Thursday, 30 September 2010

Why Cameron is wrong to have a Business Council to advise him...

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I am a member of the “Party of Business” – or at least many of my fellow members remind me often of this. Indeed, in the mythology of past dualist politics, we in the Conservative Party armed ourselves in the great battle with Labour – the “Party of The Unions”. This great duel characterised – indeed corrupted – debate. And that debate was couched in the manner of a war between these two great forces – between business and organised labour.

The result of this was the terrible destructive, protectionism of the peace deals between these two factions – the arrangements that suited the big business and the big union. Everywhere we look – be it agriculture, aerospace, steel, motor manufacturer or mining – everywhere we find the deep scars of that battle of old. A battle in which we all were losers.

It’s OK, there’s no need to panic. I have not suddenly become some advocate of a middle way – I remain unequivocally committed to the irreducible truth of the free market. But I am not “pro-business” any more than I am “pro-union”. These two beasts of that past battle still strut the land baying and bellowing – laying claim to special privileges and trying to guide or control the parties they once commanded to fight on their respective behalves.

It is gross and corrupting that the baneful influence of unions determined who became leader of the Labour Party – indeed that the campaigning arm of those unions were directed to procuring a particular, protectionist, anti-business position from that new leader. I weep for socialists – and other left-leaning folk – who have had their party stolen from them again.

And it is just as gross and just as corrupting for the leader of my party to announce panel of business people – a Business Council. David Cameron is granting a certain set of people – already wealthy and powerful – a special position of access and advice. And this access is granted because they are business people – apparently representing sectors that are strategically important (whatever that may mean) to the country.

Why not a panel of consumers Mr Cameron – of ordinary men and women who do the buying, the eating, the living and the dying across most of the nation? Why not a council of corner shopkeepers? Or a committee of street sweepers, drain clearers and plumbers? Are these people less important? Less valued? Less significant? I fear that is the case.

I fear my party is being taken from me by this coalition of wealth and power.

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Travelling is a lifestyle choice...


Now, dear reader, I know you are of a sensitive disposition so it is only fair to warn you that some people might find what is to follow offensive. Not offensive as in “I’m really upset by what you said about me” but offensive as in “I’m not really offended at all but I am going to display my supposed moral superiority by saying that you are being offensive to some or other group in our diverse society.”

So here goes, dear reader…

Being a traveller is a life style choice.

Living in a caravan and wandering from place to place is not an inevitable function of ethnicity – assuming there is actually some real ethnic specificity to being a traveller. There are plenty of Gypsies (or are we supposed to called them Roma these days – I lose track of the precise and politically correct designation) who live in houses, who don’t wander from place to place and who go about an otherwise unremarkable life. These people are not travellers (except on those occasions when they go some place for a visit).

As I said, being a traveller is a lifestyle choice. And it is a lifestyle choice that doesn’t always endear those making that choice to other folk. It is also a lifestyle choice that makes it pretty difficult to ensure that children get an education, get vaccinated and get treated for illnesses.

Now I don’t have any problem with people deciding that they want a life on the open road – that’s their business. I can even deal with some of the negatives in a pretty laissez-faire manner. And I have had a few ‘live and let live’ arguments with locals about travellers.

But I do object to vast sums of public money being directed to picking up the pieces behind ‘travellers’ and I can think of better ways for Yorkshire Councils and the European Union to spend £1,000,000 than on RomaSOURCE which intends:


“…to make sure that local communities in Yorkshire, which have only recently seen significant migration by European Roma, learn from the experiences of other European countries where Roma have traditionally lived. This will benefit not only Roma themselves, but also lessen the impact on existing communities in places where Roma have settled.”


And I don’t agree with Cllr Rowley from Wakefield that:

“This project will provide a great opportunity to make sure we are developing the skills and knowledge we need to provide services to this extremely vulnerable group. Doing this will benefit both Roma people and the communities that they live alongside.”


Note the word "alongside" there! As I said – being a traveller is a lifestyle choice.
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Wednesday, 29 September 2010

What's the point of lying Ed?

I am 100% sure that, had I been an MP in 2003, I would have voted in favour of British military action in Iraq – mostly because the Prime Minister lied through his teeth to persuade people like me of the case for war.

Now as it happened the new leader of the Labour Party was safely ensconced over at Harvard during this great debate. As far as we know, he made no public statement regarding the decision to invade Iraq. I am 100% certain that, had Ed Miliband been an MP back in 2003, he would have supported the line from Blair and Brown. His period in America seems to me as somewhat akin to an extended visit to the dentist!

Now, I’m prepared to say that I was wrong back in 2003 and now take the view that the invasion of Iraq was wrong (not illegal but definitely of no strategic significance to my country). What I find odd is that Ed Miliband – covered by the tiniest or tiny fig leaves – can’t say the same. Especially as he appears able to do so on the banks, the deficit, ID cards, incarceration without trial and public spending cuts.

But then Ed Miliband lives in a world where the truth is a man in rags staring in at the opulence of bullies and liars.
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Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Boundaries, pubs and Battersea - thoughts on defining place


A few years ago, I instituted an initiative aimed at ensuring that every community in Bradford undertook some form of local planning – this could take the form of neighbourhood action planning, parish plans or elements within wider masterplans or spatial strategies. In part, at least, I can lay claim to attempting to develop the idea of community involvement in service planning – dare I say it, the “Big Society”.

However, this introduction isn’t a precursor to an essay of self-justification but rather an opportunity to discuss again the issue of places and how we define them. Most important, the matter of boundaries. Partly, this is prompted by Battersea Councillor, James Cousins’ irritation (verging on anger) with ASDA for suggesting that his local store is – horror of horrors – in Clapham. James gives very good account of his case and (I suspect) has a rather better grasp of where Battersea becomes Clapham than does ASDA.

However, there are some interesting anomalies of place that can add to this confusion and not just the perfect example of nominal coterminosity – Penge and Anerley. And since we’re talking local knowledge here, I have concentrated on examples from my ward – the incomparable Bingley Rural. And several of the examples will feature pubs!

The Dog & Gun – as everyone knows – is in Oxenhope. Except that, until very recently, it wasn’t it was in Denholme and had always been in Denholme (we should note that the pub car park was in the Parish of Oxenhope whereas the pub itself was in the Town of Denholme). Today – following some jiggery-pokery with te boundary commission – the pub is in Oxenhope.

The Guide is at Hainworth, Keighley of course – that’s the community it serves (along with the clutches of stray bikers who wash up in its car park). Well no – The Guide’s in Cullingworth and always has been!

The Malt Shovel at Harden completes this trio of pubs. It’s not in Harden but in Wilsden (although the thoughful folk from Wilsden Parish Council have put the obligatory sandstone “Welcome to Wilsden” marker beyond the pub). Harden doesn’t start until you’ve cross the Harden Beck.

There are plenty of other examples – the White Horse at Well Heads isn’t in Thornton but in Denholme and the New Coley Garden Centre (see it’s not all pubs!) is in Cullingworth not Denholme. As you can see it isn’t at all clear – boundaries are (as I’ve said before) fuzzy, subject to change and without doubt open to dispute. And, as I’m sure you’ve all guessed, unpopular places get smaller while popular places get larger (it’s OK James I’m not suggesting this is the case with Battersea and Clapham).

