Tuesday 25 May 2010

Dealing with the UK Deficit - What kind of numbers are we looking at here?

There has  been a great deal of discussion over the last year or so about the scale, and problem posed, by the record UK government deficit that has emerged as a result of the Recession, with the general consensus that this is one of the most important issues facing the UK over the next few years.  The issue of how important this is and if, when and how to close the deficit was a major election issue and a major dividing line between the parties, with a number of different prescriptions for the problem from Conservatives, Labour, Greens, Nationalists, UKIP etc.  Despite this, it was widely taken as read that any government elected would have to engage in large unprecedented cuts in public spending and, some commentators have predicted,  possibly suffer a massive public backlash as a result. 

This week we have seen the start of action on this issue of reducing the deficit, as the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government announce £6 billion of cuts in public spending, as the Conservatives promised pre-election, as a first step in dealing with the problem. But how large is the actual deficit, how much does this £6 billion contribute to cutting the deficit, and how much of the coming public spending cuts does this constitute?

Just to get a first grip on the type of figures we're dealing with, UK GDP is currently about £1385 billion, having fallen by about 6% from £1460 billion to £1375 billion during the recession and now slightly recovered.  Out of this the government's plan at Labour's last budget in March was to spend £704 billion (or 51%).  However, even on Labour's relatively generous estimates for growth over the next year it only expected to receive £541 billion in tax leaving the £163 billion budget deficit, the amount the government will have to borrow to meet its spending commitments.  This figure is 23% of all government spending and 12% of GDP.

Why does this matter? 

Well, firstly because the government has to borrow money at interest, like anyone else, and this rate can vary depending on how likely international investors think it is that we'll screw up massively and have to effectively declare bankruptcy.  This interest rate is currently about 4%, meaning that, even if the interest rate stays put, once this money is borrowed in every future year the government will have to spend £7 billion just paying the interest, that's £7 billion we can't spend on public services for every year in perpetuity (as there's sod all chance we'll ever actually pay down any of the debt, the general plan to deal with it just to wait for inflation to steadily magic it away). 

Much worse than this though is the current fear about sovereign debt, the generally unthinkable event that countries might actually declare bankruptcy.  See Greece for the current focus of this worry.  What this means is that international investors are getting scared, and if it does not appear that we have a credible plan to get this deficit down, then there is the risk this interest rate will rise putting up the costs considerably, that £7 billion could easily become £10 billion.  Even more wonderfully, because of the way government debt is borrowed, if the interest rate goes up it does not just go up for any borrowing we make in the future, but rather also for all the money we've borrowed in the past as well, thus meaning that the cost of paying the interest on our debt can go up a lot quite quickly, in which case the £7 billion a year cost of all that borrowing could become more like £20 billion a year. 

Lastly, there is the connected problem that partially for the above reasons, a country can only accumulate so much debt.  The other reason for this is that although we don't currently plan to ever pay down our total debt we do only borrow each time for about 10, 20 years, meaning on a constant basis we are paying back our debts by borrowing the same amount of money again to do so.  If it is thought that we have no credible plan for bringing down borrowing then there may come a point when investors simply refuse to lend us the money to do this, except at ridiculous rates of interest, meaning that we can't refinance our current debt and we certainly struggle to increase that debt total (deficit) any further, and have effectively been declared insolvent.  Together these mean there is an effective ceiling of how much debt you can get, before it gets prohibitively expensive to borrow any more, especially in the current fragile economic climate.

Currently our national debt is about 62% of GDP, up from about 40% ten years ago and forecast at current rates to rise to 95% over the next 5 years.  Our government has historically had relatively low amounts of debt as a country, and this is itself beneficial, both because it reduces suffocating interest payments, and because it gives you more room to manoeuvre in the future.  What all this borrowing means is that we are losing our room to manoeuvre in any future crisis and reducing the competitiveness of our economy.  This is bad in the long-term, not to mention the more immediate risk of rising interest rates on our debt that may costs us significant sums over the next years that we will then not be able to spend on schools, hospitals, welfare and everything else the government does.

The media has widely reported that the £6 billion announced yesterday is only a down payment on the cuts that are coming, with varying degrees of sensibility or hyperbole in the language used depending on the source and their political allegiances.  It is important to get the figures correctly in perspective though. Yes, these cuts are only the first small part of what is coming, but not as small a part as some people seem to be suggesting.

£6.2 billion of cuts were announced of which £0.5 billion will be reinvested leaving a £5.7 billion cut this year. At last estimate that brings the deficit down from £159 billion to £153 billion, still extremely high but (partially thanks to better than thought tax revenues) already considerably lower than the £173 billion Labour were predicting for this year at the in the 2009 budget, when the scale of the debt problem first became apparent.

However, that is divided into the cyclical and the structural deficit. The idea is that the cyclical deficit is that part of the deficit effectively ’caused’ by the recession i.e. by the lower tax receipts and higher welfare spending it brings, and will naturally disappear as we return to steady growth (an admittedly reasonably large if).  The structural deficit, however, is that deficit that is not caused by the slump in taxes and hike in welfare due to the recession, but the long term difference between the government's year on year spending commitments to various areas, and the amount it is taking in taxes from the economy.

The Lib Dems and Conservatives before the election both only committed, roughly speaking, to eliminate the bulk of the structural deficit, that part of the deficit that will not disappear even with a return to steady growth, a still considerable £70 billion at last estimates.  (Labour only committed to removing half of the structural deficit)  They have both accepted £12 billion worth of Labour tax rises, put in place by Gordon Brown before the election, such as the 50p income tax rate. They have also made various tax cut commitments, but these are meant to be evened-out by other tax rises brought in, so in theory cancel out for the purpose of these calculations.

This gives us £58 billion of structural deficit not taken care of by tax rises. The Coalition has committed to eliminating the “bulk” of this over the next 5 years. No one has been willing to state precisely what that means, presumably because no-one can predict precisely what growth and hence tax revenues will be over the next few years and, hence, precisely what any given figure will achieve, so, quite understandably, no-one wants to make one. “Events dear boy, Events”, as Harold Macmillan once said. Or, in more technical terms, the margin of error on all these estimates is quite large, making precision not only impossible, but down-right misleading.

However, it is possible to have some idea. Before the Election the Conservatives said they wanted to deal with the deficit by cutting £4 for each £1 raised in extra taxation. Applying this to the £12 billion of tax rises accepted, we get £48 billion of cuts and a total structural deficit reduction of £60 billion over the next 5 years.

So, we’ve had £5.7 billion of cuts out of £48 billion, roughly . Or, given margin of error and government’s usual ability to over-estimate savings and under-estimate costs, about £5 billion out of £50 billion.

Either way, the cuts recently announced amount to about 10% of the total we are going to get over the next 5 years. Leaving £45 billion left over the 4 years after this one, or about £11 billion a year, unless economic growth severely exceeds expectations, or some other fiscal miracle occurs, and considering the difficulty this will cause public services and people who rely on them up and down the country, may we all pray that it will.

Saturday 15 May 2010

UK General Election 2010 - The Results.

Well, after hours of voting, weeks of campaigning, months of preparation and years of looking forward we've finally had the General Election. It was an incredibly mixed night, with all sorts of strange results. So lets see what happened:

MP's Share of Vote No of Votes
Conservatives: 307 (+97) 36.2% (+3.8) 10.7 million (+2 million)
Labour 258 (-91) 29% (-6.2) 8.6 million (- 0.9 million)
LibDem: 57 (-5) 23% (+1) 6.8 million (+0.9 million)
Others: 28 (-1) 11.8% (+1.4) 3.5 million (+0.6 million)

5% swing to the Conservatives.

GB Figures: Con 37, Lab 30, Lib Dem 24, Others 10. Pardon the rounding errors.
Final Opinion Poll Figures: Con 36, Lab 29, Lib Dem 26, Others 9.


MP's: 306 (+97) Vote Share: 36.2 (+3.9%) Vote No: 10.7 million (+2 million)

Without a doubt, the Conservatives won the election. They got 2.1 million more votes than the next largest party and 49 MP's. They achieved a 4% increase in their share of the vote and 2 million more votes than in 2005. They achieved their largest increase in MP's since 1931 and came decisively top in an election for the first time since 1992. However, their victory was not complete.

The big story of the night is that at the end of the day the Conservatives did not manage to achieve the majority that would allow them to govern safely on their own. They were close, considerably closer than anyone could have predicted from opinion polls a week ago, but they were still 16 off an effective majority. Considering the electoral mountain that the Conservatives had to climb, they still made massive progress,achieving swings as high as 10% in many Labour seats, even some they eventually failed to take. Their progress was deeply un-even,however.

In England they triumphed, achieving 40% of the vote and taking 298 out of 533 seats: A considerable majority of English seats. In England and Wales they achieved a swing of 5.6% from labour, including in areas deeply hostile to them, gaining a 6.8% swing in the North East,though it did them little good in seats. They also managed to almost entirely hold off the Lib Dems across the South and London, despite all the hysteria around Nick Clegg pre-election, achieving swings against the LibDems in both southern regions and taking several seats from them.

