The Evolution of Human Rights

20 09 2012

I think one of the most interesting thing about human rights is how our view of them as a people has evolved over time. Over on our facebook page we are documenting some of the key developments in the history of human rights, but this is only a snapshot of the highlights of a long and worthwhile struggle.

One of the most interesting developments for me is the slow progress from the rights of small interest groups towards universality. How small groups fighting for their own rights became larger groups until now we are humans fighting for the rights of all humanity.
From the rights of barons over the King to the rights of Englishmen, to the rights of Man and the Citizen, to the rights of women, civil rights and LBGT rights. The Universal Declaration of Human rights came after the deaths of millions across two world wars, but even those deaths pale to the millions more who came before fighting for a similar cause, just in a smaller theatre.

The history of political and philosophical thought on human rights is a long and worthy tradition that I will seek to share and document to show how our struggle now in the UK is one more step in the journey of millions to fight for and secure their rights.

I think it is all too easy to see the battle for the Human Rights Act as just more politics being played as a game in Westminster, forgetting the underlying history of the movement, but it is much more than that.  What we have here in the UK is just our small piece of a larger construct of liberty built over hundreds of years by thousands of hands.  I for one am not going to take a step backward.

Parking: the panacea antonym for Brighton & Hove

2 08 2011

At least, it is for Brighton & Hove. In general, the so-called “war on the motorist” is a complete fabrication: the cost of motor travel has grown significantly less than the costs of public transport (see here).  In larger cities though (#Brighton anyone?), there is certainly a war on parkers. Let me preface this by saying that I am strongly in favour of public transport, and, in fact, believe the best solution available to us here in Brighton & Hove is the promotion of competition in public transport (see, for example, how competition from the Big Lemon forced B&H Buses to reduce their fares).  This can best be achieved via incentivising competition e.g by providing transport subsidies to companies serving new routes (to encourage expansion) or by promoting other forms of public transport (such as expanding cycle lanes)

Neither am I opposed to paid parking in general: as you can see here, paying to park is necessary when demand outstrips supply significantly, if anyone is to ever find a space.

On the other hand, there is a detriment to the city, both to its residents, such as myself (and all other motorists), but also the wider city and its income (see: tourist tax.)  As a city earning a significant proportion of its income from tourism, I feel it is foolish in the extreme to discourage visitors from coming to Brighton.

We clearly need a review of parking and whilst the Greens are currently conducting one I feel, perhaps unfairly, that they have an equanimous view with regards to use of motor cars (e.g. their notion of introducing a city wide 20mph limit which would increase pollution as well as congestion (although 20mph zones do have  other benefits as you can see here)).

If we are to have a parking system, which we clearly need given the available road-space and population density, then we need a realistic system for handling it.  I would suggest buying out the NCP car parks so their rates can be made reasonable (perhaps scaling them down from their current rates until the purchase is covered).  Introduction of park and ride for tourists (perhaps based at the university since the bus routes from there are already in place).  Then we need to introduce an oyster card which would not only simplify our brighton-london links, our use of buses, but could be integrated with parking meters so that one pays only for the time one is parked.

This automation of parking meters could also ensure that no-one overstays their ticket (i.e. is lucky enough to miss a warden).

I will be pushing for the introduction of a Brighton & Hove extension of the oyster card, and its integration with parking meters, to be included in our next manifesto.  Let me know if you are in favour in the comments.

GAYE: incidental charity

27 05 2011

I was very pleased to read that David Cameron is supporting the roll out of charitable donations via PAYE; I call it “Give as you earn.”  I’ve been a supporter of this idea for several years now as I find the main objection to charity isn’t the amounts involved, but the hassle (opportunity cost) of signing up.  People have money, but they don’t have time.  I am of the general opinion that instead of bewailing people’s lack of consideration for one another, they should focus on how to get the most out of people the way they already are.  People are busy, they don’t necessarily want to know, they don’t want to be stopped in the street.  But they do want to help, if it’s not too much trouble.  Some might find that cynical, but I don’t see the problem with it- there are ways of leveraging that human nature to the advantage of millions of people in need.