In a discussion about Chapeltown in Leeds this trend was noticed – places like Potternewton and Chapel Allerton grow in size as places previously in Chapeltown are ‘liberated’ from that place’s bad image. Just as snootier residents of SE20 started calling it Anerley rather than Penge, the up-and-coming trendies moving into Chapeltown are renaming it Potternewton or Chapel Allerton. Unless, of course, we’re talking about reports of crime! In these cases any shooting within two miles takes place in Chapeltown!

All this really makes the point that places aren't static – boundaries can and do change. And, in the end it’s people rather than institutions that decide where the boundary lies. In Bradford – for the exercise described at the start – we mapped the location of people on the council’s neighbourhoods database who claimed to live in a given place (Wibsey, Queensbury, West Bowling, Heaton, etc) and drew boundaries based on these definitions. And yes there were some overlaps but most communities were clear and identifiable – certainly good enough to deliver the project.

But we decide not folk from elsewhere.

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"I can't dig the garden like I used to..." - some thoughts on getting older.


I thought that, for a change, I’d write about getting old. And how our attitude to age – and the process of getting older – changes and evolves. But first a little story from my Mum.

Many years ago – back in the 1970s – my Mum delivered meals-on-wheels in and around Penge. On one of the rounds there was a couple called Mr & Mrs Squirrel. Rest assured that these are human squirrels rather than the beady-eyed, bushy-tailed variety. Now Mr & Mrs Squirrel were well into their nineties – which back then was deifinitely a ripe old age – and lived in a sizeable house in Sydenham (or rather that bit of Penge that folk liked to call Sydenham so as to avoid using the ‘P’ word).

On one occasion, my Mum was delivering Mr & Mrs Squirrel’s dinner and she got to chatting with Mister. He explained how – it being a nice day and all – he had been out in the garden pottering about. After a few minutes chatting about the garden (my Mum being an especially keen gardener), Mr Squirrel complained that:

“I can’t dig the garden like I used to.”

And therein lies the point. This elderly – very elderly – gentleman refused to accept that the things he did in days past were no longer possible. Digging the garden may take a little longer, he might not be able to dig as deep or turn as much soil but we’re going to dig! And so it should be.

However, as we age, society still expects us to become less able and more dependent until we reach a point when in our dribbling, dotage others must care for us entirely. And much planning for this seems to assume that old age begins at 50.

I’m not joking here – nor am I moaning about the rapidity at which my 50th birthday approaches. Planning for services assumes that someone aged 51 has similar needs to someone aged 97 (ceteris paribus). Housing strategies for older people begin at 50. Saga holidays begin at 50. We are old at 50!

Except we’re not. Old that is – not even remotely old. Most 50 year olds in England can expect to live at least another 30 years – nearly all of those years independent and active. While three of my four grand parents were dead by the age of 76, my son’s grandparents are all alive and all past that age (with three passed 80). And all those people are living in their own homes, driving their own cars, feeding themselves and getting on with enjoying life. In truth they place a little more of a burden on health services – the jokes about rattling with pills do apply – but they are not old in the way previous generations were old.

All this is a good thing – unquestionably. But costly. The entire system of pensions, healthcare and social care is predicated on most people dying in the ‘70s rather than – as will be more and more the case – in their ‘80s or even ‘90s. And, as medical and surgical interventions allow (wonderfully) further extension to active life, those costs will continue to rise.

The question for us all is how much longer the present system can last until it breaks beyond repair. We can’t carry on with the assumption that our property assets will remain undisturbed by the costs of old age. And we have to recognise that pension schemes beginning at ages below 60 are unsustainable. We must also question why we have not raised the retirement age for the ‘active’ professions – police, fire, army and so forth. Finally, we will get used to the idea of people working well into their ‘70s – perhaps not full time but working nonetheless.

The market – as we see from adverts, new products and the images of older people used therein – has already got there. Sadly, the public sector – and the delivery of its services – remains stuck in the 1970s. Time to catch up I guess?

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Smiling through gritted teeth....

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Sometimes a piece of writing just catches my personal zeitgeist (if there is such a beast). And this piece from that smiling old grump Phil Kirby does just that - glance at this quick excerpt then go read the whole piece:

Happiness, I want to argue, is not an unalloyed good, a condition we should all naturally wish to aim and aspire towards. No matter what all the self help books would like you to believe, happiness is not all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, happy people are bad, boring and barmy.


Go enjoy but don't smile too much!

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Monday, 27 September 2010

Checkout queues - not quite what you thought...



Queuing is important. I know you all hate it but it really is important. I’ve blogged before about this matter – in a little moan about the value and importance of differential pricing. So now we’re going to consider the checkout.

Now one of the things about queues (other than the fact that the other queue always moves faster) is that we make an assumption that the shorter queue will take less time. Now this is – on the basis of the information available to us and our common sense – a rational decision. However, it could also be wrong.

Here’s a mathematician studying the issue:

There are easily a dozen variables affecting the line speed that have nothing to do with the number of customers in each line or the number of items in their baskets.


And the other variables tell us that:

Cheque is slower than credit which is slower than cash – not really a surprise and perhaps explains (the rapidly vanishing) cash-only lines

The y-intercept is non-zero – in other words:

It should take you zero seconds to purchase zero items but you can't ignore the fixed time cost of the pleasantries ("Hi. How are you doing? Do you need any help out?") and the transaction itself.

The express lane isn't faster.

You attract more people holding fewer total items…when you add one person to the line, you're adding 48 extra seconds to the line length … without even considering the items in her cart.

So this answers the question about “express” queues – they are not a strange privilege for people who aren’t buying very much but a means by which these people are removed from the main queues – thereby speeding up your passage through with a trolley while making no difference to the customer with but a few items. In truth the rational decision is to separate different queues (i.e. different customer behaviours) in the knowledge that the asymmetry of understanding will improve the rate of throughput. Not only does this make your customers happy but it also reduces the supermarket’s costs (which – in a benign cycle of benefit – further increases the customers’ happiness by helping reduce prices).

Today, there is a further complication with the introduction of self-service checkouts. Again these will remove some customers from the checkout queues (and leave them standing frustrated while the machinery doesn’t work). And the jury is out on this wondrous technology:

It’s easy to see why retailers are turning to more and more self-service kiosks. They put the customer in control, they can reduce operational costs and they save on staff costs. When they are designed well they can improve customer experience because customers grab their goods and leave the store with minimal fuss. When they are designed poorly, they can be time consuming and frustrating having a negative impact on customer experience.


And they might not have cut queues either (although this might not have been the point):

Figures compiled by The Grocer magazine show that average queuing times for staffed tills at Tesco and Sainsbury's, the retailers with the most self-service checkouts, have increased over the past two years. At Tesco, which has 6,000 self-service checkouts in its 1,200 stores, the average wait for a staffed till lengthened from 5min 15sec in 2008 to 5min 42sec this year. Sainsbury’s saw a smaller rise, from 5min 30sec to 5min 35sec.


Although the supermarkets say these figures are nonsense (and they do seem to originate in some way from USDAW, the shopworkers’ union who aren’t going to be in favour of automation). My guess is that there's a befefit to be gained but both the technology and also the customer's familiarity have yet to reach the point at which that benefit is realised.

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Well I guess someone had to....


...which I guess makes up for the rest of the world!
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Sunday, 26 September 2010

Red Ed Arrives - more of the same then!



So Ed Moribund begins his campaign to be burgermeister:

Some are jumping up in the air--say "We're drowning in a torrent of blood!"
Others going down on their knees, seen a saviour coming out of the mud
Oh Mother! It's eating out my soul
Destroying law and order, I'm gonna lose control
What can I do to stop this plague, spread by sight alone
Just a glimpse and then a quiver, then they shiver to the bone
Ah, look at them go!


