Posted by: iainduncani | May 11, 2010

Electoral Reform: The referendum that no-one wants

Ironically, as the Lib Dems and Tories dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s on a power sharing agreement it sounds like the turning point in the negotiations was the Tories promising to implement a policy that only appeared in the Labour parties manifesto: to hold a referendum on the AV voting system.

By offering this the Tories are making a big concession to the Lib Dems although it is worth pointing out that the AV voting system is by far the least proportional of the four voting systems that have been discussed and I summarised in my last blog post. As it is still a single candidate electoral system it means that the big two parties could still benefit from it, pushing out smaller parties that have a loyal but small following who may miss out of the second preference votes (I’m thinking in particular of the Green’s after they won their first seat last week).

Despite it being the least proportional it is still a major concessions by the Tories. It is easy to see why this would be unpopular for them and their supporters, the left-wing vote in this country has been split between two parties in the past – Labour and the Lib Dems. Under the AV system it is likely that in many places the second preferences of these voters would stay on the left and therefore push out the Tories who relied on their opponents being split. It is therefore impressive that they are offering any sort of deal on this issue even if it is for the least reforming of the possible systems.

It is also worth noting how feeble it therefore was of Labour to also offer a referendum on this, they were likely to gain the most from such a system. It leaves the single constituencies that tend to help bigger parties more. They also had the least to fear from a stronger Lib Dem party as they do share more values with them than the Tories do.

Have a Proper Referendum or None at All

I must be honest and say that in general I am not a big fan of referenda, I’d rather our elected politicians would make the decisions on our behalf so this may sway my views but I really don’t think that having a AV vs. FPTP referenda is a good idea. It is pitting two very similar against each other. I also can’t see any of the main political parties getting behind the AV cause. The Lib Dems don’t really want it, preferring the more proportional STV system. The Tories will see it as a threat to ever getting in power again and Labour will be caught up in a leadership battle and the woes of opposition and won’t be too fussed about supporting an issue that they probably think was forced upon them after the expenses scandal. One group of people that will almost certainly be vehemently against it will be the Murdoch-lead press who will see it as a challenge to their ability to dictate who will win the election.

It is almost like we need to employ some really clever people to go away and think about what the best system for our country will be… oh wait… we already did that. The Jenkins Commission reported in 1998 that the best system to keep stable governments with an increased proportionality would be the AV+ system. Similar to the one that we will have a referendum on but with an additional proportional element.

If politicians are going to insist on ignoring experts advice and hold a referendum, at least give the public the option to select the recommended AV+ system. At the same time the referendum could include the STV system, sponsored by Lib Dems, could be included to allow people to really get behind the system they wanted.

Of course with no really backers to its name the AV system would probably fade into obscurity but I think it could still play a crucial role in Electoral Reform. With 1 traditional and 3 reforming options in my proposed referendum there is a large risk that the reforming vote will be split evenly between the 3 and therefore lose. The AV system would be an excellent solution to this problem and allow the electorate to select the system that they really feel is best for the country.

Advertisements
Posted by: iainduncani | May 10, 2010

Voting System Summary

With all of the talk of electoral reform following the 2010 general election I thought I should do some reading up on the various systems being talked about, the four main ones that have been mentioned are:

  • Alternative Vote (AV)

    The alternative vote system is the closest to the existing first past the post system that we have at the moment in the UK. It will keep the country divided into constituencies which elect one MP. The big difference comes in the way that you vote, instead of putting an X next to a single candidate you rank all of them in order of preference. Initially all of the 1s are counted up and if no-one has achieved 50% of the vote then the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated. The second preferences of this candidate are then added to the other candidates and this process is repeated until someone gets 50% of the votes.

    This system of voting doesn’t actually tend to help minority parties that much as there is still a single winner for the constituency (it isn’t proper proportional representation). It would help tackle the problem of wasted votes though – whereby if you back a losing candidate your vote counts for nothing, instead your second ranked candidate would receive your vote and possible propel them to victory. It would also help to reduce tactical voting whereby you vote for a candidate that isn’t your first choice but has more chance of beating a candidate that you really don’t want. Under the AV system you will be able to rank your preferred candidate first and the more likely victor second and still keep out the other candidate.

    Labour promised in their manifesto to hold a referendum to bring in this system and it is the one that the Conservatives promised to the Liberal Democrats yesterday.

