Sunday, February 17, 2013

Is it in the public interest to know Bulgarian/Romanian migration estimates?

Perhaps in a few years just another 'bigoted woman' will be asking where are they are all flocking from... again... and the answer, that time, may be Romania and Bulgaria. 

There is mounting media speculation and interest in the accession of Eastern European states which took place in 2004 - which lead to a large influx of Polish and other migrants to the UK - being repeated in 2014. The influx was of course famous and famously resented because the UK, under Tony Blair, did not impose restrictions on the numbers of migrants permitted to enter the UK per year, nor on their ability to seek UK employment, unlike many other states. It is now estimated around 500,000 Polish migrants settled in the UK between 2001 and 2011.

At the time the accession treaty was being considered, when ministers were weighing up what controls would be right for the UK, estimates provided by Home Office civil servants speculated that around 13,000 migrants would come to the UK each year. It ended up being more like 270,000, so they were wrong by a factor of over 2,000%. Whoops (to be fair, if you read the linked report, you'll see they were fairly cautious about providing an estimate as they didn't believe they had good enough data to carry out the analysis... but still....).

This time around, with the impending lifting of migration controls on Bulgaria and Romania as a result of the 2005 Treaty of Accession, there are probably a few once-bitten-twice-shy civil servants who recall those past events of Polish migration - it goes without saying that the Tories will not want to take the same political flak over this as Labour have. 

So, whilst we have heard a lot of people getting hot and bothered about the possibility of this repeat, nobody this time in Government is willing to put a number on how many will arrive on the UK's shores. 

In fact, we know that the Home Office has looked at the impact of the expansion. When first asked to release the reporrt, the Home Office said there 'are no numbers in it', and that 'no report with numbers has ever existed and we won't be commissioning one' (imagine a carrot cake but without carrots...).

But now the situation has changed, and it is being claimed that it won't be helpful to release the information. Both SoS for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, and immigration minister Mark Harper are taking this line. Indeed, when subject to an FoI by the New Statesman, the response said that they (Home Office ministers presumably...although strictly speaking officers should be judging this...) needed time to assess whether it was in the public interest to release the information. This ability of the Government to withhold information for which there is clearly massive public interest is fascinating. 

If a newspaper managed to get hold of this information via leaking, and then published it, presumably the Government would - in keeping with its defence of the actions of the press following the Leveson inquiry - be quite comfortable with the press publishing it, so long as it sold papers (the sole assessment editors feel is justified when considering public interest). 

It is strange, that the Government has in law a public interest test which it applies to its own work, and yet feels ready to defend an utterly different method of assessing the public interest when it is in the hands of another body. 

Which brings us to the question, just what is the public interest? is there a common definition, and who has the right to apply it? Because if the Government is so gung-ho as it claims to be about press freedom, then so long as an editor wants information which he/she believes should be published, then it would have to grant access to that information, to be in keeping with it's assertion that the press is the best assessor of public interest in the context of information release. 

If that is not the case, then we have surely come to some kind of Platonic impasse, where principle is abandoned in favour of circumstance. The circumstance that prevents the application of the principle in this case is that the Government holds the control of the information, so in this instance is able to abandon the pretence of their principle that the press can and should freely be able to assess public interest. It seems perfectly clear, if the press obtained this information, and released it, the Government would not go after the press for wrongly obtaining the information, but would rather go into debate about the meaning of the information and its accuracy.

This is a bizarre situation, and shows how the law can be a confusing beast, more so when ministers are ideologically wedded to concepts except when it doesn't suit them.   

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Big Data - ally or enemy?

There's a huge buzz around Big Data at the moment in circles of academia, technology and politics. People are excited by the prospects for analytical breakthroughs which may answer some challenging unresolved questions. 

For a fairly simple explanation of what Big Data is (and you do need to know), pop along here

A recent article on the BBC website gave an interesting bit of insight into the kind of fervour that's stirring up. The article came with the headline "Will Big Data herald a new ere in medicine?", the sort of typical headline that accompanies some of the more bold claims about what Big Data may, or may not, deliver.

For people interested in politics like you (how else did you get here?!?) and I, there are prospects about Big Data that intrigue. For example, we have long known that history will lead to the inexorable rise of the left - that is to say, of the workers (ahem - just for the sake of argument...) - so perhaps Big Data can shine a light on the behaviour of voters worldwide over the past fifty years, looking at age ranges, gender, then looking too at whether this has lead to more leftwing parties gaining power, or more leftwing policies being implemented. 

Just shove in the 'right' metrics (nations, turnout, vote system, vote result, gender/age/ethnicity breakdown etc etc) and.... voila!!! out pops the answer... Except it doesn't work like that. 

