What’s the Alternative?

If you have been anywhere near a TV, radio, newspaper or web browser in the last three months you will have heard about people fighting for democracy in countries across Northern Africa and the Middle East. In general terms they are fighting for the right to elect their chosen government, to kick out the dictators, to determine their own future. In Tunisia and Egypt the transitions were relatively bloodless. In Libya the majority of the population struggles to defend themselves from a better armed minority, the outcome uncertain.

Tunisia - reclaimed
Tunisia – reclaimed

Egypt - reclaimed
Egypt – reclaimed

Libya - wobbling
Libya – wobbling

Rulers in several other countries are cracking down mercilessly on their own people in fear of similar revolutions, but the secret is out and people are beginning to realise that they are not alone, that change IS possible. Another example of social media changing the world, but I digress…

The struggle for democracy

People spanning the entire political and social spectrum are united in their unstoppable desire to live without persecution in a free and democratic homeland. They are prepared to stand side by side and risk everything they hold dear in order to achieve this aim. The basic rights we take for granted, the political systems we feel so alienated by are their shining prize.

The struggle with democracy
We have democracy – yet we are still unhappy about lots of things as was evident be the huge March 26th demonstration in London in protest to government cuts.

Despite our democratic system people feel disenfranchised and ignored by their elected representatives.


Last year’s general election was very negative. Labour had completely lost it’s way, the majority of people couldn’t stomach the idea of the Tories but the Liberals weren’t deemed credible enough to take full advantage, hence a hung parliament. A great many people either didn’t vote or they voted tactically – ie: not for who they wanted but against who they didn’t want. There’s a wide held belief that politicians put themselves first, then their parties and finally the voters. Argue the ethics of this as much as you will but…

…until the interests of politicians and voters are aligned then nothing will change.


The shape of democracy
I believe that when it comes to the vote “democracy” should fulfill a few basic criteria:

Elect the candidate with the broadest range of support. Presently if there is a 50% turnout of voters and 3 serious candidates (say Con, Lab & Lib) the winner theoretically needs only 17% of the possible votes to win the seat. What sort of moral mandate can this MP claim to have when potentially 83% of the electorate don’t want them in power?
Each vote should hold an exactly equal value. Due to the slicing and dicing of electoral boundaries an MP in one parliamentary constituency needs less votes to claim office than a candidate in another constituency. An extreme example of this is The Western Isles where 22,000 are able to vote vs the Isle Of Wight with 111,000 potential voters. In takes potentially 5 times as many voters to elect an MP in the IOW.
The system should encourage people to vote positively – for the candidate they WANT. In elections now many votes are cast for a party people don’t want in order to oppose a party the want even less

A vote on a vote
On May 5th we the voters will have an extremely rare chance to shift the political landscape and consequently alter the mindset of voters and politicians when it comes to engagement on the issues we care about. On May 5th there will be a referendum where we can vote to introduce a new electoral voting system for electing MPs called the Alternative Vote (AV) or to retain the existing First Past The Post (FPTP) system. As referendum day draws nearer there is a lot of information and disinformation flying around concerning the mechanics of these competing systems and the potential implications of them. Here is my take on all of this.

First Past The Post

Voting process
You get to cast a single vote for a single candidate

And the winner is…
The candidate with the most votes wins, regardless of the number of votes cast

Arguments for…

It’s simple – the candidate with the most votes wins.
The vote count is relatively quick

Arguments against…

MPs can get elected based on low public support
Unless you vote for a party with a serious chance of winning your vote is wasted, leading to…
Tendancy towards high levels of tactical voting

Alternative Vote

Voting process
You can assign order of preference to one or more candidates from the available list.
In more detail: You write a “1” against your preferred candidate and if you have a second choice candidate you can choose to write a “2” against them, and continue if desired with ever increasing numbers against as many different candidates as you wish.

