Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Books I Read In May

'Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (Memoirs Part 1)' by Thomas Mann
I was careless when buying this book.  I had thought that it was set in the early 20th century and expected a story about a confidence trickster; something a little like 'Berlin Alexanderplatz' (1929) by Alfred Döblin.  However, this book is set in some unnamed years in the late 19th century and is whimsical rather than gritty.  Though the protagonist does steal some jewellery in fact he spends most of his time working as a lift attendant and waiter.  He is then employed by a Luxembourgish marquis to pretend to be him on a world tour so that the marquis can remain in Paris.  The 'Memoirs Part 1' element only appears on one of the interior pages of the book, not on the cover so I was disappointed when the book stopped abruptly when the hero was about to leave Portugal and I have no idea what happens next.  However, I have no desire to find the second part of the book.

Despite Krull having many skills that would make him appropriate to be a criminal, he carries out little crime, so it is a very different book to what I expected.  It is light-hearted.  It is heavily overwritten there are sections which go on for pages simply talking about Krull being assessed for military service, touring the natural history museum in Lisbon and a letter to the marquis's parents.  They go on and on adding nothing to the story.  In many ways this made me feel it was a pastiche of novels of the period that this story covers.  However, being published in 1954, it has sensibilities of the mid-20th century so features more sexual references, including homosexual, than would ever have been seen in a novel published 60 years earlier.  The writing is engaging for the most part, but the book does not really go anywhere and because these are supposed memoirs the character fails to develop.  Overall it was unsatisfactory and it shows me to be more careful in judging a book by what is written on the cover.

'Great Tales of Detection. Nineteen stories chosen by Dorothy L. Sayers', ed. Dorothy L. Sayers
This collection of short crime fiction does what it says in the title.  Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) was herself a leading crime novelist as well as religious work, feminist essays, translations and poetry.  This book was published in 1936. A worthwhile essay at the start reflects over the development of crime fiction which was almost a century old by the time Sayers was writing.  She highlights aspects such as the 'fair play' rule, i.e. that no evidence on which the solution is based has not been signalled to the reader previously, even though deus ex machina remains permitted.  The stories selected reach from 'The Purloined Letter' by Edgar Allen Poe (1844) to 'The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem' by C. Daly King (1935).  I do wonder if the latter was part of the inspiration for the Inspector Clouseau character in the 'Pink Panther' movies.  'Clou' is the French word for nail ['seau' means bucket], the detective in the story, Trevis Tarrant, has a Japanese  manservant called Katoh; Clouseau has a Chinese manservant called Kato/Cato [the spelling changed after the first movie featuring the character].

What becomes apparent from this collection is why the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie written in this time period has remained popular, it is of far better quality than a lot of the competitor books/stories out there.  There are some crime authors featured who remain renowned today, notably Poe, Wilkie Collins, Robert Louis Stevenson, G.K. Chesterton of the Father Brown stories; to a lesser extent Ernest Bramah as well as one each from Christie and Sayers themselves.  The others featured are largely unknown today.  What is largely lacking is any sense of drama even when the reader sees from the perspective of the murderer.  Perhaps at best, 'The Avenging Chance' by Anthony Berkeley or 'Superfluous Murder' by Milward Kennedy could have featured in a collection of 'Tales of the Unexpected' kind collected by Roald Dahl.  However, in large part they are presented as intellectual exercises.

Sayers herself was criticised for having stories too dependent on specialist technical details and characters that were simply a series of stereotypes. The stories from the mid-19th century in the collection even seem like philosophical tracts rather than even the kind of puzzle crime stories that are still familiar, these days categorised as 'cozy' by Amazon.  Many of the stories have very contorted set-ups to allow the 'impossible' murder and weaponry which even when you know it, seems incredible.  There are a few highlights such as Collins portrayal of an arrogant junior detective in 'The Biter Bit' set out as a series of letters between three police detectives.  However, in general this book simply reassures you that you are not missing out much if you stick to Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot/Miss Jane Marple.  Overall, a curiosity but with little to engage the reader certainly one from the 21st century.  Sayers's essay is probably the highlight.

'The Great War' by John Terraine
This is a book published in 1965 at the last peak in publications about the First World War.  The edition I read came out in 1983.  Terraine was heavily involved in the BBC television 26-part series also called 'The Great War' (1964) but as he makes clear this is not the book of the series.  It is very short, only 195 pages in the edition I read.  Thus, it could make a useful book for someone who wants a quick, adult-orientated coverage of the war.  However, I am reluctant to recommend it even for that because of how partisan it is.  Terraine rightly adheres to the view that the war was largely the result of German aggression, a view that was being reinforced in the early 1960s and which he adhered to twenty years later.  However, he neglects the enthusiasm among the British elites for going to war and ironically the hostility to it both in Parliament and among the public.

