Date of the AV referendum

David Cameron has been urged to rethink plans for holding a referendum on voting reform at the same time as the Scottish Parliamentary election.

Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond said in a letter to the prime minister that holding the votes on the same day could “overshadow” devolved issues.

To be honest, if the voters allow the referendum to overshadow devolved issues, they probably don’t really care enough about those devolved issues. For those that do care, how on earth is an additional unrelated vote going to confuse them?

Tell the electorate what you stand for, outline your policies, if you can’t get your message across to them the failure is yours! A message for any political party.

Featured image Open Science – some rights reserved by gemmerich

Open source and Schools

After reading Peter’s post on this subject I thought I’d weigh in with some thoughts.

In a previous life I worked at a school as a webby-techie sort. This was back in the days before fast internet and the school had serious problems with the speed of the internet with all the children surfing for the same things at the same time. In addition the ISP filtering (and this article isn’t going to discuss whether filtering is good or bad) was fairly rudimentary.

Being a fairly adventurous sort I snagged an old machine and installed Squid (a GPL licenced caching web proxy with filtering support) on it. The school then changed the proxy settings of all PCs to go through the new proxy and we gained a slightly faster system for frequently visited sites, and had the means to block other sites totally.

Once the system had proved how valuable it was, the school decided it needed something better than a random old PC to handle the web cache. Rather than buy a more fit for purpose machine for me to repeat my installation, they promptly paid through the nose for a black-box solution from RM. After basic investigation it turned out that this black-box solution was running nothing other than Squid. The school however had more confidence in a commercially obtained solution than some free thing downloaded and installed in-house.

It is this sort of “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM equipment” mentality that seriously hampers the take-up of free and open source software (FOSS) within schools. To some extent this isn’t surprising. The people making the decisions aren’t usually technical experts, and want to make a decision that they think won’t backfire on them.

What we need are trustworthy organisations to advise and guide schools away from closed proprietary systems and towards open source, and to do so consistently rather than give mixed messages. Maybe a focused single perspective on this issue that saved money could have helped BECTA from being closed down. Maybe not.

If you’re FOSS savvy and know how to install and support this sort of thing but you aren’t prepared to get a job in a school doing this (or volunteer many hours of your time) then it is easy (but not necessarily helpful) to look on the problem from the outside and say something must be done.

The real problem is how do we get the relevant expertise into our schools in a sustainable way? For this I really think the government needs to lead, and in a time of financial cuts across the board, I believe real savings can be made by guiding a lot of the public sector over to FOSS.

Featured image Open Science – some rights reserved by gemmerich

FPTP, AV, and PR

Yesterday saw the announcement of details of the coalition government’s plan for a voting reform referendum.

As suspected true proportional representation (PR) isn’t on the table. Instead the choice is between the current first past the post (FPTP) system and the proposed alternative vote (AV) system.

What is FPTP?

This is relatively simple, and is the current system by which MPs are elected to Westminster. Each member of the electorate has a single vote with which they can express a single preference. The candidate with the most votes wins. This is nice and simple, conventional, and results in, as its detractors would say, in a situation where the winner generally receives less than 50% of the vote. With a 3+ party system, the ‘winner’ usually has more people voting against them than for them. A further disadvantage is that minority views from the electorate are not represented in parliament.

What is AV?

This is a slight variation on FPTP in which the electorate have the ability to express a ranking preference. After counting first preference votes if no candidate has an outright majority (50%+ of the votes) then the last placed candidate is eliminated and any votes they received are redistributed according to the second preference. This process repeats until a single candidate has 50%+ of the votes (or I guess until there is only one candidate left). This system prevents a result in which more people voted against the winner than for the winner, but does still leave minority views unrepresented.

What is PR?

Proportional representation systems vary, but the intended result is to elect a candidates from parties as appropriate to the proportional vote those parties receive during the voting process. There is generally a minimum threshold of votes required, after which if a party receives 10% of the vote, they can expect to win 10% of the seats up for grabs.

This system ensures that (after the certain threshold) the views of the electorate are reflected proportionally in (for example) the House of Commons.

How could PR work in the UK?

This is the big issue. A PR system isn’t really compatible with our current system by which we have one winner per constituency, and would need to go hand-in-hand with other changes. This does present a good opportunity for wholesale democratic changes, though obviously the more you wish to change, the harder it is to get agreement.

