Friday, 14 June 2019

Leadership hopefuls


Some of the runners and riders in the Tory Donkey Derby managed some interesting quotes following yesterday’s elimination of the three lowest-placed candidates. 
Rory Stewart, who scraped into seventh place with 19 votes, was pleased with that number, because prior to the voting he only had six declared supporters.  Hold on a moment there – to get onto the ballot at all, he needed a proposer, a seconder and six supporters; if we assume that he voted for himself (although in a rational world there would surely have been at least one of the candidates who pondered the wisdom of doing that), he should have expected a minimum of nine.  Mathematics therefore suggests that he was expecting at least three of those who signed his nomination papers to then vote against him.  It’s a strange world.  And with supporters like David Gauke claiming that Stewart’s seventh place with 19 makes him the main challenger to Boris Johnson on 114, it may yet get stranger.
Matt Hancock (who may or may not still be a candidate by now) said that it was "terrific to have more votes from colleagues than I could have hoped for" after receiving a total of 20.  Bearing in mind that he needed a minimum of 17 under the rules to survive the first round, how many did he actually hope to get?  Perhaps deep down, he was really hoping to get less than 17 and thus be eliminated.  That would, of course, make him the most rational of all the candidates - and therefore the most deserving of removal from the list.  Rationality is the last thing that his party is looking for at present.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Setting tough targets


I wouldn’t normally tend to endorse any of the candidates for the leadership of the Tory party – they all seem pretty dire to me.  I was, though, struck by something that ‘the Saj’ said yesterday in his pitch.  He argued that he was different, an outsider, just like Ruth Davidson was as leader of the Scottish Conservatives, and that under his leadership, his party would seek to emulate her success.
In the last General Election (under Davidson’s leadership), the Tories in Scotland won 22% of the seats with 29% of the vote; in the European elections, they won 17% of the seats with 12% of the vote, and in the last elections to the Scottish parliament, they won 24% of the seats with 22% of the vote.  It strikes me that many of us could fairly happily live with a Conservative Party led by a man for whom such results are defined as 'success' and whose ambition is limited to replicating those results across the UK.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

The universe might not be big enough


Infinity is a difficult concept to explain, but the old saying that given an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of keyboards and an infinite length of time, one of them would end up typing out the complete works of Shakespeare, correctly spelled and in the correct order, is as good an attempt as any.  If the number of possibilities is endless, then all possibilities must occur at least once (although a pedantic mathematician might well argue that in such a scenario, the Shakespeare possibility, like all the others, would itself occur an infinite number of times).  Put in simpler terms, it means that to get a specific outcome from a random process requires a very large number of iterations.
Given that requirement for very large numbers, it is surely no surprise that of the 10 candidates in the Tory leadership contest, none of them has managed to display an anywhere decent hold on reality.  Indeed, 10 being almost infinitesimal when compared with infinity, it’s close to a mathematical certainty that none would be able to do so.  It could be argued that we need to make a few adjustments to the arithmetic, however, to take account of the fact that, contrary to appearances, the leadership election process isn’t entirely random.  The 10 possibilities have been self-selected from a larger pool of around 300 Tory MPs (I think 313 at the time of writing, but who knows by this time next week?).  Mathematically, that’s still a lot closer to infinitesimal than infinite, though, so it doesn’t really change the calculations much.  And there’s no real evidence that the Conservative Party’s selection processes, let alone the electoral system in the UK, positively select for those with a grasp on reality.  Indeed, looking at polls on the views of the party membership, the opposite seems more likely to be true.
The multiverse theory postulates that there are a large number of parallel universes, so it has to be possible that there might just be one universe, somewhere out there, where at least one of the candidates for the leadership understands the world in which (s)he is living.  It doesn’t postulate that the number is infinite, however, so we’re still only dealing with probabilities.  But given that the number isn’t infinite, we can probably safely conclude that there is unlikely to be a universe anywhere in which Boris Johnson is regarded as an honest and realistic politician.  It was Douglas Adams who said that “Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.”  It still might not be big enough to avoid a Boris premiership, though.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

