Burning a straw man

Burning a straw man

This week I came across a piece entitled “London Is About To Have An Explosion In Cycling Deaths“, posted to the website singlefile.org. As a cyclist in London, I was intrigued, so I read on. And… well, let’s say that, like a good historian, I am all about analysing the secondary literature.

Firstly, the source. At the foot of the singlefile.org home page is this description:

Every motorist has come across at least one group of cyclists who seemingly have no consideration for anyone but themselves. Indeed, you may have noticed cyclists who ride in large bunches constantly put their need for conversation above the rights of every other road user. Our aim at SingleFile.org is for future generations to have LESS reason to scream at cyclists, not more.

This, then, is an organisation which is focussed on a perceived problem of cycling and of cyclists. It is explicitly focused on giving some unspecified group “less” reason to scream at cyclists. The people who scream most at cyclists, of course, are motorists.

What of the author, Geoff Baird? According to his author biography, Baird is a “lifelong keen cyclist” who “supports the right of cyclists to use the road system”. Cyclists’ right to use roads is not in question, so raising the issue may be intended to make the author seem reasonable. The biography also notes that Baird wants to “make cycling safer for all road users, including motorists, presenting cycling as a significant threat to the safety of motorists. True, some accidents which are caused by poor cycling may result in serious harm to motorists, but basic physics dictates that, as a rule, motorists are a greater threat to cyclists than vice versa. Finally, Baird “advocates ‘zero tolerance’ for cyclists who impede traffic flow when riding in large messy groups.” In effect, this bio implies that cyclists should only be allowed to use the road if they can do so in a way which is convenient for others. All told, I think we can expect this to take a line which is not supportive of cycling.

Turning to the content, the article opens by discussing the problematic traffic levels in London, noting that car ownership is declining even while traffic volumes increase. This is attributed to, for example, more delivery drivers and private hire vehicles on the road. There’s little to take issue with in this statement of the problem. The question then is what to do about this.

The author contends that cycling cannot be a part of the solution. He identifies the contention that “only cycling can fix London’s congestion crisis” as a fallacy, which would be correct, were anyone making this contention. But this appears to be a classic straw man, set up to be knocked down. In reality, groups such as cycling UK describe cycling as “part of the solution for a low-carbon future” [my emphasis]. This is an important distinction, as we will see later.

But why does the author believe cycling can’t fix London’s congestion crisis?

  1. Polling shows that people would prefer to swap to buses or trains rather than to a cycling for their commute.
    Setting aside the fact that the polling is five years old, this assumes that all modes of transport are equally accessible and available. I might prefer to take the tube, but not if its crowded, or if I don’t live close to a station, my preference might swap to another mode of transport. Or I might want to combine different modes of transport.
    Additionally, this assumes that people’s preferences can’t be changed. But the reality is that building more safe cycling infrastructure encourages more cycling.
  2. Currently cycling accounted for 2% of trips in 2019. Why invest in infrastructure (and remove space from cars), for something which is only done by a minority?
    This is a variation on point one. The people who will benefit most from safe cycling infrastructure are those who, at present, do not feel safe cycling and, therefore, don’t cycle. Perhaps, if we are concerned about misuse of resources and land we should build social housing on golf courses.
  3. Cycling infrastructure takes space from pedestrians.
    Baird doesn’t offer evidence for this, but in London, most cycling infrastructure is one of three things – cycle superhighways along major routes (where there is plenty of space which can be redistributed from cars), LTNs (which reduce traffic in order to make both walking and cycling safer), or quiet ways (with cyclist directed to quieter back streets without changing the basic physical road layouts). While there are examples of shared spaces (e.g. crossing Blackfriars Bridge), these are uncommon, and are generally in areas with high levels of space to begin with. Most cycling infrastructure doesn’t impact on pedestrians in London.
  4. Cycling infrastructure is mostly empty, so it’s bad for tackling congestion.
    This argument ignores a couple of key points:
    a) Cars are empty most of the time too, and parked cars account for far more space than cycle lanes;
    b) Cycles are more space efficient, so you need a proportionately smaller amount of space for the same number of people moved, and;
    c) Because of supply induced demand, decreasing the space devoted for cars will encourage modal shifting by those who can travel by another means (including among the delivery vehicles Baird identifies as a major problem), making life easier for those who really do need to drive.

The next turn the argument takes is to focus on the Netherlands. The article notes (correctly), that many cyclists hold the Netherlands up as an excellent example of how to take a car-centric society and shift towards one in which safe cycling is enabled. And yes, Amsterdam is a flatter than London, but little of London so hilly as to make cycling impossible, while the higher density of London means on average shorter journeys, making cycling a better option.

But, argues Baird, Dutch cycling isn’t 100% safe, so it can’t be the cycling nirvana some suppose.