Without going into too much detail, one way to incorporate PR into our constituency system would be to still elect one MP per constituency (based on a FPTP/AV system) and tallying up all additional votes nationally to get a sense of the proportion of the country voting for certain parties, and then to use a list system to elect parties to the House of Lords based on the proportion of the vote.

This would maintain the link between MP and constituency, and democratise the House of Lords completely. For those who object to minority-view parties being elected (by very fact that they have the minority of the vote and shouldn’t get to have any power at all – glossing over whether this is a fair perspective or not), there is some consolation that the PR elected candidates only get to provide oversight from the Lords rather than more direct influence in the Commons.

This also mitigates the problems of how to deal with a perceived mandate to govern for a wholly elected Lords – as the election occurs simultaneously with that of the Commons, it is the commons that has the clearer ‘majority’ mandate to govern. Whereas the Lords would only have the ‘minority’ mandate to make sure the views of minorities are heard and considered by government.

Turn about?

With the Liberal Democrats consistently being a strong proponent of proportional representation* it is very disappointing to find them settling for this compromise, especially as it does not seem like a compromise. If the Conservative element of the coalition are reserving the right to campaign for a ‘no’ vote, then why are the Liberal Democrats compromising at all?

Artificial inflation of turn-out

Another disappointment is that there seems to be more uproar over the timing of the referendum as opposed to the exact question of the referendum itself. There seems some concern that presenting the referendum at the same time as other elections is both insulting to those other elections (how?), and also will artificially inflate the rate of response. It is disgusting for elected representatives to be heard suggesting that taking advantage of a voter’s presence in a voting booth to ask for additional voter opinions is artificial. I want to hear our representatives looking for ways to increase voter turn-out, not decrease it!

Yes or No to AV?

If it becomes clear that the only choice on offer in the referendum in FPTP or AV, then it is clear what is better. You can only choose from the options available, and AV is fractionally a better system that FPTP, and as such would have by support.

*To the point where Straw recalled that Clegg, during the general election campaign, told The Independent that the alternative vote system was a ‘miserable little compromise’, and ‘I am not going to settle’ for that.

Copyright and Patent reform

I’ve just read a great post by a fellow PPUKer on Copyrights and Patents, which is well worth a read before you continue reading my post here.

Despite wanting to make non-commercial file-sharing legal, that doesn’t mean the Pirate Party UK wants to allow things such as counterfeiting and people profiting from other people’s works without proper permission. These will remain illegal, though the maximum copyright term will fall from it lasting 70 years after the original author dies, to a maximum of 10 years after the work is created. This is done to encourage the creation of new works, and prevent reselling and repackaging of old work for profit.

When it comes to the Pirate Party‘s copyright position the common counter is about fairness. How fair is it for someone’s work to be taken by others and used without payment? How fair is it for people to take advantage of the creations of others? etc. etc.

This talk about fairness is perhaps what frustrates me the most. How on earth did we reach a point where thoughts, ideas, words, sounds, and other intangible things are treated like physical limited goods that ought to be owned?

How can it be fair that use of an idea be artificially restricted to the person that first conceived it to the point of depriving the rest of society of that idea? The only way it can be fair is if that restriction is finely tuned to provide the perfect balance between giving the creator incentive to be creative, while at the same time making sure the creation eventually becomes free for all of society to benefit from.

Copyright terms of 70 years after the death of the creator very clearly are designed to benefit corporate entities that have copyrights signed over to them rather than benefiting the creator or society.

How can if even be fair if copyright terms were just 70 years even if the creator was still alive? Why should anyone deserve to be paid for 70 years after coming up with an idea? When I spend a year working in my job, I get paid for the year. I have to then keep working to keep getting paid. I recognise creative works can often take many years of unpaid work before being finished, and that’s why a fair balance needs to be struck that allows a creative person to get sufficient financial return for their work.

Frankly if a creator of a piece of work can not recoup sufficient earnings for their time working on an idea within 10 years of announcing it – then the chances are it’s not that revolutionary and useful an idea. At which point why does a capitalist society owe them anything?

It’s that fairness, and the desire to rebalance fairness in favour of the rest of society, that is one of the primary reasons why I am an ardent supporter of Pirate Party policies.

Featured image Books HD – some rights reserved by Abee5

First footsteps into regional administration

Having recently been elected to the august post of Regional Administrative Officer for the South East, I have been taking a more active role in the Pirate Party.

