Saturday 30 April 2011

A socialist and her money

As a result of an accidental Cate Blanchett triple bill - what a fine actress - I heard the following exchange. Says the matriarch of a self-described “socialist family”:
We don’t care about money here, Mr Hughes.
To which Howard Hughes replies:
Well that’s because you have it.

Thursday 28 April 2011

Beastly man insults fair maiden

There was a telling moment in yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions when, after repeated attempts at interruption, David Cameron told Angela Eagle to “Calm down, dear”. Cue faux outrage on the opposition benches at this sexist slur from our pig of a Prime Minister. Ed Balls made much of looking particularly upset, as if someone had made a pass at his wife. Well, I would. It reminded me of my days at the Polytechnic - or the University of The West of England as it likes to style itself - and the Labour students who would roam the campus, desperately searching for something new with which to be insulted.

But it struck me that if we’re going to look at this silly incident seriously, it’s the Labour Party’s attitude to women we should worry about. Tim Farron, one of those nice Liberal Democrat MPs, recently gave a speech describing the “organised wickedness” of Margaret Thatcher’s government. I’ll pass on his obviously stupid commentary, but provide it as evidence of the nasty things politicians of different political parties sometimes say about one another. The front benches insult each other on a regular basis, and Labour’s stance suggests they think women unable to cope with this hurly burly of politics. Now that’s patronising.

Tuesday 26 April 2011

Once more, with feeling

An abstract avoids prejudice but fails to engage, an analogy whilst having sound maths is vulnerable to complaints of being too simple. And an illustration using our political parties is at risk from the same criticism, but I thought I’d re-write the case of an alternative vote (AV) that leads to an ‘unfair’ result. The point isn’t so much “Party A voter would never vote for Party B”, but that they might express such a preference in order to keep out a substantially worse candidate. For instance, as someone who generally votes Conservative, I have no fondness for either Labour or the Liberal Democrats; however I wouldn’t hesitate to vote for either of these options to ensure exclusion of the BNP. Here’s the example:

There are four political parties standing in your constituency; in alphabetical order of party (and as it happens, candidate): BNP, Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat.

48,226 votes are cast.

The BNP receives 2,296 first preferences, of those votes the second preference where stated is split 978 for Conservative and 620 for Labour. 20,668 people vote Liberal Democrat; it subsequently turns out their second choice isn’t relevant – likewise for the 16,075 who vote Labour. The vast majority of the 9,187 people who vote Conservative don’t really care for the other two main parties, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, however most of them also loathe the BNP.

That’s understandable, and the best way to express this is a feature of AV that isn’t afforded by our current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system; the ability to vote against one party by voting for all the others. In our example, most of those whose first preference was Conservative do exactly this, and since they don’t have a preference with the other parties they rank them according to the order in which they are listed. This is called a donkey vote and whilst it is most common where full preferential voting is required, it applies equally here. As a result the ‘second preferences’ for those who vote Conservative are divided 8,177 for Labour and 991 for the Liberal Democrats.

With the vote in, the count can begin, and after the first round the BNP, having the fewest votes, is eliminated. The next preferences of those votes are added to the remaining candidates to give us the following: just over 42% would like a Liberal Democrat MP with around 35% opting for Labour. It’s still not a majority so the Conservative vote is eliminated… and something interesting happens when the ‘second preferences’ are added to the count. These would be the people whose other preference was mostly ‘anyone but BNP’ and consequently voted for the other candidates in the order that they appeared.

Despite having significantly less of the ‘positive’ vote, Labour’s candidate wins through having a superior position in the alphabet.

As I stated previously, what this illustration and others show is how AV can work; the result – fair or otherwise – depends on how the example is framed. I could as easily have had the Conservative candidate prosper as a result of Labour’s anti-BNP sentiment; not perhaps to the extent of the numbers used above, but certainly enough to affect the outcome. This example doesn't say how likely it is, only that it’s possible; under AV you can have a result that many people would consider unfair; it’s a system not nearly as simple as some would have us believe.

Friday 22 April 2011

Stokes Croft

The trouble in Stokes Croft, Bristol on Thursday brought back an old question of why people feel justified in such protest. I’m sure some get a real kick out of standing up to large - and therefore evil - corporations such as Tesco, but for any shop to survive it will require customers.  If as suggested people really “don’t need” or “don’t want” the new store then it will close through lack of business. Smaller shops will only be threatened if local people stop using them; that is their choice. It is choice that is really at risk. Protecting the local character? No, these demonstrations are about something else; an attempt by a vociferous minority to impose their will over that of the individual.

