Deciding about Alternative Vote

The coming referendum on electoral reform is about more than a simple “Vote yes if you want a foot in the door for electoral reform” and “Vote no if the status quo suits the party you support”.

Below are some questions about the Alternative Vote (AV) system, and an outline of the debate around those questions, with the First Past The Post (FPTP) and Single Transferable Vote (STV) systems discussed by way of comparison.

Don’t assume my sources below are neutral unless you read to the contrary.

How do they work?

FPTP is used for constituencies to elect a single representative from a number of possible candidates. It’s very simple – candidates are listed on a ballot form, voters make a single mark on the ballot paper for the candidate they most want to vote for, and the candidate with the most votes wins, regardless of whether or not they have the majority’s support. Norm provides a scenario to demonstrate how this can elect candidates without majority support:

‘In Lower Zogby by the Fen 35 people vote Tory first, 33 vote Labour first, and 32 vote LibDem first. But the Labour voters would prefer the LibDem to the Tory, and the LibDem voters would prefer the Labour candidate to the Tory. As is, with first-past-the-post, the preferences of 67 out of 100 people to have a candidate elected other than the Tory are nullified, where with AV Labour would win.’

Like the current FPTP system, AV is used for constituencies to elect a single representative. Like the STV system, AV is a preferential voting system, but a much simpler one which works as follows:

  1. you (the voter) rank the candidates on the ballot form in order of your preference;
  2. if a candidate gets more than 50% of the first preferences, they are elected outright;
  3. otherwise the candidate with the fewest first preference on the ballot forms is ruled out. If you voted for that ruled-out candidate, your ballot paper’s second preference is then redistributed, with the same value as your first preference;
  4. then there’s a second round of counting to see if any of the candidates are now polling over 50% – if so, that candidate is elected;
  5. if not – and let’s say you voted for the candidate with the least votes in that round – then your second-preference candidate is ruled out and your ballot paper’s third preference is then redistributed;
  6. and so on, until a candidate polls over 50% and is elected.

See the pro-AV Electoral Reform Society’s AV Questions Answered pamphlet [PDF]. As Arieh Kovler puts it, unlike our current FPTP system:

“…votes under AV aren’t necessarily rival – a vote for one candidate doesn’t always mean a vote against another candidate. That vote might only be with your first choice for one round, but could stick with your second choice all the rest of the rounds until the end.”

STV won’t be an option for the coming referendum. STV systems are used to vote for candidates in multi-member constiuencies. Rather than polling a majority, successful candidates have to reach a quota – a minimum number of votes – to be elected. This tends to be the number of valid votes cast, divided by the number of available seats plus one. If a candidate exceeds their quota, their surplus votes are redistributed. The best way to avoid chance here involves weighting the second-choice votes of any candidate who exceeds their quota at a fraction of the value of the first choice votes to reflect that they have already been used. This is explained on page 1 of this ERS information sheet [PDF].

What is a ‘wasted vote’ under these systems?

For FPTP it’s often said that a wasted vote is any vote cast for any candidate who doesn’t have a chance of winning the election. The contest is between the parties who are doing well in the opinion polls and stand a chance of winning – any other vote effectively disenfranchises that voter.

Under the STV system, Arieh Kovler points out:

“…it’s also a wasted vote to vote for a popular candidate who’s going to be elected anyway. If Candidate A gets elected with 1000 votes but less-popular Candidate B gets 500 and both are elected to the block, then votes for Candidate A were only worth half of those for B.”

Under the AV system, the more support your first choice candidate has from other voters, the less likely your second, third, fourth etc votes are to be counted. Norm encourages us to view an AV election as a series of one-on-one contests between each of the candidates.

Would the extremist vote – e.g. BNP – be empowered under AV?

This concern is shared by people who are liberal first, democratic second.

