Monday, 29 March 2010

Do We Know What We Are Voting For?

Do people vote for policies or do they vote for personalities? 

To put it another way, will we vote in the General Election for the party that best reflects our own views on how the country should be governed?  Or will we vote for the party leader that is on the TV a lot and appears to be slightly better (or less mediocre) than the others?

Dr Richard Lawson has pointed me in the direction of The Political Compass which has analysed the different political parties based on their policies and then assessed them against a 2-dimensional chart.  Their view is that "the old one-dimensional categories of 'right' and 'left', established for the seating arrangement of the French National Assembly of 1789, are overly simplistic for today's complex political landscape".  Essentially the old left-right line is OK if you consider it as referring only to the level of control of the economy with "left" meaning a more controlled economy why the "right" would leave more to the "free market".  However, the social dimension is also important in modern politics with attitudes ranging from extremely authoritarian to extremely libertarian.  Different parties have different combinations of social and economic policies, so two parties may have similar economic policies but have very different policies in terms of their approach to society.

When applied their analysis to British political parties, they found the following result;
Which would tend to imply that, as far as both society and the economy goes, the Conservatives and Labour are almost like two peas in a pod, with the Lib Dems also having economic policies of a similar type but with a more Libertarian approach to society, although not as Libertarian as the Greens who are also the most left-wing party.

The website gives you the opportunity to take an anonymous test to give you an idea of where your own political viewpoints place you on this socio-economic chart.  My result is as follows;

Which apparently means I have similar socio-economic views to Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama.  Who would have known?  And I wonder which party has policies that best reflects my views?

There is another website worth looking at called Vote For Policies, which Charlie Bolton has mentioned. The site allows you to choose from a range of policies covering several different areas and then choose which policy options you think are best.  The trick is that it doesn't tell you which party each policy is from, so you are making an objective choice.

When I looked at the site about 10,000 people had taken the test, and the breakdown of selected policies by party was;

What was most interesting was the Green Party policies were top in each of the nine categories of Crime, Economy, Democracy, Education, Health/NHS, Environment, Immigration, Europe and Welfare, in each case the Green Party policy being selected by between 25% and 37% of the survey takers.

As far as the three main parties were concerned; the Lib Dems were second on Democracy, the Economy and the Environment.  The Conservatives were second on Education, Health/NHS and Immigration whilst Labour were second on Europe and Welfare.

Of course, it might well be that the site has mainly been visited by Green Party voters, but, having said that a quick search reveals the site mentioned on a number of different sites none of which appear to be particularly for Green Party voters, as well as in a couple of newspapers.

Will this transfer into votes?  Of course not.....having read the comments on a couple of forums where people have discussed how they  found that they had selected mainly Green votes they still say they will be voting Labour, Conservative or, sometimes Lib Dem on the basis that they will be voting for a candidate they feel is more likely to win in the First Past The Post System that doubles for democracy in this country, even when that candidate's party will be implementing policies that they have just failed to select as the best policies.

It appears that the way the democratic process operates in this country, means that we have to make do with second-best when choosing our politicians.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Let the people really decide how to change Bristol

If Neighbourhood Partnerships are to have any chance of success they must expand their membership beyond the “usual suspects” of local democratic Bristol 24-7 here.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Would You Like To Rent My Roof?

A small (un)civil war has broken out between some real heavyweights in the environmental world.

It all started when the UK government announced it's Renewable Energy Feed-In Tariffs (also called the Clean Energy Cashback) which will mean that home owners who install solar electric systems on their houses will be able to sell the electricity generated at a premium price.  More details here

This prompted an article from George Monbiot in the Guardian about it being a solar panel rip-off that will merely see public funds that could be used to reduce fuel poverty instead siphoned off to the better-off.

This, in turn, prompted a response from Jeremy Leggett, and now Jonathon Porritt has also weighed in.

It is easy to see where Monbiot is coming from, solar electricity panels are not cheap and you need to have a reasonable amount of disposable income to be able to install them.  Without the initial feed money you are a non-starter.  On the other hand, any incentive that encourages the use of renewables (unless it involves turning vast amounts of rainforest into jatropha plantations) should be encouraged.