This solid progress in England and Wales contrasts sharply with a complete lack of progress in the rest of the UK. In Scotland they made zero progress, their share of the vote was up 0.9% and they didn't get a single seat, leaving them with a desperate 1 seat across all Scotland. In fact, incredibly, in an election where 20% of seats changed hands in England and Wales not a single seat changed hands in scotland. In NI there was dissapointment as well as their allies (since 2007), the Ulster Unionists, fighting under the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists (UCU)banner, failed to gain a single seat, and lost the only seat they held in 2005 to the Independent incumbent.

Looking at the information closely, the swing figures mask the fact that the Conservatives widely gained around 40% of the share of vote lost by Labour over most of the country, apart from Scotland, a figure that itself masks the deeply uneven Conservative progress. In seats that they took the Conservatives regularly hoovered up 80, 90, even over 100% of the lost labour share, giving a significant number of impresssive 8-11% swings, however, in many other seats they made little progress at all, with the BNP hoovering up as much of labour's lost vote in some areas of the North, with the swing figures coming largely from Labour's lost share, rather than any actual transfer to the Conservatives. One thing they will be pleased with, however, is the fact that in seats they already held the Conservatives still achieved considerable swings,
meaning that a lot of these seats are now impressively safe. In fact, the Conservatives now have 125 seats with over 50% of the vote, though, on the other hand, their vote actually fell in 75 seats.

However, this should not detract from the scale of the Conservative achievement. They gained more than a million more votes than Blair in 2005, while Labour acheived 900,000 fewer than Michael Howard did, and if it was not for the skew in the system due to Labour constituencies being, on average, considerably smaller than Conservative ones, they would hold a majority today.


MP's: 258 (-91) Vote Share: 29% (-6.2) Vote No: 8.6 million (-0.9 million)

Labour lost and lost badly. The party suffered a historic defeat, losing 91 MP's, 900,000 votes, suffering a 6.2% drop, a 5% swing to their main rivals, their worse result (in terms of votes) since 1983 and their greatest fall in seats since 1931. It was grim. They finished off 2nd by 49 seats and 2.1 million votes.

It was the weirdest thing in the world, then, to hear Gordon Brown on the radio, around Friday lunchtime, sounding more confident and statesmanlike than I have heard him for a while, magnanimously declaring that the government must go on and that his ministers would be going to x conference to discuss y with z important other national leaders, as though he had just been returned with a healthy mandate. And the reason for this is very simple, because as badly as labour did (and they were creamed everywhere outside scotland and the North) expectations were so low that they did a hell of a lot better than most people expected, getting 2% more of the vote than opinion polls suggested and maintaining a healthy block of MP's, 39.6% of MP's on 29% of the vote, considerably more than the Conservatives got in 2005. Moreover, as the Conservatives failed to gain a majority, he remained Prime Minister until someone else could cobble together a majority.

Whereas in 1997 the Conservatives were not only beaten, but routed across the board, being reduced to a small rural English rump, in 2010, although securing a lower share of the vote even than John Major did in '97, labour were beaten but not routed, holding their ground in their heartlands and maintaining a significant number of MP's. All the party's leaders maintained their seats, sometimes even increasing their majorities, and, the Conservatives failed to gain their own parliamentary majority, putting them in a relatively weak position. Labour were lucky. Whereas the Conservative's '97 defeat was compounded by serious tactical voting, in 2010 there was almost no tactical voting against them, with the LibDems particularly failing to gain several seats they should have easily taken. Labour also managed to hold off Respect on their left, the SNP in Scotland, and avoid losing too many votes to Lib Dems or Greens, their opponents on the soft-left.

Labour's electoral strategy was, to the degree it was ever going to be, successful. Although their national figurehead campaign was a disaster, to an extent where even his enemies could not fail to feel sorry for Gordon Brown, their local campaigns were effective and professional. They ran a deeply negative attack campaign, hammering away at their one message, the Conservatives would engage in savage cuts, whereas labour could be trusted to protect public services. This approach combined two important pieces of deception, first just lying about what the Conservatives had said they would cut, especially in terms of benefits for the elderly, something Gordon Brown was called up on in the 3rd leadership debate, but generally Labour managed to widely engage in under the media radar, and, secondly, completely ignoring the fact that Labour themselves had committed to cuts, only slightly smaller than the Conservative's, after the election. Nonetheless this approach was mostly successful, uniting the left behind Labour, instead of seeing it fracturing to SNP, LibDems, Respect, Greens etc. and allowing Labour to avoid electoral meltdown.

Obviously, like the Conservatives, Labour's result varied greatly across the country, with almost the opposite picture to the Conservatives. In Scotland they held totally still, actually slightly increasing their share of the vote on 2005, and this success is the core of labour's relative survival in the whole election. Across England and Wales they suffered a 5.6% swing. In NI their allies the SDLP did well, holding their 3 seats.

Even in England and Wales, the result varies across the Country. The swing was surprisingly uniform, but still this means Labour continues to dominate the North, especially the NE, and is well ahead in Wales. They are also slightly ahead in Yorkshire and London and well behind in the East and West Midlands.

In the South of England, outside London, they are, however, in a terrible condition, as bad in percentage term as the Conservatives in Scotland but in a way in a far worse state as it is across a much larger area. Labour got about 17% of the vote across the South East, South West and Eastern regions of England, an area of some 18 million people, compared to 5 million in Scotland, the Conservative desert. They also painfully gained only 10/196 seats in these regions. As one Labour commentator mentioned after the election, there is now effectively a doughnut of complete Labour vacuum, around Inner London and before you reach the Labour strongholds further north. The thing he did not mention, however, is that this is a doughnut of some 220 seats, as another commentator said, some doughnut.

Liberal Democrats.

MP's: 57(-5) Vote Share: 23% (+1) Vote No: 6.8 million (+0.9 million)

If the big story of the night, in terms of immediate political importance, was the Conservative failure to gain a majority then the biggest surprise and biggest under-acheievement of expectation was still the almost complete collapse of the Lib Dem's sudden bubble of support. Without a doubt the big story of the campaign was Cleggomania, the sudden apparent outpouring of enthusiasm for the Lib Dems and Nick Clegg personally that followed the first ever UK prime ministerial TV debate. Taking the opinion polls going into the final night, the Conservative party was ahead but it was then a toss-up as to whether Labour or the Lib Dems came 2nd in share of the vote for the first time since 1918. There were widespread predictions for the Lib Dems to achieve a increase of 20 or 30 or 40 seats on their 2005 total.

The first sign that something had gone horribly wrong, was the exit poll, released at 10pm, that placed the Lib Dems on only 59 MP's, down 4 from the previous election. This was an ominous sign, but was widely disbelieved when it emerged. However, as it went into the early hours of the morning it became horrible apparent that it was all too true, as the Lib Dems failed to gain seats they should have walked through, and even lost seats they could have easily held onto. I can only imagine the sheer horror they must have felt at Lib Dem HQ as they saw the results come in and realised that it was all too true.

When the dust had finished settling the next morning the Lib Dems had managed to do even worse than the exit poll, itself seemingly incredible only 12 hours before, had suggested, finishing with 57 MP's. It was not merely a terrible quirk of FPTP either. The opinion polls that had only 36 hours before predicted a Lib Dem vote of 26% had proved wrong, with the Lib Dems ending up with only 23% of the vote, only 1% up on 2005 and 6% behind the Labour Party they had seemed so close to overtaking. The sense of a missed opportunity looms even more darkly in looking down the list of Lib Dem target seats, those seats that required the smallest swing to the Lib Dems to gain. Whereas the Conservative target list, 116 long, now has a healthy block of blue, the Lib Dem targets have been barely touched. Labour seats that required only a tiny swing to go remain red, after, in some cases the Lib Dem and Labour vote fell equally with it shifting straight to the Conservatives, though not enough to give them the seat, leaving labour in precarious first place.

This should not be taken to say that the result was entirely bad for the Lib Dems. Despite their poor result they did finally secure their main hope for the last 20 years, holding the balance of power in a hung parliament, one hell of a consolation prize. They will now almost certainly form an integral part of the next UK government, albeit either in coalition with, or through supporting, a much larger party. They also achieved their highest share and number of votes since 1987 and (apart from 2005) won the most seats since 1929. This is a more marked achievement when you realise that their 2005 share was considerably buoyed by protest over the Iraq war, to retain and actually increase on those votes was an achievement, and, if it were not for the bubble following the 1st debate it would be said that they did very well, compared to
how they were doing in polls pre-debates.

The Lib Dems fell back moderately in Scotland, though maintaining their tally of seats. They achieved a small swing against Labour across most of England, but, their small loss largely resulted from a moderate swing against them to the Conservatives across the South of England, where they now constitute the 2nd largest party behind the Conservative party, and especially in their traditional heartland of the South-West. Interestingly, they also achieved a sizeable increase in their tally of seats where they are either in 1st or 2nd place, i.e. seats where they are one of the two main parties in the running, a crucial position under FPTP. This figure rose from 250 to 299, suggesting a continued divergence of the country away from a straight Labour, Conservative battle and an improving Lib Dem position below the surface, so to speak.