What a strange coincidence - or maybe not


It seems to be a well-established practice that all spending pledges made by the Labour Party must be accompanied by a detailed analysis of where the money will come from, whilst Conservative politicians are allowed to make wild promises as and when they wish, depending presumably on an assumption that the magic money tree only works for Tories.  The media, by and large, play along with this, and the Labour Party make themselves vulnerable by dutifully falling in with the requirement rather than arguing that government finances simply don’t work that way. 
The front leader in the Tory leadership race has duly obliged by promising to reduce taxes for higher earners.  Some of his opponents have criticised him for this pledge, but I wonder if that’s mostly because of regret that they didn’t think of it first.  It’s been made clear that the main beneficiaries of his proposal would be rich pensioners.  By a curious (and I’m sure entirely unrelated) coincidence, the final choice of leader will be made by members of the Conservative Party, a group in which rich pensioners are extraordinarily over-represented.  To be blunt, what did people expect of someone whose only interest is himself?  Trying to win a context in that particular electorate by promising to increasing the living wage shows a remarkable lack of awareness about the concerns of the target audience.  For what may, perhaps, be the first time in his life, Johnson is being brutally honest – he’s identified those who can make the difference to his chances and is deliberately setting out to buy their votes.  What the rest of his opponents – let alone the public at large – think of that is irrelevant to him.

Monday, 10 June 2019

Electoral arithmetic


Last week, the leader of Nigel Farage plc demanded that his ‘party’ be given a role in future negotiations over Brexit, whilst also demanding that the UK leave the EU without conducting any such further negotiations.  His basis for issuing this demand was that his ‘party’ won 40% of the seats in a parliament which has no responsibility for the issue in question after receiving 32% of the vote.  In his mind, this is an overwhelming democratic mandate which should oblige the government to accede, because his ‘party’ stood on a clear platform stating that it should be allowed a seat at the non-existent table where no negotiations would take place, and 32% of the electorate supported that demand.  It slightly overlooks the fact that, whether the other 68% voted for parties supporting different varieties of Brexit or not, they unquestionably did not vote for the only party arguing for that policy.
This is, of course, the same man who argues that in a referendum where 52% voted for Brexit and 48% against, the 48% can be ignored because they lost.  52% beats 48%, but at the same time 32% apparently trumps 68%.  The requirements of democracy (or even majoritarianism which is what we have) only apply to other people. 
There is, though, one part of his little missive with which I half agree, and that’s the bit where he claims that his ‘party’ has the “most recent and winning democratic mandate on Brexit”.  I say ‘half agree’ because 32% of those voting isn’t much of a winning mandate for anything; but in principle, he’s right about the result being the ‘most recent’ indication of feelings about Brexit.  And, perhaps unwittingly, he’s conceded a great deal there, because it’s an admission that a mandate won in one vote only applies up until another mandate is won in another vote, and that the ‘mandate’ can change over time.  I’m not sure that a letter hand-delivered to number 10, which he probably only ever thought of as a stunt giving him another excuse to play the betrayal card, was intended to be quite so revealing about the nature of democracy.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

One rule for us...


As various Tory leadership candidates line up to confess to the usage of controlled and illegal substances in their youth, they are asking us to judge them not on the ‘mistakes’ they made many years ago, but on their record since.  At first sight, this is an entirely reasonable request; I can see no reason why what people did when they were very much younger should be allowed to hold them back for the rest of their lives.  There is more than a slight whiff of hypocrisy here though.
All of them, as far as I’m aware, support the current law and government policy on drugs, under which those who at any point possess or use class A substances – at least three of the current leadership contenders – can be charged, prosecuted, and sentenced to up to 7 years imprisonment.  None of them seems to be proposing any changes to that law.  And for those who get caught using such drugs (often people who are already disadvantaged in other ways) the criminalisation process can and does have a severe effect on their prospects for the future.
It seems to me that those Tories asking us to forgive and forget their ‘youthful mistakes’ are actually asking us to treat them differently from ‘common or garden’ drug users because a) they never got caught, and b) they come from a particular social demographic.  I’d have a lot more respect for their position if their own experience had helped them to see how and why some people get caught up in drug usage and gave them something of an insight into the problems with over-simplistic criminalisation.  Instead, all they seem to have learned is that people from the ‘right’ background who don’t get caught committing a criminal act can and should expect preferential treatment.

