Archive for November, 2012

What I want from Leveson

November 29, 2012 1 comment

What I want from Leveson is a) no statutory regulation b) other than duty to recgonise NUJ (or successor) and the legitimacy of its code of conduct.

This is why.

The end.

Categories: General Politics

The minimum alcohol price consultation is a disgrace

November 28, 2012 3 comments

Further to this, I have now looked through the government’s new Alcohol strategy consultation, which focuses on the proposal to introduce a minimum unit price of 45p.

There is one important, brazen lie which needs exposing.

Paragraph vii of the main consultation paper makes this new claim about the effectiveness of minimum pricing, based on a very recent research report:

There is extensive and consistent evidence that increasing the price of alcohol reduces consumption, leading to reductions in alcohol-related harms particularly around health. For instance, recent analysis of the effectiveness of ‘social reference pricing’ in a Canadian province found that a 10% increase in the minimum price of any given alcoholic product reduced its consumption by between 14.6% and 16.1%. This supports the Government’s intentions, as set out in the Strategy, to end the availability of the most irresponsibly priced alcohol, by introducing a minimum unit price, and to consult on the introduction of a ban of multi-buy promotions in the off-trade (my emphasis)

A 10% increase in minimum price producing a 14.6% to 16.1% dexrease in consumption sounds impressive, which is why it is singled out for mention.  But such a message, which the government clearly intends to give, is simply not true.

The Canadian analysis referred to is  Stockwell, T., Christopher Auld, M., Zhao, J. and Martin, J. (2012) Does minimum pricing reduce consumption? The experience of a Canadian province. (2012) Addiction. Volume 107. Pages 912-920.  (This article is only available via university libraries etc.. I have access so if people really want to see it let me know in the comments and I’ll see what I can do.).  What the article actually says is:

[T]he estimates indicate that a 10% increase in the minimum price of a given type of beverage reduced consumption of that type by about 16.1% relative to all other beverages, and a simultaneous 10% increase in the minimum prices of all types reduced total consumption by 3.4% (P < 0.01 in both cases). The first estimate may overestimate minimum price effects because it incorporates compensatory increases in consumption of all other beverages.  The estimate of the effect of across-the-board changes in minimum prices on total consumption will be biased to the extent that the extra structure we imposed on the model is unrealistic (p. 917, my emphasis).

This is very different.  In plain English it means that people tend to buy cheaper booze when  minimum prices for a particular booze type go up, but that overall there might be a small reduction in overall consumption as a result of price increases overall, although the modelling used can’t really prove that.

To leave out the “across the board changes” in favour of the impressive sounding 14.6 to 16.1% (the 14.6% comes from another way of modelling the same data) is simply disgraceful, and provides evidence that the government is simply not interested in the science, so obsessed is it with bashing the poor.


Categories: General Politics

Why Labour should oppose minimum alcohol pricing

November 28, 2012 3 comments

The government is, then, going to press ahead with plans for minimum alcohol pricing, probably at 45p per unit.  This follows Scottish legislation (for 50p a unit) due to be implemented in April 2013.

This is entirely the wrong thing to do, and I hope Labour will oppose it on the basis of a) it being poor science; b) the way it will act as a further demonisation of the poor.

Let me explain.

The science

The research on which the legislation is singularly dependent doesn’t actually say what the legislators in England and Scotland say it does.

The research both governments depend on is from the University of Sheffield Alchohol Research Group.  The Scottish Government commissioned research and “modelling” from the Group, with its most recent report delivered in January 2012, and research for England in 2009.  The England report contains a more detailed methodology, but both studies are similar in design and the data used.  I hope Labour MPs will take the time to read the studies properly; I am not sure their Scottish colleagues bothered.

Here the crucial bit of the England report:

The elasticity matrices [the method used in the research] on their own are not sufficient to reveal the likely behaviour of the population to price changes, since these also depend on the preferences for beverage, drinking location and price point that the different sub-groups exhibit. However they do form a useful starting point for analysis, and can be compared with existing results from the literature. (p. 50)

My rough (and I admit slightly mean-spirited) translation:

The researchers don’t know whether the results the legislators want will be achieved or not through a minimum unit price, but they’ve gone out of their way to provide some mathematical modelling which suggests it might because, after all, that’s what the legislators want and they paid for the research.

The research depends for its findings on a complex set of mathematical modelling, with log-log analysis of the relationship between price and consumption, changing over time, at the heart of this.  The data comes from five years of the annual Expenditure and Food Survey and, in the case of the more recent Scotland report, the Scottish Health Survey.  This is sample data based on respondent completing diaries of what they purchase and consume over a two week period.

