Monthly Archives: August 2009

Real Women and Policy

The Lib Dem womens’ policy paper has now been published so the ‘airbrushing’ debate can now move away from what is being said in the media and onto what the policy paper actually says.

The paper has a total of 40 policy proposals, many of which are already policy. The two that have garnered media attention are:

21. Protect children from body image pressure by preventing the use of altered and enhanced images in advertising aimed at under 16s, through changes to Advertising Standards Authority rules. We would work with industry regulators and professionals to find ways to ensure that children have access to more realistic portrayals of women (and men) in advertising

22. Help women make informed choices by requiring adverts to clearly indicate the extent to which digital retouching technology has been used to create overly perfected and unrealistic images of women

The first thing that should be noted is that nowhere do the words “airbrushing”, “Photoshop” or “ban” appear. The clauses are much less prescriptive than last week’s hype might have lead us to believe.

I still have two significant problems with these clauses however. Firstly, the paper provides no evidence whatsoever to convince us that this would be an effective remedy. Not even a footnote (there are footnotes and anecdotes for other proposals).

Secondly, it fails to explain why advertising is being singled out here when the magazines that such adverts are to appear in are not. There does not currently exist a regulatory body to control what can appear on the front page of magazines. All the time they continue to pump out idealised images of women (and they do that because it sells) then why get worried about what appears on page 92?

When you break it down it appears like a fairly meaningless sop. Having read the paper I don’t think it gets to the heart of the problem at all. As such, I fear that this is selling short the very women and girls that the paper is seeking to protect.

For completeness, I should point out here that the paper does have a number of other proposals when it comes to body image:

23. Encourage the British Fashion Council and design schools to ensure students are taught and judged on their ability to cut to a range of sizes and body types
24. The fashion industry should implement all the recommendations in the Model Health Inquiry, including introducing model health certificates for London Fashion Week
25. Require cosmetic surgery advertising and literature to give surgery success rates by collecting and publishing Patient Reported Outcome Measures. This would assess whether the surgery had the desired effects
26. Ensure age-appropriate modules on body image, health and wellbeing, and media literacy are taught in schools

23 and 24 are surely unobjectionable as they are simply urging best practice and not even regulatory. For non-libertarians, 25 seems a pretty common sense measure, aimed at providing people with useful information. 26 is all well and good, but I have to say I question the wisdom of adding to the already long list of things we make teachers cover in schools; I thought we were demanding a bonfire of the curriculum as recently as March this year? Either way, I am sceptical how a lesson one afternoon in school is going to achieve much.

In short, I can’t help but feel this is just scratching the surface of what is a much more complex issue.

Over at Liberal Conspiracy, Unity has just written this:

[The main problem the Green Party faces is] it’s open and democratic approach to policy-making in which any member can put forward a policy, call for vote and get the policy accepted into the party’s manifesto if it prove popular with members too readily militates against evidence-based approaches to policy making, particularly in a party that typically attracts considerably more than its fair share of proponents of pseudoscience.

He’s writing about the Green’s anti-science policies but before we get to smug about their often loony ideas we should pause for thought about how the Lib Dems are often subject to the same forces. I don’t agree with Unity and Martin Robbins that the problem is democratic policy making processes; Labour has torn up its democratic structures but its policies are if anything less evidence-based than the Lib Dems’. But people need to be wary of voting at party conference in favour of “nice things” and demand a more rigorous approach. It is notable that the party’s Federal Policy Committee has failed to demand this itself in this instance. Perhaps this is a good example of how the policy paper model, imposed during the merger period by the SDP wing, doesn’t particularly work very well. Certainly the rules about policy papers having to have specific word limits works against a more evidence-based approach.

Tears for Blears

You can tell it is a slow news day when the BBC decide that a bit of vandalism counts as major national news.

I also have to admit to a bit of sympathy for Hazel Blears. Whichever way you add it up, she is a victim here and doesn’t deserve being paraded on public display in the way that the BBC and the Manchester Evening News have done here. It is neither big nor clever to broadcast that mobile phone footage.

However, my sympathy ran out as soon as I read her statement:

This was an act of anti-social behaviour by some youths, the same kind of anti-social behaviour unfortunately many of my constituents have to put up with.

No it isn’t. It is criminal behaviour. Labour introduced the concept of anti-social behaviour in the run up to the 1997 general election. Before then, it was was a psychiatric term with a precise and narrow definition.

These days it can mean absolutely anything, from not giving up your seat on a bus to cold blooded murder. Ironically, it can even be made to refer to parking on a double-yellow line – something that Blears can clearly be seen to have done. It is a sad testament to Labour’s 12 years in office that senior politicians like Blears feel they can no longer call a spade a shovel and label this a “crime.” Instead they have to resort to this essentially meaningless jargon. This pretty much sums up the failure of Blears’ career as a Blairite Ultra for me.

