Sunday, July 20, 2008

Marvellous Article In The Indy

"If we end up with 20 years of Tory government, it'll be The Pigeon Detectives' fault."

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Make It Happen: A Note of Caution

The Lib Dem blogosphere is buzzing with excitement about Make It Happen (pdf), which has indeed attracted some press reaction to it, as Stephen discusses. To this I just want to add my own paranoia. Here goes...

Lib Dem bashers frequently claim that we try to out-Tory the Tories in Tory seats, and that we try to out-Labour Labour in Labour seats (thus giving away their own belief in the natural order of things, and the specific tenet that there are only such things as Tory Voters and Labour Voters, "really, you know, deep down..."). Which is one of those analyses that's so half arsed, it's a good job nobody spends too much time thinking about it, or it'd fall apart. Because a moment's thought reveals that the way to take a seat from a Tory is to bleed them of a few voters (if they happen to actually have more than 50% of the vote), and then persuade Labour voters, Green voters, etc. that to get rid of the Tory, they could do worse than vote for you. Now, I hate that idea, to be honest, but needs must as the Devil's Very Own Voting System drives.

FPTP requires that you build a coalition. Every government which has gotten itself elected successfully has understood this. Every now and then, you can build a groundswell around a genuine point of ideology (eg. Thatcher?), but mostly you win by being moderate and sounding competent. The question for Nick Clegg here is, is this a time when a genuine feeling in favour of low tax is going to be big enough to drive voters his way. And, two years out from an election, there's no point in me or anyone else making predictions about that.

But the point for Dave Cameron on this is that he long ago committed himself to the de-toxifying of the Tory brand, and he knows he couldn't say what Nick has anyway, for exactly that reason. So if I was a Tory who subscribes to the idea that the Tories will win the next election on moderate-ness, not on hard Toryness - like, say, Iain Dale - then what would I try and do right now? I might start shouting long and hard about how Nick Clegg is leading his party into "a radical tax-cutting platform [that] has left the other two parties gasping". I would say that it "marks the triumph of the so-called "Orange Booker" tendency", and I might write something like:
He hasn't just pledged a reduction in taxes; he has promised a cut in public spending, too. Admittedly, it is only £20 billion, a mere three per cent of total government spending, but it's a start. And it's a damn sight more than any other politician has had the guts to do.
The bonus point of selling the idea that the Lib Dems have now become the party of the government spending cut enthusiast (which Iain tries to do whilst not quite sounding like he's actually saying he's agreeing with us), is that part two of that narrative is to be used in debates:

"The Lib Dems now want to cut taxes, before they wanted to raise them. YOU CAN'T TRUST THEM!"

The amateurs are trying to jump to this step before they've done the groundwork of establishing that we are now a party of rabid taxcutters. But the professionals are letting this sink in for now, and just chipping in with their usual chippy bollocks about "yes, well, the Lib Dems can say what they like, etc...."

Can we not run headlong towards the idea that we're now the party of a radical tax-cutting agenda unless we really are? Because as far as I'm aware, conference hasn't passed anything other than the policy of cutting income tax at the low end so we can introduce LIT and implement the Great Green Tax Shift.

I hate to be a buzzkill and that, and I understand the imperative to get media coverage, I'm sure it'll be good for the poll numbers and thereby for Nick's narrative, and I'm not knocking that, really I'm not. But let's not get carried away with all the media and start letting people put words in our mouths.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Are "religious rights" special?

Today's Wail contains a typically sensational report on the case of Lillian Ladele, a bigot whose sky-fairy told her to do it. So many points to be made here that I don't quite know where to start. Perhaps a quick rewrite is in order. The following should strike everyone the way a story like this strikes me:

Victory for Pastafarian registrar bullied for refusing to perform 'sinful' inter-racial weddings

A Pastafarian registrar who refused to carry out interracial 'weddings' won a landmark legal battle yesterday.

A. N. Other, 45, was threatened with the sack, bullied and 'thrown before the lions' after asking to be excused from conducting civil partnerships for mixed-race couples because of his religious beliefs.