The principal outcome of the modelling is a set of  ”elasticity matrices” in which the relationship between increase in minimum unit price and change in consumption is modelled for various population types, including moderate and heavy drinkers.  The model suggests that a 50p minimum unit might decrease overall consumption by 5.7% (Scotland research, Jan 2012).

It’s an impressive piece of work in its own terms, but it simply doesn’t find what those desperate to find a ‘solution’ to people drinking too much say it does.  Indeed, there is a strong indication that the real rationale for the mathematical modelling is to provide a fit with other research into the relationship between alcohol price/tax and consumption (not, note, minimum unit pricing):

Recent systematic reviews and meta-analyses by Gallet (2007) and Wagenaar et al (2008) found, respectively, a median elasticity for alcohol of -0.535 and a mean elasticity for alcohol of -0.51. By comparison, our elasticity matrix for all of England shows broadly similar results, with own-price elasticities ranging from a least elastic estimate of -0.2350 for on-trade higher-priced spirits to a most elastic estimate of -2.9386 for on-trade low-priced spirits.

The problem is that these meta-analyses don’t really show what the researchers and legislators want them to show either, even though they are meta-analyses of the general relationship between price and consumption (where you might well expect an inverse relationship)

Take the Wagenaar et al. study:

Price/tax also affects heavy drinking significantly (mean reported elasticity = -0.28, individual-level r = -0.01, P < 0.01), but the magnitude of effect is smaller than effects on overall drinking.

This is the opposite of what the legislation is aimed at: heavy drinking leads to anti-social behaviour and increased health problems.

The Wagenaar report also recgonises that not all may be as it seems from the 112 studies it analyses:

[P]ublication bias(or, more generally, small-study bias) is always a threat to the validity of a meta-analysis. Statistically significant findings are more likely to be published than those that are not significant with one estimate suggesting that the odds of publication are 2–4 times greater when results are statistically significant. Thus, it is possible that a substantial number of studies with non-significant effects remain unpublished.

The demonisation

So what’s going on?  Why are the English and Scottish governments apparently so keen to push through legislation which is wholly based on wholly spurious evidence?

Why, on the other hand, is the Scottish government apparently so keen to overlook the research ‘findings’ that a 70p per unit price would lead (p.5 of report) to a 16.9% reduction in consumption, while the 50p price actually adopted will read to a 5.7% one? Does it not have the courage of its public health convictions? Or is is, perchance,  that a 70p unit price would put the price of ‘decent’ wine up, while the 50p one only affects the really cheap alcohol that the poor people drink?

The answer to these rhetorical questions is simple enough.

There is a problem-drinking problem – that can’t and shouldn’t be denied.   The respective governments are desperate to be seen to be doing something.

Doing something genuinely effective about it is beyond them, because that would mean putting in place policies (and government spending) which lead to people having realstic choices other than blotting out – at least for the night – what they have to live with.  That’s not a new, or British cultural problem – re-read the Paris bit of George Orwell’s Down and in London and Paris to remind yourself of that.

So the easy option is to put in place legislation aimed (almost certainly ineffectively) at a certain type of person most in the public eye as a result of the ongoing multti-media demonisation of the poor.

And when the minimum price measure fails – and it will fail – at least the problem-drinking problem will be set out clearly in terms of the ‘target population’ (those chavs who got round the law by spending more on booze/buying it illegally), and the need to control it more effectively.  That’s even written into the ‘sunset clause’ provisions of the new Scottish Act.

The government perverting the role of science for short-term political ends at the expense of  the poor. Who’d have thought it?

Representation and power

November 27, 2012 3 comments

Norm and Chris are in disagreement over who can represent effectively.

Chris thinks background doesn’t matter:

[H]istory shows that posh MPs can serve working class interests. Leading members of the 1945-51 government such as Attlee, Dalton and Cripps were public schoolboys.

Norm thinks, statistically speaking, it does:

Because it can happen that a woman makes good decisions for the men she represents, and a rich man likewise for people much worse off than himself; and because it can also happen that a person from the very same group or stratum as those she represents can make very bad decisions for them, even ‘selling them out'; these are not reasons for denying the old truth that one of the things individuals are moved by is their interests. Representatives do not escape this generalization, at least statistically.

I think both are missing the point.   They’re focusing on agency to the exclusion of structure.

The representative, whatever her/his background, preference and interests, makes decisions to the extent to which s/he is allowed to do by the people they represent.  That is, the question of who represents is less important than how they represent.

