Wednesday, 20 September 2017

"Free Speech is a right wing idea" is one of the most stupid things I've ever heard

If you're a fashionable leftie trying to stick it to The Man, in today's mad world the chances are that you're against free speech. The way they tell it, Nazis, racists, homophobes and sundry hateful conservatives use "free speech" as a fig leaf to protect their hate speech. In a crowded field, this is one of the stupidest political arguments you'll ever hear.

Is it OK to hate stupid ideas?

Once you get past a chanting mob in the street and try to turn "free speech but not hate speech" into a real, live policy you run into two problems:

- Mission Creep
- Who gets to decide?

Mission Creep means you start by shutting down actual racists and Nazis, but once caught up in the mob you soon find yourself on the slippery slope towards "people who say things I don't like are basically Nazis".

If free speech means anything, it means the freedom to say what somebody doesn't want to hear - the freedom to criticise the powerful, to point out their follies, and make them uncomfortable. That means powerful people in government, but it also means people with loud voices who want to be heard - that's you, Mr Protester. You want the power to silence the people who disagree with you; I want the power to disagree and if that makes you uncomfortable then that's good.

I think this one's ironic. Isn't it?

But where the censorship mob's brains fall out of their ears is the second point - who gets to decide? In countries with heavy censorship, it's the people in charge who get to decide what you're allowed to say. The people who control the police and the army. The people who make the laws and operate the prisons. And what they tend to decide is "You're not allowed to criticise us".

So in Britain, it would be the Conservative government that decides what you can say, while in the USA it would be President Trump. In former times, it's been such world leaders as Stalin and Hitler who've taken a keen interest in what people are allowed to say and who they may criticise. Criticising the actual Nazis in the Third Reich was not for the faint-hearted.

How is it that the people most enthusiastic about criticising Trump, Conservative governments and Nazis don't spot this flaw in their plan? If the leaders with the power to implement speech censorship actually listen to them, if they bring in the censorious society these protesters say they want, then by their own logic that would usher in exactly the totalitarian, Nazi society they are against.

If you build the machinery of censorship, you might not be the one who controls it: you might find yourself on the receiving end.

Morons at large.

The people who most need free speech, the people who should cherish it as the most fundamental right of all, are the powerless, the oppressed, the underdog, and all those who would champion their cause. That the left has turned against free speech, that they see it as a tool of oppression or an excuse for offending people, is one of the most stupid political ideas you'll ever see.

Free speech - a licence to make people uncomfortable or offended.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

On EU nationals, the government should be the bigger man

Yesterday, the House of Lords defied the Government on European Union nationals living in the UK. The Government is seeing this as a defeat, but it should take this opportunity to be the bigger man.

The Government is paying a political price to keep an option which it is never going to use - we are not going to see mass deportation of EU nationals who came to Britain to exercise their treaty rights to work here. But by seeming to keep the option open, the government is damaging its position and Britain's standing in the world. It is incurring political damage to hold onto this option which is of no value. I think there is a better way.

The Government wants to let EU citizens remain in the UK, and for the EU give British people living elsewhere in Europe the same right. It aims to thrash this out during the negotiations, but the negotiations have already begun, and the stand-off over this issue matches the tense, often bad-natured mood developing between Britain and the EU. This isn't in anyone's interests  - our long term aim must be to remain friendly, cooperative neighbours. But in the emotional fall-out of the referendum, all sides risk getting bogged down in a petty, tit-for-tat mindset.

Today is the perfect opportunity to break out. The Government should announce unilaterally that all those EU citizens already living here will be granted the right to remain on the same terms they currently enjoy, and then call upon the EU to match the offer. This would be a big, positive gesture of good will, reassure millions people living in Britain who are genuinely worried about their future, and encourage the EU to reciprocate. All this would cost nothing, because what it is giving up is of no value. No one wants mass deportations, and they are not going to happen, so let's be the first to take that off the table.