But yesterday a tribunal agreed that his faith had been ridden roughshod over by equalities-obsessed Islington Council, which had sought to 'trump one set of rights with another'.

The groundbreaking decision could lead to firms facing 'conscience claims' from staff who say their own beliefs prevent them carrying out part of their job.

Yesterday's ruling found that Liberal Democrat-run Islington Council in North London cared too much about the 'rights of the black, white, asian and oriental communities'.

It also found that the council – which gave Mr. Other an ultimatum to choose between his beliefs and his £31,000-a-year job – showed no respect for his rights as a Pastafarian.

Speaking afterwards, Mr. Other said: 'It is a victory for religious liberty, not just for myself but for others in a similar position to mine.

'Civil rights should not be used as an excuse to bully or harass people over their religious beliefs.'

Mr. Other, who is single, said he was treated like a pariah by colleagues and left in an 'intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment'.

He had wept as he told the tribunal how his employers gave him an ultimatum to perform the ceremonies or face dismissal for gross misconduct.

'I was being picked on a daily basis,' he said. He said he felt like he was being 'thrown before the lions', explaining: 'I hold the orthodox Pastafarian view that marriage is the union of two people of the same race for life and this is the Flying Spaghetti Monster-ordained place for sexual relations.

'It creates a problem for any Pastafarian if they are expected to do or condone something that they see as sinful.'

His nightmare began in 2004, when he realised that legislation permitting civil partnerships at town halls between gays or lesbians would require him to preside over the ceremonies.

Mr. Other raised his concerns, but was ridiculed. His boss, Helen Mendez-Child, said his stance was akin to a registrar refusing to marry a gay person.

In 2006 Mr. Other and another, unnamed, Pastafarian colleague were accused of 'discriminating against the homosexual community'.

In May 2007, the council launched an internal disciplinary inquiry into Mr. Other.

Four months later, he was told if he did not co-operate he would be sacked. He took the council to an employment tribunal, claiming discrimination, harassment and victimisation on the grounds of religion or beliefs.

Yesterday the Central London tribunal agreed he had been unfairly treated.

In its ruling, which could have implications for the administration of the 18,000 same-sex ceremonies conducted every year, the tribunal said: 'This is a situation where there is a conflict between two rights or freedoms. It is an important case, which may have a wider impact than the dispute between the parties.

'The tribunal accepts that it would be wrong for one set of rights to trump another.

'The evidence before the tribunal was that Islington Council rightly considered the importance of the right of the interracial community not to be discriminated against but did not consider the right of Mr. Other as a member of a religious group.

'Islington Council decided that the service it provided was secular and that the rights of the interracial community must be protected.

'In so acting, it took no notice of the rights of Mr. Other by virtue of his orthodox Pastafarian beliefs.'

Compensation will be decided in September. There is no limit to the amount that can be awarded for religious discrimination.

Last night employment lawyer Lisa Mayhew, of Jones Day, said: 'It is a bit of a wake-up call for employers.

'They need to think about whether their instructions and the tasks expected of staff might cause people with religious beliefs more problems than others.

'It does not have to be religion – this could apply across the spectrum in terms of race, gender or sexual orientation.'

But Bert Winterknack, of interracial rights campaign group Brickwall, said: 'Public servants are paid by taxpayers to deliver public services.

'They shouldn't be able to pick and choose who they deliver those services to.'

Now, before we get down to it, there are a few pragmatic points I have seen raised on this. Sure, the argument goes, she couldn't expect to be employed if she lived, say, in the highlands, and was the only registrar for miles around, but she wasn't. She worked in a busy registrar's office, and there were other registrars who could do the ceremonies she objected to, why couldn't Islington council just be a sport and allow her to duck out of those ceremonies she didn't want anything to do with. Of course, they could have done that, and, as I understand it, this is the ad hoc arrangement that she came to for some time.

Like any employee who continually demands special treatment in the way their tasks are assigned in a workplace that employs many people, it doesn't surprise me that this didn't exactly make her popular in the office. I don't know how far the alleged "lions" went, but since the article in the Mail, which is pretty sympathetically worded, mentions no specifics at all, I doubt it was especially bad. Besides which, this isn't what she is complaining about - the employment tribunal are there only to consider the rights and wrongs of her being faced with an ultimatum playing her beliefs against her continued employment.