At a conference in Bristol on Thursday (18th March), another environmental heavyweight, Alastair Sawday, suggested a possible solution; renting out your roofspace to an entrepreneural solar energy company that will install the solar panels for you.

The idea is simple; the solar energy company could contract with individual houseowners to install solar panels, with the company providing the capital investment in return for a share in the revenues earned from the renewable electricity sold back to the grid at a premium.

The beauty of this, of course, is that, as has been mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the poorer a neighbourhood the lower the levels of electricity usage tend to be.  Solar panels, on the other hand, generate the same level of electricity regardless of how poor the owners of the roof they are installed upon happen to be - sunlight is happy to be distributed across all classes of roof without a trace of snobbery.  Common-sense would therefore imply that installation of solar panels by our solar electricity company will be most profitable if they are installed in areas where the electricity usage is already relatively low (i.e poorer areas) because this will mean a greater proportion of renewable electricity being available for selling back to the grid and thus a greater return on their capital investment.

In fact, it may even turn out to be profitable for the solar electricity company to retrofit other energy efficiency measures, such as cavity-wall insulation, additonal loft insulation and so on to maximise the amount of renewable energy being sold back to the grid.  The home-owners of course, will see a reduction in their household electricity bills.  There may well need to be some form of mutually agreed mechanism to counter the Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate, but otherwise, for once, the poor will be the customer of choice rather than the wealthy.

Now, who would like to rent my roof-space?

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

"Wrong to impose nuclear on future generations but clean, sustainable energy is deliverable"

A new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point is not needed and would leave an unacceptable legacy of radioactive waste to future generations, the leading environmentalist Jonathon Porritt told a packed meeting of the Stop Hinkley campaign in Taunton last night (Tuesday 16 March).

It would be totally wrong to impose on future generations a problem for which we have no solution,” he said. “We don’t know how to deal with nuclear waste. There is no clear strategy. We are just hoping that the next generation can sort it out.”

This included the spent nuclear fuel which would be stored at a new Hinkley nuclear power station for as long as 160 years.

Porritt, a former director of Friends of the Earth and head of the government advisory body, the Sustainable Development Commission, said he had both practical and ethical objections to a new construction programme of nuclear plants, of which Hinkley “C” would be the first.

I have huge concerns about the cost of nuclear power,” he said. “Don’t believe a single word that comes out of the industry. This is an industry that has obscured, concealed, lied and deviated from the truth from the 1950s onwards.” He gave the example of the £76 billion it now emerged it would cost to decommission existing nuclear facilities, let alone any new ones. This money would have to come directly from the taxpayer.

The economics of nuclear power were so unreliable, he added, that it was possible that Hinkley C would never be built because investors would have nothing to do with it.

He was also sceptical that new nuclear reactors like the ones proposed at Hinkley would help in the battle against climate change. “Even if we replaced all our existing fleet of reactors, as the government wants, we would still only cut about 4% of our 1990 level of carbon dioxide emissions,” he said. “The idea that we can wheel in nuclear power to deal with our low carbon imperative is a flawed argument.”

No new nuclear plant was likely to be up and running before the middle of the next decade, he added, which would be too little too late.

Instead, Porritt painted a picture in which Britain ’s future energy needs would be met by access to endless and clean sustainable energy. “I am absolutely persuaded that this is deliverable,” he said.

His prescription included four elements – a major campaign on energy efficiency, massive investment in renewable power, more use of combined heat and power generation and, in a transition period, the development of cleaner fossil fuels.

On energy efficiency he said that the UK could reduce energy consumption by 30 to 40% over the next two decades by measures like improving the efficiency of the existing housing stock. “The government just hasn’t done enough,” he said. “The fact that you don’t hear politicians talking about this is a nightmare.”

On renewable power he said that we were “the most blessed country in Europe ”, with tides, wind and waves waiting to be exploited round our coasts. “This is no longer a niche industry,” he added. “Renewable power has become a major international industry and now commands billions of pounds of investment around the world.”

Porritt said he was in favour of a power-generating barrage across the Severn Estuary, in spite of its potential environmental and social costs. This would meet up to 10% of the country’s electricity needs.

