Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

House of Comments - Episode 106 - The Miller Tale

Episode 106 of the House of Comments podcast "The Miller Tale" is out. This week I am joined by Labour PPC Jessica Asato and Lib Dem commentator Mark Pack to discuss the fallout from the Maria Miller resignation, power and harassment in politics and they address the question: "What are the Lib Dems for?".

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

Other podcasting software e.g. for Android can be pointed here to subscribe.

You can download the mp3 for the latest episode directly from here.

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboo for hosting the podcast for us. We would also like to thank Kevin MacLeod from for our theme music.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

I blame the voters

I quit the Lib Dems last year mainly due to a growing disillusionment with politics. This takes a number of forms but amongst the top irritations for me is the culture of "failing to think things through".

I suppose there are many policies that would fall into this category in some way or another. Examples would be the "bedroom tax" which although in principle in a perfect world might work, in a country where it has only been possible for 6% of those affected to actually move to a smaller house (due to lack of housing stock) it instead causes hardship and suffering for the remaining 94% for no good reason.

Another example from the other side would be the policy currently being floated by Labour of planning to reduce tuition fees from £9,000 per year to £6,000 per year. All this is going to do is reduce the amount of money that the wealthiest ultimately have to pay back as those who earn moderate or average salaries after graduation would never end up paying the full amount back before the 30 year limit anyway. So a party that professes to want to help the poorest in society are proposing a flagship policy that will actually help the richest.

And in fact calling this the politics of "not thinking things through" is probably too generous. I suspect in most cases these policies have indeed been thought through. It's just that the temptations to garner the headlines for "cracking down on benefits" or "reducing tuition fees for hardworking families" are too good to resist.

The politicians advocating and implementing these policies are really engaging in a form of willful blindness.

But there is an aspect of this that we should not ignore. Those politicians would not be able to get away with doing this if they were properly held to account. Yes, the media should do it but the responsibility equally falls on the shoulders of all of us.

So no longer being a member of a party I now have the freedom to do something that politicians never do.

I'm blaming the voters.

If we had an electorate that fully engaged with the issues then policies like the "bedroom tax" would never have been risked. Those planning to implement it would have realised there would have been a huge backlash from a well informed electorate that would have quickly worked out there is no way for it to work without punishing some of the poorest amongst us.

If we had a franchise that was fully numerate and understood how tuition fees currently work (and who ends up paying them back in full) then Labour would not chance their arm in pushing a policy that rewards future bankers and lawyers at the expense of everyone else.

If we all read up on the history of prohibition in the US in the 1920s and drew the parallels with the current "war on drugs" it is likely that our current damaging, ridiculous, incoherent and inconsistent drugs policies would have been reformed years ago.

But that does not happen. People are too busy and/or uninterested in matters of public policy to give the scrutiny it would require for them to take a collective and fully informed decision.

I get it. I get that for the vast majority politics is a vague background irritant that only impinges on their consciences very occasionally, e.g. at general election time.

What I am saying is that it is all very well to blame politicians for bad decisions (and I often do - they definitely should do better) but their primary goal is to get and retain power. If they think they can only do that by appealing to the lowest common denominator as they know it will be filtered through the tabloid press and by polemicists who often get the most media coverage then that is what they will do.

I'm not sure there is really an answer to this problem. If anything, political engagement has been on the slide in recent decades. I suppose it is possible that as the internet and social media become ever more pervasive the chance for people to fully engage with political issues and evidence increases. But the amount of times I have seen things that are blatantly false go viral online suggests that this is unlikely to be a good solution either.

One thing is for sure. If the electorate continues to be largely disengaged then we will continue to get these sort of policies.

And whilst I'm happy to apportion the fair share of blame to those vying for or in power I also think a substantial share should go where it is equally deserved.


Thursday, 3 April 2014

Could Clegg really be this Machiavellian?

Bear with me here.

The Lib Dems are in trouble. Real trouble.

If the proportion of people who vote for the party in next year's general election is in the low teens as is looking likely they could lose dozens of seats. They could even be back to the days of the parliamentary party "fitting in the back of a taxi".

