Some links

I know this is very lazy of me, but rather than anything clever I thought I’d just post a couple of links to interesting blogs of the last couple of days. The last 2 refer to Osborne’s announcement today that he’s going to axe the Future Jobs Fund and Child Trust Funds – a rather chilling prelude to what’s coming up.

1) Peter Kenway in the Guardian shows that contrary to the popular myth, work is not the route out of poverty

2) A couple of fairly harsh criticisms of the loss of the Future Jobs Fund – both make excellent points.

3) A similarly harsh criticism of the decision to axe child trust funds. Interestingly, all the Community Development workers I asked about this today said they didn’t really know much about it and weren’t that interested. I wonder if it’s a very sad case of an excellent idea that has ultimately failed because no-one promoted it enough. Kate Green used to be head of Child Poverty Action Group and is very well respected indeed.

Some basic arguments for electoral reform

Some basic arguments for Electoral Reform

From the perspective of someone who is on the left, votes Labour but is certainly not happy with everything they do, and has consequently never summoned the enthusiasm to campaign for them. This motivates my current interest in electoral reform – if the arguments are right, it would re-engage me (and presumably many others) with party politics. However, I know there are dissenting voices, including on the left, and I’d like to find out why. Please do comment on what’s below.

I’m also not an expert on electoral reform, but having read the comprehensive summaries available on the electoral reform society website, what’s below is an argument for something like Single transferable vote, although see the caveat on local representation below. It’s not an argument for Alternative Vote, which is far as I can see isn’t proportional at all and doesn’t really change the current situation very much.

Arguments for electoral reform

1)      It will encourage people (eg me) to re-engage with politics, as they will be able to vote and campaign for parties that more accurately reflect their views, without feeling their vote and effort is wasted.

2)      Related to that, it will (might) lead to more parties, which individually engage fewer people than the current main parties, but collectively engage far more, with far more conviction.

3)      It would discourage parties from ignoring large numbers of people, such as those in safe opposition seats, since their votes would still count.

I think these three points can be summarised as follows: In the First Past The Post system we have at the moment, coalitions form before the election, in the guise of large, fairly diverse parties. Voters are then asked to chose which of them most matches their views, even though there’s a fairly good chance that – because they’re such broad coalitions – you’re not going to agree with everything in there, and might well fundamentally disagree with some of it. THis is (anecdotally at least, amongst me and almost all my friends) a disincentive to engaging. The small parties that might better reflect your views are not worth engaging with, because a vote for them will count for virtually nothing.

Most forms of PR, on the other hand, allows the coalition to occur after the election. This allows people to vote for a party that much more closely aligns with their views, with the consequent increase in participation outside of election time. An advantage of this is that (as long as it’s not a closed list system) you’re more likely to be able to vote for an individual who shares your outlook, and then hold them to account. At present you can end up voting for an individual you quite fundamentally disagree with, because they’re standing in your seat as part of the broader coalition you support.

4)      Plus the obvious one – some people’s votes are currently worth much more than others, (see much-repeated difference between share of the vote and share of the seats in this election).

I think arguments 1 and 2, and 3 – which are based on the way party politics would change before, not after, the election – are often forgotten by those arguing against PR (see below), who concentrate too much on number 4.

Arguments against it, with rebuttals

1)      It will give the fascists some power: I think this is weak. Trying to pretend the BNP don’t exist because they don’t have a parliamentary seat is ridiculous. 1 in 50 people in the last election voted for the BNP – ignoring them will probably make them angrier. PR should be positive in that it would force mainstream parties to engage with the issues motivating BNP voters (who I don’t think we can dismiss as all fascists, even though the BNP itself is.), rather than pretending they don’t exist.

2)      It will lead to weak and ineffective government: I’m not a constitutional expert by any means, but the record across most of Europe, and much of the rest of the world, seems to suggest it’s perfectly possible to successfully run a country under PR. Is there any reason why Britain is special? Germany, for example, seems to have done it very successfully. I read a very good argument for this somewhere, but now I’ve forgotten where, if you know it please comment.