As one of the big daddys of statistics, Naseem El Taleb, author of Black Swan (no, not THAT Black Swan, THIS Black Swan - one of a series of best selling statistical books) has recently written in Wired, Big Data is fundamentally limited. 

The reason for the Big Data limitation is fairly straightforward. 

Answers to complex, challenging questions, are hard to find. Having more powerful analysis, i.e. more educated, nuanced, well-developed approaches to examining issues can provide answers. Having more information - i.e. Big Data - simply means that the haystack which contains the needle is much bigger. 

In the field of politics, this has interesting implications. Taleb proposes that the availability of Big Data means that it is easier to manipulate/select that wealth of information to prove a hypothesis that has been developed; i.e. forgone conclusions to academic's - or other's - areas of research. 

At the moment, in the field of politics there is one area of huge debate - is austerity worsening the depression? or is it fixing the mess? This is classic Keynes V Friedman territory (though I must stress - capital and infrastructure are the key spending initiatives Keynes would favour, not just spending more money on everything, such as welfare, for instance). 

And this huge area of debate is being hotly contested using the tried tools of the trade - selective evidence to support hypothesis. Take a trundle over to Telegraph blogs, and you'll see what I mean. 

Of late, for instance, many of the bloggers on the right of the spectrum are enjoying the recovery of Latvia, because it went on something of an austerity drive and has recovered strongly in recent quarters. This is amazing 'selectivitis'. One small nation, which few know much about, is having a recovery for reasons even fewer known about. It is very easy to use this tiny sample out of the vast amount of data on other nations, to justify austerity, and that is precisely what is happening. 

What we are beginning to see if how easy it is for those on the wrong side of the argument to defend and obfuscate themselves with a minute amount of data on their side. The Latvian example is debatable, but even if it wasn't, is it's sample comparable, or sizable enough, to warrant drawing conclusions about the wider use of macroeconomics elsewhere, in larger regions such as the whole of Europe? I am far from convinced. 

So for me, Taleb's warning about the misuse of information to demonstrate hypothesis is timely, and we should watch for these hypothesis-proving examples on both sides of the spectrum, and argue for honest cynicism about the usability of small samples in either case. 

Big Data is going to be a huge area of focus over the coming years, especially with the growth of the internet of things, but we should remain mindful of the possibilities, as well as being cautious and healthily skeptical of the users of such data, and their methods of reasoning. 

Sunday, February 03, 2013

The emergence of Depression Denial & questions over tax transparency

In response to the woeful GDP figures for the last quarter of 2012, which showed the UK's economy had contracted by 0.3%, it caught my attention that a few political commentators had started voicing an interesting new angle on economic matters. 

Historically, we've become accustomed to many various excuses for the coalition's inability to get the economy moving. We've had Royal weddings, jubilees, snow and more snow... in fact, pretty much if anything 'stuff like' happens, then you can be pretty damned sure it was to blame for a precipitous fall in output and derailing all those credible plans for growth the coalition had so carefully crafted. One wonders if the coalition maintains a record of slightly unexpected/unusual events with which to refer come the bleak date of the next GDP figure release; 'Feb 2nd - Newcastle United beat Chelsea 3-2... plausible link to North East manufacturing and construction drop', 'Feb 1st - a wetter than usual Friday, causing decrease in night-time economy'. 

But when I read Jeremy Warner of the Telegraph ask "does anyone believe in the GDP figures anymore?", it struck me that there might be a new chord being struck here. 

Jeremy's question begs the response - if we can't trust GDP figures anymore, why not, and at what point did they become discredited (strange coincidence this seems to coincide with ? Perhaps it's all a public sector conspiracy and the staff at the ONS are trying to manipulate the figures downwards? Or, stranger and more conspiratorial still, perhaps the figures are right.... and everyone involved in creating growth is being persuaded by their public sector friends to work less hard for a bit. 

Jeremy poses the question as to how GDP can still be so poor, given that private sector jobs are being created at a rate of knots. He then answers his own question, in a way which suggests he's not too sure of the GDP being so wrong after all.... 

Either the GDP numbers are quite significantly wrong, or labour productivity has gone into precipitous decline, with growing numbers of people prepared to accept poorly paid, "grunt" jobs.

My own view is that it is a combination of the two. The situation is probably not as bad as the headline number suggests, but by the same token, these are by and large not great jobs that are being created – scraping by on part time work and self employment. A whole new army of white van man is being created. Some work is better than no work, but this is not a healthy development.

We know that whilst jobs are being created, they are not being created nearly fast enough, nor are they at decent levels of pay, nor for permanent or full-time positions. Positions are low paid, short hours/part-time, temporary. We know also that the figures are being massaged on job creation. If, on top of this, a large number of positions are apprenticeships....  then how much growth do we expect in productivity? An apprenticeship is no bad thing, but it is not a position which will add greatly to productivity on a macro scale. 

