Wednesday 30 September 2009

The People Have Spoken – Let’s Ask Them Again

It's a familiar scene from many a childhood. You're on holiday and both you and your sister both want the top bunk. There's no sense to it, but even today, as an adult, you empathise with the desire to sleep five feet above the floor, though you still cannot fathom the reason. The fair way to decide is obvious – the toss of a coin. You call and you lose, but still that top bunk beckons. There's only one hope.

'Best of three?'

Whether your sister agrees to this displacement of the stochastic goalposts depends largely on whether she a big sister or a little sister. I rarely got to throw the coin again; I have heard tell of families that made it to best of five – though never best of seven.

But that's not how they do things in the Republic of Ireland.

On Friday, the Irish will go to the polls for the second time on the Lisbon Treaty, taking an approach to democracy that is not so much 'best of three' as 'last past the post'. Because if the 'yes' camp wins this second vote, having lost the first, there will be no third round decider; no extra time followed by penalties. If the people approve the treaty this time, then that will be an approval, regardless of what they have said before. If they reject it, then who knows? The pundits say that the whole treaty will be thrown into doubt, but I don't see it that way. If the Irish government has the barefaced gall to ask for a second referendum, then they must surely feel a diminishing embarrassment in asking for a third, and then a fourth. It's a close vote, and eventually they must get lucky. And, to quote one famous Irish political force, they only need to get lucky once.

Such electoral tomfoolery would never occur in the UK, of course. Well, it might if Gordon Brown's speech at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton yesterday is anything to go by. For in that speech the Prime Minister put forward a proposal to adopt the Alternative Vote system.

Brown's justification is that 'there is now a stronger case than ever that MPs should be elected with the support of more than half their voters, as they would be under the Alternative Voting system'. Now I'm no fan of proportional representation – you only have to look at the certainty that Angela Merkel would remain German Chancellor last weekend, regardless of the vote – but let no one be fooled into thinking that that's what Brown is proposing. The idea behind proportional representation is to make parliament better reflect the opinions of the people. The idea of the Alternative Vote is to make the number of votes recorded better reflect the makeup of parliament.

Let me explain the basics. The Alternative Vote system retains the constituencies we have now. Within a constituency, however, instead of voting for a single candidate, the voter lists all the candidates in descending order of popularity. If no candidate gets more than 50% of first choice votes then the bottom candidate is struck of the list and his or her second choice votes are allocated to the remaining candidates. The process continues until one candidate has more than 50% of the vote, and they then win.

So Brown is right that no MP will be elected on less than half of the vote, but not because MPs have become innately more popular. It will be just like in Ireland. If the establishment does not get the result it wants on the first round (an MP with more than half the vote) it goes back to the electorate and asks them to vote again, and again and again. Admittedly we don't actually have to traipse out to the polls multiple times, like they do in Zimbabwe, but the principle's the same.

In terms of the makeup of the House of Commons, the differences caused by this change in the voting system are likely to be slight. Even the Electoral Reform Society says that 'the alternative vote is not actually a proportional system'. In most English constituencies, the split of the transferred votes is likely to be broadly the same as the split between the two leading parties. Both will get more votes, but whichever led after the first round is very likely to be the first to pass 50%. Small parties, which do get seats in proportional elections like those for the European Parliament, are guaranteed to have their votes transferred. In their second votes UKIP voters, by and large, will revert to their tribal type and vote Tory. Similarly, BNP voters, will, by and large, vote Labour. Even if the minority party voters vote with bizarre unpredictability on their second choices, it won't be their favoured party that gets the seat. For those of us who despise the BNP even more than we despise proportional representation, it's a good thing – but it requires no change to the voting system.

There will be some changes to actual results. Where Liberal Democrats are second to one of the major parties then the transferred votes may be sufficiently skewed to mean that the Liberal candidate passes the 50% post first. (This may well be part of the reasoning behind Brown's proposal of the system.) There's a chance too that the Greens will do well in their targeted seats. But in general, the distribution of seats in the Commons will be little changed. All that will change will be MPs' ability, in imitation of Alan B'stard, to brag to their constituents about their enormous majorities.

Gordon Brown has offered us a referendum on the reform, but it is unlikely that things will come that. I'm not suggesting that Labour would break a manifesto promise to hold a referendum on any issue – perish the thought – but the likelihood is that Labour will not get an absolute majority at the next election. So far, the Tories are not supporting the Alternative Vote – though I wouldn't be surprised if they did, given that Tory MPs would benefit equally from the illusion that they were more popular amongst their constituents. If there is a hung parliament then the Liberal Democrats will probably form a coalition with Labour (tempted, not least, by Brown's offer of slight reform). But if the Liberals are true to their values (and a whiff of power is surely not enough to distract them) then they'll insist on a referendum on full proportional representation, and Brown's half-hearted proposal will be forgotten.