Labour have chosen a new leader after a process of such length and dullness that it brings to mind Paul Neil Milne Johnstone . Indeed there were moments when I feared that the body politic would revolt simply to see an end to the interminable boredom of this leadership campaign.

Now all the pundits are rolling out their assessment of Ed’s prospects – how the unions put him there and will demand a price, how the rejected Dave Moribund will become some kind of king over the water for Blairites and how there are little skips of joy and pleasure at ‘Red Ed’ getting the job at Conservative Central Office.

And Ed starts in the manner he’s conducted his campaign – with a wholly disingenuous victory speech and a cynical appeal to the electorate. All wrapped up in a wholly content-free presentation. I fear – and he has some competition – that Ed Moribund could become the most vacuous, dissembling political leader since Harold Wilson lied his way to the top.

So we have another elitist, self-serving, carpetbagger at the top of politics. Another man born with the right spoon in his gob (albeit in this case a very socialist spoon). Another man who while mouthing words like ‘community’, ‘middle-class’, ‘poverty’ and ‘hard work’ has no understanding or empathy with what they really mean. Another product of London’s metropolitan nomenklatura – effortless sliding from school, to university, to sinecure, to safe seat.

And that’s what is wrong with our politics.

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Mistrust, technology and the failures of modern policing

Sir Paul Stevenson, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner (or “Scotland Yard Chief” as the papers like to put it) has observed that the police have lost the public’s trust. In what amounted to a veiled criticism of his fellow top coppers, Sir Paul said:

‘This is more to do with the psychological contract between the citizen and police. And occasionally the citizen might be forgiven for thinking the psychological contract has been broken. They are on the streets and police are in buildings and vehicles, not doing other things. That is the critical issue,' he said.

‘It is a psychological contract, we are not saying the public should do this on their own. We should be out there. We should be saying, 'we want to be on the streets on your behalf. We want to make them safe'.’

He added: ‘Too often in recent years police have fallen into the trap of engaging in social engineering and associated social work, filling gaps left by other agencies. In years gone by we have lost the sense of the importance of visible street patrols - effecting as best as we can, uniform governance of the streets and public places, owning the streets on behalf of the public so that we can enjoy using them.’

Over recent days I have had cause to think about the relationship between the ordinary person and the police. For various reasons the matter of the police, how they operate and the nature of modern policing has cropped up and Sir Paul’s observations struck me as being significant.

Last week, I chaired Bradford Council’s Safer & Stronger Communities Scrutiny Committee where we received a report into “serious acquisitive crime” from officials including a police inspector. In case you don’t know, “serious acquisitive crime” covers domestic burglary, theft of and from a motor vehicle, and robbery.

During the discussion one councillor – as it happens, a Labour councillor – was uncompromising in his criticism of the police’s performance. And it’s hard to take issue with him (representing as he does one of Bradford’s most crime-ridden wards) as he complained that there had been too many excuses for the failure to reduce levels of burglary in the City. What worried me was that the police response was to wave shrouds – ‘it will get much worse after the cuts’ – rather than to address the historic failure. I am reminded that West Yorkshire Police could find 1,600 officers to police fewer that a thousand protesters but are unable to get enough policemen out there catching burglars.

Instead, as Sir Paul noted, police officers are safely and warmly ensconced in comfortable offices away from the questioning, informed engagement with the public that should be the essence of policing. The system falls back on failed technology as a replacement for real people.

CCTV – in Bradford city centre where millions has been spent installing one of the most comprehensive systems for surveillance, the pictures cannot (in most cases) be used for evidential purposes as they are not good enough. And where cameras can zoom in on a suspect, the people operating the system fail more often than not to do this. A waste of money as a system but worse, an excuse for the police to withdraw from patrolling on foot

ANPR – again police in Bradford are forever extolling the wonders of the “automatic number plate recognition” system that rings the city. But this really achieves nothing where plates are obscured, cars are stolen or the numbers are false. Again we replace engaging with the public by sitting before a screen.

Helicopters – hardly a night passes without the police chopper taking to the skies tracking some criminal of other. But again, the chopper can’t do anything other than follow someone, can’t act quickly enough to deal with events on the ground and is very expensive. People want coppers on the streets not in the skies.

Fancy radio systems – police forces spent untold millions on sophisticated radio systems allowing greater communications “security” and a more rapid, secure response. Which, of course, is why every copper uses the mobile phone!


I could go on to talk about over-complicated statistical analysis systems, some really sexy GIS (as a map geek I love this but as a politician and taxpayer I see no point) and loads of really smart souped up motors to hare about in. This is a failed system.

I now hear – from the decent folk who used to trust the police - endless stories of the rudeness of police officers, the targeting of minor offences by middle class people and a complete obsession with minor infractions. If the “twitter joke trial” was a one-off example of over-reaction it would be serious but it is not a one-off example of our criminal justice system’s overkill. Just this weekend I’ve heard of how police use questioning to trap people into admission (before any arrest or issuing of a ticket), how an angry motoring incident is blown up into arrests, charges and criminal investigation and how police officers collude to protect one of their own from allegations of assault.

I do not know whether all these tales are true but the police should be very concerned. Decent, folk living ordinary lives and causing no trouble no longer trust or respect the police – they see the cops not as a community force protecting them but as a threat. Almost as some kind of occupying army – the enforcement arm of a nannying, interfering, controlling Government.
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Saturday, 25 September 2010

Squirrel pie anyone? Don't ring the RSPCA

I like squirrels. The pesky little blighters have been my favourite animal since I was a small child - during which time I created a whole world populated entirely by the darling creatures. However, I recognise that not everyone shares my interest and indeed that grey squirrels (not to be confused with the Black Russian I've pictured) are quite serious pests.

So go ahead and cull them - there's plenty to go at and (as I discovered not long ago) make a pretty tasty pie. But whatever you do, don't ring the RSPCA for advice - they're clearly on some kind of deal with the pest control industry!

As Rev Douglas Drane discovered:

"I caught one of these vermin in a humane trap but when I called the RSPCA I was told I could not let it go because it posed a threat to red squirrels, which are not native to Gloucestershire," he said. I was also told I could not kill the animal myself and that risked prosecution if I did. I had to get a pest controller to come and do the job - at a cost of £70.

"I was dumbfounded by the RSPCA's response. What on earth am I supposed to do if I can't kill the squirrel or release it? I have done everything by the book. But it shows the law is an ass. It clearly needs to be changed."


And it's not just the RSPCA who are conflicted about squirrels. BBC Gardeners Question Time was accused of censoring panellists' comments on controlling pests like rats, mice, squirrels, rabbits and wood pigeons. And there are the real nutters like Animal Aid:

Their comments have been roundly attacked by Andrew Tyler, the director of Animal Aid, an animal rights group. He said: "The whole premise of gardeners killing squirrels is hateful and bigoted. It's the worst kind of intolerance. People should cherish them. But there is a concerted attempt to characterise them as vermin and a threat to the red. Gardeners who should be nurturing life and respecting life shouldn't be taking this bigoted view."


Look Andrew, if you and your mates over at the RSPCA want to hug bunnies that's fine by me. But please leave the rest of us who live in the real world to deal with the vermin and pests attacking our farms, out gardens and, in the case of squirrels, our electric wires. And, when we've killed the squirrels cook and eat them.

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Friday, 24 September 2010

Footballers! Your country needs you!

It seems that Britain's footballers, pop stars and night club owners are slacking!





