Is the Sugar Tax really a good idea?

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Britain’s sugar tax is due to come into effect in 2018, increasing the prices of many high-sugar drinks. Photo: David Shay (own work). Wikimedia Commons.

The sugar tax was one of the most talked about proposals unveiled in the recent budget. The levy, which is due to come into effect in April 2018, is intended to reduce childhood obesity. But will it? I’m not too convinced.

In adopting this tax, the UK will follow the lead taken by a number of European countries, Mexico, Australia and numerous American states which have taken steps to improving public health by imposing an extra levy on unhealthy foods and drinks. A Public Health England (PHE) report titled Sugar Reduction: From Evidence to Action found that in countries where price increases on higher-sugar products, as a result of “sugar taxes”, led to a decline in sales proportionate to the tax rate. Mexico’s imposition of a 10 percent tax on products with higher quantities of sugar led to a reported 6 percent reduction in sales, including a 9 percent reduction in lower socio-economic households.

Although PHE observe “some indications” of small decreases in sales of between 4 – 10 percent, their report concludes that there is no “robust” evidence available that demonstrates that taxes have an effect on consumption and on public health in general.

Even if the British sugar tax can reduce sugary drink purchases, PHE findings suggest that it is doubtful whether price increases will encourage significant numbers of sweet-toothed customers to alter their consumption habits. Soft drinks, (including energy drinks) are already taxed at the standard rate of VAT (20 percent) along with sweets and chocolates; however this sizeable levy does not appear to have affected how people shop. Of course, the response offered by some people will be that a further levy is necessary to make a substantial difference. But will it? Will shoppers be put off by proposed price increases on high-sugar drinks?

Under the sugar tax plan, drinks with 5-8g of sugar per 100ml (i.e. Powerade, Tango Orange and Lilt) will be taxed at 18p per litre. Drinks with over 8g of sugar per 100ml (Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Red Bull) will be 24p more expensive for every litre. This will mean that the price of a standard, 330 ml can of Coca-Cola will increase from 68p to 76p and a can of Red Bull will go from £1.99 to £2.07. Will that 8p make a lot of difference to school-age children? Will that extra 48p make a parent think twice before purchasing a 2l bottle of Coke when carrying out a weekly shop?

Fizzy drink consumers might instead opt for cheaper supermarket brands, which, while still hit by the sugar tax, will still be cheaper than premium brands. Others might instead switch to other unhealthy foods such as cakes, sweets or chocolates and other items which will not be affected by the sugar tax.

Moreover, drinks companies, concerned about the impact the tax may have on sales, might look to reduce, or eliminate, sugar quantities in their products while increasing levels of artificial sweeteners like those found in “Diet” and “Zero” soft drinks. Companies will have a two-year period to consider their options before the levy comes into effect in 2018.

The government claims that the sugar tax will reduce childhood ability, but surely the elephant in the room is the level of inactivity. Schools should do more to ensure that pupils do more exercise, even if that simply involves a 15 minute daily run around a sports field or playground at the start of the school day. These sorts of schemes would be easy to organise and would boost fitness levels. Government can play a part in supporting such initiatives in addition to promoting healthy lifestyles and by raising awareness about unhealthy life choices.

It is good news that the government is taking the matter of children’s health seriously, promising to use tax receipts to fund school sports in England, even if the sugar tax is not the sweetest deal it could have chosen to implement this initiative.

Twelve years following the opinions of England fans

 

 

In the twelve years I have been following the English national football and rugby union teams I have read numerous match day reports, opinion pieces, tweets and online comments, both prior to and following an international match or tournament. I have listened to radio phone-ins and watched pre and post-match analysis. I have been fascinated by debates around team selections, tactics and the latest news from inside the training camp.

While the comments and insights given by journalists and pundits are interesting, the opinions of ordinary fans are equally, if not more, intriguing, especially when individuals offer various theories to explain the national team’s shortcomings.

Starting with football, it has been a popular mantra to blame “pampered millionaire lifestyles” to explain our team’s shortcomings in tournaments and in big games. What this doesn’t explain is why the multimillionaires that make up the German and Spanish national teams, along with a series of high-level club sides such as Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Manchester City have enjoyed success. Elite club and international sides are stuffed with players earning huge salaries but their bank accounts, sports cars and designer clothes don’t seem to have an adverse effect on their performances.

Fans also highlight a “lack of passion” among our international players. I don’t think anybody would deny that passion, grit and patriotism are admirable and important attributes for athletes to possess, but these are not the only ingredients for success. This was exemplified in the Euro 2012 quarter final against Italy. On that night the England team battled hard, putting in a valiant defensive effort and kept the Italians at bay for two hours. The problem was not a shortage of passion or work ethic. In a number of areas, the English were simply second best. The Italians controlled the game, enjoyed more possession, created more goal-scoring chances and were, ultimately, better at penalties. This brings us to the next point, England’s woeful record from spot kicks, which currently stands at just one victory out of seven. In eleven tournaments in which England has participated from the 1990 World Cup through to Brazil 2014, we have exited six through the dreaded shootout.