Last Sunday (and any reason other than the England v Germany result to remember the day by is most welcome) I chaired a South East regional meeting for the first time and took great pleasure in meeting some members I’d only previously gotten to know via the party forums.

It was actually a slightly tricky meeting: firstly it’s always difficult to sit around talking about actually doing something other than sitting around, and secondly with the South East covering quite as much geography (was approx a 3 hour drive each way to the meeting from home, and other meetings may take me further) as it does the next meeting is likely to be located such so that that same members are unlikely to be able to make it.

If I hold a meeting every 4 weeks, and if only every 4th meeting repeats a location, it will be quite difficult to gather momentum as in practice the first 3 meetings may have to cover the same ground (with different people), with the 4th-6th essentially just being the second meeting with the attending members. If it takes the third meeting before real productive activity is taking place, that may well be 6 months down the line from now (daunting and not really sounding acceptable to me).

Of course, discussing things on the forums is an alternative, but I really want to reach members who aren’t active on the forums (forums aren’t everyone’s cup of tea), but there’s a hurdle of persuading people to turn up for their first face-to-face meeting (we’re all internet weirdos after all, aren’t we?).

All in all, despite there being many challenges ahead for me, I feel greatly encouraged after Sunday’s meeting. I know that after every subsequent meeting I will feel more encouraged, because there is nothing like meeting up with like-minded individuals and getting into conversation with them to reaffirm my belief in both this party and our objectives.

Hung Parliaments, Unelected Leaders, and Proportional Representation

I voted in the 2010 General Election (if you’re reading this in the future and there were two General Elections in 2010 then I’m referring to the one in May) and have been watching the unfolding politics with interest and a lot of frustration.

It isn’t the unfolding process that irritates me, instead it is fear-mongering and idiocy spouted by some politicians and journalists which is endlessly recycled and rehashed. I understand that the media like a little sensationalism, and thus phrase their questions in a provoking way, but politicians should know better than to pander to this.

In this blog post I will explain my perspective on a variety of issues.

A Lib/Lab coalition would be a coalition of the losers

At this precise moment only 649 seats of 650 have been declared. But of the 649 elected MPs, the one thing we can say about them, is that each and every one of them is a winner. A coalition formed that included 258 winning Labour MPs and 57 winning Liberal Democrat MPs would be a coalition of winning individuals. The important thing to remember is that Parliament is formed of individuals. A Government is formed of individuals that are like-minded enough to generally support each other.

To argue that 306 individuals that broadly agree with each other enough to all call themselves ‘Conservative’ somehow trumps 315 individuals that (might) broadly agree with each other enough to form a ‘Lib/Lab Coalition’ is ludicrous.

It is a fallacy that each and every voter has voted for a single entity. But let’s ignore the way our voting system works for a moment, and just look at percentage share of the vote. The Conservatives got 36.1% share of the vote. That is not a mandate to govern. Labour got 29% of the vote. That is not a mandate to govern. The Liberal Democrats got 23% of the vote. That is not a mandate to govern.

Not a single party has a mandate to govern. But what we do have is three parties which, when considered together, represent the majority of the (voting) country. If we imagine that each of these voters were voting only for a party, then what we ‘deserve’ is a Parliament with more Conservative MPs than Labour ones, and more Labout MPs than Liberal Democrat ones, and debates, policies, and laws coming out of Parliament that reflect those percentages.

In practice, if the Liberal Democrats and Labour are closer on the political spectrum, what we should see, and what the country has ‘asked’ for, are laws coming from Parliament that reflect views closer on the Lib/Lab end of the spectrum, than on the Conservative end. If this is the natural product of a Lib/Lab coalition, then a Lib/Lab coalition is precisely what the voters voted for.

But likewise, if it turns out the Liberal Democrats feel they have more in common with the Conservatives, and Parliament is going to churn out views closer to the Lib/Con end of the spectrum than the Labour end, then what we (as voters) deserve, what we have asked for, is a Lib/Con coalition. but no matter what coalition ends up forming, it is a coalition of winners (ignoring any unelected Peers that are invited in to help *grr*).

