Republican Primaries

January 9, 2012

It’s interesting watching the primaries from across the pond. To me and almost everyone else in the UK, it’s like a freakshow of Republican loonies who, thankfully, wouldn’t stand a chance of winning an election here, at least not without pretending to be less ridiculously right wing than they are. There are a number of interesting things about elections in such a huge country. I think I quite like the idea of a caucus like they had in Iowa last week, although it’s not really clear to me what happens with the results of all these votes. They only give one preference so it’s not amazingly democratic, but with a few changes and some clarification it could be good.

The other thing which interests me about American politics is the way in which so many people have been duped into voting for a party which doesn’t have their best interests at heart. Here we are in a recession caused by a lack of regulation and a small state, so that banks can screw people over and not get punished, and people have been convinced that regulation is their enemy and that cutting public spending even further (except for the military of course) is the best way to cut the deficit and get out of the recession. I really don’t understand how people can think that.

And don’t even get me started on campaign finance! Here are these millionnaires with their millionnaire friends running campaigns which cost millions to run, and getting campaign donations from huge corporations who obviously want a return for their money, and political analysts in the press and on TV saying that certain candidates will have to drop out because they don’t have enough money, and not seeming to realise that this is a problem! What happened to the votes counting, not the money?

And now we have this new 20 minute advert attacking Mitt Romney, a thoroughly unpleasant person who, remarkably, is probably one of the more moderate candidates of the pack, which will cost $3.5m to air in South Carolina. Here’s the trailer (yes, a trailer for an advert):

Newt Gingrich in particular has been constantly attacking Romney, questioning his conservative credentials, and saying that his measures aren’t radical enough (which seems like a contradiction to me), and this ad seems to be along those lines. But some of the lines from this film are pure gold:

Capitalism made American great. Free markets, innovation, hard work, the building blocks of the American Dream. But in the wrong hands, those dreams can become nightmares. Wall Street’s corporate raiders made billions of dollars. Private equity leaders getting rich at the expense of American workers!

Mitt Romney became CEO of Bain Capital the day the company was formed. His mission was to reap massive rewards for himself and his investors.

Well, yeah!? That’s what CEO’s are supposed to do, that’s what capitalism is! In fact companies are legally obliged to try and give the biggest returns possible to their shareholders. What, did you expect the CEO to worry about workers’ rights?  How very un-capitalist of you! Did you expect him to carry on operating these companies when they stopped making a profit? Well that would seem to go against the doctrine of the free market, wouldn’t it? In fact it sounds like you wanted the workers to have some kind of control of the company, so the profits didn’t just go to the ‘greedy investors’ and the companies didn’t close leaving people without employment. It sounds a lot to me like whoever made this video wants to take control of the means of the production. Romney is obviously far too capitalist for them, I wonder what they’ll make of the other candidates. [/facetiousness]

It’s almost as if the thought process goes like this:

1. Free market capitalism leads to happiness.
2. Romney’s actions at Bain Capital did not lead to happiness.
3. Therefore Romney did not act as a free market capitalist.

And that’s just how the Tea Party became so popular. Because idiots don’t know what’s good for them. Anyway, I just wanted a rant.

The should vote for this guy instead, at least he seems to know what’s going on:


Is privatisation inherently wrong?

July 28, 2011

Hell yes.

Last night I was at a very well-attended community meeting at Meadowbank Stadium, where local councillors were invited to explain what’s happening around the plans to privatise £1bn worth of public services at Edinburgh City Council. I say well-attended, but I mean well-attended by the public, not by the councillors. All the back-office functions like HR, revenue and benefits, council buildings maintenance, cleaners etc are all involved in these plans, along with environmental services including bin collections and looking after Edinburgh’s award-winning parks. That’s an awful lot.

If you haven’t heard anything about these plans then you’re not the only one. There has been little to no effective consultation of the public, and even Gary Peacock, the Liberal Democrat backbench councillor who attended the meeting, didn’t seem to know anything about the details of the plans. Indeed although the Labour group and the Green group have consistently voted against the privatisation of services, really the only people that have been keeping track of the developments and holding the council leaders accountable for these plans have been the trades unions. It’s not the councillors who are standing up for the interests of the people; that duty has fallen to trades union organisations like Unison and PCS, who I’d urge you to support. The SNP, despite being one of the larger groups on the Council, couldn’t find anyone to attend this meeting, or the last one on the same topic about a month ago.

Anywho over the past week I’ve been asked several times what’s so bad about privatisation, so I thought I’d put a post together on the topic. I took a quick look at it a couple of months ago but it’s worth revisiting. Let’s have a list:

1) The efficient private-sector is a myth. There are only a small number of ways in which private companies can run a public service more efficiently. Let’s have another list:

  • Reduce the quality of the service
  • Sack people
  • Pay their employees less
  • Hire less qualified staff
  • Reduce working terms and conditions

If the private company is being more efficient in other ways (so let’s say they change supplier and buy a necessary product at a lower price), then those options are also open to the government in-house, and the privatisation isn’t necessary. What privatisation essentially does is pass the service onto a company where the trades union representation isn’t as good, so they can treat their staff worse than they could get away with if they did it in-house. I don’t think that’s what the people want.