Penalties have consistently been an Achilles heel for England and the national team’s record has prevented them from progressing to semi-finals and finals of international tournaments. If a team reaches the knockout stages of a World Cup and European Championship then there is a fair chance that they will face a penalty shootout. It is therefore imperative that England work to slay this bugbear.

As rugby union players do not earn the fortunes that their football counterparts receive, England rugby internationals are not readily accused of being lazy multimillionaires, bored by England duty. However I have encountered a few posts which claimed that England’s disappointing World Cup display was due to a low number of “working-class” players in the squad. Disparaging comments were subsequently made about the high number of players who had attended fee-paying schools. Two-thirds of the World Cup squad were privately educated and were thus regarded as being “too privileged” and therefore unwilling to put in the hard yards on the pitch and in training. I don’t know whether they have been following the same rugby that I’ve been following. Two of England’s brightest talents last season, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson, attended independent schools. Ex-captain Chris Robshaw, a player with a prodigious work rate and an excellent defender, is, like Joseph, an Old Millfieldian. England has consistently produced many successful and talented privately educated players: Wilkinson, Dallaglio, Carling, the Underwood brothers and many more.

One comment attributed the media’s focus on Sam Burgess and the scrutiny over his selection by England to “elitists” in newspaper offices and at the RFU, who took a dislike to Burgess because he was a rugby league convert who had attended a state school in Yorkshire.

It is true that it is only a minority of people who are posting these opinions and I am not suggesting for one minute that they are representative of the wider English supporting population.

All English football and rugby fans will admit that our national teams have their problems and weaknesses. But attributing these to footballers’ salaries or where our international rugby players went to school? I’m not buying it.

Plenty, if not most, fans aren’t either.

 

How “right” are the “far right”?

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A Front National rally. Photo:  By NdFrayssinet (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Across Europe there have been a number of political parties who are regarded as being on the “far right” or “extreme right” of the political spectrum due to their opposition to immigration and nationalistic attitudes towards citizenship and the nation state.

Although it depends on what news sources or political scientists you consult, far right parties in Europe are generally thought to include France’s Front National, Hungary’s Jobbik, the Greek Golden Dawn, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPŐ), the Sweden Democrats, the Danish People’s Party and the British National Party (BNP).

Some centre-right figures are unhappy about the use of the term “far right” to describe extremist groups and parties as it implies that centre-right politics is a moderated, watered-down version of an ideology which has been viewed as fascistic and racist.

Under the headline of ‘Europe’s extremists aren’t really on the right’, The Spectator, following the European Parliament elections in May 2014, wrote the following:

‘… from Sweden to Greece, the nasty parties have, in important ways, become more far-left than far-right. The parties which triumphed this week are those which offer a perfectly logical combination of xenophobia, nationalism and state authoritarianism.’

The Spectator has a point. A closer examination of far right parties reveals that many have embraced statist, protectionist and big government style policies traditionally favoured by social democrats, socialists and other ideological leftists.

The different sides to these parties’ platforms are summarised in The Weekmagazine:

‘These parties are right-wing in a very European sense: they tend to be nationalistic, favouring promotion of Christian values and strict limits on immigration but also support a strong welfare state for native Europeans. Their overarching theme is that the benefits of a country should go to the Europeans who were born there and pay taxes there, not to newcomers.’

This form of “welfare chauvinism”, a term used by news site The Conversation,and defined as ‘welfare for all, provided they’re us’ was documented in an interesting article published by the Guardian in the summer about the far right in Scandinavia. The Danish People’s Party (DPP), according to the paper, were promising larger increases in spending than the then-governing Social Democrats through extending eligibility for unemployment benefits from two to four years, reversing the cut made by the Social Democrat government. The DPP’s leader pledged to divert resources away from refugees and asylum seekers and into improving elderly care, promising ‘one hot bath per week’ for the elderly and infirm living at home. In neighbouring Sweden, the Sweden Democrats have pushed for a “more generous policy regarding primary school teachers’ pay.” Schools and healthcare are mentioned as priorities for the party while a party spokesperson is quoted by the Guardian as saying that they represent ‘traditional Scandinavian social democracy and nationalism.’ There are noticeable similarities between the DPP and the Sweden Democrats and other parties in Europe categorised as “far right”. France’s Front National have a protectionist, anti-globalisation agenda designed to protect native workers, businesses and industries and have advocated for the renationalisation of key state assets.

