Saturday, September 25, 2010

Trade unionists save Labour from itself

I had anticipated that if Ed Miliband was to win, he'd either have to be ahead in the members' section of the electoral college once all the preferences had been redistributed, or only very slightly behind. Clearly that was Nick Robinson's reading too, hence his intensely irritating judgement that listening to his last-minute 'forecast' of a David Miliband victory was far more important to us than the reading out of the actual result! But a much wider margin for Ed Miliband than predicted in the unions' section has essentially saved Labour from itself. One of the stark lessons of the result is just how far the composition of the Labour membership has drifted from the party's traditional roots, a phenomenon that is undoubtedly a legacy of Tony Blair's long spell as leader. But clearly the payers of the (admittedly antiquated) trade union political levy have stayed exactly where they always were. It remains to be seen whether Ed Miliband will, to slightly modify a famous phrase, "rule as a break from New Labour, having run as a break from New Labour", but if he is true to his word, it may well be that over the coming years there will be a convergence in the centre of gravity in the different segments of the Labour movement. Will the Blairite members be the ones who gradually drift off now?

And the impact on next year's Scottish election? As I suggested to Sophia on the previous thread, I'm not sure there is much of one. If there was always a depressingly significant danger of Labour making progress in May whichever Miliband had been elected (and in all honesty I think there was), we might as well relish the long-awaited day that - hopefully - draws a close to the grotesque New Labour era.

A quiet pivot in political history

So Ed Miliband has dramatically overtaken his brother as the favourite to be elected Labour leader with just hours to go. It's unclear whether the rumours fuelling this shift are based on an actual leak from the now-completed count, rather than on the general mood in each camp and on back-of-the-envelope calculations. But if the punters are right, this could be one of the most hopeful days in politics for a long time, as the conceited belief of New Labour's architects that what they had fashioned was irreversible turns out to be - at least to some extent - deluded. If, on the other hand, David Miliband prevails after all, a golden opportunity to construct some kind of meaningful alternative to Blair-Cam-Clegg-ism will have been lost, and for the foreseeable future the three London parties will continue to squabble (or, in the case of the coalition partners, swoon) over the same absurdly small piece of centre-right political turf.

Either way, then, this is a day that really matters. The Labour leadership is an elective dictatorship, and - whichever Miliband is elected - a fortysomething leader could well mean that this is the rank-and-file's one and only chance to genuinely influence the party's ideological trajectory for anything between ten and fifteen years. This is, in a sense, the UK's equivalent of the culmination of the Obama v Clinton battle in the Democratic primaries, with the winner having at least a 50% chance of becoming Prime Minister at some point in the future. Odd, then, that the country is scarcely on tenterhooks, and that in all likelihood a large percentage of the population isn't even aware that the result is about to be announced. But that's the price we pay for what has become the convention of holding party leadership ballots immediately after general elections, when public exhaustion with politics is at its peak.

UPDATE (1.40pm) : If the BBC and Sky are to be believed, it now seems pretty clear that the move in the money to the younger Miliband wasn't triggered by a specific leak from the count, as not even the interim leader Harriet Harman knows the result yet. That contradicts the earlier suggestions that she was to have been told last night, which would have been consistent with a leak. Pity.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Is Ken about to strike a blow against the cult of youth in UK politics?

If Oona King had been selected as Labour's London mayoral candidate today, and a Tory spokesman had reacted by poking fun at her gender or ethnicity, that spokesman would probably already have been fired. So why is it seemingly perfectly acceptable for him to instead sarcastically characterise Ken Livingstone as a "game old boy" who has been "exhumed" by Labour? It's hard to escape the conclusion that ageism is still considered a legitimate mine for political discourse, where racism and sexism long since ceased to be.

Even sober political observers are today wondering if Labour have made a mistake solely on the grounds of Ken's age, with Mike Smithson of Political Betting asking -

"But is Ken the right man to be the flag-bearer? In politics generally the baton is being passed to a younger generation. If Ed Miliband gets it tomorrow then Ken will be a quarter of a century older than his party leader."

