The Labour leadership contest’s elephant in the room is trust

Social media is an echo chamber, and I know a lot of Labour supporters. So I have read a lot of articles on the Labour leadership recently. Just this morning, I read this Fabians article by Andrew Harrop, this article by Owen Jones, and this by Neal Lawson.

And then it occurred to me that despite the differences of opinion, one thing that they all have in common is a lack of trust. Andrew Harrop doesn’t trust Corbyn supporters to think about the voters who need Labour or to want to win elections. Neal Lawson doesn’t trust any of the candidates supported by the PLP not to try moving Labour back towards the right again.

Owen Jones poses some very important questions – to which I haven’t seen satisfactory answers by either side – but the candidates answering the questions would still be pointless if we can’t believe what they say. And to believe them requires a trust that is missing in Labour at the moment.

Owen Smith talks a good left-wing policy, but he also talks about immigration being a problem, and it’s not so long since he joined in Labour’s shameful abstention on the welfare bill. The Labour PLP say that they want to win elections, but have spent the last twelve months undermining their leader, before taking the first chance to try and oust him. And Momentum say that they want to be inclusive, but then turn a blind eye to intimidation and abuse of anyone who disagrees with them.

I probably won’t be voting in the Labour leadership elections, having left the party in February 2015. I haven’t rejoined because I don’t trust that the party has changed in any permanent way from the party that I left. I would very much like to be part of a Labour party that I trust to represent me, and to represent that people that desperately need its help.

But trust seems to be the thing that we’re short of.


Not a Corbynista

I’m getting quite fed up of being called a Corbynista. Not, I should add, because it’s an offensive term for someone who supports Corbyn; not because it’s reductionist, deliberately trying to imply that anyone who supports Corbyn is a left-wing revolutionary extremist; not because I dislike the dichotomy of splitting the whole of the Labour Party into two camps, Blairite and Corbynista.

I mean, I agree with all of those points. They’re just not the main reason that I hate being called a Corbynista. The main reason it really winds me up is that I don’t particularly support Jeremy Corbyn.

I don’t hate Corbyn. I like some of his ideas. And I strongly believe that the Labour Party needed to move back towards the left, having followed the Tories too far to the right and conceded too many arguments without a fight. But I can definitely see that Corbyn seems to be struggling with the “leader” part of being the party leader. He would be better, I suspect, in some kind of policy think tank where he can work through the various arguments and produce ideas for the party to consider.

Nevertheless, any expression of approval for anything that Corbyn does gets me branded as a Corbynista, and any disapproval gets me branded as a Blairite. I have already been called both. Not yet by the same person – but it feels like it’s only a matter of time.

Also, I’m not even currently a member of the Labour Party!

What I would really like is for Labour to find a leader who is willing to stand up to the Tories and fight their ideas, to develop a strong platform of moderately left-wing ideas, and to communicate those well to the public. That would be great. If they could form an electoral alliance with the SNP and/or Greens against the Tories, that would be even better.

Until then, I will carry on watching with interest, and hoping that things improve enough that I no longer feel unwelcome in the party that I have been a member of for much of my adult life.

In the Brexit Camp

I am imagining the reception this article had in the Brexit camp.

Iain Duncan Smith: Ah-ha! I’ve totally fooled them. They don’t see my cunning plan at all, they just think I’m stupid!

Boris Johnson: (long pause) Yes Iain, I think you’ve convinced them.

Michael Gove: (excitedly) Do you think I could use that strategy too?

Boris Johnson: (long pause) Yes Michael, I think it would definitely work for you.

Iain Duncan Smith: I have to thank you, Boris. This whole trick was inspired by your public image. I’d never have thought of this strategy on my own.

Boris Johnson: (very long pause)


Tax Credit Cuts and “That Woman on Question Time”

Okay, slightly tongue-in-cheek, but… I’ve seen a lot of discussion about last night’s Question Time, and I thought it might be helpful to summarise the issues.

There are good and bad people who vote Conservative and good and bad people who vote Labour. If you’re not sure, here’s a quick guide. When you read about this woman, do you think…

Labour voters:
– “Oh no, poor women, this is terrible and what I was afraid would happen”. You are a good person.
– “Oh no, this is terrible. On the other hand, tragic though it is, this may increase the Labour vote next time”. You are so-so. Make sure you remember this is about real people.
– “She voted Tory, she deserves everything she gets”. You are a bad person. Stop pretending you care about other people.

