Protecting the fragile consensus around informal content curation systems

CW: Reference to, but not specific examples of, discussion of anorexia and weight loss. Reference to, but not specific examples of, transphobia and debate around trans rights.

In an undeniably hilarious turn of events, the fashy US outfit “Proud Boys” had their hashtag taken over by people a co-ordinated bunch of people who reinterpreted it somewhat. Score one for the libs in the meme war. Despite not really feeling the love for the PBs, I had a think about whether I reckon this is a positive development, and I think probably not. I’ll endeavour to explain why.

We’re still figuring out how to manage privacy, freedom of speech, and content management on social media. Platforms like twitter throw more people into one virtual discussion space than have ever inhabited a physical one, and this makes everything hard. The fundamental problem of determining what people should and shouldn’t be able to say to each other is that there isn’t one set of rules that can work for all groups. There exist plenty of Xs so that there will be some people to whom hearing X would be horribly triggering and upsetting, and some other people who would feel unsafe and oppressed if you tried to prevent them from saying X. There are plenty more Xs where these reactions both exist in less extreme forms.

Outside social media, people broadly solve this problem by participating in a variety of groups where people don’t exhibit conflicting triggers, and where people agree to certain limits on discussion for the purposes of participation in that group. People also tend to be pretty up-front about what will or won’t get talked about or shown in what context, so that people aren’t caught unawares and needlessly upset. When some person think some discussion is so important that they make it physically impossible for other people who don’t want to have that discussion to avoid seeing or hearing that person’s point of view, it gets viewed as a disruption of the normal social order, and people debate whether the general upset caused is worth any change that might result. We generally only allow this in broadly public places; almost nobody would be sympathetic to a protester who forced themselves into the private home of someone they disagreed with and insisted they be heard.

Social media is problematic because it’s neither a public nor a private space, nor a workplace (where we apply different rules again). Anything said on Twitter could in theory be seen by just about anyone else on Twitter, but it almost certainly won’t be. In these environments, people have created a number of informal systems for seeking out the kind of discussion they’re interested in and avoiding the kind of content they don’t want to see. Terms of service tend to cover things broadly considered completely beyond the pale, where the cost incurred by the content’s being seen by those who would rather not see it is very high, and the cost of not being able to post it fairly low, but just banning what almost nobody wants to see is far from sufficient alone, and so people have developed informal methods of curating their experience.

On Twitter and Tumblr (and, I’m told, some other social networks I don’t use), tags/hashtags form a particularly useful and obvious way of roughly searching for or filtering out content. From people who don’t want to see spoilers for a TV show they’re watching, to people who are in danger of panic attacks if they see certain kinds of images or topics of discussion, anyone can just hide a tag they don’t want to see (on Twitter you now mute certain words or phrases, rather than whole hashtags, but it achieves roughly the same). This relies on people’s actually including the relevant tags, or not making convoluted efforts to avoid saying a particular word so as to fool the filters, but this tends to work, and anyone who failed to tag spoilers in a Tumblr post, or rot13d a few key phrases of their tweet to get round a mute, would seem like an antisocial ass. Similarly, tags/hashtags can be used to bring people together to easily find discussion around a certain topic.

When more formalised, people tend to call the areas created dedicated to or insulated from certain content in this manner “safe spaces” or “walled gardens”. I prefer the latter, because it has a positive emphasis and leans more on the metaphor of creating a place people actively want to be and have a stake in stewarding, whereas the former metaphor more firmly leans on the element of protection from unwanted content alone. That said, sometimes that’s by far the more important aspect, so I’m not actively trying to encourage a shift in terminology. These informal tag-based communities or filters are more like loosely fenced off areas of a big field; they offer neither perfect co-ordination or perfect insulation, but they do a pretty decent job, and they turn what would otherwise be a hostile, frightening cacophony into a rowdy but mostly manageable hubbub.

The problem is that all of this is basically just maintained by convention. There’s no rule against not tagging your spoilers, or not flooding a hashtag mainly used for some specific thing with enough unrelated content that it no longer functions as an effective co-ordination tool. Nobody’s forcing anyone to use trigger warnings and mutes can be circumvented with a little effort. If people stopped using these systems reasonably consistently, they’d stop working. Like herd immunity from vaccinations, they require most people to take them seriously, and then they function basically fine with a few exceptions that elicit a strong community response. However, they very quickly fall apart once a critical mass of people aren’t bothering, and then it’s very difficult to get them going again, because any individual person will just be wasting their time if they try.

That’s why I’m uncomfortable with the Proud Boys’ hashtag’s getting overrun. I’m sure things like this have happened before, but this is the first time I’ve seen it at such a large scale, and the first time I’ve seen it get major coverage (I’m sure small internet factions in subcultures I’ve never heard of have mounted invasions of each other’s subreddits and whatnot before, but if few people know about it or care, then it doesn’t disturb the overall system so much). I’m absolutely positive that, over on 8chan r/thedonald or wherever, a bunch of people who have far too much time to dedicate to the meme war are currently determining how to own the libs in response by over-running some hashtag or Tumblr tag or something in a similar manner.

Maybe it’ll all fizzle out, I don’t know, but I’m concerned about systems that exhibit clear tipping points like this, and how quickly they can fall apart. I’m uncomfortable about the subversion of an informal norm that allows people to avoid harmful or triggering content and search out things that make them happy and fulfilled. If these norms do break down, it won’t be the Proud Boys who find themselves most disadvantaged by a social media landscape where it’s harder to control what you do and don’t see, and harder to reliably co-ordinate groups of people with similar interests or similar points of view. It’ll be people who are recovering from anorexia and get dysphoria from seeing people post about their weight loss goals; it’ll be trans people who really didn’t fancy observing a debate about what rights they should or shouldn’t have when they logged on to browse an architecture tag.

Breaking down the smaller informal communities with their own norms built to suit their members, that people can move between to find somewhere they find happy, and moving closer to the model of big forum with one set of norms favours the majority and the powerful, and hurts minorities and the weak. Social media is already a bit too far down the “one big forum” road for my tastes as it is, and this seems like it could be quite a consequential step further in that direction. Or it might just come to nothing, but I’m adamant that we should at least think about these kinds of consequences, and think about what kind of social media landscape we’re shaping.

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The electoral college is actually biased in favour of big states

EDIT 7th Oct 2020: The original version of this post incorrectly attributed the Penrose Method to Kenneth Arrow. Mixing up my voting theorists!


So it’s that time of the (four) year (US election cycle) again, and discussion of and complaining about the electoral college (EC from now on) abounds. As with all discussions about the finer points of voting systems and democratic procedure, the discussion is obfuscated by partisans whose method of evaluating whether a system is good or not is “does it help my side win”, but this doesn’t mean that there aren’t interesting discussions to be had, nor that the people complaining about the EC for partisan reasons might not also be correct that it is bad in general or unfair to them in particular.

Intro to the EC

Quickly for the uninitiated (skip this section if you are already perfectly aware what the EC is): The EC is the method by which the US selects its presidents. Instead of having everyone in the country vote and then awarding the presidency based on counting those votes by some method or other, as is the case in most countries that elect a president, the US essentially runs 51 parallel elections (one in each state and one in the District of Columbia; residents of Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Isles, Northern Marinara Islands, and American Samoa are plumb out of luck here altogether, and that’s a whole separate conversation), and the eventual result of the election depends on a weighted combination of how many of these individual elections each candidate has won. This is fairly unusual and means it’s entirely possible to win despite having got fewer votes than another candidate, as in 2000 and 2016.

This is a little different to, for instance, ranked choice elections, where a candidate can win despite getting fewer first preference votes due to allocation of lower preferences. In those cases, there’s still one election resolved by one set of rules that elects one winner. In the US, each election is entirely separate, and the results depends on what votes are cast where, not just what votes are cast in total. Voters in parliamentary democracies, which elect a parliament that then elects a prime minister, will be familiar with this effect, particularly if the method used to elect that parliament isn’t proportional. But again this is something a little different, as nobody in, for instance, the UK, actually directly votes on who the prime minister is: They elect a parliament which, among many other duties, chooses the prime minister. The US situation, in which a single decision is being taken by an entire population, but the result of the vote depends on the location of the votes due to an intermediate calculation stage, is quite unusual.

Issues I’m leaving out of scope

I’m here discounting the fact that, technically, the election of a US president is actually a bit like that of a British prime minister, in that strictly voters vote for electors, who then elect the president, and it is (in some states) possible for the electors to not vote for whom they said they’d vote. I’m ignoring this because the electoral college (in terms of the people actually in it) does nothing else but elect a president, and then dissolves (it’s not a parliament), and in practice almost nobody has a clue who the electors are or how they’d even find out, and any election actually decided by such a ‘faithless elector’ would likely be, in practice, not accepted as legitimate. I’ll discuss the electoral college as if it is what it functionally is: a quite unusual way of counting votes for a president.

I’m also ignoring the complication of Nebraska and Maine, who award their EC votes slightly differently from everyone else. They award 2 EC votes to the statewide winner and then 1 EC vote to the winner in each of their congressional districts (2 in Maine, 3 in Nebraska). This complicates everything but doesn’t change anything I’m going to be talking about – it just means Maine is essentially 4 states and Nebraska 5, whose results depend on each other in strange ways. They also combine for just 9 of the 538 total EC votes, and so just don’t affect things that much.

The substance of the complaints

Complaints about the EC that are not purely complaints about which party it currently does or doesn’t favour tend to be of one of two types. The first type argues that it’s perverse to do this intermediate stage at all, and that elections should just be run nationally like in most presidential systems. These arguments are generally quite reasonable and I want to treat them briefly and second, as I think discussing the other main type of EC criticism first will shed some light on why one might have an EC at all. The other argument I see all the time is that the weighting is wrong, and that some states have too much or too little power. These arguments are the ones I think are not just weak but entirely backwards, and are why I decided to write this.

How should the EC be weighted?

So, taking as read that you want there to be an EC at all, what’s wrong with the way it’s done now? The current system of weighting is a hybrid between population-weighting and equal-weighting, with about 4.25 times as much weight given to the population-weighted fragment as to the equal-weighted fragment. This is achieved by having each state contribute as many EC votes (ECV from here on) as it elects senators (equal-weighted) and representative (population-weighted and about 4.25x more of them). Exactly how this system came about is not my concern here (though it is interesting); suffice to say that a lot of people think it’s unfair.

There’s also the small wrinkle that the weighting is only assessed so often, and relative populations of states drift around a bit, so some states get a bit more or less than they would if this formula were applied anew now. This isn’t a big effect, though, and isn’t the substance of most complaints, which tend to focus on complaining about the system of allocation itself.

What people tend to say is that this system is unfair on the big states, and favours the little ones. Complaints tend to look at the ratio between population and ECV for various states, and point out that bigger states tend to have more people per ECV (indeed, it isn’t that hard to see from the method of allocation that this was always going to happen). The classic comparison is heavily Democratic California, with 1.39 ECV per million people, against heavily Republican Wyoming, with 5.18 (Texas actually fares worst at 1.31, but it has until recently been safely Republican, so that doesn’t have the same partisan appeal as a comparison; Florida is also weaker than California by this metric with 1.35, but suggesting Floridans should have more influence is not something most Americans feel comfortable doing).

What is almost always an implicit assumption here, considered so obvious it doesn’t even need to be said, is that ECV should be allocated proportional to population. The way this is generally put is that “some votes are worth more than others” in the current situation, and that equalising the ECV/population ratio would make all votes “equally valuable”. I don’t think this makes any sense at all.

What would it actually mean for votes to have “equal weight”? The instinct driving most of the complaints I see seems to be that however many ECV a state gets is a budget of power to affect the overall election that then gets divided between however many people vote in that state. This would imply that the fair solution would be to allocate ECV proportional to population, thus keeping ECV/population the same across sates. But I don’t think this actually makes any sense, because voter power is not some set budget that gets shared between those who participate in an election.

Consider a simple model system with just two states. State A is won by candidate alpha by 4 votes to 1, and state B is won by candidate beta by 100 votes to 99. How should we assign ECV to these two states to get a fair overall result? If, at this point, you’re just screaming “why not just add up the votes and see that candidate alpha has won 103 to 101?!” then you’re asking “why have an EC at all?” I’m going to come on to address that question later. For now, we’re assuming an EC, and seeing how we could weight it fairly.

In this scenario, any individual voter in state B is going to feel a lot more like their vote made a difference than any voter in state A. Literally any one voter could have changed the result in state B, whereas two voters would have needed to flip to change the result in state A. But there were so many more votes in state B, so surely, according to the “fixed budget” assumption, each one of the 100 contributed less to that win than did any one of the 4 who voted for the winner in state A?

The thing to realise here is that vote power isn’t a set budget that has to be divided between the different votes in an election. Being in an election with more people doesn’t necessarily mean any one vote matters less. The votes don’t have to share the power with other votes in the same election. Voter power as a measure of the influence of any one vote over an outcome varies with absolute margin of victory, not with total votes cast. In the toy example above, if we gave equal ECV to each state, the voters in state B would actually have exercised more sway over the overall result – their votes would have “counted more” to the overall result than votes in state A. Someone wishing to change the result would most easily be able to do so with the least effort in state B.

The key insight here is that you can’t just scale ECV with population and then claim that makes all votes of “equal worth”. What matters is the absolute margin of victory in the state, not the overall population or number of votes cast. The big problem with this is that we don’t know what those absolute margins will be before the election actually happens. Running the election and only then assigning ECV proportionally to the actual absolute margin of victory in each state would essentially be a very roundabout way of just using the popular vote to determine the victor, plus a few rounding errors.

This is essentially to say that ECV ratios can’t be set to ensure ex post (after the fact) equal weighting, because we can’t know the absolute margins of victory in advance of setting the weighting, but they can be set to ensure ex ante (in expectation) fairness, meaning there’s no systematic bias towards bigger or smaller states. To do this, we have to note two effects pulling in opposite directions.

First, bigger states are likely to have bigger absolute margins of victory simply because there are more people in them, so the range of possible margins of victory is larger. A 1% margin of victory is much larger in a larger voting population. This pulls the dial towards giving bigger states more ECV. Second, relative margins of victory are likely to be smaller in larger states, because larger samples from a population are more likely to be representative than smaller samples. These are both statistically predictable effects, so there is an ideal weighting ex ante.

Lionel Penrose crunched the numbers some time ago, and the answer is pleasingly simple and will seem eerily familiar to anyone who has spent much time doing statistics: To weight each state (or sub-unit of any type) in an EC system so that the power of a vote is, ex ante, independent of the population of that state, make ECV proportional to the square root of population.

This in no way eliminates the increased power of swing states; they are a baked-in feature of an EC system, and will be discussed later. This system just ensures that the size of the state has no bearing, in expectation, on the value of the votes cast within it. So, let’s look at how the current US ECV distribution matches up against this yardstick.

Now, the most overpowered state is California, with 10.3 ECV per thousand (square root population). The weakest state is Wyoming, at 1.25. The relationship between population and power is extremely robust. It turns out that, when we use a yardstick that actually makes sense, it’s the bigger states that are systematically overpowered, not the smaller ones!

