Friday, April 22, 2011

update -

we can look forward to the image of a severely broken tescoes with "closing down sale" scrawled across it adorning many a left wing bedroom over the next few years

there seem to be two distinct narratives emerging

a lot of ground level spectators seem to be under the impression that there was a concerted, deliberate attack on the shop by some lefty / anarchists which the police stepped in to stopped (ask someone what caused the fuss, and they will say "tescos"

on the other hand, other people are saying that seventy police with helicopters and horses converged to evict four (4) people from a squat, and that when they saw 70 police on their street, a lot of other locals emerged to find out what the hell was going on and things escalated from there

there is a film on the interwebs of tescos being "ramraded" (not firebombed -- it doesn't look burnt out to me) and this looks very much like spur of the moment vandalism -- not something pre-orchestrated

and now, here is a true story:

an old man became very scared, because he thought that there was an unidentified intruded in his garden -- whether a drunk, a burglar or a some kids fooling about, he did not know

he dialled 999, or, for listeners in America, 911, and asked to speak to the local police "I am very scared because I live alone and there is an unidentified intruder in my garden"

"it doesn't sound like he's committed any crime" said the officer "and at the moment, we really can't spare any officers -- we will send a car to check it out, but it might not be for three or four hours."

a bit late the old man phone the police again

"you don't need to bother with that police car" he said "the intruder was holed up in my potting shed, so i got my old shotgun and killed him"

five minutes late, the house is surrounded by panda cars, armed officers, searchlights and a helicopter is circling over head. in all the commotion, a very surprised looking tramp emerges from the potting shed, and his led away by a liason officer

The police officer in charge is absolutely furious

"You told us you'd killed him!" he said
"Well, you told me you didn't have any spare policemen" said the old man

Thought for the Day

ok : this is how it looks to me

-- tescos opens, after a long campaign by (some) local people to stop it from opening (Stokes Croft / Cheltenham Road / Gloucester Road are a characterful part of Brizzle, with cafes, independent shops, two bakeries, original Banksy graffiti, refreshingly free from all the faceless highstreet brands; the fear is that tescos will put the small shops out of business, and the empty small shops will be taken over by more subway and more startbucks. I rather like starbucks, but I think eight is probably sufficient for one town.

-- some campaigners stage a rather raucus but from what I could see peaceful and good natured demonstation outside the shop. although i use sainsburies, scumerfield and the independent one by the arches, I don't go in tescos if for no other reason than that you don't cross picket lines; you just don't.

-- meanwhile, there is a squat going on in a building near tescos, full of dangerous media studies students and sociologists. squatting isn't against the law -- it's a civil matter.

-- however, mysteriously, the State discovers that the squat also contains a lot of "potential" petrol bombs, or "bottles" as they are usually known

-- the State decides that the best thing to do is to evict the squatters -- i.e send lots and lots of bobbies onto a street where there is already a raucous, but essentially peaceful, demonstration going on

-- they further decide that the best way to do this is to close off both ends of the road so that even local people who have nothing to do with the squat or the demo can't get to their own houses (which is presumably why they surged towards my street)

-- they also decide to do this is on a Thursday before a public holiday, when lots of people are out, have been drinking, and don't have to get up the next day

-- whatever you may say about Chris Chalkley, and he's always been very charming to me, his think national act local campaign (painting murals on boarded up buildings etc etc etc) has either created a sense of a Stokes Croft Community or plugged into a feeling of community that was already there: I certainly have a "sense of place" and am pleased to live in the area in a way that I haven't felt about many other places where I've lived. so naturally, telling people that they can't walk down their own street in a street which has quite such a strong sense of identity was never going to be pretty

-- sure enough a riot develops, bricks get thrown and riot shields and truncheons get put into people's faces and tescos gets smashed up

-- in a fortnights time, when the windows have been repaired and tescos has reopened the peaceful hippies will want to stage another peaceful protest, and presumably the State won't let them because of what happened before

-- result!

this is just my impression: i don't know any more than anyone else does, and maybe there really was a bomb making factory and maybe V really was bussing anarchists in from Wales. the State controlled media is largely ignoring the story

off to the cathedral now

Literally three minutes from my front door

Basically, there has been a peaceful protest by environmentalist and community activists against a new branch of Tescos opening on Stokes Croft. Going on for about a year. The shop opened at the weekend, and there's been three or four hippies outside it ever since, with big "no Tescos here" signs, and giving away (I think) cakes they've baked themselves. ("I like the point you are making, and I like the good-natured way you are making it" I said to the man in the wooly hat yesterday.) Depending on who you believe, either a lot people from out of town who "like a bit of anarchy" descended on the area; or else the police decided that now would be a good moment to evict some squatters from a house over the road, and things turned excitable. This is only what I've picked up from the interwebs and chatting; I'll read the lies in the paper tomorrow. I was in the pub during the worst of it, and then in a friends house until late: all very quiet when I walked home, although we had smelt burning, and there were helicopters with searchlights (no batsignal that I could see). Did see a man with a mobile phone saying "That was absolutely fantastic" but for all I know he could have been talking about the party he'd just been too. I'm fine, no sign of anything bad having happened on Snandrews Road. (I haven't yet worked out how the police came to be baracading the demonstrators on Picton Street: if they were cross about Tescos, why would they have been surging away from it Stokes Croft (where Tescos is) towards some residential streets? Will report back tomorrow, assuming capitalism hasn't fallen. Meanwhile, I'm going to bed.
apparently, there has been a riot outside my house.  i didn't start it. in fact i was in the hill grove porter stores talking about 70s sitcoms and innuendo in batman with the bristol sci-fi group. we did hear a helicopter over head and wonder why the pub was so quiet. and then we noticed lots of young people outside the Croft (a nice pub where i sometimes hear folk music) and some police men with horses. and lots of cars. i am currently sitting in clarrie's house eating brie. if people start throwing potential petrol bombs, we shall potentially fiddle. honestly, nothing to see here, i'm fine, probably going to walk home in half an hour. going to church tommorrow and to see morris dancing on Saturday. but feel very spontaneous and immediate and cyber.

