Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Lets stop taking one-off opinion polls as meaning anything at all and only look at trends.

Follow the money! Who are the main beneficiaries from public Opinion Polls? YouGov and the other Poll companies of course. That polling changed politics is unquestionably true as is, I would contend, the assertion that we are today gasping for air in an avalanche of the things. Virtually every day a new poll showing the relative Party positions is published. The laws of statistics, especially the phenomenon of "sampling error" , means that from time to time a poll will suggest an outcome that is out of line with the trends. There was one recently which showed Labour and the Conservatives equal, for example, while most polls had been showing a comfortable Labour lead. This poll was jumped upon by many commentators who wrote stories about Labour's failings or about the huge "positive" influence of Lynton Crosby on the Tories' fortunes. A day or so later the next poll showed Labour back in the lead again and the story was dropped!

The sampling error in any one poll is at least  +/- 3% which means that the latest YouGov Poll should be shown like this. The probability of Labour being on any percentage from 37% to 43% is equally likely and there is no particular extra significance in the midpoint number.

Lab 40%  (37-43)
Con 34% (31-37)
LD 10%. (7-13)
UKIP 12% (9-15)

Aside from statistical error the other reason that these polls should be treated with a pinch of salt is timing. We are not in a run up to a General Election at the moment - it will not happen until 2015. Respondents in polls are not (usually) asked how they will vote in a distant election but how they would vote NOW. It is a hypothetical question and people answer such questions differently from real ones. In particular the willingness to make a protest vote (e.g. for UKIP) is likely to be greater in a hypothesis than in reality. But while UKIP's position is overstated because it is not for real at the moment it may be understated because some polls do not "prompt" for the Party. A prompt is analogous to a ballot paper. If you show a respondent a list of parties and ask him which he would vote for that is a prompt. If you ask him unprompted which he will support that will give a somewhat different result for the smaller Parties such as UKIP or the Greens. Comparing fully prompted polls with unprompted polls ( it happens) is not comparing like with like.

Hypothetical opinion polls are much more likely to be affected by recent events than a real election. So, for example, outcomes fluctuate at the time of Party conferences but generally return to trend within a few weeks. Leaders' responses to current news issues also cause poll variations. And Party stunts - for example the recent Conservative initiative to have a mobile advertising hoarding threatening illegal immigrants - may give, as was intended, a short term boost to Tory fortunes. 

Polls between elections are not unimportant but individual poll results should not be analysed as minutely as they are and politicians should refrain from comment on anything but trends. What this means is that if over time (say a couple of months) polls consistently point to a particular outcome or change then that is worth talking about. Trend analysis ignores outlier or freak polls and looks for consistency. When this is coupled with qualitative research (focus groups etc.) which gets under the trend numbers and explains WHY the trend is happening then you may have something truly useful. 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Wonga - exploiting the poor and the vulnerable

Wonga and their like would not have a business if there were not poor and vulnerable people to exploit. These people go to Wonga because they are the lender of last resort. Those of us who do not need to use these companies also sometimes take out short term loans. We call them overdrafts on our bank accounts, or we choose not to pay off our credit card in full one month. For this we pay interest of perhaps 20% APR maximum. That rate is the cost of short term credit - when financial institutions can borrow at say 3% it provides them with a decent return. The borrow/lend margin covers the lenders risk and provides them income. 

But the Wonga target market can't get overdrafts and they don't have credit cards. They live hand to mouth and they struggle. Can you imagine what this must be like? Can you imagine what it is like in the 21st Century in one of the richest nations on the planet not to have enough money to feed your children? Most of us would react with compassion to these people. Not Wonga. They see a profit opportunity and know that the offer of a short term loan will be jumped at by some and that they can charge what they like - and they do. So they have finance available on the markets at say 3% and they lend the money at rates a thousand times more. Yes a thousand times more. That it is for a short term is completely irrelevant. Tens of thousands of poor borrowers all paying 5000% interest generate millions of windfall returns for the lender. It's not usury - it's fraud on a massive scale.