  • Alternative Vote Top Up/Alternative Vote Plus (AV+)

    This is very similar to the AV system above but as well as doing an instant run-off to determine your constituency representative your first choice vote will also go into electing members of parliament from a mega-constituency using proportional representation. These MPs would account for around 15-20% of the MPs elected and would be elected based on the number of votes a particular party receives in the traditional constituency election. This type of MP would be put forward on party lists and seats allocated to the top candidates on the list according to how many seats that party wins.

    This maintains the advantages of having a constituency MP that you can visit but adds a proper proportional element that the AV system does not have. At the same time, because only 15-20% of the MPs come from the proportional part of it and as it is done in regional buckets this system should still avoid giving seats to MPs from extremist parties which is a risk in fully proportional systems. It does however mean that there will be two types of MPs in parliament.

    This was the system that was suggested by the Jenkins Commission in 1998 which was set up specifically to recommend what the best voting system would be for the UK.

  • Single Transferable Vote (STV)

    Again this is similar to the AV system as it is an instant run-off system that involves you ranking candidates in order of preference. However, unlike AV you are not just voting for a single MP but instead a set of MPs for a mega-constituency. As with the AV system an MP is only elected once they receive 50% of the vote and the candidates with the least votes are eliminated until this happens. However, once one candidate reaches 50% of the vote their votes are then redistributed according to the second preferences on the ballot papers. This process is repeated until enough MPs have 50% of the vote to fill the number of seats for that mega-constituency.

    This breaks the traditional link between a single constituency and their MP but does reduce safe seats by a considerable amount.

    This is the system that the Liberal Democrats suggested in their manifesto.

  • First Past the Post

    Last but not least it is our existing system! Here the country is divided into multiple constituencies and voters select a single candidate from a list. Whichever of the candidates has the most votes becomes the MP for that constituency.

    This system makes it a lot harder for smaller parties to win seats in parliament, especially if their vote is spread across multiple constituencies as was seen in the general election this year where the Liberal Democrats won under 9% of the seats with 23% of the vote and the Tories won over 46% of the seats with just 36% of the vote (as was repeated in Labour’s “landslide” victories over the last decade). This system also leads to safe seats where the incumbent is very unlikely to be challenged so the Prime Minister is often decided in a few constituencies as we saw this year with the Tory “target list” where they focussed most of their effort on swing seats knowing there was little point in the safer seats. Despite its drawbacks this system does tend to lead to strong mandates where an obvious winner emerges so back-room deals don’t determine who will run our country and what policies they will enforce.

Posted by: iainduncani | May 10, 2010

Premier League Relegation Battle

People always say that a Premier League team needs 40 points to keep safe but this year 30 and a half decent goal difference would of kept a side up and I seemed to recall this has been the way for a while now. Therefore I had a bit of a Google about what the average points to stay up was but couldn’t find a conclusive answer so I had to compile the stats based on the individual season on wikipedia. It turns out that Burnley’s performance this season was pretty awful being 3 points worse that the previous lowest score for the 18th placed team. Here are all of the 17th and 18th placed teams since the Premier League went to 20 teams in 1995, the best and the worst in bold:

17th Place 18th Place
Season Team Points Team Points
1995-1996 Southampton 38 Man City 38
1996-1997 Coventry 41 Sunderland 40
1997-1998 Everton 40 Bolton Wanderers 40
1998-1999 Southampton 41 Charlton 36
1990-2000 Bradford 36 Wimbledon 33
2000-2001 Derby City 42 Man City 34
2001-2002 Sunderland 40 Ipswich Town 36
2002-2003 Bolton Wanderers 44 West Ham Utd 42
2003-2004 Everton 39 Leicester City 33
2004-2005 West Brom 34 Crystal Palace 33
2005-2006 Portsmouth 38 Birmingham City 34
2006-2007 Wigan Athletic 38 Sheffield Utd 38
2007-2008 Fulham City 36 Reading 36
2008-2009 Hull City 35 Newcastle Utd 34
2009-2010 West Ham Utd 35 Burnley 30
Average 38.5 35.8
Posted by: iainduncani | May 8, 2010

Space Saving Tips for Eclipse Plug-in Developers

At work I mainly write plug-in for Rational Software Architect which is an extension to Eclipse. I was having a tidy up of my hard drive the other day and found that my workspace directories were taking up a ridiculously large amount of space.