Quite honestly, that consideration is gloriously irrelevant. Labour has at least an 80% chance of reclaiming the mayoralty in 2012, and that has very little to do with Ken Livingstone at all, let alone his date-of-birth or his hairline. My fears for next year's Holyrood election are primarily based on the fact that, as the party (wrongly) perceived as the "alternative to the Tories", Labour can expect to prosper when an unpopular Tory government is in power at Westminster - and that logic applies even in an election where the Tories are not their opponents. It will apply a hundred times over in part 2 of the Boris and Ken show. Hopefully one of the effects of the outcome will be to make people question their irrational assumptions about the value of always picking the younger candidate, regardless of other qualities.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Snooker rediscovers some zing

I'm heartened to see that during my absence from the country all seems to have suddenly come right with the snooker world once again. The short-match format of the World Open at the SECC really seems to have put a bit of zing into what would otherwise have been a routine and quickly-forgotten second-tier event, Ronnie O'Sullivan's antics have yet again given the lie to the hoary old complaint that "there are no characters in the game anymore", and most importantly of all, the nightmare of the world number one being handed a lifetime ban from the game for match-fixing has been averted. Many will be sceptical about the circumstances in which John Higgins' name has been "cleared", but personally I've always been much more troubled by the many cases where sportsmen and women have seen the principles of natural justice turned on their head, and have found that they were essentially guilty until proved innocent. A classic example from our own shores was Alain Baxter, who for making an innocent mistake with a nasal spray had his career blighted, lost his Olympic medal, and had to suffer disgraceful slurs from senior administrators who really should have known better, all the way up to the IOC chief Jacques Rogge.


There was a bizarre incident in Stephen Maguire's match last night, when he was warned by the referee for conceding a frame in a situation where he did not yet require snookers. Now if ever there was an irrational rule, surely that must be it. Warnings are appropriate for non-specific offences like unsportsmanlike conduct, but if you don't want players to concede too early, where is the barrier to simply banning it? A rule stating that a player cannot concede a frame in those circumstances without also conceding the match ought to do the trick.

Extending life - on an ever-expanding timetable?

If you happened to see the umpteenth repeat of BBC 4's (peculiar but rather good) comedy/science crossover show It's Only a Theory the other night, you'll have seen the unforgettable figure of the epically-bearded Dr Aubrey de Grey expounding his provocative proposition that the first 1000-year-old human being has probably already been born, due to supposedly imminent breakthroughs in regenerative medicine.  I think the first time I heard of de Grey was a number of years ago when he briefly appeared on an episode of Horizon about the prospects for expanding human lifespan.  I have to say - perhaps due to the way he was edited - he came across on that occasion as rather deranged, comparing the thousands of daily deaths from aging to 9/11, and angrily demanding that something be done to stop the "carnage".  So it was interesting to see him given the time to make his case in a much more measured and logical way.  He doesn't actually claim that the technology that might enable people to live for centuries is just around the corner, but he does suggest that it will be possible within a few decades to extend healthy lifespan by approximately thirty years, and - crucially - that this will buy enough time for further breakthroughs in rejuvenation techniques to be made, which in turn will buy yet more time, and so on.  He calls this process "longevity escape velocity", and it's upon this that he bases his conviction that people currently alive might go on to live unimaginably long lives.

I was sufficiently intrigued by all this a few months ago that I decided to read up on the general subject and see just how far to the fringe de Grey's views actually are within the scientific community.  The answer was slightly surprising.  While (as you might expect) his particular blueprint for the rapid conquest of aging is well beyond the bounds of mainstream thinking, there does seem to be a genuine sense that some kind of breakthrough is forthcoming, with leading experts talking confidently of a more modest seven year increase in healthy lifespan in the foreseeable future.  For the avoidance of doubt, this would not be achieved by the conventional means of tackling specific illnesses, but by genuinely contriving a way in which someone who is, say, chronologically 60 years old, could be biologically a few years younger than that.  So does this mean that the only difference between de Grey and the mainstream scientists is scale of ambition - seven years versus thirty?  Not quite.  There is in fact an almost total divergence of approach, with the majority of scientists in the field working more or less exclusively on the slowing of the aging process, while de Grey intends to reverse it.  His elaborate plan for achieving this ("Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence" or "SENS") is, his critics contend, nothing short of pseudo-science, as there is currently no firm evidential basis for believing it will work - in contrast to the possible methods for slowing aging, which have repeatedly shown their promise through laboratory tests on animals.  Dr de Grey counters that his is a goal-directed engineering approach, something which many curiosity-driven scientists simply cannot understand.  He cites as an example the Wright Brothers, who in the design and construction phase had no way of knowing for sure that their flying machine would work - but if they'd needed that certainty to proceed, they'd never have bothered trying to work towards their goal in the first place.