There is of course an alternative as the Archbishop has pointed out. It can be done. Loans made at a fair rate (Say 20%) with a premium for risk and the higher admin costs (say 10%) would be perfectly viable. It is for Government to act. That is what Government is for in a civilised society - to protect the vulnerable and help them. Instead we have a Government which sits on its hands. I hope Mr Welby shames them into action and that Wonga and their like become a grubby footnote in our history.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Archbishop Welby should shame the Government into action on the payday loan fraudsters

Lets be clear about this. This issue has been around for years and the Government has done NOTHING about it. Any fule knows that something is very fishy indeed when at a time of historically low interest rates  sharks charge rates thousands ( yes thousands) of times greater than the rates at which they can borrow. The fact that the loan periods are short is completely irrelevant. The interest rate still applies. And it is beyond usury - it is fraud. Stella Creasy has been excellent but has anyone in Government done a thing in response to her efforts? The Wongas of this world plough some of their ill-gotten gains into extensive advertising and sponsorship - multimedia promotional budgets which reach the poor and vulnerable. Newcastle United have the Wonga name on their shirts - no surprise there. Area of deprivation so money "well spent" no doubt.

Welby may shame the Government into action but don't bet your house on it! The CofE does not have the financial resources or the expertise to take these parasites on. Government does - particularly through its ownership of all or part of some banks. There is a need for short term loans for those struggling to make ends meet. Government should use RBS (maybe through NatWest) to set up a loan operation which charges fair interest rates which cover the higher risk and operational costs but which don't rip the poor and vulnerable off. This is not a Left or Right issue - it is one that we should be united about. If Welby's initiative does this we will owe him a debt - of gratitude.  

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Richard Dawkins, Religion and the Monarchy

Richard Dawkins tweeted a mildly supportive message about Monarchy earlier today:

"@RichardDawkins: Monarchy might be a rare case where, although it would be loony to adopt it de novo, now we've got it + long history, alternatives worse."

My response to this was that Monarchy is a religion and as such Dawkins, as the world's foremost atheist, should be against it. I was slightly joking but on reflection I think that I was right. 

Perhaps the primary reason many of us are against religions is that they all, without exception, require us to believe things that science and reason can prove not to be true or cannot prove to be true. Whether it be transubstantiation, the afterlife, "miracles", the healing power of prayer, the Creation, the evil of certain foods and drinks, the presence of "spirits", the benefits of circumcision, the preference for certain modes of dress, or a hundred or more superstitions we are expected to have " faith" that they are true. Despite there never being any authentic evidence to prove the case.

The Monarchy is similar. The basic premise is that an accident of birth gives rights to a small number of people (the "Royal Family") that are denied to the rest of us. This premise runs against all logic and brings with it an obligation to treat the privileged members of this family deferentially. Not because of what they have actually achieved but simply because of who they are. And with this obligation comes the requirement to accept all the paraphernalia of the Crown. Our National Anthem celebrates not our Country but our Monarch. The Royals dominate every national celebration - even the start of the first day of the Lord's Ashes Test Match was put back 15 minutes to suit the Queen! Our National Theatre, Opera House and other institutions are not ours - they are "Royal". And so it goes on. As with religions the Royals intrude into our lives with their Jubilees, Weddings, Births etc. But what are we actually celebrating ? A couple in their thirties has a baby and our media loses its grip on reason. 

Religions require us to bury our intellects and conform - and so it is with the Monarchy. We know that this bunch of advantaged people are as ordinary as we are deep down. The tasks they perform are hardly demanding and yet we get into collective paroxysms of excitement when they do the ordinary things we all do. That they are pretty bad at some things we are quite good at - having an enduring marriage for example - we ignore because of who they are. Preposterous individuals like the Prince of Wales live dysfunctional amoral lives, hold absurd views on some things and we are still supposed to kow-tow to him and accept him as our next Head of State. I'm not saying Charles is like Jesus or Mohammed or Buddha - but the parallel with the need for adherents of religions to worship their leaders is not too far from the truth.