The main point, really, is that to say the council (and I couldn't care less that it's a Lib Dem council, it may as well be a BNP council for all I care, they'd still be right) have wrongly allowed gay rights to trump religious ones is bizarre. The gay people in question are not employees, the religious person in question is, and an employee of a secular, state organisation, at that. Her job description now requires her to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies (which, by the way, were only introduced in the first place to get around the fact that religious twats were so bothered about the idea of the word "marriage" being applied to gay relationships, so I'm not even sure what she's bothered about; she's isn't being asked to "marry" gay people), and she is refusing to do her job. Why should a secular state pay her to only do, say, nine tenths of her job? How about four fifths of her job? Half? A quarter?

Why is there even confusion about people's right to be employed even if they say they mustn't do part of the job description, not because they are incapable of doing it, but because they don't believe in it? Could I demand work as a bricklayer but say I was ideologically opposed to physical work? No? Why not?

But as soon as you attach the magic word "religion" to things, people lose sight of the point. This is a problem for soft-secular states like Britain, who like to think they are essentially secular now but who still have a state religion, a requirement for a daily act of worship in all state schools, and laws against religious discrimination but no similar protections for atheists. An atheist who acted as Lillian Ladele has would, quite rightly, be told to fucking well belt up and get on with their job or find another one. Like she was. And nobody would think they had a leg to stand on.

Of course, nobody should be forced to do something they don't want to do. And Miss Ladele wasn't, she was given a choice: officiate in these ceremonies, or find another job which was compatible with her beliefs. She chose instead to throw her toys out of the pram and assert her right to stay on the public purse whilst discriminating against a section of the public who she is employed by. That an employment tribunal thinks that this right exists is the scary part. Because what it means is that, in the minds of the tribunal at least, "religious" rights are in some way special. Belief in a supernatural order to the world does, it seems, qualify you to hold attitudes which unreasonably affect your performance of your job without fear of reproach. In this sense, the state has a long way to go before it can genuinely call itself secular.

People who call Dawkins, Hitchens, Grayling et al. "militant", who claim they are just being mean and picking a fight with mostly inoffensive religious people, can shove it up their arse. Because until stories like this one seem to everyone as obviously absurd as they do to atheists, they have a very important role.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Vexed Question of Green Car Taxation

Nick Clegg has got a piece up on CiF today. It's nothing very new to anyone who pays attention to Nick's every utterance, as will be true of many Lib Dem bloggers. What I found notable about it was the comments thread it has sparked. Like all dicussion of this issue, it is full of people arguing for some system or other, who talk past each another, not to each other.

What I mean by this is that they proudly proclaim the benefits of the tax instrument they favour and the shortcomings of the those proposed by others, but they don't address the shortcomings that others raise about their own preferred tax instrument.

Essentially, what we have on offer here are three alternative forms of taxation, all imperfect:

1. Vehicle Excise Duty - "we tax people on the car they own"

-Allows the annual check on insurance and MOT to be bundled in with its administration; these things are Good Ideas for other, obvious, non-environmental reasons.
-Allows us to incentivise people to buy fuel efficient cars.

-Penalises the owner of a car for simply having it, not for using it, which is the polluting part.
-Doesn't distinguish between people's reasons for owning a car. Those who need a car because they live in a rural area pay as much as those who live on a perfectly usable bus route for owning the same car.

2. Fuel Duty - "we tax the petrol"

-Is the best green tax; it allows us to straightforwardly penalise the polluter in proportion to the amount of fossil fuel they burn.

-Doesn't allow us to make value judgments on the "worth" of the journey being made. Someone who lives in a rural area and has little choice but to use their car if they want to get into town to do some shopping pays just as much as someone who lives five minutes' walk from the newsagents but is too lazy to walk there to buy a paper (say).

3. Road User Charging - "we charge people for each journey they make" (includes congestion charges, motorway charges, etc.)

