Housing the Citizenry

You are tenacious so-and-sos, you lot. I still get as many hits here at PRoM on a bad day as I get on a good day at my new gaff. A not inconsiderable factor is that this post about political apathy among the young appears to have spontaneously taken over Google, from whence people arrive after asking questions such as “why is there political apathy among the youth?” and “why are the young politically apathetic?” and “why is everything so utterly hopeless and what does Alix Mortimer think about it?” (I am paraphrasing here, you understand).

So I have a horrible feeling that my specious rattled-off opinions about political apathy are being regularly used up and down the land to shore up last-minute “Citizenship” homework – or even, for all I know, lesson plans – and this may yet stand as my lasting contribution to The Internet. If this is what influence feels like you may keep it.

Mind you, today someone asked “how can political apathy be stopped?” which seems at least to be a step in the right direction, though I fear answer came there none, at least from me.

Anyway, two of the reasons I proffered in that post that might explain the political apathy of the young (and indeed the not so young, hem hem) related to the cost of housing. I talked about money, and in particular I talked about renting:

I do not personally recall a single instance, either in the last two years of active political interest or the previous 28 of apathy, of a politician mentioning the “r” word. Private tenants simply do not exist in political discourse. They are so invisible that, whenever anyone uses the word “tenants”, it is taken as read that they mean social housing tenants (eg, the name of a new government quango for social housing tenants, which I momentarily and foolishly got excited about: it is called the National Tenant Voice). Private tenants in this country get a worse deal with legal protection and with typical contractual terms than tenants in other European countries. I don’t know a great deal about the issues and I’m sure there aren’t instant and obvious answers. I’m just struck by the way no discussion is ever aired at all.

Mention first time buyers to politicians on the other hand, and they’ll jump like scalded cats. It’s ridiculous. No party has been able to come up with a real solution for all first time buyers “struggling to get on the property ladder” for a very good and simple reason: prices are too high and Generation X is sitting on all the money. We all know this. And no government is ever going to actively cause prices to fall even if they could. Given the Sisyphean impossibility of solving this problem by buying everybody a house (which has been the approach taken by Labour), I am genuinely puzzled as to why politicians don’t go for the lower-hanging fruit: consider the young’s actual lives as tenants instead of their aspirational lives as homeowners. Stop calling them first time buyers because they ain’t buying anything, and start calling them what they are.

(The comments point out that I was incorrect to cite only Generation X and not the babyboomers – see what I mean about specious rattled-off opinions?)

That was written four years ago, and the landscape has, with tectonic sloth, shifted a little since then. You can indeed read about the trials and mounting costs of renting as a private tenant in the mainstream press (quite probably because increasing proportions of the media is staffed by people who don’t have the option to buy). No longer is everyone under 35 represented in the Property pages by smiley pictures of Ben and Lisa simply pink with joy to be sitting on a faux-leather sofa in their very own Barrett cell after clearing the trifling hurdle of selling their kidneys to the international banking system. So that’s something.

But some things are reassuringly eternal, and The Government is still trying to solve the problem by buying everybody a house.

So the reason I attach the electrodes to this blog today is that I have just had an email round from Priced Out, who are preparing to step up pressure on the parties ahead of 2015 and to that end are searching for pieces of hay in a haystack and, well, I want to see them succeed:

PricedOut is the only campaign that represents first-time buyers and we need your help to ensure politicians give us something to vote for.

First, Channel 4 News would like to speak to thirtysomethings living in flatshares, and adults living with their parents because rent is too high. If you or anyone you know would like to find out more, please email press@pricedout.org.uk, as soon as possible.

If you fall into those categories and fancy complaining about your so-called life to Cathy Newman, you should email them.

I do still have quibbles with some of Priced Out’s language. “First time buyers” is a much less inclusive constituency than “private tenants” and only fuels the general idea that buying at all costs is the ultimate dream, which is partly what has got us where we are. But the more air time the reality of the housing crisis gets the better as far as I’m concerned.

The ways of the ancestors

The British Psychology Society research blog is reporting on an ace little piece of research about the psychological benefits of thinking about your ancestors, which I’m going to henceforth assume you’ve read. Off you go. (The original paper, referenced at the bottom, is short and also well worth reading if you have an institution log-in.) One of the reasons I liked it is because I have consciously used this “mechanism” myself – usually, it must be said, when situations of physical bravery are required, because I’m such an utter physical coward (teeth! falling over on the ice! hnnnnnnng!), and the study is concentrating on improved intellectual expectations and performance.  But still.

It’s just a preliminary study. I think there could be some two-way trade here with historically and archaeologically attested instances of ancestor worship. That is, future findings could enlarge our understanding of past societies as well as our own. And also, attested cases of historical ancestor worship could suggest directions for the follow-up research, which will attempt to isolate underlying “processes of social identity, family cohesion, self-regulation or norm activation elicited by increased ancestor salience.”

