Archive for April, 2011

That Wedding!

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

I am neither a republican nor a strong monarchist but, I must admit, I’m quite looking forward to a bit of pomp-and-ceremony tomorrow and a couple of parties later.

On the monarchy, it seems to me that it more than pays for itself in tourist revenue. More importantly, the monarch still has an important constitutional role.

Imagine what would happen if the Queen refused Royal Assent! Your view may differ, but I’m fairly sure the government would fall. Okay, it hasn’t happened here since Queen Anne in 1708, but it has been refused as recently as 1937 in Australia (excluding the denials in 1976 and 2001, which were due to procedural errors).

She has other reserve powers which have been used as recently as 1999, when she refused Queen’s Consent to the Military Action Against Iraq (Parliamentary Approval) Bill.

Net Neutrality

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

Julian Huppert’s post on Lib Dem Voice, inspired me to think a little bit about Net Neutrality.

Julian asks this fundamental question:

“Is it genuinely liberal to allow competition on the basis of existing service providers offering different packages based on traffic management which favours one company over another? Or is it, instead, better to provide what is often called a level playing field – where traffic flows at the same speed, whatever the content and whoever owns and operates the website?”

Before answering this, it is worth examining what net neutrality means. Stealing from Wikipedia, net neutrality “is the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally.” Users must also be allowed to access any content, anywhere, from any device without restrictions by either government or ISPs.

From a liberal point of view, it is clear there should be no censorship by governments (or anyone else). It is also clear that ISPs should not be allowed to block accessing to their competitors content.

So, as far as openness of access goes, it is clear there must be a level playing field, with no restrictions on access to content (except, of course, those related to payment, copyright, age, etc).

The difficulties arise with traffic management. ISPs have a fixed bandwidth pipe from the internet backbone and face a difficult task balancing competing requests for this bandwidth. For example:

  • ensuring swift response when loading pages;
  • maintaining quality-of-service for streamed services (e.g. video);
  • allocating bandwidth to large file transfers;
  • and ensuring fair distribution of bandwidth between users.

As a consequence, they must employ traffic management and cannot merely forward each request as it arrives.

But this traffic management also enables new business practices that may either enable or stifle competition. Some examples:

A company in a dominant position might pay ISPs to provide a better quality-of-service for their video-streaming than their competitors enjoy. This performance difference could make it extremely hard for a competitor to break into their market, however good the content. Conversely, if a new entrant pays the ISP, this performance difference might allow them to gain traction against a dominant competitor.

An ISP could also provide differently priced options to users with different quality-of-service levels, for example a basic package may make no guarantees on video services whereas a premium package may guarantee full 1080p streamed video even in peak times. Or an ISP may just drop the bandwidth available for streamed services during peak times.

A network provider might stifle competition by giving priority to subscribers using the provider’s own ISP over subscribers using another ISP.

The difficulty is to decide which business practices are okay and which are not. In principle, practices that may deliver:

  • Different performance to users based on traffic type (e.g. web pages, streamed video, file transfer) promote competition between ISPs and should be allowed
  • Different performance to users based on traffic source (e.g. YouTube, Disney, Google) generally stifle competition, giving an advantage to incumbents, and should not be allowed

If these principles are applied, then content providers must compete through the quality of their content, not by artificially manipulated the perceived user performance.

Libya and “liberal intervention”

Monday, April 18th, 2011

But before I start, I must briefly mention Iraq and Afghanistan. Not the rights and wrongs of starting these interventions as that has been talked to death almost everywhere (for example here). Instead, I want to state something best summarised in Mastermind terms: “I’ve started so I’ll finish.” Whatever the reasons, we intervened in both countries and we have a strong duty to finish the job, however long it takes. “Nation building” is difficult and could take a generation, so we must be prepared for a lengthy commitment. Personally, I’m very wary of attempts to declare victory and pull out.

Back to Libya, and more broadly, the whole of the Middle East and North Africa. This seems to be a popular movement, driven by ordinary people who want prosperity, more freedom and a say in their government. As a liberal, it is hard to argue with those aspirations.

The big question is what should we do? Should we intervene and, if so, how and where? As liberals, we believe people should be free from all forms of oppression, including by the state, and that power should be exercised in a democratic way through transparent and accountable structures. And liberalism is internationalist in outlook, standing against narrow interests of class or nation in favour of the general interest.

So it is clear liberal principles are at stake.

But any action against another state impinges on the freedoms of someone; even sanctions impinge on freedom of trade and often most affect those being oppressed. Historically, sovereignty meant that what happens within the borders of a state is the responsibility of that state and only that state. It is only recently, after the genocide in Rwanda and the failure of the international community to intervene, that this narrow view of sovereignty has begun to change.

