A Mad, Bad World

One manifesto promise conspicuously absent from yesterday’s Queen’s Speech was the Conservatives’ pledge to build 200,000 houses a year. Nonetheless, plans to resurrect Right to Buy made the final cut.

Here’s a great letter to the editor from this week’s Romsey Advertiser on the subject. The Advertiser is a local paper (readership of around 17,000) that doesn’t publish its letters online, but I thought it’d be a shame for this one not to live on beyond hard copy.

SIR: Your headline story (May 8) about private landlords being in receipt of housing benefit funds should surprise no one.

The Thatcher government started the sale of council houses to sitting tenants at a discount. These houses were of course owned by us, the community, so our assets were disposed of under the market rate.

After the debts on the houses were paid off, were the surplus monies invested in new houses? No they were not.

Houses changed hands and in some cases ex-council houses returned to the rental market but of course they were in the hands of private landlords. Private landlords found themselves in the market where demand far exceeded the supply. The result of this? Huge increases in the amount of rent that may be levied.

Hard working people, so beloved by politicians, are unable to pay these rentals, so we solve the problem by introducing housing benefit. What a mad, bad world we live in. A community owns a house, the house is sold at below the market price, at some point a buy to let landlord gets the house, the rent that may be charged is more than folk can afford, so we, the community, end up paying through our taxes to subsidise someone to live in a house which sold at below the market price.

Do I understand that someone is proposing to repeat this foolishness by forcing the sale of housing association stock? We are one of the richest countries in the world and it is all a disgrace on all of us that we have failed to provide appropriate housing for all. In the 1950s Harold MacMillan promised to build 300,000 houses a year. He did it. Why can’t we?


Australia in Eurovision? Makes Perfect Sense to Me

Fans of cheesy pop anthems, rejoice. It’s time for another helping of the aural marmite that is the Eurovision Song Contest. Expect the usual crazy costumes and general madness, but this time the organising committee has dropped a right clanger and invited Australia to the party.

As it turns out, the Aussies are absolutely tragic for a bit of Eurovision. Despite being broadcast at 5am Sydney time, the 2014 competition was the most successful to date for Australian broadcaster SBS, drawing in a total audience of 2.7 million.

Sure, it’s “Euro”-vision, and Australia clearly isn’t in Europe. But names can be deceiving. Eligibility for the contest has nothing to do with the EU or geographical location. With countries like Israel and Azerbaijan taking part, that much should be obvious. Rather, it’s for members of the European Broadcasting Union, which includes countries as far afield as Libya, Jordan and Egypt.

Take a look at Eurovision’s founding principles and it’s clear that the competition is more than an excuse to get a bit tipsy and watch the UK publicly embarrass itself as per. Like the European Convention on Human Rights and what’s now the EU, the Eurovision Song Contest was born out the post-war sentiment for tolerance and unity; bringing countries together through song to repair the fractures left by Hitler’s savages.

Amazingly enough, it’s an ethos that’s survived. Last year’s winning entry was sung by a bearded drag queen, and Finland’s offering this time round is a punk rock band that started life in a charity workshop for mentally handicapped adults. Suddenly, the case for including Australia, a country that will bring nothing but enthusiasm, starts to make a lot more sense.

That said, it seems hypocritical to turn a blind eye to some of the countries currently taking part. Given the continued occupation of Ukraine, Russia gets nil points for its human rights record. Israel, another regular competitor, killed more than 2,300 Palestinians in last year’s conflict. While indefensible, these are government sanctioned actions. It’d be an insult to the people in these countries, not the mention a stark generalisation, to suggest they’re all complicit in their government’s decisions, however grotesque.

Refreshingly, Eurovision isn’t about politics. It’s a celebration of peoples and cultures, and quite a successful one at that. Love it or hate it, the tolerance and acceptance of Eurovision is a symbol to be proud of. If Australia wants in, who are we to complain? Just don’t ask me what happens if it wins…


Angry About the Election Result? Here’s What You Need to Do

I can still remember the disappointment I felt in 2010, watching Gordon Brown travel to Buckingham Palace to offer his resignation. That was it. A Conservative-led government loomed. But it was only five years. We just had to make it through, then we could get it right the next time.

That feeling struck again yesterday as the Tories secured an overall majority, and with it another term in government. It wasn’t supposed to happen, but it had. The result was disappointing to say the least, but the problem isn’t really the Tories being back in government. Politics is more granular than that. The real issue is each new law that leaves our country worse off than before.

