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Entries in UK (51)


First-past-the-post is undemocratic

Tomorrow the UK is going to the polls for its first ever referendum, a nation-wide vote on whether to keep the first-past-the-post system or to move to the "alternative vote" system (aka, optional preferential voting).

The best argument against the first-past-the-post system is that it produces profoundly undemocratic results. As a single example, Canada just had a federal election on Monday using the first-past-the-post system. The main right-wing party, the Conservatives, gained 39.6% of the popular vote, and ended up with a majority government, with 54% of the seats. By contrast, the major left-wing parties, the Liberals, New Democrats, Bloc Québécois and the Greens, together gained 59.5% of the popular vote, but only ended up with 46% of the seats. In other words, the outcome was not determined by the will of the people, but rather by the split of the left vote into multiple parties.

Another way of looking at this is to determine how many seats a party gets in proportion to its share of votes. The Conservatives had a ratio of 1.4, the New Democrats had a ratio of 1.1, the Liberals 0.6, Bloc Québécois 0.2 and the Greens 0.1. So every Conservative vote was worth 14 times that of each Green vote - a result which cannot be described in any other way than undemocratic. Results become even more perverse if you look at Ontario, the largest province in Canada. The New Democrats got 25.6% of the vote and gained 22 seats, while the Liberals got 25.3% of the vote and gained only 11 seats. The primary vote was nearly identical, yet every New Democrat voter gets twice the representation of every Liberal voter!

In this particular case, the right-wing gained substantially from undemocratic outcomes, but that is not a general rule. For example, preferential voting was introduced in Australia by the right-wing as an effort to stay in power, because the left was unified while the right was divided. First-past-the-post benefits any large party that can dominate an ideology, whether it is left or right. The Alternative Vote system is by no means perfect, and falls short of proportional representation. But such gross distortions of democracy just do not occur under preference voting. Unfortunately, tomorrow the British people will almost certainly vote against AV. The Conservatives see the current system benefiting their survival in a largely progressive country. Elements of the Labour Party see a "no" vote as the best way of fracturing the current coalition. And the Liberal Democrats support the position, but everyone hates them at the moment anyway. So current partisan politics is going to block one of the most important reforms to British politics since female suffrage.


The Balkanised Society

David Cameron's plan for a "Big Society" is actually a blue-print for a Balkanised Society. Cameron has identified a problem that does not exist - Broken Britain - and found a solution that will make things worse.

The wave of public library closures will only be the start. More and more important social services around the country will be defunded and will collapse. Of course Cameron believes that everyone will donate money to charities to run these services, but charities should not be forced to fill in the gap that the government leaves behind. The government can't refuse to feed starving people on the grounds that surely someone will feed them, so why should it be able to use the same excuse for public services?

The "Big Con" is such a bad idea for three main reasons:

1. It is cost shifting, not cost saving. Okay, the government withdraws funding from thousands of public libraries. If it expects charities to pick up where it dropped the ball, the money is going to have to come from somewhere. Is there any evidence that having hundreds of small enterprises is more efficient in cost terms than having one large centralised service? Of course not. Why did Tesco and Sainsbury's replace all those independent grocers? Because of economies of scale - it is just cheaper to do things in bulk. This cup and ball trick is exactly the same con that has been pulled over Americans on health care. They don't want government to raise their taxes by 3% to pay for health care, ignoring the fact that they then need to pay 6% of their salaries for private health insurance.

2. It will redirect resources to the places that need them the least. Everyone can just go out there and volunteer to work in their public library. Let's ignore the fact that a part-time volunteer is probably going to do a poorer job than a full-time trained librarian, where are these volunteers going to come from? Presumably most people who have the time and inclination to volunteer are already doing so. It is not as if anyone is stopping them now. But let's assume that there is this vast untapped source of people willing and able to volunteer, but who refuse to do so until Cameron cuts public services. Who are these people and where do they live? We already know the demographics of volunteers, they tend to have above average education and income, and are often the non-working spouse in a wealthy family or a retiree. The public libraries may be very well served in small affluent (Tory-voting) villages, but in the places that need them most - the poorest, least educated areas - there will be the fewest volunteers.

3. It will create a Balkanised Society. Under Cameron's vision, there are no public libraries, there are community-group libraries. Want to know what that looks like? Go to small towns in Alabama, where every possible public service has been outsourced and replaced by the Southern Baptist Church. That is just fine and dandy if you are a Southern Baptist, but for anyone else living in the community they get pushed out or made to feel as unwelcome interlopers. The Big Britain, where everyone has equal rights of access, disappears, to be replaced by a fractured Britain, with power devolved down to the dominant communities. Do you think Britain is too segregated now? Just wait until local churches and mosques run not just religious services, but also libraries, community centres, sports clubs, swimming pools, schools, public housing, elderly care and so forth. I am sure that technically the government will not allow religious tests to get access to services, but secular Britain will change and splinter. One country, one standard, will be replaced by a fragmented landscape, where services and standards vary wildly from postcode to postcode, and anyone who does not conform to the local community will be ostracised. You don't think things could get that extreme? Again, look at America where the "Big Society" is stock-standard. Small towns across Utah still practice polygamy - they elect their own sheriff, who conveniently ignores the law, and anyone who dares to speak up is driven out. The rest of America has similarly fragmented - no police and overcrowded schools in a Black inner city area, outstanding public libraries and community centres in the affluent leafy neighbourhoods.