Equally, I’m sure that for many people, giving to charity seems like it won’t achieve much.  The Oxfam “£2/month or whatever you can” ads certainly had a strong impact on me as a child, although whether that was the awesome music is another question.  Nonetheless, it’s getting people to buy in to the idea that if we all just give a little, just a little, then on aggregate that’s a huge difference.

I would like to see by law, in every PAYE contract, a tick box granting 1% of your salary (or 0.5%) to a standard group or a rotating group of 5 star charities each month (or a given charity of your choice).   1% of net income (i.e. after tax) is, for reference, £10/month to someone earning £1000/month.  In 2010 UK GDP was £1474bn; 1% of that would be £14.7bn/year.

Charities received £52bn in 2009/2010 [source – The UK charitable sector: a snapshot,], so we’re talking about increasing their income by almost 30%.  So 1% gives 30%, and all it would require is a change to employee contract law to include a tick box.

For reference, I’m already signed up to a scheme of this kind, via Bell Fundraising.  In order to run a scheme, a company needs to have an agreement with a PGA (Payroll Giving Agency), there are 3 main PGAs who all offer a similar service, CAF, Charities Trust and Charitable Giving.  If you’re reading this whether it’s as an employer or employee, I sincerely ask that you at least consider either signing on to this or a similar scheme, or emailing your colleagues and managers and asking that they do so.

This is a small change that makes a big difference, we’re talking about 1% less for you and me meaning 30% more for those in need.  As a Liberal, forcing people to give isn’t charity, it’s theft; but not including the option to give seems like indifference to the point of cruelty.

To be honest we’ll sack you

23 05 2011

I hesitate before writing this.  I don’t wish to convey, in the least, that I imagine a utopian society where lying is acceptable, encouraged or seen as inevitable.  It isn’t.  I also think we live in a society that is distinctly not a utopia.  To improve the world, you have to work with systems that are in place.  Societal norms must be used even as they are not accepted and work is done to change them.

It aggravates me to hear people complain about politicians lying to them, or if not lying, then being less than 100% honest about their views, when the merest slip of the tongue, no matter how valid, honest or accurate the opinion, will get them fired (or much flak to that effect).

I think people need to perhaps consider that it is their attitudes that, in effect force politicians to be less than wholesome with the truth.  I challenge anyone reading this to imagine a politician being totally honest and keeping their job.  To not evade a question, to give complete answers, to share both the negative and positive sides of their policies and political positions, and retain even a hope of re-election.

Would you trust a politician who lacked the sense to conceal elements of the truth given the current state of our society, the bias of the media and the unwillingness of people to do read behind the headlines?  I wouldn’t vote for someone who was so naive.  Would you?

Is it then the politicians who can’t be trusted, or we who in effect, with our vote, are asking them “please lie to us”?


Difficulties with evidence based policy

20 04 2011

I have been considering lately a significant barrier to those of us who strive for non-partisan, evidence-based decision making.  To wit: who do you believe?  Increasingly there is a survey, think-tank, nth study, countless headlines, magazines and blogs on either (or every) side of a given position.  As such, is it the case that all decisions must be ideologically motivated?  Not in the sense that they are made without reviewing the evidence, but more in the sense that the evidence reviewed is already biased.

As I have mentioned before, I think that independent bodies need to exist to provide neutral information to both the government and the public.  The leaders of these bodies need to have full bios providing insight in to their affiliations.  Perhaps also with these positions only being approved by cross-party committee approval.

I would very much like to see a source for information that has undergone serious efforts to vet it for neutrality, as well as providing (by law) all sources to be provided, in full.  Can you imagine a news site that was forced to quote officials in full?  Or a rating system for polls and surveys that includes (as part of its rating system): the breadth of the survey in terms of numbers, demographics, etc and also the historical bias of the originator of that survey.

I think people could have more faith in the information they receive if the different sources of information were striving for this “substantial” rating- where an A grade would mean they had policies in place and safeguards to ensure neutrality, that all their sources were provided, and that those sources were themselves A grade in quality & neutrality.

#FPTP has no place in a representative democracy

19 01 2011

Assuming that the wrangling in the House of Lords doesn’t derail the legislation, this year may see one of the most significant reforms to our electoral system since universal suffrage was granted (fully) in 1928.  Ultimately the long history of political reform in this country (and elsewhere) has been driven by two fundamental urges- towards greater accountability of the executive (and thus a balance of power in government) and towards greater representation.

