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Saturday, 30 April 2011

Peter Moss

I met Peter Moss on a handful of occasions over the years and cannot claim to have known him at all well. He was a nice man and a very good writer. The news of his death is an absolute tragedy. My thoughts are with his family and friends, and also with everyone else affected in the same atrocity, in which so many people have been murdered.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Why AV is bad news for Nick Griffin

I liked this piece by Nick Clegg in the Standard about AV. Particularly good on why AV would be bad for the BNP, hence the BNP campaigning for a No vote in the referendum. No electoral system is perfect. Certainly not First Past the Post and certainly not AV. I have voted by post in the referendum and I have voted Yes to AV, because AV is a great improvement on the current system. When we vote in a constituency at a General Election, we are not voting for a party to form a government, we are voting for a candidate to be an MP, and AV is a fairer, more efficient way of doing that. It is fairer because it means that nobody has to try to vote tactically, as people can instead vote first for the candidate that they actually most support, without fear of 'splitting the vote' and 'letting in' their least-favoured option. It is more efficient because it asks voters which candidates they really prefer when forced to choose between them all, rather than only asking voters which one candidate they would ideally choose.

At the moment, under the current system, if Nick Griffin stood as the BNP candidate in Chipping Barnet, I'd vote Liberal Democrat, and that would be that. If Mr Griffin was elected with, say, 30% of the vote, then the other 70% of voters would simply be ignored, even though they were the overwhelming majority, and even though they'd have all voted for candidates other than Mr Griffin. Similar results have happened in local council elections, with BNP councillors elected with  a small share of the vote, despite most people having voted against them.

Under AV, as someone who strongly disagrees with the BNP and its policies, I would use my later preferences to vote for candidates other than Mr Griffin. So, if, in the final round of voting, Mr Griffin was on 30% and the Conservative candidate was on 25%, and I'd given my second or third preference vote to the Conservative candidate, then that preference would be counted and the Conservative candidate would probably beat Mr Griffin, assuming that a lot of people agree with me and have voted along similar lines. What AV does  is to say: "OK, you've voted Lib Dem. If there had been no Lib Dem candidate, and you'd had to choose only between the Conservatives and the BNP, which of the two would you have chosen?"

That is why the BNP is campaigning hard against AV; the BNP wants you to vote No to AV - because they know that AV would make it much harder for a BNP MP to be elected, unless they managed to get more than 50% of the vote, which is most unlikely, as they rarely have that much support (even my suggestion that they would ever get 30% if they ever stood in Chipping Barnet is a highly unlikely hypothesis, as the average BNP candidate only got 3.8% of the vote at the last General Election). Of course, under any electoral system, the BNP can get people elected if enough people vote BNP, but AV is certainly not a system that works to the BNP's advantage - quite the contrary. That's why they are campaigning against it.

Also, George Galloway was elected as the Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005, despite having only got 35.9% of the vote, just ahead of Labour's Oona King on 34%. The people were asked if they wanted Mr Galloway to be their MP, 64.1% of them said "No thank you", but he got elected anyway - how is that democracy? AV would have allowed voters to express a choice between Mr Galloway and Ms King, assuming that all other options had been eliminated - and since that's realistically what was on the table for that election, then that's the question voters should have been asked. Assuming that many voters for the Conservatives, etc, had put Ms King second in preference to Mr Galloway, then Ms King could have been elected - and I think most voters in that seat would have preferred that outcome. Of course, Mr Galloway could still have won under AV, but only if most voters preferred him to Ms King; under the current system he won anyway, despite there being no evidence that most voters (beyond his measly 35.9%) wanted him as their MP in preference to Oona King.

So AV would make it harder for Nick Griffin or George Galloway to become an MP - unless they can actually win a democratic mandate from the majority of those voting, which is highly doubtful. So, if you want fewer people like Mr Griffin or Mr Galloway elected as MPs on a minority vote, then you should be voting Yes to AV. The Supplementary Vote, which is similar to AV, is used to elect the Mayor of London. It means that next year, I shall vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate, while using my second preference to vote for another candidate who is not Ken Livingstone. The last thing I want is for Ken Livingstone to sneak through and be elected Mayor with a minority of the vote, with most people having voted against him. The Supplementary Vote (a preferential voting system, as is AV) allows me to express a preference between Ken Livingstone and the candidate who beat him last time, should I choose to give that other guy my second preference. It gives me the option of saying: "OK, if these are the only two options, which one of them do I choose?".

