Archive for March, 2009

G20…huh?

March 31, 2009

Confused by G20? The Council on Foreign Relations has produced a great little guide to policy priorities for Thursday’s summit.

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Political Correctness gone mad

March 30, 2009
Fighting the evil of political correctness with good old fashioned harmless racism

Fighting the evil of political correctness with good old fashioned harmless racism

I have just finished watching Stuart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle on BBC2, in which the ever-excellent Stuart gave his take on “political correctness gone mad”.

Intrigued, I googled “political correctness gone mad”. There are about 381,000 results. To be honest, I’m surprised that it’s so few.

Amongst them is this gem, about the country list on iTunes (obviously the cooler Apple are far more pinko-liberal in their outlook than the robustly capitalist Microsoft); this, which seriously suggests that the “PC Brigade” (whoever they may be) want to “ban” the name of Jesus Christ; and this, which seems to think that someone, somewhere want to ban the terms “blackboard” and spotted dick”.

Although the thunder on taking the piss out of these people has been well and truly stolen by the superlative Speak Your Branes blog (which makes me come to the brink of wetting myself on a semi-daily basis), it goes to show that there is still an awful lot of paranoid fantasizing out there – far more than any satirical leftie blogger could take.

For example, the fact that Sky commissioned Noel’s HQ continues to amaze me. Quite apart from the fact that any commissioning editor actually wants to give Noel money to go on the telly these days (which I find frankly astonishing), the complete horse manure served up by this show in the name of slaying “political correctness” needs to be seen to be believed.

Over at PB…

March 28, 2009

…Morus asks, “are we overlooking a political heavyweight?

No. We’re not.

A lot of the commenters on some of the right wing blogosphere – generally, the sorts of people who write to their MPs in green ink – seem to have pinned their hopes on the Queen as a “saviour of the nation” against the evil Brown.

Just what – constitutionally, I mean – is the problem? Gordon Brown is the leader of a party in the Commons with a comfortable working majority. The government has no trouble commanding the confidence of the House; Brown has been able to form a stable ministry, with no move among the PLP not to serve in ministerial positions under him; and the government can ensure supply.

Some people in the comments even seem to be suggesting that the Queen might have to intervene, because Gordon might refuse to hold a general election – this, I think, is the most moronic thing I’ve ever heard.

Enough of the constitutional conspiracy theories. If you’ve got a problem with the government, come out with it and let’s talk about that.

Street fighting moron

March 28, 2009

“Everywhere I hear the sound of marching charging feet, boy

With the G20 coming to London soon there is a rush to get out on the streets to demonstrate support for numerous good causes.

Inevitably the summit is also an opportunity for the anarchists to get themselves orderly and organised. Theatrical protest is fine, but there’s evidence to suggest that some are salivating over the prospect of the demonstrations descending into violence.

Professor Knight giving one of his lectures.

Professor Knight giving one of his lectures.

For example, Professor Chris Knight – UEL academic, former Militant member, founder of the mighty ‘Radical Anthropology Group’ and protest organiser – has got himself in trouble for saying “If you want violence, you’ll get it“.

I’m not sure it’s worth taking Professor Knight too seriously. According to his expert analysis the next week or so will see the onset of revolutionary conditions which will result in him becoming Labour’s general secretary whilst John McDonnell MP will lead a successful coup against Gordon Brown.

If there is an anarchist establishment then Ian ‘Bash the Rich’ Bone must surely be the anarcho-equivalent of aristocracy. Bone’s blog worryingly reports that the police are expecting violence and are “up for it” – although he doesn’t link to his source and I can’t find it.

In another post, Ian Bone declares that the British anarchists are “resurgent” as “fun events like Anarchist pub crawls and speed dating are restoring hedonism to our movement away from miserabilism”.

Cute. But outbreaks of violence will distract from the serious demands being put on the G20, and that will make us all miserable.

Captain Jako

A long post about killing

March 24, 2009

rope1A few years ago, at an ECOSY event, I remember meeting an Austrian girl wearing a t-shirt carrying the message ‘Human Rights are Universal: No to Death Penalty’ with a picture of Saddam Hussein. This seemed like an odd tactic to try and win that particular argument – one of the world’s most evil dictators is hardly a very good poster-boy for the anti-death penalty campaign.

I was reminded of this when I read about today’s Amnesty report, showing a dramatic rise in the number of executions carried out worldwide in 2008. Over 2,390 people were executed in 25 countries, up from 1,252 in 2007. These shocking figures show that, despite apparent progress over the past decade, the death penalty is still prevalent in many countries, especially in Asia.

In opposing the death penalty, it is easy to base arguments around miscarriages of justice, unfair trials, inadequate legal representation, racism, capriciousness, non-violent offences and the cruelty of various execution methods. Whilst these are all good and valid points, to some extent they miss the point. For to be serious about opposing the death penalty, one must be willing and able to stand firm when the defendant cannot be excused and the process is open and transparent. To do this, the pertinent arguments are the ineffectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent,  the inherent cruelty of cold-blooded killing (including the psychological trauma of waiting on death row) and the brutalising of society that the use of violent punishment represents.