MP's: 28 (-1) Vote Share: 11.8% (+1.4) Vote No: 3.5 million (+0.6 million)

The Other parties had an incredibly mixed general election, with some notable successes and notable failures, but no overwhelmingly positive or negative picture anywhere. In a number of cases a party either did well in votes but poorly in seats, or did well in seats but poorly in votes regardless. Following the 2009 European Election and the Expenses scandal there was a great deal of speculation that voters would abandon the major parties in considerable numbers and flock to the minor parties. This was one of the great debates of the opinion polling leading up to the election, with one block of polling companies forecasting votes of up to 18% and another block forecasting around 10%. The end result was 11.8%, so considerably closer to the figure suggested by the sceptics.

Moreover, the number of seats held by Others fell slightly. This is firstly because this category includes all NI seats, as neither Conservatives, Labour of Lib Dems are major players there, and so the figure takes no account of the changes there. In Scotland the SNP failed to take any seats, as previously said, Scotland was weirdly static at this general election, though their vote did increase modestly, at the expense of the Lib Dems. In Wales, Plaid Cymru managed to gain an extra seat from Labour, (increasing their representation by 50%) though their share of the vote fell slightly, though not doing as well as they'd hoped (they'd been after another seat). In England, both Independent MP's lost their seats, with those seats returning to what could be considered their natural homes, One Welsh independent labour rebel lost to Labour, one Kidderminster hospital concern lost to the Conservatives. Respect, the other minor party in the 2005 parliament also lost its seat in Bethnal Green and Bow. The party suffered badly at the election taking none of the three seats they had been in a good position to take from Labour, and losing its only representation.

The three major 'minor' parties in England had varyings nights at the polls. The big achievement of the night was the triumph of Caroline Lucas, Green party leader, in Brighton Pavilion, who squeaked home to become the UK's first ever Green Party MP. This was a real triumph for her personally and for the Greens. However, it masked a disappointing result nationwide, with the Green's over-all vote barely moving on 2005, in an election where it would be thought that their hard left-wing, environmentalist, populist line would be widely popular. The contrast is striking with the other two main 'minor' parties. The BNP failed miserably in their attempt to gain parliamentary seats, with Nick Griffin losing votes in Barking, as Labour's Margaret Hodge actually increased her vote after a successful anti-BNP campaign. Nationwide, however, in terms of votes, there was a very different story, with the BNP nearly tripling their vote, scoring 563,000 (up from 192,000 in 2005). There was a similar story for UKIP, arguably the UK's 4th largest party. Their flagship attempt to gain a seat failed, with Nigel Farage failing to unseat the House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, and embarrassingly even coming 3rd in that seat to an explicitly Pro-EU Lib-Dem leaning candidate, little more than 24 hours after almost getting himself killed in an air-crash during some last minute polling day campaigning. Again, nationwide, and in terms of votes, UKIP triumphed, increasing their vote by 50% and scoring 917,000 votes, more than any minor party has ever done before and, for reference, well over triple the Green vote. It is, also, interesting to note that although UKIP are stronger the further south and west you go and the BNP stronger the further north and east you go (in England), their combined vote is actually quite similar across the country, uniformly polling 5-7% in every region and getting 6% over-all in England, and with the English Democrats (the other right-wing minor party) the ED/UKIP/BNP gained 1.5 million votes (up from 800,000 in '05).

In NI there was one dramatic switch of the election, with DUP leader and NI first minister Peter Robinson dramatically losing his seat to the Alliance, a small Lib-Dem aligned, non-sectarian party that has never before achieved Westminster representation. Apart from this though it was no-change, with Sinn Fein, SDLP and the DUP holding all their other seats. Sinn Fein did manage to achieve the closest win of the whole election, holding onto one seat by an, eye-wateringly close, 4 votes. As previously said the Conservative aligned UUP, running as Ulster Conservatives and Unionists (UCU) failed to make any breakthroughs. The TUV (traditional unionist voice) party, a hardline splinter from the DUP, that some had expected to cause the DUP serious trouble failed as well, getting a puny 4% of the NI vote.

Outside these parties, it was a good election for independents in some ways, with many gaining respectable shares of the vote, and standing in record numbers, and bad in other ways, as both the only two independent held seats fell, and most of the respectable independent totals were gained by former, disgruntled Labour or Conservative ex-MP's or hopeful candidates, who failed to gain their preferred party's nomination, generally either due to party discipline problems or intra-party ideological disputes.

The Hard Left did particularly badly at this election, despite hopes that it would be able to capitalise from Labour unpopularity, despite the hard-left in England and Wales coming together in the form of an electoral coalition. Both the Scottish Socialists and the TUSC (trade union and socialist coalition) polled badly, the TUSC getting a pitiful 0.04% of the vote in England. Respect also did badly, losing its only MP, as, as said before, Labour were surprisingly successful in consolidating the left-wing vote across the UK. The hard-left did especially badly compared to the 320,000 votes NO2EU and Socialist Laboiur managed only a year before in the European Elections.

Two other parties that did badly by this same metric were the Christian party and English democrats, who between them polled 530,000 votes in the European elections but at this election only managed some 82 thousand. This is to be compared to the BNP who gained 930,000 in the European Elections and then 540,000 votes this year.

Saturday 27 February 2010

What Christianity is all about.

Christianity is all about ‘more than you deserve’. The principle is that we are given more than we deserve by god, because he loves us. God is not just or fair by human standards, he is so much greater than we can ever imagine that he is completely divorced from our ideas of justice. God has given us, through the eternal sacrifice of Christ, more than we deserve. He has paid himself the debt that he is owed. This is why we are ordered to turn the other cheek. “If someone slaps you on your left cheek, turn to him the other cheek and let him slap it as well, if someone steals your coat, give him your shirt as well, if an occupation (roman) soldier forces you to carry his pack a mile, carry it two miles”. To accept the grace of god doing more for us than we deserve we have to give to others more than they deserve.

This isn’t just a good ideal either, it is the only practical way to heal the world. We have seen, bitterly played out, that an eye for an eye does not work. Just ask the Israelis and the Palestinians. Rather the way of the Gospel, of turning the other cheek, is the only way to ever completely gain peace. But still there are so many people who cry out for revenge, for a strike back, and the killing continues.

Saturday 13 February 2010

. . . One Eye on the Future

Compared to the widespread ignorance and disinterest in the past that characterises our society, it could be argued that we are in fact obsessed with the future. We are, after all, deep in the grip of the cult of youth: our popular culture is preoccupied with what is new and unheard of. Fashion, music, Art and wider culture are engaged in a process of constantly inventing new forms and attempting to replace what had been popular or regarded before. We are obssessed with new technology and the next innovation and gadget and live in eager anticipation of the promise and expectation of ever newer advances and technology. Our time has seen the furore over the turn of the millenium and the rise of the issue of Global Warming to worldwide political and social prominence. It would seem odd, therefore, to claim that our era is characterised by a lack of interest in the future. And indeed, I mean this in a very particular, but no less important for that, way.

On the level of individual people a claim that we are unconcerned with the future seems even stranger. People plan obsessively who and what they want to be. They dream about where they want to go with their lives and, on a more mundane level, they plan their holidays to come, their shopping tomorrow, their bills, their mortgage, their retirement, their love life. The issue here though is precisely this very fact though: People are concerned with my job, my life, will I find someone. People are intensely concerned with what faces them as individuals. Just as with our ignorance of the fact and lessons of history is really one of our amnesia at a societal level, rather than individual forgetfulness so with our societal future. We are, each of us, intensely concerned with my future, but we have lost, if we ever had it, an awareness and concern for our future and those things that must be affected primarily not as individuals but as a whole. We are unconcerned with the future, then, in a very particular sense.

Although our lack of concern with our social future is, to a degree, merely a matter of neglect, as I think is overwhelmingly the case with our past, it is partially also a matter of deliberate encouragement. Nothing is more uncertain than the future and, in the sense of unconnected specifics, nothing has been less successful than long term predictions of our future. This has led to an intellectual, and also in a vaguely connected manner, cultural antipathy to any kind of prediction concerning the future. This does have a legitimate basis. The type of predictions often popularly made about the future, whether about politics or the development of technology are normally excruciatingly poor. Even worse than this: the 20th Century was scarred by the advocates of explicitly historicist philosophies, who appealed to a certain necessary historical development to justify the most appalling violence and persecution in human history. Historicism, the belief that history as a whole is moving towards some inevitable conclusion is itself, when phrased in purely secular terms, everywhere and always a fallacy. The contingency of all natural occurences, including the development of human society, alone assures this. It is moreover deeply dangerous, even in the more limited, non-universal sense, in that it encourages complacency towards whatever end for which it is invoked, which is itself the most sure method of ensuring that end does not occur.

