Friday, 8 February 2013

Homophobia and the Church

On Tuesday, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons. While it's by no means guaranteed that it will become law, this seems likely.

The Bill received significant opposition from many members of the House of Commons, and from a number of religious groups, including the Church of England. That has led — as always happens in discussions of this kind — to accusations that the Church (both "of England" and in a wider sense) is bigoted, homophobic, irrelevant, out of touch and so on.

One way of reacting to this is to do the rhetorical equivalent of crawling under a rock and waiting for it all to blow over. And believe me, that's an attractive idea. But it's also a very bad idea, because the more the Church stays silent on matters that affect it and everyone, the more it cedes the ground for discussion. The Church believes — as do I — that it is bearing witness to the hope of the whole world, and talking about this kind of thing is therefore not only important, it is vital.

With that in mind, I wanted to put down a few thoughts about homophobia, and in particular what the Church's relationship is with it. First I'd better define my terms. When I refer to what "the Church" says, I will be talking about the churches that I know well; that is, the Church of England (or rather its official policies) and the opinions generally held by the kind of evangelical free churches that I know (I'm a member of a Newfrontiers church, if that gives you any reference point).

Homophobia is a little harder to define in this context, because it's a much more vague term than you might think. At its broadest, it can refer to any action or attitude that specifically disadvantages or disapproves of gay people or homosexuality. The definition I'll be using is slightly more specific, and reflects the common thread in most of the definitions I've found: "discriminatory acts or attitudes, born of a hatred or intense dislike for gay people or homosexual orientation".

OK then. So, now that our definitions are in place, the first thing I want to say is that the Church's position on gay marriage is not inherently homophobic.

Don't believe me? I really can't blame you.

To explain why I think this is true, let's look at how the Church has reached this position. First off, it comes from the concept that sex outside the context of heterosexual marriage (henceforth abbreviated SOTCOHM, because I'll be talking about it a lot) is incompatible with what the Bible teaches. The Biblical justification for this covers quite a lot of ground, starting in Genesis ("That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.", Gen 2:24) and getting mentions in the New Testament as well (see this fairly long passage from 1 Timothy). Other people have covered this far better than I can (here's a good and very positive article on the subject), so I'll simply say that the key point here is that if you're going to take the Bible seriously, you are probably going to find it pretty hard to square allowing SOTCOHM with that1.

Disregarding the arguments put forward that basically amounted to "blah blah tradition grumble grumble redefining blah", the Church's position regarding same sex marriage was therefore this:

Biblically, SOTCOHM is not something I can support.
Marriage is, essentially, defined by sex2.
Gay marriage would therefore be creating a context for sex that falls under the definition of SOTCOHM.
That's not something I can support3.
Therefore, I cannot support gay marriage.

Whether or not you think that reasoning is correct, please understand the absolutely key point here: it does not come from a position of hatred towards either gay people or their identity as gay. As such, it is not, in itself, homophobic.

This brings us on to the next problem, which is, of course, why do people see the Church as being homophobic? I think the answer lies with the cultural context in which we live, and specifically with the shifts in attitude towards homosexuality that have occurred over the years. These have been absolutely massive. It's not even 60 years since the British government hounded Alan Turing to suicide over his sexual orientation, despite his vast contributions to victory in World War II. It's less than 45 years since the Stonewall Riots, 40 years since homosexuality officially stopped being treated as a mental illness, less than 30 years since the UK had its first openly gay MP, only 13 years since the repeal of Section 28, and less than ten years since Civil Partnerships were introduced to this country. While the "ambient homophobia" of Western society is a long way from disappearing completely, it is receding at an immense rate, and particularly among the young it is near-unthinkable that anyone should be hated just because of who they happen to be attracted to. And to be absolutely crystal clear, these shifts are a fantastic thing, and should be applauded not only by Christians but by everyone in society.

The Church's problem, then, is that when it was surrounded by this ambient homophobia, opposition to gay marriage wasn't at all unusual. Let's contrast the above reasoning — which, again, regardless of whether it's correct, is not inherently homophobic — with the below, which definitely is.

