Thursday, 14 October 2010

Canals to be used to transport the poor: New Tory Proposals

So the government spending review is imminent, and one of the chief Tory targets in this review are the quangos.  Quasi non-governmental organisations (as they are rarely referred to) look after everything from teaching school kids how to cycle bikes safely (Cycling England) to looking after Britain's canal system (British Waterways). The Tories hate quangos because they see them as big government interfering in the lives of people, although the "non-governmental" part of the title clearly escapes them.  

A spokesman for British Waterways was adamant that while British Waterways might be axed the canals and their management would be protected for all eternity for the british people to enjoy.  However, there are contradictory messages emanating from the Tory camp. 

In a statement, the Tory transport minister, Lord Tottermouth Fotheringill claimed that actually as well as British Waterways being abolished so too would the canals in their current form. Lord Fotheringill argues that full use is not being made of the canals with current usage statistics signifying massive waste in the system.  Instead he is proposing to drain and clean the canals to use them as a new, below-eye-level, dry-transport system.  Lord Fortheringill claimed that "Such a system will be an invaluable way of transporting poorer members of our society around the country.  It is an efficient, low-cost, and importantly low-visibility solution", adding that "If everyone was being honest they would admit that they do not want to have to look at or smell poor people as they move from place to place, regardless of whether they are making their way to work in the mines or if it is part of their annual migratory patterns".  Appealing to fairness, Lord Fotheringill pleaded "Isn't it right that poor people should be able to travel freely around the country in the same way as their betters? My goal is to remove the social barriers built into our current, arcane transport network".  

Downing Street later responded to these statements saying that these are only policies that are under consideration and it is wrong to read too much into the transport minister's statements. 

Friday, 20 August 2010

Progressive Smrogressive

Joe earns £200,000 per annum, while Derek earns £15,000.  If you think that everyone should "share the pain" in the current government's programme of cuts, you might think that knocking 10% from both Joe and Derek's salary would be the most equitable thing to do.  If you do, you are wrong.  And possibly a member of the conservative party.

To suggest that leaving Derek with £13,500 would not have a more deleterious effect on his life than leaving Joe with £180,000 is, quite frankly, ludicrous.  Over a certain amount of income, you need incrementally much larger sums of money to make substantive improvements in quality of life, life chances, health, well-being, and so on. In other words, taking £1,500 from Derek has a far greater negative impact on his life than taking £20,000 from Joe.  One means not being able to run a car this year, the other means not being able to buy the new Ferrari this year.

The government's current approach to making the tax system more equitable really tells the tale of a government with a split personality.  On the one hand, the Lib Dem backed tax plans will raise the amount at which people begin paying tax to £10,000 over the next 3 years. Obviously this will massively benefit low-wage workers, but it will also help everyone else who earns over this amount.  This is a relatively progressive tax.  On the other hand, there is the new Labour-proposed and Tory-backed 50% tax rate targeting the "middle classes".  Except that this will only apply to individuals earning over £150,000 per year.  If you think this is going to affect the middle classes you are either a) mad, b) a conservative party member, or c) both.  This £150,000 threshold will only affect the top 1% of earners - since when did this mean "middle class"?

Given the tax avoidance strategies routinely employed by the very wealthy ,which some estimates put at upwards of £40 billion every year (and yes, if you earn over £150,000 a year you ARE very wealthy), it remains to  be seen how much money this will even bring to the Treasury.  Realistically, this threshold needs to be considerably lower if it can be considered anything approaching this "progressive" word that Dave and Nick (or "Dick Clameron" if you prefer) have been bandying about. What are the chances? Progressively low, I'd say.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Would you give BT £1 million just for being a helluva nice company?

We're doing a bit of a Watchdog service today.  Let's talk about phone calls.  Because it's good to talk!
Let's say you make a call of 3 minutes and 20 seconds at a cost of 2.45 p per minute.  How much should it cost?  Well, that's a duration of 3.4 minutes x 2.45p = 8.1666585p (£0.081666585). Oh, and there's a call connection charge of 9.9p, and then we should add VAT to this (17.5%), which gives us 21.2283237p.  Ok, so on your bill it should read £0.2123 as the cost of this call. Right? Wrong!

For BT and many other companies, they do this instead.