-Allows more specific targeting of "the wrong sort of journey" - as long as we can all agree on what that is.

-May involve the use of some fairly intrusive technology if we want to do anything more clever than making motorways into toll roads (for instance).

The only thing we know for certain about this choice is that, unless we want to see some other taxes go up significantly, we have to choose one of them, and it is right that we do so, because discouraging car use is an important part of any effort to meet our CO2 reduction targets. So which way should we as a country jump? Nick Clegg is making a pitch in his piece for option 3, Road User Charging:
So the real solution we should be focusing on to cut driving is to abolish VED altogether and cut fuel tax, replacing them with revenue-neutral road user charging on motorways and trunk roads only.
But he doesn't even mention the concerns people have about Road User Charging in his piece (the intrusive road use tracking that may be involved). By neglecting to pre-emptively rebut this point, he makes the fundamental error of leaving space for a glib response in a CiF piece - give these people an inch... But never mind that, reforming CiFers is better done by those with the stamina for endless perseverance in the face of fuckwittery, such as Citizen Alix.

Now, we over here in the more civilised domain of Lib Dem Blogs may have read James Graham's post exploring why RUC needn't be as intrusive as some suggest, but why there's plenty of other reasons to dislike it as a policy:
My main objections are threefold: it would take bloody ages to introduce, it is an IT disaster waiting to happen and it falls foul of the unintended consequences law.
By that last comment, by the way, James means that it doesn't penalise "60-something retirees living the life of Riley out in the sticks and driving a Mercedes".

And that's the problem with this whole argument, really: everyone can think of some unutterable git who they would like to punish for living in the wrong place, or having the wrong job or the wrong lifestyle, or making the wrong choices, who gets off lightly under a given policy. Or if they can't manage that, they can think of some poor unfortunate who is being driven out of house and home by being taxed as highly as they would be under said policy.

Meanwhile, the problem I have with Nick's suggestion is the idea that motorway journeys around the country, when one could go by train, are in any way a more pernicious form of pollution than journeys into town from home, when one could take the bus. If we want to make a serious dent in greenhouse emissions, surely we need to tackle both? The journeys that can justifiably be discouraged are those with truly viable public transport alternatives, regardless of the distance of the journey. So what constitutes a viable alternative?

To me, there is a distinction to be made between a journey by car whenever you feel like it, and a journey by bus or train that you have to plan in advance because they only run every so often. What makes the London tube such a great public transport system (at least compared to the rest of the country) is that it runs regularly enough (most of the time) that you don't bother to plan a time in advance, you just walk into a station and get the next train to where you want to go. To me, public transport has to have that kind of convenience before it can be considered a truly comparable alternative, as well as simply not taking an inordinately longer time to travel. Of course, exactly how regular something needs to be before you consider it viable will vary from person to person, so this is not the reliable deciding factor it might look like.

And of course, we still want to gently suggest to people that they might take public transport even when it does notably inconvenience them. After all, it would reduce emissions if people took a bus from their suburban home into town which runs every half an hour, even if that is a pain in the arse.

Once we get into the business of deciding how worthwhile or defensible everyone's decisions to take a car are, we run the risk of an overbearing state intrusion to make the whole system workable. If we don't want to go down that route, then we are going to end up with a piecemeal system of toll plazas on motorways and congestion zones in town centres, with unintended consequences of encouraging people to drive on B roads and thus increase their emissions.

So can we please stop these silly games? Can we instead focus the argument on what it is we are trying to achieve here? In the end, we are trying to achieve a greener Britain. To do this, we must discourage all usage of fossil fuels. Ultimately, the best way to do that is to make it really jolly expensive to burn fossil fuels. Full stop. Then we can start having an argument about giving certain people special dispensation if we want: hauliers, for instance, or people who live in rural areas (though I'm with James on that one; unless you're a farmer, you don't have to live out in the middle of nowhere, and anyone choosing to do so knew that they stood to be dependent on car travel when they bought the house. It's swings and roundabouts; they get the lower house prices, they can also take the costs of driving about the place.) Ultimately, the best way to lower emissions is for the cost of polluting to be reflected in the price of the journey.