So it's a kind of theological dispute, but one that matters immensely, because the believers in each approach are in competition for funds and credibility.  Some - although not all - of the mainstream biogerontologists are furious with de Grey, believing his high-profile promotion of what they see as "quackery" is hindering their own chances of progress.  As a non-scientist, I'm clearly in no position to judge if they're right about the unscientific nature of de Grey's ideas, but having read some of his papers and interviews from the last few years, one very simple thing does repeatedly leap out and bug me.  He always seems to state exactly the same timescale for 'longevity escape velocity' - that there is a 50/50 chance of proof-of-concept in mice within ten years, and of the first therapies being available to humans within 25 years.  Clearly, with seven years or so having elapsed since he started making this claim, those numbers should have come down accordingly - instead, they have remained absolutely static.  With no real trace of an explanation for this, the claimed timescale does start to look suspiciously like a sleight-of-hand, solely designed to grab public attention.

Anyway, I'd heard that de Grey was reasonably approachable and might respond to emails, so a few weeks ago I decided to chance my arm and go to the horse's mouth with my concerns.  I think I was also slightly hoping I might get a rare Scot Goes Pop 'exclusive' out of it!  In the end one of his research assistants was kind enough to send me a long and detailed response which, while repeatedly slipping into sales patter, does to be fair address the points I had raised in a very full and frank way -

Hi James,
My name is Michael Rae; I'm one of Dr. de Grey's research assistants, and coauthor of his recent book, "Ending Aging"

(This is the new, paperback edition, which has an Afterword covering some of the advances in SENS science that were made after the publication of the hardcover).

With all of his duties in research, promoting engineering-based biotechnologies to arrest and reverse biological aging, and the promotion the book, Dr. de Grey has for some time been unable to keep up with most of his correspondence; when he received your email, he asked me to send his apologies, and answer your question as best I can.

You wrote:
> I've
> recently read a lot about your work on aging, and while I'm
> obviously not in a position to judge for myself the scientific
> plausibility of your ideas, there is one simple problem that leaps
> out at me (and I'm sure many others) about the credibility of your
> claims.
> In every article and interview I've seen going back to at least
> 2003, you've given exactly the same estimated timescale - a 50/50
> chance of robust mouse rejuvenation within ten years, and of the
> first therapies being available for humans within 25 years.  But if
> you'd been right about that in 2003, we should of course by now be
> just three years away from proof of concept in mice, and eighteen
> years away from the human breakthrough.
> Perhaps what you really mean is that there would be a 50/50 chance
> of meeting these ambitious timescales IF the $1 billion you need
> magically became available right now?

In fact, that's exactly what it means: we could well be as little as 25 years away from the goal *once we get started* . So far, unfortunately, the world has not begun to push for it. While SENS Foundation is doing the greatest amount of leveraged, critical-path work that we can on our limited research budget, and while most of the challenges that need to be tackled for achieving comprehensive rejuvenation are being funded and pursued to one degree or another by government and industry research, still there is nowhere near the level of intense, single-minded commitment worldwide required to achieve this goal.

> If so, that puts a completely
> different complexion on things, because - for better or worse - that
> scale of investment is surely not going to be forthcoming in
> anything close to the foreseeable future, and the chances of hitting
> those timescales in the real world is therefore not 50/50, but
> essentially zero.

Wow, and I thought I was a pessimist! But the idea that there is NO chance that this scale of investment could be forthcoming strikes even me as entirely unreasonable. The 2010 Haiti earthquake got commitments of US$3.3 bn to help out 3 million victims; the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami  got commitments nearly twice that; and to use an hackneyed example, the TARP fund is catechismally invoked as the "$700 bn bailout."

Right now, there are 100,000 people dying of aging worldwide every single day, and many times this number needlessly sliding further down the progressive slide of age-related disease, disability, dependence, and dementia. $1 bn (or several times this) per year is a pittance, even within biomedical research: the NIH got US$$30.5B for FY. 2009, for goodness' sake!

But of course, that doesn't mean it's inevitable, or easy to mobilize. Surely you didn't think that Dr. de Grey was saying that we could all sit on our butts, and business-as-usual would give even odds of human rejuvenation in a quarter century.