This rings a lot more true than the normal complaints about big states being underpowered once you think about how much effort the parties put into winning each state. We have to try to disentangle this from the swing state effect, which will make some states more powerful by virtue of being finely balanced whatever the weighting. Trying roughly to do this, the idea that big states are overpowered makes a lot more sense than the idea that small states are. It’s large swing states, most notably Pennsylvania, Florida, and Michigan, which dominate attention. Smaller swing states like Wisconsin and perhaps Iowa certainly get attention, but not nearly as much. Voters in Wyoming must get tired of hearing how powerful their votes supposedly are, given that nobody ever seems to bother trying to court them. New Hampshire isn’t a particularly safe state, but it’s not that important because it’s small, and most of the interest around it comes from an entirely different source (the fact it votes early in the staggered primary process, which is an entirely different conversation).

California and New York aren’t unimportant because they’re systematically disadvantaged by an unfair weighting system; they’re unimportant because they’re extremely safe states, and in fact their high population helps buffer this effect somewhat, because at least they’re a prize worth winning back one day (California was competitive not that long ago; partisan safeness changes more quickly than relative population). If either of them does what Texas has recently done (quite quickly lose safe status and become reasonably contested) then they’ll quickly become the most powerful states. Meanwhile small safe states like Wyoming and Hawaii are utterly neglected, and wouldn’t become particularly worth winning even if they became contested.

So what about Trump then?

The obvious counterargument to this comes from the fact that the famous recent example of a misaligned ECV and popular vote is Trump’s win in 2016, and Trump did seem to win a lot of small states. This cemented itself in popular discourse as the crowning example of the EC’s unfair overweighting of smaller states. This is explicitly referenced in a large number of the complaints about supposed EC bias towards smaller states that I see.

The problem is that this doesn’t remotely stand up to scrutiny. Of the ten biggest states, Trump won seven, including the second- and third- biggest! Of the ten smallest (counting DC as a state as it does get ECV) he only won five. The median-sized Clinton-voting state was Connecticut, which is smaller than the median-sized Trump-voting state (Kentucky/Louisiana).

Trump’s EC win on popular vote loss was nothing to do with state size. A fair weighting by state would probably have hampered him a tiny bit, but that’s because he won slightly larger states on average, and it’s larger states that are actually overpowered, according to our earlier analysis. The idea that 2016 demonstrates the unfair advantage of small states is backwards in every respect!

The 2016 result was a demonstration of the prime feature of EC systems, which is that, however you weight ECV, votes in swing states matter vastly more. EC systems essentially incentivise improving your median popularity across states rather than your mean, with ongoing gains in places you’re already overwhelmingly popular making very little difference.

The partisan split in 2016 was vastly asymmetric, with Trump eking out slight wins all over the place, and Clinton romping home by miles here and there. That’s exactly the kind of situation where an EC system will produce a different winner to the popular vote. It isn’t an issue with ECV mis-allocation, and indeed the standard argument about how the EC is mis-weighted is precisely backwards, as demonstrated earlier.

So why have an EC at all?

All of this is somewhat irrelevant to people who think the whole idea of an EC is stupid, and that presidents should just be elected by the popular vote. I mainly wrote this to address and think through my response to the more specific complaint I hear a lot that the EC is biased in favour of small states. I can imagine, however, that being convinced that the reason they’re somewhat disenfranchised isn’t because their state is large but because it is unrepresentative is probably scant consolation to the many Californians who, either way, still don’t have much of a meaningful say in who the president is right now.

I’m not going to argue for or against the EC really, but just build on the earlier discussions about weighting and swing states to explain why one might favour an EC, and why it might actually be desirable to down-weight the votes of voters in very partisan states. Whether they actually add up to a compelling case for an EC rests on a lot of extremely subjective and complicated questions about what exactly the US is, what exactly democracy is, what the unit of decision-making should be in a democracy, and the like.

The fact that it basically doesn’t matter how much you win a state by if you win it is very much part of the design of an EC system, and it’s intended to prevent a democracy gradually polarising by region and fragmenting over time. Under an EC system, it’s a bad strategy to just more and more appeal to the states that already like you, racking up bigger and bigger wins there. Those votes don’t gain you anything, and you’d be much better off trying to get one extra vote in a swing state than a hundred in a safe state.

Clearly the differences between the states mean that this process isn’t perfect, as there are still plenty of safe states. But, as Clinton found out in 2016, actively encouraging this regional polarisation process doesn’t win elections. In politics, it’s generally easier, at least to a point, to further bolster your appeal in areas already friendly to you than build up elsewhere. An EC system counteracts this natural polarising tendency by tweaking the reward in favour of reaching out to a broader range of voters, at least from a geographical perspective.

The failure that an EC is designed to avoid is one where the whole country is eventually split in two, one half reliably backing one party and one backing the other. This generally spells disaster for a democracy. Northern Ireland is like this, but it has a very unusual system of government that forces compromise and co-operation via other means. It happened in Czechoslovakia, which split partly as a result. It might be taking hold in Poland right now.

The US is an unusually large and heterogenous country, so it’s arguably more at risk of this sort of thing than most. I don’t know whether the bulwark against regional fragmentation that the EC provides is worth the possibility of reasonably perverse results like 2016, which arguably damage the legitimacy of the presidency and lead a large group of voters to hold a reasonable belief that their views don’t matter. That’s also terrible for a democracy.

I don’t want to try to settle those arguments. I don’t really know which side I’m on in those discussions. What I want to do is, by explaining them, place discussion about the EC, and particularly about popular-vote-overturning results based on swing state power, like 2016, firmly back in this “politics is actually quite complicated and involves balancing a lot of complex concerns” regime, and out of the regime of “things like this happen because the EC is simply mathematically mis-weighted in favour of small states”, which is just plain wrong. It’s actually systematically biased in favour of large states.


All States actual ECV, population, ECV per million population, ECV is allocated so ECV/population ration are equivalent, ECV per thousand (square root population), relative power compared with equal population ECV weighting, relative power compared with equal root population weighting, and 2016 election result:

StateECVPopECV/milpopECV if eq EV/popRoot PopECV/
ECV if eq ECV/rtpopPower vs eq ECV/popPower vs eq ECV/rtpop2016
 New York2919,453,5611.493244117.232191%140%D
 North Carolina1510,488,0841.431732395.311587%99%R
 New Jersey148,882,1901.581529804.881496%100%D
 South Carolina95,148,7141.75822693.7211107%84%R
 New Mexico52,096,8292.38314482.377145%74%D
 West Virginia51,792,1472.79313392.196170%80%R
 New Hampshire41,359,7112.94211661.915179%73%D
 Rhode Island41,059,3613.78210291.695230%83%D
 South Dakota3884,6593.3919411.544207%68%R
 North Dakota3762,0623.9418731.434240%73%R
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A fresh look at Poe

Turns out my ignorance isn’t anyone else’s fault


I promise I didn’t decide to write this solely to give myself another excuse to post my favourite comic strip of all time (by linguist and illustrator Robin E. Parrish – follow her at Indeed, this isn’t actually about Edgar Allen Poe, or Po from Teletubbies; I don’t really know much about either.

This is actually just a post about “Poe’s Law”, which is based on a statement by Nathan Poe in 2005: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake for the genuine article.” This was quickly taken on as a sort of folk law of internet discussions (in the same category as Godwin’s Law – the one where every discussion eventually somehow involves Hitler) that was applied to any political position, particularly those outside the mainstream.

In its most basic form, it’s not really that interesting or important. Good parody involves extremising the target’s beliefs in a humorous manner. It doesn’t work if the extremising is by such a ludicrous degree that it’s no longer specifically mocking the target. “Literally everyone is a ferret in every way at all times” is never going to be mistaken for someone’s actual belief, but it’s also not really an amusing way to parody anyone’s belief, because it’s just too far removed from what anyone actually thinks. Because there are seven billion people in the world and lots of them like to advertise their beliefs online a lot of the time, the range of what people think (or at least profess to think) online is wide.

For almost any group of people with a belief of a particular level of extremity on some topic, there’s a smaller group of people who think something more extreme on the same topic. To eventually reach the limit – to find the most extreme people of all – you probably have to find a small number of mostly very confused or troubled people, and parodying them probably wouldn’t make much sense or be much fun. In order for the hypothetical humourist to achieve reasonable impact with their parody, they are best advised to parody a group of people whose beliefs are extreme but who are still reasonably numerous. Parodying those people effectively means extremising their beliefs to some finite degree, and that will almost always produce something somewhat similar to the actual beliefs of a smaller group of people with beliefs a little more extreme.

Poe’s Law is strengthened yet further by its original wording, as it actually makes an even broader prediction than “any parody will be somewhat similar to someone’s real beliefs”; the original wording only specifies that “someone” (and it’s italicised for effect) will misidentify the parody as the genuine item. For that to be true, the parody doesn’t really even have to be that similar in content to someone else’s genuine beliefs. Plenty of people are not particularly good at getting a grip on what they read before launching in with a reply (I’m sure I’ve occasionally bashed out an incredulous reply on Facebook only to later realise I’ve missed a critical “not” in the original post, or made some other misunderstanding that rendered my response fairly embarrassingly wide of the mark). Indeed, the context of Nathan Poe’s original statement does suggest this might be the crux of what he was talking about – 2005 was early in the life of the online political discussion, and norms about sarcasm and the like were still being formed.

So far, so uninteresting (that’s a strange thing to see myself typing 500+ words into a post). People have beliefs of varying degrees of extremity and it’s sometimes tough to read sarcasm in text-only media. Fine, but not really a sterling insight. It’s not exactly Bayes’ Theorem. Since 2005, though, Poe’s Law has mutated and extended and is now invoked to cover a wide range of scenarios, and is interpreted to mean a wide variety of things in different circumstances.

The most notable change seems to be that, rather than warning that intended parody might be understood as sincere by some, modern invocations of Poe (often termed ‘calling Poe’) tend to focus on identifying supposedly sincerely held beliefs and warning that they aren’t reliably distinguishable from parody.

Sometimes this is as simple as ‘this belief is extreme enough that it might be confused with a parodic extremising of some less extreme variant of itself’, which could apply to anything but minimally or near-minimally extreme beliefs, as there’s pretty much always going to be someone less extreme to parody via extremising to something somewhat similar to the target of the invocation. I don’t really understand what people are trying to say with this sort of invocation. “Your beliefs are neither minimally or near-minimally extreme” isn’t exactly a zinging riposte.

Sometimes the intention seems to be to criticise someone’s views based on their having some similarities to parodies that aren’t related to the degree of extremity of the view along some axis or other, but rather based on some other quality common in parodies such as inattention to detail or inconsistency. This is often a fair-enough criticism in the end, but it’s probably better to just say “your view is unsophisticated/inconsistent”, as the very fact the speaker is able to make the judgement that the view seems parody-like but is not, in fact, a parody, means that it is in some way distinguishable to the speaker from parody, and thus this (and the previous example, to some degree) are not really examples of Poe at all, but are just other criticisms of people and their views (this example more reasonable than the former) that are being tagged onto an internet-culture phenomenon for added oomph.

But there is one, seemingly increasingly common, criticism that I see from the Poe family (sometimes explicitly invoked as a form of Poe, but not always) that is the subject of this essay (now this is what you call “front loading the important material” – hitting the point of the piece 1000 words in). This is the act of claiming to be unable to distinguish the views of a target or target group from a parody, generally a parody of that exact target or target group, and using this claim as a criticism of the target or target group. Generally some real example of a parody is involved, but not always.

I have used this myself on some occasions, without really thinking about it too much. It certainly feels like it should be a stinging indictment of the target. “If I can’t tell the difference between your views and a joke, then what does that say about your views?” certainly has rhetorical punch. However, I have recently started trying to unpack this idea a bit, and see what the situation actually says about the people involved.

It depends on a few pieces of context. Is there an actual parody that I’m claiming I can’t distinguish from the real article or not? If not, then everything is too hypothetical and formless to pin down. The idea that there might be some hypothetical parody that might sound something like the real article is either too vague to mean much, or, if that hypothetical parody is somewhat well-defined folds neatly into the second situation in which there is a real parody, and yields to the same analysis.

So, in the case where there either is a real parody, or the hypothetical parody is concrete and defined enough to stand in for one, what does the fact of my inability to distinguish between the two demonstrate? This depends on the answer to a second question: Can the target or target group make the distinction?

If not, then the situation is somewhat uninteresting. All that has happened is that an attempt at parody of a point of view has just ended up reproducing the real article so well that even adherents to it can’t tell the difference. In this instance, all we’ve learned is that the real or hypothetical parody that isn’t distinguishable from the real thing isn’t actually a parody at all, but just an accurate portrayal of the target’s views. Alternatively, the view under parody could be somewhat incoherent or inconsistent, which would make it hard to distinguish from parody. In this case, as in one of the cases above, “your view is unsophisticated/inconsistent” is probably a more sensible response, as it doesn’t bring in the confusion of all these other possibilities for why the distinction might be difficult.

However, what about the situation often tacitly assumed to be the case when this is deployed as a rhetorical tool, in which I can’t distinguish between a parody and the real article, but those being parodied can easily tell what is real and what isn’t? I’d be willing to be that this accounts for the majority of the cases where this rhetorical technique is deployed. What does this actually say? Simply, it says “I don’t know what you think in any particular detail, and for some reason that’s a failure on your part, not mine”.

Having worked it through to this point, I’m suddenly amazed that I ever thought of this as a particularly devastating or impactful thing to say. It’s simply an expression of my own ignorance. All I’m doing when I say “I can’t tell the difference between your views and a parody”, but the person to whom I’m speaking can do so, is demonstrating my own ignorance and lack of empathy. Useful discussion relies on each participant having a good model in their head of what the other participants think, otherwise it’s very difficult to progress a conversation forwards. Not having a good model of my opponent’s beliefs is a basic failing on my part, not an indictment of them or their views.

The proper response to realising that I lack a good model of my opponent’s mental structure is not to somehow make that their problem, as if they are responsible for my lack of empathy and knowledge, but to realise that this is a deficiency on my side, and go about discovering what they actually think until I can reliably tell the difference between it and a joke about as well as they can. As a result, I’ve determined to stop using this statement as a way of pointing and laughing at someone else’s mental structure, and start using it as a way of prompting myself as to the deficiencies in mine, and identifying areas where I need to improve my knowledge. I hope I’ve convinced you to consider doing the same.

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Brexit needs a Deadline

Deadline Written On A Calendar - October 31Why the protest disparity?

Why are remain protests so much bigger than leave protests? Reputable polling now appears to show ~54% remain, so there’s a slightly larger recruiting pool, but not by enough for an observable effect. The demographics of the two pools probably contributes a considerable difference: The remain vote is younger, richer, and more concentrated in well-connected cities. The fact that the remain camp lost the referendum probably drives turnout because it’s seen as more necessary to show strength, whereas the leave camp can just point to the referendum result.

The situation has been compounded by the fact that the first leave protests were small enough that they were dominated by an extreme hardcore, which has a spiralling effect that drives away everyone else and leaves the movement stuck in a bad equilibrium. It’s not that there isn’t a nasty remain hardcore, it’s just that they’re starting off as a small enough percentage of demonstrators that they can’t shift the nature of the event, and so are incentivised to keep it civil.

But this runaway spiral effect isn’t a suitable explanation on its own, as it needs there to be quite a small population of motivated leave campaigners in order to get working in the first place, and the effects discussed above don’t seem strong enough to produce this.

My hypothesis is that the leave movement has no deadlines, whereas the remain movement does, at least for now. Deadlines are motivating on an individual level, but they’re also tremendously motivating on a group level, because they align everyone’s individual functions of outrage.

My prediction is that the remain movement is in danger of losing its deadlines going forward and might get stuck in the same position as the leave movement, where it cannot co-ordinate outrage around any specific point in time. I am very worried about the effects this could have.