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So we do get second best under AV?

(image lifted from the very fine Shoebury Blogger)


I was very struck by the figures presented by Will Straw predicting the outcome of the interminable Labour leadership contest. Not that I give a fig who leads the Labour Party.

What interested me was the manner in which a big lead for one Milibore could evaporate leading to a narrow victory for the other Milibore under the ‘alternative vote’ system loved by Labour (as an aside I’m sure this is a legacy of all those 1970s and 1980s student union sabbatical elections that used this system).

Much discussion is taking place as to how the 2nd (and 3rd and 4th) preferences of those voting for Balls, Burnham and Abbot will divide between the Brothers Milipede. With pundits suggesting that Ed will pip Dave at the post.

So here’s a question for advocates of AV. What about the 2nd (and 3rd and 4th) preferences of those who opted for a Militwit? Why don’t they get counted? (Note dear reader that this is a rhetorical question – I do actually know why). Surely that’s not fair as those choosing a Miliboob get less of a say that those voting Balls?

Seems to me that Labour will get the bloke who’s the second choice of those who voted for losers. Now that’s system!

Or maybe Scott Adams was right and the tall one with good hair wins?

Hair and height are great predictors of future careers. If you’re a guy with a good head of hair, and you’re over 6’4”, you’ll probably have a career in upper management


There’s some real evidencial support (as my skeptic pals like to call it) for this:

In this article, the authors propose a theoretical model of the relationship between physical height and career success. We then test several linkages in the model based on a meta-analysis of the literature, with results indicating that physical height is significantly related to measures of social esteem (p = .41), leader emergence (p = .24), and performance (p = .18).

And of course they have to be white men!
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Friday Fungus: the Slow Food Forage

Slow Food West Yorkshire have a mushroom forage coming up - I'm going to try and be there as it's only a mile or two from my front door. Should be interesting and fun - hoping for a nice damp day or two prior to the forage (which day will of course be clear and bright!).

If you're interested the link to the Slow Food website and the details are here.

And, of course, since its an edible mushroom forage I've posted a photo of some inedible ones!

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Thursday, 23 September 2010

Today I am busy....

Today I am busy. Not yet - unless you count putting photographs of thistles on my blog as being busy. And busy is what we were always told to be back in Rat Race Training College. Passive-aggressive little adages like; "the devil finds work for idle hands" and "hard work never hurt anyone" were churned out so as to socialise us in the ways of the working world. Even when we climb the educational ladder a little we get Weber's little tome thrust in our face as pedagogues insist that we're only successful as a nation because of that work ethic.

It isn't that I'm against work - although there are times when I'm with Bing on this matter - but that the thing isn't inherently a good thing. Working isn't essentially ethical and not-working essentially unethical. It may be unethical to lay about the place knowing that the efforts of others will provide for you laying about - but even then I'm not sure that applies in the aggregate.

Today I am busy. I shall work 12 hours. But I don't think this is a good thing. Nor does it make me better. It's just today.
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Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Vince is right about business and competition - but his solution is wrong, very wrong.

We have to disagree with Vince don't we? After all his rhetoric about spivs and gamblers, his comments about capitalism, his anti-business stance - all these things make him wrong and bad?

Well not exactly. Indeed Vince's comment about business and competition is absolutely spot on:

Capitalism takes no prisoners and kills competition where it can, as Adam Smith explained over 200 years ago. I want to protect consumers and keep prices down and provide a level playing field for small business, so we must be vigilant right across the economy – whether in the old industries of economics textbooks or the newer privatised utilities and cosy magic circles in auditing, law or investment banking. Competition is central to my pro market, pro business, agenda.


Understand this dear reader - business is, to the very core of its being, anti-competition. As a businessman my aim is - or should be - to secure some form of monopoly or monopolistic advantage so as to get closer to the nirvana of maximised profits. Whether it's the market trader who objects to another swagman taking a stall in the covered market, the banker who persuades the regulator to prevent market entry or the steelman who bribes the government party to introduce protectionist anti-dumping rules. Or even the horny-handed farmer moaning about the inadequacy of subsidies. All these businessmen - and women - are not interested in promoting competition. They are interested in reducing competition - at least so as it favours their profitability.

Vince referred to Adam Smith who famously said:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices…. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies, much less to render them necessary.


And that was what Vince was on about - the last labour government (and governments elsewhere and before) facilitated a corrupting association between bankers, financiers and governments that allowed a vast conspiracy against the public interest to damn near destroy our economy. We allowed - just as we have done with health, with education, with agriculture and (increasingly) with social care - the production of the service to take precedence over the consumption of the service. Government has acted against the interests of the people and in the interests of rent-seekers (and spivs and gamblers) seeking to profit from monopolies of service.

We have forgotten what else Adam Smith had to say:

Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.


I'm not sure Vince - with his faith in the power of 'better regulation' quite understands - almost always, regulation acts against the interests of the consumer by reducing competition, preventing market entry and stifling trade. So, while Vince is right about business not liking competition he is wrong about how to protect that competition:

But let me be quite clear. The Government's agenda is not one of laissez-faire.


And that's where you're wrong, Vince - if you want more competition you have to get Government out of the way, to stop giving in to special pleading, to break down the monoliths of health and education and to institute again a free-trading, free-market, laissez-faire economy. It will work - and we, the consumers, will be grateful for the wealth that our liberty brings.

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Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Another nail....

Let's be honest my friends, some stuff just pisses you off. We try very hard to stay balanced, even-tempered and moderate but then something comes along that does it again -bangs another nail into the coffin of your sanity.

Today, despite West Ham finally winning a game - away from home against a proper team - I am sorely tried. A miasma of gloom has descended upon me prompted by the futility of it all.

And then I read this....

The chief executives of 10 housing associations who are paid more than David Cameron will be targeted by the housing minister, Grant Shapps, at the associations' annual conference in Birmingham tomorrow. He will tell the National Housing Federation conference that since the prime minister cut his salary to £142,500 when he took office in May, housing associations should review how much they pay their senior staff and should subject them to the same scrutiny as ministers and public bodies.


One of the targeted organisations - Places for People - is one of the UK's largest property management and regeneration companies. It has nearly £3bn in assets and manages over 60,000 houses. Its 2009 turnover was approaching £290 million. It's a big, complex, PRIVATE, organisation and it pays its Chief Exectuive over £200,000.

I don't see this as a problem. And certainly not a problem meriting a cheap headline for a government minister.

Grant Shapps is a Tory. We believe in private organisations doing what private organisations do best. Housing associations are private organisations - how much they pay their bosses is absolutely nothing...nothing...zilch...to do with Mr Shapps.

....

Monday, 20 September 2010

We are all idiots: thoughts on democracy and representation

Since the lovely Anna Raccoon featured my ancient little piece praising idiots on her blog recently I feel inspired to a little update on the philosophy of idiocy – and its goodness. At least in part this is because a thought struck me – namely that representative democracy is looking a little old and tired these days. Or rather our Western European version of representative democracy has become rather like grandma’s stair carpet – fine at a glance but decidedly threadbare on closer examination.

In Europe (and for that matter in places like Canada, New Zealand and Australia) we choose representatives through the proxy of the party system. In most places political parties have sufficient brand equity to be able to prevent the system becoming too fragmented. And even where the nature of the electoral system encourages schism and division, the election of representatives is predicated on them being from a political party. Yet – and I really think this is very important – nearly everybody isn’t a member of a political party. Our representatives are – in effect – chosen by a tiny number of people who happen to have paid across £25 or so to their favoured party.

