Monday, 28 March 2011

Another fake cost saving measure which conveniently doesn't harm default people

Andy Godfrey mentions in comments that another area the Government intend to "save money" is by abandoning the implementation of the "dual discrimination" parts of the Equality Act 2010, having previously delayed their implementation.

Dual discrimination protection was introduced in the Equality Act to deal with the situation where, for instance, women are not discriminated against in general, and black people are not discriminated against in general, but black women are discriminated against. Under previous legislation, there was no legal recourse in this situation - dual discrimination would have introduced it.

It was one of the few areas in which the Equality Act unambiguously improved upon the previous legislation it replaced.

This was announced as part of the Budget speech by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne MP (Conservative, Tatton)

£350 million worth of specific regulations will go – including the Equality Act’s costly dual discrimination rules;

Okay. How can the dual discrimination rules be "costly"? Certainly losing a dual discrimination case would be costly for the employer (or other organisation - service providers, schools, landlords, etc.), but that situation would imply that there was discrimination in the first place.

Similarly, having a law against murder costs the UK taxpayer millions of pounds a year on court costs, legal fees, police and forensics teams, prison buildings and staff, and so on. But we have that law despite the financial cost because we believe murder is wrong.

Similarly, dual discrimination is wrong, so we should be willing to pay for enforcement of laws against it. (As a civil rather than criminal offence, it wouldn't even be the taxpayer doing most of the paying)

A second possibility: dual discrimination would be uniquely vulnerable to malicious and vexatious claims. This isn't likely - the number of people who could claim dual discrimination at all in practice is lower than the number who could claim single discrimination (not by definition - the default side of any characteristic in the Equality Act can usually also make a claim - but nevertheless true in practice)

Furthermore, someone who wished to make a malicious claim could do so under existing single discrimination laws, or under laws not related to discrimination.

So, there's certainly not much case for abandoning this solely on the grounds that it would save money. If one believes that discrimination at all is wrong, then dual1 discrimination is fairly obviously also wrong. The Conservatives are taking great pains to say that they definitely believe discrimination is wrong and try to shake off their deserved reputation as the party of the default. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, were if anything even more enthusiastic about the Equality Act than its Labour proposers, bringing several - mostly failed - amendments to try to extend its reach.

So: it's not that we "can't afford it", it's that the government doesn't want to.

But, actually, does dual discrimination legislation cost us anything in the first place? That all depends on who "us" are. We're "all in this together" apparently, so I'm going to define "us" as "anyone in the UK". This is the same measure that GDP uses, so there's no reason not to.

Okay. Let's take a typical employment discrimination case. Person A is paid less than person B, or refused a promotion, or not hired, not because of matters such as experience, performance, or aptitude, but because of their race, and/or disability, and/or some other protected characteristic.

Who loses out if this is corrected?

  • The employer which discriminated is likely to have to pay compensation, and possibly make other adjustments at its own expense.

Who loses out if this is not corrected?

  • The employer - again - which has failed to get the best person for the job, or to make best use of its employees, and so suffers reduced productivity.
  • The employee, who gets less or no money as a result.
  • Other employees or potential employees with a similar set of protected characteristics, who will likewise be discriminated against in future if the employer is not made to improve its procedures.

As with most government funding decisions, the first set is an obvious direct cost which can show up on a balance sheet. The second set are mainly intangible costs, which are virtually never considered in finance decisions, plus a very direct tangible cost to the discriminated-against person.

But all in all, it looks like the total financial cost is likely to be basically neutral. Actually, given the evidence from countries which have taken more steps than the UK against employment discrimination, the long-run financial cost of this decision is likely to be harmful to the economy, not helpful.

There are two beliefs that one could hold that would make this argument fall apart. I suspect Osborne and friends hold both:

  1. Money in the profits of a corporation is significantly more valuable to the economy than money in the pockets of an employee.

    Given that one of the major causes of recessions and problems with ending recessions is a major collapse in domestic spending - which then goes on to impact corporate profits anyway because no-one buys their stuff - this is rarely true. Certainly not now.

  2. Default people are inherently better at employment tasks than non-default people. The best person for a good job is always a straight white middle-aged non-disabled cis man. In a suit. With a briefcase. Therefore, almost all discrimination claims will be unfounded or vexatious - especially the dual discrimination claims - and so they should be banned. Worrying about the claims might lead companies to appoint underqualified women (which is tautologous) to avoid being sued.

