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4 liberal themes on economics and public services: my contribution to Lib Dem Agenda 2020

Agenda 2020 is the consultation exercise being carried out by the Liberal Democrats to set the framework of policy in the period up to 2020, when we next expect parliamentary elections. At this stage the idea is to keep the thinking at quite a high level. This is always quite hard for political activists. We somehow got onto VAT on tampons in the consultation exercise in Bournemouth. Then again, I’m always saying that political types on the left are too abstract. I haven’t submitted the following contribution yet, but the idea is to be strong on general direction, with only a few pointers on the detail. I’m afraid that it’s still a bit longer than my normal posts.

Economics, public services and wider Liberal Democrat policy

Economics and public services should be at the heart of any political narrative. Too often in the Liberal Democrats both topics have been neglected. The party has opted for a simple middle ground between the Conservatives and Labour. The 2015 General Election was no exception, at least as far as the headlines went. The time has come for a much more robust narrative. Here are some ideas on what this might look like.

The story so far

After 1945 the great Liberal thinkers Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge founded a post war consensus on economic management and public services. This was based on the state taking responsibility for managing the business cycle through fiscal policy, and a greatly expanded set of state services, funded by much higher taxes (compared to pre-war levels), to fulfil a series of new entitlements, designed to ensure that everybody obtained a basic level of wellbeing. These ideas were taken on by the Labour and Conservative Parties, and developed into an overbearing state, which also took over a series of failing businesses, from railways, to steel, to even aero engines.

By the 1970s the state had lost control of its finances and the country was heading for towards economic collapse. Public services had been captured by vested interests, with very little regard for their users. In reaction to this emerged a new conventional wisdom, initiated by Margaret Thatcher and expanded by Tony Blair. This new thinking was again based on liberal principles, and it is often referred to as “neoliberalism”.  The idea was that citizens should be empowered as buyers in a market economy, with the state stepping back to provide only basic services and a basic safety net. Much of the regulation of the business cycle would be taken up by monetary policy, so as to reduce the role of the state. Marginal rates of tax on income were cut, though overall levels of tax increased, if anything.

Probably not coincidentally, this change to public policy was accompanied by dramatic shifts in technology and global trade. Society changed substantially, mostly for the better. Living standards advanced, life expectancy improved, and pollution was cut. But now the country, in common with the rest of the developed world, seems stuck. Most economic growth just benefits a rich elite; businesses hoard excess earnings rather than invest or pay their workers more; property prices escalate. The number of badly paid jobs rises; most younger people are shut out of decent jobs and decent homes. Demand for health and care services grows, while public resources do not keep pace. And prosperity is restricted to a small number better-off areas, especially in the south east of England.

Liberals should worry. Power is being concentrated among a wealthy elite of people connected to big businesses. This trend Is abetted by a highly centralised national government that would rather deal with these large businesses, or else large public agencies like the NHS, than directly with the public. The power of the markets works for many people, but it is failing many more. Many people have inadequate leverage in the markets for jobs and homes in particular, leaving an unequal power balance in both domains. This state of affairs breeds fear and insecurity, which in turn leads to the rise of the political extremes of right and left, which threaten social cohesion.

In the meantime thinking on economic policy has not caught up with these profound changes. Most economists still think of the economy in a highly centralised way, in terms of aggregates across the whole economy, rather than the fate of its component parts. And thinking about productivity is stuck with ideas appropriate to manufacturing industry and economies of scale – and not to the efficient use of the human resources the country actually has to hand, in an economy increasingly dominated by personal services. The left rails against a series of pantomime villains, but resists any serious progressive reform of public services. This old thinking simply concentrates more power and wealth into the hands of a well-connected elite. Public services are dominated by functional silos based on political empires, not people’s actual needs.

We need fresh thinking, and my suggestion is to organise this around four liberal themes.

Liberal theme 1: green growth

Green growth means the advancement of human wellbeing while reducing the consumption of physical resources, especially non-renewable energy. The twin objectives are to ensure that everybody has the chance to live a healthy and fulfilling life in a comfortable environment, while easing the stress on the local and global environment.  There are two aspects to this: developing and implementing technologies that are more environmentally efficient, and breaking the idea that ever increasing consumption is the path to improved wellbeing. This requires a profound change in outlook – though one that is already taking place.

Green growth may or may not entail economic growth as currently measured. That depends on how advanced wellbeing is reflected in the monetary economy. In the short to medium term it entails a substantial level of investment, in more efficient homes, power infrastructure and transport infrastructure, as well as research and development. If properly carried out these investments will entail improved economic growth. Longer term growth requires the harnessing of human resources more effectively. This means a wider distribution of information management and decision making, or:

Liberal theme 2: small is beautiful

Large organisations, be they businesses or government agencies, are one of the main threats to green growth and liberal values. They concentrate power in the hands of the elites that control them, leaving the majority of their employees disempowered, and unable to react most effectively to the world as they find it. The elites are geographically concentrated, leading to geographic concentrations of power and wealth, and the hollowing out of communities elsewhere. This hollowing out leads to a waste of human resources, which must be tapped if green growth is to take root. Furthermore, large commercial organisations have a tendency to hoard surplus earnings (often abroad) rather than invest them, acting as a further drag on the economy.