Now we come to the crux of the argument. The Author provides a screen grab of what looks like a Wikipedia article, which shows that 15 OECD nations have lower numbers of cycling deaths per million vehicles than the Netherlands, suggesting that all that investment in cycling infrastructure hasn’t prevented cycling deaths. He contends that rising traffic levels in London are a reason to oppose more cycling. “Quite incredibly, it’s in this chaotic environment London’s cycling advocates are lobbying to massively increase the number of people who ride a bike to work”.

The death rates Baird provides may be accurate (though without links or citations, it can’t be easily verified), but this argument ignores the fact that there are far more cyclists per million vehicles in the Netherlands than elsewhere. This means we’d expect far more cyclists to die relative to the number of vehicles – the table isn’t comparing like with like.

A 2021 discussion paper from the International Transport Forum addressed this problem by calculating “exposure-adjusted fatality rates“ for cycling. The Netherlands was found to have just 0.8 cycling deaths per hundred million km cycled, compared to 0.9 in Denmark, 2.1 in the UK and 5.1 in Italy. Some countries did have lower rates, but these were nations which lacked reliable data.

So 0.8 deaths per 100 million km cycled is the benchmark for a nation which has developed its built environment to support cycling, and in which fully 41% of people use a bicycle or scooter as their main mode of transport (compared to 2% of people in the UK). It’s true that is that the exposure adjusted fatality rate for cyclists in the Netherlands is more than double that as for motorists in the UK (0.33 deaths per billion km in 2018). But that ignores the health benefits of cycling. A quarter of the UK’s adult population does less than 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a week, yet we know that being physically active can have a huge impact on both physical and mental wellbeing. Cycling to work has been estimated to reduce all-cause mortality by 40%, which more than offsets the marginal risk associated with cycling. The health benefits of cycling clearly outweigh the risks.

The author also notes that “between 2015-2017,  82% of every Dutch cycling death reported to police involved a motor vehicle”, going on to argue that “When Dutch cyclists use NON segregated roads, the Dutch road system remains just as deadly for cyclists as any other nation in the Western World.“ This, to me, seems like an argument in favour of building more cycling infrastructure. Perhaps then, those 0.8 deaths per million km could be brought down further.

Baird then takes another digression, this time to Austraillia, where he notes that, as the number of cyclists fell (following in the introduction of a mandatory helmet law), so too did deaths. However, Baird fails to explore the change in exposure adjusted death rate, and fails to note that the exposure of cyclists to cars – which, Baird has already noted, are involved in most fatal cycling accidents – will not have changed substantially. Introduction of helmets will have reduced individual risk a bit, but given the focus of the piece is on whether or not to invest in safe cycling infrastructure, this seems something of an irrelevance.

Finally, Baird moves to some conclusions.

  1. As the number of people in London grows, so too does its congestion.
    Agreed.
  2. London “long ago ran out of room to tear down stuff and design best case road systems with nice wide boulevards and segregated cycle lanes.”
    This seems to be something of a stretch. Baird has provided no evidence for this, and there is are strong counter-factuals across Europe. In the Netherlands, for example, areas are designated as “autoluwe” – or “nearly car free” – to accommodate safe cycling and walking. This could easily be implemented in London, were there the political will. 
  3. Cycling isn’t the solution to London’s congestion problem.
    We have already addressed the false foundations of this in terms of safety and space. There is no reason cycking can’t be part of the solution.
  4. The solution is a massive investment into light and heavy rail.
    I like trains. Trains are great. I don’t know any cyclists who are opposed to trains. But to suggest, as the author does, that we have to choose between trains and bikes is another falsehood. As noted above, cycling can and should be seen as part of the solution, but the best transport networks enable integration between different modes of transport. That is what London should be aiming for.   

Edit

To add insult to injury, I’ve just discovered that singlefile.org is based in New South Wales, Australia. So London’s cycling policy is clearly super relevant to them…

Why we get the wrong politics

Why we get the wrong politics

A review of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians by Isabel Hardman (first posted to Good Reads)


Sorry to disappoint from the outset, but this is not a book which is about why we get the wrong politicians.

Indeed, in her conclusion, Hardman acknowledges that she has “led [the reader] on rather”. She would argue, based on her experience working as a Westminster Journalist (experience which makes her infinitely better placed to comment than I), that most politicians are rather like the rest of us in nature – imperfect people attempting to balance career ambitions, family life, and genuine beliefs in what will make the country better. Of course, these politicians exist on spectrums of quality, but by and large, her focus is not on why the wrong people become politicians (or more specifically MPs – she completely ignores devolved or local politics).

There’s one exception to this – one area where she does touch on why we actually get the wrong politicians, or at least why we get the wrong balance of politicians. The book’s first full chapter (after the preface and introduction), explores the process of actually getting elected, and details just how massive an undertaking this is. In short, it takes years of your life, is financially ruinous, and often doesn’t actually result in a sucessful candidacy. This means that the vast majority of politicians are drawn from a fairly narrow class of professional or the independently wealthy – lawyers, doctors, business people who can uproot their lives to stand for parliament, and who can earn enough working part time (or not working at all), to get by while they stand.