Fascinatingly, Warner's analysis and headline point to the likelihood that the right will begin to castigate the longstanding international measure of a nation's wealth and growth - GDP- purely because it doesn't suit their purposes. Standard sophistry some might say, but this kind of propaganda should not go unnoticed. (same sophistry is brewing now on child poverty - being redefined by IDS)

The right has made a lot of 'deficit denial' since 2010, let us not allow their 'depression denial' be unseen. 

A further thing which comes to mind when we speak of the deficit and the depression - both of which do exist, but are deliberately obfuscated - to what extent was the UK's parlous financial position in 2010 down to corporate tax avoidance measures? 

The right commonly points the figure of blame at Brown and Blair for spending at the wrong point in the economic cycle (which they use as an excuse, to permit themselves to not spend at the right point in the cycle....'couldn't make it up' springs to mind). However, given that we now know that most large multinational corporations operative in the UK have been avoiding paying minimal taxes for years, what effect is that likely to have had on the UK's balance? Although the transparency of these tax affairs is now in the public eye, is it not likely that SMEs which were UK based and paid full taxes, have consistently been driven out of business for a period of decades by those which pay minimal taxes? 

Not knowing the scale of the tax avoidance means it is hard to say what the impact has been, but certainly we know that the UK account would be looking somewhat less unhealthy if these companies had been paying corporation tax at the full rate. 

So, whilst the right busy themselves denying the depression, we can but hope that corporations will be forced into paying UK taxes to start to reverse that depression and keep more funds in the UK... Apple, Google, Amazon, Play, these tech-giants must be brought to heel, and we can't rely on the Government to do that job - they will lay the blame at the door of international laws and globalized trade. Which means that ethical consumerism is the only realistic route. 

ps. I fully expect GDP figures to change - perhaps be revised up, but that always happens, and just means that over time more analysis can be carried out to make the analysis more accurate. To imply that GDP is simply 'wrong' is different, as it points to something fundamentally inaccurate in the way that it is measured, and is being devised as a plot to water down the potency of the GDP figures and their impact on the polls - which is the biggest threat to the Conservatives, simple as that. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Cameron's non-gamble on the EU - and how everyone's fallen for it

The Economist - amongst others on both sides of the political fray - has been busily portraying Cameron as an arch gambler this past week concerning his EU-antics.

I think this is playing into Cameron's hands, and that he's not really gambling all that much at all.

Firstly, there is one small area of gamble around the EU vote when it gets put to the public. I say small as it seems to me very unlikely that people will vote to exit the EU. We know all the main political parties will campaign to stay in.  We know the current opinion polls show the vote being close. We know that in the run up to any referendum businesses will overwhelmingly be campaigning and bank-rolling the activities of those campaigning for a yes vote. With this in mind, the electorate would have to be very bloody minded to vote to exit, would it not?

Setting aside that small gamble, there's not much left. It seems people believe Cameron doesn't know the position of his EU counterparts, and they may not give anything away during negotiations, meaning they'd rather the UK just sodded off. But we know Merkel is a proponent of the UK staying in, and that the uncertainty that would be caused to the EU project by the UK exiting would be hugely destabilising in a number of different ways (economic, social and foreign policy at least).

We also know that Merkel and other European leaders were in touch with Cameron before he made his speech. We can therefore take it as read that he, as any mature politician would do, explained the predicament he was in, that he was going to offer a referendum to the people of the UK, and ask how the leaders would react to that...

... and here's the rub; Cameron would have discussed the referendum, and explained that he would be putting it to the people after renegotiation of terms of membership, and needs some small - phyrric - victory with which to return home, to ensure a vote winner in both general election terms and the referendum for Cameron. Is it not very likely, that Merkel, and others would have said 'ok - we will give you something small, we can guarantee something small during renegotiations (e.g. the working time directive not applying to the UK?), which you can take home, to portray as a victory.... then you'll very likely succeed at referendum as the people's appetite would have been satiated.

Finally, Cameron has unquestionably fixed one issue with his 'gamble'; as the polls over the weekend have shown, he has nabbed a heap of voters from UKIP, who are now completely stuffed come the next election.

So, perhaps it's a gamble for me to say it as the world of politics is inherently unpredictable (of course - if things go horribly horribly wrong in Europe in 5 years time, perhaps exit wouldn't be ridiculous... but that seems low on the likelihood threshold given things are already so bad and yet the polls are still close on in-out)....  but I don't think Cameron has gambled that much here... I think he has played a strategic blinder, which Labour and others are queuing, or perhaps bumbling into cack-handedly.