Of course, the Liberal Democrats might make it through to the final round of two candidates and might even win the election - I certainly hope so. But if that doesn't happen, and if it comes down to a final round between Mr Livingstone and his Conservative opponent, then I am pleased to have a system that allows me to express a specific choice between those two gentlemen. Anyone who opposes Ken Livingstone should be pleased that we have the Supplementary Vote, which makes it easier for his opponents to vote against him - and should support a similar system for elections to the House of Commons by voting Yes to AV.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Food for thought on meat labelling

MEPs have voted to create special labels for "meat from animals slaughtered without stunning", or words to that effect. The law requires all animals to be mechanically pre-stunned. But there is an exemption for kosher and halal slaughter. Kosher slaughter (shechita) prohibits mechanical pre-stunning. Under the rules of shechita, the animal has to be healthy and uninjured at the point of death, and you have to kill it painlessly so that it loses consciousness instantly. Anything else is considered inhumane and so is forbidden under the rules. So religious Jews believe that mechanically pre-stunned meat is not kosher and so they choose not to eat it.

Anyway, the law allows for the kosher slaughter of animals without mechanical pre-stunning. Meat from many parts of these animals is not kosher, so it goes into the general meat market, not the kosher market. And the MEPs want labels on this meat, so that consumers know that it has been slaughtered without having been stunned. But supporters of shechita argue that it has been stunned - it loses consciousness instantly at the moment of death, thanks to the way in which the throat is cut under shechita. So the labels are inaccurate.

Worse still, when you do mechanically pre-stun an animal, the stunning often fails, meaning that the animal dies in prolonged agony from the very gas or electrocution that was supposed to stun it. The law does not require you to stun the animal - it merely requires you to try to stun it! But there is no plan to mention failed stuns on labels - it is only meat produced without an attempt at mechanical stunning that is be labelled. You can club squirrels to death or poison them with warfarin and then sell the meat in London shops (this is actually happening), without any mention on the label of how the animal has been slaughtered. You can attempt to stun a conscious animal by firing a metal bolt into its forehead (with interesting CJD implications when the bolts are re-used), and nobody will be told this on labels. It is only the religious aspect of slaughter that is being singled out for labelling.

Surely, if we are to be fair, we should either label all aspects of how an animal has been slaughtered, or none? To single out only the religious aspect seems perverse and to be motivated, at least in part, by some people's dislike of organised religion. Shechita has been legal in this country for centuries without special labelling and it is not an especially inhumane method of slaughter; some experts argue that it is actually relatively humane. The labelling could make the production of kosher meat unviable in the UK, which is worrying for those of us who care about religious freedom at least as much as we care about animal welfare. I hope that this labelling proposal falls at its next hurdle.

But what, you might ask, about the rights of consumers who don't want to eat meat that has been killed without an attempt at mechanical pre-stunning? That is a respectable question.Well, they can eat organic - all organic meat is from animals that have been mechanically pre-stunned (with or without success). So, if you want to avoid shechita, buy organic. And if you want meat to be labelled with its method of slaughter, then let's label all the meat, with all the methods of slaughter, and not only the shechita meat. Which would be a huge increase in the burden of red tape faced by the food and retail industries, and so strikes me as a daft idea, but if you're going to label one method of slaughter, then label all methods of slaughter.

As my Lib Dem colleague Sarah Ludford MEP put it well:

"I opposed the labelling of kosher and halal meat last June and deplore this new decision of the committee. Singling out religious slaughter is not only unjustified on animal welfare grounds, but risks being discriminatory through stigmatising the practices of Muslim and Jewish communities.
"The assumption that 'secular' slaughter is by definition superior to religious slaughter is simply untrue. Pre-stunning through electrocution or gassing is not necessarily more humane, and the documentation of disgracely sloppy practices has shown great cruelty can take place.
"Meat labelling must avoid prejudice and be comprehensive in scope so that shoppers can understand the implications of all methods of slaughter. It is unjustified to single out the 2 methods inspired by religious tenets. 
"I hope that a vote of all MEPs in a forthcoming European Parliament plenary session will reject the present discriminatory labelling proposal."