Of course large organisations also play a vital role in any efficient economy; they are the best organisational form to take on some functions. But these are not as many as often supposed. A liberal government must change the legal and regulatory environment so that it favours large organisations less. This will include reforms to political structures, banking and taxes.

It will also entail a substantial reform of public services:

Liberal theme 3: public services that solve problems

It should be obvious that the main reason that public services are inefficient is that they do not work together to solve people’s problems. Housing, mental health, addiction, crime and poor physical health are very often bound together in one person’s feeding on each other – and yet we persist in trying to deal with each of these issues separately, in separate chains of command all the way to Cabinet. Often the key is making all the relevant services work together in such a way that the user moves to a better way of life, with less call on the public purse. Usually what happens is that the relevant agencies work against each other.

Public services should be organised to meet the needs of people, and solve problems rather than playing pass the parcel. This should be the foremost area for the development of policy, based on best existing practice. There may be a number of possible approaches.  Some of things are clear, however:

  • Changes will be easier to implement if responsibility for public services is more localised and more integrated.
  • Some form of empowered professional intermediary will usually be required to assess the users’s needs, to coordinate the different agencies and, where needed, to negotiate the compliance of the user. Empowerment will mean some form of budgetary control. This means a step back from the current tendency to disempower and de-skill such intermediaries, like social workers and probation officers.
  • Large scale functional outsourcing will usually take services in the wrong direction. Repeated tendering also leads to a dumbing down, a tendency to gloss over more complex issues. The greater use of local social enterprises may well be a better approach in a framework that ensures proper accountability.

Public services should help with some of the most difficult problems relating to poverty; but this has to be in a wider context wealth and income distriubtion. We also need:

Liberal theme 4: redistribution to correct imbalances

A well-ordered, liberal society might not require the redistribution of income and wealth. And liberals dislike redistribution for its own sake – different levels of wealth may simply reflect freely made choices over how to balance accumulating money with other things life has to offer. But in our society imbalances of wealth and income pose a threat. The less well-off are denied the opportunities that should be theirs. Excessive wealth can be used to buy political influence and monopoly power, reducing choices for others. The accumulation of wealth may also lead to excess savings and economic stagnation. Liberals must embrace redistribution, albeit warily.

Redistribution needs to work at two distinct levels: personal and geographical. The wealthy must be taxed on both income and assets (land, in particular), and the worse off must be compensated through access to benefits and rights to state services, especially housing. Children must be a particular focus of redistribution as early years are critical to life chances.

Also funds must be redistributed from wealthy regions and districts to those less well off, to offset the negative network effects of clusters of wealth.

At both levels redistribution arrangements must be designed so as not to create dependency. Those less well-off should be encouraged to improve their lot – but at the same time the level of redistribution must fall as the need for it falls. Systems of redistribution based on universal rights (like the state pension) have their place, but have limits too. Truly liberal systems of redistribution will require careful design.

A policy programme to match

At this stage the idea is to sketch out broad political priorities, and not detailed policy programmes. I do not believe that in most cases a radical departure is needed from adopted Liberal Democrat policy. The high level emphasis will need to be rethought, however.

The main policy implications of taking forward the four liberal themes are:

  1. Political reform, and especially the devolution of power to regions and districts. This is essential to create the right political environment. This may be combined with a new federal settlement for the UK and reform of the House of Lords. Electoral reform is important to ensure a plurality of power – but the priority must be to implement proportional voting systems at local level rather than at Westminster. A further important strand of political reform should be restricting the influence of wealthy individuals and organisations, especially through political donations.
  2. A programme of green investments must be instituted, including high quality social housing.
  3. With public service reform the emphasis should be on bottom-up initiatives – but national funding structures will have to be reviewed to facilitate this.
  4. The tax and benefits system will need to be re-examined. The Lib Dem commitment to increasing personal allowances must be rethought, as it is inefficient as a redistribution policy. Restoring tax credits is a higher priority. Taxation of land in some shape or form makes sense, though we may get no further than reforming Council Tax.
  5. On overall fiscal policy it is best to manage down expectations of additional government spending – though the principle that the government (including local governments) can borrow to invest must be clear.
  6. The banking system must be reformed to allow new, locally-based lenders to come into play. Investment in the “real economy” should be encouraged to create new assets, While avoiding a merry-go-round of existing assets.
  7. The UK should act internationally through the EU to curb tax avoidance, especially by large corporations. Trade agreements and relations with the EU should be viewed through the prism of promoting smaller businesses, and not simply advancing the interests of large multinationals.

Of course there are many more important policies that have a bearing on the economy and public services – not least reducing the level of carbon emissions. But overall such a policy platform should be quite distinctive from the orthodoxies of right and left, and yet fully in tune with modern times.