It turned out that it was all down to the way the Eclipse tools for testing plug-ins work. When you test plug-ins you can create a “Eclipse Application” launch configuration that is a new instance of Eclipse (or RSA in my case) that has all of the core product plug-ins and also installs any new plug-ins that you are developing.

When you launch an application in this way it packages up the plug-ins in your workspace into the .metadata\.plugins\org.eclipse.pde.core\<CONFIGURATION_NAME> folder inside the workspace directory (where <CONFIGURATION_NAME> is the name you have given to the runtime workbench configuration). This is all fair enough as it needs to have access to the plug-in code that I want to test and didn’t actually take that much space.

What was actually taking up the space on my hard drive was the org.eclipse.update\history folder within each configuration folder. It turns out that every time you launch one of these applications Eclipse keeps a history of all of the plug-ins in the launch configuration. For me this meant a 300KB file every time I tested some of my code, for my most frequently used workspace this caused over 1GB of history files to be created.

Deleting the launch configuration solved the problem for me, as did going into the history folder and deleting all of the XML files. I’m not sure what Eclipse uses them for as deleting all of them did not appear to have any affect on launching the application.

Posted by: iainduncani | May 7, 2010

Reducing the database size for MIH databases

The Development Environment Setup Tool (DEST) that comes with Master Information Hub (MIH) and Master Data Management (MDM) Server will create a data base for you with all of the necessary content for developing an MIH application. When it creates this database it sets all of the tablespaces (this is the part of the database that actually stores data on the file system) to use automatic storage which will allocate a certain amount of space on your hard drive to store the data and then resize automatically when full to make space for any new content.

The default settings that DB2 uses to increase the tablespace size is quite generous. This may be fine if you are intending on populating the database with lots of sample data but as a developer on the product I tend to be creating short-lived databases that are not required to store much data. Furthermore I tend to have many databases on my file system all of which are in use to some extent. This all means that when each database takes over 2GB of space it can become problematic in terms of spare capacity on my harddrive.

The following instructions explain how to reduce the size of the database (in the example called “MyDB”) so that it is as small as possible (around 600MB for an MIH database). Note that this will mean that they will be resized more often which could have a performance hit for running transactions but harddrive space was more important to me.

  1. Open up a DB2 command line processor (either in the DB2 control centre or via the start menu on Windows)
  2. Connect to the database by typing:

    CONNECT TO MyDB
  3. You now need to find out all the tablespaces that are being used by this database to do this type the command:

    LIST TABLESPACES

    This should then return a list of all of the tablespaces used by this database as well as what type of tablespace they are such as this:

    Tablespace ID = 0
    Name = SYSCATSPACE
    Type = Database managed space
    Contents = All permanent data. Regular table space.

    State = 0x0000
      Detailed explanation:
        Normal

    You will only be able to reduce the size of the tablespaces of type “Database managed space”, at the time of writing there were 6 generated for me: SYSCATSPACE, USERSPACE1, USERDATA, USERIND, USERLONG and SYSTOOLSPACE.

  4. Now that you have a list of tablespaces being used you need to issue an SQL command that has two parts. The first part will reduce the size and the second will stop them increasing in size by a large amount next time data is added to the database. If you don’t include this second part then the database size will decrease but next time you add some data to it it will then balloon up again (when I did this I found that a single transaction could cause the database size to increase by almost 1GB). The command to achieve all this is (note you could do it as two “ALTER TABLESPACE” commands if you wanted to but I’ve done it as one):

    ALTER TABLESPACE <TABLESPACE> REDUCE INCREASESIZE 10 PERCENT

    Where <TABLESPACE> is the name of the tablespace (such as USERDATA) that you are working with. This will need to be repeated for each of the tablespaces discovered in the previous step. In this example I am telling DB2 to increase the size of the tablespace by 10% when it needs extra capacity, this number can be changed depending on your performance/disk space needs. More information about what are valid inputs for the INCREASESIZE command can be found here.

