Sunday, December 30, 2012

Some inequalities are more unequal than others

John Rentoul and others have been talking about economic inequality. John argues that the Gini coefficient is “the only statistical measure that captures the full extent of inequality in any population. Any other measure, such as 60 per cent of median income or the ratio between the 10th and 90th decile points, would fail to do this.”
In a sense that’s true, but for me the Gini coefficient’s strength is also its weakness. It gives you a single number for inequality in a population (from 0, meaning everyone is completely equal, to 1, meaning one person has everything) – but it can’t tell you whether that inequality is because the people at the bottom are a long way behind or the people at the top are a long way ahead.
For instance, these two sets of numbers both have a Gini of 0.13:
  • 5, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29
  • 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 52
If we want to measure economic inequality meaningfully, we mustn’t treat it as a single phenomenon. If the very rich are racing ahead, then that’s quite a different thing from the very poor falling behind. These two phenomena have different causes and different consequences – and, if we want to do anything about them, different policies will be needed.
So I propose that rather than looking at a single Gini coefficient for everyone, we break the population down into, say, fifths. We look at the Gini among each group, from the poorest to the richest, and see how they compare.

What follows is a very crude attempt to do that (this post develops an idea I had a few years ago).
I start with this chart from the Institute for Fiscal Studies [PDF], showing household income for different percentiles of the population:
Unfortunately, the numbers that went into the chart aren’t given. So by measuring the size of the bars (I told you it was crude), I’ve reconstructed it:
It looks about right. Note that I’ve added a bar for the richest 1%, not shown in the original – perhaps because those people are hard to get data on. I’ve assumed that the gap between 99 and 100 is the same size as the gap between 98 and 99 (which I’m sure is a conservative assumption).
And, treating each percentage point as an individual, the Gini coefficient for these 100 numbers is 0.33. The IFS report gives the Gini for the whole population as 0.34, so again, I feel confident that my reconstruction of the numbers is about right.
Now I can break this down into five groups, from the poorest 20% to the richest, and calculate and compare the Gini coefficients across the spectrum:
The greatest inequalities are at the top and the bottom of the scale. To see the size of these, we can look at ratios: the Gini at the bottom is 3.6 times as high as the middle one; the Gini at the top is 4.9 times the middle one.
It would be good to see how these ratios have changed over time, and how they vary between countries. But here I really do run out of even approximate data. If better people than me agree that this approach is worthwhile, then I encourage them to give it a go.
One thing I feel confident in saying, though: John reproduces an IFS chart showing the distributional impact of government policies, and guesses that “overall inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, would be more or less unchanged”.
Maybe. But taking my approach, the government’s policies look like they’ll reduce the Gini at the top and increase it at the bottom and in the middle. The gap between the very rich and the fairly rich may fall, but all other gaps will grow.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The sense of unease: an open letter to David Davies MP

Dear David,

When I first saw your views on sexuality reported a few weeks ago, I took you to be a bog-standard old-fashioned Tory bigot who was worth no more of my attention than the time it took to write an angry tweet.

But in your interview today with Decca Aitkenhead – a cracking read – you come across differently. You seem more like someone who’s willing to engage on the subject, and to be engaged with. So, in a spirit of seasonal goodwill, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. And, even though ‘open letters’ are generally silly and pompous, and there’s a near-zero chance of you reading this, I’m writing anyway.

Because I think you do speak, in your own uncertain way, for quite a lot of people.

I personally don’t understand prejudice, of whatever kind, against homosexuality. From the thug wielding a baseball bat to the priest wielding Leviticus, I just don’t get the motivation. But I think most of the people who have a “sense of unease” (as you put it) about gay people aren’t near either of those ferocious extremes. You seem to be generally well-meaning, but you don’t like the thought of gay relationships and you find it very hard to say exactly why.

Here’s some of your interview:

His big worry about gay marriage, he explains, is that it will necessitate a revision of sex education. … He looks down and shifts awkwardly. "But I suppose, at a certain level, I see heterosexual sex as being – and it's probably the wrong word to use – but the norm. I think it's reasonable to say that the vast majority of people are not gay." He hesitates, sighing. "I just worry if children are going to be taught that [heterosexuality] isn't necessarily the norm, and that you can carry on doing all sorts of other things, are we going to have a situation where the teacher's saying, 'Right, this is straight sex, this is gay sex, feel free to choose, it's perfectly normal to want to do both. And you know, why not try both out?' I mean, are we going to have that?

"I suppose what I'm trying to say, in a very clumsy way, which will again probably cause offence, is that some people might be going through a bit of a funny phase between the age of 15 and 20 when they're not sure. And I'm not absolutely convinced it's a good idea to be changing sex education in school to try and say to people, 'Feel free to go out and experiment and do this, that and the other.'"

Here’s a thought or two in response:

Talking about sex can be awkward and embarrassing. Talking about sex to children is even more so. I don’t have kids myself, but if I do someday then I’m sure that I’ll spend a long time mentally cringing in anticipation of The Talk.

One thing that might make that talk a little bit simpler would be if there were only one type of sexuality. Because where there’s variety, you have to explain the variations and how they differ. And then you have to start getting into orifices – so to speak – and talking about sex in perhaps more graphic detail than you’re comfortable with.

But the things you’re worried about would still exist even if there were only one type of sexuality.

Lots of young people have sexual partners who turn out not to be right for them. Some of these they go on to bitterly regret, others they look back on as learning experiences. It takes plenty of us a while to figure out what, or who, we really want. ‘Experimenting’ has become a euphemism for trying out a different sexuality, but in reality it covers so much more than that.

And sex education could in theory take any position on promiscuity, even if we took differences of sexuality off the table. As it is, the Department for Education guidance says:

Effective sex and relationship education does not encourage early sexual experimentation. It should teach young people to understand human sexuality and to respect themselves and others.

Teachers should be able to deal honestly and sensitively with sexual orientation, answer appropriate questions and offer support. There should be no direct promotion of sexual orientation.

That seems fair to me (although let’s not overestimate what effect teachers can have on teenagers here). Sex education shouldn’t encourage kids to try all sorts of different things with all sorts of different people, but it also shouldn’t tell them that they ought to be a certain way and that they’re abnormal if they aren’t.

This takes me on to what you said about heterosexuality being the “norm”.

You struggled with that word, and it’s understandable that you did. Sometimes people use “norm” and “normal” in a purely statistical way, about whether something is common or uncommon. And, at an estimated 5-7% of the population, people who are gay, lesbian or bisexual are definitely a small minority. But that’s hardly rare: one or two out of an average classroom.

But “norm” and “normal” also often carry a sense of moral judgement, implying that what’s different – or abnormal – is inferior or wrong. Do you believe that? I don’t think so. In the seven byelections this year, about 4% of people turned out to vote Conservative. The fact that they were in a small minority didn’t make them wrong to do so.

So when it comes to the question of what to teach children, my answer is: facts. Most people are heterosexual. Some aren’t. And as for what sorts of relationship are acceptable, we should teach children what the law says: gay and straight alike are OK.

There are lots of gay people. Even 5-7% works out as 3 or 4 million people in Britain. They have friends, families, neighbours, jobs, cars, mortgages, gas bills, votes and all the things in their lives that straight people have as well. They are part of society.

I think it would be best for all of us – especially any children or grandchildren you or I might have who might grow up to be gay – if our attitudes as well as our laws accepted gay people as full, equal members of society. I think that part of the way to master the “sense of unease” is to appreciate that we don’t need to share someone else’s tastes, or even understand them, in order to accept them.