The problem with these types of future prediction is that they are, almost everywhere, dreams, which may or may not take place. They are hoped for possibilities, in the same sense of our personal hopes and daydreams for the future. They also often rest on a mistaken faith in the inevitability of certain complex events, which are in fact under the control of complex and varying forces. This phenomenon itself is familiar from our personal lives. How often do we see people, often ourselves, assuming that something: a job, an exam, a partner, a dream, a sucess, is in the bag, only to see it slip from our grip due to our naive underestimation of the complexity and difficulty involved. We take things for granted, that they will occur, that they will always be there, and thus fail in drawing the correct conclusions for what we must do to secure them. It is in this sense of failing to make the logical leap from where we are now to where we are going, to what we must do to get there, that our awareness of our social future fails. It is a sheer failure of our logical thinking. We are seemingly incapable, as a society, of considering what we are doing at the moment, looking at what the inevitable or likely long term consequences of these actions will be, and preparing for them accordingly.

When you start to think about it, this failure of our social thinking becomes glaringly obvious. We are embroiled in various problems as a society and as a species that can be traced directly back to our failure to consider the wider, likely consequences of the actions we are and have been taking, and to prepare for them accordingly. Just look at the major issues of our time. The Economic Crisis: An entirely avoidable global disaster brought on by our failure to take awareness of the simple fact that economic stability could not be maintained by taking up exponentially increasing levels of debt. The obvious consequence of this, that eventually we, as a society, would not be able to continue borrowing and to service our debts, was, indeed, obvious to many, but at a societal level the message did not seep through and together we failed to respond to this and avoid the inevitable. The War in Iraq: as clear an example as you could wish for of a failure of the consideration of the long term implications of our current actions. The invasion of Iraq was a complete success, but our leaders were so obssessed with getting to the war and completing the invasion they completely failed to take any account of the difficulty of the task that would come after it. This is a wide-ranging failure that both we and Iraq have then suffered from for years after. More examples come easily: The Demographic Crisis, as low birth rates mean our society ages and population declines; the Environmental Crisis, of the reckless destruction of priceless and irreplaceable species and habitat; the coming Energy Crisis, as oil continues to slowly run out and we do not have a plan to replace it. Even the Global Warming debate, which on the surface seems to represent our interest in our future, really betrays our inability to transform that casual interest into something more substantial. Many people see the possible dangers of Global warming, and it is given wide spread lip service as an issue of importance, but we seem incapable as a society of turning that knowledge into action, the difficult action, which that knowledge demands. We are incapable of turning our widespread individual knowledge into wider societal knowledge and action on the scale necessary and thus continue on much as before.

As in all these cases, this is not even just the case of the inertia of our society, with a small aware minority attempting to rouse a slumbering and foolish mass. Even those who are aware of the dangers of Global Warming, for example, and of the action that must be taken, are often the very same people who continue to fly, to drive and engage in various other actions that produce vast quantities of carbon. Each person deludes himself with the thought that my actions, alone, will do not nothing and then infers from this that therefore I have no responsibility to do anything, or often that this therefore means that the macro scenario will not itself occur. No one raindrop thinks that it is the cause of the flood. This is the fundamental failure of logic that is occurring here: The complete inability to reason from the society to myself, or my locality, or vice versa, from myself and the situation I see to the issues facing our entire society. We struggle with the fact that the macro issues that face society require our action, even if that individual action itself will not shift the whole issue. We are seemingly incapable of making the inference from our individual activity up the level of complexity to the action of our entire societal body.

What we fail with in each of the situations of these crises is not forecasting the future in the manner of a weather forecast, is not imagining the dreams we one day hope to have, but rather simply considering the inevitable consequences of where we are and what we are doing now. We do not need dreams about the "end of history" but what we do need is to do what, at the individual level, is considered an essential human skill: To consider the consequences of the actions we are undertaking, considering the state we wish to be in, and co-ordinating the one so that we meet the other. This is often a complicated process, requiring that we consider many variables and co-ordinate many smaller individual actions, but through its execution we are able to traverse our lives and accomplish what we seek to accomplish. THis same action is essential if we are to co-ordinate our society as a whole and interact with other societies. It is a process of checking where we are going, of keeping our eyes off our feet and on the road we are walking,so we don't trip up, to keep our eyes on the obvious consequences of our actions and to prepare for them, thoughtfully and properly, as we would instinctively do in our own lives.

It is a process of
If . . . then . . . ,
Given . . . then . . .

Obviously in all situations there will be a limit to what we are able to know about where our current path is taking us. The denial of this fact is the fortune telling, prediction of the future that is such a waste of time. Our inability to fortune tell our future does not take away our responsibility to consider the immediate consequences of our current actions and to act according to that knowledge. In all situations though there will be some facts and consequences that will be obvious, or at least calculable. Such investigations often require a great deal of academic work and understanding, at the level of the complex problems that face whole societies, or groups, but with all the resources that our societies have to muster we can do this and we must. What better use could there be for them? For if the Economic Crisis or the War in Iraq, or a whole manifold of other crises teach us anything, it is that it is considerably easier and cheaper to sort out a problem before it happens than to clean up the mess after it is made. It is easier and less painful to walk around, or step over an obstacle than it is to trip over it, hit the floor and have to pick yourself up again. Neither can this be considered a low priority. As we move forward into the future the economic, political, social choices we make will be and are having consequences, and it is of the greatest importance that we seek to consider and prepare for what consequences that are evident, with all the rigour and resources that our society can bring to this problem. We must stay focussed on our future, for we cannot afford the alternative.

This is not even a matter of merely reducing costs, but rather one of life and death. History is littered with the groups and societies and nations that failed and fell behind and died. Sometimes there was nothing they could do about this but too often it was a consequence of the actions they took and their failure to consider the evident consequences of the direction in which they were heading. They never thought it could happen to them, but it did, and if we do not pay attention to where we are heading, as well as where we came from, then eventually it will happen to us as well, if for the simple reason, that it is not the things behind you that normally trip you up, but rather the things in front of you that you are about to walk into.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Essential to the Present: Keeping One Eye on the Past

As a society, our past is not paid the attention it should be, and this means we struggle to understand our present, or predict our future. On a certain level, the reason for this obvious: We tend to have enough trouble just dealing with the present. But it is still deeply unsatisfactory and, I would say, dangerous. This is connected to understanding both our present and our future. How can we predict the future from the present, if we don't understand how the present has developed from the past?

I hope that saying, as a society, 'we do not have a great understanding of our past', is not a very controversial claim. Perhaps never before have even relatively educated sections of our society had so little idea of the full sweep of our History, whether of Britain, or the whole World. Pick almost anyone at random, and they are probably largely unable to describe either the broad sweep of history over the millennia, or its details, outside perhaps a few very specific periods. I believe this sad fact is a simple consequence of a few factors. Firstly, the decline of the ideal of what can be called the 'Renaissance Man': that an educated person should be generally well informed and skilled to call themselves educated. Education has become increasingly specialised, to the great benefit of economic and technical pursuits, but to the cost of an understanding of the background of our society and the wider world. This can be seen at school where beyond GCSE most subjects are just abandoned and specialisation really sets in. Secondly, and connected, is the commercialisation of education, meaning education seen as something undertaken for purely for economic benefits, rather for any ennobling, character enhancing reasons. The Humanities in general suffer particularly from a combination of both effects.

This process is intensified by the manner in which history is taught in the modern day, for the little time it is obligatory. That is, by intense concentration on a few isolated segments or periods of history, without any overview of how the whole, rolling, continuous human story fits together. For all its possible benefits this method has a crippling deficiency. I do not know how to quite explain it except by analogy. Our method of teaching history is like teaching pupils about America by intensely drilling them on the social, economic and political facts of North Dakota, South Carolina and Utah, but nothing about the country as a whole, whether its government, its shape, where it came from, or what stands for or anything else. Even among A-Level or University students of history, the general ignorance is often maintained, outside the particular few areas they have studied in such detail, unless they have a strong natural interest that they pursue more broadly in their own time.

I think few would disagree that most people know only a small amount of history, whether ancient or comparatively recent. Far more people, however, may question why this ignorance of the Past really matters at all. To answer this, I first appeal to another analogy. We consider a person who has entirely lost their memory, or even for whom their memory is particularly weak or failing, as a person who is profoundly disabled. This is for the obvious reason that they can neither truly know or appreciate who they are, or have the resources of knowledge and experience to apply to the situations they meet now or in the future. These are resources that we all rely on on a constant basis. They are doubly crippled by being robbed of the riches of memory of all they have done and achieved in the past, and in facing their present or their future. Exactly the same applies to whole societies or peoples or, indeed, humanity as a whole.

Obviously a group of human individuals totally ignorant of their social past can continue, in a manner unlike a single individual, because they do in fact retain their individual memories, but still in as far as they constitute a single social body and seek to act socially they will be crippled like any individual amnesiac, both by a failure to appreciate the richness of their past and the individuals who came before them, and by the lack of knowledge with which to understand the situations of their present or future, especially when faced with other peoples for whom the past is a more immediate current motivation. I would go even further. In any individual personal relationship what is important to that relationship is not mostly what we are doing with that person right now, but rather the depth and warmth of the history that we share. It is likewise so in the social bond that binds us together, whether country or people or community. If we as a social group do not know our shared history then we lose a major part of what makes us one people, one community, rather than just individuals thrown together. Indeed, as a man who has no idea of his past loses his very identity, so a people without idea of their past will struggle to have an identity as one people at all, but merely as a group of individuals thrown together by accidents of birth, or geography, or politics.