This is a question of power.  Currently, we (well Chris and Norm) argue about who should represent because they accept the norm that, once in position, parliamentary representatives can more or less do what they want.   It is that way precisely we regard them as representatives, rather than delegates.

But it needn’t be that way, at least on the Left (I don’t give a monkey’s what the Right does).

Back here, I argued for the development of a new power relationship between local parties and MPs-as-delegates, rather than MPs-as-representatives.  Creating a new power relationship, I argued, would of itself lead to an unsurge in working-class representation in parliament, as organisers replace orators.

Making sure that these new power relationship happen develop is, of course, an uphill struggle, but we should at least start out on that struggle with clarity that our main obstacle to progress is not the enduring policy preferences of the posh boys, but our continued acceptance of the posh boys’ terms of engagement with a working class party.


Explaining the Tazreen Fashions fire

November 26, 2012 1 comment

It is not news, of course, that workers in developing countries generally endure working much harsher and much less safe working conditions than those in developed countries.

It is unusual, though, to see the different value set on the lives of poor people clearly documented so clearly in a business process.

But that appears to be precisely what Walmart’s Standards for Suppliers manual, which I’ve looked at in the light of the terrible Tazreen Fashions fire, appears to do*.

Page 32 of the document sets out the ‘traffic light’-style assessment process, and includes the ‘orange level’ assessment which was accorded to Tazreen Fashions when it was assessed in June 2011:

  • Factories are assessed as “Orange” if the violations and/or conditions observed were deemed to be high risk.
  • Orders are released for shipment.
  • Future orders may be placed at the factory, but is subject to the discretion of the merchandising and sourcing organization.
  • Factory will be re-audited within six months from the last audit date.

The manual then goes on to make clear that three orange level assessments in two years will send a factory setting into the red zone, under which orders are stopped pending rectification of the problem(s) identified, and an audit bringing the factory back to yellow or green (there being the two best assessments).

Now, under just about any corporate governance system designed for developed country settings, the idea that conditions might be deemed ‘high risk’, but that a factory should be given up to two years and two more assessments to improve those conditions, would be just unthinkable; ‘high risk’ by its very nature means that accidents/injuries, or other forms of ‘non-compliance’ e.g. child labour are likely or very likely to occur.

Yet Walmart apparently deems such governance aceeptable in developing countries.

How can this be?

Well, the answer is set out in Walmart’s statutory ‘Form 10k’ submission to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, in which companies are required to set out risks facing their fiancial performance.   At page 15, under the heading Risks associated with the suppliers from whom our products are sourced could adversely affect our financial performance, Walmart notes that

 The products we sell are sourced from a wide variety of domestic and international suppliers. Global sourcing of many of the products we sell is an important factor in our financial performance. All of our suppliers must comply with applicable laws, including labor and environmental laws, and otherwise be certified as meeting our required supplier standards of conduct. Our ability to find qualified suppliers who meet our standards, and to access products in a timely and efficient manner is a significant challenge, especially with respect to suppliers located and goods sourced outside the United States. Political and economic instability in the countries in which foreign suppliers are located, the financial instability of suppliers, suppliers’ failure to meet our supplier standards, labor problems experienced by our suppliers, the availability of raw materials to suppliers, merchandise quality issues, currency exchange rates, transport availability and cost, inflation, and other factors relating to the suppliers and the countries in which they are located are beyond our control (my emphasis).

And there we have it.

Cheap labour is a key factor for Walmart’s profits, but the maintenance of the very supplier standards that Walmart sets is deemed beyond Walmart’s control.

* It is unclear at this stage whether Walmart was being supplied with garments made by Tazreen Fashions at the time of fire.  Walmart have simply said that they do not know.


Categories: General Politics

Gove’s intervention

November 24, 2012 2 comments

Clearly I’m not going to comment on the Rotherham fostering case as I don’t know the what, the when, the how, the why of it.

Clearly Mr Gove knows all these things. He is already sure that what happened is “indefensible”, and he’s going to found out exactly what went on:

“It is entirely wrong for this couple to have been treated in this way. That’s why I believe we need a full explanation from the local authority as to why this decision was allowed to be taken.

What strikes me as odd is that, when major concerns were raised over GCSE grading this summer, Mr Gove felt he had no business intervening, and that to do so would be deeply irresponsible:

Ofqual is an independent regulator, accountable to Parliament. If Ministers were to interfere in Ofqual’s decisions, they would be meddling where they should not interfere. It is deeply irresponsible, cynical and opportunistic for the hon. Gentleman [Twigg] to make the case that he is making.

