Friday, May 01, 2015

Election prediction using my model

The BBC's "Poll of Polls" currently looks like this:

Con: 34%
Lab: 33%
UKIP: 14%
LibDem: 8%
Green: 6%
Other: 5%

I fiddled around a little with my model, and came up with the following:

Defection Con-UKIP - 0.16

Defection Lab-UKIP - 0.11

Loss of votes for Lib when not incumbent - 0.75

Loss of votes for Lib when incumbent - 0.3

Lib transfer votes to green - 0.25

Lib transfer votes to UKIP - 0.1

Lib transfer votes to Labour - 0.3

Lib transfer votes to nationalist - 0.25

BNP transfer votes to UKIP - 0.8

Lib transfer to nationalist that go to labour - 0.5
if no nationalist candidate

Swing Lab/Con/Lib-SNP - 0.35

Swing Lab/Con/Lib-PC - 0.1

Greens standing in 90% - assume all
Defection Lab-Green for new candidate - 0.06

This resulted in the following outcome in terms of percentages and seats:

Con Lab LibDem SNP PC Green BNP UKIP
Percentage of vote 33.4% 33.7% 7.7% 4.6% 1.3% 6.2% 0.4% 12.7%
No of seats obtained 274 270 21 59 7 1 0 0
There are flaws in the model, I've spotted errors in the calculations. However, the numbers are satisfyingly close to the percentages that the opinion polls are returning with. I would like to redo the model more accurately, as I said before, but this is an interesting estimate to go with for now.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Personal copies and the law

The law was recently changed to officially permit what had already been happening since time immemorial. The Copyright and Rights in Performances (Personal Copies for Private Use) Regulations 2014 says that
The making of a copy of a work, other than a computer program, by an individual does not infringe copyright in the work...
There are restrictions - it must be for the personal use of the person making the copy, who can't gain commercially from it, and they must own the original from which the copy was made. But making back-up copies and copies in different formats are all legitimate now.
This means that you can legally convert CDs to MP3 files for your own collection, or put them on iTunes or Google Play. Converting your own LPs into MP3 files or burning them to a CD is also now officially legitimate. You can make your own compilations to listen to in the car. In principle, if you wish to make an electronic version of a book to study on a computer, this is also okay.
However, the law doesn't permit the giving or receiving of mix tapes or mix CDs - a copy would be going to a person who doesn't own the original.
An interesting question
There's a section that follows the regulations, with the heading:

Remedy where restrictive measures prevent or restrict personal copying

As far as I can tell, this argues that, if a copyright owner has in place a mechanism to prevent someone from making personal copies, this person can complain to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State can then intervene if he or she decides that the person is being prevented from making a personal copy, the right to which is provided by this regulation.
This has little bearing on listening to music; most obvious forms of personal copying are achievable. However, one of the areas where I suspect this has interesting implications relates to video cassettes. Commercial video cassettes have copy protection schemes, and  VHS/DVD combination recorders won't bypass them, meaning that people have not been able to transfer the content of commercial VHS video cassettes to DVDs. The implication of these regulations seems to be that this is likely to face a legal challenge, and copyright holders of copy protected videos could, in theory, be forced by the government to provide a means whereby owners can obtain personal copies without restriction.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

An election model - part 4 - some evaluation

In my previous posts, I explained about the model I had constructed from the 2010 election results, and the headline output I obtained from it with one set of input data. I say "headline" as this is very much just the summary - the actual output includes details of every seat that changed hands (both Wolverhampton South West and Worcester were Labour gains from Conservative, for example, in this run of the model), plus votes for every candidate in each of the main parties. Clearly, the closer you look at results, the less likely it is that there is a correspondence with what actually happens.