I’ve said it a million times before, but there are 2 types of efficiency. The one that private companies are concerned with is money earned vs money spent, whereas the one that government should be concerned with is money spent vs quality of the service. There is a real danger when you privatise services that you get a race to the bottom, where companies are willing to compromise on the quality of a service in order to slip through the cracks in procurement processes that aren’t tight enough, and thus get awarded public contracts.

Remember too that a large proportion of the money the government pays will go straight into the pockets of shareholders rather than towards paying for the service. That’s another huge layer of inefficiency which doesn’t seem to get recognised often enough.

2) It takes control of public services away from your representatives. Now if you’re not happy with a public service, you can go to your councillor and tell them, and because it’s carried out by the council, they can try to change the service. Once the service is privatised, you go to your councillor and complain about it, and they’ll send you to go and talk to a private company, and they’ll more than likely tell you to sod off, because they’re carrying out the service as it was defined in their contract, and as long as they’re doing that they’ll get paid, so they don’t give a monkeys if you’re happy with it or not. Privatisation takes the control of resources away from democratic structures. So does capitalism by the way, but there you go. The heads of the IMF and WTO aren’t elected. There’s a very specific part of this which I think deserves its own point.

3) Contracts limit democratic control over a service. Due to European tendering law, once the specification for a contract has been written, whichever company can fulfil that specification for the lowest price has to be chosen. Whilst on paper this is a good idea because it helps to prevent government corruption, in practice it is terribly limiting, and companies can often sneak through the gaps in the specification if they’re not written tightly enough, as they often aren’t. That’s why the University of Edinburgh banks with RBS, because its ethical investment policy didn’t form part of the specification when it went out to tender, and so it was legally obliged to choose RBS, to the dismay of many of its students.

It’s also not unheard of at all for private companies to stick to the exact letter of their contractual agreements, even when a higher level of service would clearly be overwhelmingly in the public interest. So as a hypothetical example whereas a school caretaker working for the council would clear the whole playground of snow, a private company might choose to just clear a path from the gate to the front door in order to stay within its contractual obligations whilst saving money. Any subsequent changes to the contract are met with huge charges.

4) There’s no guarantee that the terms of the contract can be met. As we saw with the trams fiasco, a company can claim to be able to complete a project with a certain amount of money, but then realise that they can’t do that. The council is then left with a choice, either they can give more money to this company to finish the job, or they can have a half-finished job that’s no use to the public, but which has cost the public lots of money. The threat of bankruptcy, which according to capitalist theory keeps standards high, is completely useless in this situation because it’s not just the company that loses out, it’s the people. In the case of the privatisation plans in Edinburgh, the City Council estimates it can save £90m, but what is the guarantee that they’ll be able to do so? And if the company runs out of money, where are they going to turn to to get more?

5) Private companies with dodgy records can be given contracts. Even just in these privatisation plans in Edinburgh, companies have slipped through the net and been allowed to continue in the procurement process, even though they’ve been found guilty of negligence causing workplace deaths, even though they’ve taken part in price-fixing. These companies don’t care about the welfare of their staff or the public, they care about money.

6) It’s a reactionary redistribution of wealth towards the rich. Public services primarily benefit working and middle class people because they’re the people that rely on them the most, and they’re the people that benefit from the jobs that are created by the provision of that service. Privatising that service not only risks its quality, but it also means that a big chunk of public money is taken from the pockets of the people and placed straight into the bank accounts of the rich shareholders in that company. On a small scale that’s not especially objectionable, but when privatisation is as hegemonic as it has been in the UK since the dawn of New Labour, it represents a systematic redistribution of wealth to the top.

7) Corruption becomes very real. When representatives are involved in the awarding of contracts for millions of pounds, corruption suddenly becomes a very real prospect. Not so long ago in the US we saw private prison contractors paying judges to send more kids to juvenile detention so that they’d make more money. This is the kind of thing that becomes a possibility when you start putting profit before the provision of service.

8. Privatisation is often a 1-way street. If and when it becomes obvious that a service would be better run in-house by the government, setting it up as a public service again can become impossible, because you’ve got to hire a tonne of staff, set up all the infrastructure all over again, and the cost of doing that is so prohibitive that you have to stay with the privatised arrangements, even if it’s a bad deal for the public, and the whole time you’ve got a private company that’s going to make the process of renationalisation as difficult as possible, because it’s in their financial interest to do so.

There are some situations where using private companies is understandable and possibly even beneficial. Situations where there’s a one-off job that needs doing, that requires special expertise that the council doesn’t have, and where it’s not practical to do it in-house. I’d argue that there are other ways to do those jobs, such as using central government resources and sharing them between councils. But even if you accept that premise, in this case we’re talking about privatisation of services which are already run perfectly well in-house. It’s not an extra burden that the council’s not able to deal with.

