Treasure Islands by Nicholas Shaxson

Of course no non-fiction book these days is published without a subtitle; this one is Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World.

It is a book with a particular argument to make, that tax havens are a Bad Thing. And it does a good job of making it engaging and readable, considering that it is, in the end, a book about international tax law and accountancy practices. It traces the historical development of the current system and illustrates it with plenty of colourful anecdotes about individuals along the way to keep it interesting.

Among the notable points it makes:

Tax avoidance is just one part of the problem. Offshore jurisdictions also allow businesses to avoid regulations and other legal obligations. And perhaps most significant, they provide layers of secrecy.

And of course it’s not just multinational businesses and wealthy individuals that benefit: it is also central to the workings of organised crime and government corruption. The secrecy in particular allows huge amounts of money to flow out of the developing world via the bank accounts of corrupt officials — amounts of money which apparently completely dwarf the aid moving in the other direction.

Not all of these jurisdictions are literally ‘offshore’. There is a single building in Delaware which is officially the corporate headquarters of 217,000 businesses, including Ford, GM, Coca-Cola, Google and so on. In the case of Delaware, the appeal is the very corporate-friendly legal environment. The City of London and Manhattan have also worked hard to turn themselves into tax havens in their own right.

The City of London is central to all this — it’s not a coincidence that so many of the key tax havens are parts of the old British empire: Jersey, Guernsey, the Caymans, the Turks and Caicos, Hong Kong, Singapore and so on. And the Bank of England, which I always thought of as a rather staid, conservative body whose main concern was economic simplicity, turns out to have been the most significant lobbying arm of the the City to the British government.

Interesting stuff, generally. The only reservation is that this is a very one-sided account about a subject I know nothing about, so I can’t easily assess how fair or accurate it is. And there are times it suffers from when-your-only-tool-is-a-hammer-everything-looks-like-a-nail syndrome; suggesting that financial secrecy doesn’t just contribute to but more or less causes ALL the world’s problems.  You get the feeling that if you asked him why your soufflés kept collapsing, he would say it was because of the laxness of trust law in the Cayman Islands.

Nonetheless, he does make a pretty convincing case that lack of financial transparency is an important contributor to many of the world’s problems; it may not cause them, but it certainly enables them.

» As seen on Google street view, that is 1209 North Orange St, Wilmington, Delaware. The legal home of 217,000 companies, including Google itself.

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Decline & Fall by Chris Mullin

Decline & Fall is the second volume of Mullin’s diaries, which I bought on a whim to read on my phone without having read the first volume. The first volume was about life as a junior minister in Tony Blair’s government; this one starts with him being sacked after the 2005 election, and so is about being a backbench MP in the last five years of the Blair/Brown government.

It probably would have made more sense to read the first volume first, but I enjoyed this anyway; because he never had a senior job in government, he’s just enough of an outsider to provide a clear-eyed account of life in the Westminster bubble. I might have to read the first volume, now.

And, incidentally, the fact it’s a diary made it well suited to reading on a small screen. Short entries mean you can easily dip in and out of it.

» The picture is of a design for fabric for a roller blind for the Houses of Parliament by Augustus Pugin, from the V&A.

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Egypt, Libya, foreign policy and honesty

I have been following events in north Africa closely, both via the usual media outlets and Twitter (see, for example, Andy Carvin’s one-man newswire for all the latest rumours swirling around). But I haven’t said much about it on this blog because, well, it’s a complicated subject of which I am ignorant.

It has often been enthralling, even so. The spread of protests from country to country, the ebb and flow between protestors and their governments: at times like this, live round-the-clock news coverage actually makes sense. Egypt had almost the perfect revolution for a spectator; large photogenic crowds, plenty of reporters on the scene, a hint of euphoria, a frisson of danger to add some spice, and not, in the end, too many casualties. Libya has been a darker experience; the more brutal response by the regime and the effective news blackout just producing a swirl of horrifying but unconfirmed rumours swirling around on Twitter.

There have already been some extraordinary moments, like the Wael Ghonim interview,or the incredible celebrations in Tahrir Square after Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Or last night’s speech from Saif Gaddafi, which was so weirdly rambling and unfocussed that the conspiracy theory, that he was just buying time for his father to flee the country, almost seems like a plausible explanation.

And it has been making me think about the way we talk about foreign policy. Because when a popular revolution peacefully overthrows the dictator of a brutal autocratic police state with a habit of torturing its own citizens, it would be nice to be on the side of the protesters. Which makes it slightly awkward that our governments have spent decades supporting the dictator. And it’s not just Hosni Mubarak; it’s Bahrain, it’s Saudi Arabia; even Gaddafi had managed to rebrand himself from mortal enemy of the West to someone we can do business with. And there’s the awkward fact that we supported Saddam Hussein until it stopped being convenient. At least we can say we definitely don’t support the Iranian theocracy… but then that did come into being after a popular revolution against a brutal dictator who, almost inevitably, was someone we did support.