Rome immediately springs to mind as a culture engaged in formal – and quite explicitly performance-related – ancestor worship. The study’s findings of the increased perception of control and the improved promotion orientation (inclination to tackle problems) associated with ancestor salience are certainly quite handy concepts to bring to Roman history. I’m particularly struck by the finding that ancestor salience is just as marked when a subject considers fifteenth-century ancestors as when he or she considers immediate or living forbears. This rules out the possibility that it’s really the fact that individuals are relatively close in time or even known to one that produces the boost to confidence and performance. It made me think of the processions of ancestor masks, stretching into the past, that were carried at Roman funerals even under the Republic – the more venerable, the better.

We tend, I suppose, to conceive of these displays in the received terms of modern aristocracies – “blue blood”, class, noble birth and so on. But it makes perfect sense if these are the outward justifications and defences for what is essentially a beneficial psychological practice – to which everyone, apparently, has access, whether or not they knew who their ancestors actually were. The study suggests that part of the mechanism of ancestor salience is to “increase the cognitive accessibility of things [the study's subjects] learned from [their ancestors] via intergenerational socialization processes” (p2). If this really is how the mechanism works, then a longer line of death masks at a Roman funeral really would be  better – more generations, more useful knowledge.

Mind you, I think the first experiment in the study assumes one of these received terms itself. In measuring the impact of thinking about 15th century ancestors, it instructed subjects as follows (from the paper, p2):

Please imagine your ancestors in the 15th century, that is, your great-great-great-great-great-. . . grandparents. Please imagine what they did at that time, how they lived, what their profession was and how many children they had, etc. Please also imagine what your ancestors from that time would tell you today, if you were still able to meet them.

This is a pre-circumscribed thought experiment because it encourages subjects to believe that they have only one line of ancestors – a “family-sized” line, simplified exactly as aristocracies and patronymic/matronymic systems in general do, and exactly as the Romans were doing with their successive line of masks. Of course, we all have several millions of direct ancestors living in the fifteenth century even allowing for the many duplicates (reckoning on four generations per century. Anyone know the precise way of calculating the number of duplicates? I”m sure there must be one).

It would be difficult to design an experiment to tease out why this simplification down to a single “line” is apparently necessary to ancestor salience (if it is). Is it just because a family-sized unit, or succession of them, can be more comfortably accommodated by our social conditioning? Or is it something more complex and specific to do with the linear nature of an ancestral line itself. Consider this part of the researchers’ hypothesis:

when we think about [our ancestors], we are reminded that humans who are genetically similar to us can successfully overcome a multitude of problems and adversities. In other words, because we are the successors of our ancestors and thus their genetic heritage, we tend to attribute successful problem-solving of our ancestors to our own problem-solving abilities

In other words, survival is being invoked, and by implication survival of the fittest, and that leads one to conceive of ancestry in terms of series of refinements leading down to a “perfect” result in the present (well, we’re here, aren’t we?) Half the population of England died of plague in 1348-9; one big tick against “some natural plague resistance” for the rest – and that “rest” is us. One of the many occasions on which we’ve been collectively winnowed for chaff, and disease resistance is just the most obvious example. Success of the “bloodline” is what I think the researchers are really getting at here.

Separating out the impact of notional lines of ancestry from familial warmth is one nudge Rome’s example could provide to future research. Another is the double-edged sword effect of formal ancestor worship – sure, ancestors may strengthen a sense of confidence and entitlement, but they can also provide an explicit set of targets to meet, and be used as a stick with which to beat errant descendents. So is this ancestral equivalent of parental expectation also operating in modern subjects? Or is it unique to Rome and other societies whose elites consciously emulate ancestors’ activities? Perhaps it cuts both ways, and we seek or imagine parallels between our own lives and ancestral lives – I remember being pleased to discover signs that some of my Mortimer/ore ancestors were nonconformists and part of a fairly radicalised trade (brushmaking, would you believe. Stiff with early radicalism, apparently). I wonder what attributes the study’s subjects imputed to their imagined 15th century ancestors.

One last thing about Rome as compared to the present; everyone alive today in the western world could probably say with confidence that they have it easier than most of their ancestors. Technological and scientific progress virtually guarantee it. So there’s going to be an innate widespread acceptance of the notion that our ancestors survived greater difficulties than we’ll ever have to face (five minutes thinking about the First World War and suddenly that exam or dental appointment doesn’t look so bad).

That isn’t the case with Rome, is it. Of course, plenty of similar mood music seems to surround how Romans thought about ancestors – they were simpler, cleaner, more virtuous, “good honest Romans”, and so on, and this is why they overcame various odds – but their life chances were in many respects the same as those of the descendents invoking them. Indeed, that is what made Roman ancestors such effective weapons of chastisement. We don’t have the same relationship of equals with our ancestors – our life chances are unimaginably better than theirs were. It’s possible that one of the factors future research needs to isolate is whether we’re really being reminded of our ancestors’ “problem-solving abilities” and capacity to overcome odds, or whether they simply cause us to reflect on our own technological and economic good fortune. My First World War/dentist example points that up rather nicely.

So we would have to take care in applying the lessons of modern psychological research in history or archaeology. An interesting way to use this research direction, it  strikes me, would be to identify elements of historical ancestor worship that fit modern findings – and then look at what is left inexplicable. Whatever that is, it may constitute the essence of a relationship that ancient societies had with their ancestors that we can no longer access.