The people don’t want an unelected Prime Minister

Voters only get a choice from those candidates standing in the voter’s constituency, and in many cases they have to vote tactically and end up not voting for the person they want, but voting to try and not get the person they don’t want. I do accept that many individuals will vote, either through ignorance or strong for/against feelings, based solely on who is leading the parties, but that is not the choice they have before them unless they are lucky enough to be a constituent where a party leader is standing.

This is actually one reason I didn’t like the ‘Presidential-style’ debates, as it puts too much focus on the party leaders. We don’t have a Presidential-style electoral system, so let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we do.

Perhaps all leaders should be forced to stand in the same constituency (perhaps a special one the size of the whole country), so only one can really win. Which may give us the delightful situation of the ‘Prime Minister’ coming from one party and a majority of elected MPs from a different party. Which of course means we won’t have a Prime Minister, but a President, and we might as well embrace the US electoral system.

The political/electoral system we have allows us to only choose our local MP. It is for parties to select their leader. If you have no confidence in the Labour party selecting their leader, you shouldn’t have voted for your Labour MP. If you didn’t vote for your Labour MP, and Labour win a landslide victory, then you didn’t vote for the Prime Minister in any way shape or form anyway. If Labour then choose to change their leader, and this results ina new Prime Minister, all you are seeing is your democratically elected representatives selecting who the Prime Minister is – and this selection is always up to them anyway. If we the people have no faith in those we elect to make this decision, then we have a bigger problem than an ‘unelected’ Prime Minister.

One last thing on this subject. Right now Gordon Brown is a winning MP. Of those given a direct chance to vote for or against him, he won more votes than anyone else he was up against.

Hung Parliaments don’t work and we don’t want one

Plenty of people signed petitions before and after this election specifically asking for a Hung Parliament, myself includes, because we want a different sort of politics. We want a politics based a little more on co-operation and agreement than a purely adversarial form of politics.

We want, for example, a Goverment that produces laws based on opinions that cross parties, that have gone through lengthy processes of analysis.

Hung Parliaments produce coalition Governments. This works in many other countries, and the only reason it seems unusual and we’re ‘worried’ about how negotiations are taking, is just because we aren’t used to the process.

If our system was used to post-election negotiations, perhaps we’d have a system where a ‘new Government’ wasn’t expected to take office until a month after the election, sort of like the US Presidential system where the new President doesn’t take office until months later.

It seems almost damning to our politicians to state that a coalition would fail to provide a strong government. Why aren’t we electing intelligent eloquent people who know how to debate and negotiate in the bests interests of our country? If we do, if we are, then asking these people to work together should be entirely within their capabilities.

Electoral Reform

I want electoral reform. But I also like a lot in our existing system. I want the formation of Parliament to be more reflective of the votes from the people. I want minority views to be reflected somehow. I also want to keep the link between one constituency and one MP.

This is what I’d like to see:

  • Redistribute constituency boundaries so that they are more equal in voting population size.
  • Remove all unelected members of the House of Lords.
  • Each constituency maps to a single MP (MPC).
  • Each constituency sits within a region.
  • Each region to have a number of additional MPs (MPL) proportionate to region population size.
  • Elections for a constituency should be for named individuals.
  • Elections for a region should be for parties.
  • Elections to be run on a proportional system that guarantees the the resulting constituency MP (MPC) has over 50% of the vote.
  • Votes from all constituencies within a region to be collated proportionally to determine how many additional MPs (MPL) parties get – subtracting successful MPCs from party totals to bias towards smaller parties.
  • All successful MPCs become MPs in the House of Commons.
  • All successful MPLs become members of the House of Lords (perhaps giving each a life peerage, or just a temporary peerage for the duration of their tinme in the House of Lords).

This would allow us to keep the existing relationship between a constituency and its MP. It would allow the Houses of Parliament to have some form of Proportional Representation of the people.

It would not drastically change the nature of the House of Commons by introducing many more smaller parties.

It would remove the undemocratic nature, and provide for an elected House of Lords.

As the Lords would represent more minority views, this mitigates the potential issue of two competing Houses beliving they had a mandate from the people and the Lords calling for more power. It also ensures that the Lords is both elected, and yet not from the same parties as the Commons, and thus ensuring proper oversight from the Lords of the Commons.

The only potential issue I see with this is that as regional ‘MPs’ for the Lords will be selected from party lists it pretty much discourages the selection of independants for the Lords.

What do I really want?

What I really want is to watch and listen to politicians and journalists that speak to one another and to us with respect for our intelligence and respect and real understanding of our political system.