I’m glad you’ve changed your mind on Section 28, on the age of consent and on civil partnerships. And I applaud your openness about your doubts – there should be a lot more of that in politics.

I hope that you’ll keep thinking, and that you have a merry Christmas.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

The unspoken fallacies of the Second Amendment

The Second Amendment of the US Constitution is odd. It’s odd because, unlike all the others, it doesn’t just declare a right: it also gives a reason; it makes an argument.

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Everything up to “State” is a preamble, a statement of fact (or apparent fact) that justifies the statement of the right that follows. (It’s probably best to ignore the first and third commas: people used a lot more of them back then.)

This needs a bit of unpacking. The argument implicit in the Second Amendment is this:

(a) We want the state to be secure.
(b) A well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state.
(c) The right of the people to keep and bear arms is necessary for there to be a well-regulated militia.
(d) The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

(a) is unstated, but as a general principle it’s completely uncontroversial. (b) is stated, albeit in the form of an absolute clause. (c) is unstated, but is the essential logical link that joins (a) and (b) to (d). And (d) is stated as the main clause of the sentence.

There are two obvious problems with this: (b) is not true and (c) is not true.

First, (b). There are plenty of free states that manage to be secure without having a militia (something distinct from the regular armed forces). It is also hard to argue that what remains of the US militia really makes that essential difference to national security.

Second, (c). It is perfectly possible to have a militia without the general population having the right to keep and bear arms. Local militia organisers could very easily look after the weapons and distribute them at the first sign of the invading English. Also, given that not all citizens would be in a militia, any right to arms need not extend beyond militia members.

Therefore (d) is not justified: the need for the people to have the right to keep and bear arms does not follow from a platitude and two historically short-sighted falsehoods.

And yet there it is, in the Constitution, in black and white.

And so I come back to the oddity of the Second Amendment: uniquely, it doesn’t just state a right but also gives a reason for that right. But it doesn’t therefore follow that the right legally depends on the stated reason.

My objections above are factual and logical. They are not legal objections. I don’t see that my argument justifies an interpretation of the Second Amendment that lets only members of well-regulated militias have access to guns.

What I do see is that this tragic piece of law, which seemed reasonable in 1789 but is now so drenched in the blood of innocents that its existence is an ongoing threat to the security of a free state, should be repealed.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Byelection results

Because turnout in byelections is usually so low, a handy way of looking at them is to see how much of a party’s previous vote it manages to hold onto.

For instance, in Rotherham last week, the Lib Dems got 2.1% of the vote on a 33.9% turnout – that’s 0.7% of the electorate. Back at the 2010 general election, they had managed 16% of the vote on a 59% turnout – that’s 9.4% of the electorate.

So they lost 92% of their previous support. On the same measure, the Conservatives dropped 81% and Labour – even though their vote share was up – dropped 53%.

The other defining feature of byelections is that they’re local elections for local people, and you shouldn’t generalise from any one result. But averaging across all the byelections that happen during a parliament is a bit more informative.

The chart below shows how much of their previous vote the parties lost (or, in some cases, how much they added to it) at byelections in the last eight parliaments:

The obvious points are that governing parties do particularly badly, and the Lib Dems (or their predecessor parties) have sometimes made impressive gains. Until now.

After only two years in government, the Conservatives are doing as badly as John Major did, and the Lib Dems are doing even worse. Labour are doing better than when they were in power, but not as well as during most of their last period of opposition.

Update: I've been asked if I could do a similar chart showing the conventional change in the share of the vote - so the Lib Dem fall in Rotherham from 16% to 2% would count as -14%. I think this is less significant, because the numbers are more easily distorted by the variability of the starting points of the constituencies that happen to have byelections.

For instance, across the 12 seats that have had byelections since 2010, the average starting point was Lab 46% Con 24% LD 19% - an unrepresentatively low start for the Tories, meaning that in these seats, there was a limit to how far they could fall. That's why I looked at how far the parties had fallen relative to their original positions.

But with that caveat, here's the chart:

And, while I'm here, below is a version of the first chart but disregarding changes in turnout. It shows the change in vote share as a percentage of the previous general election vote share. So the Lib Dem fall in Rotherham from 16% to 2% of the vote counts as -87%.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The polarisation of the US electorate

Something odd has been happening in US politics.

As presidential elections have become closer nationally, most individual states have become more and more firmly aligned with one or the other party. The Republican vote and the Democrat vote have been segregating, leaving fewer and fewer swing states.

I don’t know why this has been happening, nor whether it will continue, but here are the figures.
This chart shows how many of the 51 states (including DC) have voted the same way in the last four (or more) consecutive elections:

And this chart shows how many of the 538 electoral college votes are held by those states (based on each state’s current electoral vote):

Either way, it’s high: 80% of states, with 78% of the electoral vote, have not swung since 2000 or earlier. And, while the Republicans had a run of good results in the 1970s and 80s, today’s peak is made of a bipartisan mix. The recent rise in reliably Democrat states has come mostly by reducing the number of swing states rather than the reliably Republican ones.

If we tighten the criterion to look at states that have voted the same way for six elections or more, it’s much the same picture:

Going back through Obama, Bush and Clinton, past Romney, McCain, Kerry, Gore and Dole, 64% of states, with 65% of the electoral vote, have not changed sides.

And the winning margins are rising, too. This chart show how many states have given the same party a lead of 15% or more – averaged over four elections:

Here it is in electoral college votes:

But this is happening even as presidential elections have become closer nationally. This final chart shows the national margin of victory in the popular vote at each election and the average state margin of victory (for whichever party wins it):

To start with, the two lines go up and down together, as you might expect. In landslides like Johnson’s in 1964 or Nixon’s in 1972, lots of states voted heavily for the winner, and in closer elections like 1968 or 1976, more states were narrowly won (by both sides).

But since the late 1990s, this pattern has broken down. A series of narrow-to-middling popular vote leads has been matched by a steady but impressive rise in the average state margin of victory – shared, unlike previous highs, between both sides.

I don’t know why this has been happening or whether it will continue. But because election campaigns mostly focus on swing states, the polarisation of red states and blue states means that more and more Americans are getting less and less attention from their political leaders.

(Using data from here.)

Thursday, November 01, 2012

How much work are people getting?

How should we take part-time work into account when thinking about the employment rate?

The number of people in work is back to its pre-recession peak, which the government is unsurprisingly pleased with. But there’s been a shift from full-time jobs to part-time, which means that the total number of hours worked per week hasn’t risen so much:

Then, of course, you have to remember that the population is growing, including the large part of it that makes up the labour force (the people with jobs plus the people who are looking for jobs). So a simple rise in numbers isn’t the same as the rise in the employment rate – the rate has recovered a bit, but it’s still well short of its previous peak.

Putting these two thoughts together leads me to this chart. It shows the total number of hours worked divided by the total size of the labour force – in other words, how much work the average person who wants work is getting:

There has been pretty much no change since 2009. The rise in employment since the election averages out as an extra 2 minutes and 43 seconds of work per person per week. This compares with almost an hour and a half lost in the recession.

Data from the ONS.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

How oppositions should respond to good news

Last week, David Cameron shouted about Ed Miliband’s alleged desire for bad news:

It is only a bad week if you think it is bad that unemployment is coming down. We think it is good. ... Every bit of good news sends that team into a complete decline, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the good news will keep coming.

