Pessimism, propaganda and politics

I can’t be on the only one being crushed into learned helplessness and pessimism by the triumphalism of the far right taking over British politics, and the impending Festival of Brexit. Unlike the Brexit referendum result, the election of Trump and the results of past elections in the UK, this time I knew it was coming. But that hasn’t made it easier to accept. So how did we get here? And what should we do now? I figured I’d split some content out from a diversion on a previous blog and then share some thoughts about the leadership of the labour party.

It seems evident we are now in a time of propaganda and fear-mongering, where the truth has been lost amongst distortions and misinformation. Adam Curtis captured this prophetically in Charlie Brooker’s 2014 end of the year show (shown in two tweets from the marvellous Carole Cadwalladr here). Misinformation and bias is now pervasive in the way we receive our news, which is mostly delivered via social media and decided by algorithms based on past viewing choices in a way that reinforces our narrow bubbles. The news we read is skewed by the need to to keep us coming back to see the advertising content that funds it. And that means it is full of carefully curated fear, uncertainty and doubt, in between the filler of social media anecdotes and celebrity gossip. No wonder it feels like there are so many layers of bad news in the world at the moment.

Even when we take the time to read a newspaper cover to cover, we hear about so many hideous individual crimes not just in our locality but nationally and internationally because the world is so connected now – the latter often only identifying their location way down the article, meaning the headlines make us feel these are all risks that affect us personally. It makes it feel like the world is getting more dangerous even though the reverse is actually the case. There seem to be so many horrendous incidents of stabbings and shootings, and the ongoing human cost of the various war/conflicts going on in the world. And we start to feel as powerless as we do about the terrible weather events of different types that are being reported all around the world, from forest fires to floods and loss of ice fields. You’d think we know enough already to stop the global warming that is fueling the volatile weather, address the causes of conflicts and mediate solutions, and have effective police and criminal justice systems around the world. But no. It seems as developed nations, we prefer to make superficial changes to actually implementing real change when it comes to the environment.

Sadly, that is no surprise given the disproportionate influence multinational corporations have over policy. We seem to have increasingly allowed the super-rich and corporations to covertly buy influence through donations and lobbying. This lets them promote the kind of politicians who will increase the wealth gap further still, remove consumer protections and “red tape” and allow creeping privatisation of public services. The same forces let the far right foment prejudice and anger through internet and tabloid propaganda, so the focus of blame is always downwards toward vulnerable groups and not upwards to those with wealth and power. To compound and consolidate this, in the UK we have chosen to immobilise our entire system of government, civil service and public and private sector management for three years whilst deciding how many feet to shoot ourselves in under the banner of Brexit. This has never been more obvious than in the last week, where we are now poised to undermine all the checks and balances, and scupper the next few years of economic growth to entrench this new post-truth hard right populist culture for future generations.

And whilst the Labour party try to elect a new leader with the credibility and passion to challenge this, the left is fragmenting rather than regrouping. I’ve seen so many posts about Corbyn and Corbynism, trying to make out that idealogical purism is still the way forward, that we lost the election but won the argument and should do more of the same. Another Angry Voice posted as if it was irrational fear of renationalising transport and utilities that was the problem, concluding “If you’re afraid of Jeremy Corbyn’s economic policies, I’m afraid you’re pretty much the dictionary definition of a narrow-minded little Englander aren’t you?” I couldn’t disagree more. Frankly, I doubt many progressives disliked Corbyn’s policies, especially individually. However, together his policies will have seemed very disruptive and expensive not just to conservatives but to a lot of the middle ground and left-of-centre voters that are so vital in gaining a majority in UK politics – meaning he didn’t have mass appeal. Yet he was undoubtedly a good guy – warm, kind, genuine and thoughtful, and held in high regard by everyone who knows him personally. So was this also an example of a tendency to make snap judgements by first impressions, another consequence of unhelpful stereotypes of what a good leader is like, proof of a corrupt media or some combination of all of these things? I’m not sure.

Even to the diehard lefties (and I’d consider myself left of Blair, and someone who had great hopes for Corbyn in the beginning) Corbyn wasn’t the right fit for the job of heading up the opposition or being elected prime minister. Many of us worried about his leadership ability, his ability to be decisive and persuasive, to convey ideas in simple soundbites, and his failure to crack down on antisemitism within the party – giving the biased millionaire-owned media a stick to beat him with. But most of all, we worried about his choice not to articulate that Brexit was a tax evasion ploy by the super-rich that would harm the most vulnerable most, but also cause child poverty, cuts in public services, the break-up of the union, weaker negotiating positions that allow US pharmaceutical companies to charge more to the NHS and infringement of our right and liberties. Instead he believed/pretended that labour could offer a “good Brexit” of some kind, and lost half his supporters. He then failed to form any kind of progressive alliance, and instead allowed attacks on progressive peers in other parties, which was the nail in the coffin for the election.