I want to see an end to ‘news’ papers calling Gordon Brown a squatter in 10 Downing Street when he essentially has no responsible choice other than to remain there until a coalition or minority Government has formed.

I want patience and understanding. The country is not falling apart. It took almost 9 and a half months  for Belgium to get a coalition government to form, and the sky didn’t fall in during the wait.

Happy birthday, dear Copyright, happy birthday to you.

Three hundred years ago, today, Copyright was born.

Conceived in 1709 the Statute of Anne, as it is sometimes known, came into force on 10th April 1710. Despite going by the nickname of Copyright Act 1709 it was born with the much grander appellation: ‘An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned’.

Taking another look at that impressive title, we can imagine how the ‘parents’ intended for their product to develop. If they had been cursed with considerable foresight, and saw how Copyright grew-up and developed I believe they would be as horrified as those of us who can see Copyright for the monster it has become.

If we try and draw a parallel between the Statute of Anne (Anne) and recent Copyright legislation, including the Copyright Designs and Patent Act 1988 (CDPA1988) and the Digital Economy Act 2010 (DEAct) we can see a stark difference in their intent.

Anne speaks about ‘encouragement of learning’, breaking the monopoly held by publishers, a 14+14 year protection limitation, and fines for infringment were to be split between the Crown and the author. The very central tenet of Anne was to create a mutually beneficial system between creators and the public that would encourage creativity by giving short-term protections to commercial exploitation whilst ensuring that the very creations themselves would become the free public property of society (public domain).

Contrast this with the language of more recent legislation:

  • In the CDPA1988 protection terms are extended in some cases to 70 years after the death of an author – anyone finding me a dead author who is encouraged to further creativity by this length a term wins a prize.
  • When we come to educational provisions (Remember, Anne was an act for the encouragement of learning) the CDPA 1988 makes the following provision ‘reprographic copying is only permitted within the limit of 1% of the work per three-month period’ and ‘Works may be performed in educational establishments without infringing copyright, provided that no members of the public are present (s. 34): the parents of pupils are considered members of the public’

So who does get excused from ‘respecting’ these new Copyright laws? The CDPA1988 states that ‘Copyright is not infringed by anything done for the purposes of parliamentary or judicial proceedings’. Should we be surprised? Those that have been accused en masse of dishonesty and even theft (expenses) have unfettered parliamentary rights to ignore copyright, and at the same time they point their fingers and accuse others of stealing.

With the technology turning the world on its head, it is important to understand Copyright in the digital age, but when we look at the 2010 Digital Economy Act what we see is a gross misunderstanding from Parliament of (i) the technology, and (ii) the original purpose of Copyright acts. Instead of following Anne in breaking the destructive monopoly of the publishers, vast swathes of the DEAct 2010 were in fact written by those very entities.

So here we are, looking at disastrous new legislation, so how can we pay homage and respect to the original intentions of Copyright on this the 300th birthday? Instinctively we might wish to gather and sing Happy Birthday, but even that simple act is now fraught with difficulties and Copyright implications. Were we to try and do this publicly, we’d either need a licence to do so, or we would risk breaking the law.

Ban DRM petition

I recently signed an online petition at the UK government website putting my name down for a ban on DRM. The government has kindly put up a response.

I have my own response to this:

They say:

‘We believe that they should be able to continue to protect their content in this way.’

This implies that they OWN the content, whereas it is my view that the purpose of copyright/patent/etc law was for the government to grant temporary monopolies to content creators to encourage the creation process, and that after the duration of the temporary monopoly expired the work returned ‘back to the people’.

Surely the only logical purpose to encourage content creation is to enrich society.

Surely society benefits by the content ultimately being owned by the people as a whole.

While I accept the logic that content creators should get to benefit in the short-term as a reward for creating the content, I believe it to be counter productive to forget that content should ultimately belong to all of society.

Labelling the content as being owned by the creators allows this point to be forgotten all to easily.

Another important aspect of DRM is that if we the people can not make copies freely, then we can not leverage our ownership of it once the copyright expires – DRM essentially becomes a means for content creators to extend copyright terms indefinitely.

Any reasonable law governing DRM should very clearly put an obligation onto copyright creators (protecting their work with DRM) to provide an unprotected copy for public use upon the expiration of the copyright term.