If I were working with Labour I would be hammering out what Cameron's 'red-lines' on Europe are - I promise he has none, because he needs to wait until the negotiations are truly in the bag before he can be utterly certain of what little piffling victory he can come home with which will garner him votes and an EU referendum victory.

Who is the Luther, to Greatly Reform our modern politics?

      The past - the original reformation

On the eve of All Saints Day, October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted the 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg.

This was a pivotal moment which many historians point to as representing a significant step-change in attitudes towards the Catholic Church. The 95 theses set out why the Catholic Church had got it wrong, and needed to change.

The Church had become vast, wealthy beyond belief, and made up of an elite which was incredibly distant from the normal people who made up the congregation. It was 'the establishment', and did not seek to represent the people to god, to seek their 'forgiveness' for sins, to atone for their mistakes and to channel their prayers to the almighty... what it really stood for, in the eyes of the people, was itself. It stood for ensuring its own continuation, for more lining of the coffers, for guaranteeing the clergymen's lifestyles - supported by the people's money.

In order for such an organisation to preserve itself in this way, it needed to be able to resist forces of change.

Change can be forced by the people much more easily when they understand the system which rules over them and can thereby scrutinize and examine. Keeping Latin, then, was one way of preventing understanding and ensuring the elitist institution could continue - unless you were well educated and wealthy, how could you learn Latin or enter the clergy?

These and more were the arguments put forward that resulted in the Protestant change.

The new establishment

It goes without saying that the similarities between the Catholic Church in 1517 bears clear similarities to any long-running state establishment/system.

In the past week we have seen some insightful comment pieces by Iain Dale, the prominent Conservative blogger, and Prem Goyal OBE, a contributor to Progress Online, on the UK political culture.

Iain has 'fallen out of love with politics'. He talks about how changed the people around him who have become MPs are. Amusingly, Iain says how they 'don't respond to texts anymore' (heavens above!). He talked about how he thought he might now be seeing politicians in the way the rest of the public do. Yes Iain - very likely you are.

Prem's article tackles the challenges of reforming the Labour Party, about how inaccessible it's internal procedures have become, and how it was 'ironic' that 'politics in the UK is such an insular pursuit', given it is all about the people.

It is interesting to see these two activists pose the same questions and points from across the political divide, anyone really interested in politics knows they speak of a serious issue at the heart of British political democracy.

Voter turnout has been declining significantly since the 50s and 60s. Particularly damning is the behaviour of young voters, the following from Mark Wadsworth is insightful;

"The UK population pyramid (from here) there are 19.4 million people aged 18 to 40, of whom about half (9.7 million) didn't vote in the 2010 General Election, in other words, there were nearly as many 18 to 40 year old non-voters as there were Conservative voters ."

So we know many many people no longer vote. Probably you, like me, also know people with abundant conspiracy theories about the activities of the Government, who don't vote because they think the Government is a law unto itself which is remote from the people, and is upto all sorts of bizarre and machiavellian activities, such as hiding the discovery of alien life. Trust too then, is at a low ebb.

The two - low turnout and low trust - are chicken and egg problems... if you think about it.

Those that do vote have - and I include myself in this - little confidence that things will improve, from one government to the next. Viewing the 2008 Obama election from afar, I, and I know there are many like me, were filled with enormous hope and optimism (sadly much of which was idealistic and misplaced), a kind of hope and optimism which seems to be missing from UK political events.... at least since 1997, which was more a sense of relief than anything else, in hindsight.

Dale believes the above problems are because the press paint politicians badly. I don't buy into this. I know many politicians, and the reason they get painted badly is.... believe it or not... because they behave badly. I don't mean they brake more rules than most. I mean because they are craven and evidently self-serving - the antithesis of what is needed in the job. They have lost sight of the main reason they are there, to represent the people.

Goyal feels that changing the machinery of the Labour organisational system will help Labour engage. He is partly right, but when talking about 'transparency' he embraces a small solution which cannot possibly hope to resolve the wider challenge.

The future - a recipe for reform

In many ways, the current system, and the people who make it up, mirror the problems of the Catholic Church when faced with the reformation.

Politicians use arcane language - the modern equivalent of Latin - and devise and utilise systems which are utterly inaccessible and nonsensical to the public. 

Debt and deficit are habeas corpus and non sequiter to most people; they don't know what either mean and certainly most couldn't accurately describe the difference. Try asking anyone what quantitative easing is; some will tell you 'printing money' - which is the result of the political system being unable to explain the process adequately.

Labour, sadly, is a huge part of the problem. We cannot hope for the Tories to change - Conservatives are by nature an elitist establishment organisation; this will never alter.

Labour though, MUST reconnect with the people it claims to represent, because frankly, what is the point in its existence otherwise?