not actually literally outside my house, but if the police barricade had'nt been there they might have got to the bottom of my street, possiby

Thursday, April 21, 2011

What if they gave an election and no-one came (4)

So: why are the "no" camp putting forward arguments which they know (unless they really are lunatics) are not true?

The easy, cynical answer would be "self interest". The Fluffy Bunny party wants a system that will favour Fluffy Bunnies, and the Swivel Eyed Warmongers and Smug Posh Racists want a system which will favour the Warmongers and Racists party.

The Fluffy Bunnies currently argue that  a system in which 25% of the votes equates to 25% of the power is preferable to one where 25% of the votes equates to 0% of the power, but since that's not on offer, they'll settle for one where 25% of the votes equates to 1%, or 5%, or 10% of the power. But the Smug Posh Racists and the Mad Warmongers are quite happy with a system where 49% of the votes equates to 100% of the power. Why would they change it? But if the Fluffy Bunnies believed for one moment that they could win under First Past the Post, they'd abandon their principled commitment to P.R pretty damn quick. When it looked as if Labour could not win an overall majority, Tony Blair argued that a pact with the Liberals -- the price of which would certainly have been electoral reform -- was morally right: but once he looked like getting an overwhelming majority by himself, he mysteriously forgot that the Liberal party existed.

But I don't actually think that this is the reason, or the main reason, that most of the Red party and all of the Blue party hate the idea of constitutional reform. I think the real reason is simpler and sadder.

I don't think that most politicians really care, very strongly, about their parties, and certainly not about their parties' policies or ideologies. How could they? The Red party and the Blue party are now virtually indistinguishable -- which is to say, indistinguishable to anyone who isn't a member of the Red party or the Blue party. Oh, party animals who read this column will take up their pens to tell me that the Red / Blue party is evil in all respects and whatever the Blue / Red party may have done in the past, the Red / Blue party would have been far, far worse. Unemployment going up? Yes, but it would be going up faster under Red / Blue. Involved in three pointless foreign wars? Yes, but Blue / Red would have got us involved in five! Blue / Red party reintroduced stoning for adultery? Yes, but the Red / Blue party would have introduced crucifixion. Freud called it "the narcissism of small differences": as esoteric to someone who isn't a supporter of one of the two big teams as the doctrinal differences between Baptists and Methodists are to someone who doesn't believe in a god of any kind. [*]

I think that what politicians really care about is The Game. One politician may call the other a pinko Stalinist commie working for the abolition of freedom throughout the world, and the other may retort that the first guy is capitalist pig who'd start sending little boys up chimneys if you gave him half a chance. But that's only like one boxer punching another boxer very hard in the face, or one checkers playing huffing the other checkers players king. Once the bout is over, they are the best of friends. When a politician dies, all the others queue up to say how wonderful he was. If Cameron really believed half the things he says about...about whoever the hell's leader of the opposition this week, you can look it up as easily as I can....then he would refuse to stand next to him, have a cup of tea with him, speak to him. He would throw mud in his face whenever he saw him. As a matter of fact, I think that there are lots of people who should be spat on and have mud thrown in their faces if they appear in public: Melanie Phillips, Nick Griffin, people who drive bicycles on the pavement. But Cameron doesn't think that of Thingy, and Thingy doesn't think that of Cameron. It's all theater: like one of those wrestling tournaments where everyone pretends to have a personality but all the moves are planned in advance.  

Some people positively like going to church. They like the smell of incense, they like the music. They like old fashioned social events, home baked cakes and little knitted mittens and terribly old fashioned children's parties -- a social world that somehow got fossilized in the 1950s. Many is the vicar who has lamented that the most trivial organizational change within his parish is resisted with a theological zeal.

"Maybe more young people would come if we held the service at 2PM rather than 10AM?"

"But services have to be at 10PM. It's in Leviticus. Or even if it isn't, it should be. We've always done it this way. WE'VE ALWAYS DONE IT THIS WAY."

There may be some conservative theologians who can give you chapter and verse about why a lady man can preach a good sermon, run the Sunday school, sing in the choir but can't, for ontological reasons, be a priest. But 97% of those who sincerely regret the introduction of female clergy-people do so because it fundamentally changed the social role of the Vicar and the Vicar's wife. Church isn't like wot it used to be in the olden days.

There's nothing terribly wrong with this. Churches depend on people like this, and people like that do lots of good, unglamourous work in their local communities. They never start wars and they hardly ever set fire to Korans. But they do tend to alienate the kinds of people who are quite interested in God but have no real interest in jumble sales.