The call lasting 3.4 minutes is rounded up to the next minute, making the call duration 4 minutes.  Now, anyone who has completed primary school maths will tell you that you only round up then the number after the decimal is .5 or greater.  Ok, so they've rounded - it's not a big deal. Well, it might not be, if they just rounded once, but they don't. 

The cost for that call is now 4 x 2.45p = 9.8p.  Guess what? That's now rounded up to 10p.  Ok, so now the call-placement charge is added, which is 9.9p, except before this is added, guess what happens? That's right, it's rounded to 10p.  So lastly we add our VAT which gives us a grand total of 23.5p.  Phew, finally got there. Oh, except I forgot to round that one too.  Right, so the actual final cost is 24p for my call. This amounts to an additional 2.77p just from rounding at these various stages.  That's an extra 13% on your call cost.

Ok, so this is just a toy example, but it does illustrate the ridiculous nature of the phone companies' approach to maths.  You could do many examples where the cost of rounding would be greater (for even shorter calls with greater rounding discrepancies) or lesser (for longer calls that have lower rounding discrepancies). 

But how much would a company like BT actually make from this little mathematical sleight of hand? Well, it was recently announced that BT would be increasing call charges by 10%, which would affect about 12.5 million customers. How much could they make from these customers with their method of rounding?

If customers made say three calls per week, with similar rounding discrepancies to the example above, this would raise BT an additional £1 million per year (actually £1,038,750).  Does this seem fair to you?  Of course, this amounts to just pennies to individual customers, but I'm still not sure that justifies this particular billing formula.  BT made a profit of over £1 billion in 2009, surely they don't need to be multiplicatively  rounding customers' individual calls as well as increasing their call charges by 10%. 

I've mentioned BT here simply because they are the biggest telecoms company with the largest number of landline customers.  However, almost every other phone company operates a similar approach.  Is there any need for it?  Is there any justification for it? Absolutely not.  This is simply corporate greed creaming off as much as they can from people who can little afford in a time of deep recession.  These companies should feel shame, but of course that's the great thing about corporations; they have no heart.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

For those who support PR we salute you!

The campaign for a proportional voting system has been trundling along for a LONG time in the UK.  It's always formed part of the liberal (or liberal/SDP alliance previously) platform and only now is there the tiniest glimmer of hope of some change to the existing system.  While a change to the Alternative Vote (AV) from first-past-the-post is a move in the right direction, it is so far from being fair and proportional it is laughable - check out my previous graphs on this matter! 

What is more amazing is that politicians are still shovelling out the same unfounded, misrepresented comments and, in some cases, downright lies regarding the nature and implementation of PR.  If you know of a politician who is anti-PR, ask yourself (or them) why would anyone be against a fairer system of representation?  Just to hammer this message home, I invite you to take a look at an ad done by Monty Python's very own John Cleese in 1987 highlighting the pros and cons of this new, scary and complex voting system.  Enjoy!

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Is Citibank Seeking Dress-Code Advice from Iranian Clerics?

I recently posted a story about the Iranian cleric who was blaming the provocative dress of Iranian women on earthquakes in the region.  It seems that men telling women what to wear is not the sole preserve of deluded Iranian clerics; it also happens at Citibank in New York.

Here's an interesting case, being filed by Debrahlee Lorenzana who claims her male bosses found her business suits too alluring and distracting and could she please stop wearing them please.  Citibank reportedly argued that she was dressing "in a manner that was upsetting to her easily distracted male managers". Poor guys!  Maybe if they focussed more on their shoddy investment practices (Citibank received over $50 million in the bank bailout) they wouldn't be so easily flustered by what their female colleagues were wearing.

Monday, 10 May 2010

2010 Election Results Under Different Voting Systems

Thanks to some number crunching from the Electoral Reform Society, we can now see what the election might have looked like under different voting systems.  I've taken their figures and plotted them below in a couple of different formats.  In each graph you can compare results as they actually are (under First-past-the-post) and results under AV (Alternative Vote), STV (Single Transferrable Vote - the Liberal Democrats preferred system) and under a fully proportional allocation (based on share of the national vote).  I don't think it takes much to realise that pretty much any of the alternatives is going to be fairer than FPTP, but there's still quiet a discrepancy between the different systems.

How would PR have changed previous election results?