The deeply murky nature of our foreign policy is hardly news, of course. What I find so frustrating is the way that we talk about it, the way that governments feel the need to gloss over all the unpleasant details right up until the moment when the regime falls, and we are shocked, shocked to discover that Hosni Mubarak was a revolting dictator all along.

It would just be refreshing sometimes to hear a politician stand up explicitly spell out the logic:

Yes, we know that in supporting Hosni Mubarak we are propping up a brutal police state. But look around at the other countries in the region: Sudan has had decades of civil war and genocide. Eritrea and Ethiopia have been at war. Somalia is a failed state. Libya and Iran are even more repressive states and supporters of terrorism. Yemen serves as a base for Al-Qaeda. And so on. So we take the position, on balance, that supporting a nasty dictator is a reasonable trade-off for decades of stability and no war with Israel.

Because that argument may be right or wrong, but I don’t think it’s stupid. I don’t think it’s even outrageously cynical. Because foreign policy is a fairly blunt instrument. Mubarak’s regime might not have been our ideal choice for the kind of government Egypt should have, but then we don’t really get to choose. We certainly don’t get to control the internal policies of the country; all we can do, presumably, is to look at the government in place, weigh up the possible alternatives, and decide to support them or not.

Of course it’s a bit more nuanced than that — there are different degrees of support, there are various pressures we can apply — but short of invading, which is hardly a panacea, we’re pretty limited in what we can do. Foreign policy has to be deeply pragmatic because the range of choices is so limited.

I’m not suggesting that foreign policy has to be horribly cynical, although it clearly often is. It’s just difficult. Even if you don’t allow self-interest to trump human rights. Even if your only concern was the well-being of the people of north Africa and the middle east, you’d still probably end up supporting a few dictators. But it would just be nice if politicians would be a bit more open about it, a bit more explicit about the bargains they are making. A bit less diplomatic, in fact.

» Demonstrators Praying and Riot Police and People Should Not Be Afraid of Their Governments, Governments Should Be Afraid of Their People are © Ramy Raoof and used under a CC by licence. The shot of protestors in Tahrir Square in from Al-Jazeera.

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Yes to AV.

Just a quick pointer to a couple of my blog posts from last year’s election: ‘First Past The Post makes politicians lie to us’. And the follow-up: ‘FPTP makes politicians lie to us (hypocrisy update)’.

I would actually favour some kind of proportional representation — this one seems quite ingenious — but at least AV would be an improvement, because it would, I think, effectively get rid of tactical voting.

Serious political geeks will explain that tactical voting is technically possible in an AV system; but it’s much more complicated. It’s quite difficult even to explain how it works. Unlike FPTP. In a FPTP election with more than two candidates, tactical voting is so completely obviously part of the system that people don’t even have to think of it as tactical: there is an obvious and clear incentive to vote for a less-favoured candidate who seems to have more chance of winning.

Under AV on the other hand, anyone who wants to do tactical voting is going to have to do detailed research into voting patterns in their constituency and some careful mathematical analysis of different possible outcomes in order to work out how to maximise the effect of their vote. I don’t think many people will do that, and if they do, well, good luck to them.

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Egypt joke

A joke I heard a few years ago, can’t remember where:

Three agents are drinking in a bar, from the CIA, Mossad and the Egyptian secret police. After a few beers, they all start boasting about their tracking skills, and have a bet to see who can be quickest to head out into the desert and bring back a live gazelle.

The Mossad agent is fastest, and within a few hours he’s back at the bar with a gazelle tied up in the back of his truck. An hour or two later, the CIA man turns up as well. But many hours pass and eventually they head off and look for the Egyptian secret policeman.

They find him around the corner with a big stick, thrashing a donkey and shouting: “Come on, just admit it, I know you’re a gazelle!”

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More thinking about Wikileaks

One interesting thing I’ve noticed since Wikileaks exploded out of its relative obscurity: I keep finding myself of things which I wish someone would leak to them.

So, after FIFA awarded the World Cup to Russia and Qatar in what is widely asumed to be a more-or-less bent bidding process, I thought ‘there must be someone who has some dirt on Sepp Blatter and the FIFA organising committee, someone who knows where the bodies are buried… be nice if they leaked that to Wikileaks’. And today, when we learn that no charges will be brought following a probe into phone hacking at the News of the World, I thought ‘those nasty fucks have got away with it again… there must be someone who has the evidence that Andy Coulson knew what his reporters were doing and could send it to Wikileaks’.

Because the powerful have so many ways of suppressing information, the simple idea of an avenue for people to anonymously release information is rather intoxicating. And the higher-profile Wikileaks becomes, the more likely it will be that individuals within organisations like FIFA, or the News of the World, or the Metropolitan Police, will feel able to get that information out.

Interesting times.

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Thinking out loud about Wikileaks

I’ve been feeling a bit ambivalent about the latest Wikileaks kerfuffle — not an unusual reaction, I suspect.