For an example of effective anti-death penalty propaganda, I would strongly recommend  A Short Film About Killing. Krzysztof Kieslowski (director of the Three Colours trilogy amongst many other excellent films) made a series of 10 hour-long films (entitled Dekalog), originally made for Polish TV, based on each of the 10 Commandments. This one was #5, Thou Shalt Not Kill. It tells the story of a young man who senselessly murders a taxi driver and is subsequently hanged. There is no contrived drama, no tense courtroom action and no attempt to excuse the murderer. Instead, the film builds up to a chillingly clinical depiction of the young man’s execution and ends with his lawyer breaking down in tears at the side of a road. In its simplicity, the film was so powerful that it arguably led to the suspension of executions in Poland. The injustice lies in the cruelty of the punishment rather than the legal process that led to it.

Going back to my original anecdote about the girl with the Saddam t-shirt, maybe that message is not so daft after all. It is only when we realise that all life is given by God, with the state having no more right than an individual to extinguish it, that judicial killing might stop once and for all.

Pick’n’mix no.3

March 24, 2009

Mary Honeyball reflects upon the news that Christopher Beazley MEP is leaving the Conservative grouping in the European Parliament. Beazley is miffed that David Cameron wants the Tory Euro team to stop hanging out with the European Peoples Party. Apparently other Tory MEPs are concerned by the direction Cameron is taking the party in:

“The difference is Neil Kinnock lead your party away from your Militant Tendency, David Cameron is leading our party towards our Militant Tendency.”

Which brings us nicely on to the irrepressible Luke Akehurst and his latest piece of Trot-bashing. Some, like Sunder of the Fabians, think that Luke is being “a bit daft”. However, as the old saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean the far-left aren’t trying to infiltrate your party and use it as a vehicle for their revolutionary ambitions.

It might be said that our main concern should be the lack of party members rather than the prospects of a far-left takeover. However, I’m also worried that Luke’s purge of party members who do not subscribe to the noble principles of democratic socialism might result in a few empty seats around the cabinet:

He doesn’t call himself a socialist – “There’s nothing wrong with the term, it’s just not one I use” – and feels uncomfortable with political labels. 

I spotted this on the BBC News website:  

Which is weird, and seems tasteless, but I cannot suggest an alternative category of news for the story to be placed in. Dave Osler has a think about what Jade Goody’s life can tell us about social policy in the UK.

All women shortlists: now for the bonkers science part…concentrate

March 23, 2009

I was expecting my post on LabourList to generate some interest, but 61 comments? Blimey Charlie!

I think there are three separate issues here, and all of the commenters are trying to address them at the same time (in fairness, so was I when I made the post).

The first point is “Airdrie and Shotts CLP should grow up, and learn to accept collective democratic decisions”. This was the main thrust of the post (which was, alas, ignored by the comments – maybe they all agree?)

The second point is “All Women Shortlists are morally right, or at least, not morally wrong”. Of course, this is purely my own judgement, and clearly, it’s a divisive issue (in and out of the Labour Party).

I’ll probably return to the second point in the future. However, right now I want to address the third point: “open shortlists disadvantage women”.

Unlike the first two, this is actually quite straightforward and objective, because there’s data that we can look at.

New Labour MPs elected 1992-2005, by sex

New Labour MPs elected 1992-2005, by sex

Since the 1992 general election, 398 freshly-minted Labour MPs have entered the House of Commons – meaning there were 398 full selections that resulted in the election of a Labour MP. Of these, 289 were men and 109 were women. I’ve illustrated this is a pie chart (because I’m good to you like that).

So, of all of the MPs we elected, only 27% were women. This isn’t so good – and this includes the women who were selected from All Women Shortlists.

If we only include those MPs selected from open shortlists, the picture is even starker: 289 men to just 51 women. I’ll even give you another pie chart for that.

New Labour MPs elected from open shortlists, 1992-2005

New Labour MPs elected from open shortlists, 1992-2005

Now, if selections are fair – that is, they are equally likely to produce a man as a candidate as they are a woman – then they’re analagous to tossing a coin. If you toss a coin a couple of times, then you may well find that either heads or tails dominates; but the more you toss the coin, the closer the result will come to 50% heads, 50% tails. This is known as the law of large numbers.

This is because tossing a coin – or, indeed, selecting a candidate in a fair selection process – is a Bernouilli trial with a probability of 0.5 for each outcome: “man” or “woman”.

Hang on, I can hear you say – 340 selections may not be quite enough to really test the system. Could this result be random? In fact, if you’ve really been paying attention and you know your stuff, I might also hear you say, “a repeated Bernouilli trial is defined by a Binomial Distribution; what is its standard deviation?”