Which brings us to our good idiots – let me remind you:

So let’s look at our typical idiots. Round here they’re probably in their thirties or forties, employed at a middle management level in business and industry. They worry about how well their kids do at school, they concern themselves with making their family safe, they grumble a bit about paying taxes but have enough cash afterwards for it not to really matter. Such folk are ordinary, hard-working and inherently conservative. But they also see little or no link between the act of voting in a politician from one party or another and the significant things in their lives.

The final sentence here is central to the argument – the act of choosing a representative and the deeds of government are not connected. Our representatives – MPs, MEPs and Councillors – really aren’t in charge. And just to stress this point let’s remind ourselves how decisions are made:

The truth is that decisions in local government aren’t taken in the manner most ordinary people – including quite well-informed ordinary people – believe is the case. Us councillors no longer sit on various committees in numbers reflecting the political balance of the council. Eight or ten councillors make up a (usually) one-party executive – often pompously called the ‘cabinet’ – and it is here that the decisions are taken. But understand that any discussion takes places away from the scrying eyes of the public – in Bradford we had a thing called “CMT” consisting of Executive Members and the Council’s “Strategic Directors” where the real decisions were made. You must also understand that most of the decisions are made under “delegated authority” by one or other ‘strategic director’.


The particular flavour of Councillor you elect doesn’t really matter and, even if you are lucky enough to have a “cabinet” member as your representative, most of the everyday decisions that affect you aren’t made by Councillors and only get our attention when you’re upset enough to shout at us.

So what should we be doing? Can we fix representative democracy – by, for example, banning political parties – or is it all rather too late and has the sheer scale of Government got too much for any effective system of representative government to manage? Certainly, those anarcho-capitalist folk would argue that we should abolish such indulgences as elections in favour of that most efficient of choice-based systems – the free market. However, despite a degree of sympathy with this view, I am not convinced of its merit and am convinced of the need for there to be a guarantor of the rules – which you may choose to call ‘government’.

I am also convinced of the need for this guarantee of fairness (by which I mean the equal application of the rules) to be provided by citizens rather than by experts. Hence common law, juries, parish councils and elected officials (as opposed to elected representatives). And in this system there is no real need for members of a parliament who take up their role on a permanent basis – in times past we selected parliaments for a specific purpose and on a time limited basis (just as we did with judges) and can do so again.

Our current system is broken – when barely 50% of those who can vote did vote in the most tightly fought election for decades and where local by-elections are decided by less than 15% there is something wrong. And it isn’t ignorance, apathy or idleness – they’ve rumbled us. They’ve worked out that the system is ramped up to favour political apparatchiks, they’ve spotted that, however people vote, the same nannying, interfering decisions get taken and it’s dawned on them that democracy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And who are they? They are the good idiots the ones who, to quote George Bailey “…do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community.”

.....

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Bus travel not stressful? Who're you trying to kid?

Now I don’t claim to be as clever as the Goldacre chap when it comes to squirreling out dodgy research (although it’s interesting to note that Ben never strays into the drinking, smoking and eating field – that’s pinko Guardianistas for you) but this research worries me.

Driving a car is more stressful than going by bus, says new research


The author, Dr David Lewis is the media’s favourite ‘neuropsychologist’ and conducts lots of clever experiments designed to advise the owners of big brands on psychological stuff. And some of his work on brands and advertising response is very good and very interesting. His latest piece of research is paid for by folk called “Greener Journeys” who are:


…largely funded by major bus companies and so there are no studies on the stress levels of driving compared with travelling by train.


Dr Lewis did this to come up with his contention:

Dr Lewis, from the University of Sussex, conducted an experiment in which the heart rate and Electro-Dermal Response (EDR) of 30 commuters was measured when taking identical or similar journeys by car as a driver and by bus as a passenger.

So just thirty folk – that’s a pretty representative sample! And even if we aren’t concerned with representativeness, can we really be so sure that the results from just thirty people are enough to prove the point? I know Greener Journeys think so - but they just want to make more money from bus travellers rather than to save the planet or to reduce my stress levels.

So here are a few questions for Dr Lewis:

1. Have you repeated and replicated your test across a range of different locations, times, weather conditions and demographics?

2. Can you provide any evidence that modest short term increases in stress (which is what he is measuring) are actually a health risk?

3. Have you tested the stress levels when the bus is late or cancelled, it’s peeing down with rain and some women is giving you grief for smoking at the bus stop?

....

How much a footballer - or a cleaner - is paid is none of the Government's business whatever Polly Toynbee and the BBC might say.

****

In recent weeks I’ve written about the nonsense that is the labour theory of value including this observation:

In the final analysis something is worth what it’s worth – the value is determined by consumption not by production.


And, in order to demonstrate how allowing a guild system to dominate, I have observed that people (in the UK, at least, but probably everywhere else too) become doctors because it’s a very well-paid job. I know there are people who talk of their altruistic motives in donning the white coat – but would they do it without being in the top 1% of earners?

The BBC – in their leftie manner – has been asking about the matter of pay (and in the round levels of taxation). On the radio we got the delightful Polly – millionairess, ex-public schoolgirl, villa-owning champion of the poor and downtrodden. I note that she has not – in the manner of Dave Nellist – given away all her earnings so as to live on a ‘worker’s wage’. But that’s most socialists for you – do as I say not as I do.

I am however fascinated by the manner in which the debate about pay is couched. There are – it appears – three primary populist measures: the pay of the prime minister; how much premiership football players get in wages; and bankers’ bonuses. All other considerations – including the sensible and proper analysis of income levels and their impact on society – have to be seen through the prism of these measures.

Thus the wages of a local council chief executive are compared to the PM’s pay – not to a more fair comparison of the heads of the civil service (all of whom earn more than the prime minister). The proper comparison with the PM is what a council leader is paid not what the chief executive is paid – and here, whatever we might think about the remuneration of councillors, the PM comes out pretty favourably.

At the same time we have to go through the ritual about footballers – how their pay is ‘obscene’, how it is ‘destroying the game’ and often how the government should intervene. Again, we fail to ask whether the world-wide popularity of English football is the real reason for high wages. And why we should, in fact, welcome the fact that most of the cash we pay to watch, listen to and read about football ends up in the bank accounts of players (and through that in the coffers of the taxman).

The BBC reports were added to by an egregious poll conducted by ComRes – nothing wrong with the manner of the poll’s conduct or the professionalism of that company – but asking the public – without context – how much they think different folk should be paid is both economically illiterates and monumentally immoral. How much you or I – or rich folk like David Beckham or Tony Benn for that matter – earn should not be a matter that is the subject of social control. But heaven knows about the public’s value system anyhow!

The bosses of Britain's top 100 companies should be paid about £118,000 a year, a BBC survey suggests. Those questioned also put the pay of Premier League footballers and financial bond traders at £365,000 and £58,000 respectively.



And when the poll reports that lower paid folk should be paid more this is done without the obvious value statement – how happy will you, dear respondent, be to pay higher taxes, higher prices and have less choice? Not happy – well shut up saying what other folk should be earning then.

In the end we’re paid what we’re worth – or, in the case of doctors, teachers, bankers and lawyers, what we can screw from a market that the stupid government has given us control over. Yet the terms of the debate are conducted on the assumption that there is some morally justified public policy intervention in levels of pay – and especially pay of senior and successful people. There isn't.

....