Why might black students be under-represented at Oxbridge?

Equality and diversity at tertiary education level are  a tangled set of important and emotive issues. Needless to say, David Lammy has made a complete dog whistling breakfast of the whole thing. (Note: all the following figures not taken from his article are from table 5 in this summary, and relate to home students who filled in an ethnic diversity form.)

In an expose of racism in Oxbridge admissions for 2009 (on the watch of the last Labour Minister for Higher Education, apparently a Mr David Lammy) he has perpetrated statistical no-nos such as:

  • generalising from insignificant sample sizes (highlighting 1 Black Caribbean admission in Oxford for 2009, but failing to mention that it comes from 35 applications in that category, which in 10,210 applications and 2,653 acceptances, is pretty much noise),
  • cherry-picking (choosing the Black Caribbean group at all, with its acceptance “rate” of 2.9%, as opposed to, say, the Black Other group with an acceptance rate of 21.4% – but more about that anon),
  • a particularly technical error which I think is known as “making stuff up” (stating that there are no Black faculty members at Cambridge, something which will come as an enormous existential surprise to people who are in fact Black faculty members at Cambridge).

This is very sad, because a look at Table 5 suggests there is potentially something to investigate here. That healthy-ish 21.4% success rate for Black Other students? Also an inappropriate cherry-pick, of course. Hey, I could be a shadow minister! It represents 3 admissions out of 14 applications. Following Lammy’s logic, we’d have to surmise that some highly complex form of racism was going on which selected Black Other applicants over Black Caribbean applicants. This is clearly unlikely to be the case.

Anyway, averaging out these two groups along with Black African (which I realise is a bit of a lumpen way to treat people’s ethnicity, but they’re pretty lumpen categories anyway) you get 27 acceptances out of 221 applications, or a success rate of 12.2%. That sample size, 2.1% of applications and 1% of acceptances is still within the margin of error, but let’s be generous and take it as an indication, if nothing else. Not at all healthy, is it, given that the overall success rate for all British domiciled students is 26%.

If this indicator does represent a genuine problem, and not statistical noise, what might be happening? This is Oxford’s gloss:

Black students apply disproportionately for the most oversubscribed subjects, contributing to a lower than average success rate for the group as a whole: 44% of all black applicants apply for Oxford’s three most oversubscribed subjects, compared with just 17% of all white applicants. That means nearly half of black applicants are applying for the same three subjects … the three toughest subjects to get places in. Those subjects are economics and management, medicine, and maths… This goes a very long way towards explaining the group’s overall lower success rate.

(Note: Where I have placed the second ellipsis, the Guardian has the words “with 7% of white applicants.”, no capitalisation, straight after the full stop of the previous sentence. I have assumed this is some kind of subbing error, but can’t be sure. They spelt “rein” as in “to rein in” with a g on their front page the other day, so anything’s possible.)

Now, this could well be special pleading on Oxford’s part. We just wouldn’t know without seeing the full figures, which they’re not releasing any more than Lammy is. Frankly, the way Lammy appears to have mauled the stats, I don’t think Oxford could do worse than release the lot in full – ethnicity breakdowns by subject and college.

But, pending such mere inputs as hard data, the Oxford response has a slight ring of truth about it, and I’ll tell you why. We might posit that as a general rule, black kids are less likely to be applying from public schools, private schools and top state schools. They are disproportionately educated in lower-achieving schools in poorer areas. That means that, amongst many other unfortunate things, their Oxbridge preparation is not going to be so hot. And one of the things they tell you in Oxbridge preparation is “maximise your chances”. If you want to apply for a big name subject, but there’s another less popular variation that will do just as well, go for that. If you’re not that fussed about golden twiddly bits on your college, go for one of the concretes or redbricks as your first choice.

This is how Oxford (and broadly Cambridge too, as far as I know) admissions works: you pick a first choice college, and you get allotted another two (alternatively, you can make an open application, in which case you’ll be allotted three colleges, and they will probably be the ones with fewest applications). If you’re called for interview, your first choice college will interview you. If they want you, that’s it, no more interviews. If they don’t want you, and your second and third allotted colleges still have places to fill, you’ll be sent along to those. And here’s the crucial thing: all of this happens within a week.

You can see what happens to people who apply to the popular colleges. Not only have they lowered their chances by applying to a competitive place as their first choice – their second and third choices are compromised too. Because by the time their first, popular choice has chewed them up and spat them out, the second and third colleges have already filled plenty of places from their own first choice (or allotted open) applicants. Fewer places remain for the scramble of applicants rejected from popular colleges. And if you’ve picked a popular subject as well, then you’ve exacerbated the problem. Very probably, this means that some of those who get rejected every year could have got in if they’d applied to a less popular college, or subject.

The point of all this is not, of course, to imply that black students can’t get onto these courses, or into popular colleges. All other things being equal, they stand the same chance as everyone else – but everyone’s chance is lower than the chances of those applying for less popular subjects and colleges. So a disproportionate number of black applicants to popular subjects would indeed have the effect the spokesperson suggests.