Terraine says that he excusing the generals from the undeserved blame that they had received. Alan Clark's 'The Donkeys' on this issue had been published in 1961 and Terraine is known to have argued with the makers of the BBC series about this focus. Ironically, in this book Terraine is uncomplimentary and at times condemnatory of almost every general he writes about. The only ones who are spared his harsh criticism are the Russian General Adjutant Aleksei Brusilov (1853-1926), the Australian General Sir John Monash (1865-1931) and above all, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, (1861–1928). In fact, his support of Haig, leads him to utterly dismiss his predecessor Field Marshal John French 1st Earl of Ypres, (1852–1925) and to portray the forces of France as poor throughout in not bowing to British objectives at all stages.

Terraine fails to portray the Gallipoli Campaign as the utter fiasco that it was which ironically means he is more condemnatory of the Allies efforts at Salonika in Greece.  He rightly notes that the Dominion troops notably the Canadians and the Australians were both the spearhead and the backbone of the 'British' forces in the last two years of the war and also how many troops fighting the Ottoman Empire took up.  Like many commentators of his time he over-emphasises the role played by American forces, perhaps with an eye to the US readership.  He also neglects to note that the period of greatest British success, 1918 was when its casualty rate reached new highs.

Overall, though not apparently inaccurate, this is very imbalanced book with Terraine's prejudices being all too apparent throughout and shaping, indeed distorting his recounting of the war.  He goes against what he says he is going to do and condemns the generals the way many others would only sparing Haig and less than an handful of others from being derided.  He also shows the kind of Western prejudices prevalent in histories of the time in behaving as if the Russians were all ignorant and lazy and the Ottomans utterly incompetent from a racial basis despite how difficult they made British advances on all fronts they were engaged with them.  This was not a good book in its time and is not required now.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Five Years of Terror

Given my interest in politics the outcome of the election was less of a surprise to me than to some others.  I know that the 'conversion rate' of Conservative votes to seats has always been much higher than for Labour, so the supposed 'neck and neck' polling would mean more seats for the Conservatives; Labour needed a clear lead in terms of votes ever to stand a chance of gaining an equivalent number of seats; many commentators missed that fact.  There is also the issue of the 'shy Conservatives'.  Unlike with supporters of other parties, a percentage of Conservative voters, this time perhaps 5% of their voters on the day are unwilling to admit that they are going to vote for the Conservatives.  Unsurprisingly even Conservative literature reckoned they would win 303 seats rather than the 331 they attained.  Those howling for opinion polls to be banned should consider that fact.

The other thing is that elections in the UK are won by fear and myths.  This has been the case since 1992 if not longer and was boosted by the spin doctor era of the Blair governments.  In 1992 the myth was about the Labour taxation plans.  In 2015 the myth of the Labour 'over-spend' of 2005-10 causing the deficit, rather than the fact that it came from having to bail out reckless banks.  The myth of over-spend is now so well established that many people will not accept any other view and demand that Labour apologise.  They do not read the actual history, they simply absorb the myths spread by the right-wing newspaper.  Such approaches have actually been more successful than direct support for the Conservatives.  I anticipate comments here saying that I am lying because the myth has become the 'truth' no matter what history actually shows.

The fear this time was the SNP.  This seems to have been effective in increasing the turn-out sufficiently to win a lot of seats by a narrow margin that Labour could otherwise have taken.  This leaves Labour in a very difficult position.  In England they probably need to return to Blairite policies but in Scotland where there has been an abrupt shift in the opposite direction, to the left wing, they will need a completely different pitch, indeed possibly a separate centre-left party.  The Conservatives' scare tactics and myths rather than any policy are what secured them the win.  It is ironic that leading Conservatives have said the campaign was 'positive'.  As I have read commentators note, if this was a positive campaign then Heaven help us if anyone thinks of doing a negative one, perhaps George Galloway and the opponents of Esther McVey gave us a feel for the supposedly positive campaigns of the future.