Porritt concluded that although “climate change is serious, we have an alternative to nuclear power. I find this hugely exciting. But there’s a battle for the hearts and minds of green activists. That’s why your Stop Hinkley campaign is so important, and it needs to get bigger.”

About 150 people attended the Stop Hinkley meeting in the Temple Methodist Hall, Taunton . They were encouraged to sign a petition against the new Hinkley “C” power station. This will be presented to the government when a planning application is submitted by Electricite de France, probably in August.

Jim Duffy, Coordinator of Stop Hinkley said: "People said they found Jonathon's upbeat talk inspirational - the way he handled the heavy subject matter was in an easy entertaining manner. Some waverers said they were convinced by his arguments. I think decision-makers should pay attention to the brighter outcome for present and future generations that this very respected environmentalist has mapped out."

Further information:

Related information;
Is Nuclear Power the Answer to Global Warming?

The Rebranding of Nuclear Power

Thursday, 11 March 2010

The Struggle for Democracy; How we won it and how we lost it.

5th - 25th April 2010
In the run up to the 2010 election this is your essential guide to how we got the vote, where representational democracy has gone wrong and possible alternatives to party democracy.

Recent British histories arrogantly claimed that the ‘we’ brought democracy to the Empire and ultimately the world in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Despite centuries of struggle to wrestle power from an elite few, the vote in Britain is still seen as a gift from the rulers to the people to help bring ‘us’ into the modern age. These days, the establishment of western style ‘democracy’ is used by Britain as a context for invasion, war and occupation.

In April this year through the media of public lectures, debates, history walks and other events, Bristol Radical History Group will be critically examining the British history of democracy and enfranchisement. Tracing a path from the English and French Revolutions via the Spencerites, the Chartists and the Suffragettes to New Labour we will be trying to answer the following questions:

How was the vote for everybody achieved?

Who wanted democracy and who didn’t? What was the composition of the movements that fought for the vote for all? What did these movements actually want?

What were the alternatives?

What did we end up with?

Is democracy historically necessary for capitalism to exist?

Does ‘democracy’, as we know it, have a future?

Join us in uncovering the hidden history of democracy and enfranchisement in Britain. A perfect antidote to the misery of "election fever".

Full details of all the events are here but, on a purely selfish note I would like to emphasise the following event in particular;

‘Every Cook Can Govern’
From Athens To Westminster?

Date: Wednesday 21th April 2010
Venue: GWRSA, Temple Meads station, BS1 6QQ.
Time: 7:30pm
Price: Donation
Speakers: Dan Bennett, Tony Dyer, Dave Cullum

Proponents of parliamentary democracy often hark back to semi-legendary ‘golden ages’ as a foundation of universal enfranchisement. Do these myths have any basis in reality and what relevance do they have today? Dan Bennett and Tony Dyer follow a historical path from ancient Athens via Anglo-Saxon participatory democracy through to the French Revolution. Dave Cullum poses the question, is representative democracy necessary for modern capitalism to exist?

Save Bristol's Libraries

The Bristol Branch of the IWW trade union is calling for strong and decisive action from other unions to stop brutal cuts wrecking Bristol's library service as the IWW today launch their own campaign against the cuts.

Bristol's library service, run by Bristol City Council, is looking to cut £225,000 from the libraries budget this year, largely by axing nine staff across the service. This is despite the libraries budget being underspent by £181,000 last year.

Most of these cuts will be made at the city's flagship Central Library where staff say users may have to wait two hours or more to obtain books and information from a slimmed down and understaffed reference library.

The council is also proposing to spend over £0.5m providing 'self-service' facilities at libraries and will then only provide one supervisor for every two branch libraries in the city.

IWW spokesman Frank Hutchison says,"Bristol City Council have promised there would be no cuts to frontline services. They lied.

"Libraries are among our most important and much-loved public services but here in Bristol the service is being systematically destroyed to save money.

"Meanwhile, despite the huge public outcry and concern, the traditional trade unions are sitting on their hands and failing to act."

"If they won't, we will. These unions are not only letting down their members but the wider community too."

"We will therefore be holding a public meeting in the near future to bring together library staff, concerned service users, other workers worried about the threat of cuts to public services in the city and the wider public."

