Thursday, 21 May 2015

Booze, early death and bad reporting

My local paper, the Telegraph & Argus is generally pretty good but every now and then - especially on health matters - it produces some utterly shocking journalism. And today on the subject of early death it produced a corker.

The writer, Rob Lowson presents a more-or-less straightforward report on the last data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) on the matter of premature death. The HSCIC has totted up the gap between the age people die and the "potential" life expectancy - these figures show that Bradford is bottom of the pile in Yorkshire.

For once I'm not going to set off on a rant explaining how the age at which people are dying now is not a very good guide to the age at which people who are living will die. This should be utterly obvious to anyone looking at this data, so obvious that I can only assume that it suits the purposes of public health folk to pretend that current mortality rates are somehow an indicator of future mortality rates (or indeed a thing they call "health inequality").

Instead let's look at Rob's words - he explains the data and how it's calculated, explains the conditions that contribute (coronary heart disease, respiratory problems, cancers) and quotes - at some length - Bradford Council's Director of Public Health who talks about what the Council is doing and urges a degree of personal responsibility:

"Our campaigns also highlight the importance of individuals taking responsibility for their own health by making positive lifestyle choices like exercising regularly, drinking in moderation, eating a healthy diet, and stopping smoking."

Nothing here at all that suggests those lifestyle choices are the reason for the gap - indeed the Council's approach is to stress reducing poverty and improving environmental conditions such as warmer homes and cleaner air. It's all pretty fair and concludes with something of a success story - the reduction in rates of infant mortality in Bradford (which were among the UK's highest and merited the focus of public health efforts).

Given all this, I have no idea why the newspaper chose to illustrate the article with a photograph of a beer engine and a couple of guys drinking pints. A photograph with the caption - wholly unrelated to the article - "excessive drinking is one factor in Bradford's high early death rate". A bald statement based on no evidence and almost certainly not the main - or even a significant - problem. Bradford has one of the highest rates of abstention in the UK (23% of adults) and has rates of heavy drinking significantly below the English average (6.24% as compared to 6.75%). Just to complete the picture the city also has lower rates of alcohol-related violent crime that the English average.

It is lazy, sloppy newspaper reporting to pick on one factor - one unimportant factor - to illustrate a balanced report on Bradford's mortality statistics. And even worse to do so by picking on beer served in a public house as the source of the problem.


Tuesday, 19 May 2015

In defence of pussy cats (not that they need it)

Writing in the Telegraph, Andrew Brown launches an attack on the pussy cat. Or more precisely on the owners of pussy cats.

What cats do, as everyone knows but some prefer not to think about, is kill wild birds – millions every year, according to the RSPB.

Here are these two birds bringing up their families in our garden, feeding their bleating chicks, and along comes the domestic cat, a ruthless hunter introduced by humans to mess up the natural order of things.

“Belling the cat” (that is, hanging a bell around the animal’s neck, as in Aesop’s fable) ought to be the minimum cat owners do.

At least that would warn birds of their presence. I would go further – cat owners should stop their pets reproducing indiscriminately. It would also be better if cats were kept indoors at night.

If you own a cat, what it gets up to it is your responsibility. If your pet goes out and slaughters millions of birds and chicks, it is your business.
This bloke has a serious problem with your pussy cat. And all because he's noticed that a couple of local cats have been stalking the long-tailed tits nesting in his garden. Our writer is terribly excited about the fact that these birds are nesting there but less excited about the other perfectly natural thing going on - the cat stalking the nesting birds.

Now one thing is true, domestic cats kill a lot of birds every year - about 55 million according to the RSPB. And in the scale of things this seems an awful lot of predation. However, the reality is that predation by cats isn't responsible for any decline in bird populations. Here's the RSPB again:

Despite the large numbers of birds killed, there is no scientific evidence that predation by cats in gardens is having any impact on bird populations UK-wide. This may be surprising, but many millions of birds die naturally every year, mainly through starvation, disease, or other forms of predation. There is evidence that cats tend to take weak or sickly birds.

It is likely that most of the birds killed by cats would have died anyway from other causes before the next breeding season

We also know that of the millions of baby birds hatched each year, most will die before they reach breeding age. This is also quite natural, and each pair needs only to rear two young that survive to breeding age to replace themselves and maintain the population.

It is likely that most of the birds killed by cats would have died anyway from other causes before the next breeding season, so cats are unlikely to have a major impact on populations. If their predation was additional to these other causes of mortality, this might have a serious impact on bird populations.