But, as I say, this isn’t really demonstrable without the full figures *hint to media*. As a matter of fact, the most shocking statistic for me to emerge from the whole thing doesn’t have anything to do with Oxbridge admissions. It’s this one:

In 2009, more than 29,000 white students got three As or better at A-level (excluding general studies) and about 28.4% applied to Oxford; while 452 black students got three As or better, and nearly half applied to Oxford.

*attempts Steve McQueen impression* Four hundred and fifty two? There are probably more people than that in John Lewis on Oxford Street right now. They are outnumbered by our MPs. Jesus.

What exactly are these bozos trying to achieve here?

Good god, it’s a mess in here.

*kicks skeletons of former readers aside*

I’m only picking my way back in through the cobwebs to ask, seriously now, what on earth the NUS/the Campaign for Nice Pixies Against Nasty Orcs/Labourlist/whoever thinks it’s doing by gloating over the cancellation of the London Lib Dem conference?

You total hilarious dweebs! What is up with you?! The entire party has been in open revolt for over a month, big long lists of PPCs are writing letters to Nick Clegg, there are rumours of resignations all over the place, councillors and activists are to my certain knowledge running around right this minute badgering, cajoling, threatening and pleading with their MPs to stick to the damn pledges and you know what? They were wobbling. That PPCs’ open letter was quite quickly followed by speculation on mass abstention peppered with individuals voting against.

Now, I’m still wavering on the whole question of tuition fees, and would be quite happy to go to my grave in that condition because I find the issue genuinely complex, and am continuously baffled at the number of people who don’t, on both sides. But there’s no doubt the plurality of opinion in the active section of the party is anti-fees. And now they’ve had taken from them the last big chance ahead of the vote to speechify, press flesh, lobby in person, brief an attentive media and generally make a nuisance of themselves. The students of Liberal Youth have lost the chance to square up publicly and en masse to their supposedly elders and betters and demand a hearing.

Now, it’s true that Lib Dem regional conferences are ham sandwiches and flipcharts affairs with typical attendances in the low hundreds, and the media’s rebranding of the London conference as a “summit” is the subject of much internal hilarity. Bilderberg this ain’t (and that’s why the cancellations have happened, because busting the sort of venues usually chosen for a Lib Dem regional conference is about as difficult as breaking into an envelope).  But the fact remains – you’ve just lost a day of public pressure on Clegg and you are celebrating the reduction of Lib Dem membership lobbying opportunities.

It’s hard to see how anyone who thinks this helps the anti-fees cause could possess the requisite neural co-ordination to hold up a banner, never mind be fronting a national campaign. What were you going to do at the protest, dribble on us until we got really annoyed? Political short-termism is one thing, this is pure bloody goldfish territory. Yes! We stopped the Lib Dem conference! Let’s celebrate by occupying this pinhead! Now they won’t be able to publicly debate and restate their opposition to their own leadership and be top of all the news bu-


Get this man to Lib Dem conference!

A couplet of TED talks from Sir Ken Robinson. The first is from 2006:

The second is from this year:

(In a manner of speaking Ken Robinson has already been to Lib Dem conference, because I’m pretty sure Clegg’s speechwriters filched one of his anecdotes one year.)

I’ll let the talks speak for themselves, but one incidental observation occurs to me. I spend some of my internet time as a silent lurker on various science and skeptical blogs. This is not because I have any scientific training whatsoever – I was overjoyed to leave science behind at school. I lurk there because I can get a fix of that element that science and the humanities have in common – the concern with an evidence base, and the passionate and laudable desire to promote it in public life and policy.

The same movement, that attempt to connect the lessons of one’s own discipline with the wider world, doesn’t exist on the humanities side at the moment. Or at least not in such a self-conscious way that it gives itself a name and gathers together to blog. Humanities graduates, in their infinite variety, don’t find a specific sense of common purpose online, probably because the number of professional spheres and ways of life open to them are traditionally wide. People who trained as scientists of various sorts do feel a greater cohesiveness, it seems to me, even where they go on into unrelated fields. They have a more lasting shared culture, probably because many of their likeliest professional spheres are specifically related to their university training. The cultural glue of studenthood is very powerful, and may be sustained for longer among, say, doctors than among, say, civil servants. All this would explain why the online skeptic community has grown from that particular side of learning, even though its concern with an evidence base is not unique.

Anyway, one potential weakness in the science/skeptic outlook, it seems to me, is an occasional impatience with pluralism in education. Scientists traditionally have a hard time in terms of funding, so unsurprisingly they have developed a  sort of collective chip about it, and in particular about the idea that there could be any merit in funding certain arts and humanities subjects. Charles Clarke lost his seat at the election, and after giving three  cheers for the end of another authoritarian home secretary, I gave another small one for the end of an anti-pluralist. In 2003 Clarke suggested that “unproductive” humanities subjects could have funding withdrawn. Naturally, all the liberal arts broadsheets set off in full cry after him for being a philistine.

My response to Clarke would have been much simpler. Clive Bloom wrote along similar lines of the uselessness of much funded humanities research in the THES recently, and oddly ended up reminding me of nothing so much as  science and medical research. In so much research, in all fields, we simply don’t know how the thing ends. The applications aren’t immediately obvious. This or that obscure paper or experiment might be a tributary into an uncharted river, a new line of enquiry, a new field even. It is probably true that 50% of all humanities research is useless how-many-angels stuff, but like the man said of his advertising campaigns, no-one knows which 50% is useless.