Combining these steps together should produce a single chunk of SQL that can be run to reduce the size of the database:

ALTER TABLESPACE SYSCATSPACE REDUCE INCREASESIZE 10 PERCENT;
ALTER TABLESPACE USERSPACE1 REDUCE INCREASESIZE 10 PERCENT;
ALTER TABLESPACE USERDATA REDUCE INCREASESIZE 10 PERCENT;
ALTER TABLESPACE USERIND REDUCE INCREASESIZE 10 PERCENT;
ALTER TABLESPACE USERLONG REDUCE INCREASESIZE 10 PERCENT;
ALTER TABLESPACE SYSTOOLSPACE REDUCE INCREASESIZE 10 PERCENT;
Posted by: iainduncani | April 25, 2010

Closures in Java 7 and the Stategy Pattern

Java 7 is now set to include Closures allowing you to define function blocks of code to be executed at a later point in the code. I think that this will be a great addition to the language and make implementing the Strategy Pattern a much more pleasant experience. In order to show how the strategy pattern works and why adding Closures will make implementing it simpler consider the following class that calculates an employees pay rise, if the company has made better profit than last year they get a big pay rise, if it is the same a small pay rise and if the profits have gone down they get no pay rise:

public class PayRiseCalculator {

  private final int thisYearsProfit;

  private final int lastYearsProfit;

  public PayRiseCalculator(int _thisYearsProfit, int _lastYearsProfit) {
    super();
    this.thisYearsProfit = _thisYearsProfit;
    this.lastYearsProfit = _lastYearsProfit;
  }

  public double calculatePayRise(Employee _employee) {
    final double payRise_;

    if (thisYearsProfit > lastYearsProfit) {
      payRise_ = _employee.getSalary() * 0.05;
    } else if (thisYearsProfit > lastYearsProfit) {
      payRise_ = _employee.getSalary() * 0.01;
    } else {
      payRise_ = 0;
    }

    return payRise_;
  }

}

Re-Implement Using the Strategy Pattern

This class can be simplified a lot by using the Strategy Pattern by replacing the algorithm part of the method that calculates how much pay rise to give with a Strategy object:

public class PayRiseCalculator {

  private final PayRiseStrategy payRiseStrategy;

  public PayRiseCalculator(PayRiseStrategy _payRiseStrategy) {
    super();
    this.payRiseStrategy= _payRiseStrategy;
  }

  public double calculatePayRise(Employee _employee) {
    final double payRise_ = payRiseStrategy.calculate(_employee);

    return payRise_;
  }

}

This class has certainly now become simpler as well as being easier to extend with different strategies for calculating the pay rises of employees. However, where I think using this becomes cumbersome within Java is the extra classes that we have had to add in order to implement it. In order to make this change we will have to add a new interface and three new classes:

public interface PayRiseStrategy {

  public double calculate(Employee _employee);

}

public class ProfitIncreaseStrategy implements PayRiseStrategy {

  public double calculate(Employee _employee) {
    return _employee.getSalary() * 0.05;
  }

}

public class ProfitSteadyStrategy implements PayRiseStrategy {

  public double calculate(Employee _employee) {
    return _employee.getSalary() * 0.01;
  }

}

public class ProfitDecreaseStrategy implements PayRiseStrategy {

  public double calculate(Employee _employee) {
    return 0;
  }

}

The amount of code that is required to produce the same result has now ballooned and is split across multiple different classes making it harder to maintain and harder to see which part of the code is doing the important part because it is hidden behind so much boiler plate code. It is also quite dull to implement this pattern in Java because you spend more time writing the boiler plate and less time writing the fun algorithms.

Introducing Closures

Closures will help reduce some of these problems by allowing you to just write the method implementation (in this case for calculate) without having to have so much boiler plate code around it – no extra interfaces or classes will be required. In order to achieve this Java 7 is going to include a syntax for assigning a function to a variable such as this:

#double (Employee) payRiseStrategy;

This syntax means that the payRiseStrategy variable is a function that takes in a single argument of type Employee and returns a double. All functions defined in this way will have an invoke method that allows the function to be processed. This then allows us to re-write the PayRiseCalculator class like so:

public class PayRiseCalculator {

  private #double (Employee) payRiseStrategy;

  public PayRiseCalculator(#double (Employee) _payRiseStrategy) {
    super();
    this.payRiseStrategy= _payRiseStrategy;
  }

  public double calculatePayRise(Employee _employee) {
    final double payRise_ = payRiseStrategy.invoke(_employee);

    return payRise_;
  }

}

This is very similar to the implementation of the PayRiseCalculator using interfaces for the Strategy pattern.  The differences come when looking at how the strategy objects themselves are created and passed into this API. We will no longer need to have extra classes containing the algorithms, instead we can use a “lambda expression” (or function) to define them like so:

