Monday, July 20, 2015

Weight a minute...

Liz Kendall sounds jolly cross with the Mail on Sunday for asking how much she weighs:
In fact she looks the same weight as the Duchess – about 8st – though when I ask she slaps me down with a raucous ‘f*** off!’, adding quickly: ‘Don’t print that.’
Which is fair enough - it's nobody's business but her own how much she weighs. I'm not entirely sure that she's right to say, as she did to Buzzfeed, that this is all evidence of terrible sexism:
"I just think it’s unbelievable that in the 21st century women still get asked such very, very different questions from men. Can you imagine the Mail on Sunday asking the weight of the prime minister, George Osborne or any other leading politician?"
Let's use that example shall we? Here are some Mail stories about George Osborne:
Strikingly skinny, our Chancellor's been on a cuts regime himself: QUENTIN LETTS on lean Osborne's latest move to slim the deficit
Is George trying TOO hard to be gorgeous? Osborne delivers Budget with a natty suit and Antonio Banderas-style haircut
Chancellor austerity policy on fast food! Osborne opts for the 5:2 diet as part of an image makeover
George Osborne provides a hugely informal - and VERY revealing - portrait of life at Downing Street
That last one includes the following (slightly emetic) line:
But it is more intimate matters that we discuss first. It is impossible not to notice his dramatic weight loss. He is a real skinny malink. ‘Am I?’ he says, modestly patting his slim line waist.
I have every sympathy with Liz Kendall not wanting to talk about her weight. Unfortunately I don't think that this is just a woman thing any more...

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Running with the Fox & Hunting with the Hounds

The abiding dilemma with politics is how much is cock-up and how much is conspiracy. Let's take the fox-hunting bill as an example, first of all as a cock-up.

The Tories have a problem with their back-benchers (especially those of the red-meat persuasion). There is a residue of resentment from the way that the Labour Party forced through the fox hunting ban back in 2004, especially the none-too-subtle elements of class war that came with it. Since with his majority of 16 David Cameron is going to have to rely on his fractious back-benchers to get key legislation trough this Parliament, why not throw them a bone early? There's a problem, in that the ban is fairly totemic for the Labour Party, and there are enough Tory antis to prevent it getting through a vote of the full house, but this shouldn't be a problem because the fox-hunting bill only affects England and Wales, where the Tories have a thumping majority.  Into this stump the SNP, announcing that they will oppose the ban being relaxed and forcing the Government to pull the motion.

Results: Egg on face all round, Government looks weak and pusillanimous. SNP look like king-makers, and Labour get to keep their ban. Now, let's look at this again as a conspiracy.

The Tories have a long-term aim of instituting English Votes for English Laws, but certain back-benchers are unhappy about the means of getting there. A free vote on relaxing the fox-hunting ban was in the Tory manifesto, but the last thing David Cameron wants is endless wrangling about toffs on horseback. The SNP have used fox-hunting frequently as a perfect example of a bill which only affects England, and which they would therefore never vote on. However, it was always likely that they would be unable to resist stirring the pot by embarrassing the Government.

The result is a bill that plainly and obviously only affects England, but that the SNP go into linguistic contortions to justify voting against. At a stroke the 'self-denying convention' that the SNP have talked about in the past (partly as a reason EVEL is unnecessary) is blown forever. The need for EVEL (as far as the Tories are concerned) is clearer than ever. The back-bench Tories who have been most troublesome over EVEL are also among the most pro-hunting.

Result: SNP look duplicitous, hypocritical and a bit ridiculous. The Government has a concrete example of why EVEL is required, and its back-bench doubters have had a prize objective taken away from them because it hasn't been introduced yet.

Usually the answer to these questions is cock-up. I'm not so sure this time.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Making Poverty History

The problem with Polly Toynbee is that she gets so cross about whatever the particular issue of the day is that she doesn't notice that she's contradicting herself, or basing her argument on something flat-out untrue. She is currently spitting feathers over the redefining of poverty away from the old 60% of median income.
In doublespeak, the very meaning of the word poverty disappears when to be poor no longer means to lack money.
The problem is that this entirely undermines her argument: as it stands poverty doesn't necessarily mean that you lack money, just that you have less of it than other people. She herself recognises this later in the piece, as well as correctly identifying the obvious problem with the measure:
Cameron chooses a clever time to scorn the international poverty measure – people living at below 60% of a nation’s median income. That measure means that during recessions when the median falls, the number in poverty may fall too, without the poor being a penny better off.
Which is counter-intuitive to say the least.
A more imaginatively graphic measure comes from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, using an annual opinion poll to ask the public what they regard as minimum necessities. The public regards two pairs of shoes, a winter coat, a one-week self-catering UK holiday and a birthday present costing £50 as essentials for children: fewer people reach this decency threshold than before the recession. 
OK, that's a reasonable approach - like Adam Smith's idea about the labourer and the linen shirt:
A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably, though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty, which, it is presumed, nobody can well fall into without extreme bad conduct.'
This is not a measure of how people's incomes compare to the median but whether they can afford what contemporary society views as an adequate way of life. That's much more helpful than a relative measure, which is a way of determining inequality, not poverty. So how does Polly characterise this?
That’s what relative poverty means – not a dry statistic, but whether people have what are seen as essentials in an ever-changing society.
Which is obviously wrong - it's an absolute measure of poverty and explicitly not a relative one. It is, in fact, much closer to what the Government are proposing. That's the problem with getting so angry when writing - you shout too loudly to hear yourself think.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

House of Lords Reform

The House of Lords has become a ridiculous and unsustainable mess. There are nearly 800 members, all but 92 of them appointed. Since there is no real mechanism for reducing numbers (short of voluntary retirement) new Governments have a choice of either increasing these numbers still further or accepting that a majority Government in the House of Commons is offset by a minority in the House of Lords.

Anomalies now abound: the Liberal Democrats have 8 MPs but 101 members of the House of Lords. UKIP won 4 million votes in the 2015 election but have only 3. The whole thing is absurd and needs reform. Luckily, I have a plan...

The big objection to an elected House of Lords is the fact that as a revising chamber it is secondary to the House of Commons, something hard to justify if the two Houses have an equal electoral mandate. However, I think there's a way around this. My plan works as follows:

The House of Lords will become an elected House, with its numbers based on the proportions each party won in the General Election. However, to recognise the historic importance of cross-benchers, their numbers will be determined by non-voters. In other words, if turnout is 70%, then 30% of the Upper House will be made up of cross-bencher MPs of no party. Each other party will therefore have a proportion of peers determined by the share of the total electorate they received.

The next point is that the 'party list' of peers will be determined not by the political parties directly, but by the Lords themselves - each party in the Lords will determine its own list by ballot (rather like the old Labour shadow cabinet elections). This provides a greater degree of independence from the party, determines who gets to sit as a cross-bencher, and reduces the democratic mandate of the Lords sufficiently not to trample over the Commons. Elections to the 'slate' could take place 6 months before the General Election (so long as fixed term Parliaments still exist).

Tony Blair's half-reforms of the Lords have only lasted as long as this because no party really wants change badly enough. The can's been kicked far enough down the road now that we may as well pick it up...