Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Since what can only be described (in order to protect the guilty) as the Royal Festival Hall incident, the attitude of those charged with running LDYS and in particular of its Chairs has been that the only solution to LDYS' problems is the political equivalent of carpet-bombing; complete overhaul of every section of the organisation's activities led by a completely new constitution.
Now that in itself is fair enough; even those in the constitutional wonk end of the organisation (or as it has come to be known, for reasons that will hopefully soon be obvious, the Committee for Public Safety) agree that the organisational structure is by no means perfect. The idea in and of itself continues to have little to do with what is holding LDYS back.
For that, we must turn to the mentality evidenced by the actions of those pursuing reform. The last two LDYS Conferences (Spring 2006, Leeds and Autumn 2006, Colchester) have essentially been dominated by the reform debate, and in both cases the approach of the ringleaders has been the same; propose your reform as late as possible, ram it forcibly onto the agenda and railroad conference into accepting it before anyone can really consider the implications of it all.
The reason for this approach is simple; the perception is that somehow the whole of LDYS is being held back by a small group of reactionaries who are implacably opposed to any form of change and will use any form of constitutional manipulation to have their way. As a result, successive Chairs have deemed it necessary to conduct business without the involvement of even their own executives, in the hope that the reactionaries will not notice until it is too late.
So far, this approach has been pretty successful, but only because of the nature of LDYS's membership; it's easy to sell the idea that the ends justify the means to young people who are slowly discovering their political identity. In any case, the idea that procedure might exist for a reason is one you learn through bitter experience rather than teaching.
The irony, of course, is that this is a classic chicken-and-egg problem, in that the reactionaries do not foster the attitude so much as the attitude fosters the reactionarism. As Liberal Democrats, we instinctively believe in free and open debate followed by measured decision making; so long as people will insist on trying to make changes in secret and at the last minute (often using the very constitutional procedures they criticise in others), there will be people who will oppose them for the undemocratic way they have pursued things.
My point is, we cannot guarantee that proceedings inside LDYS will meet the standards of accountability and inclusiveness that the Federal, State and Local Parties should expect of us. The consequences of that could easily be disastrous, both for LDYS and for the rest of the party. Now more than ever, we need people outside LDYS to be involved and informed as the future of the organisation is thrashed out.
Monday, October 30, 2006
In youth politics as a whole two trends dominate debate; single-issue campaigns and the "rise" of Conservative Future. The first is an issue at all levels of party politics and one I've no real insight into solving. The same cannot be said, however, for the second.
As much as anything, it all depends on your idea of success, and that very much depends on the party you are referring to. From the point of view of the Conservatives, Conservative Future is hugely successful, in that the traditional route to becoming a Conservative MP or Association Chair is through being an utter socialite. All Conservative Future is thence required to be is a social organisation with a broad but not necessarily committed membership, and it does that very well.
Similarly, advancement within the Labour Party has always been about your hack rating; you become a hack in Labour Students, then a hack in the NUS, then a hack in your Trade Union of choice or within the party itself before finally reaching Westminster.
But for the Liberal Democrats, the aim of the youth wing is very much different. To become an MP, you must learn your trade and the benefits of hard work. From the point of view of the local parties, then, the aim of Liberal Democrat Youth and Students is to produce activists, men and women with motivation and skills ready to fight the good fight.
It's tempting to believe that any form of success is something to be pursued. But success is about doing the right thing, not doing anything and then claiming it was right to begin with.
Monday, October 23, 2006
And lo the tax proposals came to pass. Amidst all the media bluster about the amendments and the challenge to Ming, no-one really mentioned that the proposals themselves were always going to sail through.
But the whole thing did leave me wondering what the endgame would be. Big ticket flat taxes are surely the way to start, but what do we want or need environmental taxes to turn into?
So allow me now to open a debate; I’ll describe a reasonably comprehensive environmental tax system, then you can tell me why it’s a load of twaddle that would never work. I’ll probably lose, but you’ll have to ask yourself the question, which is probably the more important thing.
