*Since I wrote this the reforms have been dropped: (link)

Aug 14 2012

Why I’m a liberal, and Giles Fraser isn’t

This post is stimulated by a piece Giles Fraser wrote a few weeks ago about why he wasn’t a liberal. It got me thinking as to why I am a liberal and clarified some things about the Church of England and socialists. This is a small revelation because I’ve never paid much attention to political theory – I’m more instinctive than that. I use the term “socialist” because alongside “communitarian” this is how Fraser describes himself.

 

I should point out that Giles Fraser’s post arose because of attacks on him, which he perceived to come from liberals, following his defence of circumcision in response to a legal decision in Germany outlawing the practice on children for religious reasons. Personally I think he was mistaken in this: he was being attacked by vociferous atheists who I would argue are a distinct group from liberals.

 

His argument is that the state or the Church of England, who represent the community, must step in and give individuals moral direction – that community interests trump those of the individual; liberalism, he argues, leaves us with a moral “anything goes” attitude that puts individual desires first. It strikes me that this thinking is at the heart of problems the Church has over equal rights for women and gay people. The church believes that it is the interests of the community that woman and practising homosexuals do not become bishops, and that gay people cannot marry each other. The liberal, individual-focused view is: why shouldn’t they?

 

Extending this beyond the immediate case: my view of democracy is that it is to enable all individuals to make their views know, and powerful in government. The communitarian view appears to be that it is an all or nothing bid to be *the* representative of the community. So if you look around the union movement you will see them seeking to be *the* representative of their group, similarly the Labour party appears to have little interest in anything but one party rule by itself. Similarly the Church of England clearly feels itself to be *the* moral conscience for the nation.

 

Perhaps the problem for me with communitarianism is the size of the unit on which it is now enacted: in Britain a group of approximately 60 million people, this is meaningless to a human. Our real communities are usually at the level of neighbourhoods, parishes or boroughs – although I would argue these days that we can form communities ignorant of geographical location – but surely no one can believe in a community of 60 million people? It’s true we have a form of local democracy but this is relatively weak compared to the centre and is subject to one-party states in many parts of the country based on the first-past-the-post electoral system rather than any truly democratic mandate.

 

Liberalism does not deny the existence of community, in fact takes an active part in it both on the really local scale and nationally: the state pension in the UK was introduced by Lloyd George and the remainder of the welfare state followed from a report written by another liberal, William Beveridge. From a liberal point of view the welfare state is a mechanism to enable individuals to maximise their potential. Whilst atheist myself, I don’t see the liberal position as being intrinsically atheist, as Fraser suggests, liberalism says that individuals should be free to follow their own religious beliefs, only limited when they impinge on others.

 

Returning to the events that launched Fraser’s post: can you imagine the uproar if the local chapter of the Hell’s Angels announced that from today they were going to circumcise each of their male children shortly after birth?

 

My liberal view is that men should be free to decide for themselves if they wish to have their foreskin removed but not impose that view on their children. If opposition to this is a touchstone of communitarianism, then I’m proud to be a liberal!

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