The Hungarian Jobbik, a party infamous for its anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric, state on the English version of their website that they are opposed to ‘globalised capitalism’ and promise to deliver universal free mobile internet and free dental care for all citizens. They would also allocate revenue generated through a ‘hamburger tax’ to promote active and healthy lifestyles. The British National Party’s economic nationalism is not too dissimilar to Jobbik’s or Front National’s. In recent general election manifestos, the BNP have voiced their opposition to laissez-faire capitalism, globalism and Thatcherism and have pledged to renationalise public transport, utilities and Royal Mail as well as increased public ownership in financial and banking.

By combining their traditional nationalistic, anti-immigration and anti-EU stances with liberal economic policies, these parties might be looking to bolster support among working-class voters. If this has been the intention then the strategy seems to be paying off in some quarters – both Front National and the DPP have attracted substantial working-class support in recent years.

Whatever the reasons, this blend of different ideologies and policy positions should make us rethink how we go about defining and categorising “far right” parties. Political scientist Cas Mudde, who studies the far right, claims that these parties share a common set of characteristics: nativism, populism and authoritarianism.

Terms like “nativist populist” or “authoritarian populist nativist” are clunky and cumbersome and are not the ones which headlines writers would readily use but this provides a good start on how we analyse and categorise parties on the “far right.”

 

Does Labour also have a ‘brand’ problem?

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Photo: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4c/ScottishLabourOut-Stornoway-Scotland-20100407.jpg?uselang=en-gb

 

The Conservative Party has commonly been referred to as the ‘nasty party’ and, in the eyes of many Britons, less compassionate, less generous, less caring and plain ‘nastier’ than their opponents on the left.

Since Theresa May coined this phrase back in October 2002, her party has worked to shake off this label. As such, this has been used to explain the Tory party’s difficulties in attracting support from C2 and DE voters, ethnic minorities, social housing tenants and northerners among others.

Although nobody would argue that the party has, and continues to have, something of a brand/image problem, there appears to be less discussion on the possible issues concerning the Labour brand.

To begin with, Labour’s electoral record since its foundation in 1900 reveals it has been the second party of British politics. In the last 115 years Labour has held office for just 33 years, including 13 years from 1997 to 2010. It has endured long periods in Opposition between 1951-64 and 1979-97; during this time, it lost three and four consecutive general elections respectively.

Before the Blair-Brown years, the longest time the party had been in government, since the first Labour administration under Ramsey MacDonald in 1924, was just six years, under Clement Attlee and later under Harold Wilson. In both the 2010 and 2015 general elections, Labour retracted to its core vote and currently has fewer seats than in its disastrous defeat in 1983.

While the Tories have, no doubt, profited from being the older, more established political party, who can rely on the support on a collection of wealthy donors, there are surely other factors which explain Labour’s status as the less electorally successful of the two main parties.

By establishing how people respond to each party’s policies on individual issues provides an insight into people’s perception of these parties. Traditionally, the Tories and Labour are generally considered to have better policies, and to be more competent, on different issues. Labour performs better on health, education and benefits issues, whilst the Conservatives score higher on asylum/immigration, crime and defence issues. This fits the narrative that Labour is the more compassionate and caring party whereas the Tory Party are the tough, hard-edged party.

Over the course of the last Parliament, 2010-15, through its sample polling, YouGov analysed the responses which suggested that Labour has had problems in convincing the electorate that it is the best party to deliver or to handle its perceived traditional issues. Between 2010-15, the Conservatives led Labour on the vital issue of the economy. Additionally, the Conservatives held a minor lead on the EU, although neither party scored a breakthrough on benefits. On unemployment, which one would consider to be a Labour strength, the Tories overhauled the lead Labour which it had held between 2011-13, in 2014. A YouGov/Sunday Times poll revealed that the David Cameron and the Conservatives were viewed as the best party to facilitate British business. Another area of concern for Labour is the over-65 section of the electorate due to their demographic importance and their high turnout rate in elections. The over 65s have become more Conservative in recent elections.

Another YouGov survey asked people about who they thought the parties were close to. Predictably, the Tories were overwhelmingly seen as being close to the rich, businessmen and the City, while Labour had a close affiliation to the unions and benefits claimants. The former reinforces and contributes to popular views of the party being supporters of corporate interests and wealthy individuals whilst Labour’s associations might also be viewed negatively. Although it is not clear from YouGov’s questioning, the Labour party’s perceived closeness to benefits claimants might be born out of a feeling that they are being too soft on recipients of welfare payments.

Despite being perceived as an elitist party by opponents, the Conservatives were also seen as being close to two large, varied and electorally important demographics: the middle classes and homeowners. Certain respondents may have cited the Conservatives’ closeness to the middle class and homeowners out of a belief that the Conservatives prioritise their interests at the expense of the working classes and tenants. However, middle class and home owning respondents might, on the other hand, feel that the Tory Party is on their side whereas Labour is not.

British Election Study data has shown that the Conservatives are more popular among the AB voters whereas Labour attracts greater support from C2 and DE voters. As class is one of the more reliable indicators of how someone will vote, we can conclude that both parties face a struggle to broaden their appeal beyond their tradition class bases.