The BNP do not want AV. Part of this is that while their supporters are empowered, the smaller parties themselves do not stand to gain. However, this fact hasn’t stopped the Green Party campaigning for AV on grounds that it demonstrates an “appetite for change”. Unlike the Greens, the BNP thrives on disempowerment and the anger it breeds. The danger AV poses for the BNP is that if extremist voters were empowered, the empowerment may well have a mitigating effect on the extremism by removing the need for a protest vote (anecdotally, this is the view of some local Labour canvassers I met in the pub today). So while the BNP detests the current system and wants a bloc proportional representation system, unlike the Greens it is not prepared to lose ground under AV to get it.

What about the BNP’s supporters, the nearly 564,000 people who voted BNP in the last election? The worry is that their second preferences could have significant effects in the reallocation process. Marco Attila Hoare argues that because voters who preferred extremist parties would have their second, third, fourth, etc preferences counted more than those who preferred the leading parties, in effect these minority voters would be privileged with more votes. What are the implications here?

IPPR research suggests that BNP voters’ second preferences would not ultimately affect the outcome:

“Given the marginality and distance from 50% for both the first and second placed candidates it is true that BNP supporters’ second or third preferences will be counted in the 35 seats listed by the ‘No to AV’ campaign.

However, the BNP vote is still very small in each of these seats, averaging a vote share of just 4.5% – yet the average distance from 50% for the winning candidate is 11.3% and 14.2% for the runner-up. Even if we assume all BNP preferences go to a single candidate (which they wouldn’t) they would still require more than twice the number of BNP supporters to win under AV. BNP voters cannot therefore single-handedly change a result.”

In addition, Norm quotes Brian Barder, an anti-AV campaigner who nevertheless points out:

“All the valid votes are counted again at every recount. Those giving their first preferences to the two candidates who come first and second, and who are therefore never eliminated from the next recount, don’t get their second and lower preferences redistributed and counted, but that’s not a disadvantage: their first preferences continue to count right to the last round.”

Lastly, since I risk forgetting that BNP support isn’t merely a function of an electoral system, here’s a list of other things associated with BNP support.

What does tactical voting look like under these different systems?

New systems mean new games.

The FPTP system tends to render votes for smaller parties wasted votes. Accordingly the Liberal Democrats has tended to encourage their supporters to ‘go long’ and think of a vote for the Lib Dems as an act of incubating the party, an investment for the future. However, the leading parties work hard to deter voters from ‘splitting the vote’. Consider a scenario in which Conservative is the likely winner, followed by Labour, followed by UKIP. Say a Conservative Party supporter with strong anti-immigration views is considering giving their vote to UKIP; the Conservative Party would argue against this on grounds that it splits their vote and improves Labour’s chances of winning – Labour is even less anti-immigration than the Conservatives.

Under STV, tactical voting is very complicated, needs to be precise, and tends to be worked out by election geeks for various factions and parties running models on surpluses and transfers, making deals, and then telling their supporters how to vote.

For tactical voting under AV, here’s Arieh again:

“Imagine that at the next election there was a ‘no to cuts’ party which opposed Government spending cuts. All the party would do is talk about how bad the cuts were and how much better it would have been if they didn’t happen or were slower. They’d also call for a second-preference vote for the Labour party. It would get Election Broadcasts. Its candidates would appear at hustings and be interviewed on the TV where they’d put their messages across and call for people to vote Labour (second).

A new party like this probably wouldn’t win any seats, but that’s not what it’s trying to do. If people voted through all their preferences then a new party like this could help the Labour party get its message across and pick up more votes. Equally, I could have given examples that would benefit the two governing parties instead, e.g. a Taxpayers Alliance Party.”

And that second preference vote for the big party would stick for far longer than the first preference one. There’d be a lot more horsetrading between politicians in advance of an election according to AV, and minor or single-interest parties would gain attention as they announced their second preferences.

So if I were the BNP (a pariah whose second preference votes nobody wanted) I might consider starting some single issue parties – on environmental issues, social housing, import and export – and having them recommend a second vote for the BNP. But I think that’s pretty unlikely – the barriers to contesting an election entail significant expenditure of time and money.

