Thursday, 28 April 2011

Mapping pro-Putin and pro-Medvedev Russia

Will Putin or Medvedev contest next year's presidential election in Russia?  The answer is by no means certain.  Everything either man does at the moment is interpreted as pre-campaign manoeuvring.

To that end the New Times has sketched up an intriguing map showing pro Putin and pro Medvedev regions of Russia.  It's all rather conjectural, but the speculation is rather fun.

It scores it 28 solid Putin regions to 14 for Medvedev.   The remaining 41 regions are dominated by neither man.    It must be said that the stats aren't based so much on voter intention as the administrative subtleties in each region.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Unionist Lite - thanks for the memories.

I was shocked to check the blog A Pint of Unionist Lite this afternoon and discover that O'Neill is shutting down shop.  It's a sad day for the unionist blogosphere.  UL pre-existed this blog and it was one of the first politics sites, after Slugger, which I began to read regularly.  I've also greatly enjoyed collaborating with O'Neill over the years and must thank him for all the help and encouragement.  Let's hope he reconsiders, but if not, goodbye Unionist Lite and thanks for the memories.  A great blog and a great blogger.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Dima lets his hair down.

A defining image of 1990s Russia was President Yeltsin's vodka fuelled dancing and conducting.  It was interpreted by many Russians as a national humiliation.

That didn't deter Dmitry Medvedev from 'shimmying' along to the song 'American Boy', which Google insists is performed by a singer called Estelle.

This being 2011, you don't have to be on a stage for cringey stuff to be relayed to the world.  The President's dance was captured on mobile phone and it's fast becoming a Youtube classic.

Ignore the more demonstrative guy in the foreground  - Dima is the little guy in the grey suit.

Much needed down time for Medvedev.  Russia faces elections to the State Duma in December.  They'll act as a barometer for the 2012 presidential poll.  Whether the current incumbent even stands in that election, we must wait and see.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Alternative Vote doesn't have the X Factor

It appears that the AV campaign is losing momentum, but there's still a danger that apathy could foist a voting system upon us for which there is precious little popular enthusiasm.  In today's News Letter I argue the case against AV and (I'd imagine) show up my woeful ignorance of popular TV talent shows!

UNLIKE a majority of the population I don’t watch X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. Though I’m led to believe the finals of these shows follow a time-honoured principle. In my opinion it’s rather a good one. 
As I understand it, the viewers vote for their favourite act, all the votes are totalled and the performer who tops the poll is declared the winner. As simple as that. It’s a highly effective voting system: it gets the job done and, most importantly, it’s fair. 
In this case, what works for light entertainment also works for politics. In the UK we use the First Past The Post (FPTP) system to decide Westminster elections. At the House of Commons each constituency is represented by just one member of parliament. So, when it comes to polling time, each elector casts a single vote for their preferred candidate and the person who claims most votes wins. 
It mightn’t be very complicated, it mightn’t offer much for political anoraks to get their teeth into, but it works tremendously well. And it takes a particularly perverse brand of logic to conclude that the current system is anything other than scrupulously fair. 
Still, that’s what the proponents of Alternative Vote (AV) must attempt to prove in the run up to May’s referendum on Westminster election reform. 
We’ve got some experience of AV in Northern Ireland, where it operates in council and assembly by-elections. Effectively it’s the unloved cousin of Proportional Representation, allowing the voter to vote on down the ballot paper, rather than simply mark an X against his or her favourite candidate. 
In multi-seat constituencies, where more than one winner is declared, that makes a certain amount of sense. In a single seat constituency it means that all the votes are counted and, unless someone has garnered at least 50 per cent of the total, the bottom candidate is eliminated. The second preference in all the ballots that were cast for the loser are then distributed among the remaining contenders. The process continues until the 50 per cent ceiling is breached and a winner can be declared. 
The pro-AV lobby maintains that their system ensures everyone’s voice is heard at the ballot box. Actually it ensures that some people’s voices are heard more often than others and it’s likely to be the people with marginal or extreme views whose voices are heard most of all. 
For much of the 20th century pro-democracy campaigners demanded ‘one person, one vote’. Under AV, if you plump for the most popular candidate you still get one vote. In contrast, in Great Britain, an extremist who casts their first choice for the BNP is likely to have their vote counted and recounted a number of times. In Northern Ireland it could be a dissident republican who gets a second, third or fourth opportunity to have their say. 
Why on earth should one person’s fifth choice carry as much weight as another person’s first choice? It’s patently absurd and it will result in candidates who have come second or third in the poll overtaking more popular rivals and taking seats in parliament. 
There are plenty of proportional voting systems in the world, the Northern Ireland Assembly being just one example, but only three countries use AV: Fiji, Australia and Papua New Guinea. That statistic cuts to the heart of the matter - AV imposes a proportional voting mechanism on an un-proportional parliamentary system. 
Even its current proponents aren’t genuine enthusiasts. They see it as a transitional arrangement on the way to full PR. Unfortunately, if they get their way, we’ll have to live with a system which no-one wants. There is a debate to be had about the merits of PR as against FPTP, but AV is nobody’s baby. 
The Liberal Democrat, Roy Jenkins, assessed AV in a report for Tony Blair’s government back in 1998. He was forced to acknowledge that it is “even less proportional” than the current Westminster system. He also conceded that it could make the outcome of elections “dangerously unpredictable”. Now his party mates advocate AV as a great advance for the UK’s constitution. 
It’s not a great advance. AV tinkers needlessly with a system which works perfectly well already. It’s a brainchild of politicians, for which there is no real demand. The big danger is that people won’t be sufficiently motivated to get out and vote against it, simply because they see only an obscure debate taking place around an obscure new election method. 
But the referendum does matter, because the clarity and fairness of our electoral system is at risk. No amount of warped logic can win the day for AV but apathy just might.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Slow blogging