Similarly, some people like politics. That's why they make it their hobby, or their profession. Oh, doubtless some people join the Swivel-Eyed Warmonger Party because they studied the works of Marx and Spencer and decided to dedicate their lives to securing for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of the industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Doubtless some members of the Smug Posh Racist party originally joined up because they agreed with Milton Keynes that unfettered free markets are the only way to really establish prosperity for all, except the common people. But most of them aren't really in it for that. They're in it because they enjoy the game. They like standing on hustings and kissing babies; they love the noble traditions of the House of Commons, making funny "hear hear" noises and trying to remember exactly how honourable the member opposite is meant to be. At a lower level, they like running fund-raisers and putting leaflets though doors and organizing committees and canvassing votes. Asking three streets if you can rely on their vote next Thursday is great fun, if you like that kind of thing. (This is equally true of the big brave extra-parliamentary demonstrators. Oh, there may be a certain amount of genuine popular outrage spilling onto the streets. But there's also an awful lot of people who are secretly quite pleased that the Tories are back in power because protest marches are such fun.)

The Party is a finely oiled machine, not for winning arguments, but for winning The Game. It isn't enough for someone to support your party: they have to make a positive decision to walk down the road and vote for it. (It will probably be raining. It usually is.) An election doesn't tell you which party had the most supporters: it tell you which party's supporters were most willing to get off their bums and walk to the polling station.

Which may, for all I know, be a very good system: it may very well be that the person who can't be bothered to get out of their armchair doesn't deserve a say in how the country is run, in the same way that Robert Heinlien thinks that anyone who hasn't been in the army doesn't deserve a say in how the country is run, and Richard Littlejohn thinks that anyone whose first language uses a non-Roman alphabet doesn't deserve a say in how the country is run. But it has an unintended consequence:  elections are not about persuading people to vote for you: they're about mobilizing the people who were going to vote for you anyway to stand up and walk down the road. Who goes round to the largest number of supporters houses and says "we notice that you haven't cast your vote, would you like a lift to the polling station?" wins.

Change the system, be it ever so slightly, and the rules of The Game changes. Once my participation in democracy is extended from "put a cross next to the candidate of your choice" to "put the numbers 1, 2 and 3 next to your first, second and third choice of candidate" then it becomes harder for the Labour Candidate to say, as he once did, outside the convenience store at the bottom of Picton Street "Even though you think my leader is a swivel-eyed lunatic, and even if he really did lie about a war, I implore you with all my heart not to waste your vote on the Liberals, because that might let the Tories in." (I paraphrase, slightly. The Liberals were meanwhile sending me hand-written letters imploring me not to vote Labour, because that might let the Tories in.) They would have to start saying "I know that you are a Liberal Supporter, because you believe in personal freedom; but can I ask you to consider the many ways in which Labour has promoted personal freedom, and consider putting us in second place."

To campaign, slightly more, on the issues. And that changes the rules of the Game. And if the Game is what you believe in, that's a hard thing to swallow. 

Don't worry. It is most unlikely that the "Yes" campaign will carry the day in the referendum. Even if they do, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that a "Yes" vote will lead to the 2015 election being fought on AV. If the Yes team wins, I imagine Cameron will point out that the turnout was very low, and that a vote by 30% of the population doesn't imply a clear "mandate" for constitutional change. But he will have a period of contemplation during which he listens jolly carefully and then does whatever his intestines tell him. So the Reds and the Blues will retain their hegemony for few more years. The Great Game -- in which we all agree to pretend that Red are so evil that we have to vote Blue to keep Red out, and that Blue are so evil that we have to vote Red to keep Blue out will carry on.

And the result will be that it won't just be commies and anarchists and cynics who say that they can't be bothered to vote. Faced with increasingly indistinguishable horses more and more people will stop paying attention to the race. Disinterest will be come mainstream. No-one will be able to remember the name of the leader of the opposition. Oh, a few people will still bother to vote, just as few people still bother to morris dance and a few people still bother to renovate old steam engines. But it will be a weird hobby for nutters. And, sooner or later, the whole archaic muddle will get ripped up and chucked in the bin, and someone will thrash out something better. Compulsory voting? Voting via the internet? Regional assemblies? Decentralized power? Regular referenda on specific issues? A directly elected president? Two proportionally elected houses of parliament? Or maybe something more outre: non-professional politicians "called up" to serve a year or two in parliament, like jurors or magistrates? Who knows. But surely, surely surely, in an age of i-pods and interwebs, we aren't going to carry on walking down to a shabby church hall, standing in little coffin shaped urinals, secretly making a stubby little cross on a stubby little bit of paper and then folding it up and poking it in a box?

But change won't come as the result of a new chartist movement. It won't be initiated by the people we now think of as politicians. They'll just wake up one morning and find out that the rest of us have long since stopped paying any attention to their funny little "election" game.

[*] I don't say there is no difference. There is a difference. I believe I could explain it. It has to do with free will, like most things. But I wouldn't expect anyone outside the God club to care very much.

A useful summary of both sides of the argument

Why David Cameron Is A Liar

by Peter Bensley

published on Facebook on Thursday, 21 April 2011: reprinted with permission.

Here's the full text of Cameron's speech on AV:

I don't mean to give the impression that there is only one lie in this speech. This is not at all the case. But rather than enumerate and refute them one by one I want to focus on one and make it absolutely clear why I am convinced that the Prime Minister is trying to mislead you.

"Supporters of unpopular parties end up having their votes counted a number of times…

…potentially deciding the outcome of an election…

…while people who back more popular parties only get one vote."

Let's look at a sample AV Election:

First Round: E is eliminated.

■A 22

■B 21

■C 20

■D 19

■E 18

Second Round: D is eliminated.

■A 27

■B 25

■C 24

■D 23

Third Round: B is eliminated.

■A 34

■B 32

■C 34

Fourth Round: A is the winner.