Does a No to AV amount to a No for electoral system reform?

Conscious that rather than being enamoured of AV, the Greens are anxious to indicate an appetite for reform itself, I wonder what the effects of a No vote will be. Norm quotes from a Political Studies Association briefing paper [pdf]:

“A “no” vote in a referendum is always followed by what Professor Lawrence LeDuc calls a “battle for interpretation”. Those who support the status quo argue that the people have spoken and that the issue should be left alone. Supporters of change, by contrast, argue that the referendum has not decided the issue: they might say, for example, that voters were offered the wrong reform option or that a better information campaign should have been launched.

This will happen in the event of a “no” vote in the UK too. Supporters of FPTP will say that the people have decided in favour of the status quo. Supporters of change will argue that AV was the wrong reform and that a more substantial change should be offered.

The question is, who will win this battle? Given that the issue of electoral reform has not caught the public imagination and that few voters understand the intricacies of electoral systems, it is likely to be difficult for reform supporters to convince many that another reform should now be considered. Such was the experience of reform supporters after recent referendums in three Canadian provinces: the battle of interpretation was decisively won by the supporters of the status quo.

It is clear that changing the electoral system is easier where change has already recently happened: the idea of reform is no longer so radical…”

So if you want any kind of reform, vote Yes to AV. Hear that, BNP?

Will AV improve voter turnout?

The Yes campaign says “We can’t promise the earth with AV”.

Professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde John Curtice told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme (Thurs April 14th) that, based on the literature, a modest improvement in turnout is associated with proportional representation but since AV is a disproportional system, there’s no reason to suppose it will help in that respect.

(There’s a better way to solve that problem, anyway: treat not voting as the personal travesty it is and outlaw it.)

Are coalition governments more likely under AV, and what are the implications?

Barder again:

“There are also other unanswerable objections to AV.  By increasing the number of seats won by third party candidates, it would make hung parliaments much more frequent, and thus produce more coalitions or minority governments, which in turn undermines the convention of the party manifesto mandate and the public accountability which that entails.”

Have to save that one for another day – but it’s an important one and I can’t decide how I’ll vote without it.

A selection of more baroque / diversionary reasoning:

From one of Waterloo Sunset’s comments on Bob’s blog, a means justifying ends argument: ‘No’ vote for the AV referendum will break the coalition and precipitate an election which will return Labour to power.

The vote counting machines will cost more [see update below]. Small price to pay if it’s a more democratic system.

That’s it for now – run out of time…

Update: vote counting machines a No Campaign fabrication. On the BBC:

“In his speech [Cameron] also suggested that if AV was used, “we may have to buy and install electronic voting machines to make sense of all the different outcomes and possibilities”.

But when the topic was raised in a question session after Mr Clegg’s speech, the deputy PM dismissed it. He said in Australia, which uses AV, votes were counted by hand. Reports it would cost millions to administer AV were “wildly inaccurate”, Mr Clegg said, adding he hoped the No campaign would not “create a whole barrage of scare stories and myths about this”.

Fire Gospel

The exploits of the Quranburners make uncomfortable reading.

These were inflammatory islamophobic acts, rather than acts against religion in general, and they deserve contempt. In this climate, they need to be investigated for incitement. But it’s an unfree land where public scenes against religion are outlawed – the burning of a book is surely too pathetic to be considered incitement in itself – or if it isn’t then I worry the time approaches when a number of very ordinary things are considered grounds for punishment – wearing niqab as incitement against Frenchness, for example. That would never happen, not in liberty egality fraternity France. Oh, it just did.

And a society where the burning of Quran could be taken as a pretext for the murder of United Nations workers is a society infested with the kind of people that make anti-Muslim bigots feel like expressing themselves with Qurans. The wedge drivers need each other. And so it goes on.