    I can believe that a lot of the current government MPs believe this, but they were trying to pretend not to.

For some unspecified fraction of £350 million, of which most if not all would end up in the economy anyway, with possible productivity and economic bonuses in the long run, it seems rather cheap to correct some obvious social injustice.

Apparently not.


1 The fact that dual discrimination is not already illegal is a fairly distinct reflection of the compartmentalisation of equality considerations in mainstream UK politics.

The Equality Act went some way towards at least stopping these considerations being compartmentalised off from each other, though not towards removing much of the relentless default-focus in legislation not specifically concerning equality.

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Sunday, 27 March 2011

Polling and modelling Alternative Vote

Alan Bell at Vote Geek has taken the algorithm and data I used for the Alternative Vote swingometer to come up with a graphical version. It allows you to select a set of transfer values for second preferences, and then graphically generates the results for various first preference values.

It's definitely worth having a look at. As it stands it also exposes some of the severe problems with existing AV polling and predictions (this is not a criticism of Alan Bell, who has done about the best possible with the available data)

Should the AV referendum pass, the polling and modelling of the general election result might become very tricky indeed - it might be the first election for some time where the results weren't generally obvious in advance.

Problem 1: England is not the UK

As I mentioned more briefly in the introduction to the swingometer, it's for England only.

There is virtually no polling - not even First Past The Post polling - for Northern Ireland. There is no useful second preference polling for Scotland or Wales, either - the few second preference polls that have been done are for Great Britain as a whole, and so the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru are on 3-4% of the first preference vote and a similar proportion of transfer votes.

While this might be correct for Britain as a whole, it's certainly not true within either Scotland or Wales. Under AV, any prediction for those countries would require focused polling because the transfers of SNP and PC voters would be crucial.

(In practice, the media and the nation being what it is, I'd expect to see lots of England-only polls and a very occasional Welsh or Scottish poll)

Problem 2: Second preference scores are imprecise

Because under AV (as opposed to Borda, for instance) the impact of a second preference depends on what the first preference was (and the impact of a third preference depends on both the first and second preferences), the second preferences need to be broken down by first preference.

This means that rather than polling the full properly-weighted sample, the second preference data is for a sub-sample.

Sub-samples are not generally internally-weighted as well, and are also much smaller (in the case of sub-sampling by first preferences, at best a quarter of the size) than the full sample.

The margin for random error on a typical 1,000-response poll of first preferences (or FPTP votes) is around 3%.

The margin for random error on a 250-vote sub-sample (for second preferences of major party voters, for instance) would be around 6% assuming the sub-sample is also properly weighted - since they aren't there's also an unknown systematic error introduced.

If AV polling becomes necessary, the sample sizes of polls will have to increase, and more weighting of the sub-samples will be needed.

Problem 3: Second preferences are not independent of first preferences

The Vote Geek visualisation lets you put in a set of transfer rates, and then gives the English result for those transfer rates for various first preference rates.

Of course, in reality, changes in first preference polling will have an effect on second preference polling. It's very hard to work out how this will actually affect second preferences, though.

For instance, between the general election and the latest1 second preference polling (YouGov/Spectator, 6 July), the Conservatives and Labour both gained some first preference voters at the expense of the Lib Dems.

The proportion of Labour votes with Lib Dem second preferences decreased, but the proportion of Conservative votes with Lib Dem second preferences increased. Similarly, Lib Dem second preferences changed from benefiting Labour over the Conservatives to being roughly equal between the two parties.

The reasons for this happening are - politically - rather obvious. But there is no mathematical model for second preference transfers that would predict this without a knowledge of the political context (and any model that has the political context built in would become rapidly inaccurate were that context to change)

This isn't a problem if you're just running scenarios from polling results, but it is a problem if you want to run "what if" scenarios.


1 For all the polling about how people might vote in the referendum, there's been a surprising lack of polling about what might happen if people vote 'Yes'. I'm surprised that none of the newspapers funding regular political polls have wanted to ask about it.

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Saturday, 26 March 2011

Inevitably, rights need to be defended

Well, it was obvious this was coming sometime during this Parliament. The Telegraph reports that amendments to further restrict access to abortion will be tabled to the Health and Social Care Bill by MPs including Nadine Dorries MP (Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire) and Frank Field MP (Labour, Birkenhead).