Surely, if we take a sort of fundie approach to education at any level – from the arts, the humanities or the sciences side – we’re cutting off our own options, and far from incidentally cutting off a proportion of the population from its potential. We lose one segment of the Ken Robinsons of the world. Science training, for example, doesn’t equip you to think  about or design new education systems, or undesign them – even though a new education system might be fundamental to the successful provision of science training in future. And set alongside Robinson’s reconception of what education should be about, wrangling over which subject areas should attract most postdoctoral funding starts to look unbearably petty.

How you would even begin to translate Robinson’s vision of pluralism and local variation into reality, and basically give education its own inbuilt capacity to evolve and meet humanity’s needs, is an entire culture of blogs unto itself. (And free schools look like the clumsiest of first attempts, set uselessly within the same old framework.) But you certainly couldn’t expect to be successful if you began by rejecting one of those two basic tenets, and it’s a shame to see otherwise thoughtful people moving in that direction.

Where’s the offer we can’t refuse?

I keep being told by Labour commentators and supporters that for the Lib Dems to do a deal with the Conservatives would be to walk away from the only chance of the electoral reform that the Lib Dems have always fought for. I keep being told that only Labour offers that chance.

I’m certainly not sanguine about what Cameron is likely to offer, but I am starting to wonder about the smoke and mirrors on the other side as well. Obviously, Labour has had thirteen years of vast parliamentary majorities to reform the system and restrained their eagerness, so we are right to be cynical about their late conversion.

But they could have blown all that doubt away – and put the Lib Dems in a tricky bind – if they had come out immediately after the election and very publicly made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. Brown gone, Citizens Convention, referendum on STV, open to generous negotiation on all other Lib Dem policies. Something so obviously better than what we’re likely to get out of Cameron that Clegg might be tempted to go against common sense, honour and democracy and seek an alliance of the two smaller parties against the larger one.

This would have been absolutely impossible on Friday, of course, when Clegg stuck to his word and allowed the party with the most votes to take the first shot at government. But there have been three days of talks with the Conservatives now, with amicable briefing on both sides; no-one can say Clegg hasn’t tried. If he’s not getting the results we want, the imperatives on him to stay in negotiations with Cameron shrink by the hour. I’m not sure Clegg would do it anyway – I suspect the democratic instinct is too strong. But it would be worth Labour having a try, wouldn’t it, if only to show him up?

So where’s the offer that could tip the balance? Why hasn’t it been on the table since Saturday morning, when Sunny first pointed out the need for Labour to give Clegg a proper incentive? Why are we still today hearing briefing noises about AV, for god’s sake, a system not even proportional and can sometimes be more disproportional than FPTP? What do all the Labour supporters who chanted “We want PR” in Smith Square on Saturday think of the fact that their party of choice hasn’t actually put down a firm commitment to it?


I doubt Labour wants a LibLab coalition at all. I don’t think they care enough about electoral reform to go after it – the majority of their MPs certainly don’t. Think about this from their tribal point of view. If we go into alliance with the Tories, we’ll be wiped out in the north, Wales and worst of all Scotland. Labour are looking at the prospect of winning back all the votes it has lost to us over the last ten years and laying claim to being the “only progressive party”. The only conceivable drawback to this plan for them is that it doesn’t involve electoral reform. And Labour’s MPs don’t, by and large, don’t care about electoral reform, or have the habit of listening to the grassroots that do.

Labour are doing what they, by design of Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, have always been best at doing: creating enough sound and fury to seem like they are mounting a passionate argument. But the substance is not there. The necessaries have never actually been done, and as things stand no real prospect of a LibLab deal has been created. So, if and when a Lib/Con deal is concluded, expect Labour to suddenly and smoothly slip into wounded innocent  progressive gear.

URGENT: Have your say on what Lib Dems should do next

If you hang around the yellow bit of the internet much you’ll know that the Lib Dem Voice server is utterly borked, owing to a surfeit of people trying to get on there to tell other people what they reckon, and a surfeit of journalists trying to get on there to selectively misrepresent to the outside world what people reckon.

The text below was the last post on there, and since it’s rather important we’re being asked to copy and circulate it far and wide, so please do. At present I am assuming this is for members only, but I will update if I hear to the contrary. Members and party supporters fine. Non-supporters who do not wish to know the results of the hung parliament negotiations should therefore look away now:

What should the party do next? Have your say by 2pm on Saturday

On Saturday afternoon the party’s Federal Executive is meeting to discuss how the party should handle the Parliamentary situation. There’s no pre-set, universally supported answer to this so the FE’s discussion is going to be meaningful and important – which means that if you want to influence what the party does, now is the time to let the FE know.

Because many members of the Federal Executive are scattered around the country – sleeping, travelling back from election counts, making their way to London and so on – the FE members may be hard to get hold of and many will not necessarily be checking their emails frequently.