Personally I think that to hold stunt provocateur Pastor Terry Jones responsible for the murders can only appease the actual murderers. Contemptible islamophobe, yes – murderer, no. The actual murderers responded to the burning of a book with a killing spree as if a burnt book was worth several lives. The atrocity belongs wholly to them. They’re not Islam, but a small group of thugs who need to be marginalised. Raffaello Pantuchi argues that Terry Jones’ story of an army of jihadi terrorists is just that – a story.

Personally I think it is ridiculous to hold the Quran responsible for the murders. As Goldie Looking Chain once stated, “Guns don’t kill people – rappers do”.

Rosie Bell writes on this with reference to John Stuart Mill and how stupid The Observer was to publicise the British version as if it was public interest. Meanwhile it is important to reserve the right to disrespect holy books.

All this was happening around the time I plucked my first loan from the shelves of our newly refurbished, miraculously unclosed, Fullwell Cross public library. It was a slim, commissioned satire called The Fire Gospel whose author Michel Faber is better known for the currently-serialised ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ (already on loan).

Calculating and pathetic Aramaic scholar Theo Griepenkerl returns to the US with some unknown papyrus scrolls he’s looted from the wreckage of a bomb blast in contemporary Mosul. They turn out to be a fifth gospel written by a contemporary of Jesus’ called Malchus. Malchus is a pious and grotty windbag whose correspondence is reminiscent of a column in the local newspaper of a small and parochial town. Theo Griepenkerl finds a publisher.

The trouble is, in its innocent details – the drug-taking, the struggle to hoist the newly-nailed Jesus upright on the cross because although small in stature he is large in girth, the un-iconic, carnal nature of death (instead of uttering the final dignified words “It is finished” he instead whimpers for somebody to please finish him), Malchus being under the cross when the dying Jesus’ bowels and bladder open – this gospel possesses extraordinary power to ruin Christian faith.

Amazon reviews are Theo’s first intimation of trouble to come. On his book tour he is kidnapped – not by slighted Christians but by an Ickey millenarian and a Muslim anti-Zionist who believes that the debunking of Christianity Malchus’ gospel represents will empower the Jews and enslave the world. (I hadn’t gone looking for that, I can tell you – I’d gone looking for ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’. Zeitgeist.)

Some reviewers feel that Fire Gospel is rather thin. I loved the caricature of the academic, Malchus was hilarious, the Christian disarray was sketched very deftly, as were the Amazon reviews and the bonkers intrusions of daytime television. Despite Malchus’ telling, replete with inappropriate details, the death of Jesus still manages to appall. Over the course of the book, in a turn that would be revelatory except for being written as farce, this unscrupulous but ultimately harmless academic fails to notice how much he is coming to resemble Malchus’ revised and compromised Jesus.

It was a book of laughs and groans, which brings me back to the beginning – Salman Rushdie and Theo Van Gogh would probably agree that if you can’t see any humour in the social role of religious texts you may well end up in a society where you’re not allowed to disrespect holy books at all.


being under the cross when the dying Jesus’ bowels and bladder opened

Fighting, fallen, virtual undergrowth

Paul Mason’s twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere piece is one of the reasons he’s a stand-out candidate on the Orwell Prize shortlist:

“9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.

10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.

I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.

12.The weakness of organised labour means there’s a changed relationship between the radicalized middle class, the poor and the organised workforce. The world looks more like 19th century Paris – heavy predomination of the “progressive” intelligentsia, intermixing with the slum-dwellers at numerous social interfaces (cabarets in the 19C, raves now); huge social fear of the excluded poor but also many rags to riches stories celebrated in the media (Fifty Cent etc); meanwhile the solidaristic culture and respectability of organized labour is still there but, as in Egypt, they find themselves a “stage army” to be marched on and off the scene of history.