[trigger warning]

The amendments haven't yet been filed, but the Telegraph reports that the first will:

[...] create a new precondition for any women having an abortion to receive advice and counselling from an organisation that does not itself carry out terminations.

...and the second will transfer responsibility for setting clinical guidance for abortions to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (away from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists).

The second appears to be more symbolic than anything else, at an initial glance: they don't like the recommendations that the RCOG is likely to produce, so they'll give the job to someone else less specialised. Given that two doctors are required to agree for an abortion to happen - one or two more than any other medical treatment - this may cause problems with finding doctors if the guidelines NIHCE comes up with are significantly more anti-abortion than the ones RCOG would have written, but there will still be plenty of doctors who believe that forcing someone to go through with an unwanted and/or dangerous pregnancy is sufficiently harmful in its own right.

The first comes right out of the USA anti-choice book, though. It's full of typical anti-choice assumptions:

  • People in possession of a uterus automatically lose all their critical thinking skills and therefore, by force of law, must be required to be take advice and counselling whether they want or need it or not. No-one ever thinks about whether or not they should have an abortion before they walk into their GP's office.

    Unsurprisingly, this isn't applied to most other life decisions. Perhaps, given that - according to Science! - 99.81% of decisions on who to heterosexually marry are non-optimal, there should be mandatory advice and counselling for anyone wanting to get married. Religious organisations would not be allowed to provide this advice, since that would be a conflict of interest.

  • The pro-choice side want to maximise the number of abortions performed. Therefore it's a major conflict of interest for advice to be provided by an organisation (such as the NHS) which also provides abortions.

    Claire Murphy of BPAS is quoted in the Telegraph article for the obvious reality:

    On average, 20 per cent of women who approach BPAS initially seeking an abortion eventually chose not to have a termination, [Murphy] said.

    “The bottom line is that like any other medical procedure, women have to consent before they receive abortion treatment,” she said. “We have no interest in pushing women into procedures they do not want. We are about giving women choices.”

  • Reducing the number of abortions, in and of itself, would be a social good. The means taken to do this are irrelevant.

    The social problems resulting from a vast increase in the number of unwanted children - it's not as if our foster care and adoption services are keeping up with demand as it is; the health problems caused by carrying on with unwanted or dangerous pregnancies; the problems caused for families who neither want nor can cope with an extra child - all quietly ignored.

It's unfortunate, because there are several largely uncontroversially good actions which could be taken, one side effect of which would be to reduce the number of abortions. "Cheating" and just making abortions illegal or harder to get1 doesn't have the same effect.

For instance:

  • Researching - and not restricted to one form of reproductive anatomy, either - cheap, fully reliable contraception without side effects or the possibility of sabotage, and making this widely advertised and available to everyone in the country.
  • Significantly increasing the level and range of support available to parents - especially those without much money, and those with disabilities, and single parents, and everyone else who differs from society's default parenting model.
  • Major improvements in the coverage and availability of sex education for children - and, indeed, if we don't want to take most of a century to catch up, for adults too - especially on coercion issues (which often include coercion over contraception). Dismantling as much of rape culture as possible would help.
  • Far more efficiency and effectiveness in dealing with domestic violence and rape.

All of these would - as a side effect - reduce the number of abortions that were needed annually, either by making it less likely that people would become pregnant unexpectely, or by making it more likely that people who became pregnant would be able to support a child for the following decades.

Of course, helping people is not really what these MPs go in for (both are well to the right of their party as a whole) - far easier to punish them for not doing exactly what those MPs would have done.

Aside on Parliamentary Procedure

Votes concerning abortion in the Commons are generally "free" or "conscience" votes on which none of the parties take a particular line. As far as I can tell, none of the major parties currently represented in the Commons have any official policy on abortion.

In practice, most Labour MPs will vote against restrictions, most Conservative MPs and most Northern Ireland MPs will vote for restrictions, and the Lib Dems will split roughly equally on both sides. When there was a Labour majority in the Commons, this wasn't too bad. At the moment, however, the odds are not good (though, with around a third of MPs being new, they may be better than it looks).

It's not clear yet whether the amendments will be submitted at committee stage, report stage, or for third reading, which affects who will be able to vote on them.