Categories: Terrible Tories

The 2,000th post

November 24, 2012 Leave a comment

This is TCF’s 2,000th post, so let’s take a look back at our glorious history.

This was the first post

This was the longest

This was the shortest probably

This was the one Mil likes

This was the one with the most algebra

This was the one that got most hits probably

This was the one which totally pissed off Sunny

This was the sweariest

This was the one with the best sex scene

This was the most obsequious

This was the most regrettable and pointlessly jealous of other people’s media success

This was the one that got people calling me a scumbag and all sorts

This was the one with the most reference to toilets

So that’s 2,000 posts.  Will TCF make it to £,000?  Probably not.

But there’s probably be a few more.  TCF won’t announce its departure from the blogosphere, not least because there’ll be no-one left to listen.  We’ll just slide gracelessly into cantankerous, bitter old age, bits of orange peel dangling from the corners of the mouth, smelling faintly of wee.  We’ll continue to the end, exploring bits and pieces of the body politic, pretending that whiney self-regard is really the wisdom of the auto-didactic activist, and continuing to use the ‘royal we’, even though  all the good bloggers are long gone gone, and there’s only me left, reminding myself daily of a sad Paul Scott novel.

And when the time comes, when I forget to pay the hosting fee and TCF gets taken over by a site advertising poker or legal loan sharks, I may rise momentarily rise from my slumbers and utter the final homage of the ex-blogger to an existence that always defeats, but is still worth the fight:

‘Like a dog’ he said: it as though he meant the shame of it outlive him.

Categories: General Politics

How to establish Labour’s credibility on Europe

November 23, 2012 1 comment

It has suddenly become very fashionable in Labour wonk circles to be a pro-EU-but-very-critical-of-it-in-its-current-guise.  David Clarke, ex-Robin Cook SpAd, is the latest to jump on the bandwagon.

So just by way of establishing my own credibility as a Europe-getting-leftie, here’s what I said back in early 2010:

The issue for here is that a process of technocratic economic management signed into law under the Maastricht treaty, under a particular set of economic conditions which the then policy makers assumed would last for ever, is now adding to an already considerable burden on people who did not make the crisis, and did not gain from the booms that caused it.

As a result there is a real possibility of major social unrest in many European countries, including explosions of racial hatred as workers take it out on themselves; this is the antithesis of what the European Union is supposed to be about.

That, fundamentally, is the stupidity at the heart of the European Union, and reflects the key problem with it.

The European Union is wholly based on the entrenchment of neoliberal norms of which the validity is now widely questioned, but which are set out in permanent form in the Lisbon Treaty and the treaties which preceded it.

Ah, if only the Labour wonkery had listened then, Labour would be in a much better place now; rather than looking opportunistic around the EU budget negotiations, it might look as though we’d thought it all through earlier.

But we are where we are, and David is quite right to follow in my footsteps:

Little thought was given to how the free movement provisions [I assume David means of both capital and people] designed for six countries at similar levels of economic development would work after the EU incorporated the impoverished countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The idea of a social Europe, envisaged by Jacques Delors as a balance to the single market, has been the casualty of a headlong rush towards liberalisation for its own sake.

The reason this is better than some of the other bandwagon stuff is that it’s about the fundamentals of the EU, not about the budget froth, which I’ve already covered in my critique of Will Straw’s IPPR pamphlet.  Labour needs to focus on the fundamentals of European reform.

The key question, though, is how Labour can cut through the media fog to present an proper, fundamental alternative which actually gets heard.  Vague generalities about the need to build a new social Europe for new times, or whatever, are going to cut no ice with an electorate fed a steady diet of Brussels eurocrats, straight bananas, and French farmers living it large from handouts.

There are two specific areas – both headline-worthy, both off the Tory radar – on which Labour should focus its media firepower.  Being wise and all-knowing about Europe, I have already covered both in detail.

First, there’s the obstacle the single market puts in the way of economic convergence between the richer and poorer EU states in a Eurozone situation where currency devaluation is not possible, but where the break-up of the Eurozone would create even more havoc for the poorer states.

As I’ve set out here, the Lisbon Treaty does in fact make provision (Article 32) for the temporary suspension of the single market, and the creation of export subsidy/import substitution mechanisms, such that convergence can occur even within the Eurozone and without recourse to self-defeating ‘structural reform’ of the type imposed on Greece.  While that level of detail may not be very headline-drawing, Labour can sell such proposals simply on the basis of its creativity – using stuff that’s already in the Lisbon Treaty – just as the Tories are thinking of doing on free movement of people, but with a mind to the benefit of the whole of Europe, not just as a populist, face-saving anti-migrant measure.