Why the Conservatives are the coalition of chaos

The choice is simple: “competence and a clear plan” with the Conservatives, or a “coalition of chaos” with Labour. So says the leaflet just delivered on behalf of my Tory MP, and so every Tory spokesperson has been saying in answer to any question from the media. Clearly this has been a carefully researched formula, since it is part of well-prepared election campaign. That’s a bit strange: since political chaos would certainly follow a Conservative victory – and that would overwhelm any governing competence that they may be able to offer.

The proximate cause of that chaos is easy enough to see: Europe. This starts with the uncertainty engendered by the party’s promise of an in-out referendum by 2017.

Not many people have thought seriously about the consequences of a British exit from the EU. Some predict disaster. Others, like Ukip, suggest that it will unlock a bonanza, allowing more expenditure on the NHS and defence, and tax cuts thrown in. A more cynical view is that if the UK left the EU it would make little practical difference to most people, most of the time. The Ukip view is clearly fantasy; the pessimistic view is a possibility, though the more cynical view is the most probable in the longer term.

But that is to step over the sheer complexity of the exit process. The EU reaches so far into the way the country works that negotiating exit would be a massive undertaking with an uncertain outcome. To get an idea of this the best thing to do is the read the prize-winning entry of the Institute of Economic Affairs’ Brexit prize. The IEA, and the essay’s author, advocate departure from the EU – but they are doing everybody a service by outlining what is involved. The range of outcomes runs from a Norway solution, whereby trading would be little impacted, but the country would still have to abide by many EU rules and contribute to EU funds, to total exit, which would get in the way of much of what we now take for granted. The country does not just have to decide whether it wants in or out, but if it leaves it has to decide what kind of relationship it wants with the rest of the EU. And on top of that the process of exit would be the top item of the policy agenda for government for years following any decision, distracting attention from other matters. Amongst the collateral damage of this might well be the breakup of the United Kingdom itself, as Scotland does not share the scepticism of the EU that the rest of the country does.

The referendum outcome is by no means a foregone conclusion. Much of the British establishment favours staying in the EU, and opinion polls show a comfortable lead for staying in. But powerful forces range against it, including most of the country’s influential press, and exit fits the sour political mood of much of the electorate. So chaos and uncertainty would not only follow an exit vote: it would affect the country in the lead-in period. Both domestic and foreign businesses would be tempted to defer investment until the outcome was known – undermining the economic recovery.

But that is not the half of the problems a Conservative government would face. The party itself would be riven from top to bottom. Euroscepticism runs to obsessive levels amongst the party’s grass roots, and increasingly in its parliamentary party. This was on show until quite recently, with repeated rebellions by Tory backbenchers, two of whom defected to Ukip. But much of the party’s respectable wing, including its leader David Cameron, are more pragmatic. Their plan is to present a claim that they have renegotiated Britain’s relationship with the EU, and that the loss of sovereignty has been moderated. And yet such claims will rest on weak foundations. It is now clear that there will be no revisions to the EU treaties. These have become so difficult to push through that only a deep sense of crisis makes that idea feasible. For now, though, the EU has avoided such a deep crisis, and it has shown strong survival instincts. The EU is changing in a manner that suits British wishes – but not as a result of any renegotiation process that Mr Cameron can take credit for.

This would only make Tory divisions worse. There would be against Mr Cameron’s leadership; it is quite possible that he would be ousted as party leader. More  moderate Conservatives could be forced out. Or if the moderates keep the party machinery under their control, there could be mass defections to Ukip. There will simply be no middle ground around which to rally the party. The coalition that is the Conservative party would surely fragment. Such goings on would affect all areas of government. Chaos would not be a bad description of it, and “coalition of chaos” not a bad description of the party itself.

Conservatives like to invoke the 1992 election, when they, under John Major, fought off a strong challenge from Labour to win an overall majority – defying pundits and opinion polls. This blog has made drawn such parallels itself – Labour was likewise undermined by doubts over its economic competence, and its leadership in general. But people would do well to remember what happened next. John Major’s government was perhaps the most disastrous for the party in its history. It suffered its most severe defeat ever in 1997, and has never been able to secure a majority since. Mr Major could not control the party’s Eurosceptic wing, and the whole government suffered drift as a result. Since then the Eurosceptics have grown in strength and confidence; the referendum issue will be yet more polarising. Matters will be much worse.

And yet few commentators on Britain’s election seem to understand any of this (the Economist’s Bagehot column is an exception). Such is the strange culture of denial and short-termism that stifles British politics.


Happy Christmas from Thinking Liberal

Today I was going to post the third in my series of reflections about being the governor of a successful school. But I suspect that too many people will be too busy to read it. Not coincidentally I’m probably too busy to write it anyway. I really should nip down to Waitrose to buy the final Christmas supplies before the shelves are stripped bare. And then wrap a few presents. And so on.