And there are plenty of examples of privatised services gone wrong. The trams in Edinburgh, BT in Liverpool, the Southern Cross nursing homes, the Elsie Inglis nursing home in Edinburgh, and the national rail service are just off the top of my head. The NHS is one of the most efficient health systems in the world (pdf)*, and is ranked #2 overall, and yet the government still wants to privatise huge swathes of it. It is ideological, not in the best interests of the public.

* I originally wrote “the most efficient health service in the world”, but that was based on 7 data points which isn’t exactly fair (HT Ian). It’s difficult to know for sure because I can’t find any papers on it, but the NHS comes 9th overall according to the WHO in 2000, and I think we spend less per capita on healthcare than all of the countries ranking higher, except for Japan. That would indicate to me that we’re probably 2nd to Japan in terms of efficiency. But the point remains, as the services near the top like Norway and Sweden, which spend a fairly comparable amount on healthcare, are almost entirely nationalised systems, and others that aren’t nationalised are very heavily regulated. Switzerland is also at the top, but it spends almost double what the UK does on healthcare.


A look at RUK fees

July 20, 2011

I think I’m gonna have to change the title of this blog. More and more I’m just talking about lefty stuff. I had a quiet afternoon yesterday so I wrote a bit of a ranty response to the Scottish Government’s proposals to raise fees for RUK students. This is it:

On 29th June 2011, Michael Russell, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, made an announcement in Parliament on the future of Higher Education in Scotland. Following that announcement, a consultation document was issued containing more detailed information, and asking for responses until the 2nd September. Anyone can respond to the consultation so feel free to print one off and send it in. The proposal at the moment is to raise the cap on fees for students from the Rest of UK (RUK) so that universities can set their own fees, up to a limit of £9,000 per year.

Russell begins his statement by claiming that Scotland will not follow England by putting an unmanageable debt burden on its graduates, and yet, for around 15% of its graduates, under these plans Scotland will become by far the most expensive place in Europe to study for a degree. He says, and I agree, that “the Scottish election established a clear consensus that tuition fees – upfront or back door – are not the right solution”. It was widely suspected during the NUS Reclaim Your Voice campaign that the Scottish Government, whoever won the election, would have to raise fees for English students, but no one was speaking about £9,000 fees. The figures that both Scottish Labour and the SNP were talking about were around £6,500, and I accepted that, albeit uncomfortably. Whilst higher education should be free and funded through a more progressive system of raised income tax, without tax-raising powers the Scottish Government would have to take money from other public services in order to fund university places that should rightly be funded by Westminster.

In both his statement to Parliament, and the consultation document, Mr Russell claims that the main purpose of this proposal is to maintain the current levels of cross-border flow of students, thereby protecting university places for Scottish domiciled students. That is clearly not the case. If Russell’s main objective were to keep that flow at the same level, then he would have looked at the situation from the students’ perspective, and realised that with a typical 4-year Scottish degree, these proposals will make it much more expensive to come to a Scottish university than to study in England. Even before taking into account an extra year of maintenance loans, a degree in Scotland will cost £36,000, as opposed to £27,000 in England. That contrasts with the action taken in 2006, which kept RUK fees in Scotland lower than fees in England, even taking the 4-year degree into account. Far from merely protecting places for Scottish students, these proposals will reduce the number of RUK students coming to Scotland through aversion to debt, and I don’t think that’s what was established as the consensus of the election. Clearly Mr Russell’s work behind the scenes with Universities Scotland has given him an institutional view which doesn’t reflect the reality of decisions that students make when applying to university.

Perhaps most worrying about this statement and accompanying document is Mr Russell’s feigned naivety about the level of fees that Scottish universities will charge RUK students. He hopes that the average fee in Scotland would be lower than in England, around £6375 per year. This number is based on pure speculation, and we’ve seen the effects of such wishful thinking south of the border, where students were told that £9,000 fees would be the exception rather than the rule. That was false in England and it’ll turn out to be false here too. The universities where the majority of RUK students go (Edinburgh,Glasgow,St Andrews, etc) see themselves as world-class institutions, and so will charge world-class fees if they’re given the opportunity. If Mr Russell is happy with the £62m that a £6375 average fee will raise, then why not set the fee level there rather than allowing Scottish universities to take more money from students’ pockets?

Another worrying aspect of these plans is that allowing variable fees will create a market in education and introduce free market forces to the Scottish higher education sector. This is an undesirable aspect of the change south of the border which the Scottish Government should reject on principle, given that it will force some students to choose their university based not on their own ability, nor on the suitability of the course, but on the amount of debt that they will be forced to accrue over the course of their studies. Mr Russell appears to have been turning a blind eye to the fee level announcements at English universities, and assumes that increased competition will drive fee levels down, when in fact as we’ve seen it has only driven them up.

Interestingly these announcements are characterised as much by what is not present as by what is. There is no mention whatsoever of the effect the new undergraduate fee levels are likely to have on postgraduate fees and international fees. These are unregulated markets, and it seems unlikely that universities will continue to charge £5,000 per year for a postgraduate taught programme whilst undergraduates pay £9,000. That will yet further restrict access to postgraduate education to those who can afford to pay large amounts of money up front.