1 In Northern Ireland, abortion is almost entirely illegal. Middle-class people who are pregnant there can quietly get on a ferry to Great Britain, have an abortion, and return home. Poorer people need to rely on the services of groups like the Abortion Support Network to cover their travel costs, hotel bills, and so on. (ASN is always in need of donations to cover its costs, if you have some spare cash)

Quite a few of the suggested restrictions are heavily class-based. Outlawing abortion entirely would cause too much opposition from the middle-classes and their swing votes. Restricting it won't inconvenience them too much and "who cares about poor people anyway?".

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Friday, 25 March 2011

Friday Links

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Season's Greetings

Season's Greetings! Northern-Hemisphere temperate summer to you all! (and some cheerful plant photos to make a change from the gloomy news recently)

The daffodils are back. The first daffodil of spring - well, in our garden anyway - exactly one year on from the first daffodil of last spring.

Anenomes. Some other flowers are coming out rather faster this year - these anenomes for instance.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Recycling austerity

The local council has announced that from April it will be charging £24 to replace lost or damaged recycling bins or bags, except where they were damaged by the collection staff.

These things do get lost fairly often - ours have gone missing twice this year already - we put them out for collection in the morning; come back in the afternoon and they're gone - and no-one else on the street seems to have more than they should, either, so where they went is a mystery.

Which is most likely when someone's recycling bin goes missing?

  1. Pay £24 for a replacement (expensive, especially if it keeps happening)
  2. Drive waste to the local tip instead (inconvenient, and not an option for many)
  3. Use disposable rubbish bags to put waste out instead (wasteful, and dangerous for recycling glass)
  4. Throw everything in the non-recycling bin instead (easy, but defeats the point)
  5. Steal someone else's bin (criminal)

Most people are honest enough not to go for option 5. But they probably won't pick option 1 either, given the choice. Still, I suppose the council saves money whichever option is chosen, and they need to do a lot of that right now, given the central funding cuts they've been given.

But it's yet another case where budget cuts are going to end up costing more in the long run as waste that could be recycled goes into landfill instead.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Coalition: untrained and stressed workers better for the economy

On 6 April 2011, parents of children aged 17 were to be given the right to request flexible working from their employers. Not the right to have flexible working, understand - just the right to request it.

The coalition intends to cancel this regulation before it takes effect.

From that press release.

The Government is committed to extending the right to request flexible working to all employees in due course, as set out in the Coalition Agreement.

The aim behind delaying the extension of flexible working is to allow businesses breathing space in the current economic climate.

Flexible working is currently available for parents with children 16 and under and carers.

Okay. So, let's go through this more slowly.

  1. The right to request flexible working is currently available for parents of children 16 or under, and carers. Employees do not have to grant flexible working - ever - but the employee has the right to ask and have their employer consider it, and the employer must have a good reason to say no.
  2. On the 6 April, the number "16" in that sentence would have changed to "17".
  3. But to reduce red tape by keeping the number and complexity of regulations related to flexible working exactly the same, it now won't.
  4. This will save the economy, because rather than worrying about whether all their employees with children aged exactly 17 (many small businesses have exactly zero employees fitting that description) were suddenly going to descend on them and ask for flexible working, employers will be able to ... um ... er ... Profit!
  5. Later, if the economy is better, they will increase red tape again by simplifying that regulation even further so that it says "all employees" rather than "all employees meeting conditions X, Y, Z"

No surprises for guessing that this sort of change will harm non-default employees - women, disabled people, working class people especially - far more than it harms the default ones (who weren't going to request flexible working much anyway)

And don't think about developing your skills either

Similarly, the right to request time off to train will be removed for employees of businesses with under 250 people.

Most economists would say that increasing the skill levels of your workforce improved productivity and so led to increased economic growth - but not Vince Cable and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS): they know the truth. Their next step will presumably be to rename themselves to the Department of Business, Stagnation, and Lack of Skills, to better reflect what the country needs right now.

Has DBIS said anything economically sound recently?

Hmm... it was also Cable's department that was responsible for the economically bizarre plans for tuition fees:

  1. Make students take out at least a "very large" loan to go to university at all
  2. Set the repayment terms such that for most of them (except the ones who get rich enough not to care) the total repayments will be exactly the same for a "very large" loan and a "really very large" loan.
  3. Let the universities choose whether their students will need a "very large" or "really very large" loan (but give the universities more money per student in the "really very large" case)
  4. Act incredibly shocked when every single university says "really very large".