All of which brings me to what this book is actually about. Why, given the decent (if narrowly drawn) politicians we have, do we get the wrong legislative politics? This book is to the functioning of parliament, what King and Crewe’s The Blunders of Our Governments is to the functioning of the executive. Namely, a blow by blow summary of all the ways the system is working ineffectively. A parliamentary system where MPs are dropped into being MPs without support or training, a physical model which disrupts personal life, a system of promotion which discourages MPs from doing the jobs they were elected to do, a decaying public realm and social safety net which increasing means constituency casework dominates and MP’s life, and a public which expects our MPs to be paragons of virtue. All of the incentives and structures run against an effective politics.

Hardman outlines a range of possible reforms such as shrinking the payroll vote, or having Select Committees scrutinise legislation. Oddly enough, one major reform she ignores (perhaps this is too much the preserve of the Lib Dems and other politics nerds) is public funding of election. One for the next ambitous junior cabinet office minister to consider.

Perhaps the most interesting idea Hardman toys in her concluding discussion is separating the legislature and the executive. Although she keeps her personal views out of frame, one gets the feeling she isn’t convinced – largely because of problems with the system as it operates in the US. Of course some of her concerns (partisan gridlock, the inability for legislators to call witnesses from the executive at short notice), are choices which need not be replicated. We could, for example, design a system where party leaders were not MPs, but in which leader of the party which could command a majority could serve as Prime Minister, and appoint other non-MPs to executive roles. There would be no need for partisan gridlock, as the PM would continue to serve only so long as they held the confidence of the house – they just need not be an MP. Equally, issues around being able to place urgent questions to ministers could be addressed by formalising the power of MPs to call members of the executive to answer questions. Indeed, one gets the feeling that Hardman isn’t really grabbed by the idea in general, so doesn’t consider how the obvious failings of the US system could be addressed.

There remains one structural issue which is conspicuous by its absence. Hardman writes:

One final objection to a full separation of powers in the UK is merely practical. It isn’t going to happen. The British public tend to be disgusted by the political system but bored by attempts to change it, as the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum showed (that is one reason why the process by which MPs are elected isn’t covered in this book: there is a case for electoral reform, but it was made and voters didn’t like it). Constitutional change interests only a niche group of people in Westminster. Even when voters are angry, they aren’t excited by the prospect of further upheaval of their institutions.

Setting aside the fact that the AV referedum didn’t really engage with the case for reform in general, but only with one specific, and very unappealing, model of reform, this whole approach seems to be both an abdication of responsibility and to run counter to the rest of Hardman’s argument. Throughout the book, she has presented cases for constitutional or structural reform which at first glance, many people might view as painfully dull. Who, outside the Westminster Bubble, really cares about bill committees, second readings, or the value of a strong Public Accounts Committee chair? The entirety of this book is predicated on the view that those issues can be made engaging, and that the case for reform can be sold to readers. It’s hard, therefore, to take her argument electoral reform is somehow different, somehow unsellable, as anything other than a way of concealing that it isn’t a topic she has much interest in.

Nonetheless, this is a valuable book for those who want to understand how the institution of Parliament works. In short, if I were a part of a new government looking to develop a programme of reform to the structures through which the country is run (and didn’t care a fig about voting systems or devolution), this wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

Yet Another Post-Election Take – 2021 locals

The results are (almost all) in, everybody has had time to sleep, eat and recover.  So it’s time for the inevitable debate as to what went well for the Lib Dems, and what went… less well.

Clearly there are some positives. We gained a seat on the London Assembly, took control of St Albans council and our councillors are net positive. But at the same time, we only just held on in Wales and lost a seat in the Scottish Parliament.

We also consolidated support in some areas (moving several councils to NOC), elected some great Lib Dems, and came frustratingly close to electing more (I’m looking at you, Caithness, Sutherland and Ross).

But really, the best that can be said for this cycle is that we stood still.

Many of these seats were last contested in 2016, pre-referendum, when we were still in the immediate aftermath of coalition. And even though many targets were Conservative facing, our progress against the party of government was often uninspiring. This is not evidence of a party on the up and up.

Most concerningly for me, in several parts of the country the Green Party out-performed us. No shade to the Greens. I am pleased to see them do well. The Lib Dems are a “small g” green party, and we need as many voices as we can in the fight to prevent climate breakdown and build a more sustainable way of living.

But all too often, success breeds success in politics, particularly in a system which continues to use anti-democratic first past the post systems for too many elections. There’s a certain portion of the electorate who might incline towards voting for a progressive party which isn’t Labour; if the Greens have the momentum, the space for Lib Dems is likely to shrink.

Facts on the ground will not have played in our favour. Lib Dems win where we show communities that we are on their side. But it’s been hard to do that for much of the last year. Equally, the Conservatives have probably gained from the vaccine roll-out. But both of those factors should have hit  the Greens as well.

So what are we to make of all this? What do the Greens have which we lack?

What seems to me to distinguish the Greens from the Lib Dems, is that they know what they are for (you could make a similar point about the Conservatives and Labour at present).