Conservative voters:
– “Oh no, this is terrible, how could the government do this to people”. You are a good person.
– “Oh no, this is very sad, but maybe it’s the only way to reduce the deficit and prevent worse things from happening”. You are so-so. Make sure you remember this is about real people.
– “Hah, she’s obviously a skiver not a striver and got caught out. Serves her right”. You are a bad person. Apparently you’re not even pretending to care about other people.

(Funnily enough, Twitter seems to be bringing out the worst on both sides).

Gove’s Education Policies – explained by their inventor

I’ve tried reading Dominic Cumming’s rather long-winded apologia for his education opinions. He’s now apparently off to set up a free school to try out his ideas in the real world.

I’m reminded of something I read about John Nash (I can’t find the reference just now). When he was asked how someone as intelligent as him could ever have believed his paranoid delusions, he replied that they had come from exactly the same part of his mind that had produced the ideas that won him a Nobel prize.

It’s always very important, when you have come up with a beautiful theory, to go back and sanity-check it against whatever evidence is available.

The link to the Guardian article is here, or you can read Cumming’s own article here.

Incidentally, this also exposes very clearly the logic behind Gove’s education reforms.

  • Don’t waste money educating the lower end of society as they’re genetically inferior.
  • Scrap state education, all schools should be run privately.
  • Scrap state oversight of education, including teacher training.
  • Make students work harder, the lazy layabouts.

Religion – Freedom for Who?

Prompted by this news story, about Germany’s ruling banning male circumcision on children which has outraged Jewish and Muslim religious leaders. One called it the “worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust”.

Leaving aside my annoyance at the hyperbole(*), we really need to have a discussion about where the boundaries of religious tolerance lie. What’s permissible because religion says so, and what is not permissible even though some religions say so?

Female circumcision – not okay. Male circumcision – ? Forced marriage – not okay. Burkha – choice or oppression? Homophobia? Refusing to allow gay marriage? Refusing to allow gay people to stay in your B&B? Refusing to allow women to drive or leave the house without a man? Refusing to allow women priests? What about allowing women priests but banning women bishops? Privilege of clergy to deal with offences like child abuse? Schools that only allow members of one faith? Schools that only teach one faith? Schools that teach creationism? Schools that teach that being gay is a sin? What about only doing business with members of your own religion: is that okay if you’re in a minority? Is it still okay if you’re in the majority? What about refusing to allow a gay couple to adopt a child? What about refusing to allow a Christian woman to adopt a child because she’s vehemently against gays and we don’t know whether the child will be gay when it grows up?

We all have to live together on an increasingly crowded planet, and at some point we’re going to have to talk about this stuff. Even though it’s going to offend the hell out of some people. And we need to have the discussion without all sides screaming “discrimination!”.

(Incidentally, the fact the religious leaders DON’T want to have this discussion suggests to me that we’re allowing them a bit too much freedom right now. But maybe that’s just my suspicious, cynical nature.)

BTW, my view on the original article is that as far as I know male circumcision is largely harmless, so I don’t quite see why it’s being banned. But I’m not an expert, and happy to hear corrections.

(*) “Worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust”? Really? There’s plenty of antisemitic violence still happening, you know.

Let’s Build Reservoirs!

There was a lovely quote today in an article on the BBC News site.

‎”We don’t really want to build a lot of reservoirs now and then find we just spent hundreds of millions of pounds and the water sort of just sits there looking nice and we use it for boating” – Colin Green, professor of water economics at the University of Middlesex.

Really? Because maybe he’s phrased it badly, or maybe he’s trying reverse psychology – but that sounds pretty good to me.

Let’s consider the alternatives. Things that are more worthwhile than reservoirs:

  • the NHS
  • schools, education and libraries
  • support for people who are vulnerable

… but the government has already made it very clear that it’s cutting back on those, come hell or high water.

So our actual options are:

  • reservoirs
  • dodgy PFI schemes that cost a fortune but deliver no actual service
  • tax cuts for the very wealthy
  • another bank bailout
  • another war

So, can we build the reservoirs now please? That way, at least when the weather gets hotter, we’ll be able to sit near the water and sunbathe.

Cash for Cameron

Quick thought for anyone who thinks that money doesn’t buy influence with the government. Consider this scenario.

You’re a businessman (or woman). You’ve earned your money by working hard. You’ve done well for yourself. You are lucky enough to have bought the house of your dreams, have various investments, and have £250,000 available in cash.

You have to choose how to spend it. You could buy this: or dinner with Cameron.

Now, which do you get? Is the pleasure of Cameron’s company just better than any Ferrari? Or do you think maybe the payback from dinner with Cameron will be worth it, and make you even richer in future?