Here's a quick link to a BBC article that shows how 2005's election outcome would change under various voting systems.  One of the issues for the UK to consider is how difficult it is to implement these different systems.  For example, moving to Alternative Vote (AV) where you simply rank candidates could be done very easily - no changes in constituency boundaries or in the number of MPs per constituency.  However, if we moved to Single Transferable Vote (STV), we would need to design larger, multi-member constituencies which would take quite some time to sort out I imagine!  Of course, the ones take a little longer to implement also seem to be the ones that are more proportional.  More on this later!

Friday, 7 May 2010

The Lie Laid Bare

So, after weeks of arguing why first-past-the-post is the one true electoral system because it always delivers clear-cut results, David Cameron's lies about electoral reform have once again been laid bare.  We are now in hung parliament territory for certain.  Of course, it may be a bit harsh to suggest that Cameron has lied consistently throughout the campaign when discussing electoral reform.  There is another option; perhaps he doesn't quite have the mental capacity to understand what an equitable, proportional electoral system could look like!  So, which is it Dave - are you being stupid or deceptive on the issue of electoral reform?

And now we watch with interest as the Tories try to circumvent constitutional rules (which say that Labour, being the incumbents, have first dibs on forming a government) and get into bad so quickly with the Lib Dems that their own mothers would be ashamed of them!

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Is the lying over yet?

Jeremy Paxman has oft been quoted as having the mantra "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?" to guide his interviewing technique - he denies the attribution of course. After just a few weeks of listening to the politicians bark their messages at us, I can only imagine how he must feel dealing with these lying liars day in and day out. How they manage to have debate after debate, argument after argument and yet avoid saying anything of real substance is pretty astounding.

To summarise my memory of the Leaders' debates...

Chair: Leader A, what is your party doing about issue X?

Leader A: What haven't we done about issue X! The real issue is how parties B and C have totally avoided this issue and their complete lack of transparency over issue X means the public simply cannot trust them. 

Leader B: I find it completely disengenuous that Leader A would suggest that Party B had been ducking the issue. The public are not fools. They realise that Party B really has no long-term strategy for solving issue X and that we really are the only party of the future.

Chair: And Leader C? What are your thoughts on issue X?

Leader C: Well, I agree with Leader B...

and so it went ad nauseum. 

Still, despite the media and much of the public baying for substance, it never really emerged.  Even the most transparent of the parties (the Lib Dems) have about £30-40 billion in uncosted savings; in their deficit plans and this is by far the best of the three main parties.  Furthermore, the economic policies were probably the most aspects of the party manifestos that had most meat to their bones; nevermind issues like the environment and education, which hardly got a look in.  So, regardless of which parties form the next government, we really don't know exactly what we're going to get.  One thing we can predict with safety though is that it is going to be tough.  Very tough. 

So, barring a prophecy of long-term misery can we venture any more short-term projections regarding the election outcome?  What will May 7th bring?

First up, I predict that it will be close; very close.  My fear is that the Tories will be very close to a n overall majority and so will end up in bed with a combination of the Ulster unionist parties (DUP and UUP).  Heaven help us!
Secondly, I think that at an individual constituency level there will be many, many recounts.  I suspect some may even resort to legal battles, especially given there have been noises about postal vote tampering. 
Lastly, despite the Lib Dem's surge and talk of over 100 seats, I just don't see it happening. Like many commentators, I think Lib Dem support has already started to wain.  So, I think we will see an increase in Lib Dem representation, but it will be more like 72-75 seats rather than the 100-105 they are dreaming about. 

I hope I'm proved wrong on this last point.  I believe a coalition involving the Lib Dems really does offer a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change this rotten system for the better.  Let's hope us voters don't just go and f%$k it up!
Oh, and one last thing...GET OUT AND VOTE!!!

Monday, 26 April 2010

Talking to policemen in car parks?

I'm really not sure if this the title of this post is to be read metaphorically or literally.  Take a look at this interview with UKIP leader Lord Pearson and decide for yourself.  Daniel Finkelstein asks the question whether this is the worst campaign interview ever.  I'm not sure that it is, but I'll bet there are many members of UKIP wishing Nigel Farage (pronounced Niggle Fah-rag) was still at the helm! This is a re-posting from Left Foot Forward.

Thank god these idiots aren't going to provide a plausible option in the event of a hung parliament!