In July 2009, the UN adopted a set of principles based around the idea that sovereign states have responsibilities to their people. These principles are commonly known as the “responsibility to protect” (R2P). Importantly, these were adopted as “jus cogens” – i.e. as principles where no derogation is allowed – and they established a framework for the use of existing legal tools (including Chapter VII military action) to prevent violations. These principles are:

  1. States have the primary responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity (mass atrocities).
  2. The international community is committed to provide assistance to States in building capacity to protect their populations from mass atrocities and to assisting those, which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out.
  3. The international community is responsible for taking timely and decisive action to prevent and halt mass atrocities when a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations.

Interestingly, the complete list of generally agreed peremptory norms is NOT covered by R2P: maritime piracy, apartheid, slavery and torture are omitted. Some argue that R2P doesn’t go far enough and that it should cover a broader set of circumstances (e.g. after natural disasters); others argue that it impinges on national sovereignty. Needless to say, all these arguments revolve around whether there is justification for intereference in a nations’ affairs, and what constitutes sufficient reason.

Regardless of these arguments over scope, R2P does provide a basis for intervention to prevent some abuses of a victim population. Libya is the first and, so far, only military action authorised under R2P (see this Security Council press statement, to which, after Gaddaffi’s failure to react, Security Council Resolution UN 1973 was the response when he threatened the population of Benghazi).

As liberals, we should welcome this acknowledgement that sovereignty is more than the right to do as you please within your own borders and that sovereignty also carries responsibilities to the people. However, unless we succeed in Libya, I fear that actions under R2P are doomed. Russia and China have long been opponents of intervention in what they see as “national” problems, and failure in Libya will help bolster their opposition. But if we succeed, it will become more difficult for them to object as they have set a precedent by not exercising their vetoes on UN 1973.

We could have stood by, as happened in Kosovo, and inaction would have been an easy course. But if we had, it is clear many of Gaddaffi’s opponents would now be dead. R2P would also be dead or at best on life-support.

We have not chosen that easy path. Though fraught with difficulties, and with no foreseeable end-game or exit strategy, I believe we have done the right thing in Libya. Now we must see it through, though it may take longer and be more costly than initially envisioned.

The fall of Gaddaffi will not be the end. As William Hague has said many times “It is not for us to choose the government of Libya – that is for the Libyan people themselves.” So once Gaddaffi is gone, Europe must use its experience to help whatever new state emerges towards a stable, prosperous future.

The stakes could not be higher. The outcome here could decide whether our neighbours are stable democracies with open, prosperous economies or remain autocratic and consign the R2P principles to history.

On the colour scheme

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

I’ve never really paid much attention to the colour scheme I’ve used for this blog. However, I’ve just noticed it is BLUE. After experimenting with shades of yellow, I don’t intend to change it right now, but this does not mean I’m some kind of closet Tory!

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming:-)

What have the Liberal Democrats ever done for us?

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

Though I would love to mimic the Life of Brian “Romans” sketch, I couldn’t possibly carry it off and any attempt to do so would quickly become strained. Instead, I’m going to borrow heavily from Chris Davies excellent post when I outline some of our achievements in government.

But first, I want to make a point on cuts. We have been accused of trying to cut the debt too quickly. We are not cutting the debt at all: government debt is currently growing by £400 million every day! The cuts are only intended to reduce this growth so that, in three years or so, the debt won’t be growing.

So when Labour talk of “halving the deficit by 2015″ this doesn’t mean reducing government debt; it means debt would still be growing by £200 million a day.

Actually reducing this mountain of debt that we inherited from Labour is another matter entirely. But it is a question we must address as it would illiberal for us impinge on our descendants freedoms by ignoring it and leaving them with such onerous interest payments.

Anyway, back to the main topic: our achievements. When you consider them against this background of essential cuts to prevent further growth in debt, I’m extremely proud that (in our first year in government) we’ve managed to:

  • Reduce taxes on the poor, taking nearly one million people out of paying tax at all
  • Link pensions to earnings growth or 2.5%, whichever is greater
  • Improve civil liberties and extend human rights
  • Launch a Green Investment Bank with £3 billion of initial capital
  • Put a “Green Deal” before parliament that will create hundreds of thousands of jobs and insulate millions of homes and offices.
  • Launch the pupils’ premium to help disadvantaged children
  • Replace the Educational Maintenance Allowance
  • Put a Localism Bill before parliament that devolves significant powers to local authorities and communities.
  • Outline plans for a £155 universal pension

Additionally, our influence in government has prevented implementation of many illiberal measures, such as tax incentives for marriage.

Contrast this with Labour’s record. At a time of increased spending (built on excessive borrowing and spiralling debt) they increased taxes on the poor, allowed pensions to decline in value, curbed fundamental freedoms, and failed to advance substantive measures on climate change.