So where do we go from here? Is it just about getting a new leader who gives a better first impression? It seems to me that politics has polarised the historic broad and diverse parties on either side of the house into narrow camps at either extreme of the political spectrum, leaving a lot of us disenfranchised by the first past the post voting system and the recurrent gerrymandering of constituency boundaries. We can see it in the hard-right Brexiteers that now dominate the Conservative party, but we can also see it in the way that a dominant and vocal minority supporting Corbyn and accepting no deviation towards incorporating a broader range of voices or considering what policies might be popular or electable has taken over the Labour party. Perpetuating this narrow view of purist socialism in which everyone else is “narrow minded” or a “red tory” is a very significant part of the problem – to win elections you need mass appeal, not to attack and alienate anyone even one degree outside of your bubble. I think Tim Minchin is right that its a massive problem with social media culture that the Overton window for each tribe is now tiny and any deviation leads to people being shamed and out-grouped (“I am afraid to write anything that might upset my own tribe”).

As this twitter thread articulates, I’d much rather have a centre-left prime minister doing many cumulative good things that are slightly less rapid or radical, than for all my beliefs to remain represented by an increasingly narrow, segmented and ineffective opposition. An amazing amount can be done within a party and set of policies that have broad appeal. For all his flaws, the centre-left Blair government made a huge amount of impact in numerous areas:

They lifted 600,000 children and 1 million pensioners out of poverty, provided winter fuel payments, free bus travel for over 60s, free TV licenses for over 75s, and improved a million social homes. It doubled school funding for every pupil, added 36,000 extra teachers and 274,000 teaching assistants, transforming education, leading to record literacy and numeracy. They opened 2,200 Sure Start centres and provided free nursery places, giving a better future for millions. They raised child benefit by 26%, introduced child tax credit and 3 million child trust funds. They invested in the NHS, employing 85,000 more nurses, cutting NHS waiting times by 82% and got in-patient waiting lists down half a million. Heart disease deaths fell by 150,000 and cancer deaths by 50,000. They implemented the smoking ban that has contributed to a 30% decline in the number of smokers in the UK, with massive impact on numerous health morbidity statistics. They created NHS Direct. They also improved employment rates and conditions: they introduced minimum wage, created 1.8 million new jobs, cut long term unemployment by 75%, doubled the number of apprenticeships, and introduced right to 24 days holiday and 2 weeks paternity leave. They employed 14,000 extra police, cut crime by 35% and increased criminal justice (court) spending by 21%. They negotiated peace in Northern Ireland, brought in the Human Rights Act, doubled overseas aid, wrote off debts for the poorest nations and created GiftAid. They Scrapped Section 28 and introduced Civil Partnerships. They banned fox hunting, and gave free entry to museums and art galleries. They also managed to couple this with the longest period of low inflation growth since 1960, and created less debt than the governments before or since them, despite bailing out the banks. I’d say that’s pretty remarkable, and something to aim for achieving again.

However, at the last election, perhaps because of Brexit and this ideological purism – we (on the progressive left) didn’t manage to instill hope for positive change in the people of Great Britain, or to challenge the vacuous headline of “get Brexit done”. The election results were depressing but felt somewhat inevitable. As frustrating as it is that we have a government the majority of the population didn’t vote for, giving us a hard brexit that the majority of people don’t want, whilst we watch the world polarise and allow neo-fascist populists to rise, there are some tiny silver linings: The Tories have to work out how to do Brexit and will be responsible for the consequences and, hopefully, the Brexit party are gone.

I think this time around we need to pick someone who stands for all the right values, but has been able to articulate them in a way that has made real traction and can engage a much wider range of people. As much as I’d like that to be a woman, ideally from the north of England, supported by someone with a differing ethnic or cultural background, from the line-up on offer, I think Keir Starmer is the right person for the job. He’s spent his whole career knowing, following and effectively challenging the rules and processes of the legal system for the benefit of ordinary people, including challenging corporations and government policies and holding them to account. And he has done so without seeking personal glory, or making a reputation as a troublemaker. Whilst I really like Jess Phillips, I think she is too marmite to gain mass support and bring the country back together. Emily Thornberry seems nice, but very much a part of the north London bubble, and I don’t think the other candidates have the public profile or despatch box clout of Starmer,and we will at least get Angela Rayner as deputy leader.