Saturday, 18 September 2010

...Summer's over, so I'm off to Bath

Since my son is a student at Bath University (studying Chemical Engineering - which may make him some use to the world), we are provided with the occasional excuse to saunter down to that lovely City. I shall be doing so this weekend - there to deposit himself at his new abode.

I shall also take a brief trip to the seaside - to Weston-super-mare (or Weston-super-mud as others have been wont to call the lovely old town), where my bother lives.

All this means that I won't be writing lots of ranting, moaning stuff featuring an often frantic attempt to explain why, dear reader, they are all wrong.

...

Friday, 17 September 2010

Don't be fooled, dear reader. Doctors are in it for the money.

****

We all know why medicine is such an over subscribed subject in higher education. Don’t we? Or do you still subscribe to the view that people enter into the noble profession of doctoring out of a sense of vocation, duty and desire to serve mankind? That is after all what the assorted knighted and lorded medics who pollute our airwaves would have you believe, of course. But they are lying. And I know this because I’ve read some economics.

Let’s start with earning power then. While engineers are pretty good in the earnings stakes the winners are dentists and medics:

Top 10 graduate salaries by subject
1 Dentistry £29,805
2 Medicine £28,913
3 Chemical engineering £28,415
4 Economics £25,726
5 General engineering £25,455
6 Veterinary medicine £25,206
7 East and South Asian studies £24,769
8 Building £24,755
9 Civil engineering £24,473
10 Mechanical engineering £24,446
Source: HESA 2007-08 as published in The Times on Thursday May 27th 2010.

People become doctors because the pay’s good. It’s a simple as that really – so why do medics insist on trying to persuade us that they enter into the profession for nobler motives?

Doctors are lying when they claim not to be motivated by cash (and they do protest too much).

And, you know, they’re also lying when they say that the assorted campaigns to medicalise lifestyle decisions – smoking, drinking, eating – are for the “public good”. They are not. They are a ramp – special pleading aimed at further enhancing the earning power of the medical profession (and its assorted hangers on).

After all, if we let all the drinkers and smokers die, that means less business for the quacks!

The same argument can be made for “mental health” – medical professionals have a vested interest in extending the scope of psychiatric medicine. The more ‘madnesses’ we can discover, the more treatments can be prescribed and the more there is need for doctors. And we – as consumers of medicine – are told we cannot make decisions about our health because ‘we do not understand’. We aren’t clever enough. We must allow the doctors to prescribe.

And, of course, while the scope of medicine (and the demand for doctoring) grows, the doctors operate the other end of the ramp by controlling how many people can become a doctor. After all, as demand has grown, our supply has not kept up because of the way in which doctors are trained. And when cheaper foreign doctors are brought in the profession does its damnedest to get the message across that those foreign doctors are somehow not as good as the expensive home grown quacks.

I do not offer an answer to this exploitative monopoly but just want you all to heed the warning. Doctors – like other protected professionals (lawyers, accountants and so on) are organised to act against the consumer’s interest and in the interest of the profession. As citizens we should demand that the truth is spoken. We should refuse to co-operate with the medicalisation of normal behaviours and lifestyle choices and should insist that, if we cannot exercise economic control over the power of the quack, we can at least insist on a greater degree of citizen decision-making and the respecting of individual choice.

....

Friday Fungus: The Pressures of being a Number One blogger!


Yet again we arrive at the time of year when serious political blogging folk look with trepidation to Mr Dale’s lists. Eyes scan up and down the lists asking ‘who’s up’ and ‘who’s down’. For some the journey from five or six in the list downwards through 20, 50, 70…90! Followed by relief at just sneaking into the top 100 – the fancy badge can still be displayed (assuming that, unlike my friendly computer fairies, you have the technical competence to transfer the badge to the blog).

Now as this blog is – without doubt or question – the Number One Blog in the category of right-wing blogs featuring mushrooms and fairies, I am making these observations from a position of smug superiority. So you are excited at moving up a few places in the ‘Scottish Bloggers’ category and at settling comfortably into a mid-table position among left-wing bloggers. I know that – among the elite of political mushroom bloggers and the noble class of bloggers who touch on The Gentry – I am the most authoritative, well-read and referred.

Why should I be concerned about the “top 100” Conservative blogs or some other list – these are worries for lesser folk, craven in their attention-seeking and obsessive in their bothering about rank. I am the numero uno of mycological, mythical, faerie bloggers (or at least the right wing ones).

And I would make a badge if my fairy friends knew how!
....

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Mutton curry - an authentic South London recipe!

Ok, it’s my recipe and I’m from South London. That’s authentic!

Mutton curry is, without doubt, one of the finest dishes on the planet. Whether we’re talking Caribbean, Kashmiri or indeed Penge.

The secret for me is in the time you take to make the curry rather than the precise contents. And it takes a long time – nearly as long as it take to make a good oxtail stew!

You start – as one does – with a couple of pounds of mutton on the bone (I get it hacked up by the halal butcher), some onions and some garlic. And mix them all together with enough curry power, salt, ground ginger and cumin to coat all the mutton – add some oil so it all stays stuck and marinades well. I sometimes add a dash or three of vinegar (if I remember).

Leave to stand for absolutely ages – at least 24 hours and ideally 48 hours in the fridge marinading. The mutton should look almost cooked at this point (it isn’t it just looks that way). Heat up some oil in a heavy pan or casserole and seal the meat – add some other vegetables such as celery, okra or turnip and cover with water. Bring to the boil and then put into the over – preheated to somewhere between 100 and 150 degrees. Cook for at least 4 hours – the bones should come off the meat cleanly.

Serve with plain boiled rice (or naan or chapatti – whatever takes your fancy) and a pint of lager.
....

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Blind Men and the Elephant


As parables go - or is it fables - The Blind Men and the Elephant is one of my favourites. Whether the narrative version or John Godfrey Saxe's entertaining poem, the tale speaks a deep truth - the secret of great doggerel:

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.


The point being that we approach the great beast - the thing we want to understand from different perspectives and, as these things are, each person's understanding is true until the game changes to extrapolation. At this time, we find that the description is false - it is not so. That single blind man clasping the tail, the ear or the trunk cannot comprehend the magnitude of creation - yet we set about doing so, content in our limited knowledge (or rather the knowledge revealed to us as absolute truth even though we know it is limited).

We will go on arguing with other blind men who do not have the joy of revelation - who foolishly grasp the ear, or the trunk, or the tail. What would they know about the truth.

What would they know...

....

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Finding the secret places...

We built a den once. It was on the bank of a stream hidden in dense foliage. A sheet of rusty corrugated iron, some old fence posts and bits of old tow rope. It was great - we could watch the stream replete with minnows and sticklebacks, nip through the fence behind to scrump in the allotments and discuss the great matters that concerned us as 10 year old children. It was away from the boring world of grown ups - a secret place.

Except today we're not allowed secret places. Such things frighten those who know better - its not just the idea of "young children" playing out on their own next to a stream but the whole idea of the secret. That place we think is just ours - our den, our magic dell, our place of safety.

Today we just assume the worst. If it isn't that the children are indulging in "anti-social behaviour" (which is an unspecified and general allegation describing any noisy, slightly risky activity undertaken by people younger than us) or else that the riverbank is riddled with funny men just waiting to snaffle the passing 10 year old.

But those secret places are still there. We still seek them out - either in the real world or in that fairyland our minds create. And in those places we are free and calm - content to while away time unbothered by the angry, the interfering and the officious. Those secret places are where we dream our dreams. Where we make the armour that protects us from the horrid real world. Where we can experience the magic that makes living tolerable.