Yet this doesn't stop people like Andrew Brown writing their pig-ignorant rants about predation by cats. So here's a little more information. Firstly there have been significant declines in some bird species with farmland species the worst affected. However when we look at the main garden species - blackbirds, blues tits, great tits, wrens, robins and chaffinches - there hasn't been any decline in the period from 1970 to 2012. Indeed some species such as the long tailed tit (yes, the bird Andrew Brown is so agitated about) have seen what DEFRA describe as 'weak increase'. Put simply the birds that cats are most likely to predate aren't the species in decline.

There are about 7.9 million domestic cats in the UK (according to the Pet Food Manufacturers Association who I guess make a study of these things) which means that the average mog catches about seven birds a year. Just taking one species, the blackbird. There are about 5 million breeding pairs in the UK and, in a typical year, a pair of blackbirds with raise two or three broods - four if there's a mild autumn - with each brood comprising 3-5 chicks. That's around 60 million blackbird chicks every year. Repeat this calculation for blue tits, dunnocks, wrens, robins and that lovely long-tailed tit and we have literally hundreds of millions of chicks born every year.

Declines in bird populations are not down to cats. Mostly the declines are down to changes in habitat, modern farming practice and competition from other birds. Andrew Brown may, in his ever so urban and squeamish way, not like to see those little chicks munched up by next door's tom cat but it's a long step to get to blaming that cat for bird population declines that either aren't happening or else are down to fertilisers, hedge-removal and marshland drainage.

Cats have been part of human living for a very long time:

All domestic cats, the authors declared, descended from a Middle Eastern wildcat, Felis sylvestris, which literally means "cat of the woods." Cats were first domesticated in the Near East, and some of the study authors speculate that the process began up to 12,000 years ago.

And during that time those cats have done a sterling job of everyday pest control while also providing the playfulness and cuteness that makes them such an Internet sensation. It seems however that some people have a problem with cats. But instead of using their newspaper column to tell fibs about these wonderful creatures, such people should just come clean and say "I don't like cats". We understand this position (weird though it seems to us mog fans) and it's so much most honourable than trying to argue cat owners are bad people who don't care about wildlife.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Celebrating soft loo paper conservatives - a critique of the "Good Right"


During the recent election there were - as the opinion polls seemed reluctant to shift in the Conservative Party's favour - voices that criticised the campaign strategy and messaging. Most notably Tim Mongomerie who railed against the narrow focus of the campaign and argued that the simple messaging on the economy, welfare and taxes was missing the real concerns of British people.

The reduction of politics to a few simplified messages - repeated endlessly can work in a campaign against a weak opponent but it can't be a governing philosophy.
The problem is that the circumstance of that messaging - the relentless 'long term economic plan' and the idea of rewarding 'hard work' - is absolutely within the context of a campaign. And the first rule of campaigns is that you have to win them. Having a great message, slick organisation and support amongst the great and good is pretty useless if the other side wins - if you're not sure about this ask Neil Kinnock.

I suspect that Tim Montgomerie, in crafting his critique, did so at least in part as an exercise in what us marketers call positioning. At the time it didn't look like the Conservatives were going to win the election - the polling showed the main parties neck and neck, the insurgency of UKIP was damaging the Tories and it looked like the limpet-like nature of the Liberal Democrats would see them holding a load of seats the poll ratings said they should lose. So Montgomerie's critique positioned his "Good Right" argument away from the core of the campaign, away from that simple messaging and the drumming repetition of a choice few slogans.

And I guess that, with Montgomerie and others proved wrong about the election results, it's quite understandable for the architect of that Conservative overall majority to have a celebratory dig at those who criticised his campaign. A campaign that was a vindication for the argument that winning an election is about making people's choice simpler - a binary choice. In this case between 'competence and chaos', between Cameron and Miliband, between a Conservative government and one led by Labour. It may be the case that such things as Montgomerie's 'Good Right' proposes are a sound basis for a future Conservative agenda (although I'd note that if it's just "extending home ownership, cutting taxes for the low-paid, renewing the infrastructure of the north and building world class public services" then we've just elected a government on an agenda to do just that) but getting all wonkish about policy is a sure fire way to lose an election - especially when it involves the sort of crass segmentation beloved of the Labour party.