In 1928 the franchise was finally extended to all adults over 21 regardless of property ownership, qualification, gender, religion etc.  In 1969 the voting age was changed to 18, further extending the franchise.  I make the case that the drive for this was the urge for more representative government.  If more people are entitled to vote, parties seeking election must appeal to a wider audience to get their vote, the resulting government is then more representative.

One cannot fault governments of the past for not predicting the flaws of first past the post (FPTP).  Whilst it’s true that other voting systems were proposed throughout the 19th Century (if not earlier), the weaknesses of FPTP were not then apparent.  Equally, other voting methods were “untested” and thus unreliable.

Maurice Duverger (a French poltician & sociologist) observed in several papers in the 1950s and 60s that a system such as FPTP (known as a “plurality voting system”) tends to favour a two-party system.  That is to say, FPTP encourages a polarisation of the body politic, both in the minds of the people and the institutions of government.  This principle is referred to as “Duverger’s Law.”  In short:

i) smaller parties are unlikely to win, so voters desert them for larger parties
ii) parties with similar agendas split the vote, meaning neither get elected, this encourages parties to merge into larger parties

These two elements tend, over time, to a firmly entrenched two party system.  I contend that two party systems are, by nature, neither representative nor beneficial for their country.  The reason for this is simple- if there are only two options, neither has to be truly good to be chosen, only better than the alternative.  In effect, a two party system is a duopoly of government, and just as bad as any duopoly would be for consumers in the open market.  As for being representative, on the contrary a two party system means that you’re either “in” or you’re “out.”  As such:

i) supporters of the losing party are highly unlikely to have their views represented in government
ii) people whose views are not represented by either party are not represented in government (discouraging voter turnout)

Duverger himself argued that this was not a certainty (we here in the UK have bucked the trend), but merely that FPTP would both “act to delay the emergence of a new political force, and … accelerate the elimination of a weakening force.”  It has certainly done so, with coalitions, inherently representing a greater diversity of views, coming in to existence less than a handful of times in our history.

What’s worse is that this tendency towards polarisation is not the only downside to FPTP: the methodology of FPTP means that any votes for losing parties are discounted, resulting in millions of votes making no difference to the results of elections in “safe seats.”  As it is, the elections are decided by the minority of voters living in marginal constituencies.  This means that the potential governments are fighting to represent the views of these “marginal” voters and not of the electorate as a whole.  This map, based on 2005 electoral data, shows seats that haven’t changed hands for 40 years.

What’s more, the “winner takes all” methodology of FPTP, combined with ever-decreasing turnout means that MPs can be elected with only a fraction of the electorate supporting them.  Only three MPs elected in 2005 secured the votes of more than 40% of their constituents.  George Galloway polled the votes of only 18.4% of his constituents, yet ended up in the House of Commons!

Safe seats such as this reduce accountability of MPs to their constituents- as with monopolistic businesses, these MPs do not have to offer anything resembling a high quality service to continue in post- they are the only option.

So, in summary, first past the post is not fit for purpose as the electoral system of a representative democracy.  It discourages pluralism, restricting voter choice, it discounts the votes of millions of eligible citizens because they live in safe seats and weights unfairly votes from marginal constituencies.

As I said in my introduction, I strongly believe that electoral reform has always been driven towards greater representation of the people by their government.  It’s clear that first past the post only discourages representation.  For the same reasons we needed universal suffrage, we can’t have FPTP.  Democracy means power comes from the people- their views have to be taken into account.  Ours is a representative democracy, so let’s make it representative.

The trouble with education

9 12 2010

I guess it was inevitable that I’d have to write on this at some point, what with the furore over it.  It’s not something I was keen to write, since it’s closer to personal belief and opinion than a factual basis- thus open to potentially productive, but ultimately undecidable.  Equally, it’s an issue that lacks clearly defined boundaries, and many other factors come into play that are not directly involved (e.g. government spending on education compared to healthcare, military expenditure)

So let’s start with the most important point- I think education is the single most important public service.  I realise this is debatable, but as I said, this is an opinion piece.  I believe that education provides technological (and philosophical/sociological/psychological/ethical) advancement, greater societal cohesion, higher social mobility and increased happiness.  I would rather have these things at the cost of other areas of public spending, since I think it comes first.
Education is something I have always been very passionate about.  I used to think I wanted to be PM, now I think I’d rather be Minister for Education (although maybe not in this government!)  I think that the only real solution to humanity’s problems is better education.   I think educating people is a slow and gradual process, but I don’t see how we are to progress if people are not taught, early, the skills they need to grow, to better themselves, and to provide for themselves and others.