There is also no acknowledgement of the fact that it appears Scottish students travelling to England to study will be charged up to the full £9,000 per year maximum, forcing students to choose between what may be the most suitable course for them and a large amount of debt. These plans not only fail a significant proportion of graduates in Scotland, but they will also fail those Scottish students who choose to travel to England.

Perhaps the only silver lining to this announcement is the fact that extra revenue from the increased fees will be divided across the whole sector rather than going straight to the universities who take more RUK students, and I welcome the fact that NUS Scotland will have input into those decisions. Whilst this may be less beneficial for institutions such as the University of Edinburgh, it also means that there is much less incentive for an institution to take an RUK student in place of a Scottish student, and it will prevent the gap widening between the ‘usual suspects’ and other higher education institutions. There are, however, implications for the assumption that universities will charge only £6375. If the increase in fees will replace the current teaching grant, then that fee level will only cover £4,555 of a gap left by a grant ranging from £6,000 to £15,000, depending on subject area. The rest, presumably, will come out of the centralised funds from the current teaching grants, but given the uncertainty around how much each institution will receive from that central pot, institutions will be unwilling to risk receiving less funding for those places than before, and so they’ll charge the maximum amount they can.

The proposed changes will create a precedent for a system whereby the Scottish higher education sector will be funded based on free market forces rather than on need. The Parliamentary statement is in my opinion either deliberately misleading in claiming that the fees will maintain the current level of cross-border study, or deliberately naïve in claiming that universities will charge only £6375, and I think Mr Russell should be ashamed of it. A much better policy would be to put fees at a set level around the £6375 mark, make up the rest of the current teaching grant from central funding, and then divide any leftover funds across the whole sector, using some of it to support Scottish students who travel to England to study. That would prevent Scotland from becoming the most expensive country in Europe to get a degree for a large number of its students, it would help to prevent free market forces coming into the Scottish sector, it would maintain current levels of cross-border study, and by Mr Russell’s own arithmetic it will raise an extra £62m for the sector. Whilst it will mean that in Mr Russell’s terms the policy is not ‘future proof’, in any case the cap in England has been set at £9,000, so it should never be necessary to raise fees above £6,750 in order to save Scottish places. Regardless, I hardly think that administrative ease should be the basis of a policy which costs students so much.


‘Progressives’ on the proverbial pole.

June 11, 2011

Just a quick note on this story I saw in The Independent’s sister paper i yesterday. The linked version is a little bit different to the one I saw but it’s the same gist. Tony Blair is basically warning Ed Miliband away from moving Labour to the left of politics.

Tony Blair has warned Ed Miliband not to allow Labour to drift to the left under his leadership and declared that the party must continue to modernise in order to regain power.

Admitting there was “a risk” of Labour turning back to left-wing policies, he said: “There is a pattern that the Labour Party and indeed other progressive parties follow – they lose an election then they go off to the left, but I meet a lot of the younger Labour people now and that gives you great cause for optimism about the future.”

He says the left is old fashioned and that the party must continue to modernise. So the right is modern? I don’t know about that. And he implies too that young Labour activists tend towards the right of the party, but that’s not what I’ve seen from my experience at all.

Notice, too, the cynical ideology of New Labour: don’t do what you think is right, do what you think the voters will like. Don’t try to persuade the public about what you think the country should do, just move along with public opinion, wherever that takes you. In my opinion progressive parties have done far too much of that already, it’s why we have someone who describes himself as progressive saying that the 50p tax rate will disincentivise people to work. It’s why whilst Damian Green is pandering to the racist right by sending immigrants home - even those who, bucking the xenophobic stereotype, work and contribute to the economy – and Gordon Brown is apologising for calling a bigot a bigot, the only acceptable public discourse about immigration is on how best to reduce it.

In his book, Mr Blair argues that traditional left-right boundaries are breaking down and that to be successful, today’s politicians need to “rise above partisan politics”.

Blair’s philosophy seems to be that the left shouldn’t have progressive policies if they don’t think they’ll get them elected, but why would a progressive want to get elected if once they’re there they don’t implement progressive policies? It’s this cynical pole-climbing and contempt for the electorate that turns people off from politics, not ideology.


More on Catholic abuse and Bill Donohue

May 23, 2011

I’m an avid viewer of an online American news show called The Young Turks. I don’t always agree with it, but it’s much better than the mainstream news and particularly on things like corporate lobbyists and tax avoidance, they’re usually bang on the money. Today I saw this video of theirs from last week in which the regular hosts Cenk and Ana comment on a new study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice:

I think that that commentary is completely unfair. First of all Cenk says that “there’s never been a dumber study in the history of mankind” and then criticises it based on the conclusion. That’s not the way this works. If you have a problem with a study you criticise it based on the method, or you look at the data and see that the conclusion isn’t supported, you don’t just say it must be wrong because it might be counter-intuitive.