■A 55

■C 45

According to David Cameron, E voters are counted four times: For their first choice in the first round, their second in the second, and so on, while A voters are only counted once.

This is a lie.

The fact is, the votes for all candidates are counted four times. The votes for A are counted in the first round, then again in the second round, then again in the third and fourth rounds.

If the A & B votes truly were counted only once, and weren't counted as many times as the C/D/E votes, the election would look like this:

First Round: E is eliminated.

■A 22

■B 21

■C 20

■D 19

■E 18

Second Round: B is eliminated.

■A 5

■B 4

■C 24

■D 23

Third Round: A is eliminated.

■A 6

■C 25

■D 25

Fourth Round: C is eliminated. D is the winner.

■C 24

■D 26

If you vote for a candidate who is never eliminated, your second choice never comes into play, but your vote is cast in every round, and keeps your candidate from being eliminated in every round.

So when the Prime Minister says that E voters get many votes while A voters only get one, there are only two possibilities:

1.The Prime Minister of the UK does not understand how runoff voting works.

2.David Cameron is deliberately lying to us all for political gain, and hopes that we will be too naive to catch him doing it.

We've all heard a lot of jokes about how lying is to politicians what swimming is to fish, so it's easy to be cynical and blase about this kind of dishonesty. It's easy to keep on voting for someone even when he clearly has this much contempt for you, because, hey, the alternatives are all politicians and therefore liars too, right?

By treating this behaviour as inevitable we've made it acceptable, and that's what I'd like to see change.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What if they gave an election an no-one came (3)


"I am on neither side in the present controversy. But I still think the abolitionists conduct their case very ill. They seem incapable of stating it without imputing vile motives to their opponents. If unbelievers often look at your correspondence column, I am afraid they may carry away a bad impression of our logic, manners, and charity." - C.S Lewis, letter to the Church Times 15 Dec 1961

So: come Thursday fortnight we all get to traipse down to the polling station and have a vote about how we want to vote. A sort of meta-vote. "Yes" if you want to go over to the first, second and third preferences system; "No" if you want to stay with the simple majority system. There is no way of indicating that you'd rather have Proportional Representation, or that you think that the vote-counting system isn't the main thing which is screwed up about our version of  parliamentary democracy.

If I could be bothered, I might make out some posters saying "Vote 'Maybe' On May 5th." 

If I were the "No" campaign, which I hasten to say that I am not, I could muster a number of perfectly sane arguments for sticking with the system we have at present, however crazy that system it may be.  [1]

1: The crazy system was not invented by anyone. It just grew. Gradually, and incrementally. Having an organic constitution that isn't written down in any one place is one of the special and unique things which make us British, like Morris dancing and the shipping forecast. We should, therefore, only change it gradually and incrementally, and there should always be a presumption to the status quo. "If it ain't broke don't fix it" is a good principle. "Even if it is broke, be careful of fiddling with it if you don't know what you are doing, because that may very well make things worse" is a pretty good principle too. Presumption in favour of the status quo does not mean "never change anything, ever" any more than "presumption of innocence" means "never find anyone guilty, ever". It just means "be pretty damn sure you know what you are doing". Wait until there is an overwhelming case. Beware of unintended consequences. The case for giving women the vote in 1928, or giving all men the vote in 1832, were pretty overwhelming. Counting the votes in a more convoluted way, not so much. 

2: Some people quite like the kerrazy system. Practically no-one likes the "alternative vote" system. The supporters of AV really want a PR: they are pretending to like AV because that was the only system that the people who don't really want any change at all were prepared to agree to a referendum on. [2] We're going to a great deal of trouble to replace a system which some people like and some people don't like with one which nobody likes. We're going to a great deal of trouble to replace the worst system imaginable with the second worse system imaginable. At best, there's a huge fuss and palaver, we conduct the 2015 election on AV, and in 2020 or 2025 we have to go through the whole process all over again. At worst, we spend the next 100 years saddled with a system that no-one wanted in the first place. (And the people who object to all change on general principles will, of course, say "You want ANOTHER referendum? Will you NEVER be satisfied?") 

3: The supporters of AV appear to take it for granted that an election result which accurately reflects the "will" of the people is the most desirable result. This does not seem to me to be self-evident or axiomatic. Granted, a minority of die-hard Black Party supporters don't really care what is done to the country, provided it is done by a person wearing a Black rosette and a minority of die-hard White Party voters don't care what is done to the country provided it is done by a person wearing a White rosette. But what everyone else wants is good, efficient, competent leadership -- a prosperous country, low rates of crime, clean hospitals, well educated children, Folk Waves returned to its Monday evening slot Radio Derby, et cetera et cetera et cetera. They don't actually care all that much about parties. Oh, we may have our own personal opinions on whether the Blue party policy on law and order is better than the Red party policy on law and order, in the same way may happen to have a personal opinion about whether the committee of the Little Gidding swimming club should spend this years subscription money on installing hair dryers in the changing rooms or on fixing the diving board, but what really matters to us is that the police catch criminals and the swimming pool stays open. It is at least arguable that a parliament with an overall majority of Red MPs -- even if the Red party does not command an overall majority of support among actual voters -- will do a better job of actually organizing the police force than a parliament consisting of equal numbers of Red, White and Blue MPs would have done, even though an equal number of Red, White and Blue votes were actually cast. Hung parliaments necessarily involve lots of messy compromises and back-room deals, and all three parties having to pretend to support policies which none of them actually agree with. You might very well think it best that the Red party gets a chance to put their policies into practice without being blocked all the time by the White party -- even though you yourself like the policies of the White party better. For most people, party politics is not like supporting a football team or signing up to a religion. It's more a set of vague preferences. The "Yes" campaign seems very good at showing that "first past the post" marginalizes smaller parties and tends towards two-party rule. It seems rather less keen to show why that is necessarily a Bad Thing.