And the winner is…
If one candidate gets more than 50% of the votes they win
If no candidate gets more than 50% of the votes then the last placed candidate (Mr X) is removed from the equation and votes are redistributed to the remaining candidates based on the second choices of those for whom Mr X was number 1 choice.
The above process continues until one candidate gets more than 50% of the votes.
It’s much simpler to visualise this with the Electoral Commission AV voting diagram

Arguments for…

Electoral winners would reflect the majority view of voters.
Tactical voting is eliminated
Candidates will try to appeal to potential second choice voters reducing negative campaigning

Arguments against…

Opponents to AV argue that the system will cost more to administer than FPTP
The additional rounds of voting will mean that the vote count takes longer

Is there an alternative to the alternative?
The long answer is that there are many types of voting system. The Electoral Reform Society website lists ten types for starters, explaining how the rival systems works and their pros and cons. I can’t vouch for the neutrality of this website but it’s worth a read.

Perhaps the most vocally expressed alternative to FPTP and AV is Proportional Representation (PR). Supporters of PR claim that this should be our adopted voting system and not FPTP or AV, which leads us onto…

The short answer is that on May 5th we only have 2 choices, so alternatives to these are irrelevant at this time.

Further Reading

First Past The Post Pro-FPTPhttp://www.no2av.org. I’m trying to keep a straight face and stay neutral on this but the stated arguments for FPTP and against AV smack of desperation. I can’t find many other websites in support of FPTP.
Alternative Vote Pro-AVhttp://www.yestofairervotes.org
Proportional Representation Pro-PRhttp://www.no2av-yes2pr.org

What to do?
I can only speak for myself. I don’t think AV provides a panacea but I do believe it is a significant improvement on FPTP. Imagine voting for your preferred candidate whatever their perceived chance of winning. Even if you know they won’t win you can express your preference but use lower ranking votes to ensure your general wishes are reflected in the overall scheme of things. The potential benefits as I see them?

Parties with wide support that have previously been frozen out by tactical voting will receive all their votes
Candidates have to appeal to all voters so that they can pick up 2nd votes, reducing negative campaigning
A by-product of the above point is that the views of secondary parties are more likely to be adopted by the leading parties meaning that widespread public opinion can no longer be ignored

I don’t believe in abstaining from the vote on the basis that it is not a perfect solution as opportunities for any vote on reform seldom come around. In addition, should FPTP be retained it’s exponents will take this as a mandate to keep things in check for much longer – a bit like the party that takes power with the backing of 25% of the population saying that their “success” is valid.

Most likely you are already familiar with much of the above due to the ever increasing coverage of the forthcoming referendum, so why am I telling you what you already know? Because we need to be proactive in standing up to those who would try to deceive us into uncertainty in the hope we will abstain or vote against change.

When politicians realise that their arguments are full of holes they try to move the debate away from the facts because they know they will lose that battle. Instead they attempt to scaremonger and create uncertainty. This for instance taken from the No to AV website:

The change to AV will cost up to an additional £250 million. Local councils would have to waste money on costly electronic vote counting machines and expensive voter education campaigns.


There’s no mention of how they come to this figure – it looks like a number plucked out of the air. And even if the figure was true is cost a reason to forgo democracy? Even then we can play the spin-doctors at their own game and point out that such an outlay would represent a huge boost to employment in these hard economic times.

And this from the No 2 AV – Yes 2 PR website:

The notion of AV as a ‘stepping stone’ to PR is wishful thinking: No country has ever moved from AV to PR.


I don’t honestly appreciate the subtleties of PR but suggesting that we should vote no to PR and so provide FPTP campaigners with ammunition they don’t deserve is laughable – in fact it is a prime example of tactical voting – one of the few things that followers of all parties agree is a bad thing. Furthermore the implication that we should forgo evolution because it is not revolution is self defeating and baseless. Finally I can’t help thinking that the people with most to gain from No 2 AV – Yes 2 PR are the FPTP crowd. Is it beyond the realms of possibility that they have covertly put their weight behind this as a means to confuse indecisive voters into a No vote?