#double (Employee _employee) { _employee * 0.05 }

The syntax for declaring this function is very similar to the variable that we declared inside the PayRiseCalculator for storing it. The function declaration is stating that it will return a double and take an Employee as its argument that is assigned to the _employee variable. The function itself is then contained within the { } in a similar way to a method in Java. One of the peculiarities that you may have noticed is in the way the result is returned from the function. There is no return statement or semi-colon. The reasons behind this are explained by the proposal author’s blog. The explanation boils down to the fact that the return statement needs to differentiate itself from existing Java constructs, by not having a semi-colon this would not of been valid Java before so will be unique to this proposal without adding extra keywords. The return keyword could not be used as it could be ambiguous when used inside a function inside a method where it may not be obvious if the return is returning from the function or from the method where the function is declared.

As you can see from the discussion above closures will not allow you to do anything that you cannot already do in Java using interfaces and classes, they are essentially another way to write an anonymous inner class for an interface with a single method. The strategy pattern is a neat way of making code more extensible and re-usable but the ratio of boiler plate code to useful code is often too high in Java, especially when the algorithms that it is encapsulating are simple as was the case above. The addition of closures to Java reduce this ratio allowing developers to concentrate on writing the interesting bits of code which is why I think it will be a great addition to the language.

All of the syntax for Closures on this page is based on the current proposal for Java 7 available from here:

Posted by: iainduncani | April 20, 2010

Didn’t he do well!

Nick Clegg managed to propel his party right up the opinion polls after last weeks leaders debate. The thing that I found really interesting from the coverage over the weekend is how determined Gordon Brown and David Cameron were to simply dismiss the threat and continue to say that it is a two horse race.

Clegg’s Style

During Brown’s appearance on the Andrew Marr Show he was determined not to be drawn into a discussion about Clegg’s performance but instead pushed forward Labour policies and saved the most stinging attacks for Tory spending plans.

In a way this could play into Clegg’s hands during future debates as last Thursday he took the approach of standing back and letting Brown and Cameron fight it out whilst making remarks such as “the more they argue with each other, the more they sound exactly the same”. This may be a good one liner and therefore go well in televised debates but it does suggest that Mr Clegg hasn’t actually read either of his opponents manifesto’s. Since the last election Blair has been replaced with Brown which has shifted Labour’s thinking to a more leftist agenda while the financial crisis has given the Tories what they always want – an excuse to cut billions of government spending, therefore I can’t think of a time since Labour has been in power when the two leading parties have sounded more different on policy.

It is also forgetting Clegg’s previous televised debate with Brown and Cameron where he came out with the most vicious and childish sounding insult of the day saying “You failed, it’s over, it’s time to go”.

Lib Dem Policy

The main weapon that both the Tories and Labour are using to dismiss the Lib Dems is along the lines of “the public may of been impressed by his performance in the debates but when they see the Lib Dem’s policies they won’t be as pressed”.

So where does this confidence come from? A quick flick threw their manifesto soon highlights some obvious candidates.

The first of these is the much vaunted spending tables that they include. Their tactic of saying that they are the only party to include a table with the spending in is just political posturing (something Clegg says his “new politics” doesn’t do). Both of the other manifesto’s are full of figures about how much things will cost and where money will be raised, they just didn’t put them in a table (which is just fine by me).

But it isn’t the wording around these tables that concerns me most but rather their content. The most obvious hole is their plan to raise a whopping £4bn on anti-avoidance measures. I’m sure that HMRC have been trying to stop people avoiding paying tax for a long time and if I worked for them I’d consider it a bit of an insult that the Lib Dem’s think a change in their political masters will mean that they can magic a further £4bn out of the population.

I’m also not sure about their other revenue generating streams: wanting to raise capital gains tax (and reduce the threshold); restrict tax rebates on pension payments and have a levy on properties over £2m. As you may have guessed from my previous posts I am definitely on the left of the political spectrum so you would imagine I’d be all up from taxing rich people more and giving everyone else £750 but I’m just not sure that this is the way to achieve it.

The first two policies both discourage investments. One of the reasons that the US and in particular the Californian economy does so well is that it is so easy to raise capital from venture funds. I worry that by raising the capital gains tax by so much that the Lib Dem’s would jeopardize these investments and thus put our growth out of the recession at risk.