Because I don’t think there’s anything inherently sinister or unreasonable about the fact that diplomats want to be able to say things in private that they wouldn’t say in public. And quite apart from the Swedish sexual assault allegations, Julian Assange comes across as a bit of a dick: arrogant and egomaniacal.

And I’m a bit creeped out by the self-righteous certainty of internet evangelists for the idea that information wants to be free: whether it’s the anti-copyright campaigners, or Mark Zuckerberg with his high-handed attitude to other people’s privacy, or Julian Assange. Although of the two, a wish to abolish government secrecy is easier to defend than a wish to abolish personal privacy.

So for those reasons I’m a bit sceptical. And yet…

Someone once jokingly defended fox hunting to me on the basis that ‘it keeps the foxes on their toes’. And I feel that way about governments. Sure, there are good reasons why they want secrecy… but I don’t want them to get too complacent about it. I don’t want them to assume they can do things that no-one will ever know about.

Some of my feelings about it were crystallised by this excellent blog post — essay, really —  by Aaron Bady, which concentrates on the role of diplomacy in East Timor, and how the State Department’s eventual backing for UN peacekeepers in East Timor only came after spending decades providing military support to the murderous and oppressive Indonesian regime.

Because despite politicians’ high-minded rhetoric, when it comes to foreign policy human rights is always the bottom priority. Our governments will prop up almost any regime, however brutally oppressive and violent, for almost any reason. They — we — do it to ensure access to resources, whether it’s oil or something else; or because the enemy of our enemy is our friend; or because they may be a bastard, but at least they’re OUR bastard; or because we want to stay on the right side of the Americans; or for reasons of ‘stability’; or because they are valuable trade partners; or because we want somewhere to put our air bases.

And the thing is, none of those are stupid reasons. Take oil. If we — the West, the wider global economy — lost access to Middle Eastern oil, we would be completely fucked. Our countries would grind to a halt extremely quickly. We have a direct strategic interest in the politics of the region. Is that sufficient to justify the propping up of the corrupt, hypocritical Saudi royal family, even as they bankroll Islamist terrorism and torture their own people? I think that’s a genuinely difficult question to answer.

But politicians don’t even want to have the discussion. They would rather treat us like idiot children, not worldly enough to deal with these kind of grown-up problems. They can’t keep the really big stuff secret, but they certainly do their best to avoid drawing attention to it, and to avoid talking about it. And you can bet your life that they do keep things secret when they can get away with it.

So let’s keep our politicians and civil servants on their toes. Let’s make them stand up and actually justify their actions.

The other aspect which has been surprising and thought-provoking is the government reaction to the leaks. It’s worth pointing out at this point that, despite a lot of bluster, no-one at Wikileaks has been charged with any crimes; no-one has come up with any convincing argument that a crime has been committed. Certainly not under US law, since they have that admirable constitutional protection of free speech. And yet one by one, Amazon, Paypal, Visa and Mastercard have rolled over under government pressure and denied service to a legal journalistic enterprise exercising free speech. Are the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel next?

I don’t think I am, generally, someone who wants to shake up the global political establishment just for the sake of it. I don’t have that anarchist temperament. But when I see politicians reacting with such panic and hysteria to the threat of a little daylight, and when I look around the world and consider how they’ve been doing when left to their own devices, I tend to think, yeah, let’s have it. Who knows, let’s look on the bright side; maybe this is the birth of a new golden age of journalism and of newfound accountability in government and commerce. And maybe it’s just a storm in a teacup. But I doubt it’s the end of the world. So let’s try it. See what happens.

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The chill wind of austerity

Gosh, it’s been a depressing week in British politics. Austerity is such a grey, foggy, Victorian sort of word. They’ll be talking about retrenchment next.

And you don’t have to be an expert in the fine details of the budget to realise that there’s no way the government can cut total spending by 20% without making the country a harder, nastier place in a whole lot of ways, some obvious and some subtle.

I was at a party the other day where parents were swapping tips about places to take young children, and they were commenting that London’s parks all seem rather nice these days. They’re well-maintained, and clean, they have nice facilities, and they’re making an effort to be better for wildlife. Well, with a 30% cut in local government funding, I think it’s a safe bet that those parks are going to become grottier, grimmer, a little bit less of an escape from the city around them. Which seems like a good symbol for what’s going to happen to the whole country.

And since 85% of the debt was run up bailing out the banks, most of this pain is being inflicted in the name of saving the bankers from the consequences of their own incompetence.

But that’s not the really depressing part. It might be possible to take a deep breath and face the cuts as stoically as possible, if I was actually sure that they were going to have the desired effect. If I believed that they were the only thing keeping Britain from becoming the next Greece, if I was sure that the cuts were going to lay the foundation for a more stable and more prosperous economy in the longer term… but meanwhile there are Nobel prize winning economists like Krugman and Stigliz saying that, on the contrary, this is the worst thing the government could possibly be doing. The killer quote from the most recent Stigliz article:

Austerity converts downturns into recessions, recessions into depressions.