I hope that makes my position clear, as the last thing I’d want to hear from this is that I think education “isn’t important” or that some people “shouldn’t have it.”  I’d rather everyone as much of it as they could manage, and then some more- that would be ideal.

I’m an idealist, because I think you need to have ideals to aspire to, but I’m also a realist and a student of economics.  Economics is the study of allocation of limited resources- that’s the reality.  We, as a society, have limited resources and thus are forced to make trade offs between various “ideal” outcomes.  We thus elect representatives to choose a compromise on our behalf.

As I said, for the purposes of this piece I won’t get into which outcomes deserve more funding, but will talk about education as an area on its own.  It has costs and it has to be paid for.

It is clear that education provides a benefit both to the one educated and society as a whole.  Therefore it makes sense for both parties to contribute.  As an individual, you benefit from education via the skills & knowledge to engage effectively with society, increased employability and a sense of self-worth/personal achievement.  Of these, two are worth society’s investment, and one is not.  It’s true that if more people in society had high self worth society would almost certainly be happier and more cohesive.  On the other hand, this would also justify investment in any leisure activity that granted a sense of achievement.

So- the counter arguments.

People will say that people have the “right” to education.  As I explained in my article on the subject, I believe that what we call “rights” are privileges we collectively grant one another.  So how much education should society entitle people to?


“Education should be free!” <=> All education should have no financial cost to the learner.
So any amount of education is free (save only opportunity cost of learning as opposed to other options).
So the potential cost of education is infinite.


So the conclusion is that the premise (all education) must be incorrect.  Here’s my position:

“Some education should be free.”

The question then becomes: how much?

People need a certain level of education to fulfil their role in society- they need to be able to understand their responsibilities & entitlements as citizens.  Thus they need education in our language, in our legal system, our system of commerce, our system of government and not to mention the various career paths available to them and what will be useful qualifications to pursue to achieve those career goals.
This leads to my first criticism of our current education system- it does not teach citizens these fundamentals (as a prerequisite).  We learn mathematics & english, but not basic finance or law.  We expect people to follow the law and to engage in our economy, but we don’t perforce teach them how these things work?  I realise both are complex topics in their own right, but so is maths!  Career guidance is offered, but it should be compulsory and of much higher priority.  If people leave school with no idea of what career they wish to pursue, I think their school has not done them justice.

One of the most important things I learned from my teachers was he believed the purpose of school was to teach pupils how to learn.  That it was practice at the skill of learning- giving us the tools we needed to learn other things.  This then, I believe, is the second fundamental item to be delivered by education- the tools of learning- research, comprehension, extrapolation, summary, reasoning, argument etc.

Having delivered these basics, a given pupil is then capable of performing what society demands of them, as well as being equipped to learn other things (such as what their career will require).  These basics I believe should be covered to GCSE, at which point a diversification into academic/vocational/hybrid studies should be offered.  At 18 a given pupil should be equipped to enter the workforce full time.

Some professions, however, will always require more training than can be provided by 18.  Equally, within every discipline is the need for specialists, for expertise.  As such, higher education is an important stepping stone to achieving a certain standing in that field.  Society needs experts; it’s willing to pay for them.  How to know what society wants though?  I’d argue a review of how many graduates of various degrees gained employment in their chosen profession each year.  If a degree gets you a job in a relevant profession, it’s clear that society needs candidates with those degrees.  If people take a degree, whether it’s viewed as mickey mouse or not, and it means they are (as a statistical sample) no more employable than any other degree candidate, I would argue that is society’s way of saying “we don’t need this degree.”  This is an example of market forces.  Part of the problem with degree funding is that whilst market forces apply, they don’t affect the price of the degree.  Some degrees, whether by subject or by institution, are worth more to employers, but degrees all cost the same (on a per year basis).  Now I’m certainly not saying that a degree in a much-sought-after subject from a top university should cost more, but on the contrary, it is in those areas that more funding should be made available so that students are encouraged to study degrees that society requires.  Trends on degree prices should be available on UCAS so that potential students can see which degrees are becoming more (or less) valuable to employers.