Labour once stood for something which was designed to upset the establishment. It has now been subsumed - like the Borg subsumes its enemies in Star Trek. The culture of hierarchy has got hold of Labour. Power has corrupted absolutely, as is its want.

Labour is not elite insofar as it requires money to become a major player. It is elite in that the members are political nerds from an exceedingly young age.... turning to political activism at the age of 16-20, at a point where they simply haven’t experienced enough of the real world, of the trials and tribulations of life in order to be able to represent the wider population – most of whom HAVE experienced these things. Becoming politically active at this age makes them set apart from the rest, and makes their world of political debate segregated. They are a profession; like lawyers, surgeons, architects, chemists.... whose work is incomprehensible to all but a few. This cannot be in the world of politics, where the job isn't to simply lead but is to represent.

Apart from the nerdist frenzy at the heart of Labour, feet dragging on the really meaty things people know would change the establishment has alienated people. Lords reform, electoral reform, political appointments, family members of staff, all should be demanded by Labour to demonstrate their anti-establishment credentials.

Transparency, yes this is important Prem goyal – but not the ultimate method of ensuring increased engagement. Lobbyists should be on a statutory register sure. Recall that any amount of transparency at the time of the Reformation would not have ensured accessibility of the clergy, as was achived under. What is needed is that same ‘accessibility’ revolution.

A hugely saddening fact is that the very people who might be able to reform the political system are those most likely to avoid interacting with it. Those politicians who are currently part of the Party, who wish to see change, must seek to change their party's recruiting and leadership approaches... to ensure that they are sending a signal that says; 'don't just vote for us; join us'.

But whilst change within is necessary, there must also be change without; many people look at the system with dismay, and turn their backs on it. This makes me wonder, what do they hope to achieve? 

Given we're faced with a system on the scale of the Catholicism in the 15th and 16th centuries, we are then faced with an equally substantial response, which reflects the enormity of the reformation's effort. 

So, taking the lessons from the above into account, what might a modern 95 theses for Labour politics look like? I can't come up with 95, but here's three to get us started... 

Actively seeking normal people to become part of the Party and stand for election, not people with long part backgrounds or hardcore political nerds.

  •       Being honest – admitting mistakes and fallibility (this is the Boris bulletproof technique; people wonder why he is so successful. I think it's because he simply comes across as a lot more honest and straightforward. Even when risking opinions that seem unpopular he delivers his opinion without ducking and dodging in the way the electorate hates. People like this because it demonstrates their top requirement of politicians; sincerity. Miliband could take this very strongly with the unions – he keeps allowing the right wing papers to humiliate the Party over it’s donations of unions and their members. This should be laughed off as ludicrous every time it is mentioned. The Labour Party was BORNE out of the union movement, unions are made up of millions of the people of Britain and the idea that their money is somehow ‘dirty’ is disgraceful and deserves shouting down not meekly cowering about. When this is mentioned people should say “Union money is money of the working people that made this Party revolutionise the way decent working people were treated in this country, and we’re proud that our money comes from a source as good as that). 
  •       Embracing constitutional reform; not half heartedly, but properly... no more u-turning once in Government, like we've seen on Lords reform and better voting systems. 
  •       Language is a key factor. Keep it simple... Plain English needs to be taken to the next level in political literature and in political announcements. Don't allow political terminology to creep into decision-making meetings. 
  •       Embracing the transparency agenda - not ducking it because sometimes it illuminates unhealthy use of public funds. 

So there you have it. Not quite a modern Lutheran rival, but a fairly reasonable set of proposals that would imbue people with more confidence in the Labour political system. And you know what - they wouldn't cost the world either.

What do you think? Any ideas of your own? How do we change Labour, or change politics, in a way which works for modern society?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Dan Hodges is right - and Labour need to hear him

Many on the left are likely to read the occasional article by (Glenda Jackson's son) Dan Hodges and squirm - not least because he mainly writes for the Telegraph, more so because he is hyper-critical of Labour's policy positioning and public affairs management. 

This betrays a significant weakness of those on the left, namely their tendency to seek to control, at virtually all costs. 

In the case of Dan Hodges, his move to the Telegraph from the New Statesman lead to him variously being described as a 'traitor', a 'right-winger', 'Tory' etc etc. Many seemed to feel that he should only write what he does about Labour in a Labour-supporting media organisation, if at all (their preference probably being that he not write). 

Both the reaction of readers angry about Hodges' move, and the initial internal anger that lead to him leaving the New Statesman are good examples of a bad habit of controlling what is said about the Party by its supporters in public. 