But one thing that could ameliorate this is if in many of the seats that the yellows are defending where their challengers are the Tories, the blues do not do as well as the polls are predicting. And one way that this could happen is if there is a big UKIP surge around the time of the 2015 general election thus splitting the vote on the right and saving many Lib Dem seats in the process.

Of course most commentators think that the current UKIP polling numbers will fall back to more "normal" levels, say 5% or so and the dent to the Tories will be minimal.

But what if someone helped the UKIP leader Nigel Farage to raise his profile around a year before that general election? What if the profile raising was done in the forum of two debates between him and another politician, a member of the government which effectively elevated him to the status of a senior cabinet minister? What if Mr Farage was then widely seen to have won these debates, thus demonstrating that his views are very popular, far more so than the 10% - 15% that the polls would have us usually think?

In fact what if the fallout from such debates made it pretty much impossible for the UKIP leader to be excluded from the pre-election debates in 2015?

This could then of course lead to a big bounce for UKIP just around the time they need it to do maximum damage to the Tories and inadvertently help the Lib Dems.

Clegg couldn't possibly be so scheming. Could he?

Monday, 24 March 2014

House of Comments - Episode 103 - Full House

Episode 103 of the House of Comments podcast "Full House" is out. This week I am joined by Labour PPC Uma Kumaran and Max Wind-Cowie an associate at the think-tank Demos to discuss the budget including pensions and inevitably bingo, student loans and whether there is nepotism in parliament.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

Other podcasting software e.g. for Android can be pointed here to subscribe.

You can download the mp3 for the latest episode directly from here.

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboo for hosting the podcast for us. We would also like to thank Kevin MacLeod from for our theme music.

Friday, 21 March 2014

The "Lump of Criminality" fallacy

There is a widely understood and recognised fallacy within economics known as "Lump of Labour".

The rebuttal to it essentially says that the amount of work available within an economy is not fixed (as the fallacy would have us believe) but rather changes as the economy grows and changes. This can be as a result of organic growth or can also be as a result of other factors such as legislative and technological changes and things like immigration etc.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici
This fallacy is highly reminiscent of an argument I have heard put forward to justify the retention of the current laws on drugs. It goes along the lines of: "Do you really think that if we legalised drugs, the drug dealers and barons would suddenly become nice people and stop being law breakers? Of course they wouldn't, they'd simply find other nefarious activities to replace the lost drugs revenues.".

This argument seems plausible on a prima-facie basis. If someone has got themselves involved in drug dealing they are likely to be something of a wrong-un and it does not take much of a leap of imagination to conclude they might get up to other dodgy behaviours were the drugs option taken away from them.

But this is very similar to "Lump of Labour". It's assuming that there is a fixed amount of criminality in the economy and that nothing we do can change that. Is it presupposing that all of those people involved in the black market drugs world would have progressed to crime anyway and they just happened to choose drugs, as if a criminal lifestyle is somehow predetermined outside of any cultural, legal and economic factors.

We might want to call this the "Lump of Criminality" fallacy. It is surely pretty self-evidently not true. Drugs at the moment are a highly lucrative activity. There are various estimates but one recent study puts the drug trade in the UK as valued at £7 billion per year. That is a huge amount of money currently available to the black market and even a tiny slice of those sort of revenues will make getting involved in criminality a more attractive option for some people. If you bring currently illegal drugs entirely within the legal economy those monies disappear. Yes I am sure some of those dodgy characters will find other illegal ways of funding their lifestyles but it is also likely that a fair number of them will move into the legal economy.

It is also worth bearing in mind that some of those who will decide to remain in the criminal world will be doing so because it's probably all they have ever known. They will have found themselves drug dealing to e.g. fund their own drug habit and now all of their friends and their entire lifestyle is on the wrong side of the tracks. But if drugs had been legal from the get-go they would have been much less likely to be in a situation like this. Hence as time goes on the chances of people in marginal situations turning to crime will be reduced too.

I'm not claiming legalising drugs will be a panacea. Of course it won't be. Drugs can be dangerous and even under a legalised framework some addicts will commit crimes. But the idea that changing the drugs laws will not do anything about the level of criminality in our society is a knee-jerk reactionary fallacy that does not really bear more than a few minutes scrutiny.