So there are no guns pointed at us, our basic freedoms are not withheld from us by the state and we are lucky to be in this situation as others fight for these rights, but I am not complacent about or satisfied with the status quo. The status-quo that sees bailed out bankers on massive bonuses again while swathes of public sector workers are axed. The status-quo that facilitated the MP’s expenses scandal. The status-quo that compels politically savvy voters to vote for candidates they don’t want while a new young generation of voters feel so estranged from modern politics that they don’t bother to vote at all.

The 5th May referendum provides us with an extremely rare chance to cast a positive vote that might just breathe life back into our tired and broken political system.


In case you didn’t guess, I will be voting in favour of AV on May 5th. I will be doing so for positive reasons.

Ticket to nowhere

Somebody just won £113m on the lottery this morning. It’s not me. I know this because I don’t buy a ticket, but evidently a lot of other people do, and it got me thinking. Lottery – good or bad?

What do you do with that kind of money if your numbers come up? To be sufficiently wealthy that you don’t have to worry about money and can do almost what you want in life is one thing, but £113m? It seems a gratuitous amount for one person – or even a small syndicate – to win. What are the possible effects on the winner?

It's a numbers game
It\’s a numbers game

We hear about lottery winners who fritter their winnings, hit rock bottom and wish they had never won. I’m sure there are also plenty of very happy, well adjusted winners but there will likely be other issues. Lots of “friends” you didn’t know you had are going to come out of the woodwork and plenty of people will be at hand to offer bad advice. What do you do with your life? Just turn up at work on Monday as if nothing has changed? If you are happy with life as it stands the money thing will probably present some obstacles in terms of other peoples behaviour towards you and the dynamic will change. The most interesting thing about you will be your fortune and it will be the opening line to many conversations. But what about the old Tim?! And do you really want to effectively retire at a young age? What do you do with your life and how do you forge new relationships? How do you re-define yourself?

After a honeymoon period of spending and adjusting to money-is-no-object living will come the realisation that you are still the same person you were before the win, just wealthier. Most of the problems you had before will persist. Depression sufferer? No change. Discordant relationship with a relative? No solution. Worried about the health of a friend? You could pay for their medical treatment but until we are able to defrost Walt Disney we are all the fragile subjects of nature’s whim.

It’s not so much the money but the mode of acquisition. People who have worked from nothing to earn millions understand the value of money and even if they got there with a degree of good fortune they undertook a journey to reach that wealth. There will have been times where they were faced with tough choices – remortgage the house to invest in the business, ostracise themselves to work the hours to further their career, etc. Others faced with the same decisions will consciously have chosen security and sociability ahead of potential wealth. Lottery winners skip this journey and cannot be naturally equipped to deal with the wider impact of the win.

And then there’s the concept of the lottery itself. Huge numbers of people spend a pound, fiver, tenner each week for virtually no return. Sure, but it’s harmless enough. Most people probably do it as a bit of fun. They can sit around the telly in the evening and dream of what might be for a few minutes before they tear up the ticket and head for the kettle. I’m not so sure. Think of the countless people who missed out on a win because they lost their ticket, changed their numbers and their previous numbers came up, or perhaps they want to stop buying a ticket but dare not for the same reason. Then there’s the problem of syndicates. You left the syndicate just before they won? Bad luck. You are a member of a syndicate but are a couple of weeks behind on paying your subs? I’ll take you to court for my share of the winnings. Many non-winners can face emotional turmoil in such circumstances, suffering depression, guilt, stress, broken relationships, deep unhappiness – and for what?