Their policy for decreasing the tax rebate on pensions also worries me. As was discussed in Thursday’s debate one of the biggest issues facing my generation will be how do we pay for an increasing ageing population. The government should be doing everything it can to encourage people to invest for their future otherwise our children will have a massive burden to pay for our retirement.

With all of these figures the biggest concern that I have is that they will fall far short of their aim. Rich people pay accountants a lot of money to find ways to reduce their tax bill so there is a very real risk that they will find a way around these rises or simply join Lord Ashcroft wherever it is he goes to enable him to pay for all those lovely Tory posters.

On the flip side it is very easy to calculate how much their tax policy of raising the personal allowance will cost – £16,795,000,000 (they put it in a nice table in their manifesto). The amount they raise from their other tax policies is a lot less certain so if they do fail to raise as much as they hope for then we could be taking a £17bn gamble with the public purse. Is the middle of a recession really the time to take such a massive gamble reforming the tax system?

Strangely it is actually the part of the manifesto that I most agree with that I think will turn most people away from the Lib Dem’s. They would like to relax the law against Asylum Seekers: allowing them to work; not locking up children that haven’t committed a crime and stopping deportation of people to countries where they are likely to be tortured. They would also offer citizenship to any illegal immigrants that have been here for 10 years and can speak English. These all sound like humane and reasonable policies to me but sadly this election seems to have been mired by a racist backlash against non-native Britons.

I find that it is such a shame that our society is so unwelcoming to foreign people, especially considering that many nurses and dentists have filled massive holes in our care system as well as being one of the biggest exports for many poor countries.

The influx of unskilled workers has done a lot to keep our economy growing, the argument that they have stolen all of our jobs doesn’t hold much sway with me. For instance it is now really easy and a lot more affordable to get your car washed by hand, 10 years ago, with the exception of Scout fund-raising events, this just wasn’t a business that existed in our country. The low-skilled immigrants have thus created new jobs in our economy. As outlined in this article the inflow of unskilled workers has kept many business afloat thus providing work for (most native-British) middle managers.

Posted by: iainduncani | March 7, 2010

Why I won’t be Voting Conservative

I’ve been allowed to vote for about 10 years now and in that time I’ve voted for pretty much everyone (including the Tories) so I like to think of myself as a swing voter, looking at policies at election time and making my decision then. However, in this election year I’ve already firmly decided that I won’t be voting Tory and each policy they announce seems to confirm that I made the right choice! In general I would say that I disagree with most (but not all) of their policies and I have outlined below the two main areas that have led me to this decision: their relentless assertion that Britain is “broken” and their general policy towards tax and the welfare state.

Britain isn’t Broken

The Tory assertion that Britain is “broken” strikes me as a appeal to the right wing media that seems to revel in producing scare stories about our society. Sadly this ploy seems to be working with the Sun, Britain’s most read daily newspaper, changing it’s allegiance to the Conservatives last year. It does not seem to bother them that this assumption that society is broken holds little water. This interesting article helps to put a more reasoned view of society in Britain: under the labour government violent crime has dropped by 45%; teenage pregnancy by 11% (and 16% lower than in 1969) and smoking has almost halved since 1980. The only measurable area where society is becoming more “broken” is the increase in alcohol consumption but even there we still remain in 10th place out of the OECD countries.

All of these facts look purely at the internal state of the country. One of the reasons I most dislike the approach the Tories are taking is because it glosses over just how lucky we are in this country. According to the calculator here my income is in the top 1% in the world. I realize that I am particularly lucky about the job I have but even so, to be in my twenties and in the top 1% of earners in the world is a humbling thought. Sure, I have worked reasonably hard at times but most of this fortune comes purely from the opportunities that our society has given me of having a safe and peaceful childhood and a world class education all paid for by the state.

The hysteria that the Tories are whipping up really seems to have no basis in reality but instead is jumping on a media bandwagon. Personally I want my leaders to lead based on reality not on what they think is the best way to appeal to the masses. I really feel that Polly Toynbee from the Guardian got it spot on when she said this message “exposed the social cluelessness among those who would govern a country unknown to them”.

Tory Tax Policy

It is when this moral tirade against the British public collides with proper policies that it really starts to annoy me. Take for instance one of the more recent Tory tax policies – the married couples allowance – as an example. The plan is to fix our broken society through giving tax incentives to married couples. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of marriage, I decided to get married at a “young” (according to the average) 22 and still think it is great. The important thing though is that I decided to get married. By coercing people into getting married by the state paying them money seems bizarre and in contradiction to the Tories desire to decrease the size of the state. If you were co-habiting with a partner and had a kid then it would be a no-brainer to get married just so that you wouldn’t have to pay much tax but I fail to see how this would help society. If you enter into marriage because you will get paid to do so why would this be more secure than two people just living together and raising their family in a loving way.