> Or, if that's not the case, was there some other factor that was
> holding back the progress of research in 2003 or 2006 that doesn't
> apply now?

It still applies now: it's simply funding, and proactive refocusing of biomedical research and (soon thereafter) some regulatory tweaks.

> I suppose what I'm really asking is this : doesn't it
> seem overwhelmingly likely to you that in 2015 or 2020, you'll still
> be giving media interviews in which you're saying "we could be just
> ten years away from doing this in mice, and 25 years away in humans"?

Overwhelmingly, no -- but very possible in 2015, and plausible in 2020.

So what are you going to do about it >:) ?

If you're ready to help us to hasten progress in SENS science, we have quite a few listed here:

Also, you can pick up a copy of Aubrey's and my book (link above) and, after having read it for your own further understanding, get the word out by passing your copy around to others you know, and/or by donating it to a library, and/or by picking up extra copies for the latter 2 purposes.

Another one: have you checked out _Rejuvenation Research_ ("an international, interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed academic journal that covers all aspects of biology and biomedicine relevant to the combating, and ultimately the reversal, of age-related physiological and cognitive decline in nonhuman species and eventually in humans"), of which Dr. de Grey is Editor-in-Chief)? If you're a student or academic, and your institution has a subscription, you should be able to get direct online access -- and if it doesn't, you can recommend it here:

This would not only give you access to the journal, but would help to disseminate its high-quality biogerontological research at your institution. You would need to get your library's contact info, preferably for the collections department; these are usually available on the 'contact' page, or one can ask a librarian about the right person to contact about a subscription recommendation.

And (naked plug!) remember that you can help to ensure that real age-reversing biotechnology becomes available as soon as possible, alleviating the most age-related suffering and death, by making a donation to support SENS research:

I leave it to you to choose how you will take on the moral and scientific challenge of biological aging. However you proceed: live long -- live young!


So many thanks to Michael for taking the time to respond so thoroughly.  While he clearly genuinely feels there are more grounds for optimism on the funding front than I can conceive of, I do still think Dr de Grey should be fronting up about that crucial caveat to a much greater extent when speaking to the media.  And to address Michael's question (ie. did I really think de Grey was saying his 25-year timescale was in no way contingent on some fairly dramatic changes in thinking on the part of policy-makers) - well, whatever I may have thought, frankly I do believe that is the misleading impression he has been leaving his audience with on many occasions. As for my own "contribution", since I'm not actually a student, nor an academic, nor a millionaire, I think writing this post will probably have to do to be getting on with!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Can the Lib Dems have their coalition and eat it?

In a couple of posts a few weeks ago, I explained my theory that a reconstituted Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition was an unlikely outcome after next May's election.  However, Professor John Curtice's views clearly need to be taken seriously, and in his appearance on the BBC's Politics Scotland this afternoon, he seemed fairly convinced that both Iain Gray and Tavish Scott were inching towards that outcome (assuming the arithmetic allows them to, which of course remains a very big if).  Certainly there can be little doubt from Tavish Scott's increasingly hysterical Nat-bashing rhetoric of late that he at least is positioning his party for the possibility of coalition with Labour.  But I still struggle to see how all this stacks up from Labour's point of view.  Yes, I can see Curtice's point that they will not want to be hobbled by the limitations of minority rule as the SNP have been.  But there's surely another consideration that easily trumps that concern.  The very life-blood of any new Labour administration will be in portraying itself as Scotland's protector against the Tory-led UK government.  How can they do so if they effectively relinquish their licence to demonise that government's man in Scotland, ie. the Lib Dem Secretary of State for Scotland?  Even more general attacks on the UK government would have to be somewhat nuanced if they weren't to risk breaking an alliance with the Lib Dems apart.

My guess is that the Lib Dems' best (and perhaps only) hope for a stable partnership with Labour in Scotland is, ironically, that Hamish Macdonell in the Caledonian Mercury turns out to be right, and that their Westminster coalition with the Tories is already doomed.

When did autocracy cease to be 'conservative'?