This is the same David Cameron who, as an opposition MP, once wrote about his own “opposition disease”, in which “part of you actually starts wanting things to get worse. …an enthusiastic Tory backbencher like me can hardly wait to switch on the Today programme every morning in order to listen to all the bad news.” So he knows what he’s talking about.

But it’s tricky. When there is good economic news, how should an opposition party handle it? You don’t want to seem an unpatriotic doom-monger, but you don’t want to gush praise for the government, either.

At PMQs tomorrow, Miliband should take this head-on. He should raise the good GDP number that Cameron was hinting about last week and say something like this:

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the British people for having finally pulled the economy out of recession? Is this not a great achievement for British businesses and British workers – especially in light of government policies that even the IMF now says are more damaging than expected?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Part-time unemployment

Delia Koczwara asks:

Does anyone have the figures to calculate the true rate of unemployment if those holding part-time jobs who would prefer to work full-time were counted as 50% working and 50% unemployed?

Good question. Here’s the answer:

The proportion of  people who want a full-time job but can only find a part-time one is at its highest since records began. If you count them as half-unemployed, this takes the unemployment rate from about 8% to about 10%. If you count them in full, that’s over 12% of people who are under-employed.

One aspect of this change is patterns of self-employment. While the proportion of workforce who are self-employed has risen only slightly, self-employment is increasingly likely to be part-time – more so than being an employee. And the proportion of part-time workers who want to be full-time is at a historic high:

Data from the ONS, covering all adults aged over 16 who are economically active (working or looking for work).

Sunday, October 07, 2012

5.5 million bubbles of polling froth

According to YouGov, 40% of people think Ed Miliband is doing well as Labour leader. A week ago, only 28% thought this. So, in an electorate of 46 million, this means that about five-and-a-half million people have changed their minds. In one week. On the basis of a few headlines and TV clips about one speech.

Do you believe that?

Actually, I do. But what I don’t believe is that any kind of firmly held opinion could change so quickly and easily among so many people.

A lot of survey responses are just froth on the surface of an uncommitted mind, as suggested by this ingenious study that manipulated people into justifying answers that they hadn’t really given.

And this latest boost to Miliband’s ratings? It may well harden, at least in part, but only if he keeps up a better performance and gets decent coverage for it. The longer a vague impression lasts, the firmer it becomes.

But my general rule is that sudden improvements in polling are normally an illusion – like the way that Nick Clegg’s 2010 campaign surge led to only slightly more votes, or the way that Gordon Brown’s impressive honeymoon ratings were blown apart by something as flimsy as an opposition tax promise.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

I’m at Number 10 so why try harder?

Andrew Grice reports a new Labour attack line on David Cameron:

Being born to rule doesn't mean you are any good at it.

It’s cheeky, it’s catchy, and while it alludes to his background it doesn’t go for the crass (and failed) ‘toffs are bad’ angle. Instead, it ties incompetence to arrogance: Cameron and his team are failing because they think that what Britain needs is to be governed by good chaps with sound instincts – like them.

In essence, Labour are trying to make Cameron look like the t-shirt on that old Fatboy Slim album cover:

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Michael Gove’s GCSEs: four more years

Having spent several years of my life attending school, I am of course an expert in education policy. But I’ll spare you my undoubtedly correct opinion of Michael Gove’s ‘English Baccalaureate’ and go straight to the politics.

Gove has presented the reform as something desperately needed to rescue a dire situation. He announced it by saying:

Critical to reform is ending an exam system that has narrowed the curriculum, forced idealistic professionals to teach to the test and encouraged heads to offer children the softest possible options. It is time for the race to the bottom to end. It is time to tackle grade inflation and dumbing down. It is time to raise aspirations and restore rigour to our examinations.

We want to ensure modules - which encourage bite-size learning and spoon-feeding, teaching to the test and gaming of the system - go, once and for all. We want to remove controlled assessment and coursework from core subjects. These assessment methods have – in all too many cases – corrupted the fair testing of all students.

And – critically – we will end the competition between exam boards which has led to a race to the bottom with different boards offering easier courses or assistance to teachers in a corrupt effort to massage up pass rates.

Strong words. The only problem is that he still has to administer this narrow, soft-optioned, dumbed-down, low-aspiration, unrigorous, spoon-feeding, system-gaming, corrupted race to the bottom for another four years. He still has to congratulate the kids who float out of it each year with their corruptly inflated grades.

How can he possibly tolerate this?

The answer, surely, is that he won’t – or at least he’ll say that he won’t. He’ll do various things in the meantime that he can claim are improving GCSEs.

But if he can do that, what’ll then be the point of replacing them?

Monday, August 20, 2012

The incredible credibility of a failed plan

One of the biggest arguments in economic policy is finally over.

The government says that it mustn’t change course on fiscal policy, because of the danger of losing market confidence and having to pay high rates for its borrowing. Opponents say that these low rates mean that we can afford to borrow more without spooking the markets, and give the stagnant economy a bit of a boost.

In yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, Liam Halligan quickly, compellingly and accidentally settled this argument:
“Ah, but Britain is a safe haven”, the detractors cry. “Government borrowing costs are low, so we can afford to spend more.”
Where does one start when faced with such nonsense? The UK government can currently borrow cheaply, partly because –when compared with much of the eurozone – we have a reasonably credible fiscal plan. We aren’t sticking to it, of course.
We aren’t sticking to it. This is like saying that the police can trust a witness’s statement because they’ve got a sophisticated new lie detector – although they didn’t use it, of course.

And Halligan’s right that the government’s plan has come unstuck. They’re now facing the prospect of borrowing £200 billion more than planned over five years:

This is not because they’ve got cold feet on the cuts; it’s because the economy is due to grow by less than half the rate they expected:

A plan that’s going hopelessly wrong is not a credible plan. It follows that the reason for the government’s low borrowing rates isn’t faith in its credibility.

No doubt there is a point where the markets would take fright at the amount of government borrowing. But £200 billion extra doesn’t seem to have taken us significantly nearer it. This follows the pattern of late 2008, when an even vaster surge in government borrowing was accompanied by a fall – not a rise – in the rate charged on that borrowing. A major developed economy with control of its own currency, and with relatively low inflation, has to go horrifically wrong before there’s any real risk of a government debt default. We’ve not been anywhere near that point and there’s no sign that we will.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The best idlers in the world

A gaggle of Tory MPs has declared:
Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor.
I was so shocked when I read this during my mid-afternoon two-hour internet break on Friday that I had to go and have a lie down. After my union rep explained the situation, my line manager was very understanding.

Now that I’m recovered, I’ve been wondering: if we’re such a useless, lazy bunch, this would show up in the growth figures, wouldn’t it? So, here’s a chart of GDP per capita growth among the G7 countries over the last two decades (OECD data):

Oddly, the idling Brits seem to be up front. And this isn’t a matter of us coasting on an unsustainable debt-fuelled boom. We’d taken the lead before the excessive borrowing of the 2000s set in, and we’ve held the lead following the crash.

So it looks as though we’ve been doing something right, and that Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss are missing something.

Friday, August 10, 2012

If political interviews were like sporting interviews

Downing Street. A breathless, downcast Nick Clegg hobbles out of the door. Our intrepid reporter bags the first interview.

“Nick, second place in the long-distance Lords reform – how do you feel?”

“I just – it’s really emotional, I haven’t had a chance to let it sink in yet.”