However, the naysayers do not appear to arguing for the principle of conservatism; or that we are being asked to replace one unpopular system with another unpopular system, or even that single party rule is preferable to perpetual compromise. In fact, it is hard to work out what their real case is. They claim that AV is more expensive than FPTP. They point out that the referendum has cost £91 million, although it isn't clear if that money is refunded if everyone votes "no". They argue that the £130 million we are going to spend on voting machines to administer the new system would be better spent on hospitals, bombs and duck-houses, which would be a fair to middling argument if anyone had proposed buying voting machines, which they haven't. They argue that it would let extremist parties in, which is hard to reconcile with the fact that the extremist parties are against it. [3] 

Cameron's speech yesterday was beyond parody. He keeps appealing to a weird constitutional essentialism under which the Alternative Voting system is "un British." I think I understand what "un British" means. For example, Eric and Ernie are "British", and Groucho Marx is "un British"; bacon, eggs, and fried bread are "British", if consumed at breakfast time, but blueberry waffles are  in the same context "un British". I suppose, then, the present system is British because that's the system we currently have in Britain, and a different system is, at the moment, not British because that's not the system that we have in Britain at the moment. How's that an argument? He repeated the ridiculous claim that under the proposes system, some people get more votes than others which is. Just. Not. True. [4] And he said that " It could mean that people who come third in elections will end up winning." In case this concept is too hard to grasp, the Naysayers campaign leaflet [5] helpfully provides a photo of four sprinters crossing a finishing line. The man in third place is marked "The winner under AV".

"It is wrong that the person who came second or third can overtake the person with the most votes and be allowed to win because the second, third or even lower choices of supporters of extreme parties such as the BNP are counted again and again and again" it explains, a trifle breathlessly.

As an argument, this really is on the same level as saying that you ought to believe in God, because that's the only way to avoid being an atheist, or that we ought to reintroduce capital punishment because otherwise we won't be able to execute any murderers. If you define "the person with the most votes" as "the person with the most first choice votes" and "the person who came second or third" as "the person who would have come second or third under first past the post" then it is a no-brainer that the "person with the most votes" will sometimes come second and the "person who came second" will sometimes come first. That is, AV will sometimes come out different to FTP. That is the point of it, you ignorant little maggot. We have a thousand people: each of them with a different set of preferences between the Red Party, the White Party and the Blue Party. We have to turn those thousands sets of preferences into a single man -- a Red Man, a White Man or a Blue Man. Some people think that "the man who was some people's first choice, lots of people's second choice, a few people's third choice, and hardly anybody's last choice" fills that role better than "the man who was a few people's first choice, but the everybody else's last choice." Cameron has literally said "The only possible system is the one where the largest single minority wins, because in all the other system,s the largest single minority doesn't win." This is just not an argument. 

And Cameron must know that it is just not an argument because he resorted to possibly the weirdest thing ever said by a British Politician

"Politics shouldn't be some mind-bending exercise. It's about what you feel in your gut, about the values you hold dear and the beliefs you instinctively have. And I just feel it, in my gut, that AV is wrong."

Yes, of course, many of our most important and deepest beliefs come from instinct, intuition, or, if you insist, gut-feeling. I don't imagine that I could prove that you should never use force until all peaceful means have been exhausted; or that we should treat everyone as we ourselves would like to be treated; or that it's better to be kind than to be cruel. When you comes up against conflicting, irreducible gut feelings, then the argument is at an end. "You'd be willing to give up quite a lot of your freedom in return for security" I say "That's interesting. I'd rather live in a dangerous world provided I was free to go to hell in my own choice of hand cart. Well, then, we'll just have to agree to differ." But the person who invokes "gut feeling" and "I just know" to early in the discussion -- the person who says that he doesn't care what the boffins say, he just knows that global warming isn't happening; or that he doesn't care what the boffins say, he just knows that vaccination causes autism; or that he doesn't care what the boffins say, he just knows that human beings can't have evolved from monkeys -- is simply not worth talking to. He's a fanatic, a zealot, a fundamentalist, or, let's be quite honest here, a loony. [6] To say "I am opposed to this or that constitutional system because of a gut feeling" is really the equivalent of saying "LA-LA-LA! NOT LISTENING! NOT LISTENING!" The existence of politicians who resort that kind of argument is one reason why a lot of us think we need a better way of electing them.

Above: something essentially  British

Under the present system, choosing the government is often reduced to a kind of pesphological prisoner's dilemma. I like the Fluffy Bunny Party. I hate the Swivel-Eyed Warmonger Party. But I hate the Smug Posh Racist Party even more. I fear that few other people will vote for the Fluffy Bunny Party; but that quite a lot of people will vote for the Smug Posh Racists. Therefore, I must vote Swivel- Eyed Warmonger (who I hate) to prevent the Smug Racist Party (who I hate more) from winning. No-one votes Fluffy Bunny because they don't think that the Fluffy Bunny Party can win because no-one votes for them; the Swivel-Eyed Warmonger claims a popular mandate for whatever daft scheme pops into his head over the next five years because so many people thought he was the least worst option who had a chance of not losing.