So instead I will just wish all my readers a Happy Christmas. Whether I resume posting next week remains to be seen…


Lib Dem Spring Conference: finding a cause worth fighting for

According to tonight’s BBC news, the big thing on our minds at the Lib Dem Spring Conference was the Income Tax threshold. In fact almost nobody here in York was talking about it. Uppermost in our minds were the European Parliament and local elections due in May this year, and broader manifesto issues for the general election in 2015.

The BBC headline came from a speech by Danny Alexander, the Treasury Secretary. It got a dutiful standing ovation, but was pretty uninspiring stuff. Much more interesting was the party’s stance on the European Parliament elections, which was showcased the night before at the conference rally. This is to shamelesslessly advertise the party as being in favour of the EU and set itself up as being in contrast to Ukip, with the Tories and Labour as fence sitting irrelevance. Defence of the EU being is cast in terms of the risks presented by leaving it, especially to jobs. Thinking Liberal hardly not approve of this. It is exactly the strategy I advocated in the wake of the disastrous 2012 elections. It is a core vote strategy that is at long last getting professional execution. Until now the professionals have preferred a floating voter strategy aimed at the middle ground. They seemed constitutionally unable to execute a core vote strategy, which showcases the party’s core beliefs. We will have to see how this strategy works out, but if nothing else it is inspiring for activists.

Personally I think this could be a bit of a turning point for the party. Nick Clegg ushered in a new era when he took up the party’s leadership in 2009 (I think). The old guard, epitomised by the chief executive Chris Rennard were swept away. This needed doing, but a lot of wisdom was swept away in the process. The party’s campaigning has been flawed under Mr Clegg. There was a brief moment of triumph in the 2010 General Election campaign, but the end result was disappointing. And entering into coalition government exposed flaws in the party’s strategy in a very painful way – even though the process of entering government was something that few had dared to imagine beforehand. Dismal electoral results in local and London elections followed.

But at last the party has come out fighting. It is discovering a sense of purpose. This was evident in a policy motion on immigration this morning, where the party has failed to succumb to tide of anti immigration rhetoric that is otherwise overwhelming the political landscape. Other policy motions, on planning and constitutional reform were less convincing. Though in the former case party activists are at least starting to engage with the clear need for more housing in the south of the country.

If nothing else this proves the need for three party politics. Labour and the Conservatives would rather duck and weave around the issues of Europe and immigration, appealing to voters on both sides of the argument, while suppressing proper debate. The Lib Dems increase the costs to them of doing so.

Will it work? It may not. But increasingly Lib Dem activists relish the prospect of going down fighting. And who knows, perhaps rewards beyond the imagination of the average political commentator?


Labour can win in 2015. A disaster beckons in 2020.

Is it just me, or can I see a certain spring in the step of Britain’s national politicians? Ever since the party conference season last September they have been focusing on one thing above all: winning the General Election due in May 2015. The perplexing state of the country is now simply a source of ammunition to batter the other side. Actually solving the problems can be left until afterwards. What a relief!

The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, is having the better of it, if the relentlessly superficial media chatter is to be believed. This is quite a turnaround, since the same chatterers had him as toast as late as August. He has abandoned his party’s “too far, too fast” criticism of the government’s austerity policies, which helped rally the faithful (and rattle Lib Dem activists) but cut little ice with the country at large. The recovery of the country’s economic statistics has not invalidated their argument, but it has made it far too complex a proposition to argue, especially since their rhetoric had placed far too much reliance on these “flatlining” statistics in the first place. Instead they are focusing on living standards, and things, like fuel bills, which affect them.

From a campaigning perspective, this change of tack is astute on at least two counts. First, it appeals to direct personal experience, rather than the ephemeral world of economic statistics, to which the country’s GDP growth statistics belong. Second, it is such an intractable problem that the government is unlikely to be able to neutralise it. All that remains is to find some eye-catching policies to embarrass the government and keep the political debate on their ground. The centrepiece of this is the pledge to freeze energy prices for two years if Labour takes power, while they put in place a longer term fix to limit the damage inflicted by the greedy energy businesses they blame for the problem. A second push has been to enforce a “living wage” significantly higher than the legal minimum wage, through government procurement, and a tax break for employers who raise their wages.

In this line of attack Mr Miliband is the first of our national politicians to make political capital out of one of the most important developments in the British economy, along with many other developed economies, notably America’s. For the majority of people, wages are not keeping up with growth in the wider economy. In Britain this trend was clearly established, I read in this piece by Chris Giles in the FT, 2003/04; since 2010 (i.e. when the current government took over) wages have not even kept up with average prices. The benefits of growth are going to mainly to a privileged elite, while government interventions tend to be focused on the other end of the spectrum: the very poor. While the main economic issue is slow growth of pay, the main flashpoints are in taxes (especially for things like fuel) and energy costs.