Cameron basically wants to shift public services off of general taxation and onto the individual shoulder, in the knowledge that the wealthy will pay less and get equal services, while the poor will pay more for degraded services. He sells it as if he wants people to work together, to all chip in for a good cause and to help each other. But that is exactly what a government is - all the citizens contributing to causes that they believe in, such as equal opportunity and rights for all. The UK public library system is the epitome of a Big Society idea - everyone in the country has made a collective decision that public libraries are an individual right, which all should be able to access. This is the Big Britain ideal that is going to be destroyed in Cameron's Balkanised Britain.


Good news on equality

It looks like the coalition government in the UK is seriously considering allowing same-sex marriage. The UK may join the ever growing ranks of countries with equal marriage laws. Perhaps one of the best parts of this move is that it may be enacted by the right-wing of politics, which means it can not be used for political point-scoring. The developed world is moving firmly to the left on social issues, the UK may not be the only country to allow same-sex marriage this year, I have my eye on France and New Zealand.


Who is the government meant to represent?

Imagine the representative democracy Baba Ghanoush, which has two main parties, Eggplant and Aubergine. There are 300,000 people living in Baba Ghanoush, with 15 seats each holding representing 20,000 citizens.

Overall a solid majority of people support the Eggplant party, with 180,000 citizens. The Aubergine party has a minority of supporters, at 120,000 citizens. Despite this, the country is finely balance, as there is optional voting. Of the Eggplant supporters, only 60% vote. The other 40% don't want to see Aubergine in charge, but many find it difficult to vote, because they are young and mobile or poor and disempowered. The Aubergine party, by contrast, gets 95% of its voters out on election day, since their supporters tend to be wealthier and expect their opinion to be respected. So the actual elections tend to be very close - with 108,000 voters for Eggplant and 114,000 voters for Aubergine. In the 15 seat election Eggplant tends to get a narrow victory, 8 seats to 7.

In 2010, the Aubergine party got a small bump, and managed to tip over seat 8, so it managed to form government. The first thing they did, of course, was decide how they could manipulate the electoral system so they could build in an advantage to themselves. Easy peasy, they campaigned on how horrible politicans are, so they should reduce the total number. Nothing has changed except the country has gone from 15 seats, with 20,000 citizens per seat, to 10 seats, with 30,000 citizens per seat. It does not seem an openly manipulative move, but what is the result?

Now, on a "normal" election year, Aubergine is going to win elections, because when Aubergine supporters get added to Eggplant seats they vote at a high rate, while Eggplant supporters added to Aubergine seats vote at a low rate. Nothing else has changed, there is still a large majority of Eggplant supporters and a narrow majority of Aubergine voters, but the system is now rigged to favour Aubergine.

Of course, the democracy of Baba Ghanoush is actually the UK, the Eggplant party is Labour and the Aubergine party is the Tories, and this is a real change being pushed through right now without oversight. The opinion of the Tories is that the role of government is to represent the voters not the people. They are going to abandon a system which more accurately reflects the people for one that more accurately reflects the voters. At face value, this can seem reasonable - people can't be bothered to vote? Screw them. But the job of a government is to represent all the people of a country, not just those that vote in high levels. Lots of people have legimitate grievances which cause them not to vote. If David Cameron had grown up as a black man in inner London, use to being persecuted by police and treated as a second class citizen, he might not vote either. If George Osborne had to work two jobs to make ends meet he might be too exhausted to vote as well. If Nick Clegg lived in a ghetto and never had a hope for change, he might also think that his vote didn't count.

This "election reform" by the Tories is just gerrymandering. If the Tories and Lib Dems actually wanted the government to better represent the British people they would be proposing compulsory voting and proportional representation. Instead their "reform" is just a power grab, based on the principle that if the poor don't vote they shouldn't be represented.


Is religion a force for good?

The other day I was listening to a Guardian Focus podcast debate on the topic of "Is religion a force for good?". There was actually quite a decent debate, with AC Grayling, Evan Harris, Jon Cruddas, Cristina Odone and Samia Rahman, apart from the cliche insults about Richard Dawkins being a "militant atheist" (yes, militant Christians blow up abortion centres, militant Muslims threaten cartoonists and militant atheists write thoughtful books about evolution).