The IWW says it will be fully committed to any campaign that's launched as a result of this meeting and will look to resource and fund that campaign as best it can.

"Doing nothing - or worse, doing a backroom deal to sell our library service down the river - is not an option," said Mr Hutchison.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Lower taxes that are paid are better than higher taxes that are avoided

We need to invest in this country, and close tax loopholes that cost us billions. After all, we are all in this together… aren’t we? ...Latest Bristol 24-7 article here

Proportional Representation in Bristol

With an election approaching, the subject of how we elect the people who are our representatives in the House of Commons has been the focus of much attention - for some, like the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, the subject of electoral reform has been a long standing issue, others appear to have had an almost Damascene conversion to its merits perhaps brought on by concerns of self-preservation, whilst for some the concept that most voters should actually have an impact on the election of our representatives is a custom that appears to be more honour'd in the breach than the observance.  I suspect that a few lament the passing of rotten boroughs where all this campaigning business was largely unneccessary, and they could get on with the important business of running the country without pandering to the public sensibilities of the less politically capable.  Consensus politics is for wimps, after all.

Unfortunately, progress being what it is, and the result of the upcoming election being somewhat uncertain for the two main parties - and it is a well-documented fact that the more uncertain an election, the greater the  interest in electoral reform because nobody almost certainly guaranteed of an election win (whether at national level or at constituency level) has much enthusiasm for giving a greater say in that election to those who will in the current system be the losers - electoral reform is on the agenda.

The map above, is one suggestion for how the country might be divided into constituencies for an election to be decided by Single Transferable Vote (STV) - explanation here.  Below is the Bristol area in more detail with colour used to define different constituencies;

The system above is based on a system supported by the Liberal Democrats which also reduces the number of MPs by 20% to 500.  It proposes that Bristol and South Gloucestershire be combined to create a single constituency electing 5 MPs (for the forthcoming election 7 MPs will be elected to cover individual portions of Bristol and South Glos.).  My own feeling is that that it would be better for Bristol and South Glos to be treated as separate constituencies, and that the proposal to reduce the number of MPs to be retained for a time when greater levels of governance are devolved to local communities.

So in my adaptation of the above, I would have a constituency of Bristol electing four members of parliament.  This is actually quite conservative - because a conservative view is one of maintaining the traditional approach, and for much of its political life Bristol has been a single constituency electing multiple members to represent the city as a whole.  For 225 years from 1660 Bristol had two MPs who represented the entire city between them, it has only been for the last 125 years that Bristol has been subdivided by bad mathematicians into discrete areas apparently on the premise that Southmead has more in common with Stoke Bishop than it does Hartcliffe, or that Stockwood has less in common with Bishopworth than it does Hillfields.

So, thanks to the bean-counters, Stockwood is in Bristol East not Bristol South and Easton (the name's a clue) is now not in Bristol East but in Bristol West (which actually covers Central Bristol) and the largely Conservative voting residents of Stoke Bishop have been transferred, in the interests of equal democracy, from the constituency of a Lib Dem MP to the constituency held by a Labour MP (which most Stoke Bishopians presumably hope will soon be a Conservative constituency much to the dismay of the largely Labour voting Southmead electorate).  The situation is absurd.  The constituencies as defined bear no relation to the reality of any functional adminstrative and organisational boundaries.

The political party that appears to be most set against any move away from the First Past The Post system that, in my view, currently makes a mockery of much of the democratic process in all but a few marginal seats, is the Conservative Party.  It is strange therefore to report that it is the Conservative Party that has, potentially, the most to gain in the Bristol and South Glos area from electoral reform.

In the 2005 election the four Bristol seats saw, roughly, 79,000 votes cast for Labour, 52,000 for the Lib Dems, and 46,000 for the Conservatives.  Another 12,500 votes went to the other parties, about half of those for the Greens.  The MPs elected were one Lib Dem and three Labour.  If the election had taken place under STV rules, the result would almost certainly have seen the nearly 25% vote for Conservatives getting the result of 1 Lib Dem, 2 Labour, and 1 Conservative MP.  In addition at least 93% of those who voted would have seen their residential area represented in parliament by a candidate from the party they voted for.