There is, however, a snag. How on earth to actually fix it? This does not seem to bother Mr Miliband too much. His policy proposals are at best ineffectual, and at worst will actually make things worse. In the field of energy Britain is being overtaken by a crisis, as old nuclear and coal-fired power stations are shut down, and replaced by renewable energy sources that place wholly different strains on infrastructure. What the country badly needs is investment, in new capacity, and, especially, in distribution infrastructure (e.g. moves towards a “smart grid”). Just how Labour’s attack on the energy companies is going to solve this problem is, to say the least, unclear. And, if some of what I read is true, the pressure will break out into real problems in two or three years time. Labour’s living wage policies are no better thought through. Using government procurement to do heavy lifting in this area, along with many others, risks weighing it down with compliance costs – a process that tends to push out smaller businesses, as well as inviting scandal and fraud. The tax break looks totally unsustainable and an invitation to unscrupulous companies to manipulate the system.

The Conservatives are planning their counterattack. There is growing talk of 1992 (which this blog has long been banging on about), when a well-funded late campaign destroyed what had seemed to be an inevitable Labour victory. They will focus, probably, on frightening voters about the economy and taxes; their newspaper allies will concentrate on personal attacks on Mr Miliband to undermine his credibility as a prime minister. The Lib Dems are crafting a “centre ground” campaign, no doubt hoping to benefit from the damage the big parties will do to each other.

I have urged my readers not to underestimate the Conservatives. That advice still applies. But my current instinct is the Labour will weather the storm enough to form a minority government. That is when Mr Miliband’s problems will start. The country will face electricity shortages; clever schemes to enforce the living wage will unravel; living standards for the majority will stay under pressure; Labour activists and trade unionists will be on the government’s case to raise benefits and expenditure. The calamity that has struck Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems will visit Labour, for very similar reasons. I understand Labour’s strategy for winning in 2015; how on earth are they going to win in 2020?


The Great British Bake Off: a lesson in fairness and manners

This year’s Great British Bake Off ended last night. It was an immensely enjoyable show, and also very popular with the general public. Drawing wider lessons from such apparent trivia is a tricky business – but I was particularly concerned by this article by one of the contestants (Ruby Tandoh) in today’s Guardian. There has, apparently, been a lot of abusive comment in the press and on social media. What does this say about the state of British manners?

First let’s have the good news. The manners displayed in the contest itself were quite beautiful. In spite of the highly pressured atmosphere, and the obviously competitive nature of the activity, the contestants behaved wonderfully to each other. They actually seemed to like being together – bonding in response to the common task. This applied even to the comments made by the contestants without the others there. This is not always the case with these game shows (though we do not watch many of them), where rather silly competitive stuff often gets said. Nobody forgot that this was just a pointless contest about cakes and bread. This is all part of the charm of the programme, and clearly it helps make excellent viewing. This is welcome relief against the apparent conventional wisdom that bad manners make good viewing.

It is also worth pointing out that the judging was inevitably hard, but scrupulously fair. One of the judges, Mary Berry, being a particularly fine exemplar of good manners while at the same time passing difficult judgements. The other, Paul Hollywood, was less tactful, but never rude and always fair. This huge effort to be fair in the face of something very subjective also made for very good viewing. There are important social lessons there in a cynical world.

So what was the fuss about? Well I know about it mostly from Ms Tandoh’s article. My Facebook friends hardly talked about it, still less said anything inappropriate. I did pick up an article in The Daily Mail while I was on holiday last week though, claiming that Miss Tandoh should have been knocked out that week, but wasn’t because a tendency to burst into tears had affected the judges. We watched a recorded version of the show, which showed this accusation to be clearly nonsense. Apparently there was a lot more of this rubbish around. Miss Tandoh’s view is that it was largely misogynistic – responding to the fact that the final five contestants were all women.

What this clearly shows is that bad manners are rife on social media. That Britain’s awful press  pick up on this and stir it up further is entirely unsurprising. But people buy these papers and clearly like to read it. I can’t say for sure whether this means that standards of social behaviour are slipping, or whether social media is simply exposing behaviour that was previously concealed. I suspect the latter.

Regardless, it shows that the British public has a lot to learn about manners on social media. But it is rather wonderful to have a TV programme like the Bake Off to show how good manners can done in a thoroughly modern way, and that it brings with a feel-good factor with it. Miss Tandoh’s article is model of good manners itself. She has put her critics to shame.


Lies and statistics

This week The Economist has an interesting article, Unreliable research: trouble at the lab, on the worrying level of poor quality scientific research, and weak mechanisms for correcting mistakes. Recently a drug company, Amgen, tried to reproduce 53 key studies in cancer research, but could get the original results in six. This does not appear to be untypical in attempts to reproduce research findings. The Economist points to a number of aspects of this problem, such as the way in which scientific research is published. But of particular interest is how poorly understood is the logic of statistics, not only in the world at large, but in the scientific community. This is, of course, applies particularly to the economic and social science research so beloved of political policy think tanks.