The Green brand speaks for itself. The climate crisis has rightly risen in prominence in recent years, and while the Lib Dems have solid green credentials (albeit perhaps in need of some revitalisation), our brand doesn’t say this. We can’t out-green the greens.

Liberalism is, in contrast, more complex, and we have over the last six years, failed to re-establish a brand which communicates our values and philosophy. Brexit allowed us to hide this for a bit, by providing a key policy which stood as a self-contained monolith, but it never solved the underlying problem. And as soon as it stopped being the leading issue, our support fizzled out.

This identity crisis has only got worse since 2019. We’ve swapped a high-profile single issue (Brexit) for a far lower profile one (support for carers). Sure, this is in line with our values, but I have seen little evidence of any real efforts to build up the Lib Dems as a coherent brand.

We can’t expect people to elect Lib Dems if they don’t know what doing so means. So much of politics is about the vibe which leaders and parties give off. And at the moment our vibe (if we even have one), is bland.  

Read the numbers.

Every week, the Guardian puts out a newsletter called “Green Light“. It’s a fairly simple summary of the week’s climate news stories – good news, less good news, what you’d expect really.

But, at the bottom of each newsletter, are a set of weekly averages. And these, well, this is the most recent set:

Weekly averages

11 April 2021: 418.96 ppm
This time last year: 416.44 ppm
10 years ago: 393.61 ppm
Pre-industrial base: 280
Safe level: 350

Atmospheric CO2 reading from Mauna Loa, Hawaii (part per million).
Source: NOAA-ESRL

via the Guardian

Most often, I don’t scroll down to the bottom of the newsletter. These numbers terrify me. They point to our ongoing failure to address the climate crisis. But every so often I force myself to look.

Today, Earth Day, is a day to face up to our collective failures.

So read the numbers.

Take a breath.

And get back to the fight.

Anti-Social Media

This Lent, I have been off social media. Granted, I’ve kept tracking books on GoodReads, and cycles on Strava, but the big ones – Facebook, Twitter, Reddit – those I haven’t touched.

Some of you may have noticed my absence, but, I suspect, many of you will not have. And that fact alone, speaks volumes to the problems of “social media”.

My use of social media offers appealing illusions of connection or insight, but the reality, I have realised during Lent, is rather different. So, it’s time for a change.

The problem with… …Facebook

Facebook is a particular problem for me.

As an introvert, actively reaching out to people is always hard. Facebook gives me an alternative, with a much lower threshold for engagement. I can see updates and photos, and feel like I know what’s going on in my friends lives.

But rather than really making contact, all I’m doing is watching from the side-lines. I scroll unendingly, for fear of missing something crucial. I “like” prolifically, but rarely have a real conversation, all of which feeds my perennial fear that people don’t like me as much as I like them.

Because of Facebook, I haven’t noticed when good friendships are slipping away, which rather defeats the point.

…Twitter

I joined Twitter when I was starting out in the policy world, to learn what other organisations and people were thinking. Since then, I’ve used it as a general interest and political space, especially for Lib Dem and Climate activism.

But I’m not convinced it fulfils any of these purposes very well.

Twitter is built for speed and brevity; 280 characters do not lend themselves to nuance and complexity. Instead, the platform encourages a type first, think later attitude, which rarely brings out the best in people. While I don’t think I’ve tweeted anything dreadful, I probably have said things I would not look back on proudly.

Twitter is also the embodiment of content overload (exacerbated by my tendency to follow without discretion), which makes it all but impossible to find the signal in the noise. And the compulsion to scroll ever onwards, to avoid missing something, means that when I do find something worthwhile or meaningful, my engagement is often fleeting and superficial.

Equally, the noise of Twitter means the chances of anyone else being influenced by a tweet of mine is slim to none, so it’s an ineffective channel for activism (unless you already have an audience).

…Reddit

I turned to Reddit as a nicer, more curated alternative to Twitter. And it is that.

Rather than people, you follow themed “subreddits” (anything from “animals being bros” to “data art”), so you only see relevant content. And rather than an anonymous algorithm, content is voted up or down by members. This means Reddit can be a really positive online space, as well as a useful place to answer questions like “how do I fix this issue on my bike”.

If I’m going to scroll, it’s a nice place to do it, but that doesn’t change the fundamental problems of overwhelming content, and superficial engagement.

In short, my problems with social media can be boiled down to one fundamental issue – there’s simply too much content to engage with in a meaningful way.

So what’s a boy to do?

My first steps in a new relationship with social media have already been taken. Thanks to the pandemic, I’m getting a bit better at actually texting or even calling people. Still not as much as I should, but I’m working on it. (If you want to chat, drop me a line. I’d genuinely love to hear from you.)

But that alone won’t make me scroll less. So the next step is cut out some of the noise. I’ve already left several subreddits, and reduced the number of accounts I follow on Twitter by some 1,000, and plan to go further. I also want to bring some order to the chaos, by reviving my use of TweetDeck, and creating groups of accounts (e.g. Lib Dem people or foreign policy think tanks). I am continuing to toy with deleting my Twitter account altogether.