3)      It will lead to back room deals. I think we have those anyway, they just go on within the big parties (which are all coalitions anyway), and behind the scenes in government. Also, it would be pretty obvious which deals had been done once it came to voting time in Parliament, since you could still compare each MP against the manifesto their party stood under, just like you can now. In fact, on this basis, I can’t see how it would be any different to the current system – in both we hold parties and their MPs to account at the next election, based not just on their promises for the future but also how well they stuck to their promises from last time.

4) Losers get into government (eg the argument that goes ‘how can Clegg, leader of the third party, end up as kingmaker?’). I think the problem with this argument is that it applies a FPTP analysis to a PR outcome. PR is far less likely to produce one party with a majority – the point is that it leads to coalitions with a majority. And those coalitions are not necessarily made up of the 2 (or 3, or 4) largest parties, they should be made up of the parties which can most successfully agree on a shared programme while commanding a majority of seats. If the centrist party feels that it has to negotiate with the largest party, rather than the one it feels most ideologically close to, it rather defeats the point of PR (which seems to be what Clegg did, in arguing for PR but sticking to FPTP politics). It would be interesting to know how this plays out in other PR systems – are there often situations where the largest party ends up in opposition?

5) Labour would be less likely to be in government. This is one of the arguments (I suspect a particuarly important one) coming from those in Labour opposed to PR. But I think that in making it they forget arguments 1,2 and 3 above -the fact is that you can’t just say ‘well, if we had PR then the BNP would get in, or Labour would be only just ahead of the Lib Dems, or Labour would never win again,’ because if we had PR then previous elections would have produced completely different results.

The parties wouldn’t have campaigned in the same way, they might not even have been the same parties, and people certainly wouldn’t have voted in the same way. If you want to predict what might happen under PR, you have to take all this into account.

I think one of the main things turning people off politics is the perception that politicians will happily abandon their values in favour of political tribalism. “I’m Labour, therefore I’ll support the party, even if they’re doing something I morally disagree with.” Under the current system you could defend that on the basis that overall the party best embodies your values, even if it goes against them fairly fundamentally on some issues. Under PR I think that would be much harder to do. So here’s a question for Labour opponents of PR – is your opposition based completely on furthering the values you believe in, or does it stem from a (completely understandable, given people’s long history and involvement in teh Labour party) dedication to the name and the badge? PR probably won’t further the cause of the Labour party, but there’s no reason why it can’t promote the values you’re hopefully in politics to uphold.

6)      It will remove the vital constituency link. I can’t decide whether this is important or not, but I certainly don’t think it’s a barrier – they are plenty of top-up versions of PR that keep fairly small constituencies. There’s probably room for  a more detailed discussion about this elsewhere, but I’m interested in whether MPs’ votes on national issues really do reflect local concerns (as opposed to party line, their own beliefs, etc etc), or is being part of the national legislature actually a separate function from standing up for the interests of local people. (and where, for example, do local councillors fit in to it?). The Jenkins Commission – set up by Labour in 97 to look into PR, suggested the AV+ method, and was then ignored – has an interesting paragraph about the roles of MPs here. It suggests they do local stuff quite well, but are hopeless at legislating.

Israel, the Holocaust, National Identity

Below are some of my thoughts and opinions on what it means to be Israeli. The subject requires many chapters rather than a few paragraphs. However I’ve done my best and feel it is important to post something on this left-leaning (please excuse the categorisation) blog. I am aware that the subjects I touch on are sensitive and apologise for any offence caused by my rather sweeping statements. I would welcome criticism in such cases.

Before I commence, I would like to point Bathhouse readers in the direction of an article by a Marxist named Werner Bonefeld. Bonefeld attacks left-wing apologists for the anti-Semitic politics of current Middle Eastern liberation movements. I believe Bathhouse readers will find it valuable:

I am a Londoner, and have been raised with an awareness of different cultures and the problems caused by state discrimination. Fighting against state imposed discrimination is very important and for many in the international community the aggression by Israel against Palestinians and its neighbours is clear and apparent due to the obvious imbalance of economic, military and political power between the combatant sides. We witness state directed violence being conducted against non-state actors (PLO, Hamas, Palestinian civilians) and we cannot help but be astonished at the irony behind such an obvious parallel with the Jewish people’s own past. I have always wondered how this irony can fail to be recognised by Israelis. My time in Israel has given me some insights that I feel may answer this question. I will expound on these in the next few paragraphs.