I speak in terms of our social identity here because I believe that is where the problem of our collective social amnesia is most dangerous. Not just in the loss of social identity, and the failure to appreciate those who have gone before us, but equally in failing to equip ourselves with the lessons of the past to guide us in the present and future. This is not dangerous, perhaps, in the theoretical sciences, areas where progress would not be possible without a constant awareness of the discoveries that have gone before and where, hence, such a consciousness is maintained. It is an immense risk, however, in the more practical and general areas of the social, political and economic choices we make to direct our country, state, community and people.

Without an awareness of the history and background of these decisions, of what has been tried and tested before, of what situations have already emerged, and what has succeeded and failed, we cannot be sufficiently informed to take the decisions we must in a complex world and decide wisely. We don't just need to know ourselves either, we need to understand the nations around us. Just as ignorance of where we have come from cripples our ability to know ourselves, and act, so ignorance of the deep background and heritage of the communities around us cripples our ability to understand them, where they come from, and what they seek to do now. Just as knowledge of an individual person's past allows us to understand what has shaped and motivated them, so we need knowledge of the past of the peoples and communities around us to better judge their actions and motivations now.

It is trivial to list political issues of our time that rest on deep historical causes and influences. From the politics of racial injustice and Confederate memorials in America, to the historical motivations behind the European Union; from the complex divisions over Israel-Palestine, the tensions in Northern Ireland, the continuing violence in the Middle East, the policies of Russian Expansionism, and even the background to the Corbynite and Conservative political movements within Britain; none of these can be really understood except through the deep historical wells and sources that have fed and driven them. 

Even apart from these arguments, for me there is another important reason we should care about the poverty of historical awareness in our society. History is an immensely rich topic of study because of the sheer diversity, wealth and wonder of the things we can discover there.  L.P.Hartley once wrote, "The Past is a foreign country, they do things differently there". This is very true. I can think of no better metaphor for the wonders we can discover in History than the joys of travelling to a foreign country for the first time and experiencing new culture, food, climate, sights, people and stories; a richness and diversity we would never have imagined without venturing beyond our own land and people.

This is as true of the past as any possible place we can travel in mere space, though obviously and sadly we can never experience them as directly as in actual travel. Still, there is a richness there, of people and stories to tell, greater than any writer of fiction could conceive in one small imagination; being the true lives of billions of people just as inventive and creative as any of us. More than this though, the people of the past were people just like us: with hopes, fears, dreams and the vision of a purpose and meaning to their life. Surely then, if we are a people of love, who honour the value of human beings, we must honour them by remembering their lives and those things they gave and spent their lives for. We must remember the things, causes, and people that were so important to them, and which are also, of course, now the essential building blocks and causes of the lives we have today. For the basis of the near-infinite complexity of the lives we lead is that near-infinite beauty and complexity that came before us, with its loves and hopes, goods and evils, which now exist only as far as we take them up into our minds and make them part of our thoughts, hearts and lives.

Saturday 28 November 2009


My General Election Spread (Part 2)

Lib Dems 20%

The 2005 general election saw the best result for the Liberal Democrats, the 3rd party in British Politics, since their predecessor party fought the 1929 election. They achieved 23% of the vote and 62 MPs standing on a platform of a liberal, progressive alternative to both the Conservatives and Labour and most prominently as the only one of the three major parties to vote consistently in opposition to the Iraq war. The Lib Dems' big parliamentary breakthrough came in 1997 when they more than doubled their representation to 46 MPs, though their share of the vote fell by 1 percentage point to 18%, having never managed to gain more than 23 MPs in the 60 years before. They increased their representation, and share of the vote, in both 2001 and 2005 bringing them to their current high-point in the Commons. Furthermore, the current political climate would seem extremely favourable to them with a deeply unpopular Labour government and a Conservative opposition who have struggled to establish their popularity amongst a significant portion of the electorate. The political momentum of the last 13 years and a favourable wind (politically speaking) would seem to be behind them for the next general election, and this is undoubtably the narrative that the Lib Dems themselves would like to convey.

Despite this though I consider their benchmark to be at 20%, 3% below their 2005 score and there is a very good reason for this. It is because there is another, much less optimistic side to their current political narrative. The fact is that right since their success in May 2005 the Lib Dems have been stalling everywhere, repeatedly failing to make any ground. The local elections in '06, '07, '08 and '09 and Euro-Elections elections this year have all shown the same pattern with the Lib Dems just about holding their ground electorally but making no significant progress anywhere. For example, in 2009, though achieving minor advances in seats in the Euros and votes in the Locals these were accompanied by a fall in their share of the vote in the Euros and seats in the Locals. They have proved strangely resistant to any advance in their national position and are widely predicted to lose out badly at the next election to the Conservatives against whom they have made almost no progress since 2005.

The Lib Dems have come within 3% of Labour in opinion polls but they seem incapable of capitalising on this to deliver a decisive blow to either Labour or the Conservatives. Even in bye-elections, which throughout the 90's and early 00's gave some of the Lib Dems most impressive successes, the Lib Dems have had only mixed success since 2005, with one victory in Dumfermline and West Fife balanced by disapointing showings in several others. There have been other poor signs in Scotland and Wales' devolved elections (both previous Lib Dem strongholds), with the Lib Dem vote suffering mild decline, and in the South West, the other traditional Lib Dem stronghold, various local councils have swung to the Conservatives.

Beyond this slightly grim electoral news evidence from opinion polls places 20% as the crucial barrier that the Lib Dems should be realistically aiming to pass. Ever since the election of David Cameron as Conservative leader in December 2005 the Lib Dems have bounced around in the 15-20% in nationwide opinion polls. Despite two major Labour meltdowns in the opinion polls, significant problems with the Conservatives establishing their own popularity, two changes of leader, the (presumably) best efforts of the Lib Dems themselves and all the vagaries of political events they have proved incapable of broaching and staying above the crucial 20% barrier, significantly below their vote in 2005 of 23%, with surprisingly little movement over the years around their average of 18%. Though it should also be said they have only briefly drifted below 15%.

The first major problem for the Liberal Democrats, constantly facing the dilemma of being a centrist third party squeezed in a strongly ideologically bipolar British political universe, is that following 2005 there has not been a single issue, like the Iraq war, to make them stand out and act as a rallying cry for support fleeing from the two major parties. The second major problem has been the Conservative leader David Cameron. He has relentlessly followed a program of changing the positioning of the Conservative party to make it appear as a more centrist and liberal party. This seems to have decisively undercut the Lib Dems' progress at appearing as the main acceptable liberal alternative for voters fleeing Labour.

It is impossible to as simply quantify this as voters now swapping from Labour to Conservative rather than Labour to Lib Dem. It could be rather that the same strand of voters is moving from Labour to the Lib Dems but that a similar number of separate voters are also moving from the Lib Dems' right wing to the Conservatives. It is extremely difficult to tell with the crude data that is available, nonetheless the pattern is unmistakeable.

The Lib Dems currently have 63 MPs in the House of Commons, built at the last election on their exploitation of public anger over the Iraq War and their astute positioning between the Conservative and Labour. It is the best result they have been able to achieve for 70 years and has led to a significant increase in their profile and exposure and influence in British politics. If they are to maintain this profile and standing beyond the next election though they can not afford to see their share of the vote fall below the 20% threshold. If they do they will see serious losses,their first since since 1992, to a resurgent Conservative party that will cripple their burgeoning ability to present themselves as a serious possible party of government, reduce their pool of parliamentary talent to utilise in the future and quite possibly retard their slow progress (which they have really been making since their nadir in the 1950's) for another decade, if not more.

They are not necessarily doomed though, even at this point. It is possible that they will still be able to find some issue or event to galvanise their support and/or allow them to distinguish themselves from the two main parties between now and the general election and stage at UKIP style recovery against expectations. Their time in which to do so, however, is fast running out.

Others 10%

It has been traditionally said that Britain has a two party system. This is largely true in that there have been only three parties that have ever formed the government of the United Kingdom, and this is a case of Labour taking the Liberals' place as part of the two party system rather than a development of a three way sharing of government. That said, however, a more nuanced view of British politics would bely this analysis. There have been extended periods where further parties have held a considerable influence in parliament and also in devolved, European or local politics and neither have major parties always been monolithic entities. An example is that the fact that the period in which Labour replaced the Liberals as the main alternative to the Conservative Party in the UK lasted from the 1918-1935 general elections and arguably longer, a period of about 20 years before the two party system in parliament settled down again.

