Thursday, 18 February 2010

An emergency motion on anthrax-contaminated heroin and draft supporting speech

Conference notes with concern:

That 21 injecting heroin users have contracted anthrax infections from contaminated heroin in Britain since December last year, with 10 of these infections proving fatal.

That the Health Protection Agency advice issued in response to this developing crisis is unlikely to reach injecting heroin users and unlikely to significantly change their behaviour, and that treatment service availability is often insufficient if users do seek help.

Conference further notes:

A growing number of European states are providing treatment-resistant heroin addicts with pharmaceutical heroin for supervised consumption and have observed considerable benefits both to the patient and to the wider community as a result of this practice.

That experience from these countries and from trials in the UK show heroin to be considerably more effective than methadone in improving patient and societal outcomes.

Conference believes:

The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.

Provision of alternative pharmaceutical sources of heroin to injecting heroin users in the geographical areas affected would not only protect them from the risk of anthrax infection, but protect the communities in which they live from the criminality they are often compelled to engage in to service their addiction.

Conference therefore calls for:

The United Kingdom authorities to expand provision of clinics where addicts can use pharmaceutical heroin under medical supervision, with urgent priority given to regions affected by anthrax-contaminated heroin.

Potential speech:

The killer stalking heroin addicts in Britain today is the same killer that provoked me to found Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform last year. There are eerie parallels between the health authority's current pleas to heroin addicts to stop taking heroin and the police pleas in 2006 asking girls working on the streets of Ipswich to “look out for each other”. Both are utterly inadequate in the face of an unfolding tragedy.

The final victim of Steven Wright gave an interview with ITV news 5 days before she disappeared. When Paula Clenell was asked “Despite the dangers, why have you chosen to come out tonight?” she replied “Because I need the money. I need the money.” When someone is a heroin addict, and knows they run a high risk of being murdered if they continue to try to fund their habit, but they work the streets anyway... surely we can learn from this that heroin addiction isn't something you can just stop.

So what is the killer stalking heroin addicts today? Is it incompetence in the relevant government authority? Or is it public indifference failing to demand that action is taken? How much do we really care when a prostitute goes missing or a heroin addict dies? I know I cared a great deal more after watching a documentary that profiled the young women who died in Ipswich. They were just ordinary girls living ordinary lives who made one mistake in taking heroin and couldn't escape its clutches. Heroin addicts aren't feral animals, they are people's sons and daughters, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers and friends. Their mistake in taking heroin does not exclude them from their right to health laid down in the constitution of the World Health Organisation and restated in the body of this emergency motion.

In order to illustrate what prescribed heroin might bring to our communities I shall now read an excerpt from a journalistic piece written in 1995 by Mike Gray about the closure of a clinic in Widnes. Heroin prescription used to be widespread in the UK, but had been scaled back under diplomatic pressure from the US.

“In March of last year I visited the Chapel Street Clinic and met with several of the patients. I sat in on a group session where eight heroin users discussed their lives and problems with a counselor before picking up their prescriptions for pharmaceutical heroin. Unlike the junkies we are used to seeing, this group was virtually indistinguishable from any other bunch of young adults on the streets of Liverpool. They were well dressed, talkative, energetic -- they had jobs -- and they used heroin daily.

One was a young woman named Juliette who had been an addict for 13 years. She came from a middle-class background, married a rich kid who got her into heroin, then left her with two kids and no money. She tried desperately to kick but couldn't make it. Somehow for ten years she managed to stay afloat through petty theft and prostitution, with the authorities breathing down her neck. Finally, terrified that they were about to take her kids away, she happened to find the right doctor and he sent her to John Marks. Marks gave her a check-up, satisfied himself that she was indeed a heroin addict, and wrote her a prescription.

"For the first time in ten years," she said, "I had spare time. I didn't have to worry that my dealer wouldn't show -- I didn't have to worry about the price or where to steal the money. So for the first time in ten years, I had a minute to look in the mirror. I looked and I said, `Oh, my God.' Then I looked at the kids, and I said, `What have I done?' All these middle-class values came flooding back in on me.