This isn't a big change of position for the government, but it would be a big change of tone. Its attempt to frame the debate as "We would love to do this, but the EU won't reciprocate," is trying to put the ball in the EU's court. But it isn't working, and it's making Britain look small. By taking the first step, at a stroke the UK would show willing, reassure the 3 million Europeans working here, make it difficult for the EU not to reciprocate, and most importantly would be demonstrating the positive, open attitude to the world we will need as we embark on our new place in the world outside the EU.

The negotiations between the EU and Britain desperately need a bold gesture of good will. This is it, and UK should seize the opportunity.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

An update on the Hackbridge road scheme, February 2017

Hey, do you remember Hackbridge?

The town?

The mad plan to remove all the pedestrian crossings.

Oh yes, the Glorious Land of the Courtesy Crossing! Take out all the proper crossings, and somehow the ceaseless traffic on the London Road will magically part like the Red Sea. People got really angry about it and demanded they reinstate the crossings. Apparently, the main road to London…

…London Road?

…that’s the one. It turns out, if you remove all the crossings on London Road, people don’t feel safe crossing. Especially blind people, old people, young people, anyone who’s a bit frail, and basically anyone who values their own life.

Who could have seen that coming?

Literally everyone. They did a consultation and a series of public events, every time they asked, people would say “How are we meant to cross the road without crossings?”

Good question. So they had a rethink?

No, they built it anyway.

What? Why?

They said the people were wrong. They said we should listen to the experts, because they had research.

Did they?

Yes. Both Transport for London and the Department for Transport commissioned detailed research on shared spaces and courtesy crossings.

What did the research say?

It said it wouldn’t work.

Artist's impression. Note that London Road is almost devoid of cars, while people cross
the road quite casually. File under "things that never happened"

What! So why did they built the damned thing?

Good question. Both studies found that shared space is fine when traffic speeds are low, where there isn’t much traffic, or where there are loads of pedestrians so cars are forced to yield. But on busy roads the traffic just keeps flowing so people stand about like puddings, trying to cross.

That’s exactly what happened in Hackbridge!

Yep. Just as the research predicted, and just as everyone with common sense predicted.

So once it was built and they saw the crossings didn’t work, is that when they put the old crossings back?

No. They insisted that it was fine.

But it doesn’t work!

They say it does. Even now, 3 years on, they still say it worked, and that there was nothing wrong with it.

What! How?
Because Sutton Lib Dems never admit a mistake. It's the main reason most of the problems never get sorted out.
Hang on, if there was nothing wrong with it, why did they put the crossings back in?

At first, they didn’t. They did replace the Roundel with a proper mini-roundabout…

…the Roundel! Wow, I’d forgotten that.

How could you forget a giant pink nipple in the middle of the road? Anyway, they took that out, but insisted that the courtesy crossings were fine. They concluded that the problem must be with the people - they were doing it wrong. So they decided to hand out leaflets explaining to people how to cross the road.

Get out of here! They didn’t do that!

They did. They paid council staff to hand out leaflets explaining to grown adults how to cross the road, and they even got the Police to help them. I hope you got one, cos your Council Tax paid for all this.

Christ on a bike.

Not in Hackbridge He ain’t – Hackbridge Sustainable Suburb’s innovative new road layout has literally no space for cycling.

Touché. So how come they eventually put crossings back in? Did they accept that a leaflet wasn’t enough?

No, they declared the leaflet a success and refused to accept there was a problem. However, the external safety auditor condemned the crossings in March 2015 and told them to remove one particularly dangerous crossing, the one by the tile shop, because pedestrians and oncoming traffic couldn’t see each other. The auditor also told them to put at least 2 proper crossings back in. So they didn’t have much choice.

Praise the Lord for auditors, I always say.

You never say that.

True. Hang on, isn’t the dangerous crossing outside the tile shop still there?

Well spotted. Two years ago they said they’d remove it, but they never did.

How come?

It turns out that if you do everything badly the first time, and then have to redo it properly, it’s expensive…the project ran out of money.

So they’re just going to leave that dangerous crossing there?