13.This leads to a loss of fear among the young radicals of any movement: they can pick and choose; there is no confrontation they can’t retreat from. They can “have a day off” from protesting, occupying: whereas twith he old working-class based movements, their place in the ranks of battle was determined and they couldn’t retreat once things started. You couldn’t “have a day off” from the miners’ strike if you lived in a pit village.

14.In addition to a day off, you can “mix and match”: I have met people who do community organizing one day, and the next are on a flotilla to Gaza; then they pop up working for a think tank on sustainable energy; then they’re writing a book about something completely different. I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square this week.

15. People just know more than they used to. Dictatorships rely not just on the suppression of news but on the suppression of narratives and truth. More or less everything you need to know to make sense of the world is available as freely downloadable content on the internet: and it’s not pre-digested for you by your teachers, parents, priests, imams. For example there are huge numbers of facts available to me now about the subjects I studied at university that were not known when I was there in the 1980s. Then whole academic terms would be spent disputing basic facts, or trying to research them. Now that is still true but the plane of reasoning can be more complex because people have an instant reference source for the undisputed premises of arguments. It’s as if physics has been replaced by quantum physics, but in every discipline.”

I recommend reading 1-8 and 16-20. Find some of it hard to fit with what I already know and very thought provoking.

Worth reading, this International Socialism piece by Jonny Jones on Social Media and Social Movements (HT Evgeny Morozov) – I haven’t read it properly the following excerpt seems to contrast with the picture Paul Mason paints of the ‘mix and match’ activist – the ‘mix and match’ activist utlimately depends on an infrastructure of protest:

“The 10 November protest—organised by the NUS and the University and College Union under the name “Demolition”—saw over 50,000 protesters take to the streets. This turnout could not have been achieved without the structures of the NUS, which invested time and money promoting the demonstration and laying on coaches. But within days of Millbank the mainstream media had picked up on the Day X protests. The newspapers highlighted the role of student activists such as EAN spokesperson and NUS executive member Mark Bergfeld, picking up on his comments about the use of “legitimate force” to “bring down the government”.35 In an echo of the G20 mobilisations, there was a reciprocal relationship between the bourgeois media, student activists and social media. In the absence of official NUS structures (or, indeed, of left wing student organisation in many parts of the country), Facebook became a way for students in disparate areas of the country to find out about what was going on, who in their area was going to protest. It was able to give school students with little or no experience of protest the confidence to get large numbers to walk out of school.

It would be a serious mistake, however, to think that the walkouts and university occupations simply emerged from horizontal networks. The schools and colleges that saw the biggest walkouts, such as Chiswick Community School and Le Swap in London, and Bury and Holy Cross Colleges near Manchester, were driven and built by socialists and radical activists. Over 30 universities went into occupation, but the “first wave” of occupations—from “University College London, School of Oriental and African Studies and King’s College, to universities like Bradford, Bristol, Nottingham, York, Leeds, Edinburgh, Manchester Metropolitan University, Dundee, Sheffield and the University of East London”—were all marked by the presence of organised left wing activists and socialists.”

And on horizontalism:

“It conducts meetings via Twitter and is avowedly “non-hierarchical”. But when one member tried to set up an event in praise of the anti-union “cooperative” John Lewis, an argument ensued which was only resolved through long arguments among small numbers of people who had the time to debate the issues over multiple online mediums. The idea of unstructured online decision-making may seem inclusive and democratic: it is actually unaccountable and exclusive.”

That is food for thought.

There is also the issue of how information and communication technologies are used. For example, as Charles Shaar Murray puts it:

“Old-fashioned totalitarian societies control information by suppressing what they consider inconvenient for their people to hear, while the more sophisticated capitalist democracies control information by swamping the truth in a deluge of disinformation, through which it is virtually a full-time job to sift.”