Monday, 3 March 2014

House of Comments - 100th Episode Extravaganza!

Episode 100 of the House of Comments podcast "100th Episode Extravaganza" is out. This week Mark is joined by Emma and Nick as well as former House of Comments co-host from way back Stuart Sharpe and our first ever guest from back in 2009, LBC presenter Iain Dale to celebrate our 100th episode. Topics discussed this week are the Harriet Harman and Jack Dromey NCCL/PIE story, Labour's special conference (which Emma spoke at) and the move to One Member One Vote and also whether the Conservatives and Labour would be wise to rule out potential coalition in 2015 as a manifesto commitment.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

Other podcasting software e.g. for Android can be pointed here to subscribe.

You can download the mp3 for the latest episode directly from here.

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboo for hosting the podcast for us. We would also like to thank Kevin MacLeod from for our theme music.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Ed Davey's 24 hour energy switching? - Try 24 weeks

Let us all bask in gas's warm
 glowing warming glow
Back in November following the whole "energy price freeze" political ding-dong I thought it would be a good idea to look into whether I was getting the best deal for my gas and electricity. This was partly to potentially save a bit of money if possible and also as an experiment to see how straightforward the process is.

I had fixed my prices several months earlier and as since then they had gone up across the board for variable rate tariffs I had assumed I would be on a better deal than was available in the market. That turned out not to be the case. There were lots of deals that would have saved me money, in some cases well over £100 per year. I had found this out by going through the uSwitch website (which is one of the main recommended ways to do this I noticed when looking into it).

So I called up uSwitch on a Saturday afternoon in early November and went through a protracted conversation where I explained all my current tariff information which I had had to collate from my existing bills. We went through all the options and I finally decided to go with one of the independent suppliers (i.e. not one of the big six). But just when they tried to progress the switch during the call the woman I was speaking to told me there was a problem and that for that particular supplier they did not have the rights to use the pipeline that supplies my estate. I was a bit irritated by this as I had liked the idea of going with a smaller company but there was nothing I could do about it so instead I arranged to switch to one of the other big six suppliers and was informed soon after by e-mail:

Hi Mark,
We received your energy switch details and want to let you know it is now being processed.
This email contains all the details of your new plan, and can answer any questions you may have.
Congratulations on saving £127.19 a year on your energy!

I was told over the phone that it could take between 6 and 8 weeks so I made a mental note not to think any more about this until the new year.

When January came around and my direct debits for my existing supplier went through again I just thought we were only just outside the 8 week boundary and we'd had Christmas and New Year in between so gave it the benefit of the doubt and assumed it would happen soon.

When February came around and my direct debits for my existing supplier went through again I did start to wonder what was happening but I do know that these things often take longer than hoped for so I told myself to wait a bit longer.

But when yesterday I saw that the direct debits for my existing supplier were going to go through again this week and we are now 4 months on from when I set the switch in motion I called uSwitch to see what was happening and why my switch was delayed.

I was astonished to discover that they had no record of me at all on their system. My name and postcode yielded nothing and looking up my e-mail address also returned no record from their database. They were as perturbed about this as me are still trying to work out what went wrong but it is clear I have been sitting around waiting for a switch that was never going to happen.

I am sure this is not everyone's experience with switching and this will probably just turn out to be a clerical or computer error but I wanted to highlight how difficult this process can be in spite of all the high flown rhetoric from both government and opposition politicians and irrespective of how high up the political agenda the issue of energy prices is. I had to spend a good couple of hours in November getting all the information together and going through a very long phone call. And I have no doubt that when the fixed deal had run out in April 2015 I'd have to have done exactly the same all over again.

Of course irritatingly something went wrong with my switch and I suspect the deal I wanted will no longer be available. But when you have so many deals available from so many different companies to the extent that an intermediate body such as uSwitch is a recommended route for switching things are bound to go wrong. The fundamental problem is that the current system is too complicated to make transparent and straightforward comparison and switching possible.

If my experience here is anything to go by, we've got a very, very long way to go before Ed Davey's "24 hour energy supplier switching" can become a reality.

In my case it looks like it's going to be around 24 weeks.