Perhaps they've already fired all their well-trained economists, and aren't letting their replacements read any textbooks in case they learn something. This would explain rather a lot about their recent policy announcements.

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Saturday, 19 March 2011

Apologies for unchecked privilege

[trigger warning for ablist language]

As eateroftrees and others point out, using X-phobia to describe a type of discrimination is appropriative and disablist in its own right. Privilege and intentional hatred, not a disability, is the cause of the discrimination.

I apologise for not realising this far sooner. In retrospect, of course, it's incredibly obvious - just as racist behaviour is not "crazy" or "blackphobic", discrimination against LGB and/or trans people is heterosexist and/or cissexist, not "homophobic" or "transphobic".

I've removed the problematic labels from older posts and replaced them with the suggested alternatives, so new posts and the label list won't contain this language. (Older posts will still contain X-phobia constructions in the body: there doesn't appear to be a way to do a search and replace on every post - again, my apologies for it being there in the first place)

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Friday, 18 March 2011

Or it might be that your major underlying assumption is rubbish

[trigger warning]

Another piece of terrible BBC reporting (complete with stock "headless fatty" photo), this time about life expectancy and the "obesity epidemic".

The lead paragraph is:

Life expectancy in the UK is on the rise, along with the rest of Europe, despite fears over the impact of obesity, a population expert has said.

In summary: life expectancy has been rising in the UK, mainly because of better treatment for heart conditions. This is a surprise, because as reading the news makes clear, everyone is becoming "obese" and should be dead already.

It can't at all be because - as major population studies in Canada, Germany and the USA have consistently shown - there is no statistically significant link between BMI (the measure of "obesity") and life expectancy.

We are yet to see the impact of a generation of people who have been obese from childhood through to adulthood. We can't predict how that will affect life expectancy figures in the future.

While more individuals nowadays are likely to be sufficiently far above the government-mandated weight that they count as "obese" for most of their lives (and especially now that the government - through the time-honoured technique of "making it up" - is defining more and more children as "overweight"), there are plenty of people who have been "obese" for all their lives, who were in those major studies, and who didn't die at any greater rates than anyone else.

But this argument1 will keep them going on the "fat will kill you" track for a few decades.

At some point historians of medicine are going to look back and show how researchers managed to completely ignore major population studies saying "no effect" in favour of studies that don't get beyond correlation is causation, because they were so convinced of the truth of their main hypothesis that they just ignored evidence against it.

Until then, more terrible public policy and reporting, and more encouraging of hatred against fat people.


1 It occurs to me that this resembles the backstop argument for people when presented with unbeatable evidence of (e.g.) gender or racial inequality: "that is due to discrimination 30 years ago the after-effects of which haven't worked their way out of the system yet; in another 30 years it'll have gone". It's an argument that never gets old.

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Friday Links

This Guardian tool seems useful Coalition pledge tracker

Monday, 14 March 2011

Bad for families, bad for small businesses? How very conservative.

The Telegraph reports that "Ministers plan to exempt small firms from maternity leave rules" as part of the Budget.

If the leak is accurate, businesses with 10 or fewer employees would be exempt from the statutory maternity and paternity leave requirements. Instead, employees would have to negotiate it individually.

Bad for families

The bad for families bit is pretty obvious. A lot of people are employed by small businesses, and if they have to personally negotiate their new parent's leave, they're unlikely to get as good a deal as the statutory leave available to people working for larger businesses.

The statutory requirements are currently:

  • Maternity leave, available to the person actually giving birth, is 6 weeks at 90% of salary, then another 33 weeks at the statutory rate (either 90% of salary or £124.88, whichever is lower), then another 13 weeks unpaid.
  • Paternity leave, available to one partner of the person giving birth - despite the name, this person need not be male or the father - 2 weeks at the same statutory rate.

There must also be the same or an equivalent job to return to at the end of the leave period.

The maternity leave is relatively generous - though much less than provided by some other European countries - and it might be difficult to negotiate something that good on one's own. In a small business, support from a union is difficult to come by, too.

So, that's a lot of new parents who - at an expensive time in their life - will be getting less financial support because they happened to work for a smaller employer than their neighbours. And, of course, the majority of people who are really much worse off as a result will be women. Typical.

Bad for small businesses

Firstly, negotiating leave like this is extra effort for the employer, too - especially if the employee actually puts up an argument. Make too low an offer, and you might not get your employee back after the leave is over, now that they know the value that you place on their work.

