Fringe party crashes election debate in Hornsey

I can safely say I just got home from one of the most bizarre electoral hustings I’ve ever been to.

Tonight’s debate, hosted by Horsney Parish Church and moderated by Father Bruce Batstone, invited candidates from the five largest parties running in my constituency, Hornsey and Wood Green:

  • Suhail Rahuja from the Conservative Party
  • Gordon Peters from the Green Party
  • Catherine West from the Labour Party
  • Lynne Featherstone from the Liberal Democrats (incumbent)
  • Clive Morrison from UK Independence Party


The other three candidates were invited to submit questions for the debate.

That’s not what happened though.

Continue reading Fringe party crashes election debate in Hornsey

Humanists discuss political engagement

Last night, I attended a discussion hosted by the pan London Humanist group on what new opportunities there are for greater democratic engagement following the Scottish referendum on independence. It featured Ian Scott and Gary McLelland from the Humanist Society of Scotland (Ian is Acting Chief Executive and voted yes in the referendum, Gary is the Policy & Public Affairs Officer and campaigned for no), Andrew Copson (Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association), Will Brett (Head of Campaiggns at the Electoral Reform Society) and Alex Runswick (Chief Executive of Unloock Democracy). Anoosh Chakelin (Deputy Editor of New Statesman) stepped in as the chair for the evening.

It was an interesting discussion despite being, as Alex said, “in danger of everyone agreeing with one another.” That agreement included:

  1. Electoral reform
  2. Lowering the voting age to 16
  3. A citizen-led constitutional convention for the UK

While some non-humanists see tradition as a way to keep society structured, the humanists on the panel agreed that we should critically evaluate our political structures and apply a more rational design, based on evidence and tested against other countries. Humanism is about rejecting dogmas and putting the state in service of the individual. We should ask what we can do to enhance one another’s lives.

They also worried about some of the bitter nationalism seen during the referendum debate. Andrew Copson reminding us that Bertrand Russell frequently spoke out against nationalism, saying that it offered simple silver bullet solutions to all of life’s problems (like Scottish Independence or leaving the EU). Nevertheless, the speakers were optimistic about the engagement generated by the referendum.

The most disagreement in the night came from the questions posed by some members of the audience. One worried that we are just “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” by not dealing with the problem of big business’ influence on politics. Another said we should have compulsory voting – to which Gary said he was against anything compulsory as a humanist and Alex pointed out that compulsory voting in Australia had failed to drive up turnout rates at the local level (where it isn’t compulsory). Another questioner asked how you keep small parties out of government in in proportional representation, and he pointed to Israel where (in his words) the Jewish far right has wielded so much influence their airlines can’t even fly 7 days a week – the answer is given by countries across Europe which have threshold levels before a party gains any seats.

The bet comment of the evening though has to go to Andrew Copson, who said the venue, the Palace of Westminster, “was the least democratic building in the Western world, architecturally.” A point I tried to illustrate recently.

#NoMoreGames… but what instead?

I passed a billboard today advertising the British Medical Association (BMA)’s new media campaign. It calls for all political parties to stop playing games with the NHS.

I’ll give them credit – it’s catchy and many people (myself included at times) think politicians too often use promises of reform to the healthcare system as a way to score cheap points. But what does #NoMoreGames actually mean?

We should want, and expect, politicians to lay out their plans for what they’d do differently if elected. It’d be one thing if the BMA were campaigning for specific pledges but instead they’re headline is a shallow complaint that politicians are campaigning too much.

Granted, the BMA expands a bit on their website about what they’d want to see, but overall the message is as shallow as they’re blaming politicians for.

I really don’t see what they’re hoping to accomplish.

But at least there’s already a good theme song for their campaign.

Humanist Hustings–Europe Votes 2014

Moving to London (details eventually coming) has allowed me to attend more great events. Last night, I attended the British Humanist Association’s Humanist Hustings all-candidates forum for the upcoming European Parliamentary Elections. The event was held in Conway Hall, London’s freethought home.

To my mind, no humanist group in Canada has ever hosted a similar event, but the first major difference here was how, in their opening speeches, nearly every candidate identified as either being a member of the BHA or an atheist. This was especially surprising for some as all major parties, including the Tories and UKIP, were in attendance.

I live tweeted the event, so you can find my reactions under #HHEP14. I thought I’d just post some additional thoughts here.

First, the strongest speaker was, by far, UKIP candidate Tony Brown. Faced with a largely antagonistic audience, Brown made his best case to connect with the audience, discussing his upbringing in an “atheist family” and noting his admiration for Richard Dawkins. He repeatedly tried to draw a link between the EU, and particularly the large European People’s Party (representing numerous Christian Democrat parties), and the Catholic Church. It was a fairly novel argument and could appeal to a nationalistic secularist. Nevertheless, his line that “I’m not a climate change denier, the climate has always been changing” and subsequent denial of man-made climate change was met with heckles.