British politics in recent years, especially since 1997, has seen the rise of smaller parties, with the strongest third party since 1931 and numerous high profile minor parties. This has been assisted by the establishment by Labour of devolved assemblies and the increased importance of the European Parliament but it also seems to represent a wider political trend whereby support seems to be seeping away from the major parties to a wider base. Possible causes of this include the dramatic increase of possible media of communication, which among other things, reduces the cost of organisation and help to bring together politically like-minded people, even of a relatively rare political persuasion; as well as encouraging awareness of a wide range of issues, which may not be addressed by major parties, and increasing public scrutiny of major political parties, which may encourage cynicism towards them. There is also the decline of the major parties as mass organisations, especially in terms of polarisation and identity of various parts of society, such as certain classes, with one of the two main parties.

Whatever the reasons for this trend the best possible characterisation of current British Politics since 1997 may be that we have a three party system, whereby the Conservatives are a party, Labour are a party, the Lib Dems are half a party and the minor parties make up another half of a party between them. These minor parties together achieved 7% of the vote in 2005, higher than the minor party total at any previous UK election in the last 50 years and considerably more successful with a haul of 12 seats.

The period between 2001 and 2005 saw a number of events, which contributed to the rise of the minor parties. The first of these was the continuing boost in publicity achieved by minor parties through the mechanism of assemblies outside Westminster. Whether the European or devolved assemblies the ability to elect representatives along with the influence and publicity this gave helped provide a boost to the position of UKIP, SNP and Plaid Cymru, and to a lesser extent various minor Scottish parties as well as the BNP and Greens. Especially important to this was the 2004 European elections which gave the greatest boost to minor party support seen over the parliament and saw the decisive breakthrough of UKIP with 16% of the vote and 3rd place across the UK.

The Second mechanism has been alluded to before, namely the curious and infrequent scenario following the Iraq war whereby both of the two major parties were relatively unpopular, with neither regularly polling more than 40%. This is accentuated by the fact that political support in the UK has become considerably geographically polarised, with evidence seeming to indicate that some minor parties have gained support in areas where one of the two major parties no longer offers serious opposition, such that when voters get sick of the dominant major party in that area, minor parties move into fill the gap instead. An example of this would appear to be the success of the SNP in Scotland and the BNP in the north of England. Both of which have large areas where there is just no effective Conservative opposition to traditional Labour domination. A much more localised version of this phenomenon, perhaps with the addition of the influence of strong local personalities and celebrities, can be seen in the success of Respect and the Kidderminster Health Concern.

The third of the reasons for this trend has been the increasing influence of single issue pressure groups in society. These have grown more widely influential in society in the form of NGO's and pressure groups, but only recently have they begun to gain serious strength as political parties. The textbook example would be the Greens, but in a different way also the BNP or UKIP, though with very different single issues. Perhaps the most remarkable event in this regard, since 2001, has been the rise of these parties. The UK has had a long history of minor political parties, but the only successful ones have been, until the last decade, almost solely the local nationalist parties in the home nations outside England. The rise of UK wide minor parties, or even perhaps more accurately significant minor parties within England, which has always politically dominated the Union (and in most other ways), but has always proved resistant to the growth of minor parties. This changed in the 2004 European and 2005 general elections with significant growth seen by UKIP, BNP and Greens, to the point where UKIP overtook the SNP's long held position as the 4th largest party by number of votes.

The years since the 2005 election have only seen the intensification of these trends on all fronts. A continuing rise in the prominence of environmental issues has seen an increase in the profile of the Green party, continuing fears about immigration and disillusionment with Labour in its working class heartlands has fueled the rise of the BNP and disillusionment with Labour in Scotland lead to the SNP narrowly winning the 2007 Scottish parliament elections, giving it a minority administration and all the chances to grandstand, on behalf of the Scottish people of course, that comes with it.

The 2009 European Elections were expected to see a retreat of the performance of the minor parties, with a widespread expectation that UKIP would fade without the vast publicity afforded to them by the campaigning of Robert Kilroy-Silk in 2004. Then the Expenses scandal broke in early May 2009 and the whole game changed. With all three major parties roughly equally embroiled in the Westminster expenses scandal the field was left open for the minor parties, who saw an unprecedented spike in their opinion poll ratings, reaching 30% in one poll and across the average peaking at 18% of the (Westminster) vote. They would then go on to achieve 43% of the vote in the European Elections in a climate of unprecedented distrust of all 3 major parties, with UKIP itself actually managing to push the governing Labour Party into 3rd place, the first time that one of the two major parties has been in 3rd place in a nationwide election in the history of the UK.

The importance of the Expenses scandal to UKIP and all the minor parties could not be exaggerated. By simultaneously damaging the reputation of all three major parties almost precisely one year before a general election it gave them an unparalleled boost in support in a parliament that has been dominated by a duel between Labour and a rejuvenated Conservative Party. To the leaders of the three main minor parties it must have been as though all their Christmases had come at once. Without this event it would probably be a safe prediction that the minor parties would increase their vote in 2010, but by probably only a small amount, and with insignificant change to their representation. As it is, although their support in opinion polls has decreased steadily since June the minor parties still are registering unprecedented levels of support for this close to a general election, well into the teens in all opinion polls.

For these reasons I believe that 10% must be the benchmark for Others in 2010. Passing this threshold at a general election would represent an unprecedented level of support for the larger and also for numerous smaller minor parties. It also would represent the likelihood of seeing UKIP, BNP or Greens finally succeeding in electing an MP under FPTP, which would be an remarkable step for them. These three parties, as well as the SNP in Scotland will all be hoping to seriously increase their vote at the next election helped by the expenses scandal and the serious unpopularity of the Labour party. If possible this would be a serious achievement as well, representing an almost 40% increase on the minor party vote in 2005. This would seem an unlikely target if not for the remarkable success of these 3 main minor parties who have been incredibly successful at rallying support in their respective constituencies, their collective vote at the 2005 general election being more than 1 million, compared to little more than 200,000 in 1997.

In light of these figures and their relatively high profile in the national media, they and the SNP/Plaid along with various other minor parties have, I believe, a serious chance of achieving this total. It must be said though that if they do not pass this total at this election then it seems unlikely that they ever will. The 2010 election would appear to be both the height of continuing momentum for the Others and favourable political circumstances, both in terms of the expenses scandal and the distrust and decline of Labour and the Conservatives as national institutions.

Whichever way these events go in terms of this spread it becomes clear that 2010 is likely to be a once in a generation shift in British politics, in many ways equivalent to 1886, 1906, 1918, 1945, 1979 and 1997. We only have a 7 month wait to see which way it will go, and though events between now and the election will doubtlessly affect the outcome we may predict now, though in what way we cannot foresee. I believe that this spread still bares relevance to the significance of whatever result does occur.

Sunday 22 November 2009


My General Election Spread (Part 1)
Here in the UK it is certain that we are now within a year of the next general election, with May 2010 given as the most likely date. The last general election was 5th May 2005 and under UK law the next one must occur by 6th June 2010. This election is expected to be the most significant since 1997 with the prediction that the government of the UK will change, something that last happened in 1997 and before that last in 1979, just over 30 years ago. It is widely considered almost certain that the Labour party, which has governed for the last 13 years since '97, will at least lose its majority in parliament if not suffer a catastrophic defeat, which will see the Conservative Party ( in opposition since 1997) form the next Government.

This is my spread for the next General Election, in terms of percentage of the vote gained by the major parties. These are the landmark figures that for various reasons including: their importance to the actual result, their relation to previous levels of support, historical poll data and psychological importance, I think that each party would be doing exceedingly well to surpass and doing exceedingly badly to fall below, including my analysis of why I have chosen these figures. These are not necessarily the levels of support I would predict each party will get at the next general election but rather the benchmarks of support that it would be significant for them to either achieve or fail to achieve.

It must also be said that percentages in elections, unlike actual totals of votes, are, of course, a zero sum game. With turnout perpetually below 100% it is always possible to increase your vote tally without affecting anyone else's, by getting people out to vote who would not otherwise have bothered. However, with percentages, irrespective of how many people vote, it is the case that one party can only push its score up by pushing another party's down. That means for any party to beat the spread and do better than its score another party must do worse and vice versa. And of course relative levels of support do not change for no reason, but in response to events and the actions of the various parties.

Now, lets see that spread in full.


Conservatives 40%
Labour 30%
Lib Dems 20%
Others 10%

Which also gives a (7+5)/2 = 6% swing to the Conservatives
Con 325 (+127)
Lab 245 (-111)
Lib Dem 48 (-14)
Others 16 (+4)
Con Maj: 0

These nice round figures not only represent a series of landmarks in terms of each parties share of the vote but also coincidentally give the even figures required for the Conservatives to stand on the threshold of being able to form a government. The implication could not be clearer, the Conservatives must beat this spread if they are to form the next government, and Labour must stop them if they are to avoid a Conservative government. What is more, as we move away from these figures the predictions for MPs elected quickly spiral away into either large Conservative majorities or relative Labour/Conservative parity, even with Conservative leads in the vote of 5-7%.