Eww! Gays are icky!
Therefore I don't like them.
Therefore I don't want them to have the things they want.
Therefore, I cannot support gay marriage.

Or how about this one?

Gay people are scary and I don't understand them.
Allowing them to marry would also be weird and scary.
I don't like weird or scary things.
Therefore, I cannot support gay marriage.

The problem should be obvious — opinions which started out from very different places have produced the same result. As the tide of homophobia has receded around the church, suddenly its opposition to gay marriage stands out as unusual, and all that people can see is this opposition — which, because it has been associated for so long with homophobia, and because we have done so very, very little to correct this impression, now itself looks homophobic.

So we can blame it all on an image problem, which other people have to learn about? No. If you take nothing else away from what I'm saying here, at least pay attention to this: If the Church has placed itself into a position where it looks homophobic to all who see it, it has utterly failed to adequately witness to Christ's love. We can argue after the fact in blog posts like this one all we like, but when people look at the Church's opinions and actions, they are going to apply what is sometimes called the "duck test": If it looks like homophobia, and it walks like homophobia, and it quacks like homophobia, then of course everyone's going to think it's a duck homophobia.

So what can we, as a church, do about this? The answer should be simple. We need to never shut up about how much Jesus loves people — gay, straight, whatever. We need to be the most loving and welcoming people in our communities. We need to make it absolutely clear that everyone is welcome in our churches, that Jesus is for everyone, that there is Good News here for all people. When people think "where can I go in this community that will welcome me just as I am, will support and befriend me, and will treat me as a human being", if they think "the pub" before "my local church" then we have done something very wrong. And if this means focusing a bit less on how SOTCOHM is a sin, then I think we can live with that — everyone's already heard that message many, many times!

Finally, given that we as a Church have dropped the ball so badly on this one, we need to avoid complacency, and seriously think about what else we might be saying that can easily be confused with hatred. What are we doing that makes people feel unwelcome or unloved, which we haven't spoken about because everyone else is doing it too? And how can we learn to stop doing it, in order to truly witness to who Jesus is to the people around us?


  1. This conclusion is, of course, disputed by some Christians! One argument I've heard is that there was no concept in Bible times of a loving homosexual relationship, and that all the warnings about it are therefore actually regarding abusive homosexual relationships. It's an appealing theory, certainly, but I'm not personally convinced that the text supports it — the Greek culture in which the early Church grew up was very familiar with homosexual behaviour of all kinds, and if this was really the intent of the Biblical authors I'd have thought they would have mentioned it in contexts other than what basically looks like a blanket ban on anything other than celibacy or heterosexual marriage.
  2. Yes it is. Sure, "lifelong devotion" and "expression of commitment" come into it as well, and are very fine things, but Biblically speaking, the only thing that needed to be present for a marriage to exist was sex.
  3. It's worth mentioning that this is also a leap of logic that not everyone's going to agree with — it's an open question to what extent one's personal or Biblical views on gay marriage should affect national policy, particularly in what is essentially a secular nation. I'm not certain myself how I would have voted on Tuesday if had been an MP, and I'm certainly happy to accept that the Christians who unequivocally support this Bill can be doing so from a position of loving both God and his Word.

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Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Over 650 words, and not one George Orwell reference. Result.

You may have heard about the Government's proposed plans to extend online surveillance powers to a frankly ludicrous degree. I certainly have, so I wrote the following letter, which will be going to my MP tomorrow morning. If you feel so inclined, can I suggest you do something similar, and kill this kind of legislation before it gets going?

(This being the Internet, personal details have been excised.)

Dear [my MP],

I am writing to ask you to oppose the recently reported Government plans to introduce much more pervasive monitoring of online activity. It seems clear that these plans are deeply flawed on a number of levels, and I'm very concerned (particularly speaking as a [my occupation in the IT industry]) about the possible impact on both civil liberties and the IT industry as a whole.

The plans, as reported by the BBC, would apparently involve requiring internet service providers (ISPs) to provide records of their users' emails, social networking and web use to GCHQ on demand, without warrants. These records would be sufficient to determine the recipients of emails sent by users, the list of sites that they had visited, and the amount of time spent in contact with others.