There are a few on the agenda already. The UK’s membership of the EU is in jeopardy for a start, with David Cameron’s promise of an in-out referendum by 2017 taking a step towards fruition. Theresa May wasted no time yesterday announcing she’d have another go at passing the Snoopers’ Charter, a chilling piece of legislation that would force your internet provider to store large amounts of data about your browsing habits, just in case the government wants to take a look. Then there’s the small matter of the £12 billion worth of welfare cuts in the Conservative manifesto, which a leaked document says could include abolishing statutory maternity pay, denying benefits to disabled people under 25, and increasing the bedroom tax.

If just one of those is enough to make you remotely angry, then this is your wakeup call. It’s time to act. Democracy only comes knocking once every five years, so if you want more influence, you’re going to have to seize it. We can’t boot out the Tories until at least 2020, so let’s be proactive and fight off the dangerous laws one by one. That means keeping a close eye on what Parliament is up to. Sounding the alarm when something’s not right. Hounding your MP to vote down legislation that’ll only cause hurt.

It may seem like a daunting task, but this country has a proud tradition of fighting back, and a great track record of success, too: extending the vote from a small group of wealthy, male landowners to everyone over the age of 18, regardless of gender or income; abolishing the death penalty; legalising same-sex marriage. Let’s build on that, because it’s only by applying real pressure from below that we can hope to change anything.

So find the causes you care about and make some noise, whether that’s fighting for a living wage, protecting vital public services, or fixing our broken electoral system, where 1,454,436 votes gave the SNP 56 seats while 3,881,129 afforded UKIP just one. Join a campaigning organisation, start a petition, get out on the streets. Even if you’ve never done anything like that before, now is the time to start. Because it’s too important not to.


6 Reasons Why I’m Saying “No to Nokes” on 7 May

Some say this is the tightest election in living memory. Others say it’s the dullest. But I’m calling it: it’s the most personality-driven.

Despite some parties’ campaigns hinging on a series of ad hominem attacks, the sensible and perceptive among you will remember what we go into that booth to vote for: policies.

It would be easy to describe the MP for Romsey and Southampton North in glowing terms. Caroline Nokes keeps her expenses in check and has one of the highest response rates to constituents. However, her voting record tells a darker story. Here’s why I’m saying “No to Nokes” on 7 May.

1) She voted to raise the tuition fee cap to £9,000 a year

That’s despite her constituency containing (by my count) six secondary schools* and two university halls of residence. And it could get worse. The Tories recently refused to rule out yet another hike.

2) She voted against same-sex marriage

That was in the bill’s second reading, which was the only one Nokes turned up for. It was a free vote, so she was under no pressure from her party to vote either way.

3) She voted against tackling “rip off” rail fares

In fact, she supported rebuffing a government-imposed cap to increase ticket prices. That’s despite the number of Romsey residents who commute to London and elsewhere daily. And don’t think you’d be better off hopping in the car. Nokes said no to reducing VAT on fuel, too.

4) She voted to hike VAT to 20%

And she’s taken every opportunity to keep it there. It’s the tax that hits the poorest hardest. At the time of the original vote in 2011, the ONS said the poorest fifth spent almost twice as much of their disposable income on VATable goods as the richest fifth.

5) She turned her back on the worst off…

Supporting the bedroom tax, denying certain benefits to cancer patients and the long-term disabled, and capping welfare increases at 1% rather than 2.2%, in line with prices. That’s a cut in real terms.

6) …While giving a helping hand to the rich

Slashing income tax from 50% to 45% for those earning £150,000 or above. Bringing the main rate of corporation tax down from 28% to 21%, well below the OECD average. Voting against taxing bank bonuses — the greed-inducing incentives that plunged this country into recession — which would have been spent creating 100,000 jobs and building 25,000 homes.

Please, let’s not have another five years of this.

* Mountbatten, Romsey, Hampshire Collegiate School, Test Valley, Cantell, and St George Catholic College.

Image credit: The Conservative Party

Cambridge “Drinking Society Initiation” Exam Question

Trigger warning.

Drinking societies have secured themselves an even deeper place in Cambridge culture after an initiation was used as the subject of an exam question on sexual offences.

The question appeared in the 2013 Criminal Law paper which was sat this morning by over 200 students, the majority of whom are in their first year.