In 2005, many disgruntled Labour voters threatened to shift their support to the Liberal party on the not unreasonable grounds that disgraced former Prime Minister Tony Blair had (as I may have previously mentioned) lied about a war. You might have expected the Labour Party to have responded by saying that lying had been the most honest thing to do under the circumstances, or that he hadn't actually lied, or that the war hadn't actually happened. But no. They argued that this kind of voting (voting Liberal because the Liberals were the only party to oppose the Really Stupid War) would be "self-indulgent" and indeed undemocratic since the Liberals couldn't possibly win because no-one was going to vote for them, even the people who agreed with them, because voting for them would be self indulgent and undemocratic because they couldn't win.

It's demented.

Some of the "No" campaign appear to think that AV would be a Bad Thing because it would make this kind of voting harder, or, as they put it, because people would not "understand" how to "use" their vote. It's easy to say "I like the Fluffy Bunnies, everyone likes the Fluffy Bunnies, but I am not going to vote Fluffy Bunny because I don't think that anyone else will vote Fluffy Bunny (because they also don't think anyone else will vote for them.)" It's much harder to say "I will put the Posh Smug Racists in second place, because, although they are really my fourth choice to run the country, putting Fluffy Bunny, who are actually my second choice to run the country in second place is more likely to result in a victory for Swivel Eyed Warmonger, who are my first choice, if, as I suspect, people whose second choice is really Raving Loony will be putting Fluffy Bunny second to keep out the Posh Racists...."

But this seems to me to be the scheme's main -- possibly only -- advantage. The idea of "using your vote" as opposed to "voting for the party you actually like best" seems to me to be undemocratic to be the point of wickedness. I've actually heard it floated, by people who believe in the "three cups of tea" theory, that the sensible thing for a Labour supporter to do would be to put Monster Raving Loony in first place and Labour in second , so that they can get a free extra Labour vote in the second round, which is Just. Not. How. It. Works.

Put your cross by the person you actually think would do the best job running the country. Under the new system, but 1 next to the best, and 2 next to the second best. Anything else and might as well not bother with elections.

"I am not producing arguments to show that capital punishment is certainly right; I am only maintaining that it is not certainly wrong; it is a matter on which good men may legitimately differ" - C.S Lewis "Why I Am Not a Pacifist."

[1] A very wise man once pointed out that the English language was crazy: if you can say that a retired teacher "taught" why can't you say that a retired preacher "praught"? But that's not necessarily an argument for wholesale spelling and grammar reform.

[2] So it is pretty shitty underhanded of the naysayer to say that only Fiji and Narnia use the AV system. Wikipedia lists 165 countries which use PR. The Liberals wanted a referendum on PR, but Cameroon wouldn't let them have one.

[3] Of course they are. Of course they are. They are a few peoples' first choice, and everybody else's last choice. That's what "extremist" means.

[4] Well: Mr Smith writes the numbers 1 - 7 by each of 7 candidates, in order of preference, while Mr Jones writes the numbers 1 - 5 by the names of the 5 candidates he wouldn't mind winning -- but nothing at all by the names of the two candidates he wouldn't want under any circumstances. I suppose it is literally true that, if the count went to the 7th round, Mr Smith would have voted in all 7 rounds, where Mr Jones would only have voted in the first 5 rounds, but that doesn't equate to Mr Smith having had more say in choosing the candidate that Mr Jones. (Or does it: can someone do the maths?)

[5] The No-To-AV campaign leaflet is quite the most hateful document I have ever read, and I speak as one who has made a special study of the works of Dave Sim, and once read the Daily Express every day for a month.

[6] "Thus, you may meet a temperance fantastic who claims to have an unanswerable intuition that all strong drink is forbidden. Really he can have nothing of the sort. The real intuition is that health and harmony are good. Then there is the generalizing from facts to the effect that drunkenness produces disease and quarrelling, and perhaps also, if the fanatic is Christian, the voice of Authority saying that the body is the temple of the Holy Ghost. Then there is a conclusion that what can always be abused had better never be used at all - a conclusion eminently suited for discussion. Finally, there is the process whereby early associations, arrogance, and the like turn the remote conclusion into something which man thinks unarguable because he does not with to argue about it." C.S Lewis "Why I Am Not a Pacifist."

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A tear, Sarah-Jane?

no, no, no, no, no, no, no

What if they gave an election and no-one came? (2)


The Queen, of course, is not really in charge of anything. The person who is really in charge is the Prime Minister, and we choose him by an arcane process called voting. Here is how it works.

Suppose you live in a Parish of 1,000 citizens. Let's call it Little Gidding.

And suppose you have to chose a representative to send to the national assembly. Let's call it The Thing.

And let's suppose that you have four political parties: the Red Party, the White Party, the Blue Party and the Black Party.

And let's suppose that the Red Party, the White Party and the Blue Party are all united in their hatred of the Black Party, the leader of which is a swivel-eyed lunatic who starts foreign wars on flimsy pretexts. But let's also suppose that the supporters of the Black Party are all loyal party men who hate Red, White and Blue equally, on the unassailable grounds that they are not Black.

When the votes of the citizens of the parish of Little Gidding are counted, they come out as:

Black Party - 251
Red Party -250
White Party - 250
Blue Party - 249

So the representative of the Black Party is duly elected and sent to the Thing, where he claims to speak on behalf of all (or at any rate the vastmaj ority) of the people of Little Gidding, even though 74.9% of them didn't want him as their representative. Indeed, when he decides to chop down the rose garden and build a car-park, he reminds the 749 parishoners who stage a "save the rose garden" demonstration that they had an election, that he won, that it is therefore the will of the people of Little Gidding that the rose garden be chopped down, that it would be positively undemocratic to listen to their objections (and that in any case he feels in his heart that chopping down the rose-bush is the right thing to do, and that he will some day have to answer to God on the matter).

