Posted on

The General Election: I Can’t Even…

Many people stayed up late last night to watch the results coming in for the UK General Election, and for many this was their first time voting. The results of the election and their ramifications are quite complex and may take some time to take effect. Many are left wondering “Did we win?” and there’s not really a clear answer to this. I will do my best to summarise key results and impacts of the results, and forecast some future potential changes and issues.

What is a Hung Parliament?

Last night resulted in a “Hung Parliament”, which is when no single party has a majority and a coalition or “Confidence and supply” arrangement needs to form. Usually the largest party is given the first opportunity to form a government to lead the country. This happened before with the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (which ended up almost wiping out the Lib Dems) and has happened again now, this time with the Tories partnering up with the DUP.

For the Tories:

They won the election, but lost their majority. Theresa May called the election with a 22 point lead in the polls, believing this election would wipe out many Labour seats in their favour and allow her a strong mandate going into Brexit and to continue with her cuts and policies. That lead evaporated despite having much of the mainstream media (from the BBC to The Daily Mail) treating them very favourably compared with the main opposition. She has now formed a coalition with the DUP (see below) which seems to be one of the few partners she could have taken to form a new government and salvage a theoretical majority. It’s assumed the Liberal Democrats didn’t want to repeat that process.

For Theresa May and the Tory Leadership:

Her authority in her party has gone. Although she has ruled out resigning, it is likely she will be pushed into doing so by her party. Both Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron (Lib Dem leader) have called for her to resign. The so called ‘Nasty Party’ will not tolerate the failure and weakness that were her election campaign and she is unlikely to last very long at all. Many believe this is effectively the end of her political career. Just as she brought in new ministers when she took the reigns after David Cameron stepped aside, it is likely whoever takes her place will do the same. Many suspect this will be Boris Johnson, he is the bookies favourite and oddly enough they are quite good at making predictions (there’s a lot of money riding on it).

Thus far some media are remaining in support of her so it may be the case that she clings onto power, at least for the time being.

For the Labour Party (PLP):

Many called Jeremy Corbyn unelectable, believing he would be catastrophic for the Labour Party in a General Election, and his leadership would lead to them being wiped out. The Tories thought this, and so did a lot of the PLP and ‘establishment’ as a whole. This is why there were a series of attempted take overs by them, including The Chicken Coup and the Vote of No Confidence. Jeremy Corbyn withstood all of these attempts to replace him and grew the Party Membership considerably through these events; but the internal divisions still damaged the public image of the party as a whole were used by partisan media to undermine Labour support. It showed the PLP to be divided internally between those (relatively few) who were fully behind Corbyn, and those often referred to as ‘moderates’ or ‘Blairites’ who wanted to take a more centrist political stance.

The election results did not result in a Labour government, but they actually saw Labour gain 31 more seats. This is likely to add to the stability of Corbyn’s leadership of the party and give his PLP opponents less ammunition to try to remove him from leadership. It is probably the case that Corbyn did better than any of the other potential candidates would have done in his place, and many Labour MPs still have a job under his leadership even if they tried to remove him (Jonathan Pie Video – NSFW).

For Jeremy Corbyn:

There could scarcely be more contrast between the outcomes for Corbyn and May from this election. Where for May she started with her party behind her and confidence in the outcome, she is now in a very uncertain position and likely to be removed in the near future. Corbyn withstood many attempts to remove him by his own party (for fear of being wiped out in an election) and now he is likely to have far more support from his party despite not winning the election. Despite not actually winning the vote, Labour did remarkably well under hostile media coverage

For Labour Supporters:

Under Jeremy Corbyn Labour Party Membership has soared, and as has been proven not just in internal leadership contests, but now in a general election, he is popular with the public at large. Many Labour Supporters turned their backs on Labour after a perceived betrayal by Tony Blair, who was by many definitions centre right (a “Red Tory”). With New Labour there was far less distinction between the Tories and Labour and many people disengaged from politics altogether, or at least withdrew their support from a party that no longer represented their views.