Rightfully so, the debate did not get bogged down on whether or not religion does good things. Everyone was quite upfront in agreeing that religion does good things and bad things, and that the point of the debate is to determine whether or not the net effect of religion is positive. The religious majority on the panel did not even try to argue that religion was a historical positive force (as AC Grayling wryly pointed out, religion always seems so much softer once it has been stripped of power). Instead, the key (in fact, only) argument of the religious panelists was that religion is a positive force in modern UK society because it is a rebellious force against consumerism.

I must admit, I did a double take at this one. Religion acts against consumerism? Really?

How about the cult of Christ the Consumer in the US? "Jesus wants you to be rich" gets around 10,000 times more hits than "Jesus wants you to be good" on Google and about the same number of hits as "Jesus wants you to be nice". It is not unusual to see websites or books citing the Bible for this position, either:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9)

But you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth, that He may confirm His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day. (Deuteronomy 8:18)

This prosperity theology is not limited to the US either, it is the one of the largest (~40% of Christians) and most rapidly growing religions in Africa, where the promise of an escape from poverty is very attractive.

If you compare between countries, it is blatantly false that atheism correlates with consumerism. Would anyone really argue that highly religious America is less consumerist than atheist Scandinavia? Would anyone dispute that the greatest consumer event of the year is a Christian holiday, namely Christmas? Within countries, too, the highly religious will more often than not vote for the consumerist right wing of politics, rather than the socialist left wing of politics. Of course there are exceptions, Jon Cruddas from the debate is a good example of that, but remember we are talking about the net effect of religion.

I can only imagine that this furphy has arisen from the similarity of words "materialist" and "materialistic". Atheists are, almost by definition, materialist, in that they believe the universe consists of matter and energy. This is not the same as saying that atheists are materialistic, which is placing great value on wealth. Clearly both theists and atheists can be consumerists or anti-consumerists. But before Jon Cruddas and Cristina Odone argue that religion is a net force against consumerism, they need to explain the Jesus Football Bobblehead.


A foggy day in Liverpool





Inside the Guild Hall, the oldest secular building left standing in London, dating back as far as 1441 and still including one original window made from cow horn.

The British Natural History Museum.



Wikileaks give us the first accurate picture of Iraq

What is democracy in the absence of information? How can the public keep the executive accountable for its actions, when the executive has the power to keep its actions secret? The whole world owes wikileaks a debt of gratitude for doing something our governments refuse to do - letting us know how many innocent civilians they are killing in our name.

When our governments were not refusing to give us information, they were actively telling us lies. "We do not do body-counts". Lie. We now know that they do have a body count in Iraq - 109,032 violent deaths, made up on 66,081 civilians, 23,984 "enemy combatants", 15,196 members of the Iraqi security forces and 3,771 US and allied soldiers. Of course, these figures are suspect, there are clear cases of civilians being lumped in with enemy combatants, and deaths caused by the indirect effects of the invasion (eg through the general break-down in infrastructure and law) are not included. We now know that 700 civilians died simply for coming too close to checkpoints, including pregnant women trying to rush to hospital. We just have so many cases of the military blatently lying to us, such as trying to sell Pat Tillman as a hero who was killed by Iraqi insurgents when they knew he was the victim of "friendly fire". How many cover-ups like the rape and murder of 14-year old Abeer Qassim Hamzeh and her family were successful, and have never seen the light of day?

It is only thanks to wikileaks that we have even the faintest idea of what is happening in Iraq.

Deaths in IraqDeaths in Bagdad


A weekend in Cambridge

We had a delightful weekend in Cambridge with good friends. Beer tasting at the Cambridge beer festival, long morning sleep-ins followed up by home-made crumpets, a wander through the colleges, a trip to London to see a musical (Avenue Q) and a walk through the English country-side to a have a pub-meal at Coton. One of the most relaxing weekends we've had for a long time.


Up the Eye

We had almost the entire day in London before we had to head home to Brussels, but oddly the time just flew by and we didn't really end up doing that much. We walked around a bit, went to the movies and saw "Bruno" and then took a flight on the London Eye. The view is actually very good from up on the Eye, with an excellent vantage point over the Houses of Parliament, it must be quite the sight in good weather. Lydia decided that she would like to have a Cupid Pod like the couple next to us.

Afterwards we saw the interesting "Battle of Britain" monument, dedicated to the pilots who fought above Britain during the Nazi attacks in WWII. Remarkably this battle which raged over four months, so pivotal in history and killing 60,000 civilians, was fought by the Allies with only 2936 pilots (from around the world), of whom just 544 died during the battles. Winston Churchill's words remain apt today: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

Finally, we went to the Australian shop to stock up on essential items unavailable in Belgium (vegemite, barbeque shapes, mint sauce and the like), then had a final farewell beer with Russell before heading back to Brussels.