As for Facebook, I’m not going to delete my account (although I probably should), because it does provide useful tools like messenger and events, and I like having somewhere to share photos. But I think I buy Robin Dunbar’s theory that you can only really maintain 15 or so close friendships, somewhere round 150 meaningful friendships, and around 500 acquaintanceships. I want my use of Facebook to reflect this, and to complement other means of communication.

And as for the endless scroll? I want less time on news feeds, and more time reading real content. So I’ve uninstalled the Twitter and Reddit apps, and I’m going to change my computer bookmarks to reflect my priorities.

Finally, I want to consciously make an effort not to scroll, and perhaps implement screen-free time. That’s where I’ve got to for now. Let’s if I can make it stick.

Redesigning right to buy to encourage house building

The Heywood Foundation Public Policy Prize has got me thinking about some of the big problems facing our society. The prize is explicitly COVID-19-related, so this issue doesn’t fit there, but this is something I’ve had in my head for a while, so I thought it worth putting into the world.

England has a well-established housing crisis. In 2018, there were over 1 million households on social housing waiting lists in England and Shelter has estimated that over three million additional homes need to be built, in order to meet demand over the coming two decades.

The “Right to Buy” scheme, introduced in 1980, has helped a significant group of council tenants to buy their homes, through offering significant discounts to commercial pricing. It has also proven very popular and (therefore), hard to abolish. However, it has not incentivised councils to increase housing stocks. Instead, between the 1970s and 2010s, local authority house building fell from hundreds of thousands per year to just thousands. This has made it all but impossible to meet England’s housing needs, particularly for people on low income, in turn causing the cost of housing benefit to rise to £22 billion.

In order to address these problems, “Right to Buy” could be redesigned, so that tenants do not have an absolute right to buy their homes after three years, but rather a “Right to Apply”. This would work as follows:

Tenants could apply to buy their council home, with much the same requirements as are currently in place. However, after applying,  they would not immediately be able to complete the purchase. Instead, they would be placed on a waiting list (similar to the existing waiting lists for access to council housing). They would only be able to complete the purchase after the local authority had brought into use new housing, with capacity of at least one additional bedroom, thereby increasing overall housing stock, and modernising it at the same time. Once this requirement was met, the tenant’s property would be released for sale, and the next tenant would move to the top of the list.

For example, if the tenant wanted to buy their two-bed property, the council would need to complete at least three beds worth of property, which could remain part of the local authority housing stock. This could be formed of one three bed property, or a two bed and a one bed, or three single bed properties (or more), dependent on local need and in line with local housing plans. Any single new property could, if sufficiently large, count towards releasing multiple older properties for sale (so that local authorities were not disincentivised from building larger properties where those are needed).

In order to provide the finance necessary, local authorities would need greater powers to borrow money for capital investment. In an era of near-zero interest rates, this would be entirely affordable.

Finally, in order to prevent the build-up of long “Right to Apply” waiting lists, there would be both a “carrot” and a “stick”. The “carrot” is simple – local authorities would be able to retain all receipts for the sale of properties. The “stick” is more complex – a threshold would need to be set for the length of the waiting list, based on prevailing rates of “Right to Buy” sales in the local authority. When the list exceeded that level in any given year, the authority would be fined a certain amount, in proportion to the scale of the threshold breach.

Taken together, these reforms might be realistic, practical in policy terms and achievable in political terms. Maybe.

Cometh the hour…

Cometh the hour…

On 20 January 2021, Joe Biden will become the 46th President of the United States.

The world will breathe a sigh of relief.

And then, Joe Biden will survey the carnage.

The challenges the US faces are manifold. The country is deeply polarised (and has been since before 2016). US alliances are frayed. Institutions (both domestic and international) have been systematically undermined, from the press and government departments, to the UN and the World Health Organisation. Action on climate change has been rolled back, non-proliferation treaties have gone unrenewed. A pandemic has gone unaddressed, leading to over 235,000 deaths to date in the US (the absence of US leadership has also been felt in the global response to COVID-19).

It’s a mess. And it’s up to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to tidy up. Doing so will take much, perhaps all of the Biden Administration’s first term in office.

But if anyone were made for this moment, it’s Joe Biden.

The heart and soul of Joe Biden’s campaign has been decency and character. It’s been about bringing the US together. These are themes Biden has re-emphasised in his acceptance speech. Biden may not be the most charismatic, polished politician, or the most intellectual, but people who meet him attest to his empathy, born from his own personal tragedies, burying his first wife and two of his children. He stops at rallies, not (just) to shake hands and kiss babies, but to understand and help address peoples’ problems. He’s the kind of person who will meet a thirteen-year-old with a speech impediment, and invite him backstage to see the notes he uses to help get through speeches.

Who better to repair the damage of the last four years?

His job will be made all the harder if the Democrats can’t take control of the Senate (which will depend on the outcomes of Georgia’s run-off elections). If Mitch McConnell remains Senate Majority Leader, he will likely attempt to block Biden’s legislative agenda; no Green New Deal, no Medicare buy-in, no new gun control legislation.