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Groundhog Day


In July 2009, the M4 relief road scheme “was pronounced dead”, according to the Western Mail.  The scheme was, according to the then Transport Minister, too expensive, partly as a result of the extra cost of protecting the population of twaite shad.  It turns out, though, that it wasn’t dead but merely sleeping, waiting for another minister, ten years later, to pronounce its death for a second time, because it’s too expensive and would cause too much environmental damage.
The problem with the ‘too expensive’ line in 2009, and again this week, is that costs and benefits can change.  Twice now, ministers – of two different parties – have overplayed the cost argument in order to avoid coming down firmly against the scheme on grounds of policy, especially environmental policy, which in both cases has been seen essentially as a secondary consideration.  As a result, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the reports of its death have, once again, been exaggerated.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Is dishonesty really the same as sophistication?


There is a long and utterly dishonourable tradition in rural Welsh politics where so called ‘Independent’ candidates for local authorities get elected unopposed by any of the formal political parties.  One of the reasons for this is that some of them adopt the practice of telling all of the parties “I’m with you really, but I’m more likely to get elected as an independent”, and have even been known to give small donations to multiple parties as a token of their ‘good faith’.  I even recall one who told us that he’d be standing as a Plaid candidate next time round so we didn’t need to oppose him, but he didn’t want to announce it until after nominations closed so that none of the other parties could oppose him.  It’s probably needless to say that after nominations closed and it was too late to find another candidate, it emerged that he was standing as an ‘independent’, yet again.
It’s a practice which was brought to mind by the ‘news’ from the Conservative Party leadership contest that Boris Johnson has developed an almost unassailable lead amongst MPs with 80 now allegedly supporting him.  The Conservative Party likes to regard its MPs as being “the most sophisticated electorate in the world”, but this is actually a euphemism for “the biggest bunch of liars”.  Given that the eventual vote is held by secret ballot, it is perfectly possible – and apparently entirely normal – for MPs to pledge their vote privately to more than one candidate, in the hope that if they are believed to have been on the winning side, they may gain some preferment when ‘their’ candidate has been elected.
What that means, in practice, is that Johnson and his team haven’t a clue how many are actually going to vote for him, and nor do any of the other candidates.  The ‘news’ that he is far in the lead is no more than propaganda parading as fact in a dark and devious attempt to give the impression that his ascent is unstoppable.  There are two things that I don’t understand, though.  The first is why any news media – all of which know what a bunch of liars they’re dealing with – should choose to present this as ‘news’.  The second is why any of those resorting to such propaganda – who are even more aware than the media of the level of dishonesty amongst their colleagues – would think it stands any chance of working.