Paul Mason gets to the 20th reason then proceeds to list complications, including reference to the Chinese state model for hiring social networkers to generate pro-government memes. Egyptian blogger Dalia Ziada is quick to admit that US Government-aided social networking strategies catalysed revolution across the Middle East; I assume that they were generating memes of their own. I can’t find a reference, but there are artificially intelligent software agents out there which will create accounts on social network sites, befriend a feasible number of people there, and then manufacture political blog comments on a theme. So I’m not sure about Paul Mason’s confidence in incontrovertible facts.

I know that pessimism is a luxury for when things are going well, but we’re currently in another financial bubble related to Web 2.0 and when that bursts you also have to anticipate a scenario where a few very powerful companies are left and there’s a great enclosure of the open web, as happened with telephone, television, and many other things which started off open. I was also unable to tweet for a period during the March 16th demo, because of network overload. How do the masses organise themselves to accommodate this?

And, more fundamentally, you have to anticipate the lights going off during the great bloody struggle for resources to come. Enough people I know with advanced knowledge of computer systems administration have an interest in survivalism – morse code, self-sufficiency, that kind of thing – to catch my attention. It’s an anecdote I know, but coming from them I take it seriously. They know about systems vulnerabilities, and they understand the extent to which we rely on computer networks to exist. And I’ve got somewhat far from my point now, but when you hear a usually sober economist say that during the crash of 2008 she not only withdrew as much cash as she could, but also bought in as much food as she could, you do wonder how securely the technocracy is perched.

I think the right thing to do is to treat the speculation about the power of social media as contingent, and prepare contingencies accordingly.

Back to Paul Mason’s complications:

“…what happens to this new, fluffy global zeitgeist when it runs up against the old-style hierarchical dictatorship in a death match, where the latter has about 300 Abrams tanks? We may be about to find out.”

From my Observer today (where the Middle East uprisings are now relegated to p27):

“Egypt’s deepening political crisis, which has followed the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak, took a dangerous new turn yesterday as soldiers armed with clubs and rifles stormed protesters occupying Cairo’s Tahrir Square in a pre-dawn raid, killing at least two.”

And in Yemen:

“…about 100,000 marched in the city of Taiz, where four protesters were killed and about 400 injured on Friday … More than 12people have been killed since protests against Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, began in February.”

In Syria:

“More than 170 people have been killed since the protests began, human rights groups say. But the rallying cry was met with a warning by Syrian authorities that they would crush further unrest, raising the risk of further bloodshed.”

For more on Syria, Al Jazeera’s silence, and Bashar Al Assad’s free pass to murder his own people, read DaveM on Harry’s Place. We-the-people’ will never get a UN resolution to go in there and rout that bastard.

In Bahrain:

“Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, 50, who formerly worked for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, was detained in a pre-dawn raid. His daughter, Zainab, said armed and masked men stormed her house aoutside the capital, Manama, and beat her father unconscious before taking him into custody.”

More on Abdulhadi al-Khawaja on the BBC site.

And elsewhere I read that in Zimbabwe:

“Forty-six people in Zimbabwe have been charged with treason, and some allegedly beaten by police, after watching videos of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia

The activists, trade unionists and students were at a meeting on Saturday titled Revolt in Egypt and Tunisia: What lessons can be learnt by Zimbabwe and Africa?, when it was raided by police who seized a video projector, two DVDs and a laptop.”

Fluffy will be flattened.

Grand National kills more horses

What kind of society allows this to happen to animals for fun?

“Only 19 of the 40 horses that started the race finished it. Ten fell; five were pulled up; four unseated their riders; and two were brought down by other fallers.

The two horses that died fell during the first circuit of the four-and-a-half-mile race. Ornais tumbled at the fourth fence, breaking its neck, while Dooneys Gate fell at the sixth, Becher’s Brook, breaking its back. Their falls led to both fences being bypassed in the second circuit, the first time such action has been taken in the history of the Grand National.”

The race also appeared to have taken a heavy toll on Ballabriggs, which was given oxygen and doused with water to cool it down. Its rider, Jason Maguire, had to dismount and enter the winner’s enclosure on foot. Three of the first four horses to finish were too exhausted to enter the winners’ enclosure and went directly to their stables.”