Of course it’s difficult to substantiate but Labour’s monopoly on care and compassion maybe a disadvantage as well as an advantage. The party might not be perceived as having the ruthlessness and the toughness needed to make big decisions, whether that be devising a strategy to deal with ISIS or the migrant crisis or reducing the welfare bill and government expenditure in general. The Tories might repel voters because of their perceived lack of sympathy towards the disadvantaged and their alliances with powerful special interests but at the same time Labour may alienate other voters because of their perceived profligate approach to spending and their perceived disdain for business and enterprise.

So what is the future for the Labour party? Will ‘brand Corbyn’ turn their fortunes around? After two dismal general election defeats there is definitely work to be done over the course of the current Parliament. The game’s afoot.

World Rugby and first tier rugby nations should do more to help second tier nations to improve

 

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Expanding the Six Nations to include Georgia would surely benefit the national team. This is one of several steps that should be taken to help make Tier 2 nations more competitive. Photo: By Paata Vardanashvili [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In July, the New Zealand team travelled to Apia to play their Pacific neighbours Samoa. To many followers of rugby this non-competitive, exhibition match may have otherwise seemed like just an ordinary match between two rugby-mad nations. However the meeting at Apia Park was in fact an historic occasion as this was the first time, since the establishment of the Western Samoan team back in 1924, that New Zealand had played in the Samoans’ backyard.

Sadly, international sides such as New Zealand and other ‘first division’ international teams are likely to pass over opportunities to play games, home or away, against the likes of Samoa because such games lack commercial value.

Argentina’s third place finish at the 2007 Rugby World Cup put pressure on global rugby institutions to allow the South American side to participate in the Southern Hemisphere’s Tri Nations Championship. In 2012 Argentina were finally admitted to the reformed Rugby Championship alongside New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. This was undoubtedly a positive step forward. The Pumas had earned their right to compete in a regular tournament against some of the world’s leading international sides. Yet more could, and should be done, to try and help develop other national teams in other parts of the world.

A welcome move would be for the so-called ‘top tier’ or first division international teams (generally considered to be the ten countries which participate in either the Six Nations and Rugby Championship) to play more games against second tier sides such as Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Japan, Canada, USA, Georgia and Romania. At present, the international rugby calendar follows a predictable format. In every non-World Cup year the Northern Hemisphere giants head south to play a series of tests against South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, or Argentina. During the autumn these Southern Hemisphere sides tour Britain and Ireland, France and Italy.

When travelling north or south of the equator, Tier 1 nations’ tours could include a ‘stop off’ en route in say, Bucharest, Vancouver or Suva. These games could be coordinated so as to ensure that each of these aforementioned second tier nations, and possibly a few more not mentioned here, get to play at least two games a year, one in the summer and one in the autumn/winter, against first tier Northern and Southern Hemisphere teams.

The current Six Nations format could be reformed so as to give another European country the opportunity to participate in the tournament. This could be done by permanently expanding the number of countries to seven, or through a promotion and relegation system between the Six Nations and the European Nations Cup (effectively the second division Six Nations) which this season was contested by Georgia, Romania, Spain, Portugal, Russia and Germany.

The monthly magazine Rugby World has suggested that a play-off system could operate between the two competitions whereby the team which finishes last in the Six Nations would play the European Nations Cup’s champion, home and away, to contest a place in the following season’s Six Nations. The losing side would play in the European Nations Cup for the following season.

If European Rugby authorities were to indefinitely expand the tournament to seven then Georgia has made the best case to be included as the seventh nation. The ‘Lelos’, as they are known,  have dominated the Europe’s second tier competition, winning eight tournaments since its inception in 2000, twice as many as their nearest rival, Romania. Georgia is currently playing in their fourth consecutive World Cup and Georgian players have featured regularly in high-level club competitions. Last year, seven members of the international squad were playing in the Southern Hemisphere’s Super 15 Competition whereas others ply their trade in professional French club sides such as Toulon and Montpellier. Captain Mamuka Gorgodze was selected as Best Foreign Player in the Super 15 in 2011.

There might be doubts over whether the Lelos are ‘ready’ to compete alongside the original six teams, and if they were to be included then would they have little hope of becoming more than the whipping boys of the tournament? While Georgia may suffer some heavy defeats along the way, to think that they will get whacked in every game is rather presumptuous. At the 2007 World Cup Georgia came within (literally) inches of defeating Ireland and have run Italy close before when the sides have met.

Georgian rugby can only benefit from playing in a more competitive, higher quality competition against Europe’s top international sides on a regular basis. Nobody would argue that Italian rugby has regressed following 16 seasons of playing Six Nations rugby or that Argentinian rugby has been hindered by the expansion of the Tri Nations three years ago.