Now I don’t know whether they’re right. I suppose I have to hope not. But it really would be the vomit garnish on a shit sandwich if the effect of all these cuts was to take a weak economy and give it a good kicking.

Meanwhile Cameron, Clegg and Osborne seem to be rather enjoying themselves. Partially perhaps because of a pre-existing ideological commitment to the idea of small government, but I think mainly because they’re rather enjoying the vision of themselves as dynamic men of action, men with the leadership qualities to make the hard decisions.  Of course the British economy is where it is because a group of decisive, dynamic go-getters in very expensive suits decisively and dynamically cocked up on a catastrophic scale. The politicians have obviously been watching and learning.

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Horsetrading and backroom deals?

We’ve heard a lot in the last fortnight about horsetrading and haggling among our politicians, and some commentators profess to be deeply offended by it all. But surely negotiation and compromise is how policy is always arrived at: it’s just not usually so obvious.

Even within a normal single-party majority government, there must be disagreements about policy; and even when they broadly agree, different ministers must have their own priorities and pet projects. And since most policies cost money, the Treasury has to be involved; and civil servants and advisors will have their own input. In public, all ministers and civil servants are required to stick to the government line, which may give the impression of a Borg-like unity of purpose; but presumably the government line is arrived at in the first place by a process of negotiation, of horsetrading, of deals that take place in back rooms.

If anything, the negotiations between Clegg and Cameron provided a rather greater degree of transparency than normal. We can compare the coalition agreement to the two party manifestos and it becomes apparent exactly what compromises have been made, what deals have been struck. And we can judge for ourselves whether they were good compromises or bad ones. That seems to me like a Good Thing.

» The advert is from the Evanion collection of ephemera in the British Library.

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Election debrief

Going in to this election, it became clear that whoever was in government would have to raise taxes and cut spending, but no politician was willing to spell out the details. So the best we voters could hope for was a government which shared our priorities when making those decisions.

On that basis, the result could have been worse. I’m not thrilled to have David Cameron as the new PM, but the Conservative Party in coalition with the Lib Dems is hopefully a slightly different animal than the Conservative Party in the raw.

I do find it encouraging that Cameron seemed genuinely quite keen to form a coalition, rather than fighting on with a minority government. I guess it could be a simple political calculation — he wants the votes — but I still think it says something about his personality. I can’t imagine Margaret Thatcher doing the same.

It also suggests that, when trying to get legislation through the Commons, Cameron would rather be dependent on the Lib Dems than the right wing of his own party and the DUP. Which may go some way to answering the question of whether he really is a centrist and moderniser by instinct, or just the shiny new face of the Nasty Party.

At the very least, anything that reduces the power of sectarian fundamentalist Protestants in parliament has to be a good thing.

And while AV isn’t full blown proportional representation, it does at least eliminate the tactical voting which is my personal bugbear.

So that’s a relatively upbeat assessment of the situation. I’m equally capable of coming up with alternative scenarios where it all gets very messy indeed, but I guess we might as well try to hold on to optimism for as long as possible.

Why I like STV

I’ve been mulling over the various flavours of voting reform available and I’m most tempted by Single Transferable Vote — which is, as it happens, also the system favoured by the Lib Dems at the moment, although that’s not particularly why I like it. No, what I like about it is that it allows you to express some nuance in your vote.

A quick explanation for those of you who haven’t been geeking out over voting reform over the past few weeks.

Rather than the current system with one MP per constituency, STV would have larger multi-member constituencies. So under one particular example that someone came up with, I would be in a constituency called ‘South Central London’, consisting of Southwark, Lambeth and Wandsworth, which would have 6 MPs. And so each party would have multiple candidates standing in each contistuency. And instead of marking a cross next to one candidate, the voter chooses candidates in order of preference – writing in 1 2 3 4 5 in the boxes.

Since there are 6 MPs, any candidate who is first choice for 1/6th of voters is elected. Let’s pretend here are 600,000 voters to make the maths easy; so 100,000 votes means you’re elected. If you got 120,000 votes, the 20,000 surplus votes would be redistributed to other candidates in the proportion that they were the second choice of all 120,000 votes. So if it was a Labour candidate, it’s quite likely that most of those 20,000 votes would be distributed to other Labour candidates. That process is repeated until all the seats are filled; but if at any time the votes are split such that no-one has 100,000 votes (which is quite likely with a lot of candidates) the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed in the same way.