In those secret places dwell the things of our imagination - mythic creatures of our choice. And these things are as real as the dusty, dark, dreariness of the world we head out into from the secret place. The world of money, of toil, of anger and of duty. That world of the busybody.

I plan on spending more time in my secret place - when I find it again.

....

Monday, 13 September 2010

A (rather half-hearted) defence of Phil Woolas

The rather unpleasant former immigration minister, Phil Woolas is currently up in front of the beak (or more accurately an election court consisting of two high court judges encamped in Saddleworth Civic Hall) because of his election campaign – a campaign that resulted in a majority for Mr Woolas of just 103. In general terms the allegations relate to how the challenging Liberal Democrat candidate, Elwyn Watkins, was described in Labour literature. The BBC report the gist of the allegations (presented by the prosecuting QC) as follows:

"Mr Woolas's team had made an overt and, some may say, shocking decision to set out to 'make the white folk angry' by depicting an alleged campaign by those who they described generically as Asians to 'take Phil out' and then present Mr Watkins as in league with them. This was intended to galvanise the white Sun vote against him"


And this campaign involved:

“…using doctored photographs, misrepresenting facts, stooping even to fomenting racial divisions and tensions.”


In one respect this campaign is wholly reprehensible – the literature produced by Mr Woolas was deeply unpleasant and portrayed the area as deeply divided, under threat from ‘extremists’ and (by pretty blunt implication) that the Liberal Democrats were in some form of cahoots with these groups. To be honest, I shudder to imagine the outrage from Labour had this literature been produced by a Conservative candidate – and I wonder just how the party (which must have known) tolerated such an approach.

The action is being brought under section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 which states that:

It is a criminal offence to make or publish a false statement of fact about the personal character or conduct of an election candidate. The purpose of making or publishing this false statement must be seen to be to affect how many votes the candidate will get.

It seems to me that Mr Watkins will need to demonstrate that the campaign conducted by Mr Woolas actually affected the outcome. And bear in mind that (I assume) the Liberal Democrats will have used the somewhat anti-Asian tone of the literature to gain support from that section of the local electorate.

Whatever the outcome, it seems to me that the most commonly shown piece of literature is not sufficient to make this case – and however nasty it may be, I see no reason why Mr Woolas should be banned from making such as statement. What amazes me it how the Labour Party dares to speak about racism so long as this man is one of their MPs.

It may be that material I have not seen – real misrepresentation of the character or actions of Elwyn Watkins (and I’m not sure that the issue of support for arms sales to Palestine is good enough) – will come to light during the next few days (and this might be a start). But so far what we have is literature that shows Mr Woolas to be a nasty bigot. And as far as I can tell, there are no rules against electing nasty bigots. Indeed, if Mr Woolas campaigned to ‘stop the extremists’ (in a manner that might be seen as racist) that cannot be seen as an assault on the character of the Liberal Democrat candidate – indeed it says rather more about Mr Woolas’s character!

Even the more detailed revelations in the Telegraph show Mr Woolas’s campaign team to be exploiting the racial divide (and by inference associating Mr Watkins with Moslems) as well as making some slightly questionable claims about his income and election spending – although anyone familiar with claims about bankrolled candidates will be struck by Lib Dem hypocrisy on this given what they said about the Conservative candidate and campaign in nearby Pendle.

However much it pains me to say this, I do not think that Mr Woolas’s campaign breached election law (although I would be delighted to be proved wrong). More importantly, I see that the action undermines free speech and the ability of candidates to criticise their opponents – however lurid that criticism might be. Labour ran a nasty, underhand, personal and racist campaign – and won. Perhaps that tells us more about the Oldham public than about election law?

I do think, however, that the labour Party might like to consider expelling Phil Woolas!

....

Light at the end of the crossing...more Big Society ramblings

Once upon a time, dearest reader, our world was not bounded by the strictures of officialdom - or at least not the officialdom that believes it know better than the man with the job to do. Now understand that there was not - sadly - some mythic age of wonder when we were free, when the sun shone and the birds sang in joy at our liberty. But there was a time when Mr Smith could mow the verges outside his house secure in the knowledge that his local council would appreciate such a selfless act let alone consider actively preventing the activity from taking place. Indeed there was a time when the bloke from the council, the copper, the councillor and the doctor were all on the side of the people.

Now I know that you all understand this but you will also know that elsewhere people seem not to appreciate how we must cross back over the bridge - how we must return to that sunny swathe of grass where local people worked (at least metaphorically) hand-in-hand with local officials. Where there wasn't an endless discussion of 'funding streams', of 'capacity building', of something called "The Third Sector" - a place where there were things to be done and where people saw that these happened.

But onto all this landed the grandiosity of Big Government - starting with Morrision's gerrymandering of London (a far more unforgivable act of political vandalism than anything allegedly tried by Shirley Porter) we saw the panjandrums of municipal socialism matching arm in arm with the developers to a grand future. Whether we speak of T. Dan Smith's corrupt destruction of Newcastle (the spirit of which was captured so well by Lindesfarne in 'All Fall Down') or of the examples described by Julian Dobson more recently, we see the principle that "we know better" writ large.

As often the case the words arrive that capture part of the problem - I've explained my rage at Government, at its uselessness, at its incompetence, at its obsession with efficiency to the point of ineffectiveness and at the sheer brutality of its ignorance. So when I read this (even though perhaps the author didn't quite mean it my way) a little skip, a little glimmer of hope arises. Julian Dobson speaks to Nat Wei of Big Society renown:

So I’d urge you to engage with people’s anger, because if you can’t convince those who are already involved in community action that you and your government colleagues are listening seriously, then the Big Society idea, like so many before, will shrivel and die. Allow the angry and frustrated people to help you and those you work with to define what a Big Society should be.


But what Julian still needs to get is the scale of the anger, the growing revulsion for the socialist nanny state constructed by the successors of Herbert Morrison. The ghastly, interfering, busybody state. The 'we are the masters now' society. A world where bossy barrack room lawyers take command. A world were the mushy comfort blanket of control smothers fundamental liberties. Where banning smoking or hunting is more important than helping people start out in business or build a house or get together with neighbours to fix a fence.

And, Julian, those activists aren't the ones who turn up at conferences, have well-funded community groups or who see it as a political aim. Round here the activists are ordinary men and women who want to do something - tidy up a corner, fix the village hall roof, take the neighbours to the clinic, run a kids football team or clean up the stream. Real folk who don't get on the grand radar of the new panjandrums of Third Sector. They are the Big Society.

There is light at the end of the crossing but only if we let go....

....

Fixing the system: political parties, funding and privilege.

***

As you will know, dear readers, I have a slightly jaundiced view of the manner in which political parties are obtaining a constitutional position that extends beyond their established role as private organisations established for the purpose of promoting a particular cause.

We no longer need to clump together in class-based groups so as to protect our interests – we’re all pretty much middle class with much the same interests as each other. And in the main this interest involves keeping the Government and its agents out of our lives, getting on with raising our families, enjoying the house & garden on which we’ve spent all the cash the government leaves us after tax and not bothering our neighbours overmuch with our individual problems.


In truth we don’t need political parties. We don’t need to spend taxpayers’ money on sustaining the 1% of the adult population who join those parties. And we don’t need special protections or status in law for such bodies. If people like me want to join them that’s our business and we should not expect any privileged status or treatment for the organisation just because they are engaged in politics.


In the past few days, the ‘Committee on Standards in Public Life’ began a consultation on the funding of political parties – you can go play with this consultation on-line here. Now, although I care deeply about the manner of party funding, I am just as concerned about the assumptions being made by the Committee in framing the terms of their consultation.