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Iranian Cleric Uses Scientific Logic To Prove He's An Idiot

In a startling piece of logic, Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi (yes, you read that correctly), an Iranian Islamic cleric discovered how earthquakes are caused.  Through rigorous research he found that they are caused not by the natural movements of giant plates of the earth's crust, but instead by Iran's women-folk dressing immodestly.  In a quote on the BBC's site, Sedighi explains that "women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray and spread adultery in society which increases earthquakes".  Can't see any gaps in his chain of reasoning there.
Sedighi likes to stroke each of the microphones in turn in order to CENSORED.

In his sermon, he went on to plead with young Iranians not to disappoint God and to wear looser fitting clothes.  Amen to that. 

Friday, 16 April 2010

I agree with Nick! No, I agree with Nick!

Well, as the Tory and Labour leaders attempted to knock seven shades out of each other last night, they found themselves in agreement on one topic that may have a more profound effect on this election than they would have hoped.  In between spats and ripostes about immigration and economic recovery both Cameron and Brown were competing to align themselves with the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg.  Is this going to be a case of Brown and Cameron keeping their eye on each other while the long-shot Clegg surprises them on the outside? 
What the leaders all fail to realise is that the colour scheme means they are actually competing to become president of Columbia and not prime minister of the UK. Let's watch the expressions on their faces when they find out!

I had high hopes for Clegg before the "debate" (I'm sorry, but the level of staging and preparedness prevents this from being a true and open debate), and he presented himself very well.  I'm glad that none of the three leaders made monumental gaffes as this will allow people to focus on the content of what they're actually saying.  As Chris Huhne of the Lib Dems suggested, this debate format may be pretty shallow, but it's the least shallow thing we've had in national elections in years!  The interesting thing now will be whether Clegg's win in the debate can translate into votes on May 6th.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Tax Plans: Labour Vs UKIP

On Sunday's Andrew Marr show the UKIP leader, Lord Pearson, outlined how his party would like to introduce a flat rate of tax at 31% for everyone earning above £11,000.  Wow, that sounds fair you might think.  And it means we would have a much less complex tax system.  But how would it pan out?  For your convenience I've graphed the tax take for various income levels directly contrasting income tax to be paid under the current Labour system and the proposed UKIP system.  

Basically, this would be great news for anyone on minimum wage; with this system you would save about £705 a year (assuming UKIP used the same Tax Free Allowance levels as currently exist).  Not bad at all.  But as soon as you cross that magical £11K barrier things turn ugly.  Sure, everyone would like to see high earners pay a bit more tax.  But do we want a society where someone earning £12K goes from paying £1105 in tax to paying a £1712.75?  That's a massive 55% increase on the tax that individual is paying.  The picture is exactly the same for many middle-income earners.  This is a classic right-wing approach to politics, appealing to the low-paid, disenfranchised voter in order to pedal more extremist nonsense.  I'll leave you to make your own mind up on whether you'd like to see such a tax system in place!  

I can only imagine that given UKIP's policies on the EU (leave) and their model for a fair and equitable society (Switzerland) it would please a lot of Tory backbenchers to have them as coalition partners in the event of a hung parliament.  God help us all!

Monday, 12 April 2010

Need to rise above the election?

If you happen to be in the south of England and are already feeling the need to escape electoral campaign antics, one possibility might be to head on down to the Hovercraft Museum in Lee-on-Solent (between Portsmouth and Southampton).  Apparently it has the world's only collection of historic hovercraft, with over 60 vessels for you to feast your eyes upon.  It's probably not the kind of thing I'd be into myself, but you know, whatever floats your boat!

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Dave's Son Tells It Like It Is

In what may be a contender for quote of the election campaign, David Cameron's 4-year old son Elwen came out with "Stop making boring speeches Daddy!".  It's the most insightful piece of political punditry  I've heard yet.   If you're interested, the Irish Times manage to stretch this nugget into a full article here.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Cambridgeshire will have the 'most boring' election

Following from yesterday's post on the failings of the first-past-the-post voting system, the Electoral Reform Society have calculated that Cambridgeshire's constituencies will have the most boring election this time round.   The Tories hold six seats, while the Lib Dems hold one (in Cambridge itself) and according to the society's calculations none of this likely to change.  If you're a voter who is craving change in the system, Cambridgshire is not the place to be!  The BBC has more here

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Your vote doesn't count, so why bother?