Picking yet another white man from London for a political leadership role feels frustrating, as it plays into all the stereotypes of what a leader looks like. But I’m prepared to make compromise to get greater influence for progressive policies that will make the biggest impact on diversity in the long term. Plus we can only choose the most credible candidate standing. And for me that’s Keir Starmer. Hopefully he can bring the party together, tackle the scourge of antisemitism, and speak out in a way that appeals to a much wider demographic and geographic population than his predecessor.

I sincerely believe that if we all work together to encourage compromise and collaboration hopefully a more effective opposition can rise from the ashes that is more willing to be welcoming to a broad range of voters and more able to articulate how the current government continues to benefit the richest few at the cost of the rest of us, and particularly the most vulnerable in society. We need to show that the choices that Johnson and his remarkably homogeneous new pack of white male cronies are making are directly responsible for harming the welfare of large numbers of Brits. Current Conservative MPs being only 24% women and 6% BME is pathetic, and the greater diversity of candidates on the left should bring us a plurality of ideas and allow us to appeal to a wider demographic and opinion range amongst voters, if we get out of the silo mentality.

But more than that, we need to take on the issues. We need to campaign for environmental action nationally and internationally, strengthening of the legal system, an end to racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, islamophobia and discrimination, and the important task of electoral reform, so that we don’t end up with scumbags in power or people who lose elections being given cabinet roles via the House of Lords. And we need to grasp the nettle with proper regulation of social media as a publisher. But they will only take action if enough of us insist on it. As I said earlier, the million dollar question is whether we want things to change enough to take action, and to find common ground. I’ll end with the wise words of Jo Cox, “we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us”. So let’s act like it!

16/2/2020: Lisa Nandy just made a really good speech about anti semitism that has really raised my opinion of her, so maybe there is a woman from the north that can do the job after all!

The misrepresentation of evidence

About a week ago I was involved in a heated twitter debate about this blog post. I felt, as I said on twitter and in my extensive comments about the blog, that it entirely misrepresented the evidence about Adverse Childhood Experiences by implying that because of risk multipliers within particular population groups, certain negative outcomes were almost inevitable for people with multiple ACEs. The author repeatedly asks rhetorical questions like “If 1 in 5 British adults said they were abused in childhood in the last CSEW (2017), why hasn’t our population literally collapsed under the weight of suicides, chronic illness, criminality and serious mental health issues?” Likewise, she asks how anyone can be successful after childhood abuse if the ACEs research is correct. I replied to explain that this simply isn’t what the data tells us or what risk multipliers mean, so the exceptions are expected rather than proof the finding is incorrect. For example the claim that a 1222% increase in the risk of suicide amongst people with 4 or more ACEs meant these people were doomed, in reality means that the odds increase from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 92, meaning that 91 of every 92 people with 4+ ACEs do not die by suicide.

ACEs are a very useful population screening tool, and have provided incontrovertible evidence of the links between traumatic experiences in childhood and numerous social, psychological and medical outcomes that has been highly informative for those of us designing and delivering services. To me it seems like an example of how a simple piece of research can have a massive impact in the world that benefits hundreds of thousands of people. Yet that blog repeatedly implies ACEs are a harmful methodology that “targets” individuals and to is used to “pathologise and label children, arguing that those kids with the high ACE scores are destined for doom, drugs, prison, illness and early death”. It has been my experience that ACEs are used not to pathologise individuals, but to to highlight increased vulnerability, and to identify where there might be additional need for support. For example, I have used this data to argue for better mental health services for Looked After Children.

I felt that the repeated misrepresentation of the maths involved in interpreting risk multipliers undermined the entire message of the blog, to which I was otherwise sympathetic. (For the record, it is entirely appropriate to highlight bad practice in which it seems certain professionals are applying ACE scores to individuals inappropriately, and making people feel that their life chances are restricted or their parenting under scrutiny purely because of their childhood experiences of trauma). But unfortunately the author took my polite, professional rebuttal of elements of her blog as a personal attack on her – to the extent that she misgendered and blocked me on twitter, and refused to publish my response to her comments about my reply to her on the blog. That’s a shame, as the whole scientific method rests on us publishing our findings and observations, and then learning from the respectful challenge of our ideas by others with knowledge of the topic. But I guess we are all prone to defending opinions that fit with our personal experience, even if they don’t fit with the evidence.