Monday 18 April 2011

A plague on both your houses

In 1975 the UK held a referendum on whether to maintain its membership of the European Economic Community, a forerunner of the European Union; skipping the argument on the seemingly inexorable move from economic to political union, the result was a huge majority to maintain the status quo. I was eight. Thirty-six years later we have a referendum on the method for electing MPs to the House of Commons. I can’t remember anything about that earlier ballot; though I remember much that was ghastly about the seventies, it’s difficult to imagine the debate being worse than the one we have today.
At present, the UK uses the 'first past the post' system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the 'alternative vote' system be used instead?
First up was No2AV who, faced with the difficulty in pointing out how irrational the link from an expenses scandal to a need to change the voting system, not surprisingly ducked the issue. You’re not going to win any votes from the ‘something must change’ lobby by highlighting such nonsense, so instead they crunched numbers in a way that would make even Enron blush. Deep breath… it’s going to cost you… ooh… let’s say £250 million to change your voting system. And just when you think someone has finally managed to put a price on democracy you find out a third of that questionable figure includes the cost of holding the referendum itself. Eh? Next thing you know they’ll try suggesting the ‘alternative vote’ benefits the BNP. Oh… Baroness Warsi, how could you? Not only is that dubious, it’s irrelevant.

Did you hear that Yes2AV? Doubtless Baroness Warsi was thinking of Churchill’s comment on AV, how results would be “determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates”; but this doesn’t benefit the party itself, only those whose first preference may have been “worthless” and, in case I haven’t made myself clear, it’s irrelevant! To decide on one voting system over another based on a hypothetical that it may benefit a party of whom you disapprove is hardly a democratic stance. However, the more enthusiastic supporters of the “Yes” campaign must have skipped this rather basic lesson and are currently indulging in their own example of twisted logic; one that can be summarised as “the BNP want you to vote ‘No’, therefore you should vote ‘Yes’”. It is, I’ll grant, tempting; until that is you remember most proponents of AV would rather have proportional representation, a system that would most definitely benefit that obnoxious party. One might think they were prepared to say almost anything; that someone else started it, but presumably they’re going to finish it. Let’s hope not.

Saturday 16 April 2011


Do children understand forgiveness? Whilst capable of bearing a grudge they seem more willing to forget; out of necessity, or perhaps nursing a grievance is a skill to acquire. Once developed, we spend the remainder of our lives learning to forgive. My teachers are not infallible nor my parents invincible, but the greater failure comes much later, and is my own. First we learn to forgive others, and then we must learn to forgive ourselves.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

From one virgin birth to another

Fifteen years later I finished A Prayer for Owen Meany; fifteen years ago it was the last remaining novel. I’d read the others, starting with the big hitters; The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire were followed by four more, with Owen purposely held back, saving the best (by reputation) to last.

John Irving has gone on to write several more since then, he was hardly going to wait for me, and since it’s been so long I’d be hard pressed to say which of his earlier work I thought best. I still have fond memories of The Water Method Man, but in those days my cynicism came from fashion rather than experience. A Prayer for Owen Meany is a great book and I’m ashamed of my earlier lack of understanding, my intolerance toward the narrator John Wheelwright; a character more interesting for the past than the present. I’d thought I was better than that. I’d thought the book would be better if his life in Toronto were excised altogether. I was wrong. Not only does it provide contrast, it is an honest portrayal of a damaged life; and if some parts are more appealing than others - that ought to seem familiar.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Old favourites

I watched a couple of favourites on the weekend in The Godfather and Gattaca. Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia classic of such renown now, it’s difficult to imagine the trouble involved in making the film, from assembling the cast - for example, the studio didn’t want Marlon Brando - or even hiring a director; Coppola wasn’t first choice and was constantly on the verge of being fired. I’ve read that when asked he at first refused for fear of glamorising organised crime, but was won over when he thought of making it a metaphor for capitalism; funny because whilst I’ve never noted the metaphor, I’m aware of the criticism. I’d always assumed this was the reason for a change in tone between it and the sequel which followed a couple of years later; both films end with a settling of scores, but the latter contains no sense of triumphalism.

These two films (a third was made 16 years later) have been treated dreadfully on television. I remember on one occasion they were spliced up (part two contains story lines set before and after the events in part one) and shown in chronological order as a mini-series; worse and somewhat bizarrely, it was dubbed to remove the language that so offends, whilst maintaining the violence. Nowadays I notice the frayed edges; the blood isn’t the colour of blood, and there’s a noticeably phony fight scene between Sonny and his brother-in-law, Carlo; but these are minor details, even if you do see Brando as hamming it up, the story wins through. It’s always the story.

Gattaca suffers from this same nit-picking. Science fiction (if it can be labelled as such) often will; this time I found the the romantic subplot ropey, and the murder more MacGuffin than of any interest. In the past, when asked I would always list three films; Un Coeur en Hiver, The Elephant Man and Gattaca. And despite any faults, Gattaca would remain as its feel, particularly for the future - with an increasing ability to alter our DNA and ever insistent demands for a database - is truer today than when I first saw it all those years ago. I wonder, when it happens, if we’ll still have the self-awareness to realise what we’ve done - and whether it would be better if we didn’t?