But if this reform does not go through, what then will the politicians do to persuade themselves that we love them? The obvious solution, which has been mooted, is to introduce compulsory voting. That might not change the proportions, but a 12,000 majority would suddenly a 20,000 majority, on a whopping 100% turnout. It would require no new ideas, no peace treaties, no improvements to the NHS and no tax cuts, and yet suddenly all politicians would see a huge jump in popularity.

Surely there can be cross-party support on that?

Monday 28 September 2009

Like a Virgin

The BBC reports today that an Egyptian scholar has called for the death penalty for anyone who imports a device that attempts to fake female virginity.

According to the BBC, "The device is said to release liquid imitating blood, allowing a female to feign virginity on her wedding night."

What confuses me is how anyone in Egypt is going to be able to get hold of a device that releases a liquid imitating blood. Haven't they all been snapped up by professional Rugby Union players?

Sunday 6 September 2009

Sua Culpa

I am sorry to announce that the 16:32 First Capital Connect service to Brighton has been delayed by 27 minutes.

Whilst other travellers may mutter in annoyance at such announcements, making it clear to all around them, if clarity were needed, that actually they had been hoping the train would arrive on time, my feelings are usually directed more towards a profound sense of puzzlement and unease.

The announcement is, as is usual these days, recorded – or not exactly recorded, but assembled from recorded fragments. I worked on a similar system once myself, for an Air Traffic Control simulator, recording the voices of various of my colleagues as they read from prepared scripts designed to encompass all the possible air-traffic-related sentences that could ever be uttered. Be careful, if you ever do such a thing for yourself, to take note of the difference in intonation of the word 'zero' in the phrases 'Turn left heading three five zero' and 'Turn left heading three zero five'.

But the upshot is, both in Air Traffic Control and on the railways, that though the words are spoken with the voice of a person, the meaning is formulated by the computer that splices the fragments together. It's quite the opposite situation from where a person, such as Professor Stephen Hawking, uses a speech synthesizer. There the voice is a machine, but the thought is human. On the platform, the human voice hides the synthetic concept.

But here's the cause of my unease. When the announcement is made, who is it that is sorry? It can't be the computer, they're not capable of the emotion – believe me, I've worked with them for years and it just doesn't happen. So is it the owner of the voice that feels the sorrow? Is there an actor sitting at home in front of Deal or No Deal who suddenly feels a little pulse of sadness in his heart as his voice, miles away and recorded years before, expresses a sentiment which some supernatural power forces the man himself to feel? Do you perhaps know someone – someone with a clear, resonant voice – who, once in a while, especially during rush hour, gazes wistfully into the distances as if remembering some old love from whom he has long been parted.

It seems unlikely. The fact is that no one is sorry about the delay to the train – it cannot be the computer and it cannot be the actor, and no one else is even attempting to apologize. If the announcement were to be phrased 'We are sorry ...' then things would be different, but that would be to suggest that First Capital Connect actually were sorry, and that would never do.

And so to Alan Turing, and the petition asking the Prime Minister to apologize for Turing's prosecution for homosexuality.

I thought about this long and hard – and, for what little it's worth, I'm not going to put my name to the petition.

Now I don't imagine that there are many people more in awe of Turing than I am, though I won't wax lyrical here on his contributions to mathematics, computing, cryptanalysis and war-winning. He's probably the second greatest mathematician in British history (behind Newton) and posterity may well promote him to the top of the rankings. But when it comes to being apologized to for his treatment as a homosexual, what's so special about Alan Turing?

The freedom to go to bed with any consenting adult (or adults) of either sex and get down to whatever the two (or three) of you fancy is not an indulgence that's handed out as a reward for helping to defeat the Nazi onslaught. It's generally agreed (though a few still argue the point) that it's a fundamental human right. It's not for Gordon Brown to look through the history books and select those homosexuals who made a significant contribution to this country (and God knows, there are enough) and apologize only to them. Any apology should be to all those who were persecuted for their sexuality, even if they never made any significant contribution to the Entscheidungsproblem – even if they never mastered their times tables.

But even then, Gordon Brown should not make the apology, any more than he should apologize for the delays to the 16:32 to Brighton. It really isn't his fault. He can't apologize for what happened in 1952, any more than he can take credit for the 1967 act that legalized homosexuality (though he was part of the government that later equalized the age of consent). If anyone is going to say sorry, it should be those who were actually involved – those of them who are still alive – the policemen, politicians, lawyers, judges and psychiatrists who directly or indirectly persecuted Turing and drove him to suicide. An apology from Gordon Brown for something he didn't do would be meaningless, a computerized statement from a front man who cannot – and should not – feel any shadow of the guilt which his words express. And let's face it, Gordon Brown really does have so much that he should apologize for, from the economy, to the war, to the other war. Or is he hoping that in sixty years time there'll be a petition to his successor that they should apologise for his faults? He should not be let off the hook like that in future, and his predecessors should not be let off the hook by him now.

On the other hand, there is also the suggestion going round that Alan Turing should be given a posthumous knighthood, and when there's a petition for that, I'll gladly sign it.