How does this bring me to the terror I have been feeling today?  The reason is that I am a member of 'working poor'.  Despite having a full-time job, I do not earn enough to pay rent on a single room in a shared house and cover my bills in terms of my car, internet, food, etc.  Only my book sales keep me from going into further debt each month.  My salary is the same as it was in 2009 but obviously the cost of living has continued to rise.  My girlfriend who runs her own business and as a result is dependent on housing benefits to pay her rent.  Her efforts to get work in supermarkets has failed despite completing the third stages of recruitment processes.  As a result of being 'working poor' we are incredibly vulnerable.  I have been fortunate to have been in work since 2012 but know that with current employment law I can be terminated with a month's notice and my income dry up.  There is a good chance my employer will then try to block me receiving unemployment benefit as has happened before and according to Job Centre staff is common these days.  Seeing no sign of this alleged economic recovery benefiting anyone I know or encounter, there is a good chance my job will go as the economy continues to stutter.

What is more frightening is the promised £12 billion benefits cuts that Cameron has promised.  There has been no indication where these will fall, but it seems that child benefits will be cut.  It also seems likely that housing benefit will be cut as more money is taken away from local authorities.  It seems probable that my girlfriend will struggle to pay her rent.  Labour had promised controls on rent and increase the rights of tenants to stop what has happened to me in my life with landlords simply tossing us out with minimal notice when they feel a need to sell the house or it turns out they have been failing to pay his mortgage.  They promised freezes on utility bills which have continued to rocket leading to fuel poverty.  There are also no attempts to ban the locked-in contracts which on  two occasions has meant having to keep paying when the internet service has died or face a charge of £65 to have it fixed or £180 to have it removed.  

It is clear that poverty will increase; as the hare-brained school policies are liable to continue, then opportunities for ordinary young people will be closed off.  The next few years are going to be terrible for the bulk of the population.  In such a situation it seems that prejudice and exploitation will continue to rise.  I have tried suicide before and have failed but today's results and the era it ushers in is the one that that is encouraging me to consider it once more.  I have a good job and yet a bleak future is all that lies ahead of me.  For those who are disabled or dependent on benefits, it is going to be utterly horrendous.

What If Proportional Representation Been Used in the May 2015 UK General Election?

In previous postings, I have looked at how UK general elections since 1922 would have turned out if the 'first past the post' system in place in the UK had been replaced by proportional representation.  I did this most recently for the 2010 general election:

The 2015 election is certainly an interesting one for this consideration because the different between the proportion of the votes each party won compared to the proportion of the seats they won, has probably reached its most extreme.

There are a couple of well-known factors in UK elections which were apparent in 2015.  First is that the 'conversion rate', i.e. how many seats a party gets compared to how many votes they received, has always been highest for the Conservative Party.  The Labour Party and to an even greater extent, the Liberal Democrats, often have tens of thousands of 'wasted' votes that win them no additional seats.  In this election, such vagaries can be seen at the extreme.  The SNP (Scottish National Party) gained 1.45 million votes which won them a total of 56 seats.  In contrast, UKIP (UK Independence Party) won 3.861 million, more than double what the SNP got, but only won 1 seat.  This explains UKIP's sudden support for the introduction of some kind proportional representation.  This is despite the defeat of the proposal of adopting the Alternative Vote (AV) method in the referendum of 2011.

The other known factor is the 'shy Conservative'.  The factor that, in opinion polls, people who are liable to vote Conservative, are much less likely to say they will than supporters of other parties.  This explains the fact that the Conservatives received 2% more of the vote than polls had predicted.

Before I launch into the analysis, there are some caveats.  These calculations are made on the basis of direct proportion, so assuming constituencies with equal populations.  The most simple approach is used rather than ones such as AV which alter the proportionality to some extent.

In addition, I assume that, unlike, for example, in Germany, there is no bar on how few votes a party can get in order to win a seat.  In (West) Germany only parties that achieve above 5% of the vote have been allowed to sit in the Bundestag.  This has meant the absence of numerous small parties at national level and effectively a two-party system since 1949.

The first figure is the number of seats the parties would have gained in a simple proportional representation system.  The figures in brackets are the actual number of seats that the party gained is shown in square brackets.

Note, one seat - that held by the Speaker, was not really contested.  The current Speaker is a Conservative but he does not vote with his party.

2015: 650 seats [Conservative Government]
  • Conservatives: (36.9%); 240 seats  [331]
  • Labour (30.4%); 198 seats  [232]
  • UKIP (12.6%); 82 seats [1]
  • Liberal Democrats (7.8%); 51 seats [8]
  • SNP (4.7%); 31 seats [56]
  • Green (3.8%); 25 seats [1]
  • Plaid Cymru (0.6%); 4 seats [3]
Northern Irish Parties:
  • DUP (0.6%); 6 seats [8]
  • Sinn Fein (0.6%); 5 seats [4]
  • UUP (0.4%); 4 seats [2]
  • SDLP (0.3%); 2 seats [3]
  • Alliance (0.2%); 1 seat [1]
In Northern Ireland a form of proportional representation is used anyway, which is why the figures are not massively different. The adherence to different sides of the Unionist/Republican debate in different constituencies also makes it tricky to predict.