This obsession with anti-social behaviour has not only lead to an increasing number of people being locked up for no good reason but seems to have left us feeling less safe than ever before. It is a categorical failure. The best thing that could happen after the 2010 general election is for this concept to be buried once and for all and for us to stop criminalising basic naughtiness. But can anyone imagine David Cameron doing that (or, to be fair, even Nick Clegg)?

EXCLUSIVE: Charlotte Gore is not a witch – she’s a Nutter!

Okay, it isn’t particularly exclusive, but it does happen to be true. Sort of.

Anyway, now that I have your attention, I just wanted to respond to a couple of points that came out of Charlotte’s post earlier today in response to my post about ‘airbrushing.’ More precisely, I would draw your attention to the comments which for me perfectly outline the key difference between liberalism and libertarianism. As Joe Otten points out, it seems to boil down to whether or not you are a foundationalist (in my more perjorative terminology, I describe libertarianism as ‘religion-like’ but it amounts to the same thing). Although I describe myself as a pragmatist, I don’t mean that in the strict, philosophical sense. My ‘pragmatism’ – as I outlined yesterday – is closer to critical rationalism.

The Devils Kitchen doctrine of “listen [to the evidence] and then ridicule the idiots who proposed it anyway” pretty much sums up libertarianism for me. It emerged in the 17th century and then stayed there. In that sense it is quite profoundly anti-historical. Only a libertarian could brand me a “bansturbator” and demand I get hurled out of the Lib Dems for demanding actual evidence before supporting a ban.

One thing I would take issue with is Charlotte’s claim that at least libertarianism is consistent (unlike liberalism). It isn’t that I disagree that libertaarianism isn’t consistent – it certainly is. But it is just plain wrong to argue that liberals are necessarily any less so. The comments by Joe Otten and Richard Gadsden expose how easy it is to end up in some pretty daft places if you “consistently” apply libertarian principles, no matter how much its exponents might squeal “foul” – that is hardly a strength.

The blogosphere’s obsession with libertarianism isn’t mirrored outside of it at all. It will be interesting to see if it turns out to be just a temporal fad or has some lasting impact, but either way I can’t see it ever breaking out into the mainstream. I suspect that its exponents will ultimately fall into two camps: people who ultimately decide that they can’t hold onto the strict tenets of libertarianism and evolve into liberals, and the ones who end up breaking out the Kool-Aid. I do hope Charlotte finds herself in the former category. Her admission that actual facts do matter to her, and the subsequent disapproval that she elicited suggests there’s hope for her yet.

A Straw poll on primaries

Progress have launched a campaign for Labour to adopt primaries, following on from David Miliband’s Tribune article last week. To mark it, they have quickly whizzed out a short paper by Will Straw (pdf), who I am shocked to discover is now 29 (I have to admit that I still think of him as a horny cannabis-frazzled 17 year old who got stung by a Mirror journo and I’m convinced this happened yesterday). A few brief thoughts on the paper:

  • Will has a positively Jack Straw-esque command for spin. Feeling that he can’t get away with the standard definition of open and closed primaries, he comes up with an option of Labour adopting either semi-open or fully open primaries. In fact, his fully open version is what I recognise as either semi-open or semi-closed system while his semi-open system is closer to a closed primary (Wikipedia has a list of definitions). The arbitrary change in terminology probably has more to do with a concern with not wanting to advocate a system that could be described as “closed” than anything else.
  • Straw appears to approve of what he terms “meaningful electoral reform” but nowhere does he address the objection that both the Labour and Tory hierarchies seem to be shouting about primaries as a distraction from proper electoral reform. The objection that any open list or preferential voting system would do everything that a primary system would do, only more cheaply and inclusively, is not listed as one of the main criticisms of the primary system despite the fact that it is the most compelling.
  • At no point does he address the rather thorny issue of cost, which is surely the biggest single objection to rolling out the system. To be fair, he does refer to ‘cost’ once – when he advocates using online voting. There are very strong reasons to object to online voting (disclaimer: while I agree with ORG when it comes to e-voting, I am somewhat more sanguine than them about e-counting) and we should oppose it for primaries as much as for the elections themselves. Sorry, but there is no way that would be an acceptable way to keep costs down.

Fundamentally, although addressing some internal Labour preoccupations, this paper fails to address the main objections to primaries: why bother when “meaningful” electoral reform does so much more, so much more cheaply; and how will it be paid for. I will give him credit where it’s due however: unlike the Tories, he does at least quite rightly argue that the focus for primaries should not be marginal constituencies where primaries will act as little more than an opportunity to promote the party’s candidate, but in the more moribund seats (Straw defines this as constituencies where the CLP has fewer than 200 members) where primaries most certainly WOULD have a meaningful impact on increasing participation. He’s right: if you are serious about using primaries as a means to democratic renewal that is where you should start.

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.