How the first deadline motivated remain and demotivated leave

Remainers had a deadline. The UK was leaving the EU on March 29th and unless something was done to change that, and then the remain cause would be defeated. The extension of the deadline at the 11th hour to April 12th didn’t really change that situation. It’s a limited victory for remain each time the deadline is extended, but true victory comes with a revocation of Article 50. True victory may be a while off, but complete and total defeat has, on several occasions, been mere days away. That means everyone is incentivised to act, and accept the costs of that action, at the same time.

The leave camp is not in the same condition. They have a total defeat condition as well: Revocation of Article 50. But that’s not currently looking likely any time soon and, critically, isn’t timed to happen at a certain point without intervention. The fact that extensions have now been granted twice is surely greatly vexing for them, but it doesn’t represent defeat. The UK is still currently planning to leave the EU…someday.

At what point do they decide that the number of extensions is now too many, or the time elapsed since the original deadline is now too much, and that this represents failure, and betrayal on the part of the government? The third extension? The fifth? March 29th, 2020? 2025?

Do we have a deadline at all now?

The extension from April 12th to October 31st has precipitated a situation somewhat like the “flextension” proposed by Tusk (in which the UK stays in the EU until a deal is achieved for a specific mode of exit), because even though there is an end date, a new norm has been established in which extension is the default. For a long time, it looked like no deal was the default situation, and many people who didn’t want no deal, myself included, were very worried that, despite the fact that no deal was a fairly unpopular solution, we would end up with no deal because parliament wouldn’t coalesce decisively around any alternative. The extension from March 29th to April 12th didn’t change this, as it was explicitly granted for the purpose of giving parliament extra time to hold the indicative votes. I did, and still do, consider the voting down of the Common Market 2.0 proposal by hardcore Remainers to be unspeakably dangerous and having significantly raised the risk of no deal.

However, the risk sort of paid off, because the EU27 turned out not to fancy no deal after all. They had the power to just say “you’re on your own” as they always said they were going to, and they didn’t. It has always been obvious, at least in my view, that a no deal Brexit is terrible for the EU27 and that they were bluffing to increase their negotiating power by pretending otherwise. However, that didn’t mean they’d definitely fold when their bluff was called, because they might have been minded to inflict some harm on themselves in order to appear strong and follow through on their threats, in order to save face and make any future threats in a similar situation more believable. The fact that only one EU27 state would have had to veto the extension made it seem reasonably likely that no further extension would be granted.

As it turned out, the EU27 did eventually admit that it didn’t want no deal, and avoided one, even though the UK provided them with absolutely no cover whatsoever in the form of a plan for what we might do with the extension. An extension has been granted purely because nobody wants no deal, and that has shifted the default result of no consensus in Parliament to extension, rather than no deal. Changes within the EU27 could reverse this, but right now, we’re in a “flextension” in all but name.

Effects of a virtual flextension

If I’­m right in my analysis above of the way in which the granting of an extension by the EU27 for no particularly defined reason affects the underlying “default outcomes” of a lack of agreement on an exit deal, the leave movement is in big trouble. It’s very hard to motivate people to resist something that happens every day in a background drip-drip fashion. We could always be just about to leave the EU. Victory will forever be just around the corner. Of course, most of them would agree at any point that they’d rather have already left, and most of them would agree that, for instance, 100 years would be far too long to remain a member. But every Brexiteer will have their own understanding of how long is too long – a point after which we may as well not be leaving at all and beyond which the government has betrayed them, and they are angry.

This doesn’t just affect their ability to co-ordinate marches. Voting for a single-issue protest party has a cost, as it sacrifices the voter’s voice on other issues. Even deciding to make your decision between mainstream parties exclusively on one single issue of extreme import is costly, as it sacrifices the ability to use your vote to influence anything else. Voters can’t continue do­­ing that time after time, election after election. A strong deadline can co-ordinate people to make the decision about when to spend their time, money, and political capital to achieve something.

What’s worse is that the “extension-default” situation, if it really is working how I laid out above, will eventually defang the remain movement as well. October 31st probably still seems like a dangerous day, but if there’s another formless extension until March 31st, 2020, then another 6 months after that, people will start to catch on that we’re in “virtual flextension” territory. The remain movement will struggle to maintain its current momentum in that climate for exactly the reason that the leave movement currently doesn’t have much.

Critically, this situation also removes almost everybody’s incentive to compromise. The impending threat of no deal should have incentivised various remain and soft Brexit groups to coalesce around something that they at least regarded as better than no deal. This should have been Common Market 2.0. However, it turned out that just enough people were diehard enough that they chose to plough on into the abyss and play chicken with an EU27 that really didn’t look like it was going to blink. The EU27 did blink, and now everyone’s standing around with no idea what to do next. Those on the remain side who didn’t compromise with the threat of no deal looming over them certainly aren’t going to do so with that threat considerably reduced, and the threat of an extension can’t motivate the leave side to compromise because it’s not really a threat of defeat.

As a result, there’s a very real possibility that absolutely no group will now have any reason to shift from their trenches and work out any kind of compromise. The threat of no deal on April 12th didn’t do it, so why would the now heavily defanged threat of the same on Oct 31st manage any better? This is a terrible situation, because plenty of the damage of Brexit is the uncertainty. It’s difficult to set up new research or business projects across borders when you don’t know what the trade or travel arrangements will be in six months. For many purposes, extended uncertainty is more damaging than a bad final deal. We have strong business and research links with many non-EU states and could have such links with EU27 states after Brexit, but it’s very difficult to set them up before a deal is in place.

Why delay is likely to become the default

Unfortunately, even though every Brexit faction knows that delay is damaging, we’re likely to end up getting a lot of delay. This is because, even if everyone believes delay to be bad, everyone is incentivised to take a delay as long as it’s offered in sufficiently small increments.

Each faction will have some preferred outcome, and any deal on which they vote will fall short of that outcome in their estimation by some specified amount. They will then choose either to embrace that imperfect outcome or opt for a delay. As long as they think they have a decent chance of getting something more like their preferred outcome given a bit more negotiating and campaigning (and most political factions tend to be very biased towards believing that the winds of change are just about to swing behind them), then they’ll be incentivised to take the delay if they view the costs of delay as suitably low.

It’s clear that the cost wouldn’t be suitably low if the choice were between an imperfect deal, and, say a 5- or 10-year delay. That’s so clearly damaging that very few would be hard-line enough to refuse to compromise a little to prevent it. But if a short delay, say 6 months, is the other option, then that could very well seem like a low enough cost to make going for a delay worth it. And then, after 6 months, the next 6 months are just as good a deal, and this is the case even if 12 months would have seemed too long at the first time of asking. By the time of second decision, those first 6 months have happened, and the damage is done either way, so only the next 6 months factor into the decision.

By this method, a delay long enough to do significant lasting damage to the UK, and thus long enough to make almost everyone consider compromising on their ideal plan if it were presented all at once, can be realised simply by breaking it up into small chunks, none of which are big enough alone to incentivise compromise. Things get worse the more the situation is viewed as a flextension. In an openly acknowledged flextension, the decision to delay is essentially taken day-by-day, and that’s never going to be significant enough to incentivise anyone to compromise. What fool would take a bad deal today, when a good deal could maybe be realised tomorrow, and thus at the cost of only one day’s worth of additional uncertainty damage?

A solution: An artificial deadline

The only solution I can see for this is a self-imposed a hard deadline, after which some sort of pre-determined solution occurs. This is what we thought we had in the form of the original deadline (and the first short extension, which was allegedly only to allow the indicative votes). It very nearly managed to incentivise enough compromise to get Common Market 2.0 over the line, but not quite. It seems like even no deal wasn’t incentive enough.

This was probably partially because it’s one faction’s preferred solution, so acts as the very reverse of an incentive to compromise if used as a default solution on a deadline. However, it didn’t even generate enough incentive to compromise in the remain camp, and no solution emerged.

Clearly, something both more balanced in terms of who it favours, and worse in terms of its overall effect, is required. It needs to be something that almost every MP would consider worse than anyone’s actual proposed plan.

My suggested candidate for the deadline solution is to take the two things that really excite opposition – a no deal Brexit and the complete revocation of Article 50 – and add something that literally everyone will hate, a dash of randomness. If no solution to Brexit has achieved majority assent in the House of Commons by some deadline (why not Oct 31st as it’s already theoretically in place), John Bercow will place two pieces of paper in a hat. The pieces of paper will say “no deal” and “revoke A50”. He will draw one of the pieces of paper out of a hat and we will do that. I’m pretty sure that each extreme faction believes that the other extreme is awful enough that they would not countenance a 50/50 chance of getting it.

I realise that this is unlikely to gain much traction, but I’d be very happy to swing behind just about anyone in Parliament who made this argument and the started gathering together a group of MPs to make it happen and look credibly like they wouldn’t back out if no deal was reached, and would therefore block any attempt to get Parliament out of having to follow through on the chance decision if no agreement were reached.

Does the threat need to be greater?

The initial no deal deadline didn’t motivate that much of the remain camp to compromise. The problem is that it isn’t clear why. It might have been that they really didn’t think no deal was that bad compared to the compromise on offer, so they were prepared to countenance a very high chance of it to avoid compromise. Looking at CM2.0 and looking at no deal, that seems very unlikely. The other explanation is that they didn’t really believe the EU27’s threats, and thought they’d balk at the prospect of no deal at the last minute. Considering that this is what happened, I think it’s reasonable to suggest that this is what the remain MPs who voted against CM2.0 were predicting. On the other hand, it might just be that those MPs are completely irrational, or they’re heavily weighting some completely different incentive structure like the political kudos of being seen as uncompromising valiant losers rather than venal compromisers who achieved something.

If it’s the case that they refused to compromise because they never believed the no deal threat, then this plan should work. If it’s something else, like that they didn’t find no deal a bad enough threat or were trying to look strong rather than achieve their preferred policy outcomes, then the default outcome for the deadline needs worsening. Perhaps including the stipulation that every single MP must resign and cannot run for election again? Parliament can’t bind itself going forwards, so a majority of MPs would need to get the ball rolling on this sort of a plan and then exude total credibility that they’d follow through and block any attempt to roll it back at the last moment. I doubt this will happen, but I’m prepared to get behind any MP who tries to make it.

I know this sounds nuts, but I think the threat of a guaranteed disaster at a deadline might actually get parliament to agree on a compromise solution so that we don’t just sit in this horrible purgatory of uncertainty indefinitely, with all political discussion dominated by Brexit but nobody incentivised to do anything other than make a lot of noise and achieve very little in terms of working towards a solution. It’s particularly important for the remain camp that this state of affairs not perpetuate because, of all the pieces in the reasoning jigsaw I’ve put together to make this case, the weakest one is that the EU27 has now put itself in a position where it has little choice but to keep granting extensions forever. The EU27 might get bored waiting and follow through on a no deal deadline, or a new government in an EU27 member state might decide to shake things up and make its mark by being the state to veto an extension. If that happens, it’s total defeat for remain. The hard leave camp can be somewhat justified in digging in their heels and refusing to compromise on the hope that this eventually happens, but nobody else can. Everyone else needs a deadline or the outcome is some horrible mixture of no deal and a long uncertain series of extensions before that.

A more realistic solution driven by voters

If MPs won’t manage it (and I think they won’t), then the voting population can also do something similar. I mentioned earlier that the curse of groups like Renew and The Brexit Party is that there’s no way to co-ordinate when it’s time to vote for them. When do voters decide enough is enough and a message needs to be sent? Those who wish to vote tactically on Brexit also need a deadline. A date needs to be set down (again, why not Oct 31st) so that if we’ve not actually left the EU, deal or no deal, by that point, then Brexit voters break ranks and vote exclusively for Brexit protest parties. No more hoping that the Tories will eventually deliver Brexit, someday. Similarly, those who wish to revoke A50 or legislate for a People’s Vote need to do the same. If A50 hasn’t been revoked or a PV explicitly legislated for by Oct 31st, then that’s the time when the big parties have run out of time and it’s the moment to exclusively vote Lib Dem, or Green, or SNP, or Plaid, or Renew, or Change UK, or whatever. No more hoping that Labour will eventually stop Brexit. This sort of emulates the Parliamentary solution in a sense, because it’ll elect a parliament full of pro- and anti-Brexit absolutists, and one group will probably get a majority, so something will happen.

This people-powered solution is a little weaker because it only incentivises the two main parties to get their acts together, but as they represent the vast majority of parliament, and the threat of electoral annihilation, if credible, is about the worst threat that can hang over a political party, it has some decent chance of working. Those of us, like myself, who long for some sort of CM2.0 soft-Brexit compromise solution, should also be able to get behind the idea of a firm deadline after which the pro- and anti-Brexit hardliners start wreaking absolute electoral havoc, as such a threat is the only feasible way to inspire the compromise that we’ve been desiring all along.

So if you’re a pro- or anti-Brexit partisan, then I implore you, for your own sake as well as for mine, please start advocating for a strong narrative around some kind of line in the sand, preferably on Oct 31st, beyond which, if you haven’t won, you’ve lost. I want to hear Oct 31st referred to like it’s the apocalypse, the final battle, the ultimate showdown between good and evil, the zero hour, etc.. I want to hear that if we’re still in the EU on Nov 1st then the people have suffered the ultimate betrayal, democracy is dead forever, and we may as well give up on the system. I want to hear that if we haven’t overturned the result of the illegitimate referendum and either revoked A50 or called for a PV by Nov 1st then the racists have won and we may as well just get on with leaving with no deal and all get Irish passports and go live in Denmark. And I want it to seem, to every member of Parliament, like that might happen. Only if disaster looms at the deadline, will enough MPs be incentivised to start compromising on a solution, rather than letting us sleepwalk into an incredibly damaging drawn-out series of uncertain extensions.

I genuinely can’t see a better way out of the current situation.

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Scaling Up: What the local election results mean in the context of the snap general



The UK’s local election system is pretty opaque and complex and, as a result of this, most people are pretty much in the dark as to what local election results actually say about the progress of the parties nationwide. This is especially pertinent when we have a general election coming up just a month after the locals, and everyone is attempting to use the local results as a guide to what might happen in the general election. So, before I jump in and give you my thoughts on what May’s results mean for UK politics and for the upcoming general, here’s a quick explanation of how our famously local electoral system actually works.

It’s all England’s Fault

Northern Ireland won’t really figure in our discussions, as there were no local elections held there this year, and they’re still sort of figuring out exactly how their system is working. So far the new system hasn’t run for one full cycle and they may still change it again so there’s not much point discussing it.

Scotland and Wales have pretty standard systems, in which the full set of councils elects all their councillors once every five years. This five-year cycle isn’t tied to the general election cycle, and was fitting quite nicely into the gaps in it until this general election got called early. As things now stand, Scottish and Welsh local elections will fall in step with general elections. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is very debatable. It means more people will vote, but their votes will probably be determined mostly by national issues, not local ones.

Interpreting election results in Scotland and Wales is easy. All the seats held are up for election at the same time, and so any changes in seat totals are relative to five years previously (2012, in this case), and the results provide a pretty good indication of where each party is in the region compared with five years ago. Neither uses the same electoral system as the general election, though Wales uses one that’s pretty similar, so overall vote totals in Wales are a decent guide to the support each party might get there in a general election. Scotland uses STV for local elections, so that spreads support in terms of first preference votes out a bit more than you might expect under FPTP (used in general elections). So the SNP’s 32% performance in Scotland in these elections does not remotely suggest they’ll slump to that level in the general.