One particular aspect of this is the significance of a concept generally known as “prior probability”, or just “prior” for short, in interpreting statistical results. This is how inherently likely or unlikely a hypothesis is considered to be, absent any new evidence. The article includes an illustrative example. Hypotheses are usually tested to a 95% confidence level (a can of worms in itself, but let’s leave that to one side). Common sense might suggest that this means that there only a 5% chance of a false positive result – i.e. that the hypothesis is incorrect in spite of experimental validation. But the lower the prior (i.e. less inherently probable), the higher the chance of a false positive (if a prior is zero, at the extreme, no positive experimental result would convince you, as any positive results would be false – the result of random effects). If the prior is 10% there is a 4.5% inherent probability of a false positive, compared to an 8% change of a true positive. So there is a 36% chance that any positive result is false (and, for completeness, a 97% chance that a negative result is truly negative). Very few

The problem is this: an alternative description of “low prior” is “interesting”. Most of the attention goes to results with low priors. So most of the experimental results people talk about are much less reliable than many people assume – even before other weaknesses in statistical method (such as false assumptions of data independence, for example) are taken into account. There is, in fact, a much better statistical method for dealing with the priors problem, called Bayesian inference. This explicitly recognises the prior, and uses the experimental data to update it to a “posterior”. So a positive experimental result would raise the prior, to something over 10% in the example depending on the data, while a negative one would reduce it. This would then form the basis for the next experiment.

But the prior is an inherently subjective concept, albeit one that becomes less subjective as the evidence mounts. The scientific establishment hates to make such subjective elements so explicit, so it is much happier to go through the logical contortions required by the standard statistical method (to accept or reject a null hypothesis up to a given confidence level). This method has now become holy writ, in spite of its manifest logical flaws. And , as the article makes clear, few people using the method actually seem to understand it, so errors of both method and interpretation are rife.

One example of the scope for mischief is interesting. The UN Global Committee on Climate Change presented its conclusion recently in a Bayesian format. It said that the probability of global warming induced by human activity had been raised from 90% to 95% (from memory). This is, of course, the most sensible way of presenting its conclusion. The day this was announced the BBC’s World at One radio news programme gave high prominence to somebody from a sceptical think tank. His first line of attack was that this conclusion was invalid because the standard statistical presentation was not used. In fact, if the standard statistical presentation is appropriate ever, it would be for the presentation of a single set of experimental results, and even that would conceal much about the thinness or otherwise of its conclusion. But the waters had been muddied; our interviewer, or anybody else, was unable to challenge this flawed line of argument.

Currently I am reading a book on UK educational policy (I’ll blog about it when I’m finished). I am struck about how much emphasis is being put on a very thin base of statistical evidence – and indeed how statistical analysis is being used on inappropriate questions. This seems par for the course in political policy research.

Philosophy and statistics should be part of very physical and social sciences curriculum, and politicians and journalists should bone up too. Better than that, scientists should bring subjectivity out into the open by the adoption of Bayesian statistical techniques.


European elections: saving the Lib Dems from wipeout

Winner Lib Dem Golden Dozen Blogs – 9 December 2012

The Liberal Democrats have just selected their candidates for elections to the European Parliament in June 2014.  These elections are important to the party – it takes itself seriously as a player in this forum, and it contributes a lot to the party’s strength and depth nationally.  But the party faces a wipe-out.  It needs some radical thinking to have a chance of avoiding such a fate.

The problems start with the party’s low opinion poll standing.  The typical 9-10% is not enough to get the party representation in any of the regional constituencies, except the South East, under the PR system that is used.  But it is worse than that.  The party has always underperformed in these elections.  Its usual campaigning methods are worse than useless.  The party’s appalling showing in the London 2012 elections is a much better guide: closer to 5-6%.  Complete wipe-out.  How to save the party?

The first point is that the party needs to acknowledge the root causes of its campaigning weakness in this type of election.  The party’s electoral successes in local and Westminster elections have been achieved using campaigns that focus on three things in particular: identifying local issues that stir the passions of floating voters, a ruthless third party squeeze (“Labour can’t win here, etc”), and identifying voters and getting to them to the polling stations.  All three are useless in Euro elections – and yet they are so deeply embedded in Lib Dem campaigners’ thinking that they infect everything the party does.  The party fails to put over a message that motivates voters, and since canvassing covers such a small proportion of the potential electors (and usually they are based on other sorts of elections anyway), the polling day knock up has very little impact on the result.

Unfortunately, it gets worse.  The party’s Euro candidates tend not to be, shall we say, the party’s most inspiring campaigners. They are very interested in the goings of the European Union.  This makes them well qualified to be Euro MPs – and indeed the party punches well above its weight there.  But they are not good at finding messages that connect with voters.  Even when they think they have found a killer, like using European arrest warrants to catch terrorists and paedophiles, this in practice has little resonance with the public.

So the party’s normal messages and techniques are ineffective, and the Euro candidates struggle to find an alternative.  In the last election I remember delivering piles of tabloid newspapers that were clearly going to have little or no effect.  Motivating the activists is a real problem, never mind the voters.