Who couldn’t use the £50, £100, £500 a year given to the lottery for something more constructive? Imagine instead channelling that money towards an annual magazine subscription, a day at the races, a spa break in 2 years time or a blow out trip to New York in 5 years time. Or how about if everyone in your neighbourhood channelled their combined annual lottery spend into local projects. Imagine the social transformation you could see on your own doorstep. Perhaps the time is right for the AntiLottery – a non-commercial not-for-profit initiative which sees your money spent within your own postcode on socially inclusive projects chosen by local people.

So is there any reason to buy a lottery ticket? You like a flutter? The chances of wining £113m were 76 million to 1 and I never understand why people flock to buy tickets on rollover week when the odds of a big win lengthen. Better if you must to buy the week after a large claim when it has quietened down and the jackpot is lower. Gamblers don’t do the national or Euro lottery because the odds are dreadful. Do the Irish national lottery or go to a casino where you know the odds and you might have some fun.

Famous two fingered logo
Famous two fingered logo

But Tim you are such a killjoy, it’s not about winning! Think about all of the good causes funded by the lottery. I’m not going to try and defend my bah-humbug mentality (you win) but I would seriously challenge the assertion that doing the lottery is in any way altruistic. Only 28% of your money goes towards “good causes” and you effectively have no say in what these causes are or where they are based. There is a strong argument that the government reduces their funding in some sectors and lets the lottery take some of the strain. Meanwhile the charity sector loses out on public donations that they might otherwise have received. So if it’s charity you are interested in you should give directly and cut out the middle men who take profit, tax and operating costs out of the pot and then decide on their choice of recipient, which may subsequently lose out on government funding as a result.

Would I like to win lots of money? Duh – of course! But it’s not a panacea. Be careful what you wish for. It could be you.

May 6th and all that

Tims shameful contribution

A tough decision awaits us. Three dogs – but only two sacks and two bricks. Which two are you going to bag up and drop overboard in the middle of the lake and which one survives to sleep at the foot of the bed? It’s a tough call, but let’s consider our choices.

The  Red  one we know all about. We have kept it for over a decade and that’s old in dog years. I remember when we first got it as an eager young puppy. It was a lively breath of fresh air after our previous old mutt had to be put down. In recent years though it has become increasingly burdensome and it craps on the carpet with maddening regularity. Let’s face it – things can only get worse.

What about the  Blue  dog that yaps incessantly for our attention? Sure it is oh so eager to please but we all know that carefully coiffured fur coat can barely disguise the mongrel beneath. And my does it eat – what a greedy hound. The rest of us will have to go hungry, and we can’t go on like that.

That just leaves us with the  Yellow  dog. The yellow dog may turn out to be faithful and true, although we don’t really know. It has an unknown pedigree and always seems to lag behind the other dogs in a race. Maybe it’s a little bland but at least it is different and that could be what we need, a real alternative.

Many of us have come to the conclusion that they are all the same, that it doesn’t matter. They would like to drown all three but that’s not going to happen. A small minority of people want a Green dog even though it’s not really a dog at all, or a snarling British bulldog that can’t wait to get off the leash and bite next doors children. Perhaps we should keep cats instead. That’s just crazy right?!

Soon we will all have the chance to decide who’s top dog. One thing’s for sure, until we make our minds up on May 6th the non-stop barking is going to drive us all mad.

An Inconvenient Truth

First we discovered fire, then somebody invented the wheel and now finally – after what seems like a similar wait – Derby has it’s new bus station. A brief recap. The previous station was built in 1933 and while not without a hint of art deco charm it was hopelessly unfit for purpose when it was closed in 2005 in preparation for work on the new facility. There was a fierce and at times comical campaign to keep the old station open on a range of hotly disputed grounds, culminating in a protestor literally taking up residence in a caravan on the ROOF of the old station. I always felt this was strangely poetic after hearing one objector defend the old station on the grounds of “how good it looked from the air” – an unhelpful factor when you are exposed to the elements & trying to find out where your bus departs from.