Royal rituals are like religious rituals. Formal Royal clothes are like religious vestments. Religions have hierarchies with Popes and Mullahs and Rabbis and Priests. Royalty has its Hierarchy as well with the Monarch at the top and dozens of lesser Royals surrounding her in obsequious ranks. And we the "commoners" are like we the "parishioners" expected to buy into the fantasy, to bow and scrape and even to swear allegiance in certain circumstances. 

So Richard Dawkins don't let us down - be consistent and condemn the Monarchy for what it is - a modern day "Opium of the Masses" , a "religion" in all but name. 

Gas from shale can be part of our Energy future - but it needs to beseen in a broad context of Primary Energy supply

There is a fairly high level of ignorance about shale gas around - even in the serious media - for example here on the website Conservative Home. I'm not sure what the headline means. If it means that many countries have shale gas that is true and unremarkable. However the "global resource" is actually "Natural Gas" - the fact that some of it is held in shale deposits is not relevant once the gas has been harvested. It then becomes a commodity and where it came from is irrelevant .

To understand energy it is useful to look at the traditional and newer non-traditional sources. The modern (post industrial revolution) energy mix comes overwhelmingly from four sources: Oil, Gas, Coal and Primary Electricity. Lets deal with the last of these first. Electricity is of course the power for so much of modern living. Its uses do not need to be itemised here as they are so ubiquitous - except perhaps to remember that electric power is the power of choice for most modern railways. Primary electricity is that which comes from non-conversion sources (i.e. NOT from the conversion of hydrocarbons - Oil, Gas of Coal - in a Power plant.). This is usually Capital intensive but with reasonably low running costs. Hydro-Electric power is by far the main use. It can be controversial - the damming of rivers to provide the water power can be environmentally and socially problematic. But once the capital works have been done there is no better source of electricity environmentally and economically. Wind power is analogous with Hydro-electric up to a point. The economics are similar - high up-front costs in turbines and no fuel consumption costs. However the environmental costs of wind power can be large and we are too early in the use of wind turbines to know whether in many countries it can really be an economic choice - unsubsidised. Nuclear power is similar again except that it is a mature industry whose risks and benefits are well known. The capital costs are enormous and the spent fuel disposal and storage is a concern. But the French, among others, have shown the benefits of having an extensive network of Nuclear Power Stations and increasingly Nuclear will be part of the mix.

Coal should not be dismissed lightly. It is now little used as primary energy in transportation - there are no coal-burning locomotives any more except on heritage railways! But Coal as a source of electricity production has far from had its day. Modern coal-burning power stations can be highly efficient and be reasonably environmentally acceptable as well. Obviously any conversion of Hydrocarbons into electricity damages the environment and contributes to global warming. But the idea that the lower CO2 emission burning of Gas is always preferable to the higher CO2 emission burning of Coal is too simplistic. Coal has its place.

Any source of Primary Energy has its pluses and minuses. It is wrong to see its conversion into useful energy or power as just being clean or dirty at the point of conversion (e.g. When it is used as fuel in a power station). Along the chain from production to consumption there are environmental, safety and a host of other risks - and costs. There are also the practical realities of transportation and end use application to be considered. Crude Oil and Oil Products are the only truly global energy resource. They are easy to transport and the costs are totally explicit and unsubsidised. Oil is by far the most important of the Primary Energy resources partly because of this and also because so much energy consumption is oil specific - you can only use oil for aircraft for example and it is overwhelmingly the main choice for road transportation at present and for the foreseeable future.