“Because I know you had high hopes for this event.”

“Yeah, I’ve been in training so long for it, and to get this far is – well, it’s great, it’s an honour, but in the end I just wasn’t good enough.”

“But this has always been a strong event for the Conservatives.”

“It has, and congratulations to them, they played an absolute blinder. But I really wanted to bring home the gold for Team LD. And I gave it my all, and really that’s all you can do.”

“And despite that nasty fall where you fractured your credibility, this result is a personal best for you, so that’s something you can be proud of.”

“Yeah, I … I’ve never come so close to being able to achieve something before, and I just hope my team-mates and my family back home can find … I’m sorry … it’s all kind of intense, you know?”

“That’s OK, Nick. There’s no denying that silver is a great result, and doubles the LD medal haul after your bronze in the freestyle electoral reform. So where are you going to go from here?”

“Well, after my injury I’ll have to withdraw from the synchronised boundary changing, so my next big hope is 2015. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re going to rethink our tactics so we can bring home the best result we can.”

“Nick, I’d better let you go. Best of luck with the recovery and we’ll all be rooting for you come 2015!”


He staggers away.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Religious opposition to gay marriage

Jonathan Chaplin, a theologian, writes that the gay marriage debate should become more temperate. He argues that religious opponents of gay marriage shouldn’t be branded as homophobes but also that they shouldn’t gloss over their own failings on matters of sexuality.

For instance, he criticises a letter written by the conservative group Anglican Mainstream:
The letter was within its rights to challenge Cameron's ill-informed misrepresentation of the churches' attitudes towards gay people. But it included the unsustainable claim that people of homosexual orientation "have always been fully welcomed" in the churches. Whatever the official teaching of the churches may have been, their practice has all too frequently fallen lamentably and hurtfully short of the goal of "welcome".
This is true, and on the whole his article is calm and sensible. But he goes on to commit a strikingly equivalent act of glossing-over:
But whatever the shortcomings of individual statements on the question, the churches' opposition to gay marriage is now facing the undiscriminating charge that it is driven by "homophobia". In fact, most of their public statements on the matter are only attempts to re-articulate what has long been the most fundamental and enduring principle of Christian (and Jewish) sexual ethics, which is that human beings have been created in such a way that sexual union is appropriately enjoyed in the context of permanent heterosexual commitment. This principle is as much a restraint on heterosexual behaviour as it is on homosexual behaviour
This is self-evidently not true. Ruling out straight sex except within a permanent relationship is much less of a restraint than ruling out gay sex entirely. This is obvious. So why does he deny it?

We all have our blind spots. You’d hope that intellect would help us to reduce these, but sometimes it just helps them to hide more effectively.

Some religious opponents of gay marriage are clearly ranting homophobes. Others are more sensibly and sensitively weighing their scriptural traditions against modern liberalism. But what they have in common is a conviction that gay relationships are in some way inadequate or illegitimate. And that fact is terribly sad: it shrinks their moral universe and, by extension, that of society as a whole.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bringing forward the consensus-building

This is what the coalition agreement says about electoral reform:
We will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies. We will whip both Parliamentary parties in both Houses to support a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote, without prejudice to the positions parties will take during such a referendum.
And this is what it says about House of Lords reform – note the difference in language, and in the strength of the commitment:
We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. The committee will come forward with a draft motion by December 2010. It is likely that this will advocate single long terms of office. It is also likely that there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers. In the interim, Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election.
I think the problem is that the Lib Dems have read too much into this Lords agreement. The Tories will be keeping their side of the bargain even if they vote against Nick Clegg’s reform bill. “Bring forward proposals” means very nearly nothing.

But John Rentoul doesn’t agree:
This is a quirky reading of the Coalition Agreement, with which several of the Tory rebels persist. What would be the point of promising to “bring forward proposals” just so that everyone could say, “nice proposals”, and put them in the bin?
This is a fair question, and if (as looks likely) Tory opposition does kill this bill, the Lib Dems would be fairly justified in thinking that the spirit of the agreement had been broken.

But the answer to John’s question is that the point of promising to bring forward proposals only for them to be binned is that it was a piece of constructive ambiguity that smoothed over the signing of the coalition agreement. That is now unravelling.

There is, though, another small matter. The Conservative 2010 election manifesto promised:
We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current House of Lords
So while the coalition agreement doesn’t require Tory MPs to support the reform bill, their own manifesto requires them to try to build support for something along those lines.

A tricky thing to do for the many of them who’ve never wanted an elected Lords. But they should have thought about that before the election.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Lords reform: grand plans fail, so keep it simple

Given how fiendishly difficult it has proved, year after year, decade after decade, to get House of Lords reforms through the Commons, let alone through the Lords, it strikes me that if you’re going to get anywhere you’ll need to be sneaky.

The government’s proposals, in brief: over the course of three general elections, they would replace the hereditary and life peers with ones elected through a party list system to serve 15-year non-renewable terms. These party peers would make up 80% of the new House, and 20% would be ‘great and the good’-style non-party appointees with expertise in various worthy fields.

As I say, pretty much a complete overhaul. And yet…

Most of what these reforms would achieve could be done much more easily, by making just two changes to the current House of Lords:
  1. Fix the numbers of new appointees to match party vote shares at the last election (with 20% non-party worthies). That gets you the proportionality based on election results.
  2. Change the length of a peerage from life to 15 years. That gets you the regular turnover. (If it’s less of a wrench for them, I’m happy to let former members keep their titles.)
Job done. No endless debate about the merits of election vs appointment or about different electoral systems or about the supremacy of the Commons. The change would be nearly as big as that envisaged by the government, but it would be legislatively far simpler. Quick and dirty and effective.

Now, I’m not necessarily saying that the government’s plan is good even in theory, just that my plan would get us most of the way there a lot more easily. And of course there are other things you might want to change about the Lords (me, I’d kick out the clergymen). But the more you try to change in one go, the more fronts you’ll find yourself fighting on.

Keep it simple.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

It isn't working

Hopi Sen has produced a hefty digest of opinion polling on the government’s spending cuts, with charts aplenty.

My quick summary:

Consistently, most people agree that spending cuts are necessary. But on the scale and speed of the cuts, more people agree that the government is going too far too fast than disagree. That said, the ‘too far too fast’ lead has been declining gently – until March this year, the month of the Budget. Then it shot up again, back to earlier levels.

Hopi asks:

If the public consensus on the cuts (needed, but done too quickly and too deeply) has been static, or even moved slightly toward the government position, with the post budget "slump" only returning the numbers to the position six months back, is there anything which explains why the government is doing so much worse than it was then?

(And the government is doing worse now: on YouGov voting intention, the Conservatives were in the mid-to-high 30s for the year up to early March, but in April and May they’ve been in the low 30s.)

Hopi suggests the answer may lie in whether people think the cuts are being done fairly or unfairly:

Here, there's no perceptible shift toward the government position over the last 18 months. What's more, after the budget, the numbers who think the cuts are being done unfairly has surged to record heights.

There’s surely some truth in that. The scrapping of the 50p income tax rate sent a lot of people the signal that the rich were being spared their fair share of the pain.

But I suggest people’s views on the effectiveness of government policy are a driving force too:

This chart (data from YouGov) shows a sharp drop in confidence in the government’s economic policies the week after the Budget (21 March), and another drop just after the official announcement of a double-dip recession (25 April).