This kind of thing happens every year – it’s normal. Covering the carnage, the BBC commentator Mick Fitzgerald referred to the dead, named Ornais and Dooney’s Gate, as ‘obstacles’. Lost for words – luckily others are speaking.

Bill Oddie and others wrote to The Guardian urging a boycott:

“We will not be putting a penny on the race and hope the public will join us in forfeiting what may seem like a harmless flutter, or an innocent office sweepstake, in favour of a safer, improved Grand National.”

Fight Against Animal Cruelty in Europe organised a demo:

The League Against Cruel Sports have been campaigning for a less gruelling course for over a decade.

Animal Aid’s Racehorse Death Watch site counts 676 deaths since mid-March 2007. Animal Aid’s director Andrew Tylers writes:

‘When horses are killed at the Grand National meeting, their deaths are not accidents but entirely predictable. The public has been conned into believing that the Grand National is a great sporting spectacle when, in reality, it is straightforward animal abuse that is on a par with Spanish bullfighting. This race should have no future in a civilised country. The BBC deserves special condemnation for all but concealing news of the deaths. In fact, one of its commentary team described the dead horses as they lay on the course as ‘obstacles’ – which was particularly disgusting and callous.’

I’d use the word ‘sick’. See Animal Aid’s series of reports, Running For Their Lives.

And if they don’t die or break down on the course, many race horses end up as pet meat.

Ban racing.

More green / life-hacking / time-and-money-saving top tips

Over the past year or so I’ve made a number of small discoveries which cause me ridiculous levels of satisfaction, so I’ll share them:

squeegee with suction hookPreventing black mould in the shower without chemicals

It took me long enough to work this out: get the water off the tiles, shower screen and any horizontal surfaces as required with a wide, rubber-bladed squeegee.

Tips: have the squeegee ready on a suction-hook in the shower; vertically downwards and then along, sluicing the water into the bath or shower tray, works for me; do this immediately before you get out.

Costs: squeegee and good power-lock suction hook c. £5

Saving: money on mould remover or even re-doing your grout and sealant; pollution and packaging; in hard water areas you save time cleaning limescale off the tiles – it just doesn’t build up nearly as fast.

Paper potter for seedlings

You can turn old newspapers into little seedling pots with this inexpensive bit of kit. I feel it does need an endorsement since it looks so improbable. The great advantage of these is that you don’t have to remove the seeds from them when potting on – the paper rots down in the soil and the roots penetrate out through it.

Tips: since these are paper they best retain water and their shape if packed together pretty snugly; feel with a desert spoon if you don’t have a scoop; don’t buy trays – save any plastic packaging trays and use those, or cardboard packaging lined with waste plastic e.g. from junk mail or mags with supplements.

Costs: c.£7 for the potter

Saving: I think this saves time – potting-on and particularly cleaning; space storing plastic pots; perhaps seedling lives since there’s less disturbance at potting-on time.

Spinning wet salad leaves without the spinner

We wash salad leaves (the garden is watered from a slimy old water butt). But who has the space to store a stupid salad spinner or the time to dab the water of wet lettuce? Instead place wet leaves in a clean tea towel, draw the corners together in your hand go outside and whirl the towel round and round to create a centrifugal effect. The water flies out and the towel doesn’t even seem to get wet.

Tips: if you don’t have an outside I think even using the shower cubicle is less silly than having a bulky bit of plastic that is only good for one thing.

Costs: none.

Savings: space, the cost of a salad spinner.

Co-op biodegradable fragrance-free wet wipes

I like to bathe at night but this winter I became soap-shy because of the cold. So I decided to shower only every other day, instead applying a strictly rationed number of wet wipes (one in the morning, two in the evening) to various body surfaces as needed.