The past few weeks have been very interesting for me. Israelis have recently marked Holocaust day and Commemoration day (for all their lost soldiers who almost always teenagers due to conscription) and on Wednesday I visited Yad Vashem which is the Israeli Holocaust Museum. It really is very important that people staying in this area make the time to visit the museum. At the age of seventeen, all Israeli school children are given the option to visit Poland, which most do, where they tour Auschwitz and talk with death-camp survivors. Taking these practices into account, one begins to understand how the history of anti-Semitism in Europe, culminating with the Holocaust is fundamentally and deeply imbedded within the Israeli national identity.

The Holocaust was the only time in history where the bureaucratic and industrial apparatus of a modern state had been directed toward wiping out a specific segment of its population. It is unique in this regard and the state of Israel emerging “out of the ashes of Auschwitz” is imbued with the conceptual survival of the Jewish race. In this sense, any attack on the new Israeli homeland or any question regarding the legitimacy of Israel is regarded directly as an attack on the Jewish race. Most Israelis today still feel as though Israel is fighting for survival.

For us in Europe, the 30s and 40s plays just as important a part in the creation of our national identity as it does to Israelis. We can understand the films, documentaries, national curriculum etc as an ongoing project to forge a national conception of the democratic west struggling against and eventually winning out over tyranny. It is to us a period of the triumph of western democratic values and free-market governance. We study the period with a focus on alternative models of the industrial state and understand anti-Semitism, culminating in the Holocaust, as an inevitable outcome of ultra-nationalism.

Israelis view the period from a different perspective. Visiting Yad Vashem enables an outsider to better understand this perspective and it places the Holocaust at the centre of the 30s and 40s. For example, the launch of operation Barbarossa by Hitler against the Russians is significant, not because he is now fighting on two fronts (as with British education), but because Jews have been linked with Communism by the Nazis and now that Communists are the enemy Jews too become fair game in the war of annihilation in the east. It is an important psychological step toward enabling the Holocaust to take place.

Many in contemporary Europe have moved onto new social causes in the fight against discrimination and injustice. I myself gave very little thought to anti-Semitism other than as resulting in a horrific and tragic episode in history that, although unique, was part of a wider period of horror. So blind am I to Jewishness as a distinct racial/cultural/religious identity, I understand my colleagues and friends here in Israel just as Israeli. Their Jewishness, or lack thereof, never enters my head. When I mention this, I am met with expressions of surprise. Without exception those I speak with understand themselves as Israeli first and Jewish second. In the UK the typical identity path I encounter of secular whites is British first followed by the person’s home town.

Israel is a full scale national project and people are connected with it at a far deeper and intricate level than in the UK. I am amazed at how connected those who live here are with the history, politics and economics of their local region. They know the families that originally settled in the area, its main agricultural product, which famous Israelis have come from their specific locale, the role of the locale in various of Israel’s conflicts. An intimate knowledge of Israel’s smallest areas and their contribution to Israel is commonplace at grassroots level. Israeli history is social and embodied in family lines and living relatives. In contrast, UK historical sites are empty of life but full of relics which visitors come to see; otherwise they are occupied by a family disconnected from the original famous inhabitants through many changes of ownership over the centuries. I point this out to try and give a feel for how connected Israelis are to their nationality not as a criticism of the UK. In Israel the history remains alive.

Being comfortable and free from fear to express Jewishness (whatever this may be) is central to Israel’s nationality. There seems to be a regular pattern of holidays marking this, that, or the other Jewish celebration, suggesting religious and cultural homogeneity, although prejudice exists within Jewish Israeli society. For instance, some Israelis consider the Hassidic Jews to be parasites on the state since they contribute nothing to its economy and are paid to study the Torah. In addition, many Hassidic Jews establish settlements in the West Bank and this is perceived by some Israelis to drain state resources by forcing Israel to protect these settlements.  Also, you will find racial prejudice existing amongst the Jewish community between Eastern Jews, North African Jews, Ethiopian Jews and European Jews as well as classist terms such “Frecher” and “Arsim” which denote something equivalent to the UK’s Chav and Pikie.