Notice that the system doesn’t actually attempt to be proportional across the whole country, it is just locally proportional; but that’s good enough, really. Most constituencies would elect at least one representative from each of the major parties, so all the parties would be trying to win votes in all parts of the country; MPs would be tied to a local constituency, though a slightly larger one than we’re currently used to. It also effectively creates a certain minimum threshold for minor parties: for example, the BNP got about 2% of the national vote on Thursday, so strict proportionality would give them 12 MPs; but using STV, they wouldn’t have any MPs unless enough people voted for them in a particular constituency. So in my theoretical example, 100,000 people in South Central London would have to put the BNP as one of their choices for them to win any of the seats. Whether you think that kind of minimum threshold is a good thing or not is another question: it might be more democratic to let the fruitcake parties have a presence in parliament.

But the reason I like STV is that it actually allows you to vote with a bit more nuance. You have a choice of candidates from each party: if you’re an old fashioned socialist, you can try to find a Labour candidate who seems more left wing for your first choice. If you believe in small-government but you’re socially liberal, you might be able to choose Tory candidates who share those views and avoid voting for the ones who seem overly motivated by religion. Or you might want to vote across party lines: my small government socially liberal voter might vote for some combination of Conservative and Lib Dem candidates. If, like me, you don’t necessarily want the Green Party to be running the government but you do want a strongly pro-environment voting bloc in parliament, you could vote Green>Lib Dem>Lib Dem. Because although each voter nominally only has one vote, hence Single Transferable Vote, in practice you have a sort of mixed vote which you can share out among the candidates. You don’t know in advance quite how much of your vote is going to count for which candidates, because the maths is far too unpredictable, but it does at least make some allowance for the fact that most of us don’t completely agree with any of the parties.

Voted.

Well, I voted Lib-Dem, for several reasons but not least because the higher their share of the national vote, the stronger the case for voting reform.

If a split centre-left vote results in the Tories winning this constituency, I will be kicking myself, but it probably won’t happen here.

And the fact I had to make that calculation is exactly why we need voting reform.

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FPTP makes politicians lie to us (hypocrisy update)

Yet another leaflet through the door, this one from the Conservatives, folded so that on one side it says, in great big shouty letters:

Honest Politics?

on the other side, it quotes the Lib Dem leaflet as saying

“Only the Lib Dems can beat Labour here…”

with a big arrow pointing at the quote and in even shoutier all-caps:

IS THIS ACTUALLY TRUE?

The leaflet points out, accurately enough, that it isn’t true, and quotes the Conservative candidate, who is of course outraged by this:

“I got involved in politics because I was tired of dishonest politicians. At a time when we desparately need to restore trust in politics, it is a shame that my opponents seem intent on misleading people and using dirty tactics.”

“What does this say about them? How will they behave if elected?”

All of which would be very reasonable, if she hadn’t put her own leaflet through my door with this quote on it:

“Only the Conservatives can beat Labour here”

Which is exactly the same kind of blatant attempt to mislead the voter. The hypocrisy of it is breathtaking, and frankly they should all be ashamed of themselves.

A pox on all their houses. This kind of crap is exactly why we need electoral reform.

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First Past The Post makes politicians lie to us

Here are some direct quotes from leaflets delivered in this constituency:

Labour leaflets: ‘Only Labour can keep the Tories out here’ ‘It’s a straight choice between Labour and the Tories round here’

Lib Dem leaflet: ‘Only the Lib Dems can beat Labour here’

Conservative leaflet: ‘Only the Conservatives can beat Labour here’

All of them accompanied by bar charts that purport to show why their party is the only one that can fend off the dreaded enemy.

It’s not exactly inspiring to have politicians try to win your vote in this way. It doesn’t do much to counteract people’s disenchantment with politics. But more sinister is the fact that at least two of those statements are in direct contradiction with each other. In other words, someone is telling porky pies.

In fact, when you read their explanations carefully, it is hard to pin down any statements of fact which are outright falsehoods; but all of them are, I would say, intentionally misleading.

The actual situation is that this constituency has been a Labour seat since 1992, and at the last election the vote split like this:

45% Labour
24% Lib Dem
22% Conservative
7 % Green

The boundaries have changed slightly, but the best guess is that it won’t make much difference; it is almost certainly a safe Labour seat, but with the Lib Dems and Conservatives pretty much equal in second place.

The statement which comes closest to being true is ‘Only Labour can keep the Tories out here’. If your main priority is keeping out the Tories, then a Labour vote is the safest option. On the other hand, the statement ‘It’s a straight choice between Labour and the Tories round here’ is pretty close to an outright lie. And it is illustrated with a shocker of a graph:

Yup, that’s right, a local election leaflet showing the ‘share of the vote at the last general election’, and it’s not using the votes cast in this constituency, but the national vote share. Classy.

And the Lib Dems and the Conservatives directly contradict each other. So who’s lying? Well, both of them. Since they both got about the same number of votes last time, it is completely unclear who has more chance to overtake Labour this time. The Lib Dems have gained more in the polls since 2005 than the Tories have, but how it is likely to play out in particular constituencies is totally unknown.