The mechanism I would choose is VAT. Yes, it’s regressive, but it is a tax directly levied on behaviour and behaviour is what we are seeking to modify. Moreover, the regressiveness can, at least politically, be tempered by the process.
In my system, we consider all goods and services according to three criteria;
- Delivery – This considers everything that gets the goods or services to the point of sale. Primarily this will be the energy cost of producing and transporting the item on the manufacturer’s and vendor’s part and the resulting environmental impact.
- Utilisation – This considers the environmental impact of using the product as sold. In some cases (e.g. petrol) this will be a direct emissions impact, but it largely refers to waste output and the cost of disposal.
- Social Impact – This considers the cost to society of the use of a particular product. Through this category, things like alcohol and cigarette duty become empirical quantities rather than political footballs.
For each quantity, a points score is assessed, initially on a rather generic basis (for example, Delivery = Production Energy + (Mass x Distance Transported)), and these are added to produce the VATable rating. The government then assigns a percentage value per point to give the rate of tax levied on any particular item.
Once the generic study is completed, companies may then apply for specific certifications where their products are better than the assessed standard; for example, if the average car is 40% recyclable but the car I produce is 80% recyclable, I apply for recertification and the VATable rating of my product goes down.
The result is a VAT system that, far from being flat and arbitrarily regressive, is scientifically assessed and socially, if not academically progressive. It provides a direct financial incentive to consumers to improve their behaviour and to producers to improve their products.
The primary downside, from a liberal perspective, is obvious; the initial assessment and management of the scheme requires an independent agency on an unimaginable scale using an IT system that would make the iSoft debacle look positively puny.
But the question remains; what is the endgame? President Bush loves to tell us that technology is the way to beat global warming. This is a solution where we have the technology; can we rebuild him?
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
It’s been a good year for political quotes, particularly my favourite kind, the ones that reveal a deeper meaning to the usual diet of spin and drivel. But with the conference season out of the way, it appears unlikely that my quote of the year award will be going anywhere other than the prohibitive favourite since February, everyone’s favourite Brownite lackey, Ed Balls MP, for this classic from Question Time;
“You can’t claim to be a progressive and simultaneously oppose tax credits”
Edward, (says he adopting the Noel Coward-esque condescending tone of voice at which he excels), I have a bachelor’s degree and will soon have a master’s degree from the University of Manchester, plus I’ve won University Challenge and am currently ranked British #45 competitive quizzer. And even if that weren’t true I would only need the intellect of a boiled cabbage to construct an argument that would allow me to claim to be a progressive and simultaneously oppose tax credits.
Posit; you’re in government and want to help parents in work avoid the benefit trap. What is the most direct way to do this? By reducing the tax burden on the lower end of incomes that is the primary cause of the poverty trap. To achieve this, you could raise the income tax threshold above minimum wage, increase the personal allowance for qualifying families, etc.
Which is all well and good, except that for New Labour the original question is wrong. Posit; you’re in government and want to help parents in work avoid the benefit trap in the most visible way possible. You could raise the income tax threshold or the personal allowance, but that only gets you a few stories in one news cycle. If, however, you institute a system where people get their tax repaid to them, every working parent in the country gets a cheque every month that is subconsciously signed G.Brown.
Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, except that it does require the government in question to be able, say, to recognise a well-run IT contract when it whacks them in the face. Suffice to say, if there’s one thing New Labour know how to cock up, it’s IT contracts. What we have instead is a vicious system that ruins the lives of families across the country every single day.
My point is, this is exactly the sort of thing we need to be whacking Labour on every day; not only is it cynical vote-grubbing of the very worst order, but we just happen to have passed a policy that would do what tax credits do without destroying lives. When we are the best, most progressive option and can prove it, we should be shouting it from the rooftops. And I can guarantee that the parliamentarian who has the gumption to stand up and do it will be the next leader of this party.