Secondly, at the moment, the government covers the expenses associated with statutory maternity and paternity pay. Businesses making less than £45,000 in class 1 National Insurance contributions annually (roughly: businesses with less than £400,000 in staff salary costs, which will be just about every business with ten or fewer employees) can reclaim from the government 104.5% of the costs of paying statutory pay to the employees.

Yes, that's more than 100% reclaimable. Small businesses actually make a small amount of money - in addition to not having to pay their salary (though that might go on hiring a temp) - by having employees on maternity or paternity leave. This is not a well-known fact.

Furthermore, the reclaiming is done by taking the money out of the income tax the business sends to the government for its employees, so the money is available immediately with no delays.

That's at the moment. The government, however, only refunds statutory pay. If a company - as my employer does - chooses to give a more generous maternity or paternity leave package, then the government only allows the statutory portion to be reclaimed.

Now consider the effect of removing any statutory requirement for small businesses - it goes from being marginally profitable (in reality, this is to cover increased payroll administration costs, rather than actual profit) to costing the business several thousand pounds to keep the same terms.

So small businesses that value their employees and want to keep giving the same terms as before - as generous terms, as with other signs that an employer actually values its employees, make it more likely that employees will return at the end of their leave - might end up several thousand pounds out of pocket as a result.

So who is it good for?

The government balance sheets. If they can stop paying maternity leave to employees of small businesses, that's a fairly large direct cost saving overall. (The indirect costs will probably vastly exceed the saving, of course)

It's a leaked proposal, so the details aren't available, and they might instead retain reimbursement at the statutory rates. But if they do that, the proposal basically does nothing other than aggravate employers and employees. In that situation:

  • There's no point in paying less than the statutory rates, if they remain reimbursed for small businesses, because it doesn't cost any more.
  • For paternity leave, the length of leave is nothing that employees couldn't reasonably take as holiday anyway. There's not much point in trying to argue it below two weeks.
  • For maternity leave, the employee is going to have a child and going to need some time off work as a result. If you try to skip that, you'll just end up with them taking sick leave instead, for which the repayment terms aren't as generous. They'll be away long enough that if your business can't manage without them, you'll need to hire a temp - at which point, unless qualified temps are either much rarer or much more expensive than qualified permanent staff (both unlikely, especially with these unemployment levels), the big hassle of temporarily losing an employee is over and done with.
  • But rather than this all being agreed in statute, you have to argue over it with every single employee.

In this alternative case the benefit to the government is that it gets to "cut red tape" (by increasing it) and get a policy boost with the "mothers belong at home" crowd, at no direct financial cost.

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Friday, 11 March 2011

Friday Links

Monday, 7 March 2011

Oppression and the implementation of democracy

This BBC article highlights the likely effects on North East councils of making business rates go to the local council that raised them.

As with other "local taxation" initiatives, it of course ignores the fact that it's the economically depressed areas, with high unemployment and very few rich residents, which have the most need for public services. Meanwhile, the local areas with numerous wealthy families, which could raise a lot of money from local taxation ... don't need to. They can fund all the necessary local services on a much smaller budget anyway.

It occurs to me that this sort of regional class-based neglect - and other areas of oppression where a less-privileged group is geographically separated from a more-privileged group - is in part an artifact of our current way of electing MPs to Parliament.

If you look at an electoral map of the North East region, it's almost entirely red. A couple of large rural seats to the north of the region - Berwick-upon-Tweed and Hexham - are safe Lib Dem and Conservative seats. The rest of the seats were uniformly Labour from 1997 to 2005, with Stockton South (a politically very divided seat) moving back to the Conservatives in 2010, and Redcar being taken over by the Lib Dems after the closure of the Corus steel plant, and the resulting loss of 1,600 jobs.

Under a constituency-based electoral system - the current First Past The Post, or the proposed Alternative Vote - this is basically unchangeable. At the height of recent Labour unpopularity, they lost two out of their usual 27 seats. The reorganisation of seats as part of the reduction in the number of MPs will, if anything, further reinforce their hold.

It's not surprising that Labour do well up here, of course - the region consists of lots of ex-mining villages, ex-industrial towns, and ex-employed people - and suffered heavily in the 1980s under Thatcher's Conservative government.