Perhaps more importantly, the conclusions of the study that Cenk cites aren’t really the focus of the report. All I’ve read is the press release and the conclusion section of the full report (pg 118 onwards), which I don’t think is a huge amount to expect from someone doing a commentary on the content of a report, and the impression I was given is completely different to what they’re saying in the video. It’s as if they’ve formed their opinions from mainstream news outlets, which I wouldn’t expect from them. The main conclusion of the report is that there’s no single factor that could explain or predict abuse in the clergy, or in other words, that a lot of different things contributed to the high level of abuse.

The report does not say that the 60′s being a more “socially permissive time, and… Woodstock and all that” was the main reason for the abuse. What one of the authors of the report does say is that “the increased frequency of abuse in the 1960s and 1970s was consistent with the patterns of increased deviance of society during that time.” Now if Cenk doesn’t believe the level of abuse in society went up in the 60′s and 70′s (and I’ve no idea if it did or it didn’t), then that’s a valid basis for criticising the report, but don’t just exaggerate the claim that’s been made, that was just one of many factors.

Ana gets it right when she says that the report found that homosexuality and celibacy had no significant effect on the likelihood of abuse, but then turns that on its head (as if she thought they would) by dismissively saying the report blames it on the lack of “seminary training and emotional support to prevent them doing what they did”. It’s sort of true, the report says that a particular part of seminary training called ‘Human Formation’ was quite important, but it wasn’t just telling the priest not to rape children, as Cenk later implies. Basically what The Young Turks does here is pull out a couple of things that the report names as factors, and act as if the study is blaming the abuse on those factors, when actually the main conclusion is that no one factor can be identified as the cause.

But enough about the video, what about this conclusion that homosexuality wasn’t a factor in whether a priest abused or not? Given Bill Donohue’s tendency to blame the gays on every occasion when talking about this, will he stop making that claim now that he’s seen this report?

Of course not, it’s Bill Donohue.

Bill grandly states that “a homosexual is defined by his actions, not his identity”, and that therefore when the report says that tendency to abuse didn’t correlate with identity as a homosexual, they were missing the point. Obviously the abusers must be gay because they abused post-pubescent boys. Except that that is not what the report said. It concluded (emphasis mine):

Sexual behavior before ordination predicted sexual behavior after ordination; however, such conduct only predicted subsequent sexual interaction with other adults, not with minors. The clinical data do not support the hypothesis that priests with a homosexual identity or those who committed same-sex sexual behavior with adults are significantly more likely to sexually abuse children than those with a heterosexual orientation or behavior. (p119)

So even if homosexuals are defined by their actions rather than their identity, homosexuality still doesn’t correlate. The report did name some other factors that did have an effect (emphasis mine):

Individual characteristics do not predict that a priest will commit sexual abuse of a minor. Rather, vulnerabilities, in combination with situational stresses and opportunities, raise the risk of abuse. Like non-priest abusers, the majority of priests who sexually abused minors appear to have had certain vulnerabilities to commit abuse (for example, emotional congruence with children or adolescents), experienced increased stressors from work (for example, having recently received more responsibilities, such as becoming a pastor), and had opportunities to abuse (for example, unguarded access to minors).

But rather than focus on those, Donohue decides to blame teh gayz. Maybe he should take a look at these factors, particularly the opportunity to abuse. Maybe his oft-cited fact that most of the victims were post-pubescent males has less to do with priests being homosexual, and more to do with the fact that priests have more access to post-pubescent males, since altar-servers tend to be post-pubescent, as do children in boarding schools. Maybe his flagrant homophobia is clouding his judgement. Just maybe.


Ken Clarke and rape sentencing

May 18, 2011

Ken Clarke, the UK Justice Minister, has given several interviews today, in the first of which he appeared to downplay the seriousness of rape. Here’s a full transcript.

Recently I’ve been lamenting not writing enough on feminist issues (there are only so many times you can say “yeah, the patriarchy’s shit”), and this is quite a good opportunity. Unfortunately I find myself, to a small extent, having to defend Ken Clarke. A lot of the coverage and criticism so far has concentrated on the fact that he said date rape wasn’t as serious as ‘proper rape’ or ‘classic rape’ as he apparently later went on to describe it on Sky News. But actually, I don’t think he said that at all, and there’s certainly a compelling case that some of his more vocal critics are fully aware of that fact. I would argue that his comments are bad enough in the first place that there’s no need to overplay it.

So for example, I’ve just watched BBC News at 10, and they played this part of the interview:

Derbyshire: So is date rape not as serious?

Clarke: Date rape can be as serious as the worst rapes. But date rapes, as you are quite right to say very old experience, of being in trials, they do vary extraordinarily one from another and in the end the judge has to decide on the circumstances.

which gives the impression that he’s saying date rape isn’t serious. That would be an absolutely shocking thing to say, not least because I’m pretty sure that’s the most common form of rape. But actually this earlier part of the interview is very important:

Derbyshire: Under your plans that woman could find… that woman could find the rapist back on her street in a year and a bit. It’s an insult to her isn’t it?