I have something of a problem with Montgomerie's 'Good Right'. Firstly it's because it implies that the regular sort of right isn't good - that if we question above average rises in minimum wages as bad for job creation or challenge the idea that luxury goods taxes are a good idea then we are bad people. But mostly the problem with the 'Good Right' is that it sees the solution solely through the prism of progressive government intervention positioning the party as a sort of blue rinsed version of Blair's New Deal. And, with its ringfencing of revenues, and centralised "needs-based assessments" to move money to deserving places, it owes more to modern technocratic government than to any moral argument for Conservative ideas.

When I was a student there was a group of Conservatives who wanted our manifesto for election to the student union council to be about services to students rather than the more regular fare of undergraduate politics. We dismissed this group as 'soft loo paper conservatives' - more bothered with such things as the opening hours of the canteen, the stocking of the bars and the provision of discounted dry-cleaning than with the grand affairs of the day (and the latest excuse for a boycott, a sit-in or a lecture strike).

Looking back I see that this group - the soft loo paper Tories - were far more in tune with real conservatism than the rest of us. After all the purpose of government shouldn't be grand sweeping (upsetting) change but the good administration of the services people want government to provide. And we do this knowing that, left to their own devices, people are pretty much able to run their own lives without agents of government to guide them in their choices. Even better - and unlike government - those people will be creative, innovative and entrepreneurial helping make their world richer, happier and more fun.

It seems to me that Lynton Crosby's simple message that Conservatives know what they're doing and can carry on getting the economy fixed while reducing the welfare burden and maintaining health funding is merely that 'soft loo paper' argument writ large. We don't need to set out a precise and detailed blueprint for the government's agenda merely to demonstrate competence and provide a direction that sees service quality improving (and hopefully the price of those services dropping).

Finally if there's a need to demonstrate how the right is morally justified - to promote a 'Good Right' - then it should lie in making the case for free enterprise, challenging the demonising of profit and arguing that property rights underpin our civilisation. Gathering a collection of centrist interventions and badging them as "good" completely ignores the moral basis for lower taxes, the case for decentralising decision-making, the rightness of private initiative in every aspect of life, and the wrongness of the left's nationalising of compassion. If as Tim Montgomerie suggests we need a 'governing philosophy' then let's not make it a sort of half-cooked social democracy, let's make it conservatism.

A while back I wrote this - by way of a felt conservatism:

In Bingley Rural – five villages in the South Pennines – there aren’t many millionaires. The roads aren’t cluttered with flash cars, we don’t have fancy wine bars or posh boutiques, the merchant banker is most definitely a foreign beast – but we are pretty conservative. We like the place as it is, we like the features of the villages, the pubs, the farm shops, the butcher, we enjoy the company of neighbours and friends and we want to work. We love the setting and the country around us.

What we ask of our government is pretty simple – protection from crime, good schools and skilled doctors, helping keep the place clean, maintaining the roads, pavements and parks, providing support – when needed – to those in need and preserving the good things about the places. We don’t ask for lectures about “climate change”, about drinking and smoking, what kind of car we drive or holiday we take.

When I knock on doors and talk to local folk, they don’t ask me about the carbon footprint of Easyjet or the need to ban booze advertising. People don’t mention ‘gross national happiness’ or the equalities agenda. What they ask is why the pubs are going bust, how expensive basic staples – food and fuel - have got, how they never see a copper and why their son can’t afford a house in the village.

Simple, easy-to-understand things concerned with the place we live, with keeping it nice, with making it better – conservative things.

Soft loo paper.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Sorry Jamie but schools don't have the time to indulge your fussbucketry


Hardly a day passes without one or other lobby group calling for their particular passion to be a compulsory subject in schools - the latest is Jamie Oliver's 'food revolution' which demands that loads of limited teaching time is given over to this chef's particular brand of nannying fussbucketry:


With diet-related diseases rising at an alarming rate, it has never been more important to educate children about food, where it comes from and how it affects their bodies.

On the face of things teaching children how to cook (I assume this is what Jamie means by 'practical food education') is a great idea - cookery is a really useful life skill. But here's the problem - we get between five and six hours for five days a week across 30 weeks in the year of teaching time. That's a maximum of 900 hours a year in which to teach children how to read and write, add and subtract, read a map, know the basics of history, understand science, learn the rudiments of a foreign language or two, understand culture and religion, experience great literature and a thousand other really important things. And the real figure for teaching time in the UK is much lower - 635 hours/year in primary and 715 hours/year in secondary.