So what to do?  The basic strategy is quite clear, and has been talked about for some time.  Find enough voters who feel positive about the EU’s role in Britian’s future to turn up and vote to reach about 15-20% of the vote share.  No other significant party is rallying that vote.  The Labour Party is trying get these voters by default, but without prejudicing its chances with the more sceptical majority.  The Tories don’t seem to think these voters even exist.

Next, how can effective campaign be mounted?  What will be needed is poster and Internet advertising, mass direct mail based on promising demographics, and a good freepost (the single leaflet delivered for free by the post office).  This is supported by an online and social media campaign.  All this activity, combined with the right messaging, will draw in media attention.  Almost no need for local activists to do much legwork – they can get on with their local campaigns.  This will cost a lot of money – so the first priority will be to raise it.

The party is getting better at fundraising, but many party activists have little idea about how it works.  Donors, rich and not so rich, need to be motivated in a very similar way to ordinary voters.  They need to be inspired by the campaign’s messages, and think they might catch on with the wider public. You don’t raise the funds first, then decide on the campaign’s messages; it is the other way round.  So the work on messaging needs to start now.

Here is my humble suggestion.  The campaign theme should be “Save Europe!”.  No doubt this can be improved on, but note the key features.  First and foremost it is pitched as a response to a threat.  People are more motivated by response to threats than positive ideas, and motivation is critical.  The “No” campaign for the AV referendum was highly successful as it pitched AV as a threat to the status quo.  So is pulling out of the EU a threat to the status quo.  The party can be progressive and conservative at the same time!  Further is the idea of “Europe” – vague and big.  The idea is to appeal to people with an international consciousness.  There is a double meaning: first to save Britain from leaving the EU, and second for the country to play its full part in solving a continental crisis that will affect us anyway.

How to build on this idea to make the threat seem real?  “Save jobs” and “Save the Environment” should be the focus.  Messing around with EU membership is a clear threat to jobs – and indeed one of the main appeals will be to businessmen who fear for the future of Britian’s relationship with the EU.  The environment allows the party to play on its international outlook.  Indeed it is an appealing idea to use an Earth from space picture with Europe visible on the surface as a campaign logo.  It also sets the party up for some skirmishing that may be needed with the Greens.  And it contrasts with Ukip’s outlook.

Ukip are the rising starts of Euro elections, which frightens the two main parties.  But if the Lib Dems are after core voters rather than floaters then Ukip’s strength is an opportunity.  It helps define the party: “We are the party which is against everything Ukip is for.”  The more they know about Ukip, the more they know about us.  The party should indulge in some relentless negative campaigning against Ukip – including how they have behaved in the European Parliament – though not straying into accusations of racism.

So you get the general idea.  The best next step would be to appoint a national organiser to work on messaging and strategy.  This needs to be somebody comfortable with challenging the Lib Dem conventional wisdom on campaigning, but with a degree of political realism (contrast some of the Yes to AV campaign types).  Though much of the campaigning needs to be done in the regional constituencies, a lot of the design effort can be done nationally – and the Internet and media campaign needs to be led nationally too.

I do hope the party wakes up to the danger and tries to a bit radical!


My heart attack

Last Monday, three days ago now, I lay, conscious, on an operating table at St George’s hospital, Tooting.  A tube had been inserted into my artery in the right arm at the wrist, through which dyes and then wires were inserted.  On my left wrist a drip had been inserted into vein so that drugs could be injected rapidly.  Two surgeons were doing their stuff around the area of my legs, looking up at two monitor screens.  A large cylindrical  device was being pointed at my chest at various angles.  I lay as still as possible, as the surgeons exchanged comments and gave occasional orders to technicians outside the room, who would respond over the intercom.  Some music was playing quietly in the background.

The surgeons were doing an angiogram.  They were pumping dye into my bloodstream to make the blood flows visible through an X-ray camera and spot any problems with the blood flow to my heart.  And they did find a problem.  “One of your arteries is completely blocked.  This almost certainly caused your heart attack,” one of the surgeons said to me, “We want to insert a piece of wire to clear it.”  I consented.  The surgeons then completed a procedure known as an angioplasty.  This involved using a piece of wire pushed through my arteries to insert an stent, a small length of tube, into the blocked bit to open it up, after first inflating a small balloon to create the space.

It was really only then that I fully realised what had happened – that I had indeed suffered a heart attack, and that as a result my life was in the hands of these two surgeons and their team.  Until then I had thought the problems might be some sort of viral attack (as my elder brother had suffered a few years before) with few longer-term implications.  The previous evening, my family visitors remarked on how well I was looking – though the medically literate among them could spot the abnormal trace on the heart monitor that I was wired into.  This is a shock.  I had no indication until then that I was at risk.  I take regular exercise; I’m not overweight; I have never smoked; I eat my five a day; I even make sure I have a couple or more portions of oily fish a week; my blood pressure has always been normal; no tests that had been run on me had shown me with anything other than a very healthy heart.  It really can happen to anybody.