Natural Gas is also an international resource but it is much less flexible than oil. Gas prices in the US are far lower than in the rest of the world but the problem of moving it from where it is to where it could be used outside the US is too problematic for this to happen. Britain is substantially a Gas economy for Power Generation and home (etc.) heating and cooking. But so is much of Western Europe. The Gas infrastructure is in place and Gas is moved through pipelines and extensively traded. Across Europe there are reserves of Shale gas and the economics will be broadly the same across the continent. Once the Gas has been harvested and processed it is simply pushed into the network and consumed.

For Britain the challenge is environmental and economic. Can gas from shale be produced in a safe and environmentally responsible way at a cost that is economic? It is unavoidable that these questions will be answered at a European level. The exploiters of the resource are multinational companies who will look for and get common rules across the EU. There is no reason why shale cannot be exploited if its production takes place responsibly and if the unsubsidised costs are acceptable (the idea of one European country subsidising shale gas production or if having lower environmental standards is unthinkable).

So there ought to be less heat and more light about shale gas. There ought to be better understanding that it is not a unique Energy source but simply a more complex production challenge than conventional gas production. It will undoubtedly have its place in the energy mix. But Britain cannot go it alone as the US (a closed economy in a single State) has done. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

It's not the role of Government to meddle with our individual freedom to marry - or to choose not to.

People make there own decisions and in 2013 the once all-pervasive hypocrisy of  an imposed morality has gone. Citizens have one duty and one alone - to obey the law. Beyond that they have freedom, and quite right too. Where once Churches and their leaders presumed to tell us when we could have sex, and with whom and to what purpose and within what construct now they don't. Or if they do (and some do) we largely ignore them . 

Are we going to replace the once all-pervasive Churches with secular social engineering using the tax system as a tool? Are we going to create a society again where our Government is allowed to preach to us (and bribe us) to follow one particular relationship path (marriage)? Is it really the role of Government to do this? I don't think so. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

William Hague - Strutting impotently and incompetently on the fringes of global politics

Britain matters - sort of. Our Imperial past and our honourable roles in Two World Wars put us at the top table as reconstruction started in 1945. Security Council membership as of right. Up there with the USA and the USSR ahead of France and, of course, the defeated Germans and Italians and Japanese. And ahead, of course, of "Red China" with whom we were shortly to have a proxy war in Korea. And a United Europe was just a dream - a glint in the eye of Mr Churchill who loved the idea, but didn't see Britain as part of it. Our special relationship across the Atlantic and our Empire/Commonweath meant that we mattered indisputably on our own.

Roll forward seventy years and all has changed. On our own we actually don't matter much any more. America remains pre-eminent. Russia is now democratic (sort of) and rich (sort of) but big, significant and not a serious military threat, though an economic one. China is the same (apart from the missing democracy). Germany and Japan, our former enemies and difficulties notwithstanding , are global economic powers of undoubted significance. 

In this changed world we may look across the Atlantic with nostalgia and we and the Americans may waffle on about the "special relationship" still. But it is living in the past to do so. Because the unavoidable reality is that our future is European or it is nothing. So when it comes to Egypt, or Syria or any other of the globally significant "Foreign Affairs" issues on Mr Hague's plate he should not be dancing to President Obama's choreography at all. He should not really even be dancing on his own but only as part of a European troupe. 

When David Cameron blocked Tony Blair from becoming (effectively) Europe's Foreign Minister he did Britain a huge disservice. Blair could, and would, have placed Britain at the centre of Europe's growing significance as a player of equal importance to the USA, Russia and China. Instead we have drifted to the periphery. Derided as disconnected from Europe as we play our foolish referendum games and as we still, or some of us, imagine that we alone have a global role to play. So Obama tells us what to do and we do it. 

We lost our Empire and still we search increasingly impotently for a post Imperial role. It's there for the grabbing. Blair would have grabbed it. Cameron should be an equal partner with the Germans and the French as one of the big three leaders of a United Europe. Instead he stutters impotently on the sidelines and Egpyt shows that we, on our own, have nothing to offer. Some old values maybe - but not much else. 