England’s system, on the other hand, is more complicated. The whole system is on a four-year loop (not five like everything else) and not everywhere votes at any one time. Because of this, actual votes cast in any given English council election set are meaningless in terms of determining the support the parties have in England as a whole. That’s why we have “National Predicted Vote Share”, which is not an actual electoral result, but a calculation that takes into account the bias in terms of which areas were voting and tries to average out a predicted vote share if the whole country voted.

The gain or loss of councillors in English council elections is then (leaving aside by-elections) always relative to the result from four years ago. This applies even when (as is very often the case) there have been local elections in that precise area recently. District councils and most Unitary Authorities elect “by thirds”, which means that each region elects three councillors staggered across three elections (with a break year, in which the Shire councils and the rest of the Unitary Authorities elect all their councillors) and the precise seat up for election is the one that was last elected four years ago (or three elections previously in that ward).

Confused? Everyone is. People who aren’t quite seriously into politics tend not to know this stuff, and that’s why the results of council elections in England are so prone to misrepresentation and horrific spin. For instance, in the 2016 local elections in England, Labour actually got more votes than the Tories. However, this was a poor performance for Labour and they lost a tonne of seats. Why? Because the areas up for election were overwhelmingly Labour areas. Conversely, in the 2009 local elections in England, the Lib Dems actually got significantly more votes than Labour. Did this mean they actually had more support across the country? No, it’s just that the areas up for election were weak areas for Labour and strong for the Lib Dems.

As a vague rule, three out of every four local elections is for the areas where Labour is traditionally strong, and the fourth in the cycle is for the areas where the Tories are traditionally strong. So it’s pointless to try to glean anything from the raw vote and seat totals. You must look at the change. So, when looking at the change in actual votes cast or in seats won, you have to take in mind you’re looking at the change relative to four years ago (not the last local elections in England the previous year) and if you want a year-by-year guide to changes, you need to look at the National Predicted Vote Share. This headline figure gives a good guide to where the parties stand, but is often confusing as it’s very possible a party could be well up in NPVS (compared to the previous year) but well down on seats (compared with four years ago).

This set of English local elections were in the areas the Tories are traditionally strong. With all that in mind, let’s crack on and break down the results by party and have a quick look at where I think the parties stand going into a general election. I’ll be generally going from best performer to worst performer.

The Tories: All Hail our New Emperors?

The Tories are in a hugely commanding position. Most incredible is the rise of the Scottish Conservatives, who have risen from relative obscurity just two years ago to be the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament (displacing Labour) and have now overtaken Labour in terms of council seats held in Scotland as well (276 to 262), having secured 25.4% of the vote. They have a huge opportunity to gain parliamentary seats off the SNP in the upcoming general election and will almost certainly do so.

A score of about 10%  of the vote in Wales seems terrible at first glance, but it’s important to remember that a lot of Welsh local councils are often traditionally contested mostly by independents. Various independent groupings took over half the vote between them, and these groupings do not stand in a general election (in most cases). The Tories’ gain of 80 seats (relative to 2012, of course) puts them in a stronger position in Wales than they have been for many decades.

In England, the Tories have been utterly rampant, gaining 328 seats and 11 councils, and securing around half the vote. This is the set of elections in which they are defending the most seats and they were already pretty strong in 2013, when they were last elected, so this really is a crushing performance. Their projected vote share of 38% is the highest at a local election since 2008, and this should put them on course to secure a crushing parliamentary majority.

However, it won’t be as big a win as one might think from taking these results at face value, as I’ll explain in the other parties’ sections below.

Plaid Cymru: Check these gains, bro

The Welsh Nationalists had a solid night, gaining 32 seats (relative to 2012). Poor performances across the board for Labour have helped them. It’s hard to say exactly what this means for the general election, but they will be eying up a Labour seat or two and Lib Dem Ceredigion whilst quite comfortable in their held seats.

Greens: Not a bad night

The Greens held pretty steady in England and Wales but the Scottish Greens made five gains. It won’t put them anywhere close to another parliamentary seat, but they’re not really in any danger in their one defence in Brighton. Corbyn’s Labour have really been eating into their support base, but it doesn’t seem to have affected them in the areas where they’re actually winning seats.

Lib Dems: Victims of Circumstance

Nothing brings into light the confusing nature of local election results more than the Lib Dem performance. In terms of national predicted vote share (18%), the party is well up on where is was in 2015 and showing a strong fightback. But, these seats were all last elected in 2013, which was actually not a bad year for the Lib Dems, considering the coalition woes generally. As a result, this was always going to be a really tight set of elections. Just holding steady relative to 2013 would show huge improvement over 2015 and thus be encouraging for the general. And, indeed, the Lib Dem vote was actually a little up even relative to 2013. However, votes do not equal seats. In many seats held by the Lib Dems, their vote went up, but the Tories raced past on their huge increases. It would have taken a miracle to stop the Tory surge, and a miracle was not forthcoming. A slew of gains from Labour offset some of the losses to the Tories, but the overall story was still a loss of around 50 seats.

Even given that, repeating the same national vote share of 18% at a general election would be fantastic for the party and would see it probably more than double its representation in Westminster. However, Lib Dems always do better in locals than in generals, and the picture in terms of seats does look tough. Gains against Labour just won’t be in the right places to gain seats, barring Cambridge, Bermondsey, and maybe Bristol West and Burnley, and if the Tory tide continues to rise, then about half the Lib Dem held seats are vulnerable even if their vote rises. Expect some losses but more gains leading to a modest improvement in seats held come June.

SNP: Cresting the wave and staring into the abyss

Still comfortably in control of the situation in Scotland, things are oddly bleak for the SNP. Their huge rise to power began in 2011 and pretty much peaked in 2015, when they took half the vote and 56 of the 59 Westminster seats up for grabs in Scotland. Since then, the Tory resurgence has been eating away at them, and the gains they are still making at the expense of Labour are only just about making up for it, leaving them 6 seats up in the Scottish locals this time (relative to 2012).

But that paints a dark picture for a general election, where there’s only one seat more to take from Labour. That will not remotely offset the losses they will almost certainly suffer to the Tories, and possibly to the Lib Dems, who have concentrated their efforts well in Edinburgh Western and East Dunbartonshire. They’re roughly where they were in 2012, yes, but that won’t be enough to keep hold of all the spoils of their incredible victory in 2015.

Labour: Down but not out

Labour’s performance is bad, but it’s not catastrophic. An NPVS of 27% is down on the relevant 2012/3 performance and that has led to a tonne of lost seats, though many of them are more to do with the Tory surge against UKIP than direct Labour loss of support. They’ve lost over 500 seats and all but one of the councils they were defending, but this is all compared to 2012/3, and a lot of that loss in votes happened before the 2015 general. This means two things: First, it means it isn’t all attributable to Corbyn; Second, it means that a good amount of this loss relative to 2012/3 has already shown up in the 2015 general as seat losses and vote decrease there – the picture relative to 2015 isn’t nearly so bad, and that’s what matters for a general election.

UKIP: Stop it, he’s already dead

Collapsing to just 5% in national vote share and slumping from 151 to 1 in seat terms (relative to 2012/3 mixed), UKIP is dead. They’ve already lost their only MP to defection and they don’t stand a rat’s chance in hell of getting any back at the general.


In conclusion, local election results are a confusing guide to general election performance and need to be understood in the correct light. Given my analysis of the results, I’d take the following points as broadly representative of what we can expect in this coming general election:

  • The Tories are going to gain seats and win a majority, however:
    • Many Tory local gains are against UKIP, who have nothing to lose in the GE
    • Tory surge vs Labour is not as big relative to 2015 as to 2012/3
    • Lib Dems are actually better placed against the Tories than in 2015
  • Greens are pretty solid on one seat but won’t get any more
  • Plaid might pick up a seat or two
  • The SNP might take Labour’s last Scotland seat
  • The SNP will lose seats heavily to the Tories and possibly one or two to the Lib Dems
  • Lib Dems will lose a couple of seats but gain a few more to end slightly up
  • UKP is over
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Abortion and Libertarian Ethics (plus a little Freedom of Speech)

I’ve been on a hiatus from blogging on Liberal Rubbish throughout my Master’s year. Having recently graduated, I thought I’d dive back into the world of blogging with a fairly light and non-controversial topic: Abortion.

I recently had a discussion with a pro-life friend about the subject, and, in a strange turn of events, it was civil, reasonable, and edifying. Almost no discussion on the issue of abortion is any of these things. Most debate on the issue just seems to involve groups of people with very little fundamental ethical reasoning for their position screaming abuse at each other. Actual discussion on abortion ethics that is not just struck through with vile rhetoric and unveiled hatred of other human beings is very hard to find. Last time I was in a debate on abortion, I proffered the opinion that whether or not we consider foetuses to be full human beings is an important part of the debate. This seemed very reasonable to me. Indeed, it’s surely of key importance. I was told by an idiot that I was a terrible person for even suggesting that the personhood of foetuses was relevant to the debate, as it admitted the possibility that one might be pro-life for any other reason than hating women.

I thus withdrew from such debates, and have mostly involved myself in the freedom-of-speech debates surrounding abortion in the UK at the moment. Many university students’ unions have attempted to ban pro-life sentiment or groups on campus. This is, of course, a regressive attack on freedom of speech and an attempt to “win” arguments by simply using force to silence those with whom you disagree. Such ludicrous policies should be opposed by pro-life and pro-choice activists alike. The ethics of abortion do not enter into the discussion. The issue at hand is whether force should be used to prevent expression of an opinion that we don’t agree with. Obviously such actions are illegal under UK, EU, and UN laws and treaties, have no place in a free and democratic society.

This should be obvious to anyone who doesn’t think that using force to silence your critics, and thus hold back debate and progress, restrict basic human rights to freedom of expression, and essentially admit that you know you’re wrong so don’t want to talk about it, is a useful or morally acceptable way to go about a complex moral debate. This is not what this post is about. This post is my foray back into blogging and my first foray back into thinking about abortion for a long time. I include, first of all, the pro-life argument made by my friend, with personal details redacted. The reproduction of this discussion is with his permission.

The following quoted text is definitely *not* representative of my own views, but is included here because I reference it too much in my counter-argument for it to be a trivial task to re-cast my counter-argument as a stand-alone task. I also think that this is a sound and reasonable expression of a pro-life point of view that dispels some common myths about pro-lifers and their arguments.

I’m all for advancing the cause of a woman’s right to decide what happens with her own body, and on the whole I can see no benefit to legislating controls over her reproductive rights. But when it comes to abortion, that all changes for me because now the rights of two individuals are on the table. So why does a mother’s reproductive right trump a child’s right to life?

It seems to me that no matter how challenging the results may be, we cannot champion the rights of one individual by trampling those of another. Haven’t we got to find ways of protecting reproductive rights that don’t so completely violate the rights of unborn children? So the argument is made that these children are merely fetuses and not to be thought of as real humans. This is generally related to the viability of life – the idea that one is not a human with rights until they have a real chance at surviving outside of the womb. But that’s a rapidly moving target, as medical science advances. The current UK limit, based on ‘viability’ is 24 weeks. But when my son [name redacted] was in the [hospital name redacted], there were babies being treated alongside him who had been born at 23 weeks and were developing extremely well. 30% of such babies survive, some without any disability. They were treated with full human dignity, with the NHS at their disposal, and killing one of them would have counted as murder. On the floor below, babies of the same age were being legally aborted. So the only thing bringing those living babies under the protection of the law was the will of the mother. Viability had nothing to do with it, it was just a question of whether one individual felt another was valuable or not. So, apparently, it’s a mother who decides whether or not a child should have human rights.

So why do we draw the line at 24 weeks? Why can’t a mother decide at 1 year that she no longer values the baby? The truth is that no child is ‘viable’ for a VERY long time. When [name redacted] was born at 32 weeks, he would have died within minutes without extremely specialized intervention. Come to think of it, some 18 year olds are hardly viable! One’s ability to survive is hardly a reasonable measure of their value as a human, neither is the extent to which a mother cares about them.

So then people say ‘well, this issue is all wrapped up in politics and religion, so it should be left up to individual choice.’ But if a 23 week old child can be given human rights – as many are – then the way all 23 week old children are treated is surely a human rights issue. In the area of human rights, individual choice doesn’t hold much water. Imagine if slave owners had been told ‘this is a complicated issue, and you have a right to a comfortable life, so it’s up to you whether you keep slaves or not.’ I know that’s a bit of a stretched comparison. But I think it has real value in the discussion on abortion. If these children are people, THEY ARE PEOPLE, and how individuals feel like treating them should have no effect on how the law requires that they be treated.

And the idea that this is religiously charged doesn’t water. I can’t think of a single verse in the bible that concretely tells me anything about this, other than those that talk about the value of humanity in general. I don’t believe that unborn babies have rights simply because I’m a Christian. I believe it because I can’t come up with a single good reason that we can withhold their rights. Of course that has very difficult ramifications for women, but that fact doesn’t change reality. In the case of an unwanted pregnancy, there is a conflict of rights – a mother’s rights of control over her body, and child’s right to life as a human being. Why do we give on[e] of those parties absolute power to decide whose rights will be honoured and whose will be ignored? Simply sweeping the reality of the rights of one individual under the rug can’t be the answer. Doesn’t the right to life trump the right to control?

And as we have no legitimate basis for drawing a line as to where a ‘fetus’ gains human rights, how dare we draw such a line at all? I can’t help feeling that when it comes down to it, abortion is legal simply because [it’s] easier to ignore the quietest voice (that of the children) than to seriously evaluate the rights of all those involved.

This got me thinking, as there are some decent points contained within this argument. This discussion did what every good discussion should do: It forced me to re-consider my own position, to discard some false parts of my own reasoning and to clarify and organise my thoughts. It made my opinions better and made me a better person. Debate is good. Why someone would want to ban this person from expressing his reasonable (if, in my opinion, incorrect) point of view is beyond me. I’m a better person with better views for having read it. I hope he is also better for having read my counter-argument (which I include later). Why one would want to halt such debate, thus leaving both pro-choicers and pro-lifers with ill-formed, less complete points of view is beyond me. Debate might also lead, instead of just improvement and clarification of differing points of view, to a wholesale change of mind. I was once pro-life, and was convinced by good pro-choice arguments. Good enough pro-life arguments might convince me otherwise. My pro-choice arguments might convince pro-lifers to change their minds, as happened to me a long time ago. Why we should restrict such debate just because we think people are wrong is totally beyond me. Even people who are completely wrong and won’t change our minds at all can still force us to make our own positions stronger, which might help us convince other people. All debate that is carried out in good faith is useful.

Anyhow, I’m getting side-tracked by how awesome debate is, and by how pleased and surprised I was to have an awesome debate about abortion. I had to think very hard about his arguments, and provided a counter-argument which, in my view, summarises my pro-choice position better than I have managed at any previous stage. As a result, I sought permission to edit our conversation into a blog post, in the hope that both my counter-argument and his argument can contribute the debate on a wider level. I’m going to reproduce that counter-argument (with a few spelling corrections) below.