I also wonder about who this policy will help. The planned tax breaks would allow married couples to share their tax free allowances if only one person works. I don’t know the exact figures but surely if you have reached the one-income family stage then you are probably quite wealthy, therefore I’m not sure if I want the state to be paying these families. Any tax break would have to be paid for by a general increase in the tax burden on other people so this would mean that overall working single mums would be paying for middle-class families have one parent stay at home. This seems to be completely reversed logic to me. Surely the welfare state is there to help the people most in need rather than the other way around!

The idea of taking from the poor to give to the rich seems to be consistent with other Tory policies though. For example, they continue to insist that they will increase the inheritance tax threshold from £250,000 to £1,000,000, I would argue that by the time you are inheriting £250,000 you are probably quite well off and therefore perhaps should pay slightly more tax in order to help people less well off. The Tories one concrete policy so far for decreasing the deficit was to increase the state retirement age from 65 to 67, again I would argue this will only lead to the poorest people in society paying an increase percentage of the tax in our country. If you have are having to rely on the state pension to fund your retirement rather than a private pension then you are probably on a lower than average wage, so again this policy will take some money from the poor to line the pockets of the rich.

The welfare state should be there to equalize the provision of core services to all people in our society, no matter what their background and also give hope to the poorest members of society. The Tories policy of reducing the size of the state should focus on these core responsibilities, if it did so then it would noble and good aim. Unfortunately by focussing the states attention on trying to fix what is broken through giving tax breaks to those who need it least they will be reversing this endeavour and therefore make our society even more broken.

Posted by: iainduncani | February 21, 2010

Birthday Pancakes

Thanks to the lining up of the sun and the moon my birthday fell on Pancake day this year! I felt that I couldn’t let such a momentous occasion go by without doing something so we had a couple of friends round for a pancake extravaganza. It turns out that it isn’t quite as rare as I’d imagined, according to the table here it also happened in 1999 and will happen again in 2021 although I will then have to wait until my 101st birthday for the the one after that so I’m not sure if I’ll have the energy to flip a pancake by then!

Photo of all the ingredients we used

As it was my birthday we thought we wouldn’t just do the traditional lemon and sugar (although that was available of course) but instead do some savoury and sweet options. For the savoury options we had: cheese, sweetcorn, pepper, leeks, red onion, sausage, bacon and chicken tikka pieces. For the sweet pancakes we had: chocolate buttons (milk and white), marshmallows, grapes, blueberries, sultanas, banana, apples, maple syrup, chocolate sauce, ice cream, lemon and sugar.

My birthday (pan)cake with a candle in

It was a really nice way to have a meal with everyone adding their own toppings and we had two frying pans between four of us so there wasn’t too much waiting around. As lots of the ingredients were best melted adding them straight after tossing the pancake was a popular technique. We found the best way to get the contents warm was to just fill one half of the pancake and then fold it over whilst still in the pan. This worked really well for the marshmallows although it did make a very sticky mess! The savoury pancakes were really nice but my favourite has to have been the chocolate buttons, banana and ice cream combination, this is the one I had my birthday candle in!

Posted by: iainduncani | February 6, 2010

Getting involved in democracy

Today we visited our MP (Alan Whitehead MP) for the first time.  Being new to this whole experience I thought that I would write about what we have found out so far…