" Today Juliette has a job, a house, and a mortgage. The kids are in school and doing well. Everybody's in excellent health. And once a week she comes to Chapel Street for her prescription. I asked John Marks what will happen to Juliette on April 1 (when the clinic closes). He said, "Well, she'll go down the tubes."

This isn't going to be an easy process. Each addict will suddenly have free time to reflect on the shameful things they have done over the course of their addiction. But tens of thousands of families can be reunited with loved ones they may have thought lost forever.

I suspect there are very few of these people in the audience today (this is a Liberal Democrat conference after all), but if you are ruled by your wallet and not your compassion, then the cost of providing safe heroin to addicts is tiny relative to the estimated £60,000 yearly cost to society that the average problem drug user constitutes at present. They don't want to die a slow, painful death from an anthrax infection. I'm fairly sure they don't want to be stealing, dealing and prostituting themselves either. Provision of safe heroin under medical supervision means they really don't have to.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Lib Dems need to embrace the Alternative Vote while they can.

There has been much pillorying of Gordon Brown's Alternative Vote proposals on the Lib Dem blogosphere of late. On some counts the detractors are pretty much spot on. Gordon Brown is probably doing this as a desperate attempt to win over some tactical voting Lib Dems at the next election. Yes, STV would be more proportional and yes, AV could create "Anyone but X" backlashes against an incumbent government that could bring about large swings of power. The argument that AV could bring about less proportional representation than First Past the Post isn't really valid though. As soon as voters are asked to rank candidates in order of preference you can't judge proportionality by the relationship between a parties 1st preference vote share and their seat share. One of AV's strengths is that is asks more than the FPTP question: "which of the candidates that have a realistic chance of winning would you rather represented you in parliament?" It asks "How would you honestly rank the candidates in order of preference if you knew that supporting your favourite candidate over your tolerated candidate will not benefit a candidate you emphatically do not wish to represent you?" An AV result might not more proportionally represent people's first preferences, but it will certainly more accurately represent their stated preferences.

Also, we need to ask how proportional the STV - the liberal's favoured system - would be and would we really want greater proportionality. STV is not a system of proportional representation. Electoral systems do become more proportional the greater the number of representatives there are representing each seat, but where would it be proper to stop? One representative per seat is on the same continuum as 10 representatives per seat. If we don't go far enough, people will complain about their views not being represented. If we go too far we risk opening parliament up to fascists, communists, anarchists, religious fundamentalists and - if we get it properly wrong - monster raving loonys and Melanie Phillips. Do we want a dozen or so BNP MPs in parliament? Is there a point in proportionally representative democracy where people's opinions become better represented than their best interests?

How would STV work for geographically remote constituencies? Would the Western Isles remain represented by one MP while areas of London get 10? How fair would it be for the people of the Shetlands to be not only competing for their MPs' time with people on the Orkney Islands, but people on the Mainland 200 miles away?

Also, what makes you so sure the people would vote for STV? Are you certain that the voters aren't rather fond of the constituency link? The last referendum on replacing FPTP with STV was in May last year in British Colombia and was voted down by 61.3% to 38.7%. If AV were to become a reality I suspect pushing STV would be even harder and AV would not be a stepping stone to STV, but an end in itself. I think all Liberal Democrats should be happy with that.

In those countries that actually have STV already there's certainly not a consensus that it is the best political system around. Last week Mick Fealty of the Slugger O'Toole blog was a guest on the House of Comments podcast discussing electoral reform with Mark Thompson (Mark Reckons): (Feb 3 about 30 minutes in). His contribution was really rather critical of STV in Ireland, stating that it "favours the interests of the parish over the state" and that STV had created a parliament of social workers rather than a parliament of legislators. Having multiple candidates from each party running for election from each constituency often means representatives have to be slavishly attentive to their constituents and especially their local party members if they wish to gain the necessary support to be re-elected. Do we want our MPs to be spending time fussing over an unsteady constituency wall or a badly written policing bill? Are safe seats actually a good thing for democracy? How much time do MPs in marginal seats spend seeking out and grinning at fairly meaningless photo opportunities?