Therefore, in order to ensure that people have a chance to send in a view that will be read before the meeting, we’ve agreed with the Party President Ros Scott a special email address -


which can be used to email in your views. A member of staff will collate all the messages and make sure that they are drawn to the attention of Ros and also reported to the members of the FE in time for their discussion.

A few tips when emailing this address:
– Given the pressures of time, short and concise messages are likely to be more effective than 12 pages essays [chiz - AEM]
– As with letter writing or lobbying more generally, saying in full who you are and where you’re from is likely to add to the impact of the message
– Please send your message as soon as possible

Arise, geeks

In the darkest hour of the night, around 4am when Evan Harris lost his seat, someone reminded me of this Woody Allen quote:

People get the government they deserve. Unfortunately, I get the government they deserve too.

Oxford West and Abingdon was the only moment last night that I was actually scared. Not just grumblingly disappointed with the whole thing on a partisan Lib Dem level (I’m on record as saying I’d have been happy with 25% and that remains my position – I would have been). Really scared. What sort of world is it where Evan Harris can lose his seat to a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship? I stress I know nothing about the woman herself, but the background to his defenestration – hate mail from pro-life and animal cruelty groups, frenzied character assassinations from the ghastly Cristina Odone, and an unspeakably unpleasant piece of twit-gloating from the even ghastlier Nadine Dorries soon afterwards – is inescapable.

Evan lost his seat because an ungodly alliance of the Daily Mail mob, the woo mob and the Christian fundie mob went after him with pitchforks and burning torches. It worked. They’re probably dancing round a flaming pyre somewhere right now, celebrating, before they sober up with a spot of demon exorcism.

It scares me, the thought of these people imposing their morality on others. That’s why I’m a liberal. I don’t want these puritans trying to influence my life and my rights, reducing the abortion limit on moral grounds, building their narrow beliefs about familial organisation into my tax system and turning out baseless judgemental guff under the banner of “social research”.

Why, then, am I getting them? Partly, lets face it, because Christian Conservatives tend to be good at attracting money, and money wins  political campaigns as we saw in Richmond. But also partly because their mindset lends itself to collective activity in a way that mine, frankly, doesn’t. It took me twenty-eight years to stop seeing politics as some dirty little squabble far beneath my lofty uber-rational notice. What, you mean I might have to commit to things I might not 100% agree with? Do things I couldn’t see the point of? I might have to – gulp – surrender some of my autonomy to a group identity?

Look again at that moment, 4am this morning, right there. Yes, I do have to. If I want people  like Evan to stop being beaten and people like Nadine to start being beaten, I’ve got to be prepared to give a little autonomy, do all the usual grunt work, put in what I can,  be prepared to be (in some sense) part of an organisation. Do things, say things and support things I wouldn’t necessarily choose to if it were entirely up to me.

And so do you. If I’ve specifically asked you to read this post (and you are, for which, thank you) it’s because I think you’re, in some sense, a great and mighty nerd, and I think it’s time we started to put things on a more formal footing if we want to (a) get Evan back into parliament and (b) stop the same battles being lost elsewhere. I don’t suggest for one moment that joining the Liberal Democrats is necessarily the thing you need to do. There are more specific ways you can help Evan regain the seat, and in any case staying out of membership means you could also help, say, a independent candidate in the same way. But sooner or later, this endarkenment thing is really going to start to close in upon us, and we are each going to have to be prepared to be a cog in the engine of reason that resists. And that might mean you – you precious little rational autonomous snowflake, you – doing things that are a bit poe-litical.

Because make no mistake – our opponents, the purveyors of unreason, the doctors of woo and the anti-secularist Christians, have no compunction whatsoever about conforming and stifling independent impulses to achieve their goals. They revel in it. It’s the sort of people they are. If you’ve not read this account of the Christianisation of Tory party policy by the excellent Chris Cook at the FT, you should do so. We don’t have to turn into those sorts of people. But we do have to be able to challenge them effectively, and that means organising, mobilising and all those others words that individualistic skeptics instinctively flinch at. It means getting off the internet too.

I do not yet have a clear idea in my mind of what such organisation would look like. I can imagine it might be based on such existing social structures as the skeptics meet-ups, with a fair bit of overlaps with various campaigns such as Sense about Science, PEN, No2ID, Unlock Democracy and so on. But it would be distinct from all these – a sceptics movement which sought a public voice, and leant its numbers to particular political causes. All this is  the roughest of rough outlines my addled brain can produce right now. I’ll return to the thought, and I dearly hope others will too (Christ, I’ve never actually caught myself longing for people to read my blog before.)

We got a horrible, horrible warning last night. If we don’t heed it, we’ve let the slide towards the triumph of unreason begin. I need to leave you with this excessively long  quote from the stupendous Less Wrong blog (and the post is honestly worth reading in full):

I’ll write more later (tomorrow?) on how I think rationalists might be able to coordinate better.  But today I want to focus on what you might call the culture of disagreement, or even, the culture of objections, which is one of the two major forces preventing the atheist/libertarian/technophile crowd from coordinating.