Clearly, this is not an ideal system.

The ideal system -- if you think that an election result which reflects the wishes of the people who voted in the election is a good result, which, I grant you, is not self-evident -- would be to let the people of Little Gidding send not 1 but 4 representative to the Thing: a Black one, a Red one, a White one, and a Blue one. The down-side of this is that it would quadruple the size of the Thing. The villagers would have to contribute to the cost of 4 times as many postage stamps; 4 times as many cups of coffee 4 times as many moats and 4 times as many duck-houses. And it always seems to turn out that the only way of obtaining this money would be to close hospitals, sack teachers, make vets redundant and cause thousands of cute kittens to die in horrible agony. The idea that you could raise the funds by, say, dropping fewer bombs on fewer foreigners never seems to occur to anybody.

The second best system would be to merge the parish of Little Gidding with the three nearby parishes called, for the sake of a joke that wasn't particularly funny to begin with, East Coker, Burnt Norton and Dry Salvage. You'd count up the votes of the newly merged mega-parish and send representatives to the Thing based on how those 4,000 votes were cast -- say, two Blues, one Black and one Red. This would, of course, mean that the people of Little Gidding might end up being represented by someone who was born and bred in East Coker. And the one thing that unites everyone in the Red party, the White party, the Blue party and the Black party is that no-one from East Coker could possibly understand what happens in Little Gidding. If you haven't lived all your life near the rose garden, you simply won't understand the strong feelings that rose gardens engender. The Red Party, the White Party and the Blue Party all agree that the Black Party candidate is a swivel-eyed lunatic: but at least he's a local swivel-eyed lunatic. They'd rather be represented by him than some furriner from the village next door.

Since the two sensible options are clearly too silly to consider, the villagers decide that the best thing to do is count up the votes in a more complicated way -- a way which reflects the fact that the vastmaj ority of the villager really do hate the Black Party.

"Here is what we will do," they say. "We will decide that a simple majority of votes cast will no longer be sufficient to win an election. From now on, you will only be allowed to represent us if you have more votes than all the other candidates put together. If no candidate gets that magical 50% of the votes, we will declare the election null and void, and run it all over again. But, and this is the cunning bit, if we have to have a second election, the candidate who got the least votes -- the Blue one, in this case -- will not be allowed to stand a second time. And will carry on knocking candidates out and having new elections until someone gets overall majority."

As we've seen, in Little Gidding, the Black candidate is very unpopular with everybody except a rump of swivel-eyed lunatics. So when the Blue candidate drops out, some of his supporters vote RED and some of his supporters vote WHITE, but NONE of them vote BLACK. So after the second election, you get a result like this

BLACK 251 + 0 =251
RED 250+125=375
WHITE 250+124=374

Oh dear! The poor villagers still haven't managed to come up with an overall majority. So they have to have the election all over again. This time the BLACK candidate bows out. Hooray! At the next election, some of his supporters vote RED and some of them vote WHITE. This leaves us with a final result:

RED: 375 + 126 = 501
WHITE: 374 +125 = 499

So after three goes, and by the closest of margins, RED is elected. [*]

The BLACK candidate is very sad.

The RED candidate is very happy.

The WHITE candidate is sadder than he would have been if he'd won, but happier than he would have been if BLACK had won.

The BLUE candidate is sadder than he'd been if he'd won, but happier than he would have been if BLACK had won.

It's not an ideal system, but we've just rejected the ideal system on general principles. Overall, more people are less unhappy this way than they would have been under the old system which gave all the power to the least popular candidate.

Now, actually holding the election over and over again would be a terrible nuisance. You'd have to close the library or the school hall on three consecutive Thursdays, and pay council vote counting officials money that could have been better be spent on bombs and duck houses. So, and this is also the cunning bit, we say that the villagers are not allowed to change their mind in the second or the third elections. If you vote RED the first time, you have to vote RED the second time. Only the people whose candidate has been kicked out get to change their mind. But, and this is the most cunning bit of all, because it would be a nuisance to have to keep walking down to the Parish Hall over and over again, they ask everyone to say how they would vote if a second or third election had to be held.

This isn't as complicated as it sounds. Instead of doing this

BLUE     X

the villagers have to do this

BLACK   4 (fourth choice)
RED    2 (second choice)
WHITE    3 (third choice)
BLUE   1(first choice)

The supporters of the Black Party, not surprisingly, don't like this system. They say that it is unfair, and goes against the traditions of Little Gidding: they say it violates a basic principle of "We've always done it this way." (As a matter of fact, they HAVEN'T done always done it that way at all. 25 years ago, only people over 30 were allowed to vote. 50 years ago, only men were allowed to vote. 100 years ago, only people with at least two turnip fields were allowed to vote.) And they say that because people who supported the RED party in the first election have to vote for the RED party in the second election, but people who voted for the BLUE party are allowed to change their mind, the BLUE party is somehow getting more influence than the RED, WHITE, and BLACK parties. They say that some people get more say in the election than others. They say that some people get more votes than others. They say that if I go into the Little Gidding Tea Shop "I'd like mint tea, if you've got it, other wise, de caff coffee is fine, but if you don't have that either, I'd be happy with ordinary tea" I end up with more drinks than the person who just ordered, and got, a cup of tea. Either they don't understand the system themselves, or they do understand it and are actively trying to confuse everyone else.