Over at my old haunt Political Betting, Mike Smithson is off on one again, implying that it is in some way self-evident that Labour's procedure for electing the Shadow Cabinet in opposition is an anachronism.  Noting that the Labour parliamentary party soundly rejected an opportunity to change the system (ie. by allowing the leader a free choice) just two weeks ago, he suggests that "there is nothing as conservative as a Labour MP".  Ironically, that would of course have been a very shrewd observation had he illustrated it with a thousand other examples, but not this one.  An unwillingness to concentrate yet more powers in the hands of the elective dictatorship that is the Labour party leadership is not so much 'conservative' as...well, faintly democratic.  It's a nod to what the Americans would call "checks and balances" - and there's been precious few of those in the sixteen years since the Labour rank-and-file last had some kind of meaningful say over their own party's destiny.

Indeed, an authentic modernisation would have been to transfer the power to select the Shadow Cabinet from the limited electorate of Labour MPs to the broader party membership.

Fringe benefits

I've just completed a survey on my experience of the Edinburgh Fringe this year.  It was the first time in my life I'd actually got round to attending any shows at the festival, and I had a very nice day - the two plays I saw were excellent, and the organisation much smoother than I anticipated, so I was more than happy to give positive feedback.  However, when I was asked to agree or disagree with the following statement, I did begin to wonder if the organisers might just have a slightly inflated notion of the potential impact of their endeavours...

it made no difference to my well-being (e.g. emotional, social)

When days out in Edinburgh affect my emotional well-being, it's usually got more to do with surly bus drivers.

Incidentally, in case you're wondering, Lockerbie : Unfinished Business wasn't one of the plays I saw - I thought that might be taking one of my fixations of the summer a step too far!  Instead I saw a vivacious performance of Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle by a young theatre group (who I presume hailed from the West Country, unless the choice of accent was totally random) and then a very good contemporary Irish play called Dead.  The latter gave me a taste of the famed rough-and-ready character of the Fringe, with an actor drafted in at the last minute who read his lines direct from the script, and an audience of about ten, half of whom seemed to be either professional reviewers or to have their own shows.  Before the performance started, the reviewers mentioned that they were particularly interested in covering plays about death, at which point two other members of the audience leapt into action and started thrusting leaflets into their hands.  "A character definitely dies in our play," one said, "I promise you".  The other one (a rather sprightly-looking elderly gentleman) thought for a moment, and then triumphantly announced - "You must come to my show.  You see, I'm almost dead..."

Monday, September 20, 2010

Voting rights for prisoners is about the character of the country, not the character of the criminals

I suspect this will be a popular view in very few quarters, but I have to say I'm delighted to hear the reports that the UK government is finally prepared to comply with the European ruling that the blanket ban on voting rights for convicted prisoners must be lifted.  Despite the emotive response this issue always provokes, it isn't actually primarily about the character of those affected, or whether they 'deserve' the right to vote - indeed, once you start thinking of the vote in terms of a privilege that has to be earned (or at the very least can be easily forfeited) you've already undermined the fundamental principle of universal suffrage.  We need look no further than the US to see where that particular slippery slope can lead, with no fewer than five million adults now denied the right to vote - many of whom are not even currently incarcerated.  Needless to say, a hugely disproportionate number of them are from ethnic minorities.  And what else do they have in common?  Well, on the whole, they probably wouldn't be voting for Sarah Palin as President, given the opportunity...

In its US guise, the ban on voting rights for felons is nothing short of selective disenfranchisement (and gerrymandering) on a mass scale, cleverly dressed up as law enforcement.  With the UK prison population already at a historic high, there can hardly be a better moment to take decisive action to ensure we never follow that terrible example.

Catching up...

I've just arrived back from two weeks out of the country, and quite literally the only fragment of information I've had about UK politics over that period was the tantalisingly brief sight of a headline in a British newspaper reading "Shock poll gives Ed Miliband the lead".  Having finally caught up with the figures, my gut feeling is still that David Miliband will win (on name recognition as much as anything), but could there just be a glimmer of hope that Labour is finally ready to move on from Blairism and rediscover a little of its soul?

The other snippet of news I heard overnight was the outcome of the Swedish election.  It's a supreme irony that the success of the far-right could move the administration to the left by forcing Fredrik Reinfeldt to include the Greens or the Social Democrats in his governing coalition, but of course almost the exact reverse has happened in Germany's recent past - in 2005 the left won a natural majority, but the unwillingness of the Social Democrats to work with the ex-communists necessitated a grand coalition of right and left.  I suppose some will predictably leap on results like this as an argument against PR, but the solution to extremist politics can never be to rig the ballot system - it has to be to defeat the arguments, such as they are.