A Party machinery that seeks to stamp out criticism is indicative of a Party machinery unworthy of Government. Criticism should be welcomed if constructive, ignored if not. A desire to remove criticism from the discourse because it comes from a friend, shows the kind of controlling mentality that Hayek so brilliantly described in his seminal 'Road to Serfdom'

Many things in the Road to Serfdom were wrong. Hayek promoted an extreme where a balance between the control of the state and the powers of the market did not exist, an extreme that would lead to a society devoid of justice where the frail or the vulnerable would undoubtedly be exploited and manipulated by the powerful (to a far worse degree than they now are), where the unrelenting force of the market would not be checked effectively. 

Hayek's core message was however a true truth; state power is a huge force we should be wary of, there will never be convergence of views around the 'good', and taken to its furthest reach the state could become both a frighteningly inefficient and vast bureaucratic machine, and a cruelly single-minded beast that squeezed out the views of minorities - perhaps by force where it saw fit. 

In the absence of a 'common good', which views are allowed to prevail? Ultimately, complete power placed into the hands of the few individuals that run the state (Cabinet/the PM) means that those few individual's views will have far reaching consequences for the lives of everyone in that state, whether they agree with them or benefit from them or not. 

In order to avoid the Hayekian narrative from being applied to Labour, it must resist the urge to control where control is not needed. 

Labour must embrace the diverse range of voices and respond to them where they have a point. It must be the most democratic organisation possible, and must advocate for stronger democratic structures in both the electoral system and wider society. It must - in an echo of the coalition's localism agenda - promote decision making at the lowest possible level, nearest to the people affected by the decision. If Labour sides with freedom to a greater extent than the Tories, then the argument that they are seeking to control is partly negated. Needless to say, in the case of taxation it is unavoidable that Labour will seek more control, but it should seek in all other possible areas to avoid regulation beyond what is needed to ensure the safety and security of all, and that required to fight gross inequality.  

In the case of the Dan Hodges situation, Labour and its supporters, should accept that as much as what he writes may be uncomfortable, he has every right to say it, wherever and whenever he likes. Whilst writing in a paper that is read by so many Tories may seem like 'treachery' to some, it is one of few ways that his message is effectively heard, or should be... because surely the Party's communications boffins would not ignore what is written by a prominent Labour-supporting commentator in a powerful newspaper primarily read by Conservatives. 

Whilst party adherents are wrong to dismiss Dan Hodges on the principles laid out above, they are also wrong because he clearly has something to offer. His recent articles highlighting the precarious nature of Labour's poll lead, the European challenge, and the lack of new policy were all compelling must-reads and Labour must take action to tackle the views he put forward. 

Labour should make a clear case on Europe urgently; their current position is unclear and incoherent. They must announce bold policies in a range of areas which set the agenda; not just react to the Tories and say everything they're doing is 'bad', without offering a credible alternative, for they will not be elected on the grounds of opposition, and must pose a positive choice which makes absolutely clear what kind of a different nation they envisage (One Nation is not enough without policy to support it). 

If these things are fixed, then the polls may change favourably in the way they need to, but what is certain is that Labour's current lead is not as solid as it seems and they will need to extend it substantially before they can rest... which is sadly something the Party seem to be doing already, at least in terms of policy. 

On current form Hodges should be welcomed into the Party machinery and given a role around communications, not ousted from the circle because what he says is too close to the bone. 

ps. Dan Hodges once wrote about the controlling tendency himself, in his first blog for the NS after a six-month hiatus following a hasty exit under uncertain circumstances. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Cameron's parenting agenda, genetics, and neuroscience

Tom Chivers’ Telegraph article looking at parental influence on child behaviour/future development is a great demonstration of the current and future battle lines of left/right political thought. 

Chivers argues against David Cameron’s introduction of access to more free training/educational materials for new parents. Whilst I don’t think Cameron’s plan will have any great impact, the act itself is a minute step in the right direction, or at least a nod towards it. As a Labourite, I have no reason to admire anything Cameron does, but even a stopped clock tells the time correctly twice a day.

The basis of Chivers argument is thus; humans are innately good at rearing children, the same as any other animal, because they have evolved their approach over hundreds of millions of years. He goes on to explain that children are also extremely good at getting from their parents what they want/manipulating them (i.e. they’re not just receptacles) and that this behaviour is determined by genetics, basing his evidence on a book by Steven Pinker called the Blank Slate (arguing against the ‘tabula rasa’ theory of mankind).

Chivers’ article is typical of right-wing belief; humans are the opposite of a blank slate. They are born one way or another, and what happens during their lifetime/early years doesn’t really have a great impact on their behaviour as an adult. This is why he berates Cameron’s interventionist action of putting money into training/educational resources for parents.