[*] In the event of a dead heat, the returning officer gets an extra vote, which he must cast in favour of the encumbent. Or maybe they settle it by a game of tiddlywinks. Doesn't matter. Isn't going to happen.


Monday, April 18, 2011

What if they gave an election and no-one came? (1)

Remember 1977?

There seemed to be a widespread and genuine enthusiasm for celebrating the Queen's Silver Jubilee. The Queen still looked a little like the pretty girl who had been coronated 25 years earlier; people in their 30s remembered the 1953 celebrations with some affection and wanted to recapture some of that fun and optimism; the avenue from Buck House to Trafalgar Square was genuinely filled with people, only 16 or 17 of whom stood any chance of actually seeing the balcony, and the chants of "We want our Queen!" didn't seem to have been orchestrated. There were also some good movies showing at the Odeon.

It was against this background that groups of young men with spiky noses and safety pins in their hair got banned from the wireless for singing anti-monarchist "pop" songs, which seem to have arisen from a genuinely nihilistic outrage against the whole charade. I don't suppose that being anti-monarchist in 1977 was particularly brave -- no-one was actually going to punch you. But it was at least very slightly non-conformist.

It may be that, after the sordid tale of Charles and Di and the national dementia which followed its pathetic final act, there is a conscious effort to play down the wedding of William and Thingy. (And protocol says that the marriage of the second in line to the throne doesn't count as a State occasion.) But I get the impression that this time around nobody really cares all that much about the wedding. It isn't that we've all suddenly gone anti-monarchist and republican: we just aren't very interested.

Cameron has made a rather ridiculous attempt to get his retaliation in first. He has assumed emergency presidential powers with regard to local council traffic by-laws. "It doesn't matter what local council by laws say: I'm damn well Prime Minister and if you want to hold an outdoor party in the middle of a busy road you can, because I said so, so there." So when it turns out that people stayed away in droves, he'll be able to blame elf and safety, left wing councils, political correctness gone mad. Oh, everyone wanted a street-party, he will say, but the cultural Marxist killjoys needed them to fill out a form, do that they didn't bother. (See also: Christian Good Friday Parades, by Marxist Muslim Health and Safety Committees, Banning Of.)

So the attempts to hold "f**k the royal wedding" parties -- or just to mischeivously weed the garden and pretend the TV coverage isn't happening -- look increasingly pathetic. Small minded. It isn't big. It isn't clever. It's mainstream. You can buy anti-royalist tee shirts in Primark, for goodness sake. I did enjoy the suggestion that people who think that it is really really important that we should have an elected head of state with no power (as opposed to a hereditary heard of state with no power) should, instead of watching the big wedding on the telly, invite their neighbours round for a slice of cake and a cosy chat about constitutional reform. A sort of republican tea-party.

Abolishing the monarchy used to be a great big political idea, argued for vociferously by the far left, yelled about furiously by anarchists, debated about in terms of Way Tyler and Tom Paine. Now it's part of a general, cynical, whining background noise. The leftists, liberals and intellectuals didn't exactly win the argument. They just bored everybody else into submission. It looks very much as if we are going to wake up one morning, say, in 2025 and find that the Royal Family went away five years ago and nobody noticed. Oh, there will still be someone with the title "King of England" but that title will only be meaningful to a handful of fellow eccentrics. The same thing has, I think, already happened to the great big arguments about the separation of Church and State. King William V may very well be given a piece of paper that says he is supreme governor of the Church of England. He may keep it in a drawer and bring it out at parties, or have it framed and hang it in the loo. But no-one will know or care because the Church of England will have long since stopped mattering, and I will no longer have any excuse to use the word antidisestablishmentarianism. The people who argue that because 0.04% of the members of the House of Lords are Anglican bishops, England is a theocracy on a level with Iran already look ridiculous, fighting a war which ended a hundred years ago. 0.04% of bugger-all is bugger-all.

This doesn't mean that I don't retain a nostalgic affection for the Queen. And it doesn't mean that I don't find these new anti-monarchists incredibly smug and irritating. "Look at me, putting forward a mainstream point of view! How incredibly daring of me!" But I always found the keen Royal Family fans incredibly irritating as well. Why can't I be a nonconformist like everybody else?


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Nothing to see here.

You really need to read this page and also this one . I have got into the habit of responding to evil lying tabloid pondscum and evil lying political pondscum through a mixture of smugness and sarcasm, but there really is a need for this kind of rage as well. We are the men of England and we have not punched you in the face yet. And we're probably not going to because we probably can't be bothered, but it's the thought which counts.

No interest whatsoever in the Archers, but the Bellowhead theme is straight in at number 5 in the "unofficial national anthem" stakes.

I realise everybody else within a vague interest in Americana knew this already, but I didn't. The words are religious, you see, but the tune is oddly familiar....

Obviously, stealing tunes is what folk singers do, by definition, but hearing this makes me admire Mr Guthrie even more than I did before.

Which reminds me: came across this in the Joe Klein biography (quite the most depressing book I have ever read, in a good way):

"The national debit is one thing I caint figger out. I heard a senator on a radeo a-saying that we owed somebody 15 jillion dollars. I don't know their name but I remember the price. Called it the national debit. If the nation is the government and the government is the people, then I guess that means the people owes the people, that means I owe me and you owe you, and I forget the regular fee, but if I owe myself something, I would be willing to just call it off rather than have senators argue about it, and I know you would do the same thing and then we wouldn't have no national debit." (Woody Sez newspaper column, c 1939.)