Second, and more headline-attracting than the first, Labour should promise that, on coming to power, it will work with like-minded governments for the abolition of the Stability and Growth Pact six-pack regulations and the parallel Fiscal Compact bundled together in panic by Merkel and Sarkozy in the doomed attempt to save the Merkozy hegemony.   As IPPR’s Will Straw said in his reply to my most recent piece on Europe:

As it happens the Six Pack includes provisions for a 0.5% deficit cap which is ludicrous and would effectively outlaw Keynesianism.

In fact, the six-pack regulations already outlaw Keynesianism, as they become European law in December 2011.  A campaign Labour for the abolition of these regulations therefore makes economic sense, but it can also be sold on the basis of the sovereignty argument – that the EU should not be telling member states that the only available economic policy open to it is one which embeds neoliberalism.

Taken together, these two initiatives could be game-changes for Labour’s credibility on Europe.

Trust me, I’ve been credible on Europe for ages.

Prisoner votes: the compromise

November 22, 2012 Leave a comment

The idea that people should have their basic rights (indeed duties) as citizens withheld because they are in prison is, of course, very stupid, and very illogical.  It simply sends the message that those who are in prison have no stake in the society into which they will sooner or later be released (bar a handful of full life-termers).

Nevertheless, the Tories and Labour find themselves stuck in a stupid-grapple, both sides desperate to look tougher than the other on criminals – this despite, on the one hand, the insignificance of the issue when it comes to actual voting, and, on the other, the very large reputational significance of potentially being the only European country other than Belarus not to be member of the Council of Europe.  Even the usual sensible lefties appear reluctant to speak out on this one.

But what strikes me most of all about the current idiocy is that not a single one of the brilliant minds in parliament has come up with the obvious compromise solution.

Instead of putting forward legislative options for votes for people serving less than 6 months, or four years, or whatever, why not afford the vote to any prisoner who is on unescorted day release as part of their pre-release rehabilitation?

This could be done either by expecting prisoners in such a category to make a specific request to be released for the day on election day and allowing them to get on the electoral register on this basis (the measliest option), or by allowing them the postal vote so that they can vote (the slightly less measly option, given that most day release prisoners are too far from home to vote in person).

Yes, of course it would be much easier, and I suspect actually administratively cheaper, to allow prisoners to stay on the electoral register at their last pre-prison address (or the address where family lives now) and just let forwarding of postal vote applications, then ballot papers, happen, but if MPs really are determined to show how tough they are on the crims, then according the vote to those considered rehabilitated enough to be back in the community anyway will allow them to save face while meeting the ECHR demands for the end of a universal ban.

In 2009 there were 189, 810 unescorted day releases.  Most prisoners do quite a few pre-release, so we’re probably only talking a few thousand votes – something even most crim-heavy MP may be able to stomach.

Of course this excludes short-stay prisoners for home day release is not an option, but if the objective is simply to find a compromise and move on to something less stupid instead, then MPs are likely to be OK with that.

And from the point of view of sensible people, who think going to prison shouldn’t include the removal of democratic rights, this might at least be seen as a first step in the right direction, and something on which a future sensible government might build, especially if the legislation is drawn up in such a way that a future Minister for Common Sense can simply use a Statutory Instrument to expand voting rights, once it’s been proven that giving people in cells a vote doesn’t make society implode overnight.

Any MPs with any sense out there?  On either side?

Selous the zealous

November 21, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s always useful to remember how stupid some Tories are.

Here’s Andrew Selous, MP for SW Bedfordshire, zealously sucking up at PMQs today:

 Does the Prime Minister agree that the United Kingdom’s retention of its triple A status, when France lost its triple A rating this week, shows that the UK retains the confidence of international markets because of the difficult but necessary decisions that we are taking?

Selous actually appears to think rating agencies and the international markets are the same thing.

Clearly used to this stuff, Cameron replies on autopilot:

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Because we have set out a clear plan, we are able to have low interest rates and international confidence, which is line 1, paragraph 1 of the proper growth plan for the UK.

Anyway, it’s worth just checking how those international markets reacted to the Moody’s downgrade of France this week, with a quick look at the France 10 year bond yield before and after 19 November (actually Moody’s downgraded late on 19th):
Ooh, a really scary blip.
Let’s just check the UK 10 year rate for comparison:
Ah right. Same very small blip.  Cameron’s taling bollocks, then.
(Info from Bloomberg.)
Categories: General Politics

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