Tips: compost the wipes (this is good – our compost is too wet and needs more cellulose); there is an order – one wipe for face, neck, ears, under-croft, then the other for underarms lastly feet. I don’t bother with the rest – it doesn’t get dirty. Is this too much information?

Saving: steam, water, misery

Hair washing over the bath

Why did it take me so long to unhitch washing my hair from having a shower?

Tips: you need to be quite supple to do this comfortably – commence yoga practice early autumn.

Costs: none.

Saving: unsure.

Blanket rather than winter/summer duvet

This winter we made a discovery during a week in Devon at New Year: king size duvets prevent drafts. When we returned I went looking for one in Ilford but even in the January sales the costs were prohibitive. So I went into TK Maxx and happened upon a navy waffle-weave jacquard cotton bedspread, quite heavy, from Portugal. That struck me as a better idea because in summer we could use it over a sheet and stow the duvet. And as it turned out, we were much warmer and as summer advances, cooler too.

Tips: it’s all about keeping out the drafts that come in round your neck so the blanket needs to be big enough and of the right heft to pull up and settle round your neck and come right down over the sides of the bed

Costs: this cost me £14. I’ve seen similarly promising bed-spreads in charity shops and the spare bed sports a white fringed rose-studded candlewick.

Savings: space storing an extra duvet; misery.

And now to the Alternative Vote debate

The case against liberal interventionism

BobFromBrockley interrogates the best arguments against liberal interventionism with the question ‘how can the left in strong nations help to stop civilians in places like Libya, Sierra Leone, Cambodia or Kosovo from being “genocided”’. Sadly, this quest does not resolve the question.

An illuminating read.

Thanks for the women, BBC

I have no idea what’s going on – it’s nearly a month since International Women’s Day – but this week the BBC has not under-represented women in the programmes I’ve watched and heard. If the BBC persists with giving us these illustrious female role models, there may yet come the day when men and women shake off the mind chains, and women become able to assume our rightful status in society without requiring massive amount of coaching and mentoring to even countenance this heady ambition.

Just watched Kirsty Young presenting the documentary Britain at Work – it’s truly astonishing how few documentaries are presented by women.

The other day – can’t easily find out which – I was struck by how many women were on Newsnight. Sue Lloyd-Roberts went to talk to Saudi Arabians about the total and legally enforced dependency of women there. Aayan Hirsi Ali’s case for secularism and one rule of law for all was magnificent (used to thinking of her sadly as somebody damaged to the point of open and implacable anti-Muslim sentiment, somebody I couldn’t link to, but either I had that wrong, the Newsnight interview was atypical, or she has softened). She knows better than most the inhumane  implications of sharia law where it is permitted to become the law of the land.

Newsnight tonight is presented by Stephanie Flanders, and the Science Editor Susan Watts is talking about Fukushima. Having to listen to Christina Odone misrepresent Harriet Harman and sympathise with David Willetts attributing a decline in working class malehood to feminism was less disturbing because there were other women there to make  appropriate counter arguments. Maureen Lipman, Germaine Greer and Martha Kearney next on the Review Show. Jennifer Egan has won a prestigious literary award.

You know, I was thinking that there were approaching sufficient numbers of women on our screens and radios for me to indulge my dislike of Mariella Frostrup a bit, when I read an extremely good essay of hers on feminism’s global challenge for International Women’s Day and decided to stow it.

I’m not sure if it’s the novelty or something to do with the discourse itself, but I find it easier to concentrate when the people broadcast talking politics are women. 

I’ve heard an Any Questions this evening on BBC Radio 4 with an all-woman panel comprising Lynne Featherstone, Anne McElvoy, Laurie Penny (please, why?) and Margaret Beckett (who unsettled my pro-AV position).

Keep it up with the women, BBC. We love it.

PS worth mentioning that some of the best feminists I know are men, and sad to say the kitschest I know are women who think that belittling their and their friends’ menfolk somehow advances the female condition. Hope it’s alright for me to continue to think of that as balls.