If you’re in the latter category of people whose voices I can hear in my head (and it’s not often I say that, I hasten to add) – you’re quite right that this is Binomially Distributed (the Binomial Distribution being used to model a series of n independent identical trials with two outcomes, each with a value of p and 1-p respectively).

The varience is defined by this equation:

Im right good at maths, me

I'm right good at maths, me

So, in this case its value is 340 x 0.5 x 0.5, or 85. The standard deviation – the usual test of the spread around the mean in a set of trials – is the square root of this, which is 9.219.

As the number of trials in a Bernouilli series increases, they tend towards a Normal Distribution – the bell curve we all learned about in school. (This is because of something called the Central Limit Theorem, but going into that would just be showing off).

Unlike this blog post, this distribution is Normal.

Unlike this blog post, this distribution is Normal.

In a normally distributed set, you expect 68.2% of results of your trial to be within 1 standard deviation of the mean, as shown in the pretty diagram on the right. In this case, this would mean that – 68.2% of repetitions of 340 open fair selections would lie in the range of 160 men-180 women to 180 men-160 women. 95.6% of repetitions would be within 2 standard deviations of the mean – the range 150 men-190 women to 190 men-150 women.

However, our result – 289 men and 51 women – is right down in one of the tails. If you repeated 340 fair open selections loads and l0ads and loads of times, the likelihood of any one of them being what we have is extremely small – far, far less than 0.01%.

So, we can conclude one of two things. Either, we have a fair system which has thrown up a truly freakish result, with similar odds to me winning the lottery this week; or, open selections are, for some reason, inherently unfair. I’m with the latter as the more likely explanation.

Privileged candidates?

March 23, 2009

I’m not sure what the Paintbrush line is on this sort of thing.

Apart from the case of Jonathan Krohn, I generally think it is good to see young people getting somewhere in politics. This particular individual’s connections in high places do not automatically disqualify her from potentially being a perfectly acceptable representative for the people of Erith and Thamesmead. I do not assume that just because she is her father’s daughter this means she cannot be an independent-minded voice in Parliament.

After all, the 25-year-old Tony Benn had his entry into politics handed to him on a plate thanks to his old man being a prominent Labour figure.

However, whilst I certainly think there is a sizeable element of green eyed monster syndrome to be found in some of the comments on this case, it has to be said that whiffs of nepotism will unfortunately reflect badly on the candidate and on the party’s system of all women shortlists (which we blokely blokes at the Paintbrush support).  

All women shortlists were introduced out of pragmatism as well as principle. It makes electoral sense for the party’s candidates to be seen as representative of the people (hopefully) sending them to Parliament. As a white, middle-class, privately and Oxbridge educated male I have no qualms in saying that there is a surplus of white, middle-class, privately and Oxbridge educated males in the Commons and steps need to be taken to rectify this situation.

In that spirit of ensuring our party is as representative as possible, Labour should be promoting candidates with backgrounds from outside the Westminster bubble and the political elite.

I’m not one to constantly whinge about politics being full of overambitious careerists, but I think it is legitimate to worry about Parliament being dominated by people who have come straight into politics after spells in law, lobbying,  academia, or simply working for one of the parties. Don Paskini once wrote a post on this subject with which I am inclined to agree.

This story is obviously going to be absorbed into the right-wing press’ ongoing narrative of politicians being a self-serving class increasingly detached from reality.

I’m not interested in the personal merits or demerits of any of the candidates – I’m sure that whoever wins the selection will be deserving of the support of all Labourites. But as a party we need to ensure that we are encouraging a diverse range of candidates to stand under the Labour banner and that we continue our historic mission of improving the political representation of working people.

Captain Jako

Wanted

March 23, 2009

The Simon Wiesenthal Center has released a new list of its ‘most wanted’. These men are suspected Nazi war criminals.

Keep your eyes peeled! 

Map showing countries where top Nazis lived

More facts backing the free school meals plan

March 21, 2009

This week’s Islington Tribune draws attention to data suggesting that more than 2000 Islington schoolchildren from families living beneath the poverty line are not claiming free school meals despite being eligible for them.

Have a look at the figures here on the Guardian’s data blog. There is an 11% gap between those taking free school meals and those in low income households.

Why aren’t children from the most deprived backgrounds taking up the free school meal benefits? Surely this discrepancy must be caused by people simply being unaware of what they are entitled to. It’s also possible that the stigma of having to identify your family as amongst the poorest in the community is stopping pupils from getting these meals.

This research provides further justification, I feel, for Islington Labour’s decision to push for free school meals for all in the borough’s primary schools. Such a system will be much simpler to administer and will hopefully remove any ‘shame factor’ from school meal provision.

Looking at the data it appears that there are very few local authorities with gaps between free school meal take-up and free school meal entitlement of less than 5%. Many hover around 10% and some are much higher.

Targeted benefits cannot always be relied upon to hit the bullseye.

Captain Jako