The centuries of anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust catalysed the creation of Israel making this event fully and deeply part of Israeli national identity. Israel is understood as the only place on earth where Jews can live this identity without fear of persecution or annihilation. This is an ongoing project (like all national identities) and for me, it is understandable given the ravages the 2nd World War dealt on Jews. But the national project seems to permeate almost every level of Israeli society as Israelis living their day-to-day lives (having babies, developing agriculture, educating themselves, serving their time in the army, working in the high-tech industry) understand this in terms of contributing to the ongoing maintenance of the Israeli state and therefore the Jewish people. The result is that any physical attack on Israel, however minor, or any questioning of its legitimacy and right to exist is met with a hard-line stance from the vast majority of Israelis who see this as a direct threat to their lives and the lives, the lives of their families, and the lives of Jews everywhere.

We in Europe may see Israelis as blind to the obvious ironies that can be drawn between state violence directed toward Jews and state violence directed toward Palestinians. The specific historical circumstances of Israel’s creation and it’s uniquely Jewish identity mean that no irony exists for Israelis. Rather, attacks against them can only be considered in the terms of their ongoing fight for survival against a world hostile to Jews.

I hope in this piece to have drawn attention to the fundamental link between Israel’s policy choices and the Holocaust. I hope I have given some insights into the unique nature of Israel as a national project and provided a route toward understanding how the Israeli perception of its policies toward Palestinians differs so markedly from many onlookers in Europe.

The Big Society Post Office bank

I don’t know what it says about the state of things that, as the election draws closer, thebathhouse has become quieter. I feel overwhelmed by rhetoric and wrangling over NI and I sense that a lot of interesting policies are muffled under the force of loud ElectionLive!-type of reporting.

It’s pretty old news already but the two ‘main’ parties have each proposed something interesting on progressive banking. I’ve only looked at this a bit, so if anyone knows better please correct me.

Cameron’s Big Society Bank wants to use the unclaimed money from dormant bank accounts as a base for attracting ‘ethical investment’ bonds and the likes, which will then lend money to social enterprise bodies, who will then invest in social enterprises. It’s an investment bank rather than a bank for lending to people. The idea of using dormant money already exists – at the moment it goes to the national lottery fund, which then lends to charitable organisations to lend to charities. So that’s hardly new.

As for the principle removing the state from care, there must be a worry that relying totally on profit making charities (social enterprises) will affect what type of care is delivered and how. It seems like a useful way of promising care without promising half of the investment needed. I want to know what Will thinks about this, since he’s the one with a street-level view.

Brown’s Post Office Bank is so nearly brilliant, but then, being New Labour it can’t help but slip up in a crucial way. It’s less an investment bank and more a high-street lender. The focus is on lending at normal rates to poor people who are normally charged extortionate rates. This is heady news indeed and could be a step towards reform that will break the massive power of elite private finance firms, who act as cartels when setting distorted high interest rates to poor people. Yet rather than keep this as a public service, it is a join venture with the Bank of Ireland (who were given the contract to provide financial services through the post office a while ago).

So the profits made from expanding finance to the majority will be channelled up into the hands of a tiny elite, all of this using public money. The Post Office Bank will invest in credit unions, but why not make the Post Office Bank a credit union instead. That way the profits could go back to members and would have the majority wielding the financial power of a big bank.

Election reading

There has been a number of good article and things firing around of late. So it seemed to make sense to shove them up here.

Firstly there is an interesting article, spotted by Will about how right-wing politics has taken ownership of popular cultural issues to defend the interests of a rich minority. Will reckons it “puts what I guess we already knew in quite a concise way,” but takes issue with one bit in it: “The media colludes in this by focusing on ‘benefits cheats’ while ignoring massive tax avoidance.”

He argues instead, “The main focus on benefit cheats has been coming from DWP, with their huge advertising and media campaign. They are the ones putting out the press release every time someone is convicted. Apparently their anti benefit fraud campaign has cost £6million. I’m sure if they put the same publicity effort into tax avoidance the media would follow them.”