Old Derby bus station - plus caravan
Old Derby bus station – plus caravan

Five years (!) later and the new bus station is set to open this weekend. Being Derby it obviously comes with yet more drama; various delays; scope change in response to the global financial meltdown; a burst water pipe that flooded the station a week ago. Oh, and the seemingly trivial revelation that the station toilets will cost 20p to use. The quoted rationale is that it is a small nominal fee that will help cover costs and deter people from entering and misusing the facilities, which on the face of it doesn’t sound too unreasonable. It is the wrong decision. Let me explain why…

We like to think of Britain as a civilised society. Our country has invented or championed many social innovations that have earned us a reputation for civility and that to this day leave legacies to the former colonial areas we exploited to our own ends. I remember visiting Sri Lanka and listening to locals talking with genuine pride and enthusiasm about the enduring legacy of road, rail, school and health infrastructure left behind by the British Raj, although they diplomatically failed to mention the fact we nicked their tea & spices. Oops – sorry. Here’s some tourist pounds instead.

New Derby air terminal. I mean bus station.
New Derby air terminal. I mean bus station.

There can be no doubt that following the industrial revolution the nation entered a rocky but golden age of social reinvention, moral introspection and intense philanthropy that to some extent still informs our present day expectations and attitudes.

George Cadbury - hirsute philanthropist & Curley Wurley inventor
George Cadbury – hirsute philanthropist & Curley Wurley inventor

We have learned to expect certain minimum standards in the provision of education, health, civil liberties, democratic governance, etc, etc. These baselines are funded through our system of tax and ensure everyone gets basic healthcare, a right to schooling, bin collection, street lighting and so on. Not everyone agrees on where the baseline should be set or what an acceptable cost is (or profit if the service has been privatised – GRRRR) but I suspect there is a fairly broad consensus that there should be a baseline. The alternative would be a purely market driven society where no money means no medical treatment or education. There are people who would be happy with this every-man-for-themselves scenario and it seems that we have a continual fight on our hands to recognise and protect what we have.

On a related note I was taken aback by the massive opposition the Obama administration faced when trying to get their health bill passed to grant all citizens access to (very) basic state health provision in the year 2010. The argument seems to boil down to the wealthy “haves” not wanting in any way to fund the “have nots” that they might crawl from the bottom rung of society; aspire to more than survival; to have dignity.

So, to the crux of my argument. As I see it social provision falls into three tiers:

  • Mandatory – full provision
    Non-optional services we should all be entitled to that are fully funded by tax and free at the point of delivery.
    eg: Non-lifestyle healthcare, education fees upto school leaving age, access to public toilets
  • Mandatory – infrastructure provision
    Non-optional services we should all be entitled to that where a basic universal requirement is funded by tax and then consumers are charged on the basis of personal usage/consumption
    eg: Water, Electricity, Phone, Transport infrastructures. (Your tax pays for the roads. You personally fund your choice of transport)
  • Personal choice
    Optional services we can take or leave but must fully fund ourselves.
    eg: Sky TV, subscription to Viz comic, Breast implants (I can see a couple of arguments for funding this through tax…)

In summary any basic common requirement for our civilised communal existence whether a “complete” service or an enabling component of “infrastructure” should surely be paid for up front by tax. The real focus should be on where we draw the lines between these three tiers – it is this that should form the basis of public debate and not the side show issues the political parties would rather have distracted us with. Much easier to respond to the symptoms of a problem (eg: a one-off tax on bankers bonuses) than deal with the underlying issue (eg: the absence of any meaningful controls within the banking sector).

Toilets are non-optional. We all need to use them (apart from Noel Edmunds). Are we as a society saying that only people with money (however little) can use public toilets? Are we saying that only people with the right change can use public toilets? That is what the local authorities are inferring – is this their official guidance? Are they seriously telling people they should pop into pubs/cafes/shops and use the facilities there and if so what do those businesses have to say? Are we meant to “hold on” – pregnant women, small children, elderly people or even (dare I say it) healthy young males, and if so is this advice sanctioned by the British Medical Association? I’m guessing the City Council wouldn’t tolerate hordes of people using the Derwent as a means of relief, so which of the aforementioned options are they recommending?