Monday, October 16, 2006
1) Ruth, you are a member of Opus Dei, an official branch of the Roman Catholic church whose aim is to support the promotion of Catholic dogma through the working lives of its members. If you truly wish to tackle extremism, you should leave this organisation and distance yourself from it forthwith. It should also be noted that you have denied that membership of Opus Dei affects your work as a minister, which means you are either lying to the electorate or lying to God.
2) Ruth, you are a member of the Labour Party, an organisation that believes that local government should operate under firm guidelines from central government and that local government should have control over almost none of its budget, with all funding coming from the centre. If you want local government to have any chance of tackling extremism, you should join a party that believes that local government should source more of its own finances and should be allowed the freedom to make its own policies and innovate. (Okay, we wouldn't let you in, but that shouldn't stop you trying...)
If there's one thing that annoys me about how we deal with the media as a party, it's that we don't offer this sort of exposition. We must start beating down the door on this sort of hypocrisy if we are to make a real impact on both the government and the electorate.
Thursday, October 12, 2006
Living as I do as an ex-pat in the North, most of my information about goings on in the south comes from the view from train windows. And if my experience of station platforms from
I refer of course to the incessant marketing of universities. In Granadaland we’re very much in peak season for it, which is great because no university has yet produced an advertisement that wasn’t unintentionally hilarious. To wit;
- Salford – It’s bad enough that their official slogan is “A Greater Manchester University”, but now they’ve produced a poster that’s meant to be a painting-by-numbers key to why there are 30 great reasons to study at Salford, half of which boil down to, “Salford; It’s quite near Manchester”
Huddersfield– I’m sorry, I don’t care if he is the Chancellor, but it is impossible to take seriously an advert in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard tells me I should go to Huddersfield. – This advert basically shows every single building the university has with various graduates in front of them. I’ve been to that campus, and I swear it was so nondescriptly modern I didn’t recognise it till they told me where it was at the end. Lincoln
- Edge Hill – In fairness Edge Hill have updated their ad, but not so much as to remove the two key flaws it has, namely 1) that if you want me to be impressed by how many courses you offer, name-checking Sports, Business and Performing Arts isn’t going to cut it (and by the way, way to go reinforcing the stereotype!) and 2) flashing the words Liverpool and Manchester in front of me will not disguise the fact that you are in Ormskirk.
But what really gets my goat is this sudden craze for having university signs in train stations. I can think of two universities that have a legitimate excuse for this;
In the first instance, marketing is a powerful force but it has not yet managed to raise anyone from the dead. There are only three groups of people going to university; those who want to get as far away from home as possible (there are reasons why I ended up at Manchester and this is one of them), those who want to stay as close to home as possible, and those who only bother at the last minute. The first two will research where they want to go and make an informed decision, the third will go to the university closest to where they live. Your sign on the station will matter to precisely none of these people.
Secondly, I have £14,000 worth of debt because I went to university, people starting now are likely to develop £23,000 and if you all have your way that number will be £35,000 (seriously, the Russell Group want fees to go up to £7,000), so trust me when I tell you that seeing that money pissed away on tacky signs makes me rather angry, and you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…
More importantly, however, no-one is going to decide to both go to university and to go to a particular one because they see a sign in a station. And if they do, it might be suggested that needing to see a sign in a station to realise that the
I am not one of those who would seek to belittle graduates of the likes of the University of Gloucestershire (not least because my sister’s at that one right now doing Early Childhood Studies, a by no means unworthy choice), but we must understand that urging universities to become ad hoc ad agencies to meet an arbitrary target is folly. Yes, we need more graduates, but the problem is not that, say, Poland is producing more graduates than we are, it is that it is producing graduates with qualifications in science, in engineering, and yes in plumbing. No degree is meaningless to the person who obtains it, but it is the government’s duty to ensure that degrees are not meaningless to the nation, and right now it is a duty they are spectacularly failing to meet.
PS I should make a special mention of the University of Southampton, who manage to have their grubby little paws on three stations, at least one of which is quite rude, as I’m fairly sure Winchester has a university of its own (not least because one of my friends is at it right now too!)