Apparently. Although they say it isn’t dangerous, of course.

Of course! Wouldn’t it have saved a lot of money and looked better in the end if they’d listened to people at the beginning? Or maybe used some common sense?

Yes, but that would be totally against everything they stand for. And besides, they had A Vision and A Theory, and everybody bought into it.

Good grief, it was doomed.


Are they planning to inflict this Vision and Theory anywhere else in the borough?

Funnily enough, despite relentlessly declaring the Heart of Hackbridge courtesy crossings a roaring success to anyone who will listen, they say they have no plans to rip out any other crossings and turn our main roads into “shared space” for toddlers and HGVs to frolic happily together.

Hallelujah! Almost as if they secretly admit it was a bloody stupid idea all along.

You might very well think that. Still, they are planning to totally redesign the Sutton one way system and turn it into a Parisian boulevard, so we can look forward to that.

Uh oh, will that have courtesy crossings?

We don't know yet. But I guarantee that whatever happens, they’ll declare it a complete and total success with no problems whatsoever.


The tragedy of one-dimensional thinking

Snowflake! Racist! Fascist! Cry-bully! Punch a fascist! Our political culture is hardening people into teams, while what passes for debate mainly involves hurling insults at the other side. Moderate, thoughtful people who can bridge the divide are disappearing just as they're needed most. Where have they gone? And how do we get them back?

It's not just that people lean towards one political side over another, that's not new. The change I see is that joining a team increasingly means total submission to its world view - people embrace an absurd kind of cabinet collective responsibility for literally millions of people who're notionally on their side. Admitting the other side might have a point is an act of treachery; daring to query your own side now makes you the enemy. This is the way of social media, where messages contain more tribal psychology than political discussion.

If you try to hold your ground in the middle, you may find yourself friendless and taking abuse from both sides. This is how the moderates, the bridge-builders, the peacemakers we need to return civility are driven out of the picture. It happens because the team players are trapped in a one-dimensional view of politics. Let me illustrate.

I mean, I know he's a moderate, but he is actually reading over the other guy's shoulder.
A range of views, from strongly against -5, through "meh" 0, to strongly for 5.

Pick any political hot topic. Let's say that views range from 5 (strongly in favour) to -5 (strongly against) with 0 in the middle. People lean one way or the other, but most are towards the middle. So the middle, holding a superiority of both numbers and common sense, should dominate the debate, right? Wrong.

The extremists, Flag Man and Placard Boy in red, are in a minority but they dominate because they're fired up to put in the hours to get their message out. Worse, TV and radio programmes endlessly invite them in because they're guaranteed to shout at each other. Apparently this makes good telly. Plus, having two opposing extremists allows the media to say it's balanced.

But it gets worse, because when most of what you hear is the noise from the extremists, they will polarise the whole debate and drive everyone out of the middle. Here's why. Although in reality people hold a range of views on the topic, it only looks like this if you can step back from the debate and get some perspective.  So I can see that, and you can see that. For the people trapped in the argument, they are stuck in the 1-dimensional world represented by the black line.

This is how the same debate looks to Flag Man:

If you are Flag Man standing at one extreme of the debate, everyone appears to be in a single group, united against you, siding with Placard Boy. He can't really distinguish between Mr Shrug who largely agrees with him but quibbles on some details, at -2, and Newspaper Reader who tends to disagree but will concede a few points, at 2. Trapped in his one-dimensional view, Flag Man at -5 sees all the blue moderates not as a range but as a group. And they seem to be in the same group as Placard Boy. Meanwhile, Placard Boy has an equal and opposite view.

So between them, Flag Man and Placard Boy will berate, insult, cajole and harass everyone in the middle until they either join a team or walk away. At least by joining a team, you halve the level of abuse. Worse, people on the extremes have an endless supply of simple, plausible arguments - they are in favour of all the good things, and against all the bad things. They can shout their simple message over and over, put it on T-shirts, mugs, memes, you name it. By contrast, showing that not all the good ideas are on one side, that things are a bit more complicated than that, is both more intellectually challenging and less appealing to your audience. The fact that it happens to be true, unfortunately, doesn't make it more persuasive.