Thinking about how uncomfortable it felt to see someone I considered to be a peer whose expertise I respected misrepresenting the evidence and being unwilling to correct their misconceptions when challenged, but instead trying to discredit or silence those making the challenge, it struck me that this was an example that highlighted a wider issue in the state of the world at the moment. Evidence is being constantly misrepresented all around us. Whether it is the President of the USA saying there is a migrant crisis to justify a wall (or any of the 7644 other false or misleading statements he has made in office) or the claims on the infamous big red bus that Brexit would give the NHS £350 million per week, or Yakult telling us their yoghurt drink is full of “science (not magic)” now that they can’t pretend live cultures are good for digestive health. There are false claims everywhere.

I stumbled into another example just before I started writing this blog, as I (foolishly) booked accommodation again through booking.com, despite the horrible experience I had last time I tried to use them (which remains unresolved despite the assurances from senior managers that they would reimburse all of my costs). The room was terrible*.

So I felt like I should be able to reflect my negative experience in my review. But oh no, Booking.com don’t let you do that. You see, despite seeing that properties appear to have scores out of ten on every page when booking, you can’t score the property out of ten. What you can do is to determine whether you give a smiley that ranges from unhappy to happy for each of their five ratings (which don’t, of course, include quality of sleep or feeling safe). So if you think the location was convenient, the property gets a score above five out of ten, no matter what other qualities mean you would never wish to sleep there again. But worse than that, the Booking.com website forces reviewers to give a minimum length of both positive and negative comments, but only displays the positive comments to potential bookers. So my “It was in a quiet, convenient location” gets shown to clients, but you have to work out how to hover in the section that brings up the review score, then click the score to bring up the averages, then click again to access the full reviews, and then shift them from being ranked by “recommended” to showing them in date order to actually get an objective picture. Then you suddenly see that at least half the guests had terrible experiences there. However, there is no regulator to cover brokers, and fire regulations and legal protections haven’t caught up with private residences being divided up and let out as pseudo-hotel rooms.

But just as Boris has faced no consequences for his bus claims (even though he stretched them further still after the ONS said he had misrepresented the truth), and Trump no consequences for his lies, and the consultants selling contracts worth hundreds of thousands of pounds of public funds to children’s social care departments proudly told me they didn’t care about evidencing their claims, so the world carries on with little more than a tut of disapproval towards people and businesses who intentionally mislead others. Maybe I’m in the minority to even care. But I do care. I feel like it is the responsibility of intelligent people and critical thinkers, people in positions of power, in the professions and particularly in the sciences, to ensure that we are genuinely led by the evidence, even if that makes the picture more complicated, or doesn’t confirm our pre-existing beliefs. To counteract this age of misinformation, we all need to be willing to play our part. That is why I have always placed such a focus on evaluations and research, and have developed my screening tools so slowly and thoroughly, despite the fact that potential customers probably don’t see this as necessary. I believe that as much as possible, we should be promoting the value of evidence, educating the public (including children) to be able to think critically and evaluate the evidence for claims, and stepping up to challenge misleading claims when we see them.

*I booked a room in a property in London which they have euphemistically called “Chancery Hub Rooms” to stay over whilst I delivered some training in Holburn. It wasn’t a hostel or a hotel, but just a small terraced house. This time it had keypad entry to the property and to the individual room, which is a system that I have used successfully several times in Cambridge. Unfortunately it didn’t work so well in London, as they changed the codes twice without informing me. Once this resulted in locking me out of the room on the night of my arrival (and meaning that the beeping on the door as I tried the various codes they sent me woke the lady in the neighbouring room, due to the total lack of sound insulation in the property) and then by locking me out of the property the following evening, when all my stuff was locked inside. It also had glass inserts above the room doors that meant your room lit up like Times Square when anyone turned the landing light on. I then discovered that the building (which I already recognised to be small, overcrowded and not complying with fire regulations) had walls like cardboard, when the couple in the next room had noisy sex, followed by noisy conversation and then a full blown argument that lasted from 3am to 4am – despite me eventually in desperation asking them quite loudly whether they could possibly save it for a time that wasn’t keeping everyone else in the building awake. Of course Booking.com didn’t see it as their problem, and the property management company just blamed the other guests for being inconsiderate.