And then lobbyists pop up and say that every child should be taught how to code, manage family accounts, know about STIs, play sport, paint and draw, learn to dance, act, sing, understand the electoral system, know about the courts, grow vegetables, build a table, mend a car and now cook. All fantastic and useful skills. It's hard to argue with any of them.

Except that there isn't the time. I'm not a teacher but I'm prepared to bet that all the zillions of things that might be taught at school have to be whittled down to the ones that really matter. And because most of us aren't ill from overeating (or eating the "wrong" food) lecturing the hell out of kids about diet - often using inaccurate or even downright incorrect information - really isn't a priority. At least not alongside reading, writing, maths, science, geography and history.

The truth of course is that obesity isn't rising - it has more-or-less flatlined over the past decade. More to the point though (and Jamie misinforms us with a ridiculous claim about 'diet-related disease') we are better fed, live longer lives and suffer far fewer diet-related conditions than past generations. It's true that there are too many morbidly obese people but hectoring kids with green peppers isn't going to change this one jot.

Whatever the truth or fiction here (and Jamie's campaign is mostly the latter) the one incontrovertible fact is that, if schools are made to put 'food eduction' into the curriculum, it will be at the expense of something else - learning french perhaps, maybe geography, or cutting back even more on physical exercise. As parents we want schools to give our children the skills and aspiration to succeed in a challenging world. And being rude about McDonalds and waving tomatoes around doesn't meet that need.

So I won't be signing Jamie's petition.


Thursday, 14 May 2015

The case for democracy under devolution is simple...


I wrote this under the ancien regime - it still applies:

So, dear readers, you need to stop with the 'we don't need more politicians' nonsense and understand that unless you elect people directly to make decisions on your behalf, you make it harder to hold the decision-makers to account. And you need to tell your councillor and your MP that devolution is all fine and dandy, an absolutely spiffing idea, but only if the spending of that public money is subject to your accountability through the tried and tested method of having the chance to vote the bastards out if you don't like them.

You've a choice between devolution managed by bureaucrasts and government appointees or devolution under the control of people you elect. Having a mayor and assembly works for London - I've no doubt it will work for Yorkshire too.


Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The most striking thing about these figures is how low they are...


Bradford's Telegraph & Argus has revealed the findings from a 'freedom of information' request relating to the number of offences recorded at individual licenced premises in the city. Now we should note that the approved narrative when discussing crime and drinking is to use terms like 'drink-fuelled violence and anti-social behaviour' accompanied by a load and judgemental implied 'tut'.

So how much crime is there - of any sort - recorded at Bradford's busy city centre pubs and clubs? The answer - although the newspaper doesn't report it quite this way - is close to bugger all. The worst venue - a busy bar/nightclub - witnessed a staggering 23 offences during the year to 26 March 2015. That is less than one a fortnight. Given the bewildering array of possible offences (at times it seems the police can arrest anyone for anything) available to the enforcement authorities we should, rather than tutting about crime, be celebrating just how incredible safe Bradford's night life has become.

The truth is that, with violent crime at the lowest levels since the 1970s and consumption of alcohol (whatever the health fascists want to pretend) at similarly low levels, going out on a evening in a place like Bradford is pretty safe. Of course this isn't the same as saying it's pleasant but that's an aesthetic judgement not a matter of personal security - there will be plenty of swearing, oodles of testosterone and plenty of drunkenness but what there won't be is that violent crime the police and other assorted nannying fussbuckets want you to believe is inevitable wherever people (and especially young people) gather to party.

We should be celebrating - with a large drink, of course - the fact that licensing reform and the promotion of sensible drinking has resulted in a turnaround in the safety of our town centres. Instead newspapers in search of a cheap headline, scaremongering politicians and assorted fussbuckets still present it as if our town centres are places of untrammelled behaviour, dangerous places of utter chaos. This is complete nonsense. But I guess that's always sold newspapers!


Sunday, 10 May 2015

How the Conservatives became the workers' party.

There are 79 seats in the "south east region" and all but five of them are held by Conservatives. While we've been talking about Scotland, London and the North, the Conservative Party has consolidated its control of the growing part of Britain. The Labour Party is vanishing across the South and has been for decades - the decline was briefly stemmed by the Blair landslide but is now returned. And Labour offers nothing to the aspiring private sector workers who live in those blue seats.