One of my latest liberal ideas is that “people are free, but things are not.”  To paraphrase from open source: I believe people deserve to be free (as in freedom), they don’t deserve to have things for free (as in beer).
I believe that people should be free to study whatever they like.  I don’t believe that studying whatever you like should be free.  Ultimately, people need to accept the consequences of their actions- the choices you make have a cost that you must be willing to pay if you make that choice.  I believe that the government has a duty to ensure people have the knowledge to make informed choices, people have a duty to pay for the things they choose.  If a given degree will not improve someone’s chances at their chosen career, should they not pay for it themselves?  I don’t understand the logic that suggests that society should finance students studying anything they fancy with no thought to its use to society.  I don’t expect altruism- the usefulness of things to society has a direct link to how much society will pay for them.

“Massive debts will discourage students from attending university.”

Better to say “some” students will be discouraged- a massive debt isn’t a massive issue if, for example:

a) the repayment terms on it are highly favourable despite its size, you don’t have to repay it if you don’t achieve the higher income you were aspiring for & it doesn’t affect your ability to get further credit elsewhere or

b) it’s only massive relative to your current income, not relative to say, the income of graduates in your field

Certainly costs (financed by debt in this case) are a discouragement, but if someone does not believe that the cost of their degree is worth paying, then perhaps they should think twice before pursuing it?  I don’t think that putting a cost on something is a bad thing, unless that cost is not commensurate with that thing’s value.

I’ve heard a counter-argument that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are more debt averse than their peers.  This is then used to argue against higher fees.  Surely the argument should be used to validate greater investment in economic learning for pupils from such backgrounds?

If students were taught about debt, what it is, what it means, then perhaps they’d not see it as such a problem.  Debt is not a problem a priori.  Debt aversion a priori is a problem, since debt is a necessary part of our economy.  When buying a house, the price is generally much higher than the income or capital of a given buyer, so they borrow in order to finance the purchase.  This isn’t a problem if their income (or expected future income) validates their investment.  Indeed it may well be a good investment if house prices increase.  It’s ironic that students are now marching about being “saddled” with debt, when so many people were happily saddling themselves with debts that were actually a problem during the housing crisis.  Why were they a problem?  Even taking house price bubbles aside, or people living beyond their means, the real reason these loans became a massive problem was because the terms of the contracts were very unfavourable (e.g. very high rates of interest, lose your home if you default on a repayment etc.)  If those mortgages had had a clause saying “repayments are always a percentage of your income” then foreclosure wouldn’t have been an issue.  A better understanding of finance would (one can hope) allow more informed decision making with regards to debt.

Taking reforms to current education aside, currently students who have gone through school to A2 have a choice- they can choose to enter the workforce, progressing their career through developing experience and making contacts or they can choose to pursue higher education.  I think it is unfortunate that in recent years the former option has been given such short thrift.  The recurring theme from graduates in today’s job market is that employers are looking for valid experience more than “just” a degree- because so many people have one.  The drive for more university students has diluted the value of a degree (think of it as degree inflation), which is bad enough, but what’s worse is its effect on the employability of non-degree pupils.  A degree is increasingly pre-requisite for low-middle range administrative and clerical jobs- how is that a good return on investment?  Equally valid- many professions now offer career paths & training that do not require a degree- such as becoming a solicitor.  It is a shame these alternate routes are not given similar pride of place in discussions of education.  These days it is increasingly the case that candidates “need” a degree, but I argue that such is to conflate the idea of a degree with a “basic” education.

So in summary (tl;dr)- not all education should be free, not all debt is a problem & not all careers require a degree.  Society should subsidise education that returns value to society; people should be willing to accept the costs of their choices.  The introduction of a link between employability and the cost of education, whether higher or otherwise, should allow the value to society to subsidise the cost to the individual.

The problem with education is that people are asking, “How can make this [broken] system affordable?” instead of asking “what system would be [most] worth paying for?”