Friday, July 05, 2013

"Life's better under the Conservatives, don't let Labour ruin it"

Leading Conservative commentators have been banging on about the Party's 2015 positioning for sometime. It's basically "Life's better under the Conservatives. Don't let Labour ruin it." The first part of the slogan does have to be  a bit credible. Real green shoots would probably do. Then the tactics will be able to concentrate entirely on the second part - the attack on Labour. It has the following elements:

  • Labour will increase your taxes, the "Tax bombshell"
  • Labour is in the hands of the Trades Unions
  • Labour will deny us a referendum on the EU
  • Labour will let in too many immigrants - again
  • Labour got us in this mess in the first place 
  • Labour's leadership can't be trusted 
  • Labour is led by a fruitcake

The final tactic underpins all the others. Ed M will be personally associated with all of these assertions and no doubt Mr Crosby is building thick files to "prove" the points. Kinnock failed because he could be called a Welsh windbag. Tabloid stuff but effective. The fact that he had transformed Labour into a credible prospective Government cut no ice. He had to settle for being the John the Baptist for Blair - that had to be reward enough.

If Labour had a leader with an ounce of Blair's charisma the Tories hopes would be zero. But they don't. Ed M is intelligent and decent and relates well to people in public fora once he's put his (usually dreadful) formal speech away. But as a brand he's a problem. People don't quite know what to make to him. He's not posh, like Cameron, but he hardly looks or sounds like a horny-handed son of toil. Like Cameron he's never had a proper job. Unlike Cameron you can prove he has a nasty side (the fratricide). He runs behind his Party in the polls - Cameron usually runs ahead of his.

The Tory negative campaigning for the 2015 election has begun already. It won't be pleasant - you don't hire Lynton Crosby if you want principled politics. Whether it will succeed we will see. The great British public doesn't like being taken for fools!

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Right and Left should unite against the common media enemy - the Mail and the Express !

There is a piece by Mark Wallace on Conservative Home today which claims that the Telegraph is no longer the "Torygraph". Well up to a point Lord Copper! I agree that The Telegraph is no more a Conservative newspaper than The Guardian is a Labour one. But it is, and  always has been, a Tory Party supporter - especially at Election time. Just as The Guardian supports the soft Left so the Telegraph today supports the soft Right. The Telegraph and The Guardian have moved a little towards the centre in recent times but there is not the slightest doubt as to where they stand on the Left/Right axis.

The opprobrium thrown on The Guardian by Rightists is not matched by similar attacks on the Telegraph by those of us on the Left. We do not have a similar term to the "Guardianista" to refer to Telegraph readers. This is because, The Guardian aside, the "Broadsheets" are ALL right leaning. You can hardly have proprietors of the ilk of Murdoch or the Barclays and not have conservative newspapers. And anyway we have in those two despicable pseudo-newspapers the Mail and the Express targets enough on which legitimately to vent our spleen.

The acid test of a newspaper's worth is whether it is well-written. Take Peter Oborne in the Telegraph. I sometimes agree with him, and sometimes don't. But he writes like a dream and is unmissable. The same for David Aaranovitch in The Times or Simon Jenkins in The Guardian. And The Spectator to which I have subscribed for many years is the same. I would say that the politics of this periodical are 180 degrees opposite to mine most of the time. But I read it for the quality of the writing - and to know my enemy better!

The value of the three main Broadsheets is clear. It comes from the skill, knowledge and experience of those who write in them. I read them all - selectively. And the digital world means that I can have read a favourite writer from each newspaper before I get up in the morning! The enemy of the Left should not be the Telegraph or the Times, and of the Right it should not be The Guardian. That's outmoded and silly. We should unite across the political spectrum to oppose the mindless, prejudiced, and vile detritus that the tabloids serve up every day. The Mail and the Express should be the enemies of us all.