The current first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system creates an environment of safe seats; seats where the incumbent candidate (or party) are practically guaranteed to hold the seat in any election.  For example, in the Newcastle upon Tyne Central constituency the Labour MP Jim Cousins  has held his seat for the last 23 years.  Most people have some idea that this happens, but perhaps don't realise the scope of the effects of FPTP in limiting their choice come election time.  Metro have helpfully shown that people's votes simply will not count in up to 400 constituencies this time around.  Given that there are 650 constituencies, that is a colossal proportion of voters who are essentially being disenfranchised.  So what can you do?  Vote for parties and candidates that are absolutely committed to giving us a fairer, proportional system.  For the moment, this almost certainly means not voting Tory or Labour!

Wednesday, 7 April 2010


Pretty attention grabbing headline I thought. Or what about "WILL TEENAGE SEX KILL HARD-WORKING FAMILIES?" OR, "COULD YOUR DEODORANT GIVE YOU CANCER?" These are the kinds of serious questions that this year's parliamentary candidates really need to be addressing. These are the questions that Joe and Joanna Public want answered. Or maybe they're just automatically generated Daily Mail-alike headlines from here*. Thanks to the nice people at for hosting that one! By the way, one of those headlines is real: any thoughts?

*Thanks to Paul for the link!.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Why the Tories are wrong about tax cuts

Over the last few months a dividing line has been drawn between the tories on the one hand and the lib dems and labour on the other hand with respect to "cutting the deficit".

The tories are proposing sharp and wide ranging cuts as soon as they enter government. Lib dems and labour are taking a longer term view, preferring to spread less severe pain over a longer period. While the lib dems have been a bit quiet on the specifics, labour has said it will halve the deficit over four years. While the labour approach is far from being "right", the tories are so far off the economic barometer it's scary.

Firstly, We have already seen in previous recessions that rapid cuts lead to prolonged recessions. So why do the Tories think it would be different this time around? It's certainly not clear to me, but maybe I'm just a bit slow. However, when we consider how the tories responded initially to the banking crisis we can see that it was at odds with every single western nation's response (with the possible exception of Ireland, and we all know how well that's going!). So why would anyone believe the Tories have it right just a few months later? They are either going to have to work a lot harder to convince people that their plans for the economy (and their calculations) add up, or they are going to have to change tack in a big way.

The thing that worries me most about the Tory plans is that they hurt the most vulnerable, especially when it involves increases in VAT or other such inequitable flat taxes. But maybe this is secretly part of Tory policy? Bolster the wealth of the already wealthy while taking a little bit here and there from the lower socio-economic classes until they are so deflated the concept of social mobility looks like a dot on the horizon. While the tories make arguments for fiscal responsibility, which seem to be convincing a lot of the electorate, the reality is that they are paving the way for even greater inequality, even greater self-interest and even less (of the much needed) positive reform of the workings of parliament, the house of lords and our democracy in general.

The question is why do we need rapid, swingeing cuts? Surely the state will still be here in 50 years time? Why not spread out our repayment schedule allowing us to protect our most important services (health, welfare, education) while at the same time making these much vaunted "efficiency savings". If the £10 billion annual efficiency savings could be made we would be well on our way in a few short years to stabilising the nation's finances. So again, why rush it? The Tories have yet to provide a good, clear and honest answer to this simple question. Will we get this answer in the run up to the election? don't bank on it!

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Hypocrisy: 1, Cameron: 0

Don't you just love it when some of our favourite politicians are found to be speaking out of both sides of their mouth. David Cameron has been banging on about the unfairness of electoral reform and making largely unfounded claims about alternative candidate voting systems.

In brief, the Tories are all for sticking with the current first-past-the-post system (FPTP) and are against the government-backed alternative vote system (AV). Oh, and they are most definitely against the Lib Dem backed single-transferable vote system (STV), which is the only proportional system of the three.

However, Michael Crick of the BBC reports that, if the Tories had used FPTP in electing their current leader, we'd be more likely talking about "future prime minister Davis" than "future prime minister Cameron". It turns out that Cameron received only 28% of the party's first preference votes, while David Davis received 31%. It was only in subsequent rounds, which would not exist under FPTP, that Cameron overtook his party rivals. Priceless!

Any talk of the negatives of truly proportional representation (weak governments, unstable administrations etc.) are not only incorrect and misleading, but they are also irrelevant. If we are to have a representative democracy then we should have a representative and proportional system of allocating seats to parliament. That the UK is the ONLY country in Europe to use a straightforward FPTP system speaks volumes about how overdue electoral reform actually is. Although, AV is only a small step towards a proportional system, it is at least in the right direction.