My first objection to these plans is from a civil liberties perspective. At present, this information is protected by considerable legal force, such that any request for it would need at least some form of judicial review. Removing this judicial oversight gets rid of both a short-term protection from the abuse of this power (and it is very evident that power of this type is frequently abused – witness the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 to spy on parents who are suspected of not living in the catchment area for a particular school), and also means that such abuses would not be recorded in any way that could result in their later prosecution. Even if we were to trust the current governmental security services with this power (and I generally do), it is extremely dangerous to put such a power at the disposal of any and all future governments.

Secondly, the proposed plans would not be of any real benefit in terms of preventing crime or terrorism. It is trivially easy to defeat this kind of network surveillance in several ways, either by using a service such as Tor to route one's requests and emails through a network of anonymous servers, or by using an encrypted Virtual Private Network (VPN). Both of these technologies are freely available and widely known (my workplace has been using VPNs frequently for years), and any organised crime network or terrorist cell with any kind of competence is almost certainly already using them. In short, the surveillance plans as put forward would do no good at all in catching criminals, but would do a fantastic job of invading the privacy of innocent citizens.

Thirdly, the security implications of requiring ISPs to keep detailed records of everything that a user does are immense and worrying, in no small part because it is difficult to predict what could happen if these records were released to the public (through incompetence, hacking, a disgruntled employee, or any other scenario). To give you an example, in 2006 AOL released a large text file containing web searches made by many of their customers. Although they had had the foresight not to put names or personally identifying details beside each of the searches, because people tend to search for things personally connected with themselves it became very easy to work out who these people were, resulting in a huge loss of privacy for the people concerned.

Embarrassing though such an event was, it would be as nothing compared to what could happen if an ISP's user data collected in accordance with the Government's surveillance plans were to be released. Such an event could quite easily result in identity theft and fraud on a massive scale, not to mention the accompanying loss of confidence in both the ISP in question and the wider IT sector – a loss of confidence that we can ill afford, given the current economic situation!

In short, the proposed surveillance plans are nothing short of a disaster on all fronts, and I would urge you to oppose them strongly should they appear in the forthcoming Queen's Speech.

Yours sincerely,


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Tuesday, 25 October 2011

This can be solved only one way...Manson/Goulding rap battle!

I've been listening to a lot of music recently, thanks to my shiny Android phone, my shiny headphones, and my new habit of listening to music at work (thanks, co-workers with annoyingly loud headphones of their own). This has led me to discover quite a bit of new stuff, and it's also caused me to discover anew a principle that I already knew — namely, don't judge a book by its cover.

That's unnecessarily cryptic, so let me expand a bit. When you're looking around for music (and I'm thinking particularly of people buying music for others, maybe for kids), there's a great temptation to listen to a couple of tracks and get a quick impression based on those. That's not something I can really fault that much, as people are often rushed for time; that said, it can be a pretty bad idea, because what you see on the surface of a track is not what you see underneath. That point was driven home for me recently when listening to a couple of songs whose worth (or otherwise) is not necessarily apparent from a casual listen.

The first is Garbage's track "Sex Is Not The Enemy", off their 2005 album Bleed Like Me. Garbage are possibly the most adolescent band I can think of. I don't mean that in a bad way at all — their music certainly doesn't lack for either skill or sophistication. Rather, I mean that no other band I know can capture the feeling of what it's like to be about 16, knotted up with anger and anxiety and uncertainty, but also knowing that the entire world with all its potential is not far away from you. The energy of their songs, topped off by Shirley Manson's distinctive voice, means it's no surprise that they appeal to the young.

They probably don't appeal much to parents, though, given that Garbage's lyrics tend to be pretty unapologetic in their coverage of sex, violence and politics. And let's be fair, if you were a parent who had just heard their daughter listening to the song below (or worse, seen the video, what with Manson rolling around on a bed and getting her pixelated boobs out), there's a chance you wouldn't be overly happy about it.