I should note that, before making this argument, I wrote quite a bit of stuff explaining that I’m what he (an American) would call a “left-libertarian”. That’s not a term used much in the UK or Europe. People of my persuasion tend to call themselves “Social Liberals” in Europe or “Left Liberals” in the UK. I would normally refer to my positions and myself by such terms whilst writing. However, as I was writing this to an American, where “Liberal” has a very different meaning, I endeavoured to use terms that would make more sense to him throughout. Don’t worry; I’ve not become a Libertarian in the UK/European sense! I’m still very much a Social/Left Liberal (UK/Europe). I would, however, describe my fundamental ethics as “Libertarian” but, when doing so, would normally provide more clarification that I don’t mean it in the political sense.

Hopefully that translates this US-centric argument for a UK/Europe audience. So, without further ado, here is my two cents on abortion:

I think that killing people is wrong because people generally don’t want to be killed, not because there’s anything inherently wrong with taking life. You’d straight up think this would make me a big fan of euthanasia, but I’m actually not, because I’m not sure that it’s logically possible to consent to being killed, but that’s another matter.

If you kill someone, then you’re saying that your belief that they should be killed supersedes their belief that they should still be alive, and that makes no sense because no moral decision is inherently superior to any other. The killer is imposing their morals upon the killed by force – and there is no reason why the possession of superior force should make one’s morals any more right than anyone else’s.

However, what about animals? I eat meat. That’s because I don’t believe, based on the scientific evidence, that animals such as cows or pigs have enough of a philosophical concept of what it is to be alive to desire to be alive as opposed to being dead with anything more than an involuntary survival instinct. Essentially, I don’t think that cows place any inherent value on their own lives, so I don’t either. I would avoid causing them undue pain, but I don’t mind killing them. However, monkeys, whales, and dolphins have been shown, to the best of our knowledge, to have enough of an appreciation for the idea of being alive that it can be said that they very much don’t want to die, for more of a defined philosophical reason than a survival instinct.

So how does this translate to unborn children? When does a developing human have the capability to value its own life? Before about 8 weeks, we’re certainly looking at a situation where the foetus is no more alive than a plant, so cannot be granted a libertarian right to life. By about 11 years old, a normal human has a mind capable of understanding the concept of life in a capacity which would make it obvious that they should be granted a libertarian right to life as an independent human entity. But what about the interim period?

On the pure basis of libertarian right to life, killing a child aged anywhere up to ten or so years old (setting a definite boundary would be tricky) is not morally wrong in the same sense as killing an adult human. But is it wrong for other reasons?

From this point in, it has to be a case of what we as a society choose to assign value. The absolute right to life that can be derived from libertarian consent-based ethics falls apart for young children, let alone the unborn. However, the killing of a five-year-old would result in near-universal moral outrage. We can, as a society, decide that old buildings of historical significance have value, and make it illegal to tear them down, for instance. It’s imperative that we allow those who don’t agree with such ideas to leave our society and go somewhere where they are not constrained by our very subjective “popular ethics” as such (as opposed to “fundamental ethics”, which are the libertarian frameworks that I believe exist independently of human agreement with them).

It seems sensible to me that we, as a society, should place value on a human life that could exist independently of any one specific human being, even if not independently of society. This is why we choose to have a healthcare system in which doctors are completely beholden to save any life they can, regardless of whether that person could exist without medical help, is currently capable of valuing their own life (those with severe degenerative mental illnesses may not be, for instance), or is the kind of person who provides a benefit to society (doctors are obliged to treat even mass rapists, as they should be). That is, I think, a fundamentally good idea and an underpinning part of what makes our society so good. Therefore, there’s a societal ethical obligation to save the lives of plenty of people who wouldn’t have to be saved by pure libertarian ethics. Many people who are treated in hospitals might be in such a poor mental state that they can’t be granted a libertarian right to life – so to kill them would not be a libertarian “murder”, but we have set up a system where we are obliged by the group ethics of the society in which we live to actively keep them alive. To what extent does this apply to the unborn?

There is a significant difference between relying on society generally in order to live, and relying on one person specifically in order to live. Those heavily premature babies you talked of weren’t able to live by themselves, but they could live with the support of society at large. Unborn children of the same age also can’t live by themselves, but they can live with the support of *one specific person*. That person is not necessarily a doctor, not someone who has taken on the role in society of saving all possible lives. That person is just an ordinary member of society. I don’t think it’s a reasonable choice for a society to make in which we make them responsible for keeping alive another one specific person at considerable personal cost. Even if we did, we’d have no morally justifiable way to stop them leaving our society and doing so outside (though we could then restrict re-entry).

Therefore, if the unborn child could not be delivered at this point and then kept alive by *society* (rather than by one specific person), then I don’t think it makes for a more prosperous society if we do not allow abortion at this point.

This doesn’t mean that I think well of people who might do so, or that I think it would be the right decision from a personal moral perspective if I were involved. I simply think it should be a *legal* decision.

However, there is a further consideration, and that is of choice. I’m saying I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect a person to keep another living being (one without a libertarian right to life) alive at cost to themselves, but what if they have already embarked upon that responsibility out of their own free choice? For instance, though I think that society should care for those who are so unwell that they aren’t independently viable, but don’t think it’s a good idea to require any one specific individual person to do so, it might be very different if the carer had embarked upon it in the first place, and then decided to change their mind later on. There’s not really a parallel for this anywhere else, because, if someone takes responsibility for caring for a very ill person, then realises it’s too difficult for them, they can hand them back over to the healthcare system. But in this unique case, such a living being (without libertarian right to life) has been created in a situation where it can only be kept alive by the creator. Should we impose a responsibility on the creator to follow through? (This part would not apply in the case of pregnancy by rape – it would also not apply before 8 weeks because I don’t think that, before that point, the foetus is even alive in the sense that a highly mentally disabled person, or a cat, is alive – it is alive only in the sense that a plant is alive).

So, if pregnancy has come about by choice, if the foetus has developed enough to have a brain and be a living being (to a greater degree than a plant is), but is not viable outside the support of *one* specific person (the mother), then should we, as a society, allow abortions in this case? Certainly, I think that such a person has started down a very dubious personal moral pathway. But they are also not at fault by fundamental libertarian ethics. So, should we, as a society, deem such an abortion to be an abdication of a responsibility that one undertakes by living in said society? I certainly feel like we should. My emotional reaction is to say that such a person is doing something fairly horrific. But that’s just my personal emotional response, and should not be part of the law.

I think, tentatively, that allowing such abortions is to the benefit of society. It stops sex from so unbalanced in terms of risk, and that’s certainly an improvement. It prevents the same service by being carried out on the black-market, which is very dangerous. It makes women more equal members of our society. But it’s certainly not as clear-cut as many make it out to be. Many on the pro-choice side arrive at that position through some very dodgy and self-contradictory reasoning; particularly through reasoning that would make it okay to just bump off anyone terminally ill or in a coma without their consent, something which, if it were suggested, those same people would be up in arms about. Many seem to act like everyone has an inalienable human right to be kept alive by other people at whatever cost, regardless of circumstance, but just not the unborn.

It’s also worth nothing that the stage at which the unborn are viable outside the womb with *societal* rather than *mother-specific* support is likely to regress, and that, by this reasoning, this is likely to lead to it being a good idea to move the abortion limit to an earlier point in development. Unfortunately, this will be politically impossible, as almost no discussion on this matter is taken with any reasonable understanding of ethics, and any attempt to move the abortion limit, even to keep it in line with the criteria upon which it was established as said criteria move, will be framed as an attack on women, and will fail as a result.

One final point: There is a libertarian argument against abortion which argues that it is as fundamentally wrong as killing an adult human. This is to reason that a foetus at any stage of development that will not need medical help with birth or post-natal care will eventually develop into a human being that does have the libertarian right to life, and will be able to, at that point, express meaningful gratitude for not having been aborted. This argument essentially projects back a libertarian right to life from a point where it will exist backwards through development up until that point, arguing that the development at that point was necessary for the state in which that right exists to have come about. If this argument holds water, than all abortion is murder. I’m not yet convinced that it does, but it needs more thought.

I sincerely hope this contributes to the debate, and that both my words and my American friend’s words challenge people of all views to think more about abortion. It’s an important issue, and it absolutely deserves to be talked about freely and openly. Long live free and open debate 🙂

Posted in Ethics, Feminism, Philosophy, Politics | Tagged , | 3 Comments

The Railways – Nationalise, Privatise, or Leave Well Alone?


As a nation, we’ve just experienced the more minor of our twice-annually media showcase of lying with statistics. This is not to say that the media don’t get up to this sort of thing all the time, but there seems to be one issue on which they amp everything up to provide a veritable showcase of statistical manipulation and misleading infographics. I am talking, of course, about rail fares. The full-scale onslaught on reporting ethics and most extreme abandonment of even the barest pretence of attempting to report statistics accurately occurs in January, when the fares actually go up (it never fails to bring me back down to earth after a lovely Christmas week by reminding me that we are about to embark upon yet another year in which the sovereign people of our democracy will make their decisions based upon such extreme misinformation) but there’s always a minor spat of scaremongering and misreporting around this time of year, when next year’s increases are announced.

I’m sure you know the drill. Fares will either go up by inflation plus 1%, as has been the plan since 1996, or they will be frozen in real terms and just go up by inflation (as has happened more frequently in recent years, and will probably happen again sometime soon, as the government responds to the lag in wage inflation caused by a focus on reducing unemployment). This will make very little difference to the majority of fares. However, some anomalies will be ironed out, and some regional adjustments will be made. This can cause quite large fluctuations in the price of a few select tickets, almost all of the more expensive open-ended kind, which allow you to travel on various different trains at your choosing. This is normally to iron out the kind of strange kinks in the pricing system which make it possible to, for instance, save plenty of money on a trip from the south-west to the north-west simply by breaking your ticket at Cheltenham Spa, or to encourage more balanced usage of a selection of possible routes after one abnormally cheap or expensive route had dragged traffic towards or away from it and created situations in which some trains are overcrowded and others are empty. As a result of this, a tiny selection of fares will see some odd-looking sharp increases, and another tiny selection will see huge cuts.

The national media will, to a man, cherry-pick a few of these huge increases and rant about them incessantly in order to create something to tell people they corner in railway stations and encourage to moan on live TV. They will then make a ludicrous comparison of a few of the most pricey (per mile) tickets in the UK (choosing the most expensive tickets – the ones that allow you to take any train to or from your destination within a month, take any route, and break your journey as many times as you like along the way for as long as you like) with a few of the cheapest from the continent (choosing, of course, the cheapest tickets possible) in order to get another bunch of hapless citizens to gripe on live TV. Eventually they’ll get bored and go back to pretending the climate change “debate” wasn’t settled in 1995, and generally just making sure democracy has no chance of functioning effectively.

The fact that it’s all sloshing about in the media, with the general tone being that our railways are terrible and overpriced (of which they are neither, but more on that later), tends to mean that a few basic ideas for fixing this get churned around the Internet and generate some discussion. They all tend to follow one or two boilerplate outlines, and generate exactly the same responses and counter-arguments. This blog post will not be one of those arguments. I don’t have some magic plan to revolutionise rail travel in the UK. I have been seduced by most of the proposed solutions at some time or another, but have found them all to be severely lacking on further analysis. This blog post is not intended to give you, the reader, just one more argument for why we should do this or that in order to magically make rail journeys super-fast, super-cheap, always on-time, and equipped with all the creature comforts of a 1930s privately chartered airboat flight. This blog post is intended to set out and analyse the major propositions on offer, to correct some common misconceptions, and to put across the idea that this issue is a whole lot more complicated and difficult than any of the easy options on offer for making everything awesome would lead you to believe.

Firstly, three issues of fact:

One – Our Physical Railways are Nationalised

Those arguing for nationalisation sometimes tend to conflate privatisation of the operation of the railways with privatisation of the railways themselves. The physical, flesh-and-blood (well, wood-and-steel) substance of our railway network is entirely nationally owned, and so it should be. Actually private railways have been tried in the past. You generally get two competing companies building railways parallel to each other for thousands of miles, racing to a choke point that will fit only one line. When one of them breaches the choke point first, the other one simply gives up, with thousands of miles of track left wasted. This genuinely happened in the US. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the farce that would ensue if anyone were ever to privatise the physical railway infrastructure of the UK. Nobody is advocating for this. Perhaps there is someone out there, wearing an Ayn Rand t-shirt, tripping his balls off on powder cocaine, whilst frantically trying to convince his pet cat that everything was much better in the days of competing railroad tycoons, but nobody is taking him seriously. I’ve come across many an argument for the merits of the nationalisation of the operation of our rail network that focuses most of its energy on arguing the merits of national ownership of the network infrastructure itself. This is an argument that nobody is having. There’s simply nobody on the other side that isn’t stoned or masturbating to Atlas Shrugged.

Two – There is Very Little Actual Competition

Whilst the infrastructure is nationally owned, the operation of our railways is, to some extent, a private enterprise. It is, however, a private enterprise of very limited scope. The government comes up with lists of routes that need running, and groups them together into franchises. TOCs (Train Operating Companies) then bid on the right to operate these franchises. Any given TOC generally operates a number of franchises, normally in the same general area. Routes overlap a whole lot, so, very often, multiple TOCs are running trains on the same line. For instance, if I want to catch a train from Liskeard to Exeter, I might catch a CrossCountry service running on the Penzance to Aberdeen route (or some subdivision thereof) or a First Great Western service running either of the two Penzance to Paddington routes (or some subdivision thereof). A similar choice exists for my journeys from Reading to Oxford. Other routes offer no choice whatsoever. Travelling between Wrexham and Newport, for instance, is possible only on Arriva Trains Wales. This is very unlike the “free market” as we’re used to understanding it. For a large number of available “products” there is only one “provider” at any one time. For those journeys for which you have a choice of TOCs, then 99 times out of 100 you will just choose the train that is running at the time you want to travel. There are very few situations in which anyone would choose to travel at a different time of day, just so they could travel with their preferred train operator. Competition and choice, generally the hallmark of a free market, are almost completely absent.

What about cost? When booking well in advance, one might well have the chance to select from a variety of possible travel times, and therefore TOCs would have an incentive to offer the journeys at a competitive price in order to attract these customers. There are a few easy ways to compare prices of advance tickets these days, and I normally am willing to travel at slightly inconvenient times of day if I can make significant savings. So maybe, for journeys with multiple options for TOC, for people booking their journeys in advance with flexible travel times, there is competition. But, even then, there’s less than you might think. Here’s a good description of how rail fares are set, which I’m going to just quote rather than paraphrase:

Every origin-destination pair (known as a ‘flow’) is allocated to a particular train operator who has the right and the obligation to set the fares.  This operator is known as the ‘Lead Operator’ for that flow.  Once the Lead Operator has set the fares, every other operator serving any part of that flow (known as the ‘Secondary Operators’) are legally obliged to accept those fares for travel on their trains.  As I’ve said, Advance fares are by definition only valid on one train operator’s trains, and both Lead Operators and Secondary Operators are allowed to set Advance fares for their own trains.  In addition Secondary Operators are allowed to set other (more flexible) fare types for their own trains, although only a few choose to do so.  For example, you’ll see ‘anytime’ & ‘off-peak’ fares from London to Hull routed ‘Hull Trains only’ set by Secondary Operator Hull Trains, in addition to the main London to Hull ‘route any permitted’ anytime & off-peak fares set by Lead Operator National Express East Coast.  However, Lead Operators are not permitted to set fares which are only valid on their own trains, other than Advance fares, temporary fares & first class fares.  Revenue from the fares set by Lead Operators is shared between all operators serving that route, based on a computer system called ORCATS which models the proportion of passenger miles travelled on each operator.