PPS There’s a special prize to anyone who can identify the two comedy references (i.e. not the Incredible Hulk one) in this entry. I have to have a little fun with it sometimes, nerd-like or otherwise!
Monday, October 09, 2006
You ignore the trends of political life at your peril.
I mention this in view of the delight shown by Conservative activists at another poll showing their vote up at the expense of the Lib Dems (supposedly). The national swing will smite us down and put us back into our place as the nowhere men of British politics, so goes the theory.
But again, you ignore the trends of political life at your peril. And I say this as someone sitting in a Lib Dem constituency, the gaining of which had nark all to do with the national swing. Indeed, Manchester Withington was so far outside the bounds of the national swing equation that at least one guide to the election held it up as the exemplar of a former northern urban Tory stronghold that was now impregnably Labour.
Nevertheless, an 11,000 majority was overturned in a result so sensational the BBC’s analysts pronounced it a mistake and stopped talking about it so as not to dent their psephological pride. Labour’s shock was such that the cries of dark practices continue to this day (though it’s rather difficult to claim that your opponent lied about the existence of something when its existence was reported on BBC Television!) Then again, as the party in power, they can be forgiven for not facing up to reality; it’s not as if any previous government has had any real idea of what reality was…
Beyond the self-congratulation, however, there is a serious issue for the part as a whole. In
The reason is, of course, the historical electoral imperative. With so many MP’s defending against an allegedly rejuvenated Conservative party, we have a policy process with a raging undercurrent of not pissing off middle
Strangely, the solution is staring us in the face. Ming’s favourite line for some time has been that the other parties are managerialists, solely concerned with the administrivia of the country as it stands. Indeed, Labour and the Conservatives have basically established a status quo, where the only differences are in degree, be it on the NHS (where Labour want to mortgage it and the Tories want to sell it outright), on law and order (where Labour want to lock people up for a really long time and the Tories want to lock them up for a really really long time), and so forth.
The liberal firebrand response to the status quo, meanwhile, simply isn’t up the job; it basically boils down to “the status quo would work if only there was more of it”; that the status quo is the right way to go but we must fill in the gaps in personal and corporate liberty to make it work at maximum efficiency. To the trained economist it may be a valid viewpoint, but to the politician, to the person living in the real world, it is patently ridiculous. At a time when Her Majesty’s Government and Her Majesty’s Opposition are offering the same tired old gruel, we cannot be the voice of radicalism if our only response is, “Please Sir, may I have some more?”
My point, finally, is this; people do not vote Lib Dem just because they want a better way, they vote Lib Dem because they believe a better way must be a different way. It is not merely enough to show, as an economic or moralistic exercise, that your way is better; you must demonstrate that it is different. Moreover, while there are plenty of socialists (or at the very least people who behave so loutishly that the difference is difficult to tell) in this party, a desire for a different way is not evidence of communist tendencies, stupidity or thoughtcrime.
Making this party a potential party of government does not require us to abandon our principles, on either wing or from either end of the country, but it does require that we use our principles in the way our electorate (not the electorate, not that subset of the electorate tarred with the “middle England” brush, but our electorate) want us to.
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
Blogging on energy policy is a tricky business for me; I have to declare in the register of interests that I’m currently finishing an MSc in Nuclear Reactor Technology and have worked previously for both British Nuclear Group and National Nuclear Corporation. In any case, if I were to post an extended pro-nuclear polemic, the grief received would not be worth it.
Instead, I thought I’d offer a few of my favourite insights into the underlying science. Because if anything strikes me about coverage of energy matters, it’s that no-one in the political or journalistic spheres really understands how energy production works. So, in no particular order;
- Installed capacity is not the same as available capacity. Actually, I can’t stress this one enough; Installed capacity is not the same as available capacity! The easiest argument in the world is “nuclear makes up 20% of our electricity generation, we have 20% overcapacity, so if we close the nuclear stations it’ll be fine”. Installed capacity represents the maximum generation potential of a power station, but a reserve is required to allow for planned shutdowns, faults, climate factors… 20% overcapacity is probably okay, though 25% would be preferable.