Political parties are an essential part of the sound operation of the democratic process. They offer individuals a way to participate directly in our democracy and are the means by which voters choose between alternative policies and candidates at elections. Through government and effective opposition, political parties shape public policy. If political parties are to operate effectively it is essential that they are adequately and appropriately funded but it is also important that the means by which this funding is provided commands public confidence.


This implies a privileged position for political parties within our constitution – they are “essential”, they offer individuals “a way to participate” and are the means of choosing between “alternative policies”. And because of this particular, gatekeeper role Government should concern itself with the funding of political parties.

I don’t agree. I do not accept that political parties have any special position of importance and should be given any special advantage over other organisations – however those other organisations are constituted. The fact that the Labour Party is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the trade union movement means that I will never vote for it. But if those wealthy, protectionist organisations choose to fund a political party, that is their business – at least until the Government gives political parties a special position within our constitution. Sadly, the previous Labour government gave just such a privileged position to political parties and in doing so granted an advantage to the larger parties despite their rapidly declining membership. Today less than 1% of the population are members of political parties – and that includes all the funny little left-wing and right-wing grouplets that come and go like mayflies.

Finally, rather than focusing on income – on where a political party gets its cash – we should instead look at spending, at what the party spends its cash on doing. I have long argued that election spending should be exclusively at the constituency level – all national campaign funding should be banned and a reasonable limit on local spending used. That would get away from the “business/unions/rich foreigners are buying the election” arguments and would make independent and local candidates far more valuable and likely.

But this won’t happen now, will it!

....

Fixing the system: political parties, funding and privilege.

***

As you will know, dear readers, I have a slightly jaundiced view of the manner in which political parties are obtaining a constitutional position that extends beyond their established role as private organisations established for the purpose of promoting a particular cause.

We no longer need to clump together in class-based groups so as to protect our interests – we’re all pretty much middle class with much the same interests as each other. And in the main this interest involves keeping the Government and its agents out of our lives, getting on with raising our families, enjoying the house & garden on which we’ve spent all the cash the government leaves us after tax and not bothering our neighbours overmuch with our individual problems.


In truth we don’t need political parties. We don’t need to spend taxpayers’ money on sustaining the 1% of the adult population who join those parties. And we don’t need special protections or status in law for such bodies. If people like me want to join them that’s our business and we should not expect any privileged status or treatment for the organisation just because they are engaged in politics.


In the past few days, the ‘Committee on Standards in Public Life’ began a consultation on the funding of political parties – you can go play with this consultation on-line here. Now, although I care deeply about the manner of party funding, I am just as concerned about the assumptions being made by the Committee in framing the terms of their consultation.

Political parties are an essential part of the sound operation of the democratic process. They offer individuals a way to participate directly in our democracy and are the means by which voters choose between alternative policies and candidates at elections. Through government and effective opposition, political parties shape public policy. If political parties are to operate effectively it is essential that they are adequately and appropriately funded but it is also important that the means by which this funding is provided commands public confidence.


This implies a privileged position for political parties within our constitution – they are “essential”, they offer individuals “a way to participate” and are the means of choosing between “alternative policies”. And because of this particular, gatekeeper role Government should concern itself with the funding of political parties.

I don’t agree. I do not accept that political parties have any special position of importance and should be given any special advantage over other organisations – however those other organisations are constituted. The fact that the Labour Party is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the trade union movement means that I will never vote for it. But if those wealthy, protectionist organisations choose to fund a political party, that is their business – at least until the Government gives political parties a special position within our constitution. Sadly, the previous Labour government gave just such a privileged position to political parties and in doing so granted an advantage to the larger parties despite their rapidly declining membership. Today less than 1% of the population are members of political parties – and that includes all the funny little left-wing and right-wing grouplets that come and go like mayflies.

Finally, rather than focusing on income – on where a political party gets its cash – we should instead look at spending, at what the party spends its cash on doing. I have long argued that election spending should be exclusively at the constituency level – all national campaign funding should be banned and a reasonable limit on local spending used. That would get away from the “business/unions/rich foreigners are buying the election” arguments and would make independent and local candidates far more valuable and likely.

But this won’t happen now, will it!

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Sunday, 12 September 2010

Aim! Fire! - salty thoughts on targeting

Many moons ago I was Account Planning Director at a direct marketing agency. And there we talked about targeting. Obsessively. None of that exploitative ad-gabble about 'brand equity' or 'share of mind' - we talked about targeting. About improving targeting - getting ever closer to the direct marketer's holy grail. To contacting you at the very moment you want to buy what I have to sell you.

At the heart of improved targeting is information - data about you and what you do. There's the obvious stuff - name, address, telephone number and, these days I guess, e-mail. But these are just ways to reach you - on their own these data simply allow me to contact you, they do not allow me to target. If all I have is your address my targeting is determined randomly since I do not know whether you are more or less like to want my goods of services.

So we collected other information and we developed very clever (we thought) systems based on geodemographics (the 'birds of a feather flock together' principle) and psychographics (or 'lifestyle targeting' as the salesman would put it). These systems - built on the back of the electoral register, credit referencing information and other available behaviour data - were aggregated. We didn't know the information about each individual just a set of likelihoods determined by multiple regression analysis. But, couple with a list, we were able to identify the places where the birds who liked our product were flocking, and in doing this to improve our targeting from random.

But this 'profiling' approach - for all its merits and efficiencies - doesn't work that well from the marketers perspective. Despite all the clever number crunching and the melding of more and more information, real behaviour data was always better. Let me explain. Geodemographic profiling will tell me where my customers are concentrated - but it won't tell me enough about my customer's immediate neighbour to generate a sufficient uplift in response.

So why - other than Sunday afternoon indulgence - am I burbling on about targeting? Well, it seems to me that we have to resolve the use of targeting - not by businesses but by public authorities. I recall trying to persuade Bradford Health Authority to use targeting to improve the performance of public health campaigns. Rather than scattering information far and wide in the hope that it reaches the target group, why not use thse geodemographics and other data to get the message directly to the person at risk.

Back then we were sending messages about AIDS to 75 year old grannies and I'm sure not much has changed today. Take salt. For some (but not all) people with hypertension reductions in salt intake are highly recommended as a means to manage heart attack risk. For the rest of us it really doesn't matter - our salt intake in no way constitutes risky behaviour even if it is far above so-called recommended levels. The 20% of the population for whom salt is a risk factor can be easily identified through a simple test (GPs could do this) and the rest of us could go on with having food actually tasting of something.

The same approach could be adopted with other risky behaviours - rather than spending millions sending messages to a general population that isn't at risk (for example in their drinking, smoking or drug habits) we could direct that funding towards those whose risky behaviour does present a problem. We could target but we don't. We could use geodemgraphics, medical records and much else to improve public and primary health but we don't. We opt - for reasons of 'fairness' and equity - to spend the money on general campaigns produced by grand, flash and fancy ad agencies rather than intelligent, targeted direct marketing agencies. And we prefer to ban the agent rather than address the problem user.

Targeting public health campaigns would have a number of beneficial outcomes; Firstly it would mean we get better health outcomes from the spending; secondly, it would get away from the finger-wagging nanny state approach to health campaigns; and third it would allow more risky behaviours to receive public health campaigns. And, of course, it would mean that folk like me who are not massive public health risks and know what we're doing are less pissed off by the hectoring doctors and their chose fake charities.

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