Sexual offences have to be examined on in either an essay-style or problem question format, so there will often be a hypothetical scenario set.

The events and the drinking society involved are both fictional.

It reads:

Sandra is President of The Vizards, a College drinking society. She is organising the initiation of new members. After a great deal of alcohol has been drunk, the members of the society form a circle around Billy, Gilbert and Richard who are to be initiated.

(i) Sandra blindfolds Billy and tells him that Tracey will suck his penis. Jonny does so.

(ii) Sandra penetrates Gilbert’s anus with a bottle. Although Gilbert appears to resist, and has to be held down by Tracey, he actually enjoys the experience.

(iii) Sandra waxes Richard’s pubic hair and pulls it off with such force that she removes a significant part of his skin. The wound becomes infected, but Richard is so embarrassed that he does not get medical help and dies.

Consider what offences, if any, have been committed.

Edit: Wow, this blew up. Featured in: BBC NewsThe Times (free version here), The IndependentThe TelegraphThe SunThe MirrorThe Daily MailMetroThe Huffington PostDer SpiegelThe Times of IndiaThe Irish IndependentBusiness InsiderBusiness StandardCambridge NewsThe Cambridge Tab.


Bin The Banknote Boys’ Club

In a few years’ time, everybody on British bank notes who isn’t the Queen will have a willy. My last post triggered a few responses from people who were totally cool with that. Here are some of their arguments, each followed by my response.

1. It’s positive discrimination!

The only criterion for appearing on a bank note is being a meritorious British figure. Therefore, it should be pretty unlikely that every single one of those people is male. It should be even less likely that this is the case in another 20 countries around the world.

Evidently, society favours men.

So it’s not positive discrimination. It’s redressing the current imbalance.

2. There are just way more notable men than women in history!

Easy mistake to make – history is told with a masculine bias. But are we going to celebrate that fact or are we going to put it right?

Oh, and: Jane Austen, Betty Boothroyd, the Brontë sisters, Agatha Christie, Emily Davison, Princess Diana, George Eliot, Millicent Fawcett, Audrey Hepburn, Margot Fonteyn, Rosalind Franklin, Vera Lynn, Edith Nesbit, Emmeline Pankhurst, Beatrix Potter, Jacqueline Du Pre, JK Rowling, Mary Seacole, Margaret Thatcher, Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf.

(Also, for maximum Queen-related confusion, Helen Mirren)

3. It’s only a bloody bank note!

Yes, that’s exactly the point. The more mundane and arbitrary something is, the more it enters our subconscious and changes the way we look at our society. This is especially dangerous for young children who are particularly impressionable. It’s also an outward-looking thing – our currency reflects who Britain thinks are some of the most notable figures in our history.

It’s all terribly perpetual and at some point or other it really needs to stop, so why not now?

4. Churchill was a dude!

Great, slap him on a note, but why replace the only woman? She hasn’t even been there the longest (Darwin has).

5. What about the Queen?

Quite a common one floating around on Twitter, this. The fact of the matter is that, whatever you think of the royal family, the only thing the Queen has done to get herself onto our currency is to be born. It’s a tough life…

6. The designs change all the time anyway!

The turnover for the design on banknotes is roughly one change every 6-7 years. There are five notes in circulation. Assuming that every change after the one in 2016 replaces a woman with a man, the earliest that at least 50% of banknotes would feature women would be in 2034. By that time I will be old. And grumpy.

If you fancy signing the petition, click here.

Ratio of Women to Men on Bank Notes

In 2016, Sir Winston Churchill will be replacing Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note.*

When this happens, the only woman on British currency will be the Queen. This news left me wondering what the proportion of men to women looks like on bank notes around the world. I figured that the ratio would say a little bit about the state of gender equality in each country (though of course it’s not wholly representative – recognition of a few doesn’t mean equal opportunities for everyone).

A few things to bear in mind about the graph:

  • Most of Western Europe doesn’t feature because of the euro.
  • Only notes that are currently in circulation have been considered.
  • People who have appeared on more than one note are only counted once.
  • Reigning monarchs have been excluded because I’m concerned with figured who have been selected to appear on notes because of their own merits.
  • Although there are different notes in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, they’ve been presented together as it’s all the same currency.
  • Being the hardcore statistician I am, my source is Wikipedia. If you notice anything not quite right, do let me know.

* Annoyed? Make your voice heard.

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