27 March 2011

Census Sensibility

I filled out my Census form today, thankful that my son's recent headlice episode had not re-occurred, which would have forced me to register several hundred overnight guests. I was pleased with my efforts, and I'm quite confident I got most of the answers right, though I was disappointed there wasn't a tie-breaker; 'In 10 ten words or fewer tell us why the maker of the Hellfire II missile system was chosen to count this year's Census'. With 25 million households involved, how on earth will they decide who's won otherwise?

Had there been such a challenge, it wouldn't have been the daftest question on the form. Not even the part where the government demands to know the number of rooms in my house excluding bathrooms, or the method I use to heat them. Although voluntary, Question 20 asked what religion each member of the house was. When I quizzed my 4-year-old daughter, her explanation of transubstantiation was so hopelessly wide of the mark I started to look for a box marked "Scooby Doo". She couldn't even understand the concept of Confirmation Bias that will ensure a skewed result in favour of organised religion in this census, despite dwindling numbers of church attendees.

I think my form must have been incomplete, because there wasn't a corresponding question asking for my political affiliation or that of my children. We've been told in the run-up to this year's Census that it's really important, because spending decisions will be made upon the data revealed. If this is true, you'd think it would be more interesting for the state to know our general feelings towards ideas of state control and freedom, or self-reliance and collective responsibility. How declaring your belief in Middle Eastern prophets should shape the redistribution of state spending is anyone's guess - you might as well ask people if they believe in the infallibility of Nick Clegg.

So despite the protestations of the likes of Anne Atkins, in the eyes of the state, religious beliefs rank higher than anything else you might believe. Though not as important as whether or not you have an outside toilet, which is a compulsory question and probably just as instructive about our British cultural heritage.

22 March 2011

What's the Alternative?

I consider myself to be reasonably well informed. I watch the news not just to laugh at the macho reporting conceits and overblown graphics. I can not only pronounce Jeremy Hunt the Culture Secretary without slipping, I could probably pick him out of a line-up. In fact, I'd have a stab at it for all members of the cabinet - if it weren't for that ASBO. Yet I suddenly realised this week I had absolutely no opinion on the Alternative Vote (AV) system, nor which way I shall vote in the upcoming referendum on the subject.

Obviously, as a consumer of modern news 'content', I would expect both sides of the debate to frame their arguments in a patronising publicity stunt that involved at least one minor celebrity, yet nary a Sian Phillips nor Alex Reid have I seen. No campaigning, no leafleting, little TV coverage. It's as though they are expecting me to actually look things up and read about it. And having done so, I think I've gotten to the bottom of it: no-one actually wants it.

If you look at the position of all major political parties, and quite a few smaller ones, not one of them is actually in favour of this happening. The Conservative Party self-evidently doesn't want it, but even among those supposedly in favour of the change, they mutter it cautiously under their breath. New Labour looked at the idea back in the 90s before they realised how to win an election with only 35% of the popular vote. Even among Labour and Liberal Democrat members who favour the change, most would actually choose the Standard Transferable Vote system over AV. But having asked for steak and got a burger, they feel they have to swallow it in case yesterday's leftover liver and onions is served up instead. The Scottish Nationalists can't even be bothered to formulate an official position on the subject.

The supreme irony would be if a system of government that requires 50% of the vote to be cast for the winning candidate were chosen by less than half the electorate, assuming turnout is at the usual levels of local government elections. Maybe this is somehow appropriate: a government nobody chose asking us to decide on a voting system nobody wants and may well get, despite nobody voting for it. If you should be careful what you wish for, that goes double for something you don't.