Now, there's plenty to criticise about that song, and it would be pretty easy to take a message away from it of "have lots of sex all the time, right on!" But dismissing it entirely on that basis would be a big mistake. Let's have a closer look at some of the lyrics.
I don't feel guilty
No matter what they're telling me
I won't feel dirty and buy into their misery
I won't be shamed cause I believe that love is free
It fuels the heart and sex is not my enemy
Any song that is telling young women not to feel shamed, not to feel dirty, and not to let anyone else use their sexuality to make them miserable instantly puts it miles above a lot of the dreck that gets pumped out into the charts these days. And if you'd avoid the song because you're a Christian...take a look at the third verse.
True love is like gold
There's not enough to go around
But then there's God and doesn't God love everyone?
Give me a choice
Give me a chance to turn the key and find my voice
Sex is not the enemy
Yep, direct appeal to the universal and all-pervading love of God to argue against the horrendous Hollywood concept of "there's one person who is your perfect soulmate and you must search for them alone". The theology is possibly a mite dubious there, but those are still some pretty powerful and thoughtful lyrics. Not bad for a thrashy, provocative teenagers' song, eh?

Now let's go to the other end of the scale, where you might find someone like Ellie Goulding. I should probably mention that I quite like Goulding — she's got a great voice, and her fusion of folk, pop and electronica is pretty unusual and works really rather well. "Starry Eyed" and "Under The Sheets", in particular, are very good and well worth a listen. But then you have something like...well, this:

That's "The Writer", off Goulding's debut Lights. Our hypothetical parent is probably feeling pretty good about this one. It's a gentle, twinkly ballad, with some lovely imagery in a soaring chorus. Frankly, Goulding being an unthreatening, pretty young woman isn't going to hurt matters either. But once again, let's have a closer look at some of the lyrics.
You wait for a silence
I wait for a word
Lie next to your frame
Girl unobserved
You change your position
And you are changing me
Casting these shadows
Where they shouldn't be

We're interrupted by the heat of the sun
Trying to prevent what's already begun
You're just a body
I can smell your skin
And when I feel it, you're wearing thin
Nothing too strange there, right? I suppose there's a couple of slightly ominous hints — what is that's "already begun" that they're "trying to prevent"? What does it mean that he's "wearing thin"? Well, maybe we'll get some more out of the second verse.
Sat on your's all broken springs
This isn't the place for those violin strings
I try out a smile and I aim it at you
You must have missed it
You always do
Well, that's even more ominous. In context, "violin strings" are probably a metaphor for romance, which apparently is lacking in this relationship. "You must have missed it / You always do" is more worrying, as that seems to imply that there's not a lot of warmth here; having to "try out a smile" doesn't sound good. This also puts a nasty spin on "girl unobserved" from the first verse — I don't think our unnamed dude is paying Ellie much attention at all, and things are slipping badly. So what's a girl to do in this situation? Hit us with the chorus, Ellie!
But I've got a plan
Why don't you be the artist; and make me out of clay?
Why don't you be the writer and decide the words I say?
Because I'd rather pretend
I'll still be there at the end
Only it's too hard to ask... won't you try to help me
Now, call me paranoid, but that sounds a lot — an awful lot — like Goulding's proposed solution is to allow herself to be changed entirely. The message, in brief, reads very much like "you don't love me any more, so I'm going to let you change me into someone that you do love". I may be misinterpreting it, but if that's the message I took away from it, it wouldn't surprise me if a bunch of Goulding's audience (many of whom will be teenage girls) did the same.

And that message, right there? That is poisonous. Yes, relationships involve give and take, and a certain amount of change on both sides is inevitable. But the idea of handing over complete control of one's character to another person, particularly when it's a girl suggesting this course of action, is worrying on a whole lot of levels. The icing on the horrible, horrible cake is the line "Because I'd rather pretend / I'll still be there at the end", suggesting that Goulding's character in the song is happy to just fake it, being in the relationship for the sake of it while she subsumes her own identity into that of her partner.

If it's a choice between young people listening to that, and having Shirley Manson declaim sexual liberation messages at them with a megaphone? Bring on the Garbage.

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Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Anyone who even thinks of the word "midichlorians" is not welcome here.