Conservative Party: 40%
The Conservative Party have been continuously ahead in the polls since the start of 2006, apart from the dismal summer of the Brown Bounce in 2007, for the first time since 1992. Since October 2007 opinion polls have shown them almost continuously hovering just over 40%, between 40-45%, with the only major exception being the immediate aftermath of the expenses scandal in May, June, July 2009, which hit all the major parties almost uniformly.

40% has long been considered the crucial figure which a party must secure to be sure of forming the next government. Labour in 2005 were the first party to secure a Majority in the house of commons with less than 40% of the vote for over 100 years and this reflects the degree to which the FPTP system is currently skewed by various factors towards Labour, due to factors like disproportionate seat sizes and differential turnout. These same factors, on the other hand, mean that for the Conservatives to gain a majority, short of the remainder of the vote splitting considerably more evenly than it ever has before, they must beat this figure.

Considering that the Conservatives have been almost uniformly scoring 40-45% in opinion polls it may seem that this figure is in fact lower than they should be expected achieve, especially given the occasional comparisons with Labour's opinion poll score from shortly before the 1997 election, which often passed the 50% mark by some considerable distance. To put it frankly, though, the opinion polls scores from that period were not nearly as accurate as those today, and even at their stratospheric victory of 1997, Labour only scored 44% of the vote, with a much lower level of 3rd party and minor party support and activity than we see today.

Even today though, and despite the incredible work done by David Cameron, as a result of various events in the 80's and early 90's the Conservative Party is still historically unpopular in some areas of the country, and comes from a much lower level of support than Labour in 1997, reflected in this spread. There have been whole areas of the country where reflexive opposition to the Conservatives has been part of the assumed culture and identity for the last 15 or more years. I am a natural conservative, and believe in my party, but I was born in the late 80's and grew up in the 90's. 1997 is the first general election I was aware of occurring and basically all my aware life the Conservative Party has seen its share of the vote sit, unmoved, between 30-33% as a series of 4 Conservative leaders fails to enthuse the public with any enthusiasm for the Conservative Party. I am hence incredibly wary of optimism in this regard and know quite what an achievement, a shift in public opinion, it would be for the Conservatives to reach or break past this figure.

This said though, considering that the Conservatives have been regularly achieving 40+% it would be a disgrace if they did not achieve at least 40% in the next general election. Even if one can argue about their overall legacy, the last 7 odd years have been a political disaster for the Labour government and if the Conservatives are not scoring nearly as highly as Labour in '95,'96,'97 before the election the Labour party have been scoring considerably worse than the Conservatives even at their worst moments of unpopularity, the Lib Dems have also failed to achieve any kind of breakthrough since their high-point in 2005. If the Conservatives can not achieve 40% of the vote in these political conditions it must pose serious questions both about their policies and actions over the last 7 years and whether they will ever be able to achieve their former levels of popularity.

In addition to this though, it is a figure the Conservatives must achieve, for reasons other than sheer bums on seats in the Commons. The next Conservative government, if elected, will be forced by the state of the economy, the state of the EU, the state of the Union, by the threats facing us in terms of foreign policy and by divisions over domestic policy in this country, to take numerous hard decisions, that will lead to stringent criticism from both within and without Britain. They cannot afford to limp through, like Labour in '05, with only 35% of the vote and ever decreasing public legitimacy. They need the legitimacy and the mandate that can only come from a resounding victory at the ballot box and shows that large swathes of public opinion are behind them, to equal Labour's support in 1997 and 2001.

Labour 30%
The Labour party has formed the government of the United Kingdom since 1997 when they won a landslide victory over the Conservative Party with 44% of the vote. This was followed by another landslide victory in 2001 with 41% of the vote and a much closer win in 2005 with 35%. Severe doubts caused by the appalling handling of the Iraq war and continued allegations of sleaze, spin and a lack of substance lead to Labour support falling by 6% between 2001 and 2005, with their government only saved by the continuing unpopularity of the Conservative Party.

As difficult as the last few years of that parliament were for Labour they do not compare with the last 4 years which has seen Labour slide even further under one political disaster after another, whether the ten pence tax disaster, the continuing difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, Smeargate, the Recession, the Expenses Scandal or their complete inability to come to grips with the new Conservative leader David Cameron, and his new agenda for the Conservative Party. When Tony Blair resigned from Downing Street it seemed as though Labour could recover their momentum but despite the Brown Bounce of Summer 2007 and a further smaller bounce in late '08 they have continued to slide in the opinion polls, leaving them struggling in the mid 20's from march '09 to the present day and facing almost certain defeat at the next general election.

Labour have passed 30% in a only 1 out of around 50 opinion polls taken since March and hence even this may perhaps be seen as an optimistic benchmark for them to be trying to pass. They are historically unpopular, scoring lower than John Major's government ever did (in comparable polls) before 1997. At one point in May of this year their average poll rating was 23% with one poll putting them on as low as 18% of the vote. Currently less than a year before the next general election they have struggled back up to (on aggregate) 28% in the polls but this is immediately following a period of poor publicity for their Conservative opponents and preceeding a period when greater attention is likely to focus on the poor state of the economy and other government problems, giving no guarantee they will be able to remain at this level, let alone improve on it.

If we look at the smattering of actual electoral evidence we have from the recent period, from the Euro Elections or bye-elections or Locals, there is even a coherent argument that Labour support is actually at best in the low 20's, as they have not managed to surpass this score in any of these elections. Their best result being 23% in the '09 Local Elections, coming 3rd behind the Conservatives and Lib Dems. My personal favourite electoral humiliation of the year being coming 6th in the European Elections in Cornwall behind (in order) Conservative Party, UKIP, Lib Dems, Greens and the Cornish Nationalist Party Mebyon Kernow. Behind these straight polling figures there is more bad news as well. In Polls on specific issues the Conservatives now appear more trusted than Labour on every single issue, even (although only by a tiny margin) such traditionally rock-solid Labour issues as the NHS and Education, not to mention questions such as who voters prefer as Prime Minister or issues like trust on the Economy.

In light of all these facts it may seem as though 30% is an unlikely high target for Labour to achieve, only giving them room for a fall of 5% from 2005, itself smaller than the 6% fall between 2001-2005, whereas the Conservatives are targeted at a 7% rise in their vote. As with the Conservatives in the opposite direction though, the psychological and historical significance of an actual result with Labour below this point cannot be underestimated. Labour have not fallen below 30% of the vote since 1983 and not before then since 1922, although even with this total they would still gain significant representation under our current FPTP system in a general election. Since the inaugaration of New Labour following Tony Blair's election as Labour Leader in 1994 they have been widely taken-as-read as the dominant party of British politics, representing a uniquely successful synthesis of traditionally right wing (though now centrist) economic and foreign policy and "compassionate" social democratic social policy. A position helped by the poor performance of their only main rivals, the Conservatives, in '97,'01 and '05.

Even in the Conservatives' election defeat of 1997, the possible result to which we see the greatest comparison for the coming elections, at the Conservatives lowest point, they managed to achieve 31% of the vote. For Labour to achieve less even than this figure, especially if they are to fall into the 20's, would be both electorally and psychologically devastating and would not only spell disaster for the 2010 election but also place serious question marks upon Labour's very survival. This is a party that is currently embroiled in serious financial trouble, with its only major remaining source of finance being a small number of powerful unions, which may give them undue leverage over any post-election defeat ideological reconfiguration of the party. A combination of the psychological shock of a major electoral defeat on the party's morale, the loss of numerous of the party's major parliamentary figures, as well as the almost certain ideological infighting that may result and the party's perilous financial position could be a sufficiently chronic shock to an already weakened party to allow the Lib Dems to challenge Labour from the right and other minor parties to challenge Labour from its more traditional left. These factors together could damage the party to the extent where, even if it does not fade away as the Liberals did following 1918 (the last time Britain's effectively two party system realigned itself), it could reduce Labour capacity to stage a recovery within the next parliament, near guaranteeing at least 8 years of Conservative government.

(This was originally meant to be a relatively brief piece on my ideas of what, considering the political events and climate of the last years, should be the benchmarks for our political parties in the coming 2010 election, my ideas about the bencharks against which their current and eventual standing could be compared. It has been a personal labour of love about a subject I find fascinating. However, in the writing it has become exceedinly long, of full essay length, and hence I am posting the first half here before the rest is complete, so I don't fall further behind my personal target of posting once per week, and also to avoid ending up with an incredibly long post. I hope you find it interesting. The sections on the Lib Dems and Others is to follow soon. )

Tuesday 27 October 2009

What God Does.

Last October I took part in a week of guided prayer in Warwick Chaplaincy and I became very aware of something. With prompting from Steve my prayer guide, I thought back to my times sitting in the woods, or on the train or anywhere else where I was just watching the world go by. I spoke of these times as times of great contentment at just being within the world. I also told him about my great sense of the presence of God at these times. He asked me about what I thought that God was doing at these times, or how he was looking at me. The answer was that God was just watching.

When I was sitting there watching the world, it was a very special moment, for I was still and complete, for I am whole in the world when nothing is wrong that I can or must affect. It is a way in which I feel the goodness which underlies reality and that I could abide forever in that moment in perfect contentment, if that moment would just remain. So God was watching the world as well.