Clarke: The rapist is going to be….very light sentence for a…a year and a bit?

Derbyshire: Yes. A rapist gets five years.

Clarke: Rapists don’t get… rapists get more than that.

Derbyshire: Hang on a minute. Five years on average, yes they do Mr Clarke, yes they do.

Clarke: That includes date rape, 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15-year-olds.

which makes clear that when he’s talking about ‘date rape’, he actually means statutory rape. Now I don’t think it’s a hugely controversial thing to say that when an under-16 has willing sex, that’s not as serious as what most people would colloquially refer to as rape, but that’s the comment that was twisted and used against him. That’s a bit unfair.

But he’s not getting off this altogether. There are lots of other things wrong with what he said, and I’m not particularly familiar with the way statutory rape is classified so I’m sure there are other things wrong with it that I won’t have picked up on. But there are lots of people, and I’m ashamed to say it’s mostly men, and amongst my friends it’s the usual suspects, who seem to think that all he’s said is that there’s a difference between a young couple having sex when one of them’s underage, and a rapist hiding behind a bush, and that therefore his comments were fine. That’s not true.

Fairly superficially, it is eye-opening, to say the least, to discover that our Justice Secretary apparently isn’t familiar with the difference between date rape and statutory rape, to the extent that he doesn’t correct himself despite using the term ‘date rape’ several times. As I say, when he’d had that mistake pointed out to him later in the day, he went on Sky News and talked about ‘proper rape’ and ‘classic rape’. That is mindnumbingly stupid, it’s like he’s begging for the media to rip into him.

He also fumbled considerably when he was confronted with the sentencing guidelines for rape which say the minimum sentence is 5 years (page 25), and the sentencing range is 4-8 years. He then repeated again what he had said earlier about ’18 year old boyfriends’ which isn’t at all what the interviewer was talking about. That indicates to me that our Justice Secretary also isn’t familiar with the sentencing for rape.

And that’s not to mention that, when confronted with the short sentences actually given for rape – the figure of the 5 year average sentence which Victoria Derbyshire says comes from the Council of Circuit Judges – I couldn’t tell you if it’s accurate, but when confronted with that figure, Clarke’s first instinct is to downplay the seriousness of the offence that it refers to by saying that it also includes the 18 year old boyfriends that he keeps going on about. That is indefensible, for several reasons. It’s not even true for a start, because it’s unusual for a case like that to result in a prosecution, so it doesn’t have a significant skewing effect on the figures. Additionally those cases of statutory rape which do get to court quite often involve other factors like coercion and peer pressure, for example, so they’re still serious crimes. Just because it’s statutory rape doesn’t mean it’s not serious.

In all this criticism of his comments, there has been one part that’s been largely skipped over. In his comments on Sky, he said:

“Newspapers are using rape to add some sexual excitement”.

Are you fucking kidding me?! Again even on a superficial level, what kind of a moron uses the phrase ‘sexual excitement’ and ‘rape’ in the same sentence? That is so insensitive! He could have said so many other things, he could have said that the newspapers were using rape to make the story more emotive, or to distract from the fact that this sentence reduction plan affects all crimes, or countless other things that would have been less offensive that what he said.

In addition to that, he completely misses the point of the criticism that’s been made, and this criticism actually deals with the policy itself rather than just his comments. The people focussing on rape aren’t doing so as a way to get press headlines. The objection is that in his plan to halve sentences for a guilty plea, an exception should be made for rape because the sentence for rape is already so pitifully low.

Now I actually hope that Ken Clarke isn’t fired, because if he were then I’m afraid we’d get someone worse. Clarke doesn’t believe in just banging people up, he takes an approach to law and order that’s refreshing to see from the Tories, he’s very vocally opposed to the war in Iraq, and of course he’s pro-Europe, which means he’s a counterforce to the xenophobes in the government. Ultimately, however, a justice minister should know that when you’re in an interview and the subject of rape comes up, your first concern should be encouraging victims to come forward and getting the conviction rate up. Today’s comments will only do the opposite.


Electoral Reform 2

May 1, 2011

So having covered a daft flyer from the No campaign, I’ve since been given a flyer from the Yes campaign, and it’s also terrible. It’s a shame because it’s such an easy argument to win, and the Yes campaign have failed spectacularly put across their argument. There are a number of dodgy claims on the flyer, some of which I’ll address in turn:

“A ‘No’ vote in May tells the politicians we’re happy with business as usual – expenses scandal and all.”

Not particularly. The expenses scandal has nothing to do with the electoral system at all (AV wouldn’t prevent it so if you’re voting for it for that reason you’re a bit of an idiot) and it’s clear regardless of which way the referendum goes that people were pretty pissed off about MP’s claiming for a moat around their house and things like that.

The flyer then goes through its 3 reasons to vote yes:

1) It will make all MP’s work harder for support because they have to get 50% of the vote.