The problem seems to have started over two weeks beforehand, while we were on an organised tour of Sicily.  One night, after dinner, and a day when I had felt slight constrictions to the chest area, I started to suffer acute chest pains.  I couldn’t sleep.  Eventually, at about 3 or 4 a.m I took some aspirin, and the pain subsided and I got some sleep.  I was puzzled at what had caused this episode.  The chest pains pointed to a heart attack, but none of the other symptoms did.  I wasn’t breathless, I could carry out normal physical activity.  As the pain subsided, the idea that it was severe indigestion took hold.  Gavascon seemed to help with the contuining mild episodes of pain.  The local diet can be pretty acid.  The day after the attack I had no trouble in climbing to the top of a stone tower to get a wonderful view of the western Sicilian coast.  The next day, though, I  felt lethargic and a bit feverish, collapsing into my hotel bed for an afternoon; but a couple of days after that things seemed to return to normal.  We continued with the tour, returning home at the end of the week.

The episode has was scary enough for me to go to my GP in the week after we returned.  I probably wouldn’t have done this had my wife not insisted on it, though I had noted that my fitness at the cardio-vacular exercises in the gym had fallen rather sharply.  My GP tended to agree with my diagnosis of acute indigestion, as he would have expected that a real heart attack would have had more of an impact.  But he did recommend that I did some blood tests.  This I did last Friday morning, at 8.30 a.m.  By midday my GP had rung me to say that one of these tests had revealed a high troponin level, indicative of heart problems.  He recommended that I go to St George’s A & E to get an ECG (electro cardiogram – where they put a dozen electrodes on your skin and get traces of your pulse).  This I did straight after lunch, expecting to be home for tea.  But the ECG showed an abnormal trace.  I was admitted to hospital, hanging around in A & E while a bed was cleared.  The next step was the angiogram – but that couldn’t be run until Monday.  Meanwhile I was kept under observation, with a cocktail of drugs administered by tablet and injection.

Now I am at home in rehab, recovering from the damage to my heart from the blocked artery, and the operation itself – but the prospects for a full recovery are good.  But I’ll be on pills for a long time, probably for the rest of my days.  At the moment there are six different sorts of pill, but it should come down to less than that after a year.  My fitness regime will have to be adjusted downwards so as not to place too much strain on the heart.  I am quite lucky though, first that the original attack did not do more damage, and second that the problem was picked up before the blockage to my artery caused more damage to the heart and maybe a more serious attack.

Why me?  I don’t hit any of the main risk factors – except that I was not avoiding cholesterol in my diet.  In fact I was a heavy cheese eater, and relished meat fat and chicken skin.  That will now change.  But some peple are just more at risk than others.  My physical fitness may have helped reduce the effect – though a bit too well if it had meant that I had avoided having it checked out.

It is customary at this point to praise Britain’s NHS and scorn its critics.  I will try and be a bit more objective, after my close observation of the service at work.  But it doesn’t come out badly.

Firstly I am immensely grateful to all those many professionals that helped me through the episode.  I always felt that they had my interests at heart and they did their best to help me.  Nurses, doctors, technicians, pharmacists and surgeons – I can’t fault any of them.  I now have very benign feelings towards St George’s hospital, which happens to be my local one – from being a rather anonymous presence beforehand.

Second I cannot fault the overall effectiveness of what the NHS acheived.  From the point of that blood test a system was quickly kicked into action that was appropriate at every step, acheived the right outcome, while managing the risks properly.  And at points the service was better than good.  The surgery was world class; the briefing from the cardiac rehab nurse afterwards was also deeply impressive.  The speed with which my blood sample was analysed and acted on was very impressive too.

Effective, yes, but how efficient?  Here I was left with a few question marks.  I ran into an awful lot of different professionals in my journey, having to repeat my story to up to ten different doctors.  This is a warning sign from a process management standpoint – though the need for specialists, 24 hour cover and risk management does not make the matter easy.  And there was an awful lot of paper records and documents.  It isn’t surprising that there were communication breakdowns; I’m still waiting for my discharge papers.  And the whole thing about the service going on hold for the weekend does not feel right either.  At least one, and probably two nights of my four night stay were clinically unnecessary.  Room for improvement, I would say – and that matters in a tax funded system where overall resources are subject to arbitrary limits.

It is clear though that I was much better off under the NHS system than I would have been under the US one, especially before Obamacre kicks in.  I would not have qualified under any of the government funded schemes, and neither would I have been covered by an employer plan.  I would either have to to have bought my own insurance plan, which would suddenly have become a lot more expensive.  Or I would have to have winged it without insurance, which would have landed me in serious trouble.

But then very few people outside the US think that their system is in any way sensible.  A universal insurance scheme, like most advanced countries run, would have caused a little more bureaucracy at the start of my hospital visit, but nothing very burdensome.  And I don’t believe that health professionals would be any less caring or professional if they were not working for a state provider.  Neither do I beleive that the vagaries of private sector management are any worse than the arbitrary resource management of a nationalised, tax-funded system.

But the NHS did do the job it was supposed to do.  And for that I am thoroughly thankful.