Georgia’s dominance in the European Nations Cup over the last decade illustrates that they are worthy and also ‘ready’ to become the seventh member of a new Seven Nations tournament. If both national and world rugby institutions are truly committed to strengthening and developing the game in other parts of the world then they should embrace change. The surest way to do this is by arranging more regular test matches between first and second tier nations and by opening the door for Georgia to join Europe’s elite.

The Success of British Indians

A 2014 Policy Exchange report A Portrait of Modern Britain written by Rishi Sunak, the new Conservative MP for Richmond and Sanatha Rajeswaran, compiles a whole array of stats and figures about Britain’s largest minority ethnic groups drawn from the 2011 Census, the Office for National Statistics (ONS), Department of Education and the Ethnic Minority British Election Study (EMBES) making it a useful resource for researchers.

What really strikes you when reading this document is the success which Britain’s Indian population has achieved. In recent years schools, universities and public institutions have observed ‘Black History Month’ to celebrate and to educate people about black history. Perhaps we should do more to celebrate and recognise the contribution which has been made by British Indians and other ethnic and religious minorities in recent decades.

In the 2011 Census, 1.4 million, or 2.2 percent of the population of England and Wales were of Indian ethnicity. Indian migration to Britain began in the 1950s and continued through the 1960s and ‘70s. Many of the early migrants were doctors from the western province of Gujarat who came to work in the NHS. A large proportion of Indian migrants has been highly skilled or at least hold secondary or higher qualifications. One would imagine that this gave Indian settlers and their British-born descendents an advantage considering that three-quarters of Indian migrants have these qualifications compared to 46 percent of first generation Pakistanis, 37 percent of first generation Bangladeshis and 16 percent of first generation Afro-Caribbeans.

In recent statistics 43 percent of ethnic Indians were employed in the highest-skilled professions and 17 percent have a PhD or other higher qualification. Indians have lower rates of unemployment than citizens of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, African or Afro-Caribbean origin. Materially, British Indians are also better off. Sixty-five percent own their own home while 82 percent of Indian households own at least one car. Success in adult life is perhaps reflective of Indians’ educational performance, from primary school level through to higher education. As Sunak and Rajeswaran write:

“Indian pupils outperform all other population groups at Key Stage 2 and continue to outperform at Key Stage 4 (GCSE), with a greater proportion of the Indian population gaining five A*- C grades, a greater proportion of those including Maths and English, and a greater proportion of those attaining A* – C in a Modern Language.”

At GCSE level the difference between Indians and other featured ethnic groups is pronounced. Three quarters of Indian pupils achieve at least C grades in Maths and English compared to 50 percent of black Caribbean pupils. Half of students of Indian origin gain a minimum of a C grade in a modern language compared to 19 percent of Afro-Caribbeans. Seventy percent of Indians enter higher education, 37 percent of whom are accepted into leading universities ranked in the top third in the British rankings whereas 14 percent are admitted into Russell Group universities.

What are the factors behind the Indian population’s success in education and in the job market? As mentioned earlier, this can in part be attributed to skill levels of first generation Indian migrants. Subsequent generations benefitted from growing up in homes with highly educated parents and other relatives where they received encouragement to work hard at school and university and to pursue good careers. Other factors, such as work ethic and an appreciation of education and learning should also be considered.

In a number of case studies in his 1983 book, The Economics and Politics of Race,Thomas Sowell examines a variety of successful immigrant groups from around the world including the Chinese in several south-east Asian countries, the Jews in eastern Europe and North America, the Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, Germans and Italians in Brazil and the Chinese and Japanese in the United States.

Sowell found that in many of these examples first generation immigrants toiled in low skilled, low paid menial jobs saving what disposable income they could to eventually start small businesses. Within a few generations their descendents became more prosperous and better educated than the indigenous population and other minority groups, often becoming ‘over-represented’ in various trades and professions. The success of European Jews, Armenians in Ottoman Turkey and the Chinese in Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese societies prompted the indigenous ruling classes to introduce discriminatory measures to prevent their participation in certain jobs or restrict their access, as was the case in Malaysia, to university courses. Despite facing these barriers European Jews, Armenians and Chinese continued to prosper in these host societies.

There could be multiple reasons why certain immigrant communities succeed in education and in the job market compared to other settler groups. Britain’s Indian population has no doubt benefitted because of the skills and qualifications that their forebears possessed.

However other factors, such as strong families, work ethic, entrepreneurship and a desire to ‘aim high’ and to ‘get ahead.’ An updated British study, in a style similar to The Economics and Politics of Race would make interesting reading and would improve our understanding of the strengths which the country’s ethnic population has contributed to Britain’s economic development.

The BBC’s drive to engage more young people in politics: Going a bit too far?