Forgive the relative silence over the past few days.  I've taken on some new commitments which are mitigating against frequent posts.  Normal(ish) service will hopefully be resumed sooner rather than later.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Slick or bland? The DUP's party promo.

The events in Omagh on Saturday rather put petty party-political squabbles into perspective.  Still, our electoral wheels turn, regardless of the futile, nihilistic violence which subsists at the edges of our society.

Over at Slugger, Mick preview’s the DUP’s 2011 election broadcast.  Like any party promo it’s ripe for parody.  DR points out the resemblance to a DIY store advert and the puzzling detail that its two stars are apparently getting up at 3 minutes past eight in the evening, in order to do a spot of decorating.

These quibbles aside, no-one would deny that it’s a slick production but in my opinion it’s also a trifle bland.  There’s the predictable ’unionist unity’ sting in the tail but in keeping with the party’s ’modern’ image it‘s a little coy.  More “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” than “smash Sinn Féin”.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

When the customer doesn't always know best.

In a News Letter column I argue that health can't be treated in the same way as other products and services if it is provided for free.

Whichever way you spin it, choosing a treatment from a hospital is not the same as choosing a product from a shop. If healthcare is just another part of the market, it is one sphere where the customer is not always right. No-one wants a return to the days of overbearing, uncommunicative doctors, but the philosophy of patient choice can be taken too far, particularly when the taxpayer picks up the tab. 
A patient led service, where GPs are under pressure to provide the treatments people want, rather than those that they need, has its pitfalls. Thanks to the internet, we already have a whole generation prepared to second guess the advice of doctors, on the basis of their own spurious researches. 
The NHS currently has some protection against the pressure of unscientific opinion and popular campaigning. The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), among other tasks, assesses whether drugs are cost effective or not. Its role as an arbiter could be undermined if consortia are under pressure to provide, for example, costly cancer medication which may add just a few weeks to a terminally ill patient’s life. 
There are already treatments and services, like homeopathy or female sterilisation, which the NHS offers against the prevailing wisdom of doctors, simply because the public demands them. 
The government must be careful that its policies don’t encourage more waste, when the goal should be to eliminate services whose value is doubtful. 
Patients must be properly informed about their healthcare choices, but it’s also important that doctors and the NHS are independent enough to withstand the latest fads and free to exercise their judgement on which treatments are worthwhile.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Duke Snook-em! Ulster music star "Freewheels" into pro snooker.

Ken Doherty - like a Duke without dreadlocks.
A bit of a curious story this morning.  The Belfast based singer, Duke Special, is to forsake his piano for the green baize.  The forty year old, whose real name is Peter Wilson, has joined the professional snooker circuit.

"I've long been an enthusiast for the game", said Wilson, "and over the past few months music has become less and less fun.  It's time to try something new".

The performer, best known for his album Songs From the Deep Forest and his energetic stage shows, is not new to snooker.  He was crowned Northern Ireland junior champion in 1988 and is still a dab hand with the cue.

"My top break in competitive matches is 135", confirmed the star from Dundonald, "and I regularly get 147s in practice".  The Duke hasn't ruled out a return to music however, "this is a change in direction, and I'm giving up music for a while, but not necessarily for good".

Watch out Mark Allen and Ronnie O'Sullivan!