Under Jeremy Corbyn many of these voters have returned to the fold, as well as a new generation of voters who have been galvanised by his leadership and started engaging in politics. It is important to note however that this election result is just the first step for Labour supporters and the party as a whole. There is no short term fix here, and the changes that many supporters wish to see will take considerably more time to realise. If they want to see this through, Corbyn and the Labour party will need their continued support and enthusiasm over the coming months and years. Many in the Tory party will be banking on political burnout, and the trend for Corbyn passing by so that they can retake the lost ground.

For the SNP and Scotland:

The SNP lost 21 seats – more than any other party. This being said, there was almost no way but down for them following the last election when they took all but 3 seats in Scotland. Traditionally Scotland was a Labour heartland, but this changed after New Labour and with an independence movement. Following the loss of the Independence Referendum Scotland has been left quite divided. The “Indy Ref” also galvanised many younger voters and drew them into politics; however the result left many disillusioned especially with many of the promises being left unfulfilled and the Brexit vote passing through. There is a persistent mistrust of Westminster and many are frustrated with the lack of real change brought about under the SNP. There is also the issue of the ‘split vote’, whereby the ‘anyone but Tory’ voters divide their votes between Scottish Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats (who have also previously done well in Scotland).

The Scottish Conservatives played heavily on the prospect of a 2nd Independence Referendum and looked to gain support from those who voted no in the last one and who don’t want another one so soon after the first. This was partly responsible for their best election results in Scotland since 1983.

It is quite an irony that the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn may have taken many votes from the SNP to Labour, allowing the Tories in. The Greens and other parties spoke of a ‘Progressive Alliance’ of parties to counter the Tories and prevent the split vote letting them in. The seats the Tories won in Scotland demonstrate what happens when opponents of the Tory party do not work together. It was the 10+ seats the Tories gained in Scotland which enabled them to form a coalition with the DUP and remain in power, despite the majority of voters not supporting the Tories and their policies.

Corbyn and Scottish Labour refused to play ball with the SNP, and ally against a common foe, and both parties have paid the price for this.

For UKIP:

UKIP have been wiped out. Despite getting a disproportionate amount of media attention for a party of their size, their vote evaporated after the last election. Their ‘raison d’être’ was Brexit, and with the vote having been passed they had little else to go on. They were often a protest vote against the Westminster Establishment, playing on fears relating to immigration and the EU to fuel their support. They lost 10.8% of the UK vote share and may well be a done deal now. This is despite some papers saying that they were a real threat in this election!

For the DUP and Northern Ireland:

Most people won’t have heard much of the DUP or at least know much about them prior to this election. In short the DUP deny Climate Change (DUP East Antrim MP Sammy WIlson was Northern Ireland’s Environment Minister), are against LGBT rights, are Pro-brexit, are anti abortion, are creationists and is a party spun out of the Loyalist ‘paramilitary’ (i.e. terrorist) movement in Northern Ireland. This is the Financial Times take on the DUP and what they may want in return for supporting the Tories.

This is dangerously hypocritical of the Tories who have been attacking Corbyn for speaking to the IRA (and Loyalists) during “The Troubles” to try and bring about a peaceful resolution.

Following the Brexit vote the peace process in Northern Ireland was already strained (although there are many other factors), this coalition could result in future issues in Northern Ireland. The Tory’s taking this coalition to preserve power may have longer term and serious consequences in Northern Ireland. Taking ‘sides’ with the DUP is likely to cause anger and stoke the flames of a Republican movement. Free movement of people across the border in Ireland will be a key issue in Brexit for all Irish which is largely ignored in Westminster. Northern Ireland was also staunchly pro- EU (55.8% remain) in the Brexit vote and now a staunchly pro-Brexit party from northern Ireland has disproportionate influence over the UK as a whole.

Beyond consequences in Northern Ireland, an alliance with the DUP could cause internal divisions within the Conservative party and bring some sectarianism into the UK (historically a problem in Scotland). The DUP believe the Pope is the antichrist, and this may antagonise many Catholic voters across the political spectrum.

For the Electoral System:

Looking at the overall vote, it is clear the electoral system is not democratically representative. The Conservatives won 42.4% of the vote and 318 seats, Labour won 40.0% of the vote and 261 seats- far more seats difference than 2.4%. The Liberal Democrats won more than twice the votes of the SNP yet only got 12 seats compared to 35 for the SNP.