Not really. It’s not as if come election season candidates are just throwing votes away by lazing around because they think they only need 30% of the vote – they take as many votes as they can get. What it may mean is that they will have to appeal to a wider section of the electorate and try to get another party’s second votes, but that’s not necessarily a good thing, if it means that candidates stick to the middle ground and refuse to be controversial, and to a certain extent they do that now anyway to get as many voters as possible. We’ll have to see how that pans out.

2) It will make your vote count.

“AV lets you show your support for any candidates you think are up to the job. So if your favourite candidate doesn’t win you can still have a say.”

This is correct but they’ve phrased it in such a ham-fisted way that it plays straight into the No campaigns hands in saying that it’s unfair and that it gives the supporters of unpopular parties an extra vote. They should have stayed well away from the individualistic point of view (after all, it won’t make any one person’s vote count any more than anyone else’s, unless those people don’t give a second preference) and instead explained that whichever candidate is elected will represent the spectrum of opinion much better than under the current system. That is one of the strongest arguments in favour, and instead the Yes campaign patronises the voter and says it’ll ‘make their vote count’, whatever that means.

3) It’ll tackle the ‘Jobs for Life’ culture – “it makes safe seats less safe.”

That might be true but not in any significant way. The safety of a seat depends not on how much of the vote they have to get, but on how likely voters are to change their voting behaviour, so actually it might not do anything of the sort, it just adds another complication to predicting results, more than actually making a seat less safe. But this is kind of a repetition of number 1, surely? Could they not think of another argument? How disappointing!

AV’s not a particularly great electoral system but there are 2 good arguments in favour of it. As I’ve already said, it’ll mean that the elected representative of a constituency represents the opinions of their constituency better than under the current system. It’ll also mean that noone is forced to vote tactically as they are now. I will be able to vote for the party I like rather than voting to keep the party I dislike out. That’s not to say it’ll get rid of tactical voting altogether, as in some situations a party with a particularly good campaign team can knock out their closest rival in the first round, but it’ll be a great improvement on First Past the Post.

And these points aren’t difficult to make! I already showed in my last post the cartoon about tactical voting, but there are also good visual illustrations of my first argument, two of which are below. I find it particularly offensive when the Yes campaign assumes the electorate is too stupid to have it explained to them in any way other than appealing to simplistic populist arguments involving the expenses scandal, because if they think the electorate’s too stupid to understand AV then that’s one good argument against bringing it in! It’s almost as if they don’t want to win.


Electoral Reform

April 21, 2011

I got a leaflet through my door the other day from the No to AV people. For background, the Liberal Democrats wanted electoral reform, and the Tories didn’t, and as a compromise in the coalition agreement, they decided to have a referendum on the Alternative Vote system, which noone really wanted anyway.

There are a few lies that have been spread, not only through leaflets like the one I received, but also online and in the press, but there’s one in particular that I want to put straight to bed. That is the argument that “under AV the candidate who comes second or third can actually be elected.” It’s been illustrated in several ways but in the leaflet I received it had a picture of a finish line of a race, and an arrow pointing to the last person saying “the winner under AV”. Here’s a similar poster:

 

Now this is extremely misleading. I agree, and I’m sure everyone in the Yes to AV campaign would agree, that the AV system shouldn’t be used in trying to determine who can run fastest or box better. But in politics, we are not trying to determine that, we are trying to find the candidate who represents the views of the constituency the best, and that isn’t necessarily someone who get the plurality of the votes.

Let’s have a very hypothetical example. In Racistville, Sussex, there are 4 candidates: the BNP, the Greens, the Lib Dems, and Labour. The BNP get 30% of the vote, the Lib Dems get 25%, Labour get 25% and the Greens get 20%. Under the current system (probably one of the least democratic in the world), the BNP would win. Does that mean that the BNP best represent the views of the people in Racistville? Of course not! The policies of the other parties are much more similar to each other than to the policies of the BNP. Now I’m using the BNP specifically for that purpose, because it’s very obvious, but the same is true in all constituencies. I would imagine the BNP would be the last preference of all the other voters.

By taking second and third preferences into account, we can find a candidate that everyone is ok with, rather than a candidate that a minority prefers, but the majority might hate.

This cartoon explains it quite well:

I’ll be voting for AV, if only because it means I won’t have to keep voting Labour just to keep the Tories out. My constituency is a Labour/Tory marginal, and if I voted for the party I actually prefer (the Greens, at the minute), then that makes it easier for the Tories to get in. That’s the opposite of what I would want, so I’m forced to tactically vote. Under AV I wouldn’t have to.


Bill Donohue lies again

April 13, 2011

Via Pharyngula.

Remember Star Wars Episode 1? And Boss Nass, the King of the Gungans? Something about that slimy incomprehensible fat sack of crap reminds me of Bill Donohue:

One of the original 3 on the crotch-kicking list, Bill Donohue is the President of the Catholic League, who I’ve covered before on this blog, and he’s at it again. Defending abusers, that is. In this article released today, not only does he accuse those filing complaints of doing it for ideological or financial gain, but he once again blames homosexuals for the abuse crisis in the Church.