The last Conservative government claimed ownership of the economic pain at the start of the 1990s – “a price well worth paying”, “if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working” – and in the 1992 election, we grudgingly accepted it. But then came Black Wednesday, and we realised that they couldn’t even succeed at screwing us over for our own good. They never recovered.

Cameron and Osborne are not in Major and Lamont’s league yet, but if the view takes hold that all this austerity isn’t working, they’ll be in real trouble.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Explaining bad things

The Jewish Chonicle reports:

Education Secretary Michael Gove has strongly criticised an exam board over a GCSE religious studies question in which pupils were asked: “Explain, briefly, why some people are prejudiced against Jews.”

I’m quite baffled at why this question was included, partly because I don’t see how it could be answered “briefly” – at least, if you want to go beyond “some people are nasty”. You could describe the characteristic attitudes of antisemitism straightforwardly enough, but to explain the causation – political, cultural, psychological, historical, religious – would be a lot more involved.

And of course there’s the moral objection:

Mr Gove declared: “To suggest that antisemitism can ever be explained, rather than condemned, is insensitive and, frankly, bizarre. AQA needs to explain how and why this question was included in an exam paper.”

“Insensitive” and “bizarre” are right: the question was bound to be received badly. But Gove’s second sentence there demonstrates that asking somebody to “explain” something doesn’t imply that you think it might be excusable.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The failing economy is the real cause of cheap government borrowing

David Cameron today said:
Deficit reduction and growth are not alternatives. Delivering the first is vital in securing the second. If markets don’t believe you are serious about dealing with your debts, your interest rates rocket and your economy shrinks. … Those who argue we should spend more want us to borrow more, driving up our deficit and our debt and putting our hard-won credibility and low interest rates at risk.
There’s a logic to it: if government borrowing goes up, then the markets will get worried about lending to it and charge a higher interest rate. That may not become a Greek-style debt spiral, but even so, more expensive borrowing costs the taxpayer more and makes cuts to public services more likely.

But are things working the way Cameron suggests?

Not exactly. The amount of money that the government is expected to borrow over the next few years has gone up, not down. This rise in expected borrowing undermines Cameron’s claim that he is sticking fast to a plan that is working out well. The one thing he’s right about is that government borrowing costs have been falling. Oddly, these two changes have gone hand in hand.

This chart shows the yield on ten-year government bonds – a standard benchmark for the cost of borrowing – along with the changing independent economic forecasts of government borrowing over 2011/12 to 2013/14:

If the intuitive logic were right, you’d expect the two lines to rise and fall in tandem. But exactly the opposite happens (a strong negative correlation of –0.85). As the government’s plans for reducing borrowing get knocked farther off track, the markets become happier to lend to it more and more cheaply.


The answer is that the prospects for the economy have been getting worse. Here’s the same graph with the independent forecasts of GDP growth for 2011 to 2013 added in:

As you’d expect, when growth prospects go down, predicted government borrowing goes up (a correlation of –0.83).

But the worsening economy also means cheaper government borrowing (correlation +0.93). The reason for that is that as the private sector struggles to generate growth, investors become reluctant to buy corporate bonds. So they turn to government bonds, and the increased demand for these means that the government can get away with offering a lower interest rate.

International factors such as Greece are also relevant: investors flee crisis-hit countries’ government bonds and go for the relative safety of UK, US, German and Japanese bonds. But this was happening even before the 2010 election: under Brown and Cameron alike, the markets haven’t thought there was any real risk of the UK losing control of its debts and defaulting. For more on that, see my post from last November.

Cheap government borrowing may be good for the Treasury, but in the current circumstances it’s not a sign of ever-increasing confidence in the government’s plans (which are really not working out as well as hoped). It’s a sign that the private sector is so weak that nobody wants to invest in it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Noir Labour

It was spring, but nobody’d gotten round to telling the city. I stepped outside and the morning hit me, cold, gray and lifeless like a regional policy forum.

My back was crying bloody murder from the chair I’d been in all night, staking out one of those crazy fringe groups. They weren’t mob but the mob liked to use them for jobs now and again. Nice and deniable.

Think-tanks, they called themselves. Well I knew what I thought of that. I’d just spent ten hours staring through a dirty window at squat. You could watch those goggle-eyed freaks for ever and not see them do a damn thing.

My car was a few blocks off. I was on my way when I ran into Yvette, hauling some lowlife off to the cells. Yvette was Eddy Boy’s woman – leastways that’s how he liked to tell it. We all knew who ran that little show. She was a piece of work. Legs that went on longer than a select committee meeting and a stare that could cut through bullshit like butter.

“Looking good, Yvette. What’s new?”

“Everything but your lazy banter.”

Yvette didn’t kid around. A damn good cop but no sense of humor. But I wasn’t in her league and we both knew it, so no harm, right?

I nodded at the weasel in the cuffs. “What’s this one been up to?”

“Tried to smash up the public library.”

“So, you booked him, huh?”

She pretended not to hear. Kindest thing anyone did to me that day.

I started back on my way, but she called out: “Hey, there’s one thing. The new chief wants to see you. Better get your ass down to headquarters.”

And that’s when it all started to go wrong.

* * *

After a slug of bourbon from the flask under my dash, I’d been driving a few minutes when I saw him. Clegg, kicking his no-good heels by an alleyway, eyes full of nothing. Waiting for who the hell knew what.

For a while, Clegg had looked like he might make something of himself. But now here he was, errand-boy for the mob. He’d go off and do their dirty work, every time their laughter ringing in his ears, and every time he’d come back for more. He’d found himself a rut and called it home.

The new chief once told me about some Swedish quack who says when you’ve been held hostage long enough, and you can’t take it any more, your messed-up head makes you fall in love with the guy who’s got you trapped, just to make it feel not so bad. He reckoned that was the deal with Clegg. Well I didn’t buy that headshrinker’s tonic. I just reckoned he was too far gone to care.

Another day I’d’ve pulled him into the station to ask what the hell he was up to, or maybe just dragged him into that alley and see what I could find out that way. But not today. Today was bigger.

* * *

The new chief looked up, eyes so bright they could have blinded the sun. Nearly two years in and we still all called him the new chief. The last chief had been a brute; the one before, a prophet. After them, the chair seemed kind of empty.

He was sat in it and he waved for me to come in, like he wasn’t my boss and I was doing him a favor. He wasn’t a bad kid, just out of his depth. A keen, skinny, over-promoted college boy, all brains and no smarts.

He talked for about ten minutes before he got round to the point. When I heard what he wanted my heart sank like an exhausted rat halfway across the river.

As I walked out of his office I bumped into Eddy Boy. He was in a good mood cause he’d got a break on Osborne, the mob’s money man, a well-fed rat-faced son of a bitch who was so smug he’d started getting sloppy. Eddy Boy was jabbering about a paper trail that led to some scam with charity donations.

He clocked the look on my face and toned his glee down. But that sort of thing was only ever for show with him. Eddy Boy hearing someone else’s bad news was like the face of a kid sneaking a whiz in his neighbor’s swimming pool.

I went outside, the air thicker and dustier than a Watford focus group on a Monday night, and thought over the lousy hand I’d been dealt.

The mayor. We were gonna take down the mayor.

* * *

The mayor was mob and everyone knew it and no one cared. He ran City Hall the same way the mob ran the streets: he did what suited his people, and anything more was just for the hell of it. He didn’t give a damn about anyone else, but he had the sense to act the clown. That way, folks could kid themselves that he was OK. That there was nothing much he could do but smile for his pet newspapers and crack funny. That even if the city was sinking into the sewer, he was just shrugging along with the rest of us.