Most Conservatives I know have greeted the election result with what amounts to an unbelieving sigh of relief. We'll be pinching ourselves repeatedly for the coming few weeks as we realise that it wasn't a happy dream but reality - we really do have a Conservative government with an overall majority. All that effort was, for once, absolutely worth it.

Perhaps understandably given their unexpected defeat, the Labour Party's cheerleaders in the London media have started to chew over the reasons for that inexplicable loss. The anguish in their analysis is palpable and not helped by Peter Mandelson pointing out that Tony Blair was right when he said that with a traditional Labour manifesto you get a traditional result.

While all this is going on a few hundred idiots decided that daubing vulgar signs with "Tory Scum" and "Fuck Austerity" was the way to respond, a decision made worse by one of their number choosing to fight austerity by vandalising a war memorial on the 70th Anniversary of VE Day. This may feel like sticking it to the man but many many people will look on, nod and feel absolutely assured that voting Conservative - often for the very first time - was the right choice.

The analysis we have seen so far is, as is often the case at this stage, more a case of 'how dare these people not vote for us' combined with the desire to pin the entire blame on Ed Miliband and his core vote strategy. It's true that this was always a vanity campaign in which the Labour establishment gathered in a echo chamber and persuaded itself that there's a 'natural progressive' majority, that all those nice Liberal Democrats would vote for Labour this time, and that Ed merely had to sit still until polling day to collect the keys to Number 10.

I suspect that, in their quieter moments, many Labour people understand the Party's problem. They can pick up the map and look at how Labour has shrunk back to what we might (a little cruelly) call 'Rust Belt England'. One image doing the rounds compares Labour's seats to an old map of England and Wales' coalfields - an image used to suggest, rather daftly, that somehow all the Party has left is the eternally loyal miners. The real picture is very different because that old working class isn't the main source of Labour's votes any more.

We know, for example, that most members of Unite (the union) probably didn't vote Labour last Thursday and I'd speculate that those Unite members working in the private sector overwhelmingly rejected Labour's message. You'll remember during the campaign that Ed Miliband had a difficult encounter with one of these skilled workers.  We also know that perhaps as much as half of Labour's vote in England is from ethnic minorities - look at where Labour gained seats (London, Bradford, Dewsbury, Birmingham) and look at the Party's remaining handful of seats in the South (Luton, Slough, Bristol). This is as much of a problem for the Conservatives but Labour's working class vote is now increasingly a working class BME vote.

However, Labour isn't run by these people, it's run by its absolute core constituency - public sector workers. When I look across the chamber of Bradford Council, I see fewer and fewer working class faces (and those that are working class are Asian). Instead the faces I see are those of well-educated, middle-class public sector and 'third' sector workers. The very same sorts of faces we saw time and time again on Thursday waiting to hear election results. There's nothing wrong with this except that it gives the Party a very skewed view of the issues and perpetuates a romantic myth of manual labour as a noble calling.

The truth is that the working class don't hew coal from the living rock, pour hot steel or bash metal into shape. We have machines that do that stuff for us these days. Today's working class answers telephone calls, serves you in shops and restaurants, processes transactions and drives delivery vans (often white ones). And there are still skilled manual trades - mostly self-employed. These people look at the Labour Party and see privileged public sector workers with higher wages and better pensions earned doing fewer hours. Labour polled just 15% amonst tradesmen.

Last week those working class people looked at Britain and decided that, however caring and compassionate Labour's message might appear, they would vote to make sure that the slow improvement in their standard of living would continue. And if this means a little more tightening of the funding screw in government then so be it - these aren't wealthy people just middling sorts with mortgages, fuel bills and taxes to pay every month. The Conservatives won because they talked directly to these people instead of creating a false bogeyman of austerity or accusing them of self-interest (and worse).

For me the most telling comment - one we will hear again and again in the next few years - was this;

Grant Shapps, the party chairman, will stand alongside Sir John Major, the former champion of the "classless society", to announce that the Tories are now determined to show they want to spread – and not defend – privilege.

Speaking at the new Conservative campaign headquarters, the Tory chairman will say: "The Conservatives are the Workers' party and we are on your side."

The problem for Labour is that this is pretty nearly true. Unless Labour reaches out to the private sector and people working in the private, stops treating profits and business as evils, and embraces its role in delivering public services it will continue to fail in meeting its mission as a party of labour.

For my party, we have returned again to our mission - the objective set for us by Disraeli all those years ago: to improve the condition of the worker. Long may it stay that way.