For South Glos, the MPs sent to Westminster in 2005 were 1 Lib Dem and 1 Labour despite a voting pattern that saw approx 40,000 vote Lib Dem, 33,000 vote Labour but 38,500 vote Conservative.  STV would have almost certainly seen the Labour MP replaced by a Conservative MP whilst the increase to three MPs in 2010 would be likely to allow 96% of voters to be represented by the party they voted for.

In summary, a STV system would have seen the Bristol area elections that sent 4 Labour and 2 Lib Dems to parliament replaced by an election that sent 2 Labour, 2 Lib Dems, and 2 Conservatives to Westminster.

So why are the Conservative so set against any changes to the electoral system?  Are they willing to sacrifice the votes of Bristol Conservatives in the cause of greater gains elsewhere?  Or do they simply believe that the FPTP system is the best system there is, despite the fact that the British failed to recommend it when determining the most democratic political system for the new Germany in 1945?

Saturday, 6 March 2010

What do six of the seven most economically powerful English cities have in common?

Spot the odd one out in the two lists below of the largest English cities by economy outside London, and their approach to integrating transport.

Urban Areas outside London and size of economy measured by GVA

1. West Midlands (Birmingham)  = £44.9 billion
2. Greater Manchester = £44.8 billion
3. West Yorkshire (Leeds)  = £37.6 billion
4. West of England (Bristol) = £23.3 billion
5. Tyne and Wear (Newcastle)  = £19 billion
6. South Yorkshire (Sheffield) = £18.8 billion
7. Merseyside (Liverpool) = £18.4 billion

List of Integrated Transport Authorities in England

1. Centro (West Midlands)
2. GMITA (Greater Manchester)
3. Metro (West Yorkshire)
5. Nexus (Tyne and Wear)
6. SYITA (South Yorkshire)
7. Merseytravel (Merseyside)

Rail patronage in Merseyside has increased by 10.1%, in South Yorkshire by 9.4%, and in the West Midlands by 5.9%

Bus patronage has increased by 7.4% in Tyne and Wear, and by 4.9% in Greater Manchester.

"Bus operators in Greater Manchester have continued to invest in new low-floor, accessible vehicles which have raised the percentage of wheelchair accessible vehicles to 71.5% – exceeding the national target of 50% by 2010/11" -

"The Tyne and Wear Metro is the UK’s most cost efficient urban railway system. 69 per cent of operating costs are met from revenue alone, with only seven per cent of costs coming from local authorities. The subsidy per journey is 42p, which is up to seven times smaller than that of heavy rail systems in other UK cities"

"The Midland Metro line from Snow Hill to Wolverhampton, which opened in 1999, has taken an estimated 1.2 million car journeys off the roads with 15 per cent of passengers using the tram instead of their cars for the same journey. It operates at around 99 per cent reliability and carries around 5 million passengers a year."

"The South Yorkshire heavy rail network provides benefits of £35m and costs £20m a year in subsidy. This indicates a benefit of around £1.75 per £1 of subsidy."

"The free buses that Metro has introduced in Leeds, Huddersfield, Wakefield and Bradford have carried almost 6.9 million passengers between them."

"Passenger Focus's Autumn 2008 National Passenger Survey found that, at 71%, satisfaction with value for money was higher among Merseyrail passengers than among passengers for any other train company"

(All quotes are from the Passenger Transport Executive Group)

Meanwhile.....back in Bristol;

"Bristol had the slowest average road traffic speed—16.8 miles per hour—of any of Britain’s major cities"

"Bristol, the economic heart of the [South West] region, is severely affect by road traffic congestion and is the only city in the United Kingdom where congestion is projected by the Department for Transport’s own figures to increase despite improvements already planned."

"Bristol has the lowest proportion of public transport per head of the population of any major urban area in the UK."

(Bristol quotes are from the House of Commons South West Regional Committee First Report on Transport in the South West )

Transport for Greater Bristol have more background on why the Bristol area should have an Integrated Transport Authority just like every other major city in England, and the statement they made and presented to the Joint Transport Executive Members of the West of England Partnership is well worth reading here