Daily Archives: 9 August 2009

Airbrushing: will Jo Swinson blind us with science?

Having been away for a week, I didn’t comment on the proposals to ban the airbrushing of models which will be debated at the Lib Dem conference next month.

The real problem about commenting on this is that we have yet to see the full proposals. The Lib Dem blogosphere, particularly the Libertarians, love to get terribly exercised at the prospect of banning things. It’s just not liberal! we are constantly reminded, or more precisely, it is Fundamentally Illiberal (complete with scary looking capitalisation). Personally however, I tend to take a more evidence-based approach before banging on about John fucking Mill (I think the Lib Dems should produce their own God Trumps inspired Liberal Trumps, with the Mill card always winning. It would save a lot of time). Philosophy is always reached for, psychology or sociology almost never. It is as if the last 100 years never happened. More to the point, it is as if dualism was never critiqued. Frankly, if we did all live in a state of complete seperation of mind and body, the libertarians would have a point. The fact that time and again we learn that environmental factors affect behaviour is a problem they have never come to terms with.

With all that said, I remain somewhat sceptical of this proposed policy. What exactly are we going to ban, for example? When Jo Swinson talks about “air brushing” is she talking literally or figuratively? If the idea is some tightening up of existing advertising guidelines, including a general prohibition against promoting an ideal body image to children, then I would look a lot more favourably to it it than a blanket ban on “airbrushing.” There is a real danger of confusing the medium for the message here. Is it really okay to promote images of “perfect” bodies so long as they are produced with the use of lighting and lenses rather than Photoshop?

The proposed rules about advertising aimed at adults sound, if anything, more difficult to regulate. If augmentation is okay so long as it is admitted to, how big will the disclaimer have to be? 8-point text where you won’t notice? A fag packet-proportioned 50%? Will it just be beauty products targeted or all advertising? Will film posters, Photoshopped to within an inch of their lives, have to carry the same disclaimers?

But fundamentally, where is the evidence behind any of this? Thus far, the only statistic I’ve seen anywhere is a 47% increase in under-18s admitted to hospital for anorexia or bulimia treatment. That is clearly bad, but is it a spike or a trend? And what evidence is there that such a ban would change behaviour?

In the case of restrictions on smoking there was a lot of evidence produced, over decades. You might quibble about some of it. You might argue that we went too far, or that we acted too slowly. But the debate was evidence-led. What I haven’t seen thus far is anything to suggest that a ban like this would achieve anything. What would an airbrushing ban achieve that won’t be immediately be undone by all those Barbies, Bratz and Disney Princesses? You don’t need photographs to sell fantasy to children (or indeed anyone).

I’m not against bans in principle. If a judicious ban or restriction here and there can help people exercise their own personal judgement instead of being influenced by a bombardment of propaganda, then in principle it is the only liberal thing to do. But it has to be evidence-based and in most cases I’m not convinced there really is that much evidence out there at the moment. I have yet to be convinced that the new Lib Dem policy paper is going to make a case for restricting “airbrushing” – here’s hoping that it contains, to quote the immortal words of Jennifer Aniston, a pretty damn meaty “science bit.”

More thought on primaries – and London Mayors

Now that the Tory’s primary in Totnes is over, I thought I’d add a couple of extra thoughts following my previous post on the subject.

The first is that, following the discovery that the candidates each had an expenses limit of £200, it is hard to see how this was much of a test at all. Despite the fact that “hundreds” of people are reported to have attended the hustings, the fact that a total of 16,000 people voted suggests that this was little more than a beauty contest. I’m all for spending limits, but this was clearly ridiculous. What’s more, it may yet be something the Tories end up rueing as Sarah Wollaston is almost entirely untested as a campaigner. The process has given her a massive boost, but I wouldn’t write off the Totness Lib Dems just yet.

Secondly, it is hard to see where the Tories go from here. Despite the fact that they have almost 200 selections still to run before the general election, no-one is calling for it to run open primaries in even a majority of them. At a cost of £8 million for 200 contests, it is not surprising. Until the advocates of this system start talking about how they propose paying for it, we can fairly safely ignore them.

There has been an interesting ripple in the Labour Party following this. Miliband is now proposing a system of closed primaries (i.e. open to supporters only). David Lammy has called for something similar to be used for the selection of Labour’s next London Mayoral candidate (the Standard claims that this is an “explosive intervention” which may be over-egging it just a teensy bit). Cynics are already dismissing this as Lammy throwing his hat into the ring. If this is the case, it is somewhat misguided – if Livingstone is determined to restand who on earth could beat him in an open contest?

Since the post is unlikely to be disappearing any time soon, the London Mayor is a position that might well benefit from all the parties holding a more open candidate selection process. As Lammy says, the system used by the Tories to select Boris was a bit of a disaster, barely increasing participation at all. But if the barriers were lowered, it could be a very healthy contest.

For the Lib Dems, opening out the process would be especially interesting because the party’s existing selectorate is currently concentrated in the South and the West of London. The rest of us get ignored. I hear these reports of Richmond Lib Dems getting harrangued by candidates. Speaking as a Barnet member: if only.

But of course there is the cost. I don’t see the party being able to afford a Totnes-style open primary any time soon. But that is no reason to do nothing. I would propose the following:

  • Combine the contest for Mayor with the contests for London Assembly candidates.
  • Instead of counting London as one big college, hold seperate contests in each London Assembly constituency. There are 14 of these. For the Mayor and the Assembly “top up” seats. Count the votes so that each contituency’s votes are the same, or at least proportional to voting size (the current system of one-member-one-vote means that the votes in the South West eclipse the rest of the city).
  • Roll out a series of caucuses in each constituency. Caucuses should be open to anyone on the electoral roll of that constituency. For various reasons it is probably impractical to hold all caucuses at the same time. Instead, caucuses should be held according to how many members are in each constituency, from the lowest upwards. That way, candidates will have an incentive to campaign in areas where the party is least strong and thus gain a “snowball effect.”
  • Caucuses should not be combined with hustings but each constituency should be free to hold one or more hustings as they wish.
  • A final rule: the winning mayoral candidate should automatically be on the party’s list of top up Assembly candidates. Their position on the list should depend on how many top ups were elected in the previous election. So in 2012 the Mayoral candidate would be placed fourth. That way, the Mayoral candidate will still have an incentive to shore up the party vote.

I wouldn’t guarantee that a system like that would greatly increase participation. What it would do however is increase participation in areas where we currently have very little, and ensure that our Mayoral and Assembly candidates better represent the whole of London. To me, that is a very real incentive to open out the candidate selection process. With supporters of open primaries apparently content to limit them to marginal seats, they don’t appear to be able to say the same thing.

Either way, the last couple of Lib Dem London Mayoral campaigns have been such basket cases we can not only afford to experiment but it is incumbant on us to do so.