Of course regional representation is important, and the dispersion of voting should be taken into account, however the First Past The Post system favours larger parties, in particular the Conservative party and works against smaller parties like The Greens (and previously UKIP). In this election a lot of people voted tactically to try and undermine the Tory party. This seems to have broadly worked except in Scotland and some parts of Wales where regional parties split the vote with Labour and let the Tories in.

For first time voters:

It may seem an anti-climax to many first time voters, who largely supported Jeremy Corbyn, and may see this result as a defeat with the Tories being back in power. The larger the vote, and the more young people vote, the better Labour traditionally do. As such it is in the interests of the Tories for there to be political disengagement especially amongst younger voters.

It is important in any healthy democracy that young people continue to tune into politics and keep engaged. Your views and interests will not be represented if you don’t show up to vote, or hold those in power accountable for the impact of their actions. There is often no quick fix however, and it takes persistence and dedication.

In short, for younger voters: your fight has just begun.

Posted on

General Election 2017: Source Analysis

This election is one of the most crucial in the UK in recent history. Following the Brexit vote, terrorism attacks and the election of Trump there is a lot at stake. I want to address issues of media bias and how to decide who deserves your vote in this election. I also want to look at how different groups are trying to convince you to give your vote to their preferred candidate.

One of the key issues I want to address is that of media bias. There have been academic studies (LSE Report) demonstrating a strong bias against Jeremy Corbyn in most media outlets including the BBC (“BBC Trust says Laura Kuenssberg report on Corbyn was inaccurate”).

In the run up to this general election the Labour party seems to be less divided within itself, but has come under even more attack by the media, who have given consistent front page coverage to attacking Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party in general. Even The Guardian has been accused of persistent anti-Corbyn bias, though this seems less prominent of late.

When trying to decide who to vote for, I believe it’s critical to analyse the sources of information we turn to. What agenda and personal interests do they have? We’ve seen a lot of dirty tricks and outright propaganda used, from planting audience members who are not declaring their position as a Tory Councillor on national television (AAV- Tory Counsillor) to purposeful misrepresentation of views (Laura Kuenssberg story). It is widely accepted that most of the major press barons use tax havens to avoid paying ‘their fair share’ even at current tax rates, this contributes towards the country losing £34 billion in uncollected tax a year. There is a clear conflict of interest between them and Jeremy Corbyn (or anyone left of centre) who poses a significant risk to their financial interests, and so their publications carry a strong bias. I believe that anyone writing in the media, appearing as a panellist or guest on BBC Question time and other such programs should provide a clear disclosure statement, and if they fail to do so appropriately be held accountable. For example this ex-Tory Councillor and former private health consultant (Evolve Politics piece) who was offering his views on the NHS and the so called ‘Dementia Tax’.

The issues with the impartiality of the BBC seem to have become worse following the conflict over funding with the Tory government. There were concerns over the appointment of the new BBC Trust Chairman with significant involvement by the Tory party in this selection process in 2014. The BBC News Chief since 2013, James Harding used to work at The Times, which was owned by Rupert Murdock (who is strongly opposed to the BBC)- though as is covered in the link the two are said to have had their differences regarding the Leveson Inquiry. It would seem that threats of funding cuts allow the government disproportionate influence over the BBC and its impartiality. The former Chancellor (George Osborne) is now editor of the London Evening Standard. There have been as many as 10 private meetings between Rupert Murdock and Theresa May (such as This flying visit in New York) which is an unprecedented level of access for someone in his position.

Often it isn’t only what is said, but what is unsaid. Who do they give a platform to: providing disproportionate airtime (such as the Green party complained about UKIP receiving) and positive media coverage of a party, or turning a blind eye to the actions of another can be as effective as peddling outright propaganda and lies. An absence of holding government to account is as much the responsibility of the media as it is the main opposition party, and the media have not by any means applied the same critical analysis to the current government as they have to its opposition. There has been a pattern of focusing on criticisms of the opposition party and leader while ignoring significant failing of the government and its leadership (This from The Independent).