Asylum Seekers in the UK

For a long time my wife (Laura) and I have felt that we can either sit around moaning about certain aspects of our country or we could do something about them.  Unfortunately, we then tended to just sit around moaning about things rather than doing anything about them, but last year we got a letter from our MP asking us which issues we particularly cared about.  This seemed like a good time to spring into action so we did!  For Laura this meant looking into the topic that she cares most strongly about – asylum seekers and refugees, and over the Christmas period did lots of research into the issues that this group of vulnerable people face (with the help of the excellently resourced Refugee Council website).  Of course, the asylum issue  had a lot of press recently (which is another reason that the timing seemed appropriate) but a lot of this press has, in my opinion, been quite negative.  After Nick Griffith’s little turn on Newsnight, fueled by the likes of the Daily Mail & Express, there seemed to be a rush from mainstream politicians to convince the electorate that they will crack down on illegal migrants and that they therefore don’t need to vote for extreme right wing groups.  Although I applaud the motivation of stopping groups like the BNP, I think that they would be better off presenting a more reasoned case about our immigration policy.  This debate always seems to come down to people trying to come and take “our” stuff.  You may well hold this opinion about economic migrants (I don’t but I don’t want to get distracted by this issue) but it is rarely true for asylum seekers – those people who are fleeing persecution – and refugees – asylum seekers that the government has agreed were fleeing persecution and have therefore allowed to remain in the UK.  So often these three groups of people are all grouped together which I think is a great shame, by not distinguishing them I think it is a lot easier for right wing groups to take over the debate and focus it upon whether or not people should be allowed into the country at all.  If you were to recognise them as separate in the debate, then I think it would be a lot easier to appeal to peoples humanity, and make them realize that if we want to be a good society then we have to help these people, whether they take our jobs or not.

Conscious of this backdrop, Laura’s research lead her to two specific issues that seemed to be a lot less controversial and which we therefore hoped could be changed:

  • Section 4 asylum seekers (those who have been refused asylum but are unable to be sent home, usually due to something like a civil war in their home country) are still being supported by vouchers which limit where they can buy goods from and also what type of goods they can buy.  A government committee described this practice as being “inhumane” in 2002 and therefore stopped it for asylum seekers and yet this inhumane practice is still being inflicted on people in this particular group.
  • Asylum seekers are not allowed to work.  This means that they are solely dependent on our welfare state to survive.  It forces them to live in poverty as well making them feeling guilty for not being able to support their family.  This is an issue that has widespread support, even from the likes of the Trade Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry and yet the government seems determined not to change.

Lobbying our MP

Having picked these two issues, Laura then wrote a letter to Alan Whitehead MP and soon after received a response inviting us to today’s visit.  We were given a 10 minute slot with which to talk (although as it turned out we actually got 30 minutes) with him at one of his regular surgeries here in Shirley.  As this was the first time that we had done something like this, I don’t think either of us knew what we could expect to achieve and it did not start well as he outlined several arguments that could be given why the voucher system should remain.  I have to say that I fundamentally disagree with his main point that vouchers will make it easier to keep track of people; even if a monetary system were used, they would still need to collect it and therefore could still be monitored in the same way. On the “let them work” issue he was a lot more enthusiastic and I think largely agreed with the aim of the campaign.  Despite this enthusiasm, we then moved onto discussing the “current climate” by which he meant that it is an issue that a lot of people are currently urging the government to crack down on and one where officers in the various visa services are now approaching with refreshed zeal.  This meant that the conversation ended on a rather depressing note with the thought that if anything things were going to get worse for asylum seekers rather than better.

Lessons about the democratic process

One thing that I noticed whilst discussing the first issue was that he was very non-committal using phrases such as “others would argue”, I think this was for two reasons: firstly I don’t think he actually agreed that the voucher scheme should be scrapped (and to be fair he did say so more bluntly towards the end of the conversation), secondly, I think for a large part I never got the feeling that there was much he could do about it.  The feeling that he didn’t think there was anything he could do about it was backed up whilst discussing the let them work campaign.  Despite broadly agreeing with us, he never gave the impression that he thought that it is likely to change or that he himself could do anything about it.  This has left me feeling slightly disappointed about the role that is played by our MP.  Last year, I read the excellent biography of William Wilberforce and I think that a little part of me wanted to meet another great parliamentarian who would take leadership on this issue and persuade people both within and outside of parliament of the importance of this issue.  In reality I think that times have vastly changed since then with party politics playing a much bigger role in defining policy and better communication and press means that I think MPs are now a lot more closely connected to the electorate.  This makes issues such as this, where there is such a vocal community wanting harsher measures, it is unlikely that one visit is going to be able to change government policy.  This may seem like a depressing note on which to end this post although I do not think it is.  Through this process, I have learnt how sensitive our MP is to public opinion and therefore I now grasp how important it is not just to lobby our MP but also how important the public mood is at influencing our politicians.  Therefore I would urge anyone who agrees with these issues (or other issues) to get in touch with their MP as it is only when we do this on-mass that they are likely to do what we want them too – as I said earlier, sitting around and moaning to ourselves about them won’t get anything changed!

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »

Categories