As always, I caution that, of course, with a different system in place, other parties may have come forward.  As a result there might have been a different range of parties on offer that there were in our world.  If we look back to the 2010 election, if then there had been proportional representation then, UKIP would have had 20 seats in Parliament.  Whereas with our system UKIP only gained 2 seats and then only in 2014.  Similarly, back in 2010, with proportional representation, the Greens would have got 7 seats and now would have 25.  Thus, representation in the House of Commons would reflect the trends that have been so commented on in recent weeks, but, because of the system in use, have not come to fruition.

Under proportional representation, Labour would have won 198 seats in 2015, compared to 189 in 2010.  This would still reflect Labour's difficulty in increasing their support, notably in England.  In 2015, voting for Labour did rise a little over that of 2015 but this was heavily counter-balanced by Labour's losses in Scotland.  In our 2015 election they declined in number of seats, a net loss of 26 seats.  The 48 seats they lost compared to their representation in 2010, were not only located in Scotland but in England as well.  With proportional representation system, despite a modest rise, the failure to break through the 200-seat mark might have been enough to see off Ed Miliband even more than the poor performance did in our world.

Proportional representation would not have altered the severe decline for the Liberal Democrats; they would now have a third of the seats they had back in 2010.  However, they would have retained 51 seats rather than just 8.  In this alternative, it would have still be likely that a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition would have been formed back in 2010, though then with the Liberal Democrats three times stronger than in our world.  Persisting with this scenario into 2015, they may have gone back into coalition, but, unlike in 2010, alone, they could not have secured either the Conservatives or Labour a majority.

Even with proportional representation, the often-envisaged Labour-SNP-Green coalition would be no more feasible in forming government in 2015 than in our world.  Indeed, the SNP would only have 31 seats rather than 56, so would be weaker by far than in our current parliament.  Thus, with proportional representation in place what seems would have been the most likely government would have been a Conservative-UKIP-DUP coalition to give David Cameron a small majority.  Given that they had lost two-thirds of their seats as a result of the election (though a better result than losing over four-fifths in our world), the Liberal Democrats, are likely to have been reluctant to have participated in this more right-wing coalition being formed in 2015.

The first-past-the-post system has given the SNP 25 out of 56 of the seats they won.  It  has denied UKIP 82 seats and the Greens 24 seats.  As Douglas Carswell, the lone UKIP MP now, noted, this has meant, combined, 5 million voters for these parties have been denied something even approaching the level of representation they might expect.  In large part those seats have gone to the Conservatives and SNP.

The analysis of how different proportional representation would have impacted has shown that the scenarios discussed in recent weeks were not massively misplaced.  This is because, as I have seen frequently mentioned, polls measure the anticipated proportion of the vote.  As yet, the only good way of predicting the share of seats is the exit poll which, this time was only out by 15 seats, and that neglected the persistent 'shy Conservative' difficulty.  Given that one of those Conservative seats was won by a majority of just 27 votes, it was pretty decent estimation, though, of course, insufficiently close to silence those who at every election howl for the banning of 'inaccurate' polls.  In this case, they worked very much in the Conservatives' favour by making their warning about the advance of the SNP sound convincing and getting out their core voters especially in the very tight marginals that Labour had to take in order to approach winning.

P.P. 11/05/2015
This time round, the BBC has done similar analysis:

drawing on work done by the Electoral Reform Society using the D'Hondt Method of proportional representation approach.  Their figures are not radically different to mine Conservatives: 256; UKIP: 83; SNP: 31.  However, their work corrects my views based on my previous analysis regarding 'conversion' rates.  This shows that only this year, 2015, have the Conservatives needed fewer votes than Labour to win a seat.  Contrary to my sense of what was happening in 1997, they needed about 30,000 more votes to get a seat compared to Labour.  Now Labour needs about 6,000 votes per seat more than the Conservatives.  This does suggest that the party on track to win gains the better conversion rate.  I wonder what the impact of boundary changes will make on this conversion rate.  For UKIP the rate is running at over 3.5 million votes per seat, 100 times greater than for the Conservatives.