 

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In Need? The BBC certainly seemed very enthusiastic about helping young adults become more ‘engaged’ in politics and in highlighting young people’s political views and ideas during, and in the run-up to, the recent general election. Photo: By Mike Fleming [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

There appears to be a new focus, a fixation even, at the BBC about young voters engaging in politics and attempts to get more of them out to vote.

This intensified in this year’s general election campaign. The Beeb launched ‘Generation 2015’ and have put party figures before young voters on BBC 3’sFree Speech and on Newsbeat. Previously party leaders were questioned by people of the same demographic on Bite the Ballot.

We (I say ‘we’ as I am towards the end of the 18-24 year old cohort) were warned of the perils of not turning out at the polls. As Bite the Ballot say, “If you don’t do politics it will do you.” All of this is admirable because turnout amongst young people aged 18-24 is dismally low, just 44% of us voted in 2010 according to the British Election Study. I’ve enjoyed watching some of these programmes and hope they make some impact, however this intense focus on young voters feels overdone and a bit condescending. My age group must be the most catered for in terms of media attention and coverage. We’ve had a whole series of programmes dedicated to giving ‘the youth’ a platform where they can raise issues they ‘care about.’ What about other age groups? As far as I know there hasn’t been a Pensioners’ Question Time. Free Speech hasn’t aired an episode with an exclusively middle aged audience I’m sure nobody would disagree that middle-aged and elderly citizens have opinions and legitimate concerns as well as young voters. Why, I ask, are young people being targeted as a special category?

The counter argument would be that a) young people are less interested in and knowledgeable about politics and, b) young people vote in lower numbers than their older counterpart (44% v 75%, according to the BES).  So are older voters being prioritised at the expense of youngsters? If more of us, ‘the youth,’ turned out in elections to vote, would politicians pay more attention to issues affecting young people?

Yet there are lots of young people who are of course interested in politics and current affairs regardless of the programming which was aired in the run-up to the May 2015 election. I don’t see why we need a raft of programmes specially designed to help us take an interest in the subject. Furthermore, what makes ‘engaging’ (that political buzzword again) younger voters more problematic is that politics may have less relevance to their lives because young people are less likely to have children, pay taxes and have a full time job. Furthermore, being young, you have less life experience and so may be unsure about your political preferences and opinions.

A concern I have with the BBC’s focus on my age group is that it can foster political discourse centred on ‘young people’s issues’, ie tuition fees, votes at sixteen and changes to the national curriculum. Although important to debate, these are not the only issues that young people care about. I’m also worried that this sort of ‘identity politics’ in which young people’s issues are pitted against those of other groups in society which could be seen as divisive.

Some of the proponents of this ‘get the young out to vote’ campaign, as I alluded to earlier, appear to claim for example that tuition fees were trebled by a government that generally ignored the issues affecting young adults and teenagers whilst protecting Granny and Granddad’s TV licence, bus pass, medical prescriptions etc. Sure, there are aspects which pertain mostly, or exclusively, to a particular section of the population, like the default retirement age, taxes, pensions, tuition fees, etc. However, other issues are more uniform: having a good job, a decent place to live, good local schools, good health care and other services.

It would be great if more people did participate in the democratic process, especially people in my age bracket. I just wish that the Beeb would tone down the youth mobilisation drive ahead of future ballots.

A British Federation: A Real Possibility?

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The topography isn’t set to change any time soon, but the political map of the UK may of course alter in the future. Is the creation of a federal Britain a possibility? Photo: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC (Goddard Space Flight Center) – Description text and image both imported from http://modis.gsfc.nasa.gov/gallery/individual.php?db_date=2012-06-04, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28111938

 

Instead of mourning the potential loss of old friends and colleagues after three hundred years of shared adversity, celebration, achievement and national pride perhaps the result of the recent general election will elicit new creative perspectives on governance of the United Kingdom, the electoral system and voter participation. The Scottish Referendum last year has shown that when the electorate are offered the opportunity to vote on issues of significance then turnout can be greatly increased, interest in political issues is enhanced and political parties may enjoy an upsurge in their support and membership. The danger of unresolved issues or misconceptions remaining unaddressed by the political elite can lead to festering resentment and the growth of unfettered nationalism in those who feel that their voices have not been heard.

The fragmentation of the United Kingdom is now a real possibility and the prospect of a politician being consigned to history as the last British Prime Minister is a daunting proposition. Surely future governments, whatever they constituent elements, must seek ideas, innovation and suggestions from as many ‘stakeholders’ and communities as possible to create a new Britain.

No one asked the Scots, Welsh or Irish if they wanted to join the Union and yet there have been some spectacular successes in business innovation, sporting triumphs, quirky, creative resolutions of different problems which have beset us as well as the growth of tolerance, a work ethic, aspiration, efficient administration, welfare support and the care of all citizens within that enforced framework. There is still much to be done to ensure that a fairer, more equitable society emerges.