(Yes, I know it's been the best part of a year since I posted here. No, this probably isn't the start of a resurgence in posting. Sorry to disappoint.)

As a fully certified geek, it is not at all surprising that I'm entirely familiar with the Star Wars universe. I hear and recite quotations from the films frequently, I own two of the video games, I can give you a potted summary of the "Han shot first" controversy at the drop of a hat — I have certain credentials here, is what I'm saying.

So I was rather surprised to realise recently that not only did I not own any of the films in any format, it had actually been well over ten years since I had seen any of them. (We're talking the original trilogy here, of course — my geek cred extends far enough to know that the recent prequels, aka abominations against the very concept of cinema, don't count.) So, taking advantage of the January sales, I headed into London to pick up the DVD box set, and spent a reflective couple of hours the other night watching Episode IV.

It took me a while after finishing watching it to decide what I thought of it. Given that the established wisdom of...well, pretty much everyone I know, with the exception of my mother, who wanted to take a tin-opener to C-3PO when she first saw that the original films are classics of modern cinema, masterpieces that soar above lesser films like an X-Wing twisting between bursts of turbolaser fire, it's difficult to have any kind of unbiased viewpoint here. Nevertheless, for what it's worth, here are my conclusions. (One note on formatting in this post &mdash I'll use the italicised Star Wars to denote Episode IV, as that's its original theatrical title, and plain Star Wars to denote the franchise.)

1. Good grief, this is EPIC.
From the opening shot, as an Imperial cruiser (I don't think the term "Star Destroyer" is mentioned anywhere in the first film) slides almost endlessly across the top of the screen, to the climactic battle above a space station the size of a moon, Star Wars has a sense of scale unlike almost any other film. This continues almost everywhere &mdash our heroes move between entire star systems, at speeds greater than light, landing on worlds that consist entirely of desert, fighting an Empire that, we're told, spans the galaxy. Lucas went all-out to create this compelling atmosphere, and he pulls it off admirably.

2. Intergalactic Planetary Planetary Intergalactic
An essential element of the sense of scale throughout Star Wars is John Williams' score. It's utterly beautiful, moving from urgency to wonder to triumph to shock with ease. I was surprised that even after having so long over the years to become sick of it, the mournful theme as Luke looks out over the desert he's so desperate to leave behind was still really moving. As with his score for Jurassic Park, Williams came up with something at once unique and yet very obviously his own.

3. It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know
As Ben Kenobi strode onto the screen, I began to wonder "how did they persuade Alec Guinness to appear in as large a gamble as this?" I think the answer has to be that Guinness could tell he was among people who knew what they were doing. All the casting is inspired — Mark Hamill probably wouldn't thank me for saying that he really looks and sounds very ordinary in this film, but that's precisely what was required for the role of an everyman farm boy, caught up into something larger than himself. Carrie Fisher is as Princessy as you could wish for (in looks, if not in character — more on that later). Even the Rebel fighter pilots and the various generals on the bridge of the Death Star are well-portrayed. (And, as Eddie Izzard is fond of pointing out, they're all British.)

As for Harrison Ford, well, it's a shame that he picked up the "action hero" stereotype in this franchise, because he really can act. There's a scene towards the end, when Obi-Wan has just died (or been absorbed by the Force, or whatever — the film's intentionally ambiguous here) and Luke is sitting on board the Millennium Falcon, stunned and unable to take it in ("...can't believe he's gone."). Han Solo comes down the ladder to find Luke, as he's going to need him to fend off Imperial fighters, and he says just one thing: "Come on buddy, we're not out of this yet." It's a simple line, over almost immediately, but Ford's delivery of it is pitch-perfect, conveying kindness without being at all sentimental, and still maintaining the urgency required by the situation. It's worth noting here that the script is also better than one might expect from a sci-fi blockbuster — I'm not certain, but I think this is the first time Solo refers to Luke as "buddy" rather than "kid", and the quiet character development signalled by that tiny change is significant.