Except of course he is wrong. What happens during a child’s early years has a very significant impact on later behaviour. There are mountains of evidence of this, and there is a similarly large amount demonstrating that training/education for parents is effective – as Ben Goldacre helpfully pointed out to Chivers, by linking to the relevant Cochrane collection entry;

In my view, Chivers’ article offers a brief glimpse of the future battle over the nature and nurture dialogue which underlies political philosophy.

Chivers’ line is highly reliant on Pinker’s, both are therefore wholly grounded in genetics.

Genetics are being lauded by those on the right who find an allied science which is willing to explore the realms which might demonstrate what they have always believed; that people are born good or bad, that governments may come and go and intervene as they wish but parents will be parents, children will be children, and people are born to succeed and fail - no amount of money thrown at their circumstances will change their genetically-determined destiny.

Alongside the geneticists arguing that they are finding more and more evidence of a genetic backdrop to every personality trait, there are the neuroscientists laying out their ideas of environmental impacts on the brain. Since John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory expounded the idea of emotional bonds impacting on the development of the child, neuroscience has emerged as a potent force giving a hard-science evidential basis to his theory. Bowlby essentially showed that emotional bonds broken or formed during the earliest years of life, had a huge effect on later emotional development. Emotional intelligence, in case you didn’t know it, has a massive impact on success, wealth, happiness and suchlike. Attachment theory is therefore an argument for intervention; intervention by those in the family, the community, or the state.... to do something when parenting isn't working well, when emotional bonds are not being formed. Parenting classes are a piece of this puzzle. Maternity and paternity leave are another.  

As we approach a time when more is known about the mind, and the impact (or lack thereof) of the environment on it, than ever before, politicians owe it to society to ensure that this knowledge is reflected in policy. The proponents of opposing philosophies are likely to seek to water down the merits of sciences from whence knowledge emerges that threatens their worldviews. This is intransigence in the face of evolution of thought, found in the worst possible sphere – that of life and death decision-making.

Whilst genetics will have a role to play in our understanding of man, neuroscience has already given us compelling reason to believe that the effect of upbringing on the developing child is profound. This is a lesson policy-makers of both political persuasions have so far failed to heed. The sooner they put children at the centre of all policymaking the better, but in the meantime expect an interminable dispute about genetic predetermination of outcome. Indeed, with the moneyed interests heavily on the right, it is likely that genetic investigations into heritable traits will be buttressed by big money in the same way that anti-global warming theories are supported by oil and energy interests, whilst neuroscience research into environmental impacts may be hindered by an opposite pattern of underinvestment.

Watch this space.


Cathy, a student of philosophy has also written an interesting blog in response to Chivers’ article.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Blair's analysis of the riots is quite a good read and a worthy contribution to the debate, but there are some significant flaws to his argument worth flagging up.

In one of the better assessments Blair says of the rioters; "The left says they're victims of social deprivation, the right says they need to take personal responsibility for their actions; both just miss the point."
He is right to highlight that the philosophical divide isn't helpful, and solutions cannot come solely from the left or the right.

The right will fail to deal with the underlying causes - how can they do otherwise but fail? They believe in LESS Government intervention, not more, and it is hard to see how 'too much' Government intervention has brought about the riots....

The left's tendency to view all problems solely through the lens of financial inequality, poverty and deprivation also seems likely to hinder their ability to understand the sociological origins of the disorder. In particular, the Engelsian trait of hatred of the family nuclei may prevent proper interpretation of the dysfunctionality of families that Blair rightly highlights in his article.

However, Blair then states "The key is to understand that they aren't symptomatic of society at large." Well, no, insofar as society at large isn't on a precipice leaning towards rioting, but are they signs of an underlying problem with our society? I fear they are, and I believe many people will share that view.

In making the above statement, and that Britain isn't in the grip of a "moral decline", Blair then goes on to cite his very weak evidence to back it up; "I see young graduates struggling to find work today and persevering against all the odds. I see young people engaged as volunteers in the work I do in Africa, and in inter-faith projects. I meet youngsters who are from highly disadvantaged backgrounds where my Sports Foundation works in the north-east and I would say that today's generation is a) more respectable b) more responsible and c) more hard-working than mine was. "

His evidence is shockingly poor - the kind of thing only a politician would use (rather than an academic), typically when making a stump speech. He's relying on what he has personally come into close contact with; a very narrow sample indeed, and not something he should be depending on to give British society a clean bill of health.

I say to Blair - get out of your comfort zone, live for a while in an area that really suffers from serious youth violence, from anti-social behaviour, from racist division, and then think again. It wouldn't be hard for Blair to find such a place.

Or how about looking at the statistics around crime.... since 1959 we've seen a FOURTEEN fold increase in violent crime. See here for stats.