He’d be a sweet catch if we could bring him in. The mob could get by without him but maybe we could lean on him, cut him a deal and maybe get something on Camero.

Big Davey Camero had been out of the country awhile. Word was he’d been setting up gun-running deals in Asia. But pinning that or anything else on him was gonna be harder than getting a Question Time audience to understand a nuance.

Smooth talker. Put him in court and he’d ooze respectable charm till they all wanted to introduce him to their daughters. Only way to make the mask slip was to get him angry, but that had its risks too. If he turned those killer’s eyes on a jury, sure, they’d know him, but then they’d be in no mood to get in his way. Even with a judge like Humphrys, a storm in search of a teacup who’d cut you dead if you tried to get out more than twenty words in a row, you couldn’t stop Camero shooting fear across a room.

We could only bring him down if we weakened him first. Break his spell by taking out some of his cronies. Like the mayor.

And who was leading the case? Old Kenny.

Kenny had been around longer than anyone cared to remember. He’d been a big noise back in the day, even back before people had had the guts to listen. Still singing the same old tunes now, but with a voice ripped up and soured by time and booze and defeat. Hauled out of retirement for one last case. Could he pull it off?

That’s where I came in. My job was keep the old buzzard sharp, to stop him screwing up. To make sure he brought the mayor in and didn’t end up digging his own damn grave.

Now I got no delusions. I’m just another gumshoe walking his way towards a pension or a bullet. Nothing special. But I got a few tricks in me, and when I get a case I damn well work it till I’m raw. Hell, I helped bring in Liam the Fox last year. And this was the thanks I got.

Why couldn’t this be Oona’s case I was on? Oona. She shoulda been the one, not Kenny. There’s not a man in the department that wouldn’t kill or die for a glimpse of that smile and a dream of those lips. We’d have walked every last street in Hillingdon in the dirty rain for her, knocked on every door, listened to every asshole who thought he could do our job, and we’d have kept smiling and nodding because we knew she was worth it.

But instead they dig up old Kenny and tell me to cover the goddamn stink.

I lit up my last smoke and crushed the empty pack like last week’s order papers. I tossed it into the gutter and figured I’d end up there myself pretty soon. I headed for Mickey’s. There were two things I knew for sure: I needed to play dirty. And I needed a drink.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The official list of official things of London 2012

The organisers of the Olympics are rightly picky about which brands can claim ‘official’ status as part of this glorious festival of sport, excellence, money, diversity and money. To clarify matters, here are the things that are allowed to share in the London 2012 aura:

  • The official toilet cubicle of London 2012 is the one on the right.
  • The official faux pas of London 2012 is picking up someone else’s wine glass.
  • The official Jennifer Aniston romcom of London 2012 is Along Came Polly.
  • The official common misconception of London 2012 is that the Great Wall of China is visible from space.
  • The official serial killer hiding place of London 2012 is in your wardrobe.
  • The official half of Jedward of London 2012 is John.
  • The official smug yet pointless made-up word of London 2012 is ‘mumpreneur’.
  • The official branch of Costcutter of London 2012 is the Cockfosters Costcutter, which is also the official tongue-twister of London 2012.
  • The official excuse of London 2012 is that with a coalition government, we all have to make compromises.
  • The official number of Connect Four counters of London 2012 is three.

(Based on a meme started by Charlie Brooker.)

Thursday, March 22, 2012

On current trends

By 2038, we will need either more cats or more camera angles.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Party leader ratings: ‘satisfied or dissatisfied’ vs ‘doing well or badly’

Anthony Wells recently looked at the party leader ratings produced by YouGov’s and MORI’s opinion polls. He noted that MORI were giving Ed Miliband higher ratings than YouGov, and argued that part of this difference is due to the questions the pollsters asked:

YouGov: Do you think Ed Miliband is doing well or badly as leader of the Labour party?
MORI: Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way Ed Miliband is doing his job as leader of the Labour Party?

The key, Anthony suggested, is in how different party supporters respond to these two wordings.

Miliband approval ratings in December MORI poll:
Con supporters – 25% satisfied, 61% dissatisfied
Lab supporters – 54% satisfied, 37% dissatisfied
LD supporters – 33% satisfied, 51% dissatisfied
Miliband approval ratings in December YouGov poll:
Con supporters – 8% well, 87% badly
Lab supporters – 59% well, 31% badly
LD supporters – 24% well, 63% badly

You can see where most of the difference lies – amongst Labour voters the answers are not that different, Miliband’s approval rating is in the 50s, his disapproval in the 30s. The big difference is how the supporters of opposing parties answer the question. Basically, if Conservative supporters are asked if Miliband is doing well or badly, they overwhelmingly think he is doing badly. Asked if they are satisfied or disatisfed with his leadership, a significant minority of Tory supporters say they are satisfied – presumably because they are perfectly satisfied with Labour having a leader who they think is doing badly.

So the suggestion is that while some Conservative voters will be ‘satisfied’ with Miliband doing well (the more straightforward ones), others will be ‘satisfied’ with him doing badly (the more cynical ones). If this is true, it means MORI’s satisfaction ratings are unsound, because they’re mixing together two very conflicting things rather than measuring one. In contrast, YouGov’s ‘doing well or badly’ question would be a sounder measure of (straightforward) approval.

I tested this theory, by looking into the pollsters’ data on Miliband’s ratings across the whole of 2011, seeing how Conservative and Labour voters judged him as doing well and how satisfied they were with his performance.

If the YouGov ‘doing well’ ratings are sound, then those from Conservative and Labour voters should be positively correlated – that is, both groups’ ratings of Miliband should rise and fall in a similar pattern. (Of course, there will be some things Labour voters like him doing that Conservatives won’t, and vice versa, so the correlation will be far from perfect, but there will also be things that appeal or repel across the board.)

This is exactly what I found: the correlation between how many Conservative voters say Miliband is doing well and how many Labour voters say the same is +0.46.

But if the MORI ‘satisfied’ ratings are unsound, then those from Conservative and Labour voters should be much less positively correlated than the ‘doing well’ ones are. The more straightforward Conservatives will lean the same way as Labour voters when Miliband does something good or bad, but this will be at least partly cancelled out by the cynical ones who lean the other way, only happy when he looks like a doomed bungler.

This is exactly what I found: the correlation between how many Conservative voters say they’re satisfied with Miliband and how many Labour voters say the same is just +0.04.

This supports the theory that MORI’s ‘satisfied or dissatisfied’ question doesn’t produce meaningful ratings because some people are satisfied by success and some by failure.

Here are the graphs:

A couple of notes:

I didn’t look at how Lib Dem voters rate Miliband because there are so few of them. I don’t say this to be snide; it’s just that smaller groups of people in polls produce more wildly and randomly varied results.

I didn’t look at rival supporters’ ratings of Cameron and Clegg because both pollsters ask about Cameron “as Prime Minister” rather than as Conservative leader, and MORI asks about Clegg “as Deputy Prime Minister” (YouGov asks about him as Lib Dem leader). It’s one thing to want the opposition leader to screw up his own party’s chances, but it takes a lot more cynicism to hope those in government will screw up the country. So I expect that any converse effect – Labour voters becoming more satisfied when Cameron screws up – would be much smaller. If you’re interested, you could try digging up their ratings from before 2010.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

The (basket) case against gay marriage

Cardinal Keith O’Brien – “Britain’s most senior Catholic” – is entitled to his wretched, venomous, semi-coherent opinion about gay marriage. I am likewise entitled to my very different opinion, and my right doesn’t diminish his right.