McConnell might even go further, and block cabinet or judicial appointments. In President Obama’s final year in office, McConnell blocked not only a Supreme Court appointment but also so many appointments to lower courts that Trump came in to office with over 100 vacancies to fill. Add to that the 6:3 Republican majority in the Supreme Court and Republican control of state legislatures just in time for redistricting, and things look hard for Biden.

The good news is that Biden can do a lot unilaterally, particularly in the international sphere. He can re-join the Paris Climate Agreement (and has already committed to doing so on day one). He can reinvest in international institutions. He can sign treaties and can restore America’s global reputation, simply by being not utterly unsuited to the job.

Domestically, the President has more limited freedom, but can still do a lot. By adhering to democratic norms – and holding others to the same standards – Biden can begin to restore basic system functionality. He can change the national approach to COVID-19, facing up to the severity of the crisis and leading by example (as he has done throughout the campaign).

He can also do a great deal through executive orders, which can direct the actions of government agencies. Trump has made extensive use of executive orders in his four years in office, so Biden could start by simply rescinding those (which he can do without delay). At least one organisation is already campaigning in support of actions that Biden could take on day one to make headway on tackling the climate crisis; if you are in the US, I urge you to support these.

But to go further, Biden will need votes in the Senate. This is set to be a tall order, but he is well placed to at least try to get them.

All presidents since 1976 have served a combined total of less than 8 years in Congress; Biden spent three decades there, working across party lines (plus another eight years as Vice President, wrangling votes for President Obama). He is a consummate deal maker. He knows the both the system and many of the individuals in the system (on both sides of the house). His platform, while co-designed with the left of the Democratic party, is one of consensus. His natural instincts are to collaborate. There is nobody better suited to a world in which the only way to pass legislation is to work with the other guys.

Mitch McConnell’s lasting contribution to US politics has been to all but eliminate cross-party work in the Senate. I’m not sure anyone can revive it. But nobody is better placed to try than Joe Biden.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A good night or a bad one?

If you’d asked most election watchers on Tuesday night their view of the election, the verdict would have been resounding. A disappointment for Democrats. Far short of the blue waved hoped for by the left. Owen Jones has already written the night up as a failure.

But, as is so often the case, the reality is messier and richer, kid

As I write at 10 pm GMT on Friday (5pm ET), Biden and Harris are on the cusp of a historic victory. The race stands at 253 to Biden and Harris, 213 to Tump and Pence (with 270 to win, in case you’ve been living under a rock). The Democratic Party lead is growing in Nevada, Pennsylvania and Georgia, and looks like it will hold in Arizona. Trump will likely take North Carolina and Alaska, which would leave a map looking something like this (with projected states in pale colours):


Click the map to create your own at 270toWin.com

An electoral college victory of 306 to 232 is perfectly solid (indeed, it was Trump’s margin in 2016, based on the state outcomes). Turning Georgia blue would be a particular success. And unlike four years ago, here the popular vote looks set to reflect the final outcome. At the time of writing, Biden has roughly 73 million votes, to Trump’s 70 million – roughly 51% to 49% (excluding third party vote), with Biden’s margin expected to grow [as of Saturday morning, the numbers are 74.5 million to 70.5 million, or 51.4% to 48.6%, and one projection suggests likely final tallies of 82 million to 75 million, or 52.2% to 47.8%]. All this against a system which, thanks to the Electoral College, has a Republican bias.

Now, obviously this race isn’t over yet. Trump could still win, but Biden’s lead is becoming ever more unassailable and the final result will probably be much less close than the last three days of waiting suggested.

But then again…

Like many of you, I’ve been alarmed by the success of Trump. He has increased his vote totals on 2016. States which we thought might turn blue (like Florida), remained decisively red.

This election shows enthusiastic support for Biden in opposition to Trump, but it also shows enthusiastic support for Trump (in opposition to really anyone else). Democrats have lost ground in the house of representatives and in state governments. They have flipped only one senate seat, meaning that the only way to wrest control from the claws of Mitch McConnell will be winning any two of the as yet uncalled Alaska race and the two run-offs expected for Georgia. None of these paths look to likely for the Democrats. North Carolina’s senate seat, while still too close to call definitively, looks likely to remain Republican, along with that state’s votes for presidency

All told, it is hardly the repudiation of Trump we’d hope for, is it?

Well, let’s look at the forecasts.

The final FiveThirtyEight forecast (which is based on a weighted average of polls and is generally very reliable) gave the Democrats a 75% chance of retaking the Senate. When all is said and done, they will hold somewhere between 48 and 51 seats, which feels in keeping with a 3 in 4 chance. It’s worth remembering, too, that the Senate benefits less populous states, which tend to lean Republican.

As for the presidency, the polling average had Biden at 53.4%, which is clearly wrong, but not *so* wrong that the actual outcome will be outside the 80% confidence interval of FiveThirtyEight’s model (much the same is true of the electoral college). (State polls look to be less good, but that’s another matter.)