Monday, 3 June 2019

Tails, dogs, and androids


It’s probably my fault for having watched too many episodes of Dr Who over the years, but every time I see a picture of the Saj, I wonder how we got to a position where we have a Sontaran as Home Secretary.  I’m not the first to ponder the question.  It isn’t just his appearance; as I recall the Sontarans, they also had a rather loose grip on logic – I can well imagine one of them supporting rules on immigration which would have barred his own father from entry and therefore prevented himself from getting into his current position.
In the increasingly bizarre contest to replace the Maybot with a downgraded new improved model, he is seen, apparently, as one of the front runners in a race which is attracting new entrants daily.  He isn’t the only one, however, for whom possession of operational logic circuits is seen as an unnecessary extra.  The Leadsom seems to believe that what is generally referred to as a ‘no-deal’ Brexit is actually a type of Brexit based on “making an offer to the EU for things that were already agreed in the withdrawal agreement” – which sounds like the current withdrawal deal minus the bits she doesn’t like.  Meanwhile, the Johnson (along with several models which appear to be cheaper copies), is arguing that threatening to breach treaty obligations unilaterally will somehow encourage other countries to trust the UK.  In any rational universe, the support of the Trump would be the kiss of death rather than providing a boost, although to be fair, in such a universe the Trump wouldn’t be in a position where its views mattered.
There is one thing, though, that the Saj might just have got right – the tail is indeed wagging the dog.  It’s just that he’s identified the wrong tail by pointing at Ireland.  The real tail in this case is the Conservative and Unionist Party, an organisation which is apparently dedicated to making itself as obsolete and irrelevant as its current leader.  The dog, sadly, is the rest of us, the intended victims of whichever defective model manages to impose its dominance on the rest of the tail.  Where is the Doctor when we need to create a time loop in which to deposit all the non-functioning androids?

Friday, 31 May 2019

Co-operation is about more than simple arithmetic


It was inevitable after the results of the European parliament elections became clear that there would be calls for ‘Remain’ parties to work together to ensure a remain majority after the Westminster election - which is surely now an unavoidable result of the Tory leadership election, even if the timing is uncertain.  After all, the pro-Brexit side managed to offer a single clear choice, and they only ‘won’ because the Remain side failed to do the same.  There are, though, many problems with any such proposal, even allowing for the fact that ‘working together’ is a vague enough phrase to offer multiple possible interpretations.
There are two important – and almost certainly invalid – assumptions underlying such calls.  The first is that a sufficient number of electors will see the Brexit issue as the defining issue of this particular election, and the second is that they will follow the advice of the leaders of ‘their’ party of choice, and vote for the suggested alternative.  The first is certainly true for political commentators – including this blog – but I’m not aware of any hard evidence of its truth for the electorate as a whole.  Many will be voting on all sorts of other issues.  And the second is based on an over-simplistic mathematical analysis of votes coupled with a degree of arrogance in believing that the parties can tell 'their' voters to vote for someone else and be obeyed.  I would find it very hard indeed, even given the importance of Brexit, to cast my vote for any party likely to support the renewal of Trident, or which is utterly opposed to autonomy for Wales, to give just two examples – and many others will have their own red lines.
It’s true, of course, that the Leave side had the advantage in last week’s election of having a single clear option open to supporters, but we should remember that that came about not because of any discussions or agreements between the parties, but because two pro-Brexit parties (UKIP and the Tories) managed to press their self-destruct buttons and implode.  That isn’t going to happen for the Remain parties, with the possible exception of Change UK.  That means that any arrangement depends on the Lib Dems, Plaid, the SNP and the Green Party (and potentially Labour as well if they ever manage to get their act together) coming to an arrangement where they all agree to stand aside in some seats in favour of each other’s candidates.  I put the chances of that happening at approximately zero.
Whilst arrangements between Plaid, SNP and the Green Party look to be achievable, if difficult, in Scotland and Wales, there seems little chance that the resurgent Lib Dems will stand aside in any of their increasingly lengthy list of target seats, and no chance at all of the Labour Party doing the same.  For all their talk of coming together to prevent a hard (or indeed any) Brexit, both of those parties will be looking at the election as their chance to improve their own positions, and ultimately that is a bigger prize than the single issue of Brexit.  And I suspect that politicians calling for an ’arrangement’ fully understand the reality, and that such calls are themselves more to do with trying to position their own parties as the adults in the room than with any real hope of action.
The problem we face is with an electoral system which allows people a range of choice, but then awards the spoils on a wholly unjust basis, meaning that a party gaining only around 30-35% of the vote can end up with a huge majority of seats.  Trying to game the system by treating voters as pawns to be traded on the basis of a mathematical analysis of votes cast doesn’t address that problem.