So my conclusions here are as follows:

- A VED regime which simply covers the cost of administration of checks that each car is insured and has passed its MOT.

- A fairly punitive fuel duty, to be poured into increasing bus services and making train tickets cheaper.

- Renationalise the railways! Maybe unpopular with the liberal wing of the party, but frankly, the record of the private railway franchises in Britain doesn't seem great as far as ticket prices are concerned. We now subsidise the railways around four times as much as we did under British Rail, and all we have to show for it is rocketing ticket prices despite services which are in more demand than ever.

Alright then, tell me why I'm wrong!

Sunday, July 06, 2008

An End of Season Dr Who / LM / LDB Meme. (Yes we must.)

Well, RTD has just rather publicly gotten himself over his Doctor/Rose dyad with a massive, turgid two-parter. Thank goodness for that.

Meanwhile, Loz Miles is positively inviting us to pile in on his agenda for discussion on the future of the programme:
The following 25-point programme may not be a way of guaranteeing that Doctor Who is great - only a competent scriptwriting team could ensure that, and in the Age of Chibnall, even competence is a precious commodity - but it would at least give the series a chance to escape its current rut of showbiz fan-fic and computer-generated slurry. Tick the ones you agree with, and if you tick all 25, then I'm available for a September wedding.
I will leave LM to explain himself on each of the points, there's no point reproducing the whole lot here, but here are the 25 headings, along with my own thoughts (you can skip this if you're pushed for time), and a score from 1 to "Yes! Yes! Just... YES." (4, so that they will add up to a neat percentage).

I do hope I'm not getting married in September...

1. A companion who isn't from the early twenty-first century.
Yeah, this would be nice. I'm not sure it's a priority, though. Plus, if that moment in Planet of the Ood that pissed Larry off so much (you know; where the Doctor apologised for questioning sweat shops) had been with a companion who wasn't from our times, there would have been no question of tieing the ethical issue back to our world in such a direct way in the first place, regardless of the apology.

2. A companion who's played by a proper actress.
Yup. Not only on the basis of the quality of the acting, but if the show lets itself be judged on the star names it attracts, then it hands the press a stick to beat it with as soon as it doesn't find a big name who wants to be a companion for a series.

3. We don't necessarily need a single companion.
Not convinced. This seems to be based on Larry accepting that the programme needs UST, but wanting it not to involve the Doctor. The latter I can get on board with, but the former is not really a position I accept. You could have some occasional UST, where necessary, with a character specific to the story, or if you want something ongoing then a recurring character (maybe instead of the fretful-mother-and-accoutrements). A whole season of it between companions might get just as tedious as what we've had so far.

4. No more affairs for the Doctor.

5. A less sexy, less athletic Doctor.
Yes, but not too worried about this. At the very least, a Doctor who stops making knowing little smuggeries like "I don't want to regenerate; I mean.. look at me!".

6. No spurious super-powers.

7. The Doctor shouldn't know everything.
Completely agree with what Larry says here about the spirit of the programme being discovery alongside the characters, not infodumping.

8. The Doctor shouldn't be perfect.
I think, to be fair, RTD understands this point, and allowed Davros to make some relatively telling criticisms of the Doctor's moral character in the finale. But I would agree that the idolising of the Doctor by Moff has been tedious.

9. The Doctor's presence should never, ever be the solution.
Hmm. In many ways, it can be argued that the series has always presented the Doctor's presence as being the crucial factor, but the difference was that he still had to do something, rather than simply be the Doctor. I think the point is that many scripts aren't making much effort to make the solutions interesting, because they aren't really interested in them.

10. No technobabble.
Meh. The show has always had technobabble, and Loz even admits that some stories (he cites The Pirate Planet) have done it in a dramatically satisfying way. I think perhaps technobabble is a straw man here. Although it has to be said that the fetishisation of technobabble we saw in Journey's End with the DoctorDonna was silly.