More on the Angus-Reid Poll

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

The Angus-Reid poll I mentioned yesterday, puts “Yes” to AV ahead by 53% to 47%. It also includes national voting intention numbers:

CON 31, LAB 42, LD 11

Political Betting suggests that the cross-tabs allow us to distinguish between voters who voted Labour in the general election and those who have switched recently from the Liberal Democrats. If this is true, and they look like a distinct group, I wonder what the national voting intention really tells us, and if it tells us anything about voting in the council elections in May. I can think of three possibilities:

  1. The move to Labour is disaffection with us joining a coalition with the Tories (terminology alert; I usually say Conservatives, so the semiotics matter) but they would still naturally vote for us
  2. The move to Labour is a return to their natural party (i.e. the swing towards us was disaffection with Labour!)
  3. The group that has moved towards Labour is largely in the ABC1 social group, which leans “Yes to AV”, rather than C2DE (which is “No to AV” by 60% to 40%)

If 2) is true, then things could be very bad for us in May, so I hope instead that 1) is true and most will still vote Liberal Democrat. I think 3) is orthogonal and describes the composition of the group rather than saying anything about motives and likely voting patterns.

An interesting observation

Monday, April 11th, 2011

Over on Political Betting, Mike Smithson discusses the latest Angus Reid poll on AV and notes:

Another trend is that those Lib Dem voters from the general election who have switched to Labour appear to have helped boost YES.

Amongst current Labour voters YES has a comfortable lead while amongst those who voted for Brown’s party last May NO is ahead.

It makes me wonder about the durability of the swing from the Liberal Democrats to Labour.

Why Do Local Elections Matter?

Monday, April 11th, 2011

As local government elections (not to mention a referendum) are rapidly approaching, I want to briefly say why these elections matter much more than they have in the past.

The Localism Bill currently before parliament changes the balance of power between Whitehall and local government:

  • It devolves significant new powers to councils, giving councils more freedom and flexibility
  • It establishes powerful new rights for local people and communities to, for example, buy assets such as libraries, pubs and shops
  • It radically reforms planning, restoring democratic and local control
  • It returns decision-making powers on housing to local councils and communities
  • It gives local government freedom to attract local business by allowing a range of small-business tax breaks

So your vote matters: the councillors you elect in May will have more power to affect change that affects you and your neighbourhood than they have had in the past. If you don’t vote, you have no say!

A must-see cartoon on statistics

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

Take a look at this cartoon (nod to Julian Huppert for tweeting about this and PZ Myers for the pointer on his excellent Pharyngula blog).

As pointed out in the comments on Pharyngula, no paper would use percentages in headlines. So I wondered how the UK papers might react:

  • The Sun: JELLYBEAN ACNE SCARE! “I’m worried for my Billy,” says Sandra, 18, mother of two.
  • The Times: POSSIBLE JELLYBEAN LINK TO ACNE. Study flawed says industry spokesman.
  • The Guardian: GREAN JELLYBEANS AND ACNE: ARE THEY LINKED? [ Does the Grauniad joke still work? ]
  • New Scientist: SCIENTISTS DISCIPLINED OVER FLAWED STUDY after national jellybean scare. Poor statistical methods blamed.
  • Sunday Sport: JELLYBEANS: THE ALIEN MENACE! “Brian ate a green one and turned into a fishfinger,” whines Pauline, 37, from Scunthorpe.

On Tesco and Somersham

Friday, April 8th, 2011

On the local Facebook group, I was asked about my stance on Tesco moving to the village.

When I first heard about the possibility of them taking over the Black Bull, I was opposed but assumed they wouldn’t get planning permission for the change of use – which shows I knew little about planning law. Once I realised no permission was required, I felt it inevitable it would go ahead and all that could be done was to minimise the impact on the village.

But when I was asked “so what if it was Waitrose?” my gut reaction was somewhat different (I don’t usually shop at Tesco). This made me stop and think about why I was really opposed: was it just prejudice against a particular chain?

In previous posts, I’ve talked about the importance of amenities like shops and pubs in building strong communities, so the loss of a pub was obvious to me, as was the potentially detrimental effect that a supermarket could have on the viability of the other local shops. Also: increased traffic on the already busy High Street, parking in front of the supermarket to use cash machines, daily deliveries, waste disposal, etc. Negatives were easy to list.

However balanced against these, there are other factors. Some of these are positives like increased choice and a wider range of goods for shoppers, but others are principles: supermarkets should have freedom to improve their business (so long as it doesn’t impinge on others freedoms), and the existing local shops might perform better with some fair competition.

What I ultimately decided was that the real issues are that existing planning laws allow such a change of use without planning permission and that there is no involvement of the local community in such planning decisions.

This change of use issue feels particularly odd to me: a while back, the council wanted to move the bus stops on the High Street and needed planning permission to do so. I was particularly interested as the new position was immediately outside of my front door, but I didn’t object as it prevents cars parking in front of my house at the cost of a few buses a day. But the point of my rambling is that the overall impact of moving the bus stops was significantly lower than that of a supermarket moving in.

Where does this leave me? I still don’t like them moving here, particularly as I live on the High Street and experience daily the traffic problems. But I find my opposition is now based on the fact that supermarkets (not just Tesco but any supermarket) can buy local amenities such as pubs and convert them without planning permission or local approval. I am hopeful that the Localism Bill will help prevent such abuses in the future and, if elected, I would work hard to ensure local opinion is heard.