Like when I sat and looked down the valley behind my house. I sat on the grass in a warm summer, looking down the valley, past the golden and brown fields and trees and watching the sun go down behind the treetops. I watched this happen and drank in the beauty of it and I has the most incredible sense of watching it with God and of him watching it to, and appreciating it to, for he need do nothing but watch, and sharing this beautiful vision of what he had created.

I realised that I saw a piece of beauty, unique in the history of the world and the Universe, and I realised that no-one but me saw it, no-one but me and God. I realised that he must see this beautiful sunset every day, every day a little different, and that most days he saw it alone, unseen and unappreciated by anyone else. But this day he shared it with me, and I felt that God smiled, and that I was supremely honoured to share this moment where I was experiencing the pleasure of a maker at the success and unveiling of the beauty of the thing he had made. Like the pride of a parent at their daughter’s wedding, or their graduation from University. Love mingled with pride and the one reinforcing the other.

Thinking about this time I think that this is what God always does. He watches and waits for the time to come and sometimes he watches beauty and sometime he does not, but always he watches, and when the times is right he acts and he is working his purposes out from year to year. I had never thought about what God does with the world when he is not dealing with people, with thinking beings. What did he do in the aeons before the founding of the world. The answer, I think, is very simple, he watched.

God in the Bible and in the experience of my heart is not a God of many words. In the Bible God never uses ten words where one would do. I admit that this is not always true. God’s silence is broken by action, and powerful action to, and speech. In Jesus, God spoke at length but still the Gospels leave the feeling of so many words unspoken, so many parables we wish could be more completely explained, so many pages that could be in there.

Furthermore, my own explorations have led me into the search for stillness, in being able to move with rather than against the universe and God’s truth and the nature of what is valuable. It is a feeling of seeking a Taoist-like harmony with the universe, in Christian terms being in perfect obedience with the will and intentions of God. This is in terms of harmony and an important part of that harmony is both inner and bodily stillness and watching and waiting and acting when it is needed. In Taoist terms, doing by not doing. Actions, and powerful actions, puncture silence and watching. It is impossible, however, to underestimate the importance of watching and listening, and experiencing, for to do such a thing is to drink in the world as it moves around you.

Neither does it have to be contrary to God’s ever-activity and care. It is the nature of things that God pervades all. God acts constantly, both in his intercession in the world and through the constant over-flow of his Love into the world, that we call Grace. However, in any particular strand of existence, viewing any particular slice of time, looking at all the places in the cosmos, overwhelmingly in terms of their number God watches and does not directly act, although still his love and compassion overflow, as we know that we can merely watch someone and yet still our love and care can flow onto them.

Friday 23 October 2009

A Defense of Truth in Art - Some Preliminary Ideas.

These are some of my first brief thoughts on looking at how we consider and access Truth in, and through, Art and Literature and how this is fundamentally different to how we generally model and determine truth through maths and science. This is something that I believe has interesting possibilities for helping to explicate an explanation of the ways we access and react to the truth and knowledge we experience and rely on in ordinary life (and also in religion), in a fuller and more useful manner than the simplistic model we often rely on from the hard sciences and mathematics.

These ideas are inspired as a response to an article by J.Stolnitz 'The Cognitive Triviality of Art', which can be found here and argues for precisely the title, that Art is cognitively trivial, containing no unique useful knowledge or truth. The idea of this article is that supporters of Art often make claims to such a thing as Artistic 'Truth' or even knowledge. It takes a very narrow sense of truth and knowledge and then proceeds to use this to ridicule claims of Artistic truth or knowledge. To the extent it does not particularly engage with the wider questions it is merely a polemic, but it is a interesting starting point to bounce off of and give us somewhere to start in forming and defending the opposite view.

The article accuses Art of lacking the definitions of knowledge and truth that would provide us with a range of propositions whose truth is uniquely or best discoverable through that area of knowledge and a method by which such propositions could be compared and verified. He then claims that this demonstrates that the idea of Artistic truth or knowledge is essentially vacuous since there is no knowledge that is not more easily comprehendible and verifiable in some other area of understanding or by some other method. He contrasts this with examples of proper areas of knowledge such as science, history, religion, and even 'garden-variety' knowledge and examples of their respective unique propositions such as, ‘nothing can travel faster than the speed of light’, ‘the Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066’, ‘the Trinity consists of Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ and ‘summer is warmer than winter’.

I am sympathetic to the article to the degree that I feel that talk of Artistic beauty is more immediately useful and relevant as a starting point of discussion of Arts than that of "Artistic Truth", which is to introduce a model of evaluation that is immediately likely to confuse when related to Art, especially when imported with all its retinue of ideas of contradiction, proposition, law of excluded middle etc,which is the baggage of formal logic. Any idea of Truth in Art or truths imparted by Art, let alone 'Artistic knowledge' is going to be considerably more difficult. The evaluation of beauty is perhaps hence a more useful starting point, possibly even because of, rather than in spite of, the fact that it itself is not a precisely defined concept and hence does not bring such immediate baggage with its use, it is however one that strikes most people at some point with immediate force, whereas Artistic Truth is ironically the more amorphous idea in most people’s minds.

The Article plays on this ambiguity to ridicule the prospect of Artistic truth and knowledge by taking a strictly propositional definition of truth or knowledge. He demands to know precisely what substantive and interesting propositions can be discussed and verified solely, or even best, through the medium of fine art. In this regard he appears to be correct. Any particular proposition about the world expressed in a piece of Art would seem better justified and grounded through some other means and area of knowledge particularly designed to develop and assess claims of that type of knowledge, whether history or science or philosophy.

In my view though, this merely shows the weakness of his model of artistic truth, or indeed of truth in general if he believes that the propositional model is the only one that there can be, or which can be useful (or indeed if he limits the range of his proposition to factually statement about the composition of the world as he seems to do).

My personal distaste for his talk of artistic knowledge or artistic truth leads me to constantly seek to phrase these ideas rather as the truth of Art or the Truth through Art. But that is merely personal preference.

I believe that the model in which we must discuss truth in Art is precisely not a propositional model but rather one of the immediate synthetic realisation of a whole manifold of truths, their inter-relation and their importance in terms of their aesthetic, moral, religious and existential value. Within a piece of Fine Art we can see captured and revealed an instantiaton of a scene or idea or or maybe just one element of a scene, whether in terms of a snapshot of a something, or a revelation or all eternity, enhanced and shown to us for our appreciation and understanding, with all the infinite, interwoven detail, connotations and connextions such a thing can produce. Such a picture, once (partially, for that is all it could ever reall be,) atomised into its constituent propositions, will inevitably lose its richness, not only in the sheer range of propositions, but also in the inter-related nature they share and the emotional impact which can actually bring them home. It is near (though I do not say entirely) impossible to achieve the same effect, of the over-arching view and connexion of something, with what must become in the end a mere list of individual propositions.

I believe that it is this precise feature of the encounter with truth that we reach in Art that gives a study of this truth the greatest relevance because it is this structure that it shares with so much of the truth or "truth" that we meet and deal with in our ordinary lives, where decisions from the trivial to the overwhelmingly important are so often based on an image or a glimpse or a moment and the immediate intuitve apprehension of what they mean, from our ordinary human perspective and which can so rarely be boiled down into one of logical atomism.

These ideas are not withstanding the eminent human tradition, whose most well known advocate that comes into my mind is Plato, which all but equates beauty and truth and hence the regards the insight of beauty, which many sense in even the most unadventurous or un-humanist Art as an authentic meeting with some truth in the universe that exists in the sense of deeper value and constitutes a meaning and being that gives surface reality and propositional truth its purpose and use and hence constitures a deeper and better truth than that expressed through any proposition. I recently read a man saying that we do science and technology so we may have the means and leisure to do Art, to create. And this is by no means an unheard of view.

Through Art, even apart from the conviction of beauty we can realise many truth and realise them deeper and better than we can through them merely being told to us. I do agree with the article further to the extent that not many of these ideas or propositions would necessarily be justified or grounded in their explanation through Art. Art may show me that a sunset is a supremely beautiful thing, but this would not be because of any particular painting that this was true. Aesthetic, Moral, religious, Existential propositions will often have their basis in some other area of knowledge, and merely receive expression through Art. Again though this is not necessarily true though, as with any of these categories, Fine Art, especially perhaps literature, may lay out the case for them in such an intricate detail unobtainable elsewhere that Art itself is uniquely situated to provide the evidence and backing for them, even if the particular events depicted are fictional. This could be thought of as in a way similar to an extended thought experiment.

This will not be true in all places, however, some Art will merely convict you at that point of ideas and propositions best grounded elsewhere and sometimes Art will reveal knowledge primarily or only in the form of the revelation of Beauty itself (not that this is to be disparaged) and sometimes it will reveal truth in the sense I have just described above. What this all goes to show though is that there is in fact an entire range of meaningful that Truth in and through Art can be studies and considered and through which we may then gain a great deal.