Nevertheless, in the 2010 election, after excluding the two atypical rural seats, Labour only got just over 45% of the votes. The Lib Dems and Conservatives each got almost exactly half that (22.5%) - but only a twenty-fifth of the number of seats.

This ends up, I think, being very bad for the region as a whole, and North-East Labour should be pushing for a PR system despite - indeed because of - the side effect of reducing their seats1.

That's a startling conclusion, so let's step through the logic more slowly.

The aim of politics, in theory, is about making sure that your preferred policies, whatever they are, become reality. As I pointed out in my earlier Principles and Power post, this doesn't actually require having a majority in government (or, indeed, any MPs at all)

So, the aim of the North-East Labour party should be to get Labour policies implemented, and to get the best result for the North-East.

Surely, then, the best way to do this is to have lots of Labour MPs from the North-East in Parliament? Well, no. Not always. If the government is Labour-controlled, then this works quite well. But more than half the time, it isn't. Various of the local MPs have been raising the consequences of the current government policy on the North-East in Parliament, to no avail. They're doing what they can, but it's not making a difference in the short term.

The Conservatives (and to a lesser extent the Lib Dems), on the other hand, have basically no electoral incentive to help the North East.

In any situation where Labour are not right at the bottom of the polls, they will win 27 of the 29 North-East seats (and the other two are not the same ex-industrial landscape anyway). The boundary changes, proposed to reduce Labour's advantage under FPTP, will if anything make it even easier for them up here.

So, the political cost of passing policies that are unpleasant to the North-East is basically nil. They can't lose seats that way. Nor can they really win seats by passing better policies - even at the height of Labour unpopularity they were nowhere near in almost every seat.

Under Proportional Representation - assuming no major changes in voting intention for the first election or two - it would be somewhat different. On the current results, Labour would get around 14 of the 27 seats, the Lib Dems and Conservatives 5 or 6 each, and the remaining ones would go to either minor parties, or an extra seat to each of the big three, depending on exactly how the seats were calculated.

The crucial thing, however, is that the last few seats for each side would be rather precarious. A mere 10,000 votes - across the whole region of over a million voters - changing from Labour to Conservative, would give the Conservatives an extra seat. Conversely, losing a similar amount would give Labour an extra seat. A larger swing would be worth even more.

The very real risk of losing two or three North-East MPs as a consequence of anti-Northern policies might make the Conservatives rather less inclined to try them (and their own precariously-seated MPs might well be leading the internal campaign for an alternative).

By making lost votes actually harm the parties (and yes, lost votes would also harm Labour far more than they currently do), the intentional harm caused to the region by successive Conservative (or mostly-Conservative) governments could be avoided.

(And, indeed, by making the Labour party no longer able to take the votes of the North-East completely for granted, it might be more inclined to pass policies specifically to strengthen the North-East, proposed by the local Labour MPs)

And so, back to the counter-intuitive conclusion - Labour's policies in the North-East would actually be more likely to happen if they had fewer North-East MPs and a more responsive voting system.

The way in which politicians are elected makes a big difference, especially when geographical segregation applies. The intricacies of voting systems are not necessarily the most interesting topic, but (as with more obvious areas of democracy such as disenfranchisement) they can make a major difference to how politics happens, and whose interests are represented by it.

1 They would of course get some of their loss back in areas of the country which are similarly safely-Conservative, but would nevertheless almost certainly lose seats overall. With a mindset that views seats gained rather than policies implemented as its measure of success, this would never be considered.

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Saturday, 5 March 2011

The (non-)paradox of agency and oppression

This isn't really a paradox, but it's very easy to get drawn into lines of reasoning where it looks like one if you're not careful. Stated simply:

If it's okay for any individual to do X, why is it a problem if most individuals do X?

Or in inverse:

If it's a problem that most people do X, why shouldn't individuals who do X be criticised?

So, the apparent paradox is that it's okay for any individual to do X, but when most people do X, it's considered a problem. For a topical example, there have been a few reports recently about the domination of the press by men1. One of the common responses to the suggestion that this might be a problem is the suggestion that "maybe women just don't choose to be journalists".

That probably is a significant factor. So - if it's a problem that women don't become journalists, especially senior journalists (and it is, because of the effect on what gets considered news and how it gets reported) - isn't that a criticism of women who didn't choose journalism as a career? Aren't you just wanting to force society to conform to some gender-equal state regardless of the wishes of its members?