Next up, I read a rambling and cheery read about John-Lewis and whether it could be progressive a model for other companies.

It is owned by its employees – or partners – who have a say in how it is run, and receive a share of the profits. Surely this the way every organisation should be run…

Generally I find it puzzling how the left has almost nothing to say about how companies are organised. Business is arguably the most significant organising force in our society, yet we are always chasing the state to change things.

Finally, last week’s Guardian Politics podcast I found a real cracker, speculating on the (crucial) issues that will be left out of all the election campaigning.

If anyone stumbles into anything else of interest, do stick it up.

What do opinion polls really tell us?

This post was prompted by a short piece in the Guardian that got me thinking about opinion polls.  the orginal is here in case you’re interested.

Numbers from opinion polls are often quoted but we don’t normally give much thought to what they can tell us or how accurate they are. Sampling the shifting opinions of a large population is just the sort of thing that gets statisticians excited and I thought I’d look at some of the numbers behind polls.

Most opinion poles are pretty simple. They ask a fairly standard question, usually “if the election was held tommorrow who would you vote for?”. In the most simple case they then work out how many people to ask by assuming the population is large and the sample is small and and random then use the formula for standard error

Standard error =  SQRT( (p(1-p))/n)) (where p is the probability of the question, and n is the sample size.

From this I can see that assuming 50% of my population supports labour and I ask 1000 whether they do, the error is:

Standard error =  SQRT( (0.5(1-0.5))/1000)) = 0.015 or 1.5%

Actually, most polls are considerably more complicated than this, they add  their own home brew of random and quota sampling, with  some stats used to choose a  sample size to keep the error down to about 3%. Quota sampling, since you ask,  is where you try to match your sample with the general population, so if 30% of the population are over 50 then you try to include 30% over 50s in your sample.

It should quickly become fairly clear that you can’t actually take a sample that exactly matches the whole population in every respect. People who are in their 20s could also be civil servants and also be women. Therefore you need some mathmatical wizardry afterwards to make sure all those women you interviewed to get the numbers of people in their 20s up don’t screw up the gender balance. In practise this means that different groups are identified and weighted more or less heavily to match the general population.

To try to get a result that could actually tell us what’ll happen we’d then need to understand where these people are and that is tricky. In an election it is no good having 90% of the vote in some areas, that doesn’t increase the number of seats.  We could do some research to find out how 35 year old council workers opinions vary geograpically but it would probably just be out of date and wrong.

To get around the problem that our sample doesn’t actually tell us who will win which seats, we approach things another way. We do the same flawed test regularly and look at the changes not the absolute numbers. The numbers may not be real but the  but the changes are real shifts in national public opinion. In short, opinion polls  give a good picture of a  national response to politics but are a bad way to find out which seats will be won and lost.

Is Britain Broken?

Some eager bathhouse members managed a field trip to a Guardian debate last night that asked ‘Is Britain Broken?’ (The link has a podcast of the event, by the way) So in the spirit of things, it seemed only right to share some thoughts.

‘Broken Britain’ is such a pithy, general and meaningless slogan that any number of issues can collapse into it. The state of social housing, the expenses scandal, the deficit and divorce lawyers were just a few of the bugbears cited by the audience and as symptoms of a broken society.

Yet Will made a good point by wondering just how useful the term actually is. Does ‘Broken Britain’ cloud or clarify the issues in question?

For me, many of the social issues that matter are outcomes of an unequal society rather than anything else. But equality has different aspects to it. While plenty has been said about the spiralling income inequality, there has been nothing about the inequality of political power.

Asking a government to promote the interests of the majority is pointless when that majority has little power. It’s a chicken-egg conundrum. With the break-up of unions, political power over the economy has been lost, and with the collapse of party membership numbers, power over the party system has been lost.

Until we discover ways of giving the majority of people political and economic leverage, the left will struggle to find electoral success. The obvious question is how exactly do we do that?

Will suggests joining the New Labour party. But it has spent the last two decades ridding itself of a historic tie to equality. That said, what else can we do?