A federal Britain could be the answer to the challenges of the new scenario which may be thrown up by the Election. The Swiss model with its written Constitution enshrining the requirement for regular referendums which ensures control remains with the electorate over issues of national importance is worth investigation. Allow the ancient nations of the United Kingdom to revert to their nation status and run their own affairs but within a form of governance where there is fairness, equality and respect leaving shared values and principles intact.

Might the creation of a federal Britain ultimately be in the interests of all constituent parts of the United Kingdom?

#WheresDave? Why Cameron’s decision to avoid a debate won’t influence how people vote*

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Photo: By secretlondon123 (originally posted to Flickr as Polling station) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

*DISCLAIMER: This post is based on conjecture, not psephology.

 

The audiences, both the one in the Methodist Central Hall in London and at the post-debate Question Time were not impressed, judging by the applause they gave when David Cameron’s absence was criticised by party leaders and members of the Question Time panel. Nor was the Twittersphere, where the hashtag ‘#wheresDave’ was trending. Probably a lot of people tuning in were unhappy that the PM was not in attendance.

The Twittersphere and press have picked over the Challengers’ Debate-minus Clegg (he counts as a challenger, surely?) scrutinising every statement; assessing body language at key moments.

Yet I think that the big story, Cameron’s no-show, will have little bearing on May 7th as to how people will vote. I just think too much can be made of ‘small’ events during election campaigns, for instance Bigotgate in 2010 and the TV debates of that same campaign, the first in UK history. Observers of American political history have speculated whether certain incidents in televised debates have swung tight presidential contests. (JFK facing a tense and perspiring Richard Nixon in 1960 or Gerald Ford’s assertion in 1976 that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe being touted as ‘pivotal’ moments in such elections.)

Do these things really influence where people put their cross or which lever they pull when inside the polling booth? I’m rather sceptical. Lots of people have probably made up their minds before a campaign starts. If not, then they might have a clear idea who they won’t be voting for. There must be millions who would never consider voting for a particular party(ies).

Cameron’s absence probably irked his critics more than his supporters, the people who weren’t going to be voting Conservative anyway. If you are a Conservative, or at least a Tory sympathiser, then would his decision not to participate offend you to the extent that you suddenly felt compelled to penalise his party by voting for Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol or whoever?

Leaders’ debates are defensive affairs where everybody wants to avoid dropping a clanger or making a serious gaffe. Playing it safe seems like a sensible option; to use sporting idioms, ‘play a straight bat’ or ‘parking the bus and playing for a draw.’ And so we hear the usual things from the party leaders that many casual observers of politics and the election have heard; Miliband denouncing zero hours contracts and berating the Tories as the party of ‘the few’ while Sturgeon, Wood and Bennett denounce austerity, spending cuts and Trident while Farage talks immigration and Europe. If Cameron (and Clegg) had been there I doubt we would have heard anything new from them either.

It might have been beneficial for Dave not to attend. Sturgeon, Wood and Bennett formed an anti-austerity alliance and were in agreement over the issues of tax, Trident and the EU. Miliband was broadly on the same lines except on Trident and on elements of ‘austerity’. Nigel Farage (as the right-wing candidate) cut a lone figure. By removing themselves from a distinctly left-wing atmosphere, the Conservatives may have done themselves a small favour because to a section of viewers there was little in the way of an alternative platform to the one being offered by the Sturgeon-Wood-Bennett axis and Miliband.

Of the leaders that took to the stage the other week, millions will not have the opportunity to vote for SNP or Plaid Cymru by virtue of the fact that they don’t live in Scotland or Wales whereas the Greens have only been polling around 5 percent. UKIP may win a decent share of the vote although this is unlikely to translate into anything more than a handful of seats at best. Only Miliband has a realistic chance of becoming Prime Minister, although the SNP may have a role to play in a Labour-led government. Many viewers may have therefore been wondering, in this debate and during the previous one, whether the format used was entirely appropriate. Although I am in favour of televised debates in principle, I couldn’t help but wonder why I, as a resident of England, should listen to the SNP and Plaid when I can’t even vote for them.

There are those who have speculated that Cameron and his allies have been reluctant to agree to televised debates because, as the incumbent, he has more to lose, particularly against the smaller parties. Squaring up to Miliband would pose risks. With the Labour leader’s dire poll ratings, only a major gaffe would deny Miliband the opportunity to come out of the encounter well. In fact, Miliband seems to have benefited from the extra exposure. His approval ratings have climbed sharply due to his performances in both televised debates and during the interview/Q&A session hosted by Sky and Channel 4, raising voters’ expectations of his abilities.

While the precise outcome of the election remains unclear and predictions over the next government’s format are anyone’s guess, just don’t expect Dave’s no-show or the debates in general, to be much of a deciding factor in the all-important marginal seats and elsewhere in the country.