4. My Explanations, Let Me Not Show You Them
One of the most surprising aspects of Star Wars, for me, was the extent to which it doesn't fall into the trap of so many bits of sci-fi, that of over-explaining everything. We're treated to practically no backstory for any of the characters, at no point does anyone tell us just how a lightsaber works, the Force is vague and mysterious. The most stunning example of this was when Han Solo talks to Greedo and then Jabba — there are no subtitles, despite both the characters he meets speaking completely alien languages, and we're left to decipher what they must have said from Solo's side of the conversation. (Come to think of it, my DVD-playing setup is a little ropey, so the subtitles may simply have been broken. If that's the case, then feel free to disregard this point!) This general attitude towards the viewers — that they are intelligent enough to figure out what's going on, and that the story is more important than explaining the fine details of the setting — is refreshing, and really helps to move things along.

5. I Am No Man
Speaking of subverting expectations, I was really impressed by the role of Leia. The word "princess", when applied to a film role, is usually code for "fairly drippy character whose involvement in the plot is restricted to a) getting captured and/or rescued, and b) falling in love with the male lead". And yet our first sighting of Leia is when she is confronting the 7-foot tall, half-man-half-machine-all-evil Darth Vader. And it is a confrontation — she chews him out for boarding a diplomatic vessel, threatens him with the wrath of the Galactic Senate, and shows no fear whatsoever. This kind of can-do attitude isn't a one-time thing, either — she's the one who gets them out of the detention levels, she's the only character who cottons on to the fact that their escape from the Death Star was too easy, and she's pretty handy with a blaster too. Even though there is a romantic subtext between her and Han, it's never over-the-top, and she maintains the upper hand throughout — note that in the ceremony at the end, it's Luke and Han who have to walk up to Leia to receive their reward, not the other way around.

6. Aaaaaaaagh I'm Running Out Of Time
And so we come to the only thing I really didn't like about Star Wars. At the end of the film it took me a while to put my finger on why, though I'd enjoyed it a lot, I'd also found it a bit disappointing. I think the answer can be summed up in one word: Pacing.

The impression throughout the film is that, much like me when starting to write one of these epically long posts, Lucas thought he had all the time in the world. We spend seemingly forever in and around Luke's home, meeting Obi-Wan, and following the droids. Oh, man, the droids. Is there any particular reason why we had to go through the whole "R2-D2 and C-3PO go off in opposite directions, complain for a few minutes, get captured by the same set of characters and have a glorious robotic reunion" storyline? It has precisely no bearing on any of the rest of the plot, and could equally well have been done by simply having the Jawas find the escape pod as soon as it landed. As it stands, this and other scripting and editing decisions mean that the first half of the film moves glacially slowly.

Now, there's nothing wrong with a film that runs slowly to give the audience time to take in the atmosphere. Nor is there anything wrong with a film that builds pace throughout. But Star Wars does this to a ridiculous extent, such that it takes at least a good quarter of the film before we've met all the main cast, while the final battle, from the Millennium Falcon landing on Yavin to the destruction of the Death Star, takes place in-universe in less than half an hour.

Even the pacing within some of the scenes is odd. Take the destruction of the Death Star, for instance. Luke drops his bombs into the shaft, he and Han fly off, Vader spins away, we cut to the people on the Death Star looking unconcerned, and then it immediately blows up. The whole sequence has taken a couple of seconds at most. No anticipation, no time to wait for it, just BOOM. For me, at least, that took a lot away from what should have been the climactic shot of the film.

For much the same reason, the final ceremony is unsatisfying, because it feels forced and tacked-on, leaving completely unresolved the question of what the Rebels are going to do next, how the Empire is going to be destroyed (it's only lost one of its weapons, and is far from powerless) or even how the various character relationships are going to work. From a position of knowing that there were two more films, it's not so bad that things haven't been resolved — we know there's more story to come. But if you're going to do that, you surely have to either do an explicit "to be continued" type of ending (as the Lord of the Rings films did) or make the films stand entirely on their own (as the Matrix films would have done, had there been any sequels). Star Wars, however, doesn't know what it wants to do and it ends up falling between two stools, with a rushed and unsatisfying ending that leaves too many questions open.