Or, for an example that works from the other direction, that I've criticised before, "if the female beauty standard is a problem, isn't it wrong for women to wear makeup?"

Two apparently-opposed statements

In a bit more detail: one of the major principles of social justice activism is that less-privileged people have as much agency as more-privileged people, and so should be assumed (as with a default person) to have the capability to make autonomous decisions about their own life. Criticising those decisions is almost always a really bad idea because you don't know why they made them, and the idea that you could guess better than them what the correct decision was is extremely arrogant and completely erases their capacity to make their own decisions. Just the way that pro-default society likes it.

Another principle is that there are real widely-held stereotypes of behaviour, differences in treatment, and so on, that lead to some people being privileged over others, and that this privilege is a bad thing and should be dismantled. Such dismantling is likely to be resisted, of course, by the people who benefit from that privilege.

The conflict then comes in a flawed chain of reasoning something like the following:

  • Upholding privilege is bad
  • Actions which accept the path of privilege tend to uphold it
  • Therefore actions which privilege wants you to take are bad

Or perhaps from the other side

  • All of this is a consequence of the sum of individual decisions
  • Individual decisions shouldn't be criticised
  • Therefore the sum effect shouldn't be criticised

This gets used either as an excuse to uphold the status quo, or an excuse to attack non-privileged people who are not seen to be doing enough to dismantle it.

Neither is a good situation.

The really obvious flaw in the logic

I'm not claiming this is the only flaw or even the most major one. But it's the stand-out neon letters one, for me.

People's choices are constrained

No-one ever gets a completely free choice about what they do. For instance, when I was last job-hunting, I had two broad options:

  1. Restrict my search roughly to County Durham. This reduced the chances of finding a suitable job, but meant that I could stay in a part of the country where I knew several good friends.
  2. Search nationally, increasing the chances of finding a job, but also increasing the chances of having to move to a place where I knew no-one.

I'm not going to say which I chose, but for me, both were viable options.

For someone with a partner who already had a job in County Durham, the first option becomes much more preferable, if at all possible.

For someone who was shorter on cash at the start of their search than I was, the second option might have to be taken.

For someone who was more widely-travelled than me, and had plenty of spare cash, they might have plenty of friends in London already, and have the third option of moving there and then looking for work. That option wasn't even on my list.

The options that any individual has in a particular situation depend on their more general circumstances, their privilege, and many other externally-imposed factors.

Those factors, of course, include other people's decisions. In the case of employment, for instance, if you have a Muslim-sounding name, you might choose to apply for a job at an airport, but that doesn't mean anyone will treat the application fairly.


That, of course, makes the resolution of the apparent paradox entirely straightforward. It's absolutely legitimate to look at what factors are influencing whether people apply for careers in journalism, and why those factors are different for different genders.

It's also legitimate to see if there's anything that can be done to change those factors if the overall effect appears to be harmful.

It's possible that, after changing those factors, some people will make a choice that they otherwise wouldn't have made. This isn't interfering with people's choices, or restricting them - it's giving them extra options2 in addition to those they already had.

Similarly, one can criticise and try to dismantle the beauty standards while not criticising any individual for their own choices over their appearance3. (The people who are ready to criticise women for wearing make-up rarely seem willing to equally criticise men for not doing so, as eastsidekate points out, though surely both "reinforce" the same gendered beauty standards)

The distinction between external factors affecting people's choices, and those choices themselves, should be very obvious. In general, it only serves the interests of the hierarchical status quo to hide that distinction.


1 While it's not mentioned in the preview of this survey, one could find much the same result for white people, rich people, non-disabled people, and most other axes of privilege. It also suggests that of the 3,700ish people surveyed, only two genders were represented at all (which is either evidence of a far more significant bias in journalism, or evidence of bad data gathering at some stage - the full report isn't out yet, so I don't know which)

2 Which works both ways, of course - if people who aren't men are more likely to choose journalism as a career, that would be one way to adjust the balance. But likewise, if men are made less likely to choose journalism as a career, by making it a more viable choice for some of them to enter other (currently mostly female) careers, that would also have the same effect.

3 Some choices like blackface need criticism, of course, but that sort of choice is obviously not what I'm talking about here. I'm discussing choices for which there is no problem with any individual making that choice, but there may be a problem when most individuals feel they have to make that choice.

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Friday, 4 March 2011