The same is true of marriages: one couple’s marriage doesn’t diminish another couple’s, however bad a match each pair thinks the other is.

But O’Brien can’t stomach that. He wants to defend the traditional right of straight people to have more rights than gay people, and to champion religion as the last bastion of respectable homophobia.

He writes:

Civil partnerships have been in place for several years now, allowing same-sex couples to register their relationship and enjoy a variety of legal protections. When these arrangements were introduced, supporters were at pains to point out that they didn’t want marriage, accepting that marriage had only ever meant the legal union of a man and a woman.

He neglects to name any names, but if my own memory serves, there were some people who favoured civil partnerships but not marriage for gays, while others have supported gay marriage all along.

Those of us who were not in favour of civil partnership, believing that such relationships are harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved, warned that in time marriage would be demanded too. We were accused of scaremongering then, yet exactly such demands are upon us now.

O’Brien should certainly be congratulated on his powers of prophecy. But here I’d like to note his GAYS BAD aside and wonder why, if he has such a strong core case, he’s even bothering with the technicalities of the rest of the argument. But it’s jolly decent of him to put his cards on the table like that.

Since all the legal rights of marriage are already available to homosexual couples, it is clear that this proposal is not about rights, but rather is an attempt to redefine marriage for the whole of society at the behest of a small minority of activists.

Opinion polls put the support for gay marriage at between about 40% and 60% of the population.

Redefining marriage will have huge implications for what is taught in our schools, and for wider society. It will redefine society since the institution of marriage is one of the fundamental building blocks of society. The repercussions of enacting same-sex marriage into law will be immense.

Gosh. I can’t wait to find out what these implications and repercussions might be. Let’s read on…

But can we simply redefine terms at a whim? Can a word whose meaning has been clearly understood in every society throughout history suddenly be changed to mean something else?

Huh? Where’d it go? No? Oh well.

So, can we simply redefine terms? Well, if they’re legal terms then of course we can, whenever Parliament changes the relevant laws.

But “marriage” is a socially and culturally defined term as well. So can we just redefine it? Actually, we don’t need to. “Gay marriage” and “same-sex marriage” and “homosexual marriage” are perfectly understandable terms. We know what they mean and we can support or oppose the idea accordingly. The only question is whether we like the idea.

Oh, and “marriage”, which comes to English from Latin via French, is not “a word whose meaning has been clearly understood in every society throughout history”.

If same-sex marriage is enacted into law what will happen to the teacher who wants to tell pupils that marriage can only mean – and has only ever meant – the union of a man and a woman?
Will that teacher’s right to hold and teach this view be respected or will it be removed?

Well, if gay marriage is legalised, then such views will become factually wrong, and any teacher worth their salt will avoid passing on out-of-date information.

Will both teacher and pupils simply become the next victims of the tyranny of tolerance, heretics, whose dissent from state-imposed orthodoxy must be crushed at all costs?

Words fail me. I apologise. I promise I’ll do better with the next bit.

In Article 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, marriage is defined as a relationship between men and women.

You’ll note that he doesn’t quote the Declaration. I know it’s terribly bad form, but I’m going to do it for him:

Article 16
(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

No mention of sexuality. No mention of what particular configuration of “men and women” (not “a man and a woman”) it is that has the right to get married. The end of line (2) would have been a fine place to say “husband and wife”, but no: “spouses”.

But when our politicians suggest jettisoning the established understanding of marriage and subverting its meaning they aren’t derided. Instead, their attempt to redefine reality is given a polite hearing, their madness is indulged.

So hang on, we’re redefining reality now? I thought we were only redefining a term. But anyway, what he means by “redefine reality” is change something. And unless all change is by definition bad, he needs to do better than that.

Their proposal represents a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right.

What right? Whose right? The Universal Declaration doesn’t do the work he wants it to, and gay marriage is very, very far from “universally” opposed. But this really gets to the heart of it: letting gay people get married doesn’t harm the marriages of straight people. It takes no rights away from them, except the right to deny rights to gay people.

When gay marriage is finally legalised, the people hell-bent on opposing it can continue to view gay marriages with hostility, and their views of straight marriages won’t have to change either. They relationships they’ve approved of they can continue to approve of.

As an institution, marriage long predates the existence of any state or government. It was not created by governments and should not be changed by them. Instead, recognising the innumerable benefits which marriage brings to society, they should act to protect and uphold marriage, not attack or dismantle it.

I’m sceptical about the potted prehistory lesson, but I’ll pass. Again: when gay marriage becomes legal, straight marriage will continue as before.

This is a point of view that would have been endorsed and accepted only a few years ago, yet today advancing a traditional understanding of marriage risks one being labelled an intolerant bigot.

The sad fact is that some traditions just are intolerant and bigoted. The good news is that when society becomes less intolerant and bigoted, we can change these traditions.

There is no doubt that, as a society, we have become blasé about the importance of marriage as a stabilising influence and less inclined to prize it as a worthwhile institution. It has been damaged and undermined over the course of a generation…

Not by gay people it hasn’t been. The straight divorce rate hasn’t risen because couples are spending more and more time imagining how awful it might be if one day gays were allowed to marry.

…yet marriage has always existed in order to bring men and women together so that the children born of those unions will have a mother and a father.
This brings us to the one perspective which seems to be completely lost or ignored: the point of view of the child. All children deserve to begin life with a mother and father; the evidence in favour of the stability and well-being which this provides is overwhelming and unequivocal. It cannot be provided by a same-sex couple, however well-intentioned they may be.
Same-sex marriage would eliminate entirely in law the basic idea of a mother and a father for every child. It would create a society which deliberately chooses to deprive a child of either a mother or a father.

I hate to have to be the one to break it to the Cardinal, but same-sex adoption is already legal. So, while one might dispute his overwhelming, unequivocal and unexplained evidence that the very best gay couple can’t possibly be good parents, it’s really beside the point.

Other dangers exist. If marriage can be redefined so that it no longer means a man and a woman but two men or two women, why stop there? Why not allow three men or a woman and two men to constitute a marriage, if they pledge their fidelity to one another? If marriage is simply about adults who love each other, on what basis can three adults who love each other be prevented from marrying?

I’m afraid it’s much, much worse than that. Let’s go back to O’Brien’s precious Article 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which says: “Men and women…have the right to marry and to found a family.”

It doesn’t say how many men and women! We’ve already sold the pass and agreed to license marriages of crazed, sick and wrong numbers of men and/or women! Dammit, NOOOOOOOO!

Who would ever have imagined that basing a socially illiberal argument on a declaration of rights could possibly backfire?

In November 2003, after a court decision in Massachusetts to legalise gay marriage, school libraries were required to stock same-sex literature; primary schoolchildren were given homosexual fairy stories such as King & King. Some high school students were even given an explicit manual of homosexual advocacy entitled The Little Black Book: Queer in the 21st Century. Education suddenly had to comply with what was now deemed “normal”.

And? That’s the nature of change.

Disingenuously, the Government has suggested that same-sex marriage wouldn’t be compulsory and churches could choose to opt out. This is staggeringly arrogant. No Government has the moral authority to dismantle the universally understood meaning of marriage.
Imagine for a moment that the Government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that “no one will be forced to keep a slave”. Would such worthless assurances calm our fury? Would they justify dismantling a fundamental human right? Or would they simply amount to weasel words masking a great wrong?