Obviously, given that I've just spent 1800 words discussing this film, I found a lot to enjoy, and I'm certainly glad I came back to revisit this touchstone of geek culture. If you agree or disagree with me, feel free to argue violently in the comments. And maybe — just maybe — come back soon when I re-watch The Empire Strikes Back...

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Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Your Vote Matters (Well, To A Certain Extent, I Suppose)

OK, sorry for yet another politics post, particularly after such a long gap, but we're almost at the election! The day after tomorrow, the polls will open and Britain will flock to cast their vote for whoever they want to lead us for the next however many years it is.

Well, some of them will, anyway. One of the major problems with our first-past-the-post electoral system is that it's entirely too easy to find yourself stuck in a constituency where your preferred candidate has not the faintest chance of being elected, even if they're from one of the major parties. And in those circumstances, it's completely understandable that a lot of people will simply not bother, or vote for someone who's kind of close to their preference, but isn't quite what they were after. I think that's a shame.

So, I'm going to use this space to give you three good reasons why you should vote, and moreover why you should vote for the person you actually want to get in rather than the person who might make it. I may as well note before I start that the cornerstone of democracy is that everyone is free to cast their vote for whoever they want, for whatever reason they want, or indeed not to vote at all. If you want to vote for the BNP to "send a message" to the "political elite", for instance, that's your democratic right. (That said, we have a great tradition of free speech in this country, so it's also my right to call you a complete idiot if you do.) Essentially, I'm fully aware that if you don't want to vote for anyone, or if you want to vote tactically, that's absolutely your right, so don't let me guilt you into it. But if you'd care to read on, here's why there might be a better option.

First, parties become competitive by people voting for them when they are not competitive. That's been the Liberal Democrat pattern for ages — they very rarely take a seat out of nowhere, but rather do it over two or more electoral cycles, slowly gaining enough support to be seen as potential challengers to the incumbent, at which point enough people take them seriously to get them the rest of the way. Another example is the Greens, who haven't had a decent shot at a Parliamentary constituency since their formation, but who stand a reasonable chance of taking Brighton Pavilion this time around. So even if the vote you cast for a non-competitive party this time around doesn't get them into office, people will look at the vote total next time. Not just the voters, but also the parties themselves — the more people vote for them in a given constituency, the higher the chances that they'll pour some more cash into campaigning there in the future.

Secondly, people look at the popular vote. Even in our voting system, where the popular vote is technically irrelevant, it gets a lot of attention from the parties when they're campaigning or when they're trying to argue that their opinion should be taken more seriously. And in this election, where there's a reasonable chance of the Liberal Democrats coming second in the popular vote but a distant third in seats (and of Labour coming first in seats despite coming second or even third in the popular vote), the popular vote is likely to be a powerful argument in favour of voting reform. When we're talking about popular votes, every vote is as important as every other.

Thirdly — and perhaps most importantly — this is the least predictable election for a generation. The Lib Dem surge caught everyone unawares (watching the Conservatives scrabble madly to regain the initiative after the first debate was a particular highlight for me, I have to admit), and with this coming on top of the expenses scandal (which has resulted in around a hundred MPs not seeking re-election), a lot of constituencies are suddenly way more open than they have been for years. In short, unless we get some kind of voting reform before the next election, this may well be the public's best chance for decades to upset the normal order of things and bring a bit of variety to politics. Don't blow it now!

Campaigning is in its final stretch, and if you haven't decided who to vote for yet, you're almost out of time. Whatever the outcome, this is the most exciting election the UK's seen for ages and the possibilities are fantastic. I don't know about you, but I for one am looking forward to it.

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Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Politics is always improved by a little injection of Science.

We're into the last few weeks before the General Election. At least, I assume we are, our Glorious Leader having apparently neglected to officially call one, and seeming to want to hang on until the last possible minute. And who can blame him, frankly? The poll numbers have been showing the Conservative lead evaporating recently, going down from a lead of around 18% last July to a mere 7% or so. The Budget seems to have pushed it back in their favour (not unusually, given how people don't tend to like being told they're going to pay more), but whether that's the start of a new trend back towards the blue end of the scale or a mere blip on the way to the great British public being completely undecided is something we just won't know for a little while longer.