By this process, the reasonable people in the middle are being driven away, especially on social media but increasingly in real life, too, and the population is sorting itself into two angry, deeply tribal, opposing teams.

So that's where so many moderates have gone - they've found themselves drawn into picking a team, perhaps against their better judgement, or else they've become fed up of all the idiots on both extremes raining abuse on them, and gone off to do something else. They find it easier not to say anything. And who can blame them? Unfortunately, we really need those people to stand up against the tribalists.

So this is the call to arms for everyone who finds themselves thinking "I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that". Don't allow the time-rich anger-hamsters to silence you. Accept that their angry tribalism is caused by their one-dimensional thinking, wear their insults as a badge of honour, and get out there knowing that despite their media omni-presence, we out-number them. Things usually are a bit more complicated than that, and a healthy society needs people to debate civilly. Once people start dehumanising those who disagree then justifying violence, you know we're a long way down the wrong road.

Ghandi was respected for his dignified resolve to stand his ground, stay true to himself and not be bullied into either extreme. As role models go, you could do a lot worse.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Are Conservatives Afraid of Corbyn?

Having just seen Jeremy Corbyn win the Labour leadership, wildly against the odds, many on the left are confidently boasting that the Conservatives are running scared; quaking in their little Tory boots at the prospect of facing "real opposition". Conservatives I've met seem to be hiding any such fear behind a mask of jubilation, nonetheless wise heads are urging caution about the real threat posed by Corbyn.

So what's the truth: are Tories really afraid of Corbyn? And should we be?

In my view, the Conservatives are now engaged in a game of Russian roulette - there's only a small chance of losing, but if we do lose, it will create a horrifying mess.

Conservatives certainly do believe that our chances of winning the 2020 General Election have been boosted by Corbyn's win, and that's doubly true if we face a Labour Party still led by Corbyn in 2020. Most of the Labour Party seems to believe that, too, supported by all the polling evidence - British voters have just rejected Ed Miliband because he didn't look like a Prime Minister but did look like opening the spending taps and losing control of the public finances. Given that, it seems unlikely that they'd opt for Corbyn.

But politics is a fickle business and surprise events can derail even the neatest of plans. There is always a danger that the Conservative government could blunder, turning public opinion decisively against it. We also shouldn't forget that governments lose votes and seats while in office, and the fact that Cameron bucked history this year is no guarantee we can repeat the performance in 2020. That opens the door to Prime Minister Corbyn, and a Britain ruled by his nasty band of Trotskyite fellow travellers, possibly backed by the SNP. It's no use saying it can't happen, because 3 months ago everyone agreed that he couldn't win the Labour leadership, and look where that got us.

So the odds of Conservative victory in 2020 have shortened and Conservatives are rightly buoyant, but the stakes are suddenly much higher as the cost of defeat has increased dramatically. We are right to have a new spring in our step, but we would be wise to tread carefully.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

My Maiden Speech to Sutton Council, 3 November 2014

Having been elected as a councillor in May, on Monday I made my first speech to full council. This nerve-racking experience was made all the more so as my speech opened the debate on my own motion, criticising the council's new road scheme in Hackbridge, inviting a less-than-warm welcome from the 83% of councillors sitting beneath the yellow flag, while hopefully doing justice to the concerns of the residents who were in the public gallery.

Here's my motion:

This council agrees the lack of formal crossings has made it more difficult for pedestrians to cross the road in the Heart of Hackbridge (due to work carried out as part of the Heart of Hackbridge scheme) particularly for more vulnerable people such as children, the elderly and the visually impaired. This is contrary to the key aim of this project to improve the pedestrian environment, and contrary to three of Sutton Council’s core aims, to empower everyone, to promote diversity, and to make services accessible to all. Therefore, to achieve the project's aim, to comply with this Council's core aims, and to allow all pedestrians to navigate the Heart of Hackbridge without fear, formal crossings should be reinstated as a matter of urgency.