11. Absolutely no "magic wand" technology.
Essentially the same point as the technobabble point, but better expressed.

12. Please, in the name of God, less stories set on modern-day Earth.

13. No more alien invasions.
Certainly fewer, they lead to some pretty uninteresting runarounds.

14. Stop wasting money on "big".
Sometimes. I think at the end of the season it's fair enough wanting "big", but if you're going to do it, do it well. The exploding Daleks and saucers at the end of last night's episode looked seriously budget, to my eye. I'd certainly apply this rule to the big empty first-two-parter-of-the-seasons, though; the best one so far was Daleks in Manhattan, and that wasn't great. I'd rather have a couple more cheapo Midnight type things spread throughout the season.

15. Less CGI monsters.
Maybe. I don't really mind them, they're a standard these days, and people, rightly or wrongly, think other forms of effect work look silly. I do think it would be nice to have more of a concept behind the monsters. Doctor Who monsters are always supposed to have some sort of "point", to my mind - this is what has generally set it apart from stuff like Star Trek, with its ersatz alien "cultures". Doesn't really matter if the "point" is an aesthetic one or a more ideological one, or if the point is their environment more than the monster itself (Daleks = Nazis, The Master = Polar Opposite to The Doctor, Monsters of Greatest Show in the Galaxy = things that are creepy about a Circus, etc.). The worst thing, then, to do to a monster is to completely divorce them from their "point", so that they might as well be any old thing. The example this series was the Sontarans, a physical monster, not a CG one, so... I think Loz may have let his dislike of the ubiquity of CGI cloud his diagnosis of a cause for the symptoms he has correctly identified.

16. Stop making straight-to-video horror movies with all the horror taken out.
Loz hasn't really completely explained what he means by this, since he admits that Hammer Horror -> Talons of Weng Chiang worked, but what I gather from what he's written is the following guiding principle: If you're going to lift a movie trope, lift one which survives the transition. Talons works because the BBC could do most of what made Hammer good, but Lazarus Experiment doesn't, because what makes the films which influenced it good cannot be transmitted at 7pm on a Saturday. I suspect I may be making my own point out of Loz's components, but... it's the only one I can find in there (unless he just means that the films they are copying nowadays are rubbish ones, which isn't a very interesting point).

17. We need writers who can write, not just directors who can direct.
Yes, but I would add to this that there are some writers who can write: RTD when he stears clear of the finales, Moff when he's not celebrating himself / just winding up fans who don't like the idea of the Doctor "dancing", Matt Jones to some extent, Paul Cornell, Rob Shearman.

18. I should obviously be hired as a writer.
I'd like to see it, but suspect it would be vetted heavily by Moff, and I doubt Loz could cope.

19. Make sure you hire the right "cult" comic-book author.
Agree with the comments recommending Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, though I don't share LM's complete aversion to Gaiman.

20. We need one - just one - proper historical story.
Yeah, might be nice.

21. Historical stories that are actually about the era in question.
Certainly, though more than this I would have pushed Loz's other objection to the current historicals: the slavishly followed dogma that each and every famous historical figure was "a genius", "brilliant", "the best X ever", etc., and furthermore that the episode needs to spend 20% of its running time impressing this upon us. In this sense, at least, Girl in the Fireplace was preferable - as an "Oddball Historical", rather than as a "Doctor Weepie".

22. Monsters that fit the story.
I made the jump to this point a bit early, under the point about CGI, so I will agree with it here.

23. Enough of the Daleks.
I dunno. A finale every two seasons, say, would be tolerable, but only if they have something fresh to do with them. I would certainly like to see the crash-bang-wallop Dalek Epics rested for a while.

24. Say no to story arcs.
Hmm. I appreciate what Loz says about the finale enslaving the rest of the season to some extent, but I still think it's nice to have a payoff for following the whole series, something a bit more than the first couple of seasons' code words. I couldn't say this season's arc bothered me, if you ignore the fervent fan speculation about it (which you will never stop) and just look at the actual episodes.

25. Less Confidential, more Totally.
Not bothered, suspect this is only on Loz's list out of Moff-aversion.

So my total agreement with Loz here is... 64%.

Now, people who are to be made tediously to do this: anyone who wants to, really, but I'm guessing Daddies Richard and Alex, Jennie and Matt, Will, and anyone who I've forgotten.