The other stand-out speaker was Caroline Allen of the Green Party. Her smartest line was to admit that the Green’s science policy had been pretty weak in the past but that they’ve done a lot of work on it and people should give it another look (I will, the link is here). Unfortunately, she lost some credit on this front (in my mind) by maintaining the party line against fracking and GMOs.

Otherwise, the Liberal Democrat, Matt J McLaren, and Tory, Caroline Attfield, both sounded a bit nervous, although McLaren caught his stride near the end and made a strong argument about secularism as a core Lib-Dem value. Attfield, meanwhile, went off policy on a couple points, suggesting that Europe could play a bigger role on security issues (she clarified that she meant foreign policy when probed) and that the role of the Church of England is shrinking.

Dr Louise Irvine of the National Health Action Party made a spirited defense of the NHS and represented her single issue party well. On other issues, she sided between Labour and the Lib Dems (ironically also where she was seated).

Finally, Mary Honeyball, representing Labour and the only sitting MEP at the debate, gave a decent defense of her party, but I got the sense after that she didn’t really inspire anyone. Whether she was aiming to play it safe or not, I think there was a missed opportunity by Honeyball.

My question, prefaced with a thanks to the parties that voted for recent clinical trial regulations (#AllTrials), was on how the candidates would involve evidence in their decision making in the future. Each gave a relatively predictable answer (evidence is widely seen as a good thing), with Dr Irvine mentioning the value of publishing all clinical trials and Brown admitting that the UKIP vote against the regulation was about keeping the policy within the UK, rather than being personally against the idea.

I realised later I should have asked if the candidates would publicly change their mind if evidence proved them wrong. When I asked this to Brown after, he pointed out that Nigel Farage has repeatedly done just that, in particular, noting where his party has been far off.

After the event, I went for a couple drinks and finally managed to meet Andrew Copson, the BHA’s Chief Executive, who very expertly chaired the evening.

UK has “Systemic Discrimination” against freethinkers

Indi at Canadian Atheist brought the IHEU’s 2013 Freedom of Thought Report to my attention and has already done a brilliant summary of the issues facing Canada. Very shortly he’ll also be posting a commentary on the broader report.

I encourage you to download and read the entire 244 page report online and support your local IHEU Affiliate.

I thought though, given my current country of residence, that I’d focus on the United Kingdom’s status, which coincidentally to Canada is Systemic Discrimination.

Continue reading UK has “Systemic Discrimination” against freethinkers

It’s time for elected local education authorities in Britain

There is a lot to learn coming from Canada about the complicated education system serving England and Wales.

Differences abound from the widespread use of uniforms, to near-universal behavioural challenges, to the fact students don’t earn diplomas but are expected to either take the right classes to go to college (a step toward university) or just drift off into the workforce. There is also an intense effort by the government to oversee every aspect of the system through a convoluted merit-pay system and the teacher’s unions were debilitated by Margaret Thatcher.

Beyond all of that though, England has never had elected school boards – or Local Education Authorities as they’re called here. Basically, the local municipal or city council just appoints a few bureaucrats to run the schools.

This naturally raises the question: Are appointed or elected school boards more effective?

Continue reading It’s time for elected local education authorities in Britain

Today’s required readings on revolution

Following his manifesto for a revolution, Russell Brand received ample praise and criticism, which he explores in a piece in yesterday’s Guardian.

I think he makes a lot of good points in there, key among them is an admission of his own potential faults and biases:

One thing I’ve learned and was surprised by is that I may suffer from the ol’ sexism. I can only assume I have an unaddressed cultural hangover, like my adorable Nan who had a heart that shone like a pearl but was, let’s face it, a bit racist. I don’t want to be a sexist so I’m trying my best to check meself before I wreck meself.

Watching people receive criticism online, I’ve come to expect the double-down defence, where rather than stop and consider that there may be some legitimacy to the complaints, the author denies, obfuscates, and attacks to defend himself (and it’s typically him). So II was actually really surprised to see this admission in Brand’s writing.

Continue reading Today’s required readings on revolution

Same old politics or revolution?

Progressives are buzzing after British comedian-turned-revolutionary Russell Brand released his revolutionary manifesto as guest editor of the latest issue of New Statesman and went on an anti-capitalist rant when interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight.

The editorial is worth reading in its entirety. It wanders quite a bit but combined with the interview identify the core complaint that galvanized the support behind the 2011 London Riots, the Quebec protests, and the Occupy Movement: The system is broken and it won’t be fixed from within.

Continue reading Same old politics or revolution?