Such bias also cuts the other way, though usually this comes from independent news sources such as The Canary, Another Angry Voice and Evolve Politics who tend to take partisan, anti-Tory positions. Buzzfeed coined these outlets the “Alt Left”. This does not necessarily make what they say inaccurate, however they are still fallible and have either made errors or been accused of peddling Fake News (such as The Canary here).

So with this being the case, what information can we trust?

There are different levels of source, so first of all it’s best to look at the primary source for yourself. Look at the parties, their manifestos, their representatives and leaders. Compare their words and their actions, look at their previous promises and pledges, their voting record. Are they consistent, have they done as they say, and said as they’ve done? One sets out to establish how trustworthy they are in what they say, but also what their agenda is and whose interests are they serving?

Tory Manifesto

Labour Manifesto

Then I look at secondary sources, and I try to identify any bias and assess credibility. Almost all sources will have some bias and it is important to take that into account (including this article!). Beyond bias, are they well researched and verifiable? The main way of establishing this is if they provide legitimate sources to their pieces. You can also check the legitimacy of the site or publication by knowing who made it, who pays for it and establishing any agenda. Many newspapers make a lot of their income from advertising revenue which is what the organisation Stop Funding Hate tries to address.

As more and more people become disillusioned with Main Stream Media (MSM) many turn to alternative sources, which sometimes are as guilty of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ (BBC take on Fake News). This was a major issue in the most recent presidential election in the USA. We have to be conscious of our own confirmation bias- our tendency to look for views and information which support our existing beliefs and prejudice. It is useful to look at sources which present contrary views to your own, more-so if they are well researched and verifiable. But most of all it is important to try to keep an open mind and apply critical thinking and analysis to all information we’re presented with, whether it aligns with what we believe or not.

Whether or not you vote as I will tomorrow, I hope that you vote based on careful consideration of the parties, their policies and what they are likely to do to this country. Think about what has happened over the last few years under the current government, and where we are likely to be under Jeremy Corbyn, or Theresa May in 5 years time.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, please feel free to share.

Posted on

Mental Health Provision

As someone who has had mental health problems (anxiety and depression) and received help for this through the NHS, I am alarmed at some of the problems which are effecting this service and the NHS.

Firstly I should say that I count myself incredibly lucky to live in a country with a health service like the NHS, and hope it is preserved for the future. I appreciate that what I am writing is from a point of privilege relative to most people in the world today, or indeed through history.

That said, it doesn’t mean things can’t be improved.

Waiting and Worsening

There are significant waiting lists for mental health services effecting many parts of the UK. People often deteriorate significantly over time, in particular when faced with eating disorders or anxiety disorders, and so early action can prevent the problem worsening.

The cost to the system (and business) snowballs as you fall behind with waiting lists, as the people waiting for treatment need more hours dedicated to them to get back on track the longer they wait. It would be much more efficient to reduce the waiting times which would probably lead to reduced treatment requirements.

There are also significant gaps in the services offered, and if you don’t quite fit the boxes, you can fall through the cracks… Some people need to get significantly worse to get the right help at all, but by that point it can be too late or result in more severe health concerns. The UK Governments own Report Closing The Gap: priorities for essential change in mental health admits that “People who use mental health services, and those that care for them, continue to report gaps in provision and long waits for services. There is still insufficient support within communities for people with mental health problems.”

It seems a ridiculous failure in appropriate problem solving to not address these issues while they are more easily and cost effectively treated. This is besides the fact that the patients will have a far better quality of life and suffer less with more timely treatment.

Solving the source and not the symptoms?

There is a growing mental health crisis in much of The West. Official figures in the UK show an increase in over a third of the number of people in contact with the NHS mental health services. There is also the alarming fact that the single biggest cause of death among men under 45 is suicide. There is a lot of stigma and shame surrounding mental health issues and it can be difficult for people to come forward or seek help in the first place. It’s an incredibly complex and difficult issue and there’s no easy fix to it.