Either way, it's an exciting time in politics, and the pollsters are having a lovely time. But how do we interpret the poll results? Well, I've been letting my geeky side (which is, I must admit, pretty enormous compared to my non-geeky side) run riot a little more than usual, with the result that I'm now in a position to put forward a tentative projection.

There's two main ways of predicting Parliamentary results based on poll figures. The first is the Uniform Swing Projection. In a nutshell, this method compares the vote share predicted by a poll with the vote share at the previous election to calculate the swing towards or away from each party, then applies that swing to the vote share in each separate constituency.

It's not the most sophisticated way of doing predictions, and suffers from a few limitations. For example, a strong negative swing can result in a prediction of zero votes for a party, which is fairly unlikely. It also fails to take into account boundary changes and the size of a constituency, and is likely to hit particular problems in an election like this one where a number of MPs have resigned or have had their reputations tarnished by the expenses scandal. It's a good place to start, though, and gives you a reasonable idea of the general trend of the election.

So, what's the prediction? Well, based on the most recent YouGov poll listed on the UK Polling Report, which gives figures of 38% Conservative, 31% Labour, 19% Lib Dem, 12% other, I'm projecting a Hung Parliament with the Conservative Party short of a majority by 51 seats. That's not far off UK Polling Report's current projection of a Conservative shortfall of 19, so I think I'm in the right neck of the woods.

Of course, that's only one poll, and I've heard bad things about YouGov (it's an online outfit, which does make them susceptible to outside influence). So let's see some more recent results, with my projections.

  • 29th March (YouGov), Con 39% Lab 32% LD 18%. Projection: Hung Parliament, Con down by 35
  • 29th March (Opinium), Con 38%, Lab 28%, LD 18%. Projection: Hung Parliament, Con down by 3
  • 28th March (ComRes), Con 37%, Lab 30%, LD 20%. Projection: Hung Parliament, Con down by 59
  • 27th March (BPIX), same results as ComRes above
All of which seems to suggest that there may be quite a bit of variability, but the Conservatives have a lot of work to do if they want to form a majority government.

I've got some more work to do on my projection model, and I've had some ideas for getting it a bit more accurate, so watch this space for more details (I'm also going to open-source my code shortly so you can play around with it for yourself). Until then, I'm going to leave the parties to frantically scrabble for those extra few votes...

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Monday, 15 February 2010

Harmonicas make everything sound sad.

What with all the excitement of the Winter Olympics (which have been fantastic so far) and the Six Nations (which...hasn't, at least from an English perspective), I forgot to make an update which I really shouldn't have missed, even in these days of very sparse additions to this blog. That update is the annual anti-Valentine's entry.

OK, so it's a little cynical to always make sarcastic comments about love at this time of year, but on the other hand, there is such a field of mawkish sentimentality to choose from when selecting something to methodically deflate, it seems churlish not to do something.

Fortunately, I've gone the classy route this time, by doing something creative for a change. That would be recording a song, on the theme of love. Have a listen to "So We'll Go No More A-Roving".

The music may be mine, but the words certainly aren't — they're taken from a poem by Lord Byron (original text here). It's a sad song, telling of a love that used to be bright, but has faded; love itself must have rest, as old age takes over.

Byron wasn't exactly in any position to know about old age, being only 29 when he wrote this, but the note of weariness that pervades the poem is very powerful. It's always a bit surprising to see someone who was a notorious hellraiser — he was the first man to be described as "mad, bad and dangerous to know" — coming up with something as tender as this. Maybe it indicates that the what he thought was love to start with wasn't actually what he was after.

This poem feels like it's nothing but sadness, leaving the reader with no love and nothing to replace it. But maybe that's the point. If the first rush of love — wild, passionate, roving late into the night — doesn't last, then we have to find something with which to replace it before that happens. Whether Byron ever managed this is unknown, but it's unlikely; he died only seven years after writing these verses. Maybe our challenge, then, is to see whether we can do better.

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