So, price competition is limited to advance fares (which does not just mean fares purchased in advance, it means the specific, cheaper tickets which are only valid on one train) and to certain secondary operators. This is not competition in the sense we normally understand or expect it.

So, where is the competition on our railways? Where is the incentive for TOCs to provide better service? Where is that lynchpin of the whole idea of privatisation? It’s actually somewhere else, at the bidding phase. The passengers are not the discerning customers whose opinions on the product they are being offered will affect the success of that company. That only applies in competition between rail and other forms of transport. Apart from in very limited cases, no TOC has to fear that shoddy service will mean that cash from passengers flows to a different, better-performing TOC instead. The customer that matters is the government. If the government feels that a TOC is not up-to-scratch, then it will not be so happy to award franchises to that TOC. This is where TOCs have to compete on prices and service. The government will pick the TOC for any given franchise whose bid provides them with the best return on their investment (or smallest loss – if the franchise isn’t profitable – more o this later), whilst also taking into account considerations such as the service that will be provided. This means that customer satisfaction does, fairly indirectly, matter. The government is going to view the bids of a TOC that habitually offers poorer service less favourably. But this is a very indirect effect, and only operates on the broadest-brush level. It’s not real competition in the traditional sense.

So, our railways are not really privatised in the classic sense. The physical railways themselves are fully nationalised, as they should be, and even the parts that are privatised are done in a way that does not resemble a free market in the classic sense.

Three – Our Railway System is the Envy of Europe

We have this ludicrous idea that our railways are somehow awful. That they’re slow, always late, badly maintained, overpriced, and generally a disgrace. This seems to be something of a combination of hangover from the 80s and early 90s, when our network really was a complete shambles, and run-of-the-mill British people being down on ourselves.

It’s not the best in the world. We aren’t Japan. But then nowhere else is. What we tend to do is unfavourably compare our network with those in Europe. It’s easy to see why this starts. When you’re creaking along an old branch-line in the Welsh Valleys in some 1970s 3-car DMU, it’s easy to think about the brand-new, lightning-fast TGVs in France or ICE trains in Germany, and bemoan our creaking network. But this is completely erroneous in four key regards.

Firstly – it’s not comparing like with like

The TGV and the ICE train are the ultimate long-distance services, not rural commuter trains. If we want to compare like with like, we must compare our Intercity 225 and Virgin Pendolino trains with the TGV and ICE trains, and compare our rural and commuter networks with their equivalents in Europe. Once we do this, we immediately start to look in better shape. Rural train services are pretty terrible all over Europe. They’re slow and rickety and not much effort tends to go into making them a pleasant experience for the traveller. This is normal. Go on rural trains in France or Germany, or especially Italy and Spain, and suddenly our rural trains don’t look so bad.

Secondly – we have totally different geography

If we are comparing like with like on the long-distance front, people do tend to moan that our trains aren’t as fast as those on the continent. No, our trains don’t do 180mph (bar HS1 in Kent). Our signalling system limits our trains to 125mph, though both the rails and the trains are suitable for much faster speeds in some places (Pendolinos can do 140mph and 225s can break 160mph) if we just upgraded our signalling system, which is something the unions have been blocking for decades. What’s a union for if not to save a few hundred outdated jobs in an inefficient system and thus hold back the economic development of the entire North of England, though? But this isn’t actually all that bad. France and Germany both have plentiful areas of flatland, through which dead straight and level lines can be run at low cost. Our country is full of hills, mountain ranges, jagged coastlines, and major centres of population crammed close together. It’s just not cut out for high-speed rail to anything like the extent that France and Germany are. And it’s not like our services are hanging about. You can get from London to York in just under 2 hours. We could cut that down a bit if our country were geographically suitable for plenty of high-speed lines, but it isn’t.

Thirdly – they’re not overpriced

That 2h London-York journey I talked about. I just tried to buy one and it’s £13.60. That’s without my 16-25 railcard discount. I could take that train for £9. See, you can cherry-pick statistics to make almost any case. I lob that up on a flashy infographic comparing it, and a few other similar bargains, with a few journeys of a similar length between continental cities and I could make the case that our railways are by far the cheapest in the world. You have to book your train a little in advance, but that makes sense. Advance booking allows the TOCs to run much more efficiently, and offering tickets for specific trains at a much lower price than tickets that allow you to jump on a variety of trains at your leisure is also perfectly reasonable. It means that the more expensive fares, that allow huge flexibility, are more expensive than their European counterpart, but it then means that the less flexible tickets are miles, miles cheaper. It’s such a good idea that most European networks are planning to implement it themselves. When we moan about the price of our rail journeys, we almost exclusively compare on the least favourable grounds, comparing the type of journeys for which we charge more than our European counterparts, and not mentioning the plentiful supply of journeys for which we beat their pricing into a cocked hat. If we actually look at the full picture, we’re really not that expensive when placed next to other good railway networks in the world, and they are generally much more subsidised by the taxpayer than ours is.

Fourthly – our networks are significantly more efficient than our European counterparts

This is the most important point. Go on a rail journey in Europe and you will see that trains often wait up to five minutes at each station. This is to allow them to make up the time they’re expected to have lost at each juncture. Their networks are incredibly lax, and their timetabling builds in a huge amount of leeway, with trains being scheduled to be significantly slower than they actually could be. This is a sensible way to run a network that isn’t that taxed for traffic. On the other hand, our network runs at an extremely high capacity. Our trains roll into stations and roll out again within the minute. Very little time is set aside to make up for any losses, so it does take quite a while to catch up if the trains get behind schedule. But that is purely because the schedules are ludicrously tight. This means that we can carry much more traffic. It’s much more efficient. But it will, obviously, mean that delays happen more. Not because the trains are more likely to get held up, but simply because we don’t have the same kind of leeway for them to make up time. On the continent, the train will be scheduled to make each leg of the journey about 5 minutes slower than it can actually do, and if it doesn’t get held up, it just waits at the next station for a while. While we put much, much tighter restrictions on the running of our trains, so that even small hold-ups are counted as “delays”, we still manage a punctuality rate that is similar to or better than our European counterparts. If we ran our trains in the laxer, lower-capacity set-up that they do, they’d almost never be late! But then we wouldn’t have the carrying capacity. Running at the capacity they do, our network is one of the most efficient in the entire world.

Despite all this, everyone moans. Everyone wants the railways to be better, and half of society seems convinced that the fundamental fault lies in the way our system is organised. This strange franchising system, which we have used since 1997, they blame for all the perceived ills of our system. Just use a different system, they claim, and everything will be better. They come up with two proposed solutions, which I will detail below.

Position One – Renationalise the Railways

The argument for full nationalisation is very simple, and initially very compelling. There is one TOC on our system that is actually owned by the government. This is East Coast. East Coast run Class 91 225s from King’s X up the ECML to Edinburgh, and Class 43 125s up to Perth and Aberdeen (plus subdivisions). They are one of the most profitable, punctual, and satisfactory TOCs on the network. I recently travelled on an East Coast Class 43 125 from King’s X to Aberdeen, and it was a joy. The single argument for nationalisation that I have heard is simply “Look at East Coast – why on earth wouldn’t we do it all like that?”

This is a superficially persuasive argument, but it is actually absolute rot, and I will explain why after I’ve laid out the other major plan to revitalise our rail system.

Position Two – Completely Privatise the Railways

There are two main arguments for going the other way – for properly privatising our railways. Not, obviously, in the manner of privatising the network itself, but for demolishing the franchising system and just letting TOCs set up and go it alone, applying for individual timetabling slots and setting their own prices as they see fit.

Argument One – Grand Central

There is already one operator on our network that follows this model. Grand Central runs class 180 Adelantes from King’s X to Doncaster, where some then go to Sunderland and some to Bradford. These weren’t franchised routes. Grand Central just rocked up and decided there was a demand for them, so they got some trains, got some timetable slots, and had a ball, totally outside the franchise bidding and fare setting restrictions. And it’s been a roaring success. They’re as lauded and loved as East Coast. There used to be another of these “Open Access Operators”, Wrexham and Shropshire Railway. They ran Class 43 125s from Marylebone to Wrexham. They offered such a good service that, on more than one occasion, I was advised to more than double my journey time from Chester to London by taking a train to Wrexham and using this service, rather than take a direct fast train to Euston. They sadly folded when Virgin Trains started running a Euston to Wrexham service that took less than half the time. There’s no level of great service that will compete with that. The argument for making everything Open Access is simply “Look at Grand Central – why on earth wouldn’t we do it all like that?”

You may be beginning to smell a rat, here. This is an identical argument to that made for nationalisation. One of the surest ways to tell that an argument is logically flawed is to notice that it can give contradictory conclusions from equally correct data. I’ll explain what the problem with this argument actually is after I have covered the other argument for further privatisation.

Argument Two – History

The other argument for privatisation comes from simply studying the history of our network. Once we got out of the ludicrous situation in which we had different track gauges in different parts of the country, and got a proper national rail network, we went through a period of pretty much the same kind of privatisation that is favoured by those trumpeting the Open Access model. A plethora of railway companies competed with each other pretty openly. Over time, as will always happen, the companies ate each other up and the period of the “Big Four” (basically regional monopolies) came about, and then in 1948 British Railways was born, and the whole shooting match was totally nationalised. This persisted, first in a system of regions and then under a system of sectors (more on this later) until the current franchised system was born in 1996. I think there were actually fireworks.

The argument is very simple. In the age of Open Access style privatisation, our railways were the envy of the world and the pride of our nation. After nearly 50 years of national ownership, they were a shambolic joke. Now they’re so-so. So let’s stick with what worked, and go back to how it was done in the glory days, without any of this half-arsed semi-privatisation.

Each of these arguments (as long as you don’t hear the East Coast and Grand Central arguments in quick succession) is superficially persuasive, but they are both miserably flawed, and I will explain why by introducing two key ideas.

One – Performance Comparisons between different TOCs are meaningless

This applies whether we are talking about punctuality, profitability, or customer satisfaction. Take First Great Western as an example. They’re plagued with delays, operate nine of the ten most hated journeys in the country (all between Reading and Paddington), and suffer chronic overcrowding. But there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. They operate over the Paddington to Reading line. The vast majority of their long-distance services and a huge chunk of their local services run through this section of track. It’s only four tracks wide, when it really should be six, and was only very recently even electrified. It’s a colossal bottleneck, and dealing with it ruins the entirety of the First Great Western service. It’s not the TOC’s fault that its arterial line has suffered from chronic under-investment. All that sort of thing is down to the nationalised, nuts-and-bolts bit of the train network that I mentioned earlier. No TOC could get good service out of the Reading to Paddington line. Once this is taken into account with various mathematical models and the like, FGW is actually one of the best-performing TOCs on our network, and as a result, the government is happy to keep awarding it franchises even though it’s one of the most hated operators going. And that’s absolutely how it should be. That’s a better deal than some kind of fully private system, under which the Reading to Paddington line would be some kind of poisoned chalice passed around between different companies, drawing falling profits and plunging reputations wherever it went. FGW is not a bad TOC because of its poor punctuality and customer satisfaction. All of that is simply down to it operating a nasty bit of track.

Let’s look at this in relation to East Coast and Grand Central. Most TOCs operate a mixture of long-distance, rural, and metropolitan services. But there are a couple that operate purely long-distance services. Virgin Trains, First Hull Trains, Grand Central, and East Coast (CrossCountry operate only long-distance services too, but they are a very different case because they don’t stick to main lines, they dog-leg between main lines using smaller lines in order to offer the tricky routes like Penzance to Aberdeen and Southampton to Manchester that are not at all catered for by our spider’s web network). These are the most profitable, punctual, and satisfactory of our TOCs. It’s purely because they’re only operating on the best lines our network has to offer. Virgin Trains suffers a little from the under-capacity of the WCML, but the other three run up the ECML, the best line in the country. And all they do is run the kind of long-distance services that are just so much more profitable than metropolitan or rural services, and thus they can afford to provide the most satisfactory travelling conditions on our network. Grand Central and East Coast aren’t awesome TOCs because they’re buoyed by the wonders of privatisation or of nationalisation, respectively, but because they’re running the easiest and most profitable train journeys our network provides. Take the same models and get them running a primarily rural service like that offered by Northern Rail or Arriva Trains Wales, and you would see a very different story.

Neither the argument for nationalisation nor for privatisation from looking at the single TOC that runs under these conditions holds up to scrutiny. It’s all just an artefact of the superb nature of the ECML.

But the argument for privatisation from history still remains, so it’s time to expand upon something I’ve touched upon in this last section.

Two – Rural Rail Travel is Not Profitable

Just as FGW will be held to lower standards than Virgin Trains when under government assessment of performance due to the horrific Paddington-Reading bottleneck about which it can do nothing, TOCs that have a greater focus on rural services will also be held to a lower standard, particularly in terms of the financial return they are expected to provide. The huge profitability bonus of long-distance operations isn’t confined to the ECML. Any TOC that has a greater focus on long-distance travel will be more profitable, and thus will be expected to make a greater return. Long-distance rail travel is hugely lucrative. East Coast is making big profits even though, as I mentioned earlier, they can get me from London to York for £9. The system just works out that way. Metropolitan rail is also pretty big money because you can get away with much higher ticket prices due to the strong commuter demand. Rail fares around London are certainly the type of fares you pick if you want to make our system look overpriced. But rural rail is just a financial disaster. It’s amongst the most important parts of our network – providing the benefits of public transport to some of the most deprived areas of our nation – but you can’t make a dime off it. It’s a public service and can’t be anything else. Back in the golden age of rail transport, things were different. Coal was pouring out of Wales and the North, and the great age of steam was an environment in which you could make a killing by running pretty much any rail system. But by the time of nationalisation, things were very different. In 1966, a large portion of the rural lines were shut simply because they weren’t profitable. Thankfully that awful approach did not continue into the 70s and beyond, or we’d have none at all. When BR was shifted from a region-based system into a sectorisation approach, the network was split in three. Inter-City ran long-distance services (I am just old enough to remember the gorgeous Swallow Livery (pictured) from the last years of this system – excuse me whilst I organise my anoraks and trim my neckbeard); Regional Railways handled the rural side, and Network South East dealt with the metropolitan area of London and the South-East. It was always understood that Regional Railways would always be a huge loss-maker. It had to be supported by profits from the other two.

This is essentially still the case now. When awarding franchises, the government really doesn’t expect anything useful to come of rural and branch-line services, so entertains pretty meagre bids. Gains made from the returns generated from the TOCs operating the more lucrative services help to even this out. No Open Access Operator would set foot on a rural or branch line service. They’d run screaming at the thought. You might be able to make a killing even without any government subsidy by running a few key routes up the ECML that had been overlooked by the franchising system, but attempting to make a profitable business out of something like the Welsh Valley lines would be pure madness.

This is why the Open Access model proposed by the champions of privatisation could never work nationwide. Whether they be pointing excitedly at Grand Central or dreaming of the golden age of railways, no champion of privatisation can overcome this fundamental economic reality. Without the semi-nationalisation provided by franchising, without the ability to funnel money from the lucrative lines to the public service lines, our network would be a shell of what it is today. We’d have the key main-lines from London: The ECML, WCML, MML, and GWML, plus their major branches. We’d probably keep South Coast Line, plus the Brighton-Victoria line. Liverpool Street to King’s Lynn might survive, and the links from Penzance up to Birmingham and across to the ECML would stay. But you could wave goodbye to the rest of the network. Any rail links in Scotland bar Glasgow, Perth, Aberdeen and Edinburgh? Forget it. Anything in Wales bar Chester-Holyhead and Bristol-Swansea? Jog on. We would have a hugely lucrative high-speed service offering comfortable, cheap travel between a small handful of major cities, and the rest of us could whistle. Our rail network would not survive the dismantling of the franchising model and a switch to Open Access.