In my opinion a lot of the growing mental health crisis is associated with culture. It is easier to sell something to someone who is unhappy, peddling false hopes of fulfilment… But to keep them ultimately unhappy. The key is the false cures, the consumerism and materialism, that keep the economic system running. There are also broader cultural expectations (such as breadwinner status for men) and practises with toxic impacts on mental health.

But at what cost? A deeply unhappy populace and unsustainable consumerism. There are costs which are hard to quantify, but which are very real. The cost to mental and physical health, the loss in productivity and the broader social impacts to name but a few. Our way of life is ultimately unsustainable without radical change in the long run for many reasons beyond the impacts on mental health.

There’s also ultra competitive pressure to be successful. Whether that means spending beyond your means while suffocating in debts, or starving to fit prescribed beauty ideals.. which no real person can meet. The ideals need to be out of reach, so that people can sell you things to help you get there.

Then there’s the growth in escapism, gaming, the internet. I love escapism, its my coping mechanism with the world, and my go to rabbit hole in life. But this does not resolve problems and mental health issues can deteriorate when indulging excessively in escapism.

And so…

Generally in problem solving its best to address the source of the problem. But I don’t think this is at all easily achieved. I think there will always be mental health issues, and so increasing funding to reduce waiting lists and provide appropriate care quickly will actually not only save money, but save lives.

The Government in the UK stated they wanted to bring parity of care for mental and physical health but according to the National Audit Office they will fail to meet these targets. There was a lot of noise made about addressing mental health in previous elections but precious little seems to have actually been done. The NHS has been in a funding crisis for some time despite having increased targets and greater demands made of it by government.

As in pain management classes I think it is also important to equip people with the strength and tools to handle what can’t be changed, many of the the pressures of life will always be there so we must learn to handle them. We also need to learn to love and accept ourselves more and not be conditioned into self loathing so that someone else can profit form our suffering.

This isn’t to say that I think striving for success and driving yourself to be the best you can be isn’t a noble aspiration. I just think this should be done in the healthiest way possible.

All of that said, the vast majority of staff I have met providing the service in the NHS are dedicated and caring. I am mostly frustrated that they are not properly resourced, and to my understanding many of the staff who work there share this frustration. I have found my own experiences of them helpful, though I have had to wait a while at times before receiving help- I know of others who have struggled far more.

I really hope that the insufficient funding of mental health (and other) services is addressed soon not only in the UK but elsewhere, as I am sure that the costs of not doing so outweigh the investment in caring for those at times of need.

For those who need help, there’s The Samaritans

For more information on male suicide visit the CALM website

Posted on

An Engineer’s Guide to Problem Solving

Education systems are often criticised when they focus on teaching pupils to learn by rote as instead of how to think. A central part of this learning to think is developing problem solving skills. In the UK, the new computing curriculum is teaching students ‘Computational Thinking’ which is a significant step in the right direction.

Computational Thinking isn’t just about learning to code and program computers, but also how to methodically approach problems by gathering and analysing information. Before we can solve a problem it is important that we first understand it properly, and Computational Thinking is very good for providing this understanding.

A complimentary methodology is engineering design, in which you are often given a specification defining a problem for you, it is then up to you to develop solutions and compare them to select the most appropriate. The engineering design process is excellent at deriving appropriate solutions once you understand the problem.

Computational Thinking and the engineering design process can be combined and applied to a range of problems, from making a purchase to addressing political and philosophical concerns. We already apply these methods in everyday life, for example, when choosing a new phone we’ll decide what features are important to us and weigh them against each other. It is in the retailer’s interests to help us reach a decision, so they highlight important attributes (cost, size, camera, etc) and allow us to sort by them. This is similar to narrowing down solutions in engineering design.

Computational Thinking: Problems

There are many concepts to this which are now taught in British schools from an early age. There are also some very good online resources such as Barefoot Computing to provide further information, however I will give a brief overview of it here.

Logic: An understanding of cause and effect. In computing terms this is generally  straightforward, two similar computers will do the same thing in response to the same inputs. With politics and other areas, it’s obviously more complicated. I’ll likely write a longer post on Logic from a philosophical point of view another time, but there’s some excellent Youtube videos on it from Crash Course philosophy already. For the purposes of this post however, it can be condensed into having an understanding of causality.