Imagine that you’re at a conference, and the speaker gives a 30-minute talk.  Afterward, people line up at the microphones for questions.  The first questioner objects to the graph used in slide 14 using a logarithmic scale; he quotes Tufte on The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.  The second questioner disputes a claim made in slide 3.  The third questioner suggests an alternative hypothesis that seems to explain the same data…

Perfectly normal, right?  Now imagine that you’re at a conference, and the speaker gives a 30-minute talk.  People line up at the microphone.

The first person says, “I agree with everything you said in your talk, and I think you’re brilliant.”  Then steps aside.

The second person says, “Slide 14 was beautiful, I learned a lot from it.  You’re awesome.”  Steps aside.

The third person -

Well, you’ll never know what the third person at the microphone had to say, because by this time, you’ve fled screaming out of the room, propelled by a bone-deep terror as if Cthulhu had erupted from the podium, the fear of the impossibly unnatural phenomenon that has invaded your conference.

Yes, a group which can’t tolerate disagreement is not rational.  But if you tolerate only disagreement – if you tolerate disagreement but not agreement – then you also are not rational.  You’re only willing to hear some honest thoughts, but not others.  You are a dangerous half-a-rationalist.

We are as uncomfortable together as flying-saucer cult members are uncomfortable apart.  That can’t be right either.  Reversed stupidity is not intelligence.


With apologies to the Daily Mash.

Here are some of the headlines you can expect to see tomorrow (or if you’re surgically attached to the internet, tonight):




Others have written on these matters (ok, the first two) far more effectively than I could.

(But this much, I can tell you: in a country with a large deficit, a generally overspending government, and a desperate need for stimuli to work and to enterprise, widdling away billions on inheritance tax cuts and marriage tax breaks is high up the list of things you probably shouldn’t do. No-one should be in any doubt about the fact that supporting the Tories for their economic competence is largely a matter of faith.)

Yup, we’re going to get a lie sandwich in the face, which we absolutely do not deserve. So don’t forget – establishment figures like those ordering the articles and those calling their tune are only scared because we, the Lib Dems, represent a threat to their “arrangements”. And believe me, I’m fully aware of how ridiculous that sounds – when a mainstream political party led by a decent chap constitutes a fundamental threat to the status quo in media, politics and public life, something has gone badly wrong with the system. And so it has.

But on one subject, and one only, they are right to be afraid. Because on political reform, the Liberal Democrats are the real thing, the bona fide radicals, and political reform would spell the end of all the current hegemonies across public discourse. No matter what happens tomorrow, political reform is now the main event, and will be until some sort of reaction occurs at the very top of politics (I hear rumours of a mass rally in London this Saturday, regardless of who wins or doesn’t on Thursday). This is why they’re so afraid – and we did this. Little yellow us.* So keep calm, wear a quiet smile, and fucking carry on. You’re doing great.

*With a little help from the Telegraph. I do wonder if they really understood what they were starting with the expenses scandal. It’s a nice coincidence that the editor who oversaw that has been pushed out  of the group tonight isn’t it.

This is how we know we’re right

Let’s be clear: I am trying very hard not to romanticise. I am trying to do what Lib Dems keep exhorting each other to do, which is keep your feet on the ground, and also keep calm and carry on. Which is tricky. (There’s a lot of things to keep in there.)

I’m definitely trying to not entirely buy into the idea that there is an Establishment, an actual one with a capital E, and it favours the Duopoly, with a capital D, and we, the Lib Dems, are shut out of it because we would mean its destruction, both by reform to the political system, but also just by existing where they think we shouldn’t exist. I am trying not to think all that.

I’m trying not to say things like, “This is how we know we’re getting somewhere.”

But boy. Getting difficult, isn’t it.

First we were given advance warning by David Yelland, former editor of Sun:

Over the years the relationships between the media elite and the two main political parties have become closer and closer to the point where, now, one is indistinguishable from the other. Indeed, it is difficult not to think that the lunatics have stopped writing about the asylum and have actually taken it over.

We now live in an era when very serious men and women stay out of politics because our national discourse is conducted by populists with no interest in politics whatsoever. What we have in the UK is a coming together of the political elite and the media in a way that makes people outside London or outside those elites feel disenfranchised and powerless. But all that would go to pot if Clegg were able to somehow pull off his miracle. For he is untainted by it.

We were constantly assured with much waggling of eyebrows that there’d be “a lot more scrutiny” now. A couple of half-hearted News of the World stories were, I think, the opening salvo on Friday.

Then this from the Mail:

There can be only one credible explanation for the utterly irrational outpouring of support for the Liberal Democrats after a mere 90 minutes of X Factor-style TV politics: the public, disgusted by the near moral bankruptcy of the last Parliament, is looking for revenge.

The electorate are being totally irrational in not voting the way we say! Re-educate them immediately! Sieg heil! The commenters don’t seem too impressed.

A slew of sloppy stories surrounded this central core, attempting to spread misinformation about Clegg’s expenses. The Mail claimed that Lib Dems were “among the worst” expenses offenders, which is demonstrably not true. There was even an attempt to imply that Clegg’s mortgage on his own house in London was paid for on expenses. So far as I know, his second home is in Sheffield and that’s what he claims for – anyone know any different? If not, he is basically being accused of spending his own money on his own house.