And yet both leaflets have clear bar charts showing why they are the ones to vote for! The Conservative leaflet even has the Lib Dems in 4th place behind the Greens:

And when you look closely, that’s because the chart illustrates the vote for each party’s leading candidate in the council elections to one electoral ward in 2006. Only the leading candidate, out of three, in only one ward out of the eight that make up the constituency. The chart is accurately labelled, but incredibly misleading on a leaflet which is mainly about the parliamentary candidate.

The Lib Dem leaflet uses a less ridiculous but still dubious trick: it shows what purports to be a ‘bar chart’ which illustrates the last general election result in this constituency:

But it’s not really a graph in the mathematical sense at all: the length of the bars is not proportional to the number of votes cast. An accurate chart would have the yellow and blue bars almost exactly the same height, both about half the height of the red bar.

What’s most depressing about this is that it is completely normal. This is how British elections are fought, all around the country, every time. Tactical voting is so deeply engrained in our political culture that we expect to have to vote negatively, and candidates consistently bend the truth to present themselves as the tactical vote of choice.

I am sick of it. I just want to make a choice based on policy and vote accordingly.

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A permanent swing to the Lib Dems?

There’s a post over at FiveThirtyEight suggesting, basically, that since first past the post tends to lock us into a two-party system, the Lib Dems could take the pragmatic (i.e. deeply cynical) decision to quietly drop the issue of voting reform and instead concentrate on cementing a place as the major left wing party in a two party system. In other words, to do to the Labour party what the Labour party did to them ninety years ago.

Personally I think that, ethics aside, if the LDs actually had a real chance of getting proportional representation and turned it down, it would be a HUGE gamble; the current Lib Dem surge seems just as likely to be a temporary blip as a long-term shift in the political landscape.

It did remind me, though, of having the same line of thought myself as a schoolboy back in the 80s. The Labour party was in the political wilderness and seemed completely out of step with the zeitgeist. The Liberals, or the SDP-Liberal Alliance as they then were, seemed a party on the way up, gaining vote share and seats in parliament — though thanks to FPTP, not very many seats. And I was learning about the history of British electoral reform in history lessons: the 1832 and 1867 Reform Bills, and suffragettes and suffragists and so on. Which I was finding deeply boring.

But in those lessons I learnt about the origins of the Labour Party in the unions, the extension of the franchise to the working class, the Jarrow Crusade and the General Strike, about the campaigns for better working conditions, for state pensions, and education, and the start of the welfare state. And since by the 1980s those historical battles had generally been won — not that it was a workers’ paradise, but we did at least have health and safety laws and a welfare state — it seemed possible that we were at the start of another great shift in British politics, as the Labour party lost its relevance and the Liberals filled the void.

But of course it didn’t happen; the however shambolic the Labour party were, the Liberals never managed to convert their share of the vote into enough MPs to matter. The Tories just kept winning election after election on a minority share of the vote, and in the meantime, the Labour party reinvented itself, explicitly cutting the connection to their old socialist principles and becoming almost exactly the same kind of left-flavoured centrist party as the Liberals. And the Tories eventually became so disliked that Labour won by a massive landslide and even now they are struggling to win an election, after 13 years of Labour government that included an unpopular war and an economic collapse.

The thing is, I still think that my original schoolboy analysis was, largely by chance, quite plausible; traditional socialism was on its way down, free-market economics was going to be the orthodoxy for a couple of decades, and Britain was no longer the largely industrial economy that spawned the Labour movement. Surely it was the logical moment for the Labour party to collapse. Instead, here we are at a time when free-market economics has taken a battering, and really it’s only the accident of history that it is the Labour party that is getting punished. There is no grand historical logic that I can see to this being the Liberal moment.

I don’t say that as an argument that it can’t happen, although I do think it makes it less likely. One way or another it’s just a weird moment in UK politics.

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More on voting reform

I think this statistic is very telling (from ten days ago, so the exact number has probably changed… but the point stands):

The Lib Dems climbed to a high of 33% in the voting intention polls this week, and it seems that this figure could be higher if Clegg’s party were perceived by the majority to have a significant chance of winning the General Election come May 6th. Just under half the country (49%) would vote for the Liberal Democrats if they were seen to have a reasonable chance of winning.

Ironically, if those 49% actually voted Lib Dem, they would win by a landslide. So we have a situation where if people actually voted for the party they wanted, the election would have a completely different result; but because they are guessing other people’s votes and trying to play the system, they end up cheating themselves.

It’s particularly stark at the moment because for the first time in decades we have three parties roughly even in the polls. But it’s always true at British elections that millions of people say they won’t be voting for their real first choice party because the electoral system would make their vote worthless.

It has been a fact of life in British politics for so long that we don’t even think it’s odd. And if it was simply an inevitable consequence of all democratic systems, well, fair enough. But since various ingenious people have come up with systems that allow people to vote for their real preference without their vote being wasted… doesn’t that seem like quite a good idea?

#bigotgate & proportional representation

Two passing observations on the election.