Ideas for House of Lords Reform

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Photo: By U.S. Departement of Defense (http://defense.gov) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Reform of the House of Lords is one of those curiosities in British political history. Proposals for reforming the upper house have surfaced on occasions since the Commons first debated hereditary peerages in 1886 and 1888. Yet 128 years later there is still little visible agreement on how a reformed House should look and operate.

This is where pro-reform advocates have found life difficult. On one hand there has not been widespread enthusiasm for change with Liberal Democrats championing Lords reform whereas the Conservatives have largely been in favour of the status quo. In the latest efforts, debated in the summer of 2012, proposals tabled for reform were opposed by 91 Tory MPs.

On the other hand disagreements abound over how to reform the Lords. Should the chamber be 100% elected? Should a proportion of members be appointed by an independent panel with the rest elected and on a regional basis? Should ‘peers’ be term-limited? Those who oppose reform can accuse their opponents of lacking a clear, coherent blueprint for change. The BBC’s Nick Robinson had reported before the debate of the said reform proposals in 2012, that the general view inside the ‘Westminster village’ was that the proposals wouldn’t be enacted because those who didn’t want any change would unite with those who wanted different kinds of change and defeat the Coalition’s plans. To illustrate, in 1968 proposals for a wholly elected Lords brought together an unusual pairing in Michael Foot (who favoured the abolition of the House of Lords) and Enoch Powell (who backed the status quo) in opposing the measure.

Is reform necessary? I believe it is. I view New Labour’s changes in 1999 to be incomplete as peers are chosen either by political party leaders or they assume their seats for services rendered by their ancestors centuries ago. This blog post will outline a few of my ideas for changing the British upper house.

1) Remove the hereditary peers

It seems extraordinary in a 21st century democracy that 92 of our legislators (and remember that until 1999 that figure was 600) are entitled to their positions because of their birthright. Does inheriting your peerage make you a more capable parliamentarian?

2) Remove the Church of England bishops

In a country with multiple Christian churches, that is multi-faith and also largely secular why should Anglican bishops, and not just a handful but twenty-six, automatically receive seats?

3) Strike a balance between elected and appointed members

With regards to the elected /appointed members debate the new House of Lords could be two thirds elected and one third appointed. To the current format’s credit I think there is a lot to be said for having appointed peers from a variety of different backgrounds with different experiences and expertise. On the current Lords roll call there’s Lord Winston (science), Lord Sugar (business and enterprise) and Lord Puttnam (arts and film) among others. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, a constitutional expert, and others have observed that countries that elect their upper house, the composition of these houses is not too dissimilar to the composition of the lower house in these countries. Hence there is an evident depth of knowledge and expertise from an appointed system.

4) Appointed peers would be selected by an independent body

This is a more complex part of Lords reform – how would appointed members be elected? Here I have looked to Ireland and, in what may come as a surprise to many, Malawi, for ideas. Forty-three of the sixty members of the Irish upper house, the Seanád, are chosen by local and national politicians from five panels of individuals with backgrounds in one of five fields or ‘panels’ (administrative, agricultural, cultural and education, industry and commerce and labour.) Similarly one third of Malawian senators are chosen by senators from the elected majority of interest groups ranging from business and education to unions and disabled citizens. The problem with the Irish-Malawian style system is that the selection process remains in the hands of politicians and a criticism aimed at the process in Ireland is that cronyism and partisanship remain prevalent with former politicians, party loyalists and donors receiving their rewards.

No selection panel can be truly independent and selectors can all be swayed by their own political beliefs and partisan attachments. However, an Irish-Malawi-style appointments system selected by an independent body of people also drawn from sectors such as education, charities, commerce, labour etc. would be an improvement.

5) Members of a reformed British upper house could be elected from national constituencies (England, Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland)

The 2012 reform proposals recommended the adoption of regional multi-member constituencies, yet why not have national constituencies as opposed to South-East England and Yorkshire & Humberside etc.? Numerous upper houses aim to ensure regional representation, most notably federations like the US, Switzerland and South Africa or cultural, linguistic and ethnic groups/minorities (see parts of Africa and Northern Ireland parliaments.)

I know people will cite population differences, but why should England be divided into what are rather artificial regions when Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales remain as whole constituencies? California and Texas remain as complete entities in the Congress despite being thirty times larger than Wyoming and Alaska. As many people feel an attachment to one of the states that make up the United Kingdom, would it not be a legitimate suggestion to have national constituencies represented in a reformed House of Lords? Another solution here would be to have members elected and selected to represent the whole of the UK instead of pre-determined constituencies, a system based on the lines of Israel’s Knesset.

Reforming the House of Lords is not a political priority and to make matters more difficult to those of us advocating reform, the question of ‘how’ to reform the chamber divides many of us. No system will be perfect and it’s impossible to satisfy everyone. History has shown that constitutional changes often happen infrequently. A good place to start in reforming the upper house would be to first remove the remaining hereditary peers and to take the selection process out of the hands of senior politicians.