And this is what the front pages look like this morning. Open it in another tab. Keep it there in case you need to have another look.

I suspect the Mail need detain us no longer, since it appears to have fallen screaming into a boiling vat of self-parody (Clegg does carry off that pink dress well, though, it must be said). But even the Telegraph, so far as I can tell, is pushing the bounds of credibility. It’s reporting that Clegg received donations from registered donors into his own account, notified them to the Register of Members’ Interests, and paid them out as half a salary for one of his researchers. Which was the purpose for which they’d been intended.

Unless there is something more to this that the Telegraph are keeping back, I am struggling to see what point they are trying to make. I am forced to conclude that they are playing on general ignorance about tax arrangements. An MP, so far as I know, is a sole trader, and employs their own staff. I’m a sole trader myself and I do everything through my private bank account. Of course, many sole traders set up separate accounts for their business, especially if they have lots of income and outgoings (builders, for example).  It’s not clear whether Clegg has done this or not, because the Torygraph doesn’t want  to tell us. Certainly the bank statements also show mortgage payments on his second home, so it may well be the case that this is a bank account opened specifically for expenses purposes. But even if it wasn’t, there’s no obligation whatever on a sole trader to run items through a separate bank account – it’s not like being a company. A separate expenses account would still be an ordinary current account in his own name  anyway (which is precisely why we can’t tell whether that’s what this is or not).

I’m told ITV news were highly unimpressed last night, and this morning they don’t even seem to be running it on their home page, Krishnan Guru-Murthy didn’t think it was a “killer blow” especially given the opacity of Tory office funding, Iain Dale thinks it’s a terrible indictment of the British press which will backfire. Even Nick Robinson reports the view that it’s a smear (22.26pm) and seems to think (see bottom of this story) that Clegg has been badly treated.

Yes, looking at the assemblage of the right-wing papers today, it’s hard not to start romanticising what’s going on here. If we’re upsetting them this much, these press barons and billionaires and opponents of reform, these ghastly, leathery old pooh-bahs of the status quo, we must be doing something right. Look again at those ludicrous front pages – that is how much they don’t want us to succeed. What is it that’s making them this afraid of us, if it isn’t the prospect of getting it in their own corrupt necks?

(In fact, my god, maybe this is how much they don’t want us to succeed. Murdoch’s people can’t really be trying to bully other newspapers into following their line. Can they? Can they?)

And we all know why they’ve had to resort to this. Because “scrutiny” didn’t work. Scrutiny of our policies was supposed to be the moment at which everything Clegg did in the first debate evaporated in a puff of smoke. Scrutiny was supposed to reveal that our policies were ill-thought-out and badly costed, that we weren’t to be taken seriously. Scrutiny was supposed to show, not just that we have policies that some people don’t like (which we do, like all parties, and we’ll take it on the chin), but that none of our policies were worth a damn at all.

That was the plan. It went wrong. During the first debate, Cameron blithely assumed that we had no costings at all set up for the £10,000 personal allowance – and handed Nick a chance to explain them. Afterwards, Cameron admitted he hadn’t read the manifesto, and it was then that it dawned on me – christ, maybe none of them have. Seriously. Maybe they assume it’s just like theirs, and doesn’t have any actual numbers in it. Can the two big parties really have got so comfortable with the idea that the Lib Dems are “useless” and not a threat that they’ve started believing their own hype?

Make no mistake. (See? I’m doing it again. I’m saying things like “Make no mistake.” Any minute now it’ll be “Mark my words.”) These people have come up against the cold truth that all sprawling, inefficient businesses must eventually come across. There’s a leaner, fitter competitor out there who wants your customers, and because they haven’t got an existing custom base, they have to work twice as hard to be viable. Their offering has to be, as Clegg put it of the manifesto, “stress-tested to destruction”. Because that’s the reality of life for a third party in a duopoly system. The big parties spent three days trying to land blows on policy, and only succeeded when they lied about them (there are now people in Britain who honestly believe that it is Lib Dem policy to give the vote to paedophiles).

Hence the wild expenses stories, the ludicrous front page spreads, the incredible spectacle of the Mail incandescent and spinning with fury because the good little peoplebots aren’t doing their masters’ bidding.

The Mail, the Telegraph, the Sun and the Express absolutely do not want you to vote Liberal Democrat. They don’t want to see the first sign that their time has come, that oligarchical politics controlled by billionaires might not be what people want any more. Even after the election, however it goes, we’ll be on their radar. We’ll get an occasional warning shot across the bows if we look like getting important again, while the rest of the time they’ll redouble their efforts to return British politics to stage two of Ghandi’s maxim:

First they ignore you
Then they laugh at you
Then they fight you
Then you win

We probably won’t succeed this time, maybe not even next time. But everyone knows that the plucky little underdog eventually wins, and no-one knows this better than the national press of Great Britain. That’s why they’re so scared.

The resources controlled by these people are enormous. With odds like this stacked against us, as Terry Pratchett might say, how can we possibly lose? It’s a million-to-one chance, but it might just work.

(Hey, count yourself lucky I didn’t finish up with “We cannot falter. We dare not fail.”)


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