Firstly, on Gordon Brown’s little faux pas today. Clearly being caught describing a voter as ‘a bigoted woman’ makes him look like an idiot, especially since she hadn’t actually said anything especially bigoted.

On the other hand, I’m curious about the ethics of the news organisations using a recording of a private conversation which they recorded by accident. I bet that every news broadcaster keeps a store somewhere of the amusing, stupid, unguarded things that politicians say when they are miked up but not yet on air: a blooper reel for their own amusement. So for the sake of fairness, perhaps we should hear all those things. And indeed the things that journalists say between themselves after talking to members of the public.

And secondly, I’ve been thinking a bit about voting reform. I have become increasingly sick of first past the post; quite apart from the national implications of governments getting large majorities with a minority of the vote, I’m personally fed up with tactical voting. I don’t want to have to think about who can win in my constituency; I want to vote for the party I actually want and believe my vote counts for something.

But seems like something where the law of unintended consequences is sure to come into play. Depending on the exact system we switched to, it wouldn’t be a small change. After all, if you just took the last few decades of  election results and converted them to a proportional system, we would have had 25 or 30 years of permanent Lib-Lab coalition; or perhaps the LIb-Dems as permanent kingmakers. And having the same people permanently in power is exactly what we don’t want, I would think.

In fact, what would probably have happened by now is the increasing importance of small parties; the Greens, the BNP, UKIP might well all have MPs. The SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Irish parties would probably have more influence. And it’s quite possible that the major parties would have split: both Socialist Labour and New Labour MPs, for example. I have no idea whether all this would have been a good thing or not; but it is certainly a big deal.

The thing is, FPTP is only really suited to a two-party system. Which I think means that the current system is broken. On the other hand, changing to PR would mean a radical change in the political culture of the UK comparable to the great C19th Reform Acts. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, but we do need to go into it with our eyes open.

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Interesting idea in BNP manifesto

I never thought I’d find a thought-provoking idea in the BNP manifesto — it’s not a party of deep, lucid or original thinkers — but I did think this was, if not a good idea, at least an intriguing one:

30. Outlaw the conducting or publication of opinion polls in the last three weeks of an election campaign to prevent manipulation of the democratic process.

I can only assume that this policy has its origins in conspiracy theory — part of the BNP’s ‘New World Order, Jews control the media’ schtick — but it would genuinely be interesting to see what would happen if we tried this. Because it seems quite clear that polling results do feed back into peoples opinions and effect their voting intentions.

To take an example from the current campaign, the single thing which has done most to grant Nick Clegg credibility is the polls showing the Lib Dems overtaking Labour to move into second place. It’s one thing to watch the debate and think that Clegg did well, but quite another to learn that loads of other people thought so to. And everyone likes a winner.

I don’t know what the impact of banning polling would be: would it favour the minor parties? Would it hand more power to the newspapers? Certainly there’s no obvious reason to think it would produce better politics or better results. But it’s an interesting thought experiment. At the very least it would be amusing to watch the pundit class floundering as they tried to divine the public mood without the help of any actual information.

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Links

  • Interesting piece by Danny Finkelstein about just how little attention the voters are paying to politics, most of the time: 'In his invaluable book on the last election campaign, Smell the Coffee, Michael Ashcroft provides the result of polling he commissioned to track the impact of Conservative campaign activity. For two months in the run-up to polling day, voters were asked: “Has there been anything in the news about what the Conservative Party has been saying or doing that has caught your eye this week, whether on TV or radio or in the papers?” Most of the time the proportion who could think of nothing hovered around 90 per cent.'
    (del.icio.us tags: politics )

A passing thought on the Nutt business

Politicians are always quick enough to invoke ‘scientific advice’ when they want to deflect responsibility for an unpopular policy decision, like the availability of different treatments on the NHS, or the mass slaughter of animals during a foot and mouth outbreak. And as long as they actually are acting on good scientific advice, fair enough.

But if you’re going to hide behind scientists when it’s convenient… well, the flip side of that is that if you later choose to ignore the advice of your carefully chosen independent scientific advisors, you should have the guts to stand up and explain why.

» If you don’t know what I’m talking about: a government minister sacked an (unpaid) senior drugs advisor, a professor of psychopharmacology called David Nutt, for giving a lecture saying that the government’s drug policy ignored the scientific evidence. You can download the lecture as a PDF here; it is worth reading.

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Echoes from the Dead Zone by Yiannis Papadakis

Yiannis Papadakis is a Greek Cypriot anthropologist, and Echoes from the Dead Zone is based on his fieldwork in Turkey and on both sides of the Green Line in Cyprus. he investigates the different attitudes of people on each side of the conflict, and in the process has to confront all his own prejudices from growing up on the Greek side.