The refrain that child rape is a reality in the Church is twice wrong: let’s get it straight—they weren’t children and they weren’t raped. We know from the John Jay study that most of the victims have been adolescents, and that the most common abuse has been inappropriate touching (inexcusable though this is, it is not rape). The Boston Globe correctly said of the John Jay report that “more than three-quarters of the victims were post pubescent, meaning the abuse did not meet the clinical definition of pedophilia.” In other words, the issue is homosexuality, not pedophilia. (6th paragraph)

No, that is a lie. As I’ve covered before, it is absurd to use the John Jay report to say that the majority of abuse victims have been postpubescent males because the John Jay study only reported on victims under the age of 18. So even by his own logic, he is saying that if the victim is post-pubescent then the abuser is not a paedophile but a homosexual, and then he’s arbitrarily cutting off his dataset at 18 years of age. Studies done into abuse generally show that the majority of victims are adult females. Surely, then, it must be a heterosexual problem?

There are further problems with this claim that Donohue keeps spouting from his flabby jowls. The fact that a victim is post-pubescent and male doesn’t make the abuser homosexual. Abuse is rarely a case of the abuser just being hopelessly attracted to the victim, and indeed Margaret Smith, a John Jay criminologist who worked on the study has said that “the majority of the abusive acts were homosexual in nature. That participation in homosexual acts is not the same as sexual identity as a gay man.” It seems to me that opportunity to offend might have a much bigger impact on who the victim is.

Now let’s not forget that a man with a doctorate in sociology from New York University should be “not unacquainted with how to read the social science data” as the big man said himself. And yet, curiously, he has managed to misread the social science data. And despite having been corrected on it many times, he’s still coming out with the same tired old lies.

The man’s a joke. When will he realise that people don’t care if the victims were post-pubescent or not, or if they were male or not, or if they were raped or abused in some other way? People aren’t angry because of the (probably false) perception that there’s a higher incidence of abuse in the Church than elsewhere, they’re angry because when it was reported, it was covered up in a huge number of cases. And Donohue thinks pointing that out equates to persecution.


Problems with privatisation

March 31, 2011

I was having a good day today. It’s sunny, it’s my first real day off in… I don’t even remember how long, and I watched a couple of films which I haven’t done in a while. Then I went online and saw this story from the Guardian. Ken Clarke, the Conservative Justice Secretary in the Westminster government, has outlined his plans to introduce the first private prison in the UK. I’m astounded. Maybe this has been developing for a while but if so I haven’t noticed it. I thought this was the kind of thing that happened in crazy libertarian states in the US, not here.

Of course the usual argument is there, that a private prison will cost less money, without compromising on standards. How? How do they go about saving money without affecting what they do? Somehow the word ‘private’ has become synonymous with the word ‘efficient’. It’s a complete myth! Here’s why, and I’ve said it a million times before: there are 2 forms of efficiency. The first form is money spent vs money gained, which is what the private sector is concerned with, and the second form is money spent vs societal gain (note, not necessarily anything to do with money). This is the kind of efficiency that public services should be concerned with. The problem with using private companies to deliver public services is that there’s a huge level of inefficiency in the shareholders. It’s there for profit, so a big chunk of the money goes into a few individual’s pockets, which doesn’t happen in the public sector.

If they are saving money somewhere, how are they doing it? The only way I can see is by compromising, if not on the service delivered, then on the conditions of their staff, because if they’re saving by changing food suppliers or whatever, then the government can do that too, those savings aren’t available exclusively to the private sector.

Here’s another problem with privatisation, the easier access for corrupt forces:

2 judges in America were jailed for taking $2m in kickbacks from a company that owns a private prison, in return for sending children there for petty crimes. This is the kind of thing that becomes a real possibility when you’re dealing with individuals in it for the money instead of people there to deliver a public good. I don’t want to go down that road.

So let’s just make a list of the potential problems with private prisons:

  • A large chunk of public money goes into private pockets
  • Mythical efficiency savings
  • Real possibility of a ‘race to the bottom’ – delivering lower quality services at a lower cost, ostensibly saving money, but in reality it’s just a veiled cut to services.
  • Ease of passing blame onto a private company in case of error, rather than the government accepting it.
  • Ethical problems and conflicts of interest involved with imprisoning people for profit.
  • Increased possibility of corruption/lobbying.

That’s just off the top of my head.

But that’s not all that’s wrong with this news. The company that’s been chosen to take over this prison in October is G4S, a private security company which has also recently been given a contract with the Scottish Prisons Service to transport prisoners. What’s the problem with G4S? Well, not only have they been involved in conflicts with unions over working conditions across the world, but they’re also complicit in the Israeli occupation by providing security to illegal settlements, equipment to Israeli prisons where Palestinian political prisoners are incarcerated, and has even been accused of supplying torture instruments to Israeli prisons. 200 Palestinian prisoners have died in Israeli custody either from medical negligence or by torture.

And that’s yet another problem with privatisation. You’re aligning yourself with companies that are only in it for the money, which have no moral scruples and which could be doing all kinds of unethical things. That’s something that I don’t think our government should be involved in.


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