- Foreign interconnectors do not count as installed capacity either. In recent years we have boosted our capacity to take electricity from grids in continental
Europe, but this should not be considered as if it were just another power station. had major power cuts in 2003 because they did just that, then found that a heatwave left both Italy and Italy with low reserves. At that point, the French told the Italians just exactly where they could shove their interconnectors and shut them off. Even if we had a European electricity market (and we’re so far away from it it’s laughable), no politician in their right mind is going to risk power cuts in their own country by helping out another country. France
- Again, one I really can’t stress enough; It’s not that “we” don’t know what to do with nuclear waste, it’s that “you” don’t. Technically, long-term storage of nuclear waste is a solved problem, the argument is merely political. And if you doubt it, here’s the measure. Assume we do what we currently propose, namely vitrify, pack in grouted steel canisters, bury in a concrete-lined chamber 500m underground, then concrete up the chamber itself. Then assume that on the day the chamber is sealed, all civilisation on Earth is brought to an end by an earthquake of unprecedented global, let alone British, magnitude. Then assume that this earthquake breaks the chamber and all the canisters and exposes them all to the water table. Then assume that a person establishes a farmstead on the 1km square around the point where the flow from the chamber hits the surface. Then assume that that person never leaves the farm and only eats things grown in that 1km square area. Then consider that that person’s chance of contracting cancer from radiation is increased by the same amount as that of a person who moves house from
to London … Truro
- The largest source of uncertainty in the economic case for power stations has nothing to do with the stations themselves, it is a function of the way the government has decided to structure the market. Under BETTA (British Electricity Trading and Transmission Arrangements), generators must sell half-hour tranches of capacity onto what is essentially a commodities trading market. Now, dairy farmers get screwed by supermarkets because they cannot control the timing of the milk supply and they must sell it during its shelf life; electricity has an even shorter shelf life, so the transmission and supply companies can screw them in exactly the same way. The tranche system also screws renewable generators, who cannot with 100% accuracy predict how much capacity they will have in any half-hour period, leaving them often having to buy make-up capacity at inflated prices.
- Despite what I’ve seen some bloggers try to argue, nuclear does help security of supply and lessen dependence on foreign resources. In the first instance, the majority of the world’s oil comes from the
Middle Eastwhile the bulk of the world’s uranium comes from and Australia . In the second, a 1000MW coal-fired power station requires between 3 and 9 million tonnes of a coal a year, depending on quality; a similarly sized nuclear plant requires 27 tonnes of fuel a year. This just in; stockpiling of uranium is practical, stockpiling of fossil fuels really isn’t… Canada
- On the matter of security, how feasible is it that terrorists will intercept a nuclear fuel transport and extract the plutonium from it? Well, even if we assume that they can evade all the spy satellites ever built with sufficient forces to overwhelm a fully armed transport vessel in the middle of the ocean, break open the thick steel transport cans and remove the fuel, consider that in order to remove plutonium from uranium,
has constructed a factory bigger than most cathedrals. Are we really to believe that while it costs us £2 billion, they could do it with the chemistry kit they got at Toys ‘R’ Us? Britain
- Hydrogen is not the great saviour of all renewable energy sources. Hydrogen production by solar energy and biomass may well prove possible, but for wind, wave and tidal power the only feasible production process is electrolysis. Unfortunately, electrolysis of water for hydrogen requires temperatures approaching 1000°C as well as electricity, and wind, wave and tidal are never going to get there. In reality, hydrogen production is best suited to systems that produce consistent high temperatures, allowing the thermal output to be used directly for electricity generation during high demand or for hydrogen production during low demand. Gee, I wonder if we have anything like that at present…
- Energy efficiency is not the great saviour of anything. If nothing else, we must remember that energy savings themselves are not 100% efficient; if new technology makes something use 10% less energy, the cost of doing that thing reduces and hence people do it more (the Khazoom-Brookes hypothesis). You cannot escape it by restricting what you make more energy efficient; if you make an industrial process more energy efficient, the product of that process becomes cheaper so more people buy it so production increases so more energy is used. In an economic world, energy use is always going to be a function of energy cost.