Papadakis only managed to spend a month in the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and was accompanied by government minders the whole time, although as well as that he spent a few months in Turkey itself and a year in the village of Pyla/Pile which is within the UN-controlled ‘Dead Zone’.

cyprus

I came to it vaguely expecting it to be a basically two-sided conflict, Greeks vs. Turks, but of course it’s much messier than that; there are tensions between the Greek Cypriots and Greeks from Greece, and between Turkish Cypriots and Turks from Turkey. There are tensions on both sides of the divide between those who see themselves as Cypriot first and Greek or Turkish second, and those who look to the motherland, who see themselves as Greeks or Turks who happen to live in Cyprus.

And the different groups have quite different views of history; not just the relevant modern history, the half-century or so that takes in Cyprus winning independence from the British, the Turkish invasion and so on, but also the longer history of classical Greece and Byzantium and the Ottoman empire.

I think it’s probably inevitable, as a British reader, that it reminded me above all of Northern Ireland; but I guess all these local religio-culturo-ethnic conflicts are fundamentally rather similar: deeply intractable and ultimately pointless.

Weather forecasts in Cyprus did not just tell the weather, I now noted. They expressed positions on the Cyprus Problem. ‘The Flag’, the Turkish Cypriot TV channel, broadcast a daily news bulletin in Greek for the enlightenment of Greek Cypriots. During the weather forecast, they gave temperatures only in towns in the north, where no Greek Cypriots lived. The towns were called by their Turkish names. On the Greek Cypriot side, RIK, the state TV station, used a map of Cyprus without a dividing line, but only mentioned the temperatures in the south. other Greek Cypriot channels, right-wing private ones, regarded this as unpatriotic. they also showed temperatures in the north to make the point that those areas too belonged to Greek Cypriots.

Maps in Cyprus, as elsewhere, were a political instrument. I remembered the map of Greece — not of Cyprus — at school. In order for Cyprus to appear in the map of Greece, it was cut and placed in a box next to Crete. I only became aware of this when I first saw Turkish Cypriot maps. No need to cut and paste to include Cyprus in the map of Turkey. Greek Cypriot maps showing Cyprus in the world at large always extended westwards, positioning Cyprus in a European context. The never showed Cyprus in the Middle East or Africa. The problem with the ‘Cyprus in Europe’ maps was that bits of Africa, the Middle East, and — sadly — Turkey were visible. One such map by the Greek Cypriot Public Information Office presented such undesirable bits as blank. The biggest challenge was to make a map of Cyprus that included Greece but not Turkey. The map shown as background during the news on The Word, the Church channel, managed best, with Turkey obscured by mist, as if weather conditions had rendered it invisible.

Echoes from the Dead Zone is my book from Cyprus for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo, crossing the “green line”, is © danceinthesky and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Let them eat farls

More gloomy news from Northern Ireland. I can’t tell you how depressing it was a few weeks ago to be woken by Radio 4 reporting on the terrorist attack that killed two soldiers in Northern Ireland.

Because really, if you’d asked me to pick one unambiguously good news story from my time on earth, I’d have said the ending of violence in Northern Ireland. I grew up with bombs going off regularly in London; it wasn’t an unusual experience to go up to Oxford Street to do your Christmas shopping, and find a whole chunk of it roped off because of a bomb scare. And there seemed to be no end in sight: the conflict had been going on in its modern form for decades and in one way or another for centuries. It was a poisonous mixture of politics, identity and religion, weighed down by centuries of historical baggage, and there seemed to be no common ground to serve as a starting point for compromise.

For all the frustrations and messiness of the ‘peace process’, it still seemed miraculous that we had reached a point where the British Army was no longer on active duty in Northern Ireland, no-one was blowing anyone up, and the conflicts were being resolved via something like normal politics.

And so, on top of all the other bad news, to wake up to the news of that particular wound being re-opened… bleargh. I wouldn’t want to overstate the importance of what has happened so far; by historical standards the murders of two soldiers and a policeman are fairly minor incidents. And it’s a sign of how far we’ve come that Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin condemned the attacks standing next to the head of Northern Ireland’s police force and someone from the DUP. But it’s a depressing reminder that the underlying causes of the conflict are still there, and that we’re a long way from being able to say that it’s all over.

It may not be a coincidence that the peace process coincided with Ireland’s period as the Celtic Tiger, the great economic success story of Europe, and that the re-emergence of violence comes with the bursting of the Irish housing bubble and the collapse of their economy. That happened in the Republic of Ireland, not Northern Ireland, but their politics are intertwined. And Northern Ireland has been particularly badly hit by the recession, apparently, because of its ‘large exposure to the construction sector’.

One more reason to hope, against all the evidence, that the G20 can somehow get the world economy started again.

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Some names for IRA splinter groups

Funereal IRA
Eel IRA
Ambiguity IRA
Frivolity IRA
Campanology IRA
Imbecility IRA
Diagonal IRA
Confessional IRA
Digressional IRA
Irish Rational Divination Army
Irish Fashionable Celebration Army
Wiry Publican Calibration Army
Fiery Snatching Lubrication Sarnie

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