So what can be done?

It should be clear to anyone that, despite the success of Grand Central and the glory days of privatisation in the golden age of rail, that further privatisation, far from improving our railways, would rip them to shreds. But what of nationalisation. The only decent case for it is the fallacious East Coast argument, but does it have the same kind of fatal flaws as privatisation does?

To some extent, yes. The only decent part of the argument for privatisation from history is the part that warns against full nationalisation, rather than for full privatisation. This is the brute fact that, when nationalised, our railways were an absolute laughing stock. Those who complain about our railways today would do well to take a trip back to 1994. Unlike any attempts to argue for privatisation by making parallels with the golden age of steam railways, arguments from history against re-nationalisation are not hampered by any problems with comparing across vastly different economic situations. The failure of nationalisation occurred in an age in which the economics of rail travel were much as they are today (lucrative long-distance and metropolitan services keeping afloat loss-making rural services).

I pointed out earlier how the oft-quoted benefits of privatisation, i.e. incentive through competition for improved services, apply only on a broad-brush level in our franchised system. But they don’t apply at all in a fully nationalised system. And this was, it seems, the problem. Even though it’s the competition for government franchises, rather than for satisfied customers, that drives TOCs to deliver better service, there is at least an incentive. Due to the problems inherent with comparing TOCs, this is probably a more measured and sensible form of incentive than that of a fully private system, in fact.

There’s also the economic benefit. Franchised rail has turned out a little pricier on passengers than nationalised rail, but the service offered in inarguably better by orders of magnitude. This has a great impact on the national finances, as nationalised rail had become something of a monetary black-hole. Never has investment in improving the rail infrastructure been higher, now the government is free to focus its direct financial assistance on the physical network, without the rail budget being sucked dry by the mess that was British Rail. The cost to passengers, too, can be kept down by halting the planned fares escalator that slowly pushes cost away from the taxpayer and onto the passenger. This is what has been done, in the main, by the current government. Certainly, in such strained economic times, it would be worth not stretching the pocket of the commuter too much.

In conclusion, the case for privatisation or nationalisation based on the individual TOCs, Grand Central and East Coast, does not stand up to the slightest of scrutiny. The argument for privatisation based on nostalgia about the golden age of steam is also utterly without merit. The argument against privatisation from a simple assessment of the profitability of rail both under BR Sectorisation and the current Franchised system is water-tight. The case against re-nationalisation from historical precedent does seem to stand up to some scrutiny.

I would argue, therefore, that privatising our rail network further would be an utter and complete disaster, and that re-nationalising it would probably be utterly shambolic, though not to anything like the same degree. The current franchising model provides competition benefits to an even greater degree than full privatisation, whilst still maintaining the key benefits of nationalisation, those of maintaining rural rail despite its economic unfeasibility. It would be wise, I think, to halt the fare escalator for a while longer, and maybe review how far it goes in the long run, as the spectre of 1966 would start to loom large if the financial burden were pushed much farther onto passengers and off the government. Maybe it is time to start considering varied escalators, with long-distance journeys worked on a slightly more “passenger pays” model, helping to free up government rail funds for further infrastructure investment and for keeping the subsidy of rural rail high.

One thing of which I am sure, however, is that full-scale re-nationalisation or privatisation of our rail network would be a huge mistake. Franchising, for all its oddities, really is the best of both worlds.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Confused about Political Apathy? Look in the Mirror.


I recently read this article from Nottinghamshire Skeptics. It’s about a talk they put on recently and the reaction they received. It’s neither uncommon nor surprising, but something about this story riled me up to write down some thoughts that have been growing inside me for some time. They’re cynical thoughts, but I think they’re true. They’re depressing thoughts, but I think they point the way to how we can all be better. You can click the link and read the whole story if you want – but I’ll summarise it here to keep my blog post self-contained:

Skeptic group puts on a talk about fracking, featuring a Geologist as a speaker. Anti-Fracking group turns up, outraged that a Geologist has been allowed to speak. Wouldn’t want to let actual science get involved, would we? Anti-Fracking group then proceeds to get massively hostile at the meeting then attack the speaker for being a Geologist on twitter, despite the fact that the Geologist’s personal views (which were only mentioned briefly) were as follows:

Well….it’s another dead dinosaur fuel, isn’t it? That can’t be good. Will fracking postpone any much needed research into renewables? That’s my top concern.”

Apparently, though, there was too much actual science in the presentation, and not every single accusation ever thrown at fracking held up – so it was abuse time.

I have a message for these anti-fracking campaigners:

If you deliberately avoid any discussion of facts, evidence, and science, then it’s going to make you look to any observer like you know you’re wrong. Climate Change deniers, in the main, avoid discussion of facts and evidence and instead attack climate scientists. Evolution deniers mainly avoid discussion of facts and evidence and instead attack biologists. It’s always the same. If you actively avoid factual investigation, you look like you’re wrong and know it.

This tweet, from a member of the audience, is apt:

“Tonight’s talk on fracking at @Notts_Skeptics didn’t swing me either way on the fracking debate, but did teach me anti-frackers are mean”

If you happen to be a repeat visitor to my blog, you might know that I’m cautiously pro-fracking. Just about. In certain circumstances. Within certain constraints. I’m nowhere close to sure about this, and I’m still searching out more evidence that may well end up swinging me the other way. You’d think that, with the depth of feeling either way on this issue, people would be flinging facts at me left, right, and centre. But the actions of these Notts anti-frackers seem pretty much par for the course as far as I’ve seen. When they’re not blatantly making up evidence (one page I got linked to by an anti-fracking friend was just a gem – a crash-course in how to lie with statistics – it ended up claiming that fracking will cause cancer through radiation exposure), the anti-fracking line seems mainly to be that of attacking people personally, shouting a lot about vague corporate evils, and shutting down any investigation of the real dangers of fracking.

The fracking issue is just the latest in a stream of political issues which has caused me to become totally disillusioned with the activist scene to which I heartily signed up back around the time of the last general election. I was fresh-faced, idealistic, and full of hope. Here I was, I thought, about to immerse myself in a culture full of people who care about their fellow man, who are dedicated to searching through the evidence to find the best ways to help people, the best ways to run the country, the best ways to save the planet. I was heartily confused as to why everyone wasn’t on-board. I was baffled at the negative responses the scene seemed to get from people outside it. We haven’t even had a full election cycle, and already I’m fed up to the back teeth with the political activist scene in general, and fully aware of why everyone finds us so bloody annoying.

The day it really hit me, when the most violent yanking away of the veil occurred, when I found myself most disillusioned, most disappointed with the movement to which I’d signed up, was the fateful evening when the EDL came to campus. The Islamic Society at Reading Uni had decided, as part of their “Discover Islam” week, to invite a notorious homophobe to speak. This man had previously openly advocated the killing of gay people. The SU, of course, being Reading Uni SU, were fully on board and even put out a statement commending the Islamic Society. A protest was organised. We didn’t want to disrupt the event; we just wanted to make it clear, by peacefully protesting on campus, that we really weren’t happy.

However, the EDL Berkshire Branch started making some noise, and RUSU folded faster than a napkin in the supple hands of an origami master and called off the event. This also called off our protest – and I could write a whole essay about how this is a perfect example of how censorship also censors counter-speech and how free speech is awesome but I don’t want to get sidetracked.

We, the protestors, were feeling a bit dejected. But then, we got word that the EDL were turning up anyway. Our planned protest had suddenly become a counter-protest. A group of around ten of us headed up to the edge of campus to head off the EDL and get all tolerant in their faces. It was very exciting. When we arrived, the EDL turned out to be one amiable middle-aged man handing out leaflets and, oddly for an EDL member, not really being at all racist. He seemed very much up for a frank exchange of views. This was brilliant! A real chance to talk, face-to-face, with a real live EDL member, who seemed to be genuinely misguided, rather than evil, had presented itself.

He was incensed by the homophobia and sexism of the speaker who had been slated to attend the Islamic society, and seemed to have been taken in by the idea that right-wing organisations such as the EDL offered the best response to such evils. Given the shameful response of many of my fellow lefties and organisations such as Universities UK and the NUS to such issues, one can see where this idea might come from. This was coupled to a bit of conspiracy-theory nonsense about building mosques near military bases. He wasn’t a “Britain for the British”, “Muslamic Rayguns” kind of operative and, though clearly misguided, he looked like he could be talked to sensibly and would listen to reason. Maybe he wouldn’t have listened. But he was never given the chance. In one of the most shameful debasements of political activism I’ve seen, the group of which I was a part simply started shouting at and insulting the guy. Caught up in the moment, I joined in with the first few chants of “FASCIST FASCIST FASCIST; OUT OUT OUT”. Go Activism!

I became increasingly uncomfortable and embarrassed, however, as it became more and more obvious that the guy was not even remotely fascist, not obviously racist, and was attempting to have an actual discussion with us about a serious and complicated issue, whilst we just stood there yelling at him. Anyone passing by would have observed an amicable old man trying to talk to a group of students who were intimidating and insulting him. I admire the guy for sticking it out. I eventually managed to strike up a conversation with the guy, as most of the more vocal members of our group were getting a bit tired of singing and yelling. I said a few things, he said a few things, and the possibility of a decent back-and-forth developed. Maybe views could be exchanged. Maybe something could be learned.

But no. The almost comically horrific group of people behind me were adamant that nothing positive would come of this meeting. The two most ridiculous of the group started up some kind of ludicrous comedic back and forth. The guy would say, for instance “I support women’s rights”. Then we’d hear this:

“Oooooooh, supports women’s rights, does he Jim, how intriguing.”
“Do you reckon he does though, do you reckon he does, John?”
“Naaaaah Jim, I think he’s a lying fascist scumbag, don’t you John?”
“Ooooh most definitely John, a lying fascist he most definitely is.”

I’ve changed the names, and those probably aren’t the exact words, but you get the idea. It went on for ages. Between these morons, and the odd cries of “FASCIST SCUM” and suchlike from a few of the others, any possibility of a reasonable conversation was jettisoned. It was excruciatingly embarrassing. It was clear that nobody was interested in finding out what this guy actually thought or why, or with engaging with his arguments (which could easily have been defeated). All anyone was there to do was shout abuse. And when the object of the abuse turned out not to be a fascist at all, it only got more intense.

One of the most telling features was the contempt with which the man’s claim to supporting women’s rights was held. Clearly, seemed to be the obvious prevailing truth, this man is in some way a right-winger, so he can’t possibly be a feminist. Such tribalist nonsense further belies the true nature of such “activism”. Leftists don’t own feminism. Someone might be a feminist but also an economic libertarian, or might be a feminist but also a racist. But the attitude of this group was that this guy was one of the bad guys, therefore couldn’t possibly have a single good bone in his body, and was suitable only for insulting and harassing. It was shameful, disgusting, and eye-opening.

Following the event, a few of those involved put together an article on the protest for their magazine. The short section on the actual confrontation with the EDL guy read like the Daily Mail on steroids. It was nothing more than a disgusting, personal attack on the man himself. I voiced my opposition to such ad hominem argument and shoddy, tabloid journalism, and received a torrent of abuse myself. From that day onwards I have, too, been treated as one of “the bad guys” by these former activist friends. But I don’t mind anymore. The bread and butter of that whole scene is bullying, intimidation, ranting, personal attacks, tribalism, and moralising, jingoistic nonsense that achieves nothing and helps nobody. Evidence-gathering, rational debate, and real commitment to helping effect genuine change in the world are antithetical to the whole movement.

I’ve sadly come to realise that so many of the people who claim to care about the things I care about: social justice, civil freedom, the alleviation of poverty, the protection of the environment, etc., actually don’t care one jot for any of those things – they’re just loudmouths who are spoiling for a fight, and don’t want the nitty gritty work of sorting through evidence and working out how to best help people, save the planet, protect freedoms, etc., to get in the way of a good shouting session. Whatever side of whatever issue they choose to “fight”, (and fight is what they do) – whether they be taking on the guise of an environmentalist supposedly concerned about the planet, a leftist supposedly concerned about poverty and inequality, a Kipper supposedly concerned about the harmful effects of immigration on the working poor, or a right-wing culture-warrior supposedly concerned about the moral decay of society, they’re all basically the same. They shout different slogans, listen to different music, wear different clothes, and hate different people (and often each other,) but they’re all the same underneath. They all care firstly about having a good fight, a good shout, and a good dose of moral superiority and group-think. They don’t for one second really care about the issues they claim to be fighting for. If they did, they wouldn’t actively suppress activities to really get to the root of problems, or work out how to solve them. They wouldn’t react with anger if it were pointed out to them that some issue they were getting all het up about might not be as bad as it seems, and effort could be better used elsewhere. Such reactions can only be the product of a first priority of a tribal battle, and with any real social or political concern merely a servant to that urge to fight.

It is, thankfully, far from all of us “political” people out there who are like this, but it’s a lot. I’ve probably been guilty of some such behaviour myself in my earlier days in the movement. From my experience, though, it’s a majority. Those of us who care first about the issues will change our minds in response to evidence, and will really search for solutions, rather than caring first about forming groups and shouting a lot. But we’re marginalised. When I raise my hand in a group of fellow lefties bemoaning the state of social justice to question “hang on, is that statistic we’re using actually right, are we focussing our energy on the wrong target here?” I’m generally shouted down and pushed aside. “Pesky facts. Who cares about pesky little facts? We’re fighting a WAR here, which side are you on?” It reminds me vividly of when I used to ask tough questions growing up in a Pentecostal church. “Hang on, are we sure this is actually what the Bible says here? Isn’t this new slogan for our youth events week actually in disagreement with one of the foundations of Jesus’ message?” I would ask. “You’re always splitting hairs! We have to be united! Who cares about the little details!” was the inevitable reply. My questions over actual theology were considered irrelevant in the overall “fight”, just as my questions about actual economics and evidence are considered irrelevant in the overall “fight” that many of my fellow lefties are engaged in. I imagine it’s much the same for those involved in the similar groups that adopt a different set of political views as a vehicle for their tribes.

I always used to be confused as to why ordinary people tend not to like “political types”, why they tend to find us annoying and unhelpful. How, I thought, could people who put extra energy and effort into improving the world around them be so disliked? How the scales have lifted from my eyes over just a few short years. It’s because most of us “political” people, and certainly the ones of us making the most noise, are like this Nottingham Anti-Fracking group, or my shameful band of anti-EDL protestors back in Reading. Anti-Evidence, Anti-Science, campaigning more to prevent those we disagree with from speaking (despite superficial claims to support freedom of speech) than trying to answer or counter their views (recent shouts of “YOU WILL NOT BE HEARD” from a “Yes” supporter at a Scottish Independence discussion come to mind), attacking experts and laypeople alike personally rather than providing answers or countering statements, living in a delusional fantasy role-playing universe in which they are the only defenders of the good against the forces of evil, and, most critically of all, deliberately avoiding searching for the truth in preference to getting a good invigorating shout going. Well, I can certainly see why most people don’t want to come near us or our “activism”.

Maybe it gets better as one gets older. Maybe my view of this is skewed by being mostly in the university political activist scene. Maybe not. But now I have an answer for every shouty faux-activist out there when they lament “Why are people so apathetic, why don’t they get involved?!”