One day, the world will produce a thinker who can spot the flaws in an analogy between restricting rights and expanding them. But I am not that thinker.

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights is crystal clear: marriage is a right which applies to men and women, “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State”.
This universal truth is so self-evident that it shouldn’t need to be repeated. If the Government attempts to demolish a universally recognised human right, they will have forfeited the trust which society has placed in them and their intolerance will shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world.

And so here, at the end, he’s just raking over the same barren ground again. All I’ll say is that if the essential and eternal straightness of marriage really were “self-evident”, then his whole vile article need never have been written.

And what a wonderful world that would be.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Balls prepares to U-turn

Today Ed Balls announced that he’s going to stop calling for a temporary VAT cut.

Not in so many words, of course. What he actually did was repeat his call for a 12-month cut in the rate of VAT – which he first proposed last June.

However, this given Labour an awkward problem of timing: Balls has been arguing for “combining stimulus now to get the economy moving with a tough but balanced medium-term deficit plan”. But this leaves the question of what happens when we get to the medium term. He will have to say ‘You know that stimulus we wanted? Well, even though we didn’t get it, it’s too late now, so now we want austerity instead.’

The other question this position left open is: when will we get to the medium term? Today Balls answered that:

In my view, the Chancellor does still have the power to shape events. Next month’s Budget is his last chance to make a real difference to Britain’s economic prospects. …the Chancellor should announce a temporary reversal of his VAT rise.

There you go: next month’s Budget is the last chance.

So after that passes, with George Osborne once again inexplicably deciding not to abandon his policy on Balls’s say-so, Balls will abandon his policy and stop urging a 12-month VAT cut. Possibly, as the year goes on, he’ll urge a VAT cut lasting 11 months, 10 months, 9 months and so on. Or maybe for simplicity’s sake he’ll throw in that particular towel straight away.

But one thing’s for sure: 12 months from now, Balls won’t be calling for a temporary fiscal stimulus. Definitely not. Definitely.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Over the weekend, union leader Len McCluskey and millions of others watched, horrified, as their beloved Ed Miliband committed political suicide... or so it seemed.

McCluskey stood in the street and saw – he swears he saw – Miliband throw himself from the heights of a two- or three-point lead in the opinion polls and fall, fatally, onto the pavement of austerity.

A sudden throng of spin doctors prevented McCluskey from reaching Miliband’s broken leadership, but an autopsy performed by Ed Balls confirmed that Labour’s public-spending strategy was indeed dead, having sustained a lethal series of cuts.

And yet...

Why would Miliband have jumped, just as his arch-enemy Cameron’s plans to lay the country waste with a few short lines of economic policy were becoming exposed as a sham? Were other sinister figures putting pressure on him? Had he been told that Blairite assassins stood ready to kill his dear Labour party if he didn’t sacrifice his own position?

And then there’s the question of whether Miliband really did it. Surely he would have avoided such a grim ending at all costs. And surely a genius who can become party leader despite getting fewer votes from the party’s members could think of a way out of a pickle like this.

Could Miliband have put a mask of his own face onto the body of a suspiciously overhyped former “senior adviser” who disappeared from the Labour party that same weekend?

Could Balls – known to have a soft spot for stimulus spending – have faked the evidence?

Could there be a clue in the Labour protestations that their acceptance of cuts is about what happens after the next election, not before? Could Harriet Harman’s “we're not accepting austerity cuts; we are totally opposed to them” give the game away?

Could Miliband’s estranged older brother be somehow involved?

Could McCluskey have been drugged to distort his perception of reality?

Only time will tell.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Miliband the misfit

The E4 show Misfits is about a bunch of teenagers doing community service who acquire superpowers, which they use to fight crime, have sex and learn valuable life lessons.

(Spoiler alert.)

One of them is an awkward boy called Simon. A major part of series 2 and 3 is that a version of him from the future travels back in time. He’s far more self-assured and capable than the earlier version, and one of the other characters – a girl called Alisha – falls in love with him. Alas, he (future Simon) dies saving her life.

The earlier version of Simon is also impressed by his future self, and vows to become more like him so that eventually he can go back and save Alisha – who he has now fallen for, and who transfers her affections over to him.

Simon gradually develops the skills, courage and self-confidence of his future self, but then another tragedy strikes; he sees Alisha killed in front of him and is unable to help. He decides then to travel back in time to be with her again, creating a doomed temporal loop in which he inspires himself to discover his inner strength, wins his love and then fails her.

I only mention this because Ed Miliband said at the weekend:

You discover things about yourself in this job, which is that I am someone of real steel and grit, which is why I stood for the job in the first place.

Simon the self-inspiring Misfit. Not to be confused with his brother David.

Friday, January 06, 2012

The great Diane Abbott tweetgate scandal of 2012

Here’s the exchange, as reproduced by the BBC:

Bim Adewunmi: I do wish everyone would stop saying 'the black community' though. WHICH ONE?
Bim Adewunmi: Clarifying my 'black community' tweet: I hate the generally lazy thinking behind the use of the term. Same for 'black community leaders'.
Diane Abbott: I understand the cultural point you are making. But you are playing into a "divide and rule" agenda.
Bim Adewunmi: Maybe. I find it frustrating that half the time, these leaders are out of touch with black people they purport to represent.
Diane Abbott: White people love playing "divide & rule" We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism
Bim Adewunmi: I don't advocate 'divide and rule'. But I wish we could deal more effectively with issues without resorting to monolithic view.
Diane Abbott: Ethnic communities that show more public solidarity & unity than black people do much better #dontwashdirtylineninpublic

I should start by declaring that my general opinion of Diane Abbott is pretty low, although my estimation of her importance is also pretty low. I find it hard to get worked up by this.

Still, on the offending phrase: I don’t quite grasp the mental process that starts with wanting a quick and clear way to describe people who seek to weaken black people by turning them against each other, and ends with choosing “white people” rather than “colonialists” or “imperialists” or “racists”.

Nonetheless, I’m sure she knows full well that there are loads of white people who don’t fit that description. My best guess is that she was aiming to be a little cheeky in the vague service of solidarity-building, in the way that Harriet Harman might make some semi-serious unflattering overgeneralisation about men to make the sisters nod along.

If so, it’s still unpleasant and it’s still untrue – I go along with Russell on “the superior virtue of the oppressed”. But the idea that any white person has in any way been harmed by this tweet is just ridiculous. At the very outside you could argue that impressionable young black people might read it and as a result take more of an ‘us vs them’ outlook towards all white people, but I think that’s stretching it well past breaking point.

My real beef with what Abbott said is precisely because of the “context” that she protests her tweet was taken out of. I don’t like the way she rejects Bim Adewunmi’s point.

Questioning the merits of a set of “community leaders” (black or otherwise) is not on any meaningful continuum with the tactics and values of 19th-century colonialism. And the suggestion that black people shouldn’t criticise their so-called “community leaders” for fear of being seen to “wash [their] dirty linen in public” is depressing.

But then, there are far more depressing things to do with race. And yet this is the issue we’re all yelling about this week. Well, it’s easy, isn’t it? We know how to do ‘somebody said something and people say they’re angry at her and other people say they’re angry at them and now I’m going to say something’. We don’t know how to make society more just and people less prejudiced. Well, I don’t, anyway.