Likely response from local businesses
Likely response from local businesses

Yes it costs money to provide a public convenience and yes we expect to pay for it. But let’s pay equally, fairly and up front via our taxes. Let’s afford all of our citizens the dignity they deserve and regulate our civic affairs with a little bit of class. This is not an optional service in the same way that brakes are not optional when you buy a car. Yes, people may have less disincentive to use the toilets for drug taking, vandalism, etc – but that’s a separate problem to be addressed on its own merits. We don’t ban young people from walking the streets with mobile phones just because they may be more vulnerable to mugging. The Daily Mail will no doubt come around to this suggestion soon.

Yung pEpul init, wot doin grafiti. No respec. Sawt it out daily mail – bang us 2 rites bro

When all’s said and done the current debate may just be about public conveniences but dig a little deeper and what’s at stake are the values we are demanding from those that administer our public affairs. These are the same values that determine whether or not your children go to a disfunctional school, whether your local hospital is clean or whether private organisations are given free reign to charge whatever they please for essential fuels.

I know people have different opinions on this matter but there is one thing we can all agree on – we can’t trust local or national authorities with their vested political and personal interests to look after our needs with impartiality.

Not a very supermarket

State of the nation: a world credit crunch leaves no corner of industry untouched. Every business is feeling the squeeze. The retail sector is a battleground with stores desperate just to hold onto market share and ride out the storm.

With one remarkable exception: Business analysts are flocking to Sainsburies at Kingsway in Derby to try and understand how they are able to successfuly operate in a way that defies commercial logic. They observe the following:

  • Far too few trolleys which are rarely returned to bays near the store entrance. Shoppers have walk to all four corners of the carpark in all weathers to find a trolley so they can get on with the business of shopping.
  • Customers arriving on foot, of which there are many, must negotiate the relentless traffic flow without the aid of any pedestrian crossing.
  • Once in the store there are always missing mainstream stock items. Which rare & exotic grocery will be missing this week? Will it be onions, apples or maybe carrots?
  • Every few weeks whole sections will be entirely absent. Sorry, no fresh fish counter today. Or perhaps the chiller units are out of order so there will be no meat.
  • Sometimes when stock is regrettably available the store will move sections around just to make it harder to find what you want. “I say, soup’s selling well – lets move it a few aisles away for no reason so people can’t find it any more.”
  • Finally, why not alienate the people who have stuck with this farce as far as the till by charging the wrong amount? Labelled 2 for 1 on the shelf? Not at the till. Reduced item? To you – full price. In one case I was asked to pay £47 for 6 items in a basket by an unblinking checkout girl. I had to point out that this couldn’t be right and it took several minutes to recalculate the bill as less than a tenner. No apology or reason of course.

    Rival groups are hoping to understand this marketing approach so they too can operate with impunity and save costs on management, staffing and facilities.

Fuel for thought

Get this. My dual gas/electric energy supplier has been sending me bills based on estimates because… well that’s another story of post-privitisation incompetence. I thought I would do their job for them and phone through with actual meter readings, as prompted by my latest bill, which implored me to phone through a reading to ensure accurate billing.

When I told them my actual readings they told me they would only be able to use these readings “for information” and not to adjust my bill ?!?!?!?!?!?!? In order for them to adjust my bill based on the readings they need to be taken within 2 weeks of a billing date. When I then asked exactly what “for information” actually meant they uhm’d and ah’d before realising that their customer training hadn’t provided them with a scripted bluff for this question. I suggested that “for information” meant that they would do precisely nothing in response to my phone call and the customer service operative was reluctantly forced to agree.

It’s a good job there isn’t an open market for energy supply or I might just look for a less clueless supplier.

Oh, hang on a second…