Yeah, quite.

When Science Becomes A Religion

There are two debates that make me very uncomfortable. The vaccine debate, and the GM debate. The reason they make me uncomfortable is that both sides seem to be adamant that they’re right and anyone disagreeing is stupid or criminal. That means it’s very hard to get the facts about the issue.

Let me tell you my position, so that you don’t have to worry about whether I have a hidden agenda. Personally, I’m pro-science. Which means that I’m very strongly in favour of approaching any question with an open mind, and making a decision based on the evidence. Where there’s not enough evidence, then I use what evidence I have to make a risk-based decision – what’s the benefit? what’s the worst that could happen? what are the odds each way?

The trouble I’m increasingly having is that some of the people arguing on the “science” side of these debates don’t follow these rules at all. They start from the position that they alone have the whole truth, and they denigrate the opposition rather than proving their case. Proponents of GM (genetically modified foods) say that there’s no evidence that they cause any health issues and that anyone opposing them is “anti-science” and irrational. Doctors arguing that we must vaccinate our children say that the vaccines are known to be safe and parents are reckless or negligent if they don’t vaccinate their children.

Unfortunately, the “no evidence of harm” argument has been devalued over many years by the tobacco lobby, and is still being devalued further by the “global warming doesn’t exist” lobbying groups. Who in turn are denounced as unscientific for using that argument by “scientists”. Is it any wonder the public are confused? The actual evidence, meanwhile, is “too complicated” or “not interesting enough” to be reported to us. So we can’t make up our own minds based on the facts. The result? Assuming there’s no truth without fire, that the truth must be somewhere in the middle, that the person who has most supporters is probably most right. Sceptical parents, confused consumers, worried people making bad decisions.

So what are the specific concerns? With vaccines, many are known to be safe – they’ve been used for years. Some are a bit newer, but have been widely studied and seem to be safe (MMR – yes, it looks like it IS safe. IMO). But there are valid questions. As we increase the number of vaccinations and give multiple vaccines at once, can that cause harm? There were concerns about MMR because it combined three vaccines in one, but my son was given the first MMR dose at the same time as the Meningitis C, Hib, and Pneumococcal vaccines. How has this been tested for safety? What is the evidence?

With GM, the question is what the subtle impacts of genetic modification are over the longer term. Will it poison me now? No. Will it cause me cancer or illness when I’m older, or damage existing plants that we rely on? This is a complex area. More and more, we’re finding health impacts from changes we make – like transfats, or the increasing number of people getting ill eating modern wheat. Or we find impacts from eating things in combination – sugar, fat and salt – that are far, far worse for us together than when eaten separately. And yet, with little or no evidence, we’re assured that GM is safe. How do they know?

In both cases, vaccines and GM, the arguments are pushed by powerful companies that stand to make a lot of money if we use their product. That, of course, is always a good sign that we should be suspicious of what we’re being told. Those companies are invoking science to support their arguments – but decline to provide the full evidence and have the debate in terms of the facts. They may provide some evidence but suppress other evidence – and we can’t tell. If anyone does try to argue on the facts, the newspapers mostly don’t want to print all the details because they think it’ll bore their readers. They go for the dramatic headline that may misrepresent the story completely.

So what can we do?

Well, right now, I have just taken a view based on the risks. It’s not ideal, but it’s the best I can do. My son had all his vaccinations because the risk of the diseases seemed quite high. I won’t eat GM food, as it’s a risk without much benefit. If the companies want me to eat it, they need to convince me it’s safe. Are they trying? No, they’re trying to remove the laws that give me information about which foods contain GM, so I have no choice. The problem with making this sort of decision is that it’s easy to manipulate. Unsafe vaccines can be pushed through because of the fear of the alternatives. Is that happening? I have to try to make a decision case-by-case, as best I can.

What would I like to happen? I’d like mandated publication of the evidence – ALL the evidence, not selected evidence – so that I can make an informed decision. I’d like to be able to make the best decisions I can, not the decisions I have to make for lack of evidence. I’d like all experts to be able to see the evidence, as well, and give me their opinions and arguments, as they may think of something that wouldn’t occur to me. And I’d like them to reference all their arguments back to the evidence rather than just make assertions.

I’d like, in short, for us to put the evidence back into science. And get rid of “science” without evidence for good.

The links that prompted this – make up your own minds which you believe:

P.S. If you’re worried about this stuff, it’s worth following Ben Goldacre. He spends a lot of his time calling out people who lie using “science”.