Now, whilst Blair can make his assessments of society by his measure of those he has come into contact with, so can I, and so can anyone else, and I have to say, having met many people from all walks of life, the prevalence of maltreatment by parents, abuse and suffering inflicted on people as they are children and adults, is shocking. How many people do you know who were abused by a friend or relative, or a random stranger? how many people have been assaulted? how many have mental illness? I have been assaulted, in a completely unprovoked attack, and it wasn't very nice, I can tell you - nor is mental illness, which I do not suffer from, but know many that do/have.

No, Blair's assessment is, like many politicians, sadly limited by his personal inexperience.

The phrase ad hominem is a bane on political argument because it prevents us from taking worthwhile account of someone's own experience and how it may have impacted on the views they express. Blair is an Oxford graduate, was educated at a prestigious public school, and has generally lived a quite sheltered life. Whilst I don't begrudge him, and I am sure there are many from privileged backgrounds who have provided excellent analysis of areas of life unfamiliar to them, Blair's background offers us some insight into what might be a rose-tinted view of British society; has he come face-to-face for a prolonged period with the kind of people from which disorder can arise? I think you need that before you brush aside concerns about our society.

Blair says "The true face of Britain is not the tiny minority that looted, but the large majority that came out afterwards to help clean up." I don't think the 'true face' of Britain can be simplified in such a way, but it is worth bearing in mind that 3,100 people have been arrested so far for involvement in the riots, which is doubtless just a small proportion of the number that were actually involved. Even with the best police work, it seems unlikely that they will have caught the majority of those who participated.

Moreover, the numbers of people that actually went out to clean up were very small. Lots of people agreed with the sentiment, and signed up to Facebook or Twitter groups indicating their views, but how many actually got out and helped?

Blair starts getting better towards the end of the article, but he makes a sweeping and flawed statement here; "However, I would be careful about drawing together the MPs' expenses row, bankers and phone-hackers in all this. We in politics love the grand philosophical common thread and I agree with Ed Miliband on the theme of responsibility.

I became an MP in 1983. Then, MPs were rarely full time, many didn't hold constituency surgeries and there were no rules of any bite governing expenses or political funding. So the idea that MPs today are a work-shy bunch of fraudsters, while back then they were high-minded public servants, is just rubbish: unfair, untrue and unhelpful.Likewise with the boardroom. I agree totally with the criticisms of excess in pay and bonuses. But is this really the first time we have had people engaged in dubious financial practices or embracing greed, not good conduct? If anything, today's corporations are far more attuned to corporate social responsibility, far better in areas like the environment, far more aware of the need to be gender- and race-balanced in recruiting."

The issue here is perception. Blair may well be right in saying not much has changed behaviour wise from MPs, bankers and journalists, but if people perceive them differently that is all that matters.

If crime goes down, but fear of it goes up, people will change behaviour accordingly - they will stop going out late at night in the area they perceive crime to be high. The same rule of perception applies for other issues.

If people perceive bankers and MPs to be behaving far more inappropriately, irresponsibly, and getting away with blue-murder, then yes, people may interpret that as unfair, indicating that not all are equal in the eyes of the law. The expenses scandal hogged the front-pages of the newspapers for months on end, so has the phone-hacking scandal, and the bankers bonuses story keeps on giving to this day; the world is not immune from these actions, they have repercussions, and people perceive a difference, a fall in the standards and norms which people in high office are obliged to follow, those who are meant to be setting an example.

Although we're sadly lacking substantial dialogue with and understanding of the actions of those that took part in the disorder and looting, I thought this video interview with some of those involved was intriguing, at one point one of the men says "and that's who the Government is looking out for, them people up there, that one pocket. They're not thinking about us", as he points to Canary Wharf. (noted - the interviewer asks a leading question here by pointing to the skyscraper, but he didn't indicate to the man anything about the Government, that was the man's response of his own accord).

Where I agree with Blair is that the root of this requires family interventions.

Irresponsibility and excessive inequality (not just in monetary terms but treatment by the law enforcement agencies too) are important factors.

But they are factors that ignited the flammable. That those involved in the rioting and looting were willing to engage in such behaviour says things about their particular backgrounds, and it is heartening that Blair, Cameron, and Miliband have all recognised this to some extent. All three have said things about the family, parental responsibility, and dysfunction, and these are themes that should have been long at the top list of priorities for any Government, yet have not been.

Blair says that we shouldn't talk Britain down with the broken society/moral decline rhetoric, as it sends a bad message abroad and damages our reputation. This would be a mistake, for we must openly debate the very real problems we have.

Other commentators have pointed out the opportunity these terrible actions have given, an opportunity to heal long held wounds. I share that view, and believe it is more important that we take that opportunity than worry about reputational effects, which in all probability would be transitory, whereas the problems with our society have an element of permanence about them.