For any non-local people reading this, here is some background to the scheme. First, a puff piece from July, giving Sutton Council's view of the new layout.

The comments below that article give a flavour of residents' view of things. By September the Council was starting to get the message, leading to:

Unfortunately, despite their claims, Lib Dems were still insisting that everything's fine and only minor tweaks are needed. Worse, while residents were being told that their concerns were being heard and "pushed" by Lib Dem councillors, in private they were doing the opposite and blocking my attempts to have the crossings upgraded. So I proposed a motion to flush out the Lib Dems and force them to take a position. 

Alas, Lib Dems did not support my motion, instead they voted for a wrecking amendment which proclaimed how wonderful Hackbridge is. Disappointing, but at least residents now know where the Lib Dems stand. 

A special mention to Cllr Nick Mattey, "The Hackbridge One", who defied his party orders and voted with Conservatives against the Lib Dem wrecking amendment. 

Here is my speech in favour of the motion, sadly limited by the 5 minute time limit. How to explain everything that's wrong with the crossings in just 5 minutes?

The £1.4 million Heart of Hackbridge project is about far more than a road scheme: it’s visually and economically regenerating what was a slightly forgotten corner of Sutton. Residents welcome the investment, everyone agrees that it looks better, and we all hope for a lasting economic improvement from what's been done. Unfortunately these important goals have been put at risk by a bizarre fixation on removing pedestrian crossings.

Right across Sutton we are adding and upgrading pedestrian crossings, particularly near schools, but in Hackbridge we’re told that removing formal crossings will make people safer! They actually believe that!

In fact, the Department for Transport’s own research shows that these courtesy crossings were never likely to work, because of the high vehicle speeds in Hackbridge.

They found a tipping point at 15mph. Below that, 30-40% of vehicles give way to a waiting pedestrian, and all’s well. But above 16mph, the proportion of drivers giving way decreases significantly. They found that above 16mph, only about 5% of vehicles yield to a waiting pedestrian. Meaning that as you stand at the side of the road waiting to cross, about 20 vehicles will pass before one stops to let you across. That is more or less what happens in Hackbridge, and it’s not good enough. 20 vehicles!

The speed limit in Hackbridge is 30, and that’s often exceeded. The difficulty getting speeds down to 15mph was always going to be a risk for this project before it was even built.

We’ve been told that only a small number of residents are against the changes, and that residents support the scheme because there was a consultation. But the consultation itself highlighted these very concerns – residents repeatedly raised concern about whether it would be safe to cross, if the zebra crossings were removed.

And since the scheme went in, residents have been saying all summer that the courtesy crossings are not safe places to cross, even for able-bodied adults. But for children, the elderly, disabled groups and particularly blind people, they can be frightening no-go areas. Some vulnerable residents have said that now see Hackbridge itself as a no-go area, as a result of these changes.

All this, right by a primary school. Remember – this scheme was supposed to improve the pedestrian experience! That was a key goal of spending £1.4 million.

Now we have this interim safety audit. It found that “pedestrians were using the uncontrolled crossings with a noticeable degree of caution.” Now, that’s couched in formal language, but this is exactly what residents are saying. That's what they've been saying since these things went in, and what they said in the consultation before they went in. For the Council, this should be ringing alarm bells.

One common problem, also cited in the safety audit which said that this often happens, is that people cross halfway then get stuck in the middle of the road, as the traffic from the left just carries on. I’ve experienced it myself, and I can tell you that it’s genuinely unnerving. How do vulnerable residents feel? Stuck in the middle of a very narrow road with traffic attempting to pass them on both sides?

By the way, the safety audit response actually refers to the critical 15mph tipping point mentioned in the government research, but doesn’t actually explain the significance of the 15mph figure. A key fact, concealed from members and the public.