So why does this outcome still feel disappointing?

Partly, the polls made us optimistic, perhaps more so than we ought to have been. But more importantly the world around us feels like a world in which Trump should lose.

And on that metric, we are right.

Look at it this way. It’s rare for presidents not to win re-election. Before COVID-19 hit, I’d have predicted four more years of Trump. After all, his approval rating has hardly changed since 2016, and the economy was fairly decent. Every voter knows Trump is a racist mysogynist. He’d be a fascist if he had the attention span. But they knew this in 2016 as well. It was already baked in.

So, we can and should see removing Donald Trump from office as a major victory. It was only skewed expectations thanks to a small polling error which blinded us to the reality on the ground. You’d expect Trump to win re-election COVID-19 aside – and his mishandling of the pandemic probably have made all the difference.

Winning the Senate as well would have been a bonus, but it wasn’t the most favourable map ever (2022 looks better, with Republicans defending more seats). Plus, the longer a party sits in the White House, and the less popular they become, the easier it is to beat them at other levels (whether in the Senate or in state and local election). The Republicans in effect have had less time to become unpopular. We shouldn’t view failure in the Senate as indicating a great defeat for progressives. Rather, we should revel in the fact that Trump looks set to be a one-term president.

If divided government is the outcome, it will be a disappointment, frustrating Democratic hopes of passing major legislation on climate change, voting rights, gun control, healthcare and much more. Similarly, defeats in states in a year before redistricting will be a hard blow (as it will allow Republicans to one again draw gerrymandered maps which favour them).

But simply reversing Trump’s executive actions will make a world of difference. And if anyone was built for this moment, it’s Joe Biden.

Who *ought* to lead?

Who *ought* to lead?

I listen to a lot of podcasts – mainly about politics, policy and global affairs. One I particularly enjoy is the Ezra Klein Show, in which Vox’s Editor-At-large interviews, well whoever he’s interested in speaking to really, about a whole host of things.

This blog is a copy of an email I recently wrote to Ezra on a key theme in recent discussions he has hosted.


Dear Ezra,

There’s a recurrent theme in several of your recent discussions on the Ezra Klein Show – notably your conversation with Rebeccah Heinrichs on Trump’s foreign policy, and with Matt Yglesias regarding his new book, One Billion Americans – which I think bears greater interrogation than you have so far given it.

Both these conversations, in some form or another centre around how the USA can maintain its position as the pre-eminent power, primarily in the face of a rising China. But neither seem to question whether the US ought to maintain this position. And as a resident of a former super-power (the UK), I think that bears consideration.

Let me kick the tyres on this.

The US reached its global position of dominance by being the only major country which emerged from World War Two with both a functional economy and a (broadly) functional democracy. Of course, this was the era of systematic disenfranchisement of a significant part of the US population – so there were many ways in which the US was not an ideal post-war leader, but were functionally no alternatives.

What, then of the main alternative – Chinese dominance – which is opposed by your guests (of all political stripes)? From an economic perspective, it would be reasonable to argue that China should have a greater role on the world stage. Indeed, you’ve posed the question as to how large that role should be. China accounts for almost 1/5 of the world’s population and has the world’s largest military. It’s clearly a leader in technological and industrial terms. Since 1990, the percentage of China’s population living in poverty has fallen from 66% to less than 1% (according to the World Bank),* and it is even making positive commitments towards tackling climate change.

The trouble, as I and all your panellists know, is that China is fundamentally a bad actor on the world stage. The Chinese political system is deeply anti-democratic and totalitarian. The Human rights of citizens are routinely curtailed, with outright abuses, including ethnic cleansing, purport rated by many. China also continues to make very questionable claims to control of Taiwan and Tibet, as well as numerous other provinces and states. Those of us who believe in human rights, democracy and the international rules based order must be opposed to leadership by such a nation. Chinese leadership is simply not an acceptable option.

Taken together, the fact that the US has maintained a dominant position since World War II, and the unacceptability of Chinese leadership, seems to be used as a tacit justification for maintaining American global hegemony, but it does not appear to be sufficient to me. Crucially, your panellists seem to espouse positions designed to maintain American hegemony, simply for the sake of maintaining American hegemony. The logical corollary of this is that leadership by any other country, no matter how positive, should be opposed.

I would argue that any country should only lead the democratic world if it occupies a position of moral leadership. If it ceases to do so, it is perfectly reasonable that another state should take its place. And right now, it is hard to argue that the US is living up to that standard of moral leadership.

Consider what the US of today looks like. It is a country which is systematically racist, and which has not taken sufficient steps to reckon with the worst of its history. In your conversation with Matt Yglesias, you expressed concern about the possibility of German leadership, because of its record, but I would say, as a reasonably impartial observer, that Germany has grappled more with its darkest history than the US ever has, and is the richer for doing so

Or consider democracy. The US operates a two party system which is at best a relic of a bygone era, and at worst results in minority tyranny. It is also, increasingly, impossible to actually govern the USA for a series of reasons (including, of course the filibuster). The UK’s democracy is dysfunctional, but at least the party which gets a plurality of votes tends to form the government, and is able to govern.