“Look in the mirror”.

Posted in Environment, Feminism, Politics | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Who killed Goliath?


I’m about to quote the Bible:

“Then there was another battle with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.”

2 Samuel 21:19

Ooooh. Thought it was David who killed Goliath. Hmmm. Well there might have been two of them. Goliath might be a fairly common name. However, in a later re-write:

“In another battle with the Philistines, Elhanan son of Jair killed Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite, who had a spear with a shaft like a weaver’s rod.”

1 Chronicles 20:5

Ah. It was his brother. Good to have that cleared up. Of course, the writer of 1 Chronicles here is contradicting the writer of 2 Samuel – probably having noticed that 2 people are supposed to have killed the same guy.

This is all quite understandable given the merging of legal codes, history, folk tales, and myths that make up the Jewish scriptures. Similar contradictions and re-writings crop up in plenty of things that we have to deal with as historical sources. Unpicking this kind of thing in order to understand what actually might have happened is a huge part of doing history, and unpicking this kind of thing in order to understand what it might mean is a huge part of doing theology.

If, however, you happen to have been tempted by the modern heresy of “Biblical Innerancy”, then you should probably just ignore these bits altogether. They really won’t help you sleep at night. You should probably just go and shout at some gays about how they’re going to hell. You’ll need to ignore a lot more of the Bible to do that, as well, but, if you’re going to be inconsistent (which you have to be to follow this heresy,) then you may as well be consistently inconsistent.

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An Open Letter to my Christian Friends

Their spirit lives on

Their spirit lives on, stronger than ever

It’s been a long time since I last updated this blog. Since I last posted anything, my life has gone through something of an upheaval and I haven’t really been able to find the time or head-space to write anything coherent or useful. Things are calming down now, but more importantly, the events of the last week or two leave me no option but to write.

My last post was probably the most dense and philosophical piece of my catalogue of posts up until this point. This will be somewhat at the opposite end of my writing spectrum. I’ve even decided to frame it as an open letter, because it really is a question more than it is any attempt on my part to give an answer of any sort.

I have a lot of Christian friends. I think that this is because, in a university context, the “Christian Union” and “Playing Board Games” subcultures seem to have quite a lot of overlap, so we end up with good shared interests and plenty of mutual friends, and this creates good ground for the building of friendships.

These friends are not the kind of Christians about whom I spent plenty of time writing about. I write a lot about the kind of corruption, lying, and general evil which goes on under the banner of Christianity. It is a goal of mine to raise awareness of the kind of abuse that happens on a large scale, primarily in American Evangelicalism. The sexual abuse, the funding of war criminals (and by war criminals I don’t mean George W Bush, I mean people like Charles Taylor – serious hard-nosed outright dictators at the head of genocides, mass-rapes, the use of child soldiers, and the like,) the diversion of charity money to illegal diamond mining, the expulsion of rape victims from evangelical institutions, the financial corruption and dodgy dealing with para-legal or even terrorist organisations, and so on and so forth; because I want people to know about it, and because I want people to distance themselves from it. I want it to be known about and condemned, I want Christians who aren’t like that to look at it and say “that is not my religion”.

This has been significantly harder than I had originally hoped. Most of my friends are not the kind of Christians who believe that God deliberately kills people at random because some people are gay. They are not the kind of people who would make rape victims apologise to their congregation. But it’s tremendously hard to get them to say that doing such things is evil, that it is sinful, that it is everything their Christianity is against, that it is a perversion and misuse of their religion. These scum from across the pond call themselves “Christian”, too, so my friends are hesitant. They fear infighting and division within their tribe because it weakens them. They suddenly allow their morals, and their religion, to play second fiddle to politics, to power-plays, to tribalism. Time and time again I produce quotes, or verified reports of actions, which show these evil men striking at the very heart of everything my friends believe, show them demonstrating the most disgusting and depraved of morals, but still there will be nothing in response but farcical sophistry and sudden displays of leniency that could pardon Stalin. They will duck, dodge, and weave. They will try to find the flimsiest of grounds upon which to grant these charlatans and hate-mongers the tiniest possibility of some twisted excuse for good motives. Nobody will take a stand.

But now everything has changed. The events of the last week have rendered such fence-sitting completely impossible. A disturbance within the ranks of the Gospel Coalition has caused the leaders of this organisation, and their allies across the evangelical tribal confederation, to show their hand fully. A line has been drawn in the sand with the utmost of clarity, and it is sharp enough to allow no compromise. The division between hate and love in the worldwide church has been building furiously over the previous decade, and now the “95 Theses” moment has arrived. It can no longer be maintained by members of either camp that any kind of compromise can be made. Any secession movement must be cautious at first, so as not to ruffle too many feathers, lest it be crushed before it has time to grow. But there must come a point where the colours must be nailed to the mast, and the decision made to break off. For the core of the modern evangelical movement, this moment has come.

Evangelicals and their allies have had a few totem issues in the past. Their attempt to define themselves by their radical anti-semitism in the early days crumbled as the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Allies put hating the Jews firmly out of vogue. Evangelicals have maintained their links with powerful anti-semetic organisations such as the John Birch Society, but these have for some time been behind closed doors. It could not continue to be a totem issue. Racism was next up, with opposition to interracial marriage and strong support of racial segregation, as well as fanatical opposition to voting rights for African-Americans, for a while became the defining issue of evangelicalism. Taking the proper “Biblical Position” against the corrupting of white blood by intermarriage was at one point the same kind of litmus test of true Christianity for evangelicals as taking the proper “Biblical Position” against the rights of women to healthcare is nowadays. But they lost. We won. Positions were quietly adjusted, statements altered, and the evangelical establishment gathered up the pieces and prepared to try again. Of course, links with racist and even terrorist organisations remained in place, but they were now embarrassing secrets, rather than proud badges of allegiance to Jesus. Minor attempts at rallying around opposition to imaginary Satanic conspiracies followed, but only served to bolster the movement, not define it. More recently, discrimination against women and hatred of the poor have bought many friends, but also many enemies. But now the information age is upon us. Positions cannot be quietly changed and then everyone pretend that they had been that way all along, as happened with interracial marriage. The next big push will be the last.

That big push is here. The world, not just Christianity, is suddenly polarising over LGBT rights. Whilst the west, including much of the US, has suddenly realised that discriminating against people because of their sexuality isn’t really okay, Russia and parts of Africa have run screaming back to the middle ages in response, passing legislation that amounts to nothing more than open hunting season on LGBT people.

Evangelical leaders have made this their number one issue. The lies, hate, and fear-mongering that spray forth from the despicable mouths of the villainous charlatans who front this morally bankrupt perversion of Christianity have been something to behold. Even the long-standing opposition to Russia that was once ubiquitous and unquestioned within this vile tribe has been sacrificed for tactical gains within this new paradigm. White-supremacists suddenly praise African leaders, united by their opposition to the gay menace. Evangelicalism has gone all-in on gay-hating. The gloves are off, and the schism has begun.

The move had to be made before LGBT people lost their mantle of social pariahs. Before the issue was closed for good, and homophobia confined to the outer fringes of society and fringe regressive movements. The move had to be made whilst significant political capital could be gained by nothing more than simple, uncomplicated hatred of the unknown and the different; whilst LGBT people were still the Samaritans, the Gentiles, the Tax Collectors, the Prostitutes of the day. That time is now.

Gospel Coalition organisations have, for decades, operated a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. This works just as it did in the US army, as in not at all. LGBT people work for the Gospel Coalition organisations, they just lie about it. Some organisations force an actual signed affirmation of straightness, whereas others make it implicit. This is all part of a very important lie. According to the Gospel Coalition, LGBT Christians don’t actually work for the Gospel Coalition. This is because, according to the Gospel Coalition, there is no such thing as an LGBT Christian. Everyone must participate in this deception. If one group breaks ranks, the whole edifice of lies comes crashing down. World Vision broke ranks. It decided to allow LGBT Christians to serve openly. The Gospel Coalition acted quickly and decisively. It used its number one weapon: money. Franklin Graham, Denny Burke, and other such despicable excuses for human beings urged that evangelicals across the US withdraw their support from World Vision. This generally comes in the form of those nice “sponsor a child” deals in which you get to have quite a tangible connection with the idea of saving one particular human life. It’s a nice model for development charities. Thousands of evangelicals took up the advice, and began the process of refusing to save the life of an innocent black child in order to blackmail World Vision into continuing to participate in the communal lie.

It worked a treat. The amount of support withdrawn would have put WV into severe difficulty, threatening more than just the lives of the individual children sponsored directly by the anti-humans who withdrew their support. WV did not expect that making a small change to their hiring policy based on their religious principles of honesty and love would result in them being almost instantly destroyed as an organisation. They underestimated how ruthless the GC was capable of being. The message was clear: “You back our line to the hilt every step of the way, or we take you down and take thousands of innocent lives as collateral damage, which you’ll have on your conscience – how does your principled stand feel now?”

World Vision backed down. They judged the destruction of their entire mission, and the subsequent death of innocents, not to be worth the trouble. Do I agree with that decision? Hell no. But I can see where they’re coming from. I couldn’t live with myself in their situation whatever decision I’d made. A lot of people saw this tiny move towards love from World Vision as a glimmer of hope, and it has now been cruelly snuffed out. I’m not a Christian, so I’m not one of the people who, after a seeing a ray of light, have returned to being told they don’t exist. This guy is, so I’ll let him do the talking:

“I am tired, friends, so tired of being hit. I am tired of being the most galvanizing symbol for evangelical Christians. It is awaking a lot of old demons in me and the stab feels so much deeper when it’s your own faith attacking you. But who am I kidding? It is usually my own faith attacking me. And I am now at a breaking point, as I am sure is true for many others.”

“I’m done with evangelicalism.”

“I am done being patient with Piper.”

“I am done pretending I can engage with the SBC.”

“I am done hoping Franklin ends up more like his dad.”

“I am done listening to Denny Burk and his blowhards at the Gospel Coalition.”

“I am done with each and every one of the tweeters out there bragging about dropping their sponsorship of a child in need, just because they hate me.”

“I am done fleeing from and returning to this perpetually abusive house of faith. I am stopping the cycle. I am empty of strength.”

“And I am clinging closer to Jesus than ever before”

“Thank God our God is our God”

That was Ben Moburg, just after the controversy broke, and just before World Vision itself reversed its decision. He had more to say after that development:

“I am not ready to forgive those that held starving children as ransom because of who I am and I am not ready to forgive Richard Stearns for this profoundly deep betrayal. I am not ready to forgive either of them for the devastating message they have sent to gay children everywhere.”

“But I can do grace. I can reach into the deep pockets of all that I have left and let it be a balm on my heart, let it tend to me until that moment comes when, as Anne Lamott says, “it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back.” I can give and give and give even as I’m pissed off and hurt because although they don’t deserve this, neither do I.”

“And my rage isn’t wrong, because this isn’t right. And so I will channel it all into doing my job here as a blogger, as a believer, loving gay kids and talking about the Jesus that wouldn’t change them for the world.”

That’s just a taste of the pain that these disgusting people are so keen to inflict that they will blackmail any of their troops who show the slightest concern about what they’re doing with the lives of innocent children.

But this isn’t just one more depressing story, one more act of hate, one more chapter in the unfolding tragedy of evangelicalism. This is not one more crime that can be smoothed over by “moderate” Christians everywhere, swept under the carpet, ignored, excused, dodged, fudged. This time they came right out and said it. “Stay in line or we’ll kill children”. This is the kind of thing you say when it’s crunch time. This is what you do when you’re prepared to move on the strength you’ve amassed. They won’t gain any more friends now. They’ve shown their true face to the world. Evan Hurst sums it up:

“When given an explicit choice to love children or hate gay people, they chose the latter, and they chose it loudly. … Perhaps the only silver lining is that the Religious Right truly just showed America, and World Vision, who they really are.”


My favourite blogger, Fred Clark, adds his two cents:

“There wasn’t much doubt about who they really were before, but there isn’t anydoubt now. These folks — Piper and The Gospel Coaliion, Mohler and Moore and the SBC, Franklin Graham and the hacks at “Christianity Today”, and the whole hideous white evangelical army of hate they lead — just voluntarily rejected any benefit of any doubt about who they really are as opposed to who and what they inexplicably claim to be.“

He’s been fighting the same crusade I have, though with much more effort and dedication, and with much more heart (because he, as a Christian, has much more of a personal stake in the matter than I do) for years. It’s good of him to resist adding an “I told you so” about 300 times in his relevant blog post.

To those who tried to reconcile these monsters with the Christian religion that is the antithesis of everything these people stand for, tried to believe that there was some twisted and broken good motive behind these wicked men and their disgusting lies, contended that the problem had been over-stated, that this only applied to extremists like Phelps (who for some reason was never a part of the movement, despite the fact that his views were really no more extreme), or to claim that pure ignorance and stupidity, not evil motives, were at the core of this whole matter: the scales have been pulled violently from your eyes. These human incarnations of pure evil have showed their true colours, and they’re proud of it. It’s time to stop pretending that their “Christianity” is in any way reconcilable with the multifaceted tradition of belief that normally goes by that name.

Of course, nobody can stop these bastards from continuing to use that term, but that hasn’t stopped the anti-Balaka (a paramilitary group in the CAR who mercilessly butcher Muslims), and the vast majority of Christians are happy to aggressively distance themselves from the anti-Balaka, and to condemn the anti-Balaka’s use of the term “Christian” to describe themselves.

It’s time to admit that an ideology which feels proud of using the lives of innocent children as currency with which to blackmail people into lying about their sexuality so as not to weaken the political position of the tribe is NOT reconcilable with Christianity as it is normally known. This school of thought, this vicious army of hate, cannot be contained within the borders of the Christian tradition. Like the Cathars, the Bogomils, the Munster Anabaptists, the Mormons, and the anti-Balaka, these people differ so radically from the most basic tenets of Christianity that they can no longer be considered “Christian” by the majority Christian tradition. They can call themselves what they want, but it’s time for Christians everywhere to start openly condemning their hate and their heresy, lest the word “Christianity” be rendered utterly pointless as an identifier.

It’s worth considering that these monsters are perfectly happy with that split. They’ve been condemning mainstream Christianity as heretical and not true Christianity for years. They thrive off the legitimacy given them by the grudging acceptance of their bile in mainstream Christianity, but have no intention of returning the favour.

So this is my question to the Christians I know, and to Christians everywhere. These people hate you. Whether you have joined them in their ludicrous twisting of the Bible to condemn non-heterosexual relationships is immaterial. If you don’t join them in their vicious parade of outright hate, if you stand anywhere outside their hateful anti-Christian thuggery, then they don’t think you’re a Christian. They wouldn’t defend you. They wouldn’t excuse you like you excuse them. They’re happy to admit that you and they don’t follow anything that could even loosely be termed as the same religion. You’ve been patient, you’ve been lenient, you’ve tried as hard as you can to believe that these people aren’t as evil as they look, that there’s some way out of this. That is, of course, exactly what they wanted. They needed to feed off the legitimacy you gave them for so long in order to build up power before the breakaway. But those times are over. Everything is in the open now. The Evangelical Movement stands proudly and openly against everything Jesus ever said or did. They’re a breakaway movement now, a new religion, and a dangerous and evil one, one that makes the worst excesses of past Christianity look positively Christ-like in comparison. It’s time to denounce them as heretics, or join them and denounce Jesus as a heretic.

Christianity stands divided between hate and love. Whose side are you on?

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