- Uranium is only a scarce resource if you ignore just about everything. Current estimates of available resources assume something like 3% utilisation of fissile uranium; with reprocessing, utilisation in the high 90’s is possible. As the cost of uranium mining increases with scarcity, reprocessing becomes economical and your reserve lifetime goes up thirty times (from around 50 years to around 1500). Then factor in breeder reactors that convert uranium from its inert to its fissile form, increasing overall utilisation from 0.7% to the high 90’s again, giving another factor of around 125, increasing the lifetime estimate to 187,000 years. Then factor in thorium (four times more abundant than uranium, can be converted to fissile uranium with existing reactors, hence your resources go up from 187,500 years to 937,500 years). Would anyone like to argue that that constitutes scarce?
- There’s nothing worse in this debate than the ton of arguments that blindly ignore the rest of existence. Ed Davey recently said that no nuclear power plant in
Europehad ever been built on time and on budget; would he like to identify for me please the vast swathe of buildings of all types across the continent that have?
My overarching point is this; the 21st century will be the energy century. The decisions we make now, about energy for industry, energy for domestics, energy for transportation, will dictate our position on climate change, on geopolitics, on commerce, on industry… Whatever we do, we must make the decision on the facts; at a time when we face such threats from one group of religious zealots, we must not allow another group of religious zealots to dictate the future of our society. Particularly when (and this is my favourite of the whole bunch…)
- If you lived one mile from both a nuclear power plant and a coal-fired power plant, which would give you the highest radiation dose? Coal contains uranium, thorium, radon and carbon-14, all of which is ejected directly to the environment when it is burnt. The answer, counter-intuitive though it may be, is that the coal station gives you a higher dose.
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
Francine Busby is the Democratic candidate for the California 50th Congressional District. She was also the Democratic candidate in a special election held in June to replace Duke Cunningham, a six-term Republican who had resigned after pleading guilty to bribery and fraud charges.
Busby was favourite to win until, five days before the election, she spoke at a senior citizens centre and was recorded as saying, "Everybody can help, yeah, absolutely, you can all help. You don't need papers for voting, you don't need to be a registered voter to help."
I've always been a firm believer in the importance of semantics, but here the problem is even more subtle. The Republican candidate won by claiming that Mrs Busby had encouraged illegal immigrants to vote; for that to be the case, the stress in the phrasing has to be on "papers". If, however, the stress fell on "voting", the meaning of the comma changes and it is just a note that non-voters can still help with the campaign. Semantics are one thing, but losing an election campaign on the interpretation of the stress in your phrasing is quite another.
Semantic battles or otherwise, this is an intriguing race for Liberal Democrats as it represents so much of what we believe, both at home and abroad. Brian Bilbray, the victorious Republican candidate, is a former lobbyist who has represented in both roles organisations that favour draconian immigration controls. Mrs Busby runs a shelter for homeless pregnant women, is a school board member in the delightfully-named Cardiff-by-the-Sea, and is supported by EMILY's List and Democracy For America.
It's easy to loose faith in America, but races like these are going on across the country and we're not going to hear about them until polling day. Francine Busby and her colleagues can be sure that she has the support of Liberal Democrats across Britain in the fight for the soul of America.
Monday, October 02, 2006
Nevertheless, I'm indebted to Femme de Resistance on Forceful And Moderate for drawing my attention to a couple of recent pieces that pre-empt me; a Grauniad editorial on the uncertain future of modern graduates and a Times review of the latest book decrying environmentalist hostility to nuclear power. I'll save my comment on them until it's ready.
PS Last week, I commented on some of the speeches at the Labour party conference, but only because the speeches had some content and that content annoyed me. In the unlikely event of the Conservative conference acquiring anything so gauche as content, I'll be sure to tell you all why it annoys me. This is an equal opportunities blog, after all...