So STV is far from perfect, but what of AV, the electoral system that is actually on offer? Firstly, I should explain that the polls you see in the media on voting intention aren't opinion polls. They are likely behaviour polls. Every election carried out under FPTP* does not encourage the public to vote honestly for the candidate they favour. AV would grant us the right to vote for the party whose policies we genuinely support without fear of "letting the wrong one in". I for one will support honest representation whenever it is offered to me and I ask all Lib Dem MPs to do the same.

If you see safe seats as bad for democracy then you can build mechanisms into the system to combat this. By way of example, compelling two-term incumbents with substantial majorities to to go up against an alternative candidate from within their party should keep them honest whilst not harming the chances of that party being represented.

Negative campaigning could damage a party's chances of gaining second preference votes from supporters of the candidate they have attacked. Might AV bring about positive, policy-focussed campaigning?

Perhaps the most striking and important example of how AV could have changed history can be found in the American presidential elections (From Wikipedia): "In the 2000 presidential election in Florida, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by 537 votes. Ralph Nader received 97,421 votes, which led to claims that he was responsible for Gore's defeat. Nader, both in his book Crashing the Party and on his website, states: "In the year 2000, exit polls reported that 25% of my voters would have voted for Bush, 38% would have voted for Gore and the rest would not have voted at all." " Had Nader's supporters been able to express a second preference, it seems likely that George W. Bush would not have been President of the United States of America.

First Past the Post prevents any minor party becoming a major party as in their infancy a vote in their favour will always be regarded as a wasted vote (Most dramatically demonstrated in the US). This is fundamentally undemocratic. It discourages those whose views are similar to an existing candidate's from standing as they might reduce that candidate's chances of victory. That is also fundamentally undemocratic. Should a single issue candidate wish to stand under AV they would be able to point to voters honestly voting for them as a true demonstration that the issue is important to the electorate. Under FPTP, even if people share their views, they will not be able to support them without "wasting" their vote and losing their say in the battle for first place. This is also fundamentally undemocratic.

I hope the amendment tabled by the Lib Dems to ensure that the next government is compelled to return to parliament should they wish the referendum to be shelved is passed. This bill may be the desperate act of a Prime Minister trying to cling to power, but that is no reason to vote against the greatest opportunity Britain has ever had for a better democracy.

Honest representation is essential for this country to move towards genuinely progressive politics and I will tactically vote Labour at the next election if this bill passes and I believe it will help eliminate the tactical vote from all the elections that follow. I will do the very thing I despise to hasten its demise.

We should not support this bill because it will benefit the Lib Dems, but I shall leave you with John Cleese and the thought that AV might free the voters who believe in Liberal Democrat policies to actually vote for Liberal Democrat candidates:

*A misnomer as their is no vote share "post" in each constituency which you need to pass. Theoretically the BNP could win a 5-way marginal with 21% of the vote. AV would be more fittingly called First Past the Post as the first person gaining more than 50% of the vote is elected.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Considering people's second preferences could win the Lib Dems 35 extra seats!!!!

It looks like the Lib Dems are gearing up for perhaps the stupidest piece of political foot-shootery ever carried out by human beings. The AV referendum bill is going to be voted on next week and it seems likely that many Labour backbenchers will refuse to back it. It it does not pass because of lack of Lib Dem support then it will have been the single most selfless (and astonishingly stupid) political decision ever made. I have written previously on the benefits of the AV system:

but have now considered the polling results contained within this document: (pages 8&9) that indicate a massive preference for the Lib Dems as a second preference from supporters of both Labour and the Tories. I have gone through all the Liberal Democrat target seats in which we came in second, studied 2005 results (and notional results) and added 86% of Tory votes when they came in 3rd and 66% of Labour votes when they came in 3rd to the Lib Dem vote tally. Presuming minor party votes are shared equally between the Lib Dems and their competitor, and excluding the consideration that Lib Dem candidates would benefit from reduced tactical voting and increased engagement in our policies, AV would have given us about 35 extra seats, 98 in total.

This is just an estimate based on a poll and some crude (but appropriate) analysis, but it demonstrates quite clearly to me that any Lib Dem MP thinking of voting against this bill needs a good slap. Seriously people, sort yourselves out.