What of human rights? The US is far from above reproach, whether one considers the sorts of mass surveillance programmes revealed by Edward Snowden, the treatment of terrorism suspects (including torture and detention without trial), or the separation of children from their parents by immigration services. In contrast, the EU has embedded human rights into its foundational documents.

Even at a basic level, the citizens of Flint, Michigan, have been unable to access clean, safe drinking water for 6 years. US education systems have utterly failed, to the extent that 63% of young people in a recent survey did not know that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.** Over a quarter of members of the House of Representatives are climate change deniers.*** I don’t need to rehearse the statistics on the handling of COVID-19.

Trump may be an aberration, or he may not, but what he embodies has much deeper roots.

Now, I am not saying I know who should be the global leader. We could look to Germany or Japan. Perhaps the seat of global leadership should move from the Oval office to Brussels and Strasbourg,. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these possibilities. They simply represent alternatives.

What seems clear to me is that a position of global leadership should be the result of what a state does. A state should be seen as the leader among the community of nations because it chooses to take on a leading role. It is an earned position, to which the US has no greater inherent claim than any other nation.

So if the US wants to retain its role as first among nations, the solution is simple.

The USA needs to get its sh*t together.

*http://povertydata.worldbank.org/poverty/country/CHN
**http://www.claimscon.org/millennial-study/
***https://www.americanprogressaction.org/issues/green/news/2019/01/28/172944/climate-deniers-116th-congress/

Lib Dem Conference

I joined the Lib Dems back in spring 2017.

Unlike most recent joiners, Brexit was not my primary driver. Rather, Brexit was symptomatic of a wider failure of democratic and social liberal values, values which I hold dear, and which I saw ebbing away. I had to do something.

Since then, I’ve campaigned for Lib Dems across London, in local and national elections. I’ve delivered leaflets and canvassed. I’ve marches and even stood as a local candidate twice. But it was only last weekend that I attended my first national party conference.

I went into the conference feeling fairly ground down with the party. Jo Swinson’s defeat last December (and the whole election outcome) hit me hard. The leadership election was fractious, and the outcome – a cautious reversion to the political mean – left me dejected. I was fully prepared to channel more of my energies into climate activism (I still am, I’m just seeking the right organisation – ideally something akin to the Sunrise Movement). And an online conference, while more accessible, had the potential to be uninspiring.

But, despite some setbacks, conference was overall really very positive. My friend James has already provided a great summary of some of the policy wins for the radical, progressive wing of our party as well as some of the near misses. Becoming the first major to UK party to adopt UBI is a major achievement, and this can and should shape our platform in years ahead. A clear commitment to federalism will (I hope), help us as we prepare for hugely consequential elections in Wales and Scotland next year, and while we didn’t quite succeed in adopting a policy which decriminalises non-payment of the TV license, we came damn close.

As a first timer, I was pleased to see such a range of issues up for debate, from the current situation in Hong Kong and our response to systemic racism, to local planning arrangements. People spoke clearly, calmly and cogently about the pros and cons of policy, in areas which really matter to me.*

As you might guess, two particular debates stood out for me as the most important issues we face globally. The first as on a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. As it turned out, I wasn’t called to speak during the “green recovery’ motion, which allowed me to join a friends ordination over zoom, but I am reassured that the party takes this challenge seriously, and recognises the moment we are in. (It’s also great to hear our parliamentarians are backing the Climate and Environmental Emergency Bill).

Given the topic of my last blog, it will come as no surprise that I also put my name in to speak on defending the rule of law. I was pleased to be selected, though as I prepared to speak, my pulse was going like a locomotive. This only got worse when I realised I was the only speaker who was not a parliamentarian or a subject expert (for example from Lib Dem Lawyers). As my first speech, I know I rushed, and perhaps some of my points lacked precision, but it was brilliant to hear many of my points echoed by our Lords Spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office!

You can read what my speeches for both motions here.

But my favourite bit of conference actually happened after all the motions were finished and the digital conference programme closed. I was invited to join a zoom call, populated by members of the party pretty much all of whom I already admired and felt I knew, though we had never met in person. Perhaps it would have been better to meet them in a pub by the seaside, but after so many years, it reminded me that this is party built on people – people who share a pretty straightforward set of values. And I am one of them.

Now I must get on with responding to the party’s lamentable strategy consultation.


*The one exception, the blot of ink on the clean copy-book of conference, was the shameful debate on a motion to make the party more accessible to trans and non-binary people, for example by ensuring that conference venues have gender neutral toilet facilities, and providing pronouns on speaker cards. Thanks to a well organised minority of transphobes in the party, this had far to many instances of members’ very existence being questioned, something which was deeply painful and should never be repeated. Thankfully, the party resoundingly passed a clear motion, which included restating the fact that trans men are men, trans women are women and non-binary people are non-binary.