Decomposition: Breaking down a large problem into its parts. This needs to be done carefully, and is usually a key part of completing any large task. These parts can then be linked together to form Algorithms.

Algorithms: An algorithm is a series of commands or instructions. Cooking recipes are an easy example of this. There are often many ways to accomplish the same task, which can be broken down into an algorithm and compared to find the best one. Route finders on Sat Navs do this.

Patterns: Recognising patterns is very useful for solving problems, as it allows us to come up with generic solutions to apply to the similar problems. e.g. working out the area of a shape by recognising the shape and applying the formula for that shape.

Abstraction: Abstraction is to do with the level of detail required. We can sometimes get too caught up in the details and lose sight of the overall picture. Too much detail can bog you down, but too little can lead to oversights and mistakes. Often this process involves making assumptions and it is important that these are understood and acknowledged.

Evaluation: Evaluation is largely a part handled in engineering design in this post. It is about making objective judgements about problems and the solutions to them. SWOT analysis is one method of completing this.

Computational Thinking also covers various approaches to solving problems such as tinkering (experimenting) and debugging (identifying and resolving problems) which are useful and complimentary to the overall method.

Engineering Design Process: Solutions

This section varies depending on whether you are selecting an existing solution. e.g. you’re making a purchase and trying to select which product to buy, or whether you are making a solution yourself. However broadly speaking you can adapt the approach to either situation.

The first stages in the engineering design process involve conducting research and establishing design requirements. This stage sets the foundations for a project and using the Computational Thinking approaches from above can work very well. In engineering, it often involves a literature review whereby you look at existing solutions, theories, practises and studies. The aim is to not only gain a better understanding of the problem but of how it can be tackled.

The second stage is an open, creative phase whereby you brain storm solutions without critical evaluation of them (Conceptualisation). It is very important to suspend disbelief during this phase and it is often the most fun part. Working in diverse groups can be very beneficial at this stage as different people will come up with novel ideas worth considering.

The creative part can stall sometimes, writers block and being too critical too early can be issues. This blog is something I have planned for months, however I kept being overly critical and never actually getting on with it. I have started writing it in the open, uncritical stage so I can get it moving. Once I have something in writing, I can easily enter the next stage…

Critical evaluation: Once you have generated a lot of ideas you can start to narrow the list down. This is where it’s good to have the problem broken down into criteria which are important to fixing it. How long will it take, how much will it cost, how difficult will it be (feasibility) etc. From this initial pass, you can either just select one solution to develop or take a few forward and partially develop each for comparison (Preliminary Design). It really depends on what sort of problem you’re solving, and how much time and effort its worth putting into it (abstraction).

Once you’ve got a few solutions developed to a far enough stage, you can undertake a SWOT style analysis and take one idea forward, often borrowing viable aspects from alternatives. This is the Detailed Design stage of the process and it is followed by the Production Planning.

In more sustainable development focused design, the end of the life cycle of a product is also considered, how to reduce waste, re-use and recycle parts etc. Life Cycle Analysis of a product may also be undertaken to take account of the impacts of a product in economic, social and environmental terms.

Once you have finalised a design, you test the solution and evaluate it. This is where the Debugging process from Computational Thinking also applies. As in the above diagram, the process is often presented as a cycle of constant feedback and improvement. It is rare that the first solution is perfect, and it is important to gather information on its performance to evaluate it and resolve any issues.

On a side note, is also worth noting that the scientific method is often compared to the engineering design process as the two are very similar, as shown in the following diagram.

So What?

Some of the above may be stating the obvious, but personally I find it a very useful overall method to apply to problem solving generally. I see aspects of it used in everything from Exposure Therapy through to buying a new phone, designing cars and architecture. I particularly find it useful when applied to complex problems, such as sustainable development and politics. I intend to write extensively on those latter subjects and hope that some of the methods described above are apparent in my analysis.

I also hope that anyone who reads this finds these methods useful in their own lives for reflecting on effective problem solving. I absolutely do not think that these methods should be restricted to application in computing and engineering. I have only given a brief summary of these methods here, and subjected it to my own interpretation. There is extensive literature available on both for those who want to know more.