I am in favour of innovation, but new ideas sometimes don’t work. Failure is a part of progress. So if this Council is going to try new ideas, which I think we should, we must also be prepared to admit failure and swiftly correct it. Especially when safety is at stake.

Removing the formal crossings from Hackbridge has not worked.

The government research flagged this risk, the consultation repeatedly highlighted concern about the crossings, and from the moment they went in, residents have been pointing out that they don’t work.

I’m sure we’ll hear this evening that there’s a process to be followed, and we need to be patient. But residents have heard this “wait and see” game all through the summer, and they have seen through it. Tonight's wrecking amendment is just more of the same.

The fact is, if we were just following standard processes, we’d have a standard mini-roundabout, standard pedestrian crossings, and happy, safe residents who can cross the road.

The appeal to "Process" is a smokescreen. If people think that these crossings are better, they should stand up here this evening and say so publicly. If they want to back the residents, they should agree to my motion calling for proper crossings.

An improved pedestrian experience in Hackbridge, accessible to all, promised by this project, demands proper pedestrian crossings - before someone gets hurt.

The Council pubished an audio recording of the meeting, so I've extracted the section containing the debate on Hackbridge, put it on Google Drive and hopefully this link will let you listen to it.

If you forward to 41 mins 10 in the recording, you can also hear my brief concluding remarks. I can't post the text of those as they were mostly ad lib, answering points raised in the debate.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Why Is Alex Salmond Against Scottish Independence?

In 3 weeks, on 18th September, people in Scotland will vote to decide whether to stay in the United Kingdom or leave the union and create an independent Scotland. One of the biggest questions is about currency - should Scotland keep the Pound, have its own new currency, join the Euro, or something else? I want to say a few things on that specific point.

The Scottish National Party's plan is to remain in a currency union with the rest of the United Kingdom, sticking with the Pound Sterling issued in London. Alex Salmond has been pressed for a "Plan B" in case that isn't possible, for instance if Westminster refuses to join a formal currency union. There has been furious debate about this Plan B, but I think the focus should be on Plan A because it's barmy. 

Plan A is the situation we see in the EU with the euro - 18 countries in the eurozone are part of a currency union but (in theory) not in a political union. What's the result? Economic chaos, massive arguments about who's liable for the debt, endless calls for bailouts, stern demands for countries to control their spending, and in the background the quiet hum of officials building a political union. 

If countries are going to share a currency, they have to stick their noses into each others' domestic politics. Countries can't be allowed to run up deficits nor be allowed to let their debts grow too large, because of the risk that other countries in the union will have to bail them out. That's why the EU set up the Growth and Stability Pact, which didn't work, then the Fiscal Compact, which tries to do the same thing but with a bigger stick. It's too early to say whether that's working, but right now 22 out of 28 EU countries fail the criteria.

If Scotland wants a fiscal union with the rest of the UK, we're going to face exactly the same problems. So leaving aside whether Westminster would agree to it, why would pro-independence Scots want it? 

Just as the eurozone is dragging the EU towards political union, so Scotland would be dragged back into de facto political union with the rest of the UK, in order to manage these questions about spending and borrowing. Given the unequal sizes of Scotland and "rest of UK", it would basically come down to Westminster telling Scotland how much it can spend and borrow. It could probably be made to work, but it wouldn't be Scottish independence. If we've learnt anything from the euro crisis it's that if countries share a currency, they are bound together by spending, borrowing and debt so they aren't really independent.

Anyone who wants Scottish independence should also be calling for an independent Scottish currency. You could call it the Pound, but it would need to be independent from the Pound Sterling with a floating exchange rate and Scotland would then need to issue its own debt in that new currency. Just as the USA, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand all use independent currencies called the Dollar, an independent Scotland should have an independent Pound. 

Any plan for Scottish independence in which it shares someone else's currency, whether it's the Pound, or the Euro, is independence in name only. Plastic separatism. So the interesting question isn't why Salmond hasn't spelled out a Plan B, it's why Salmond's Plan A involves keeping Scotland tied into a union with the rest of the UK. I thought he wanted independence.