We are here very much drifting towards the realm of psychohistory - the fictional academic discipline which is the basis for Asimov's Foundation series of books. It is possible to describe the behaviour of people in large scale, and this is what opinion polling seeks to do anyway. The reason for wanting to model the outcome of the election rather than simply making reference to opinion poll percentages is that reducing election results to total votes cast for each party (which is in effect what an opinion poll invites you to do) has actually offered very little insight into the number of MPs who end up sitting in parliament - see the table at the start of my post linked to above, to compare the percentage votes per party and the number of seats obtained. It is commonly thought that this effect will be even more pronounced after the next election - at the moment, UKIP and the Greens are likely to collect over 20% of the votes and are quite likely to have less than 5 MPs (out of 632) between them. (With a bit of luck, the proportion of people who believe in PR will take another bump upwards after the next election.)

The trouble is that, as with psychohistory, the model can't deal with details and individuals - for example, a very charismatic candidate in one constituency; an issue that polarises local populations. In effect, I make the assumption that on a national level the impact of such things is likely to be small over a five year period. There will be local variations, but as far as the model is concerned, they can be ignored, as what I am trying to get out of the model is not so much a forecast for each individual constituency but an estimate of how large-scale changes in political opinion might impact the size of parties in the House of Commons.

One of the things that I find quite pleasing about the approach I have taken is that, rather than the values obtained from an opinion poll being used as inputs ("What would 34% of the electorate supporting both Labour and Conservative mean?") it actually becomes one of the outputs - in effect, a correspondence between the opinion poll results and the total votes cast per party in the model provides a validation of the assumptions that I have made about how the votes have been redistributed. The downside is that it gives a misleading sense of confidence. A reminder of the results that came out of the model run above:

PartyVotes 2015% votes 2015SeatsPoll standing 16/4/15

The problem is that, even assuming that I get close to being right about the number of votes, the number of ways of arranging those votes is indefinitely large. The opinion poll output is very low in information: the size of parties in parliament much higher. Is it possible to determine how reasonable any specific arrangement is?

Incidentally, I have no doubt that there's nothing terribly unusual about this model - political parties and media organisations almost certainly do the same thing. I was just interested in the fact that it could be put together in about an evening using nothing more than spreadsheet software.

I'd like next to spend some time refining the model. I think that a more general matrix for transfer of allegiance can be constructed, though I'm not sure how much it would add. I would like to get closer to the actual poll standings - though this is quite scary, I hammered the Lib-Dem vote even to get it down to 11%, and I still have some votes to lose from Conservative and Labour. And maybe I should be trying to look at "Other" or something, more usefully than BNP. And would it be possible to determine which constituencies actually have a Green candidate standing in them? And then, just how varied could the size of parties in the House of Commons be and still return the headline poll figure? And is the poll figure representative of people's voting intentions? All for future posts ...!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

An election model - part 3 - inputs

Having settled on a methodology for modelling the 2015 election (see last post) it was time to see whether the model would produce anything that looked interesting. First, a reminder of the 2010 "baseline":

PartyVotes 2010% votes 2010SeatsPoll standing 16/4/15

Source for 2010 data


  • This was not the same source as the one I obtained the figures for my model for.
  • Although I have excluded the Northern Ireland parties and "others", this covers 97.2% of the votes and 632 seats. Thus, this is a substantially complete and comprehensive model of the parliamentary election for Great Britain
  • Percentages for SNP and PC aren't specified, and in any case as they only relate to a small number of seats, are not meaningful. The BNP will not be a factor at a national level in this election. "Others" at that date was 4%.

My model permits me to apply changes to voting patterns across the country. I can use this to determine what proportion of the vote each party would get as a result, and what that would mean in terms of seats obtained. It suggests the political party of the MP returned

Next, what changes to votes would be applied? One change that has been anticipated pretty much since the Lib-Dems became part of the coalition with the Conservative party has been that their support would fall drastically. However, on the basis that incumbent MPs might be better regarded by their constituents, I applied a different and significantly smaller correction to those constituencies which had an incumbent Lib-Dem MP. I then assumed that these 2010 Lib-Dem voters would divide their votes between other parties - Labour, Green, UKIP and the nationalist parties.

There seems also to have been a strengthening of nationalist opinion, particularly in Scotland. So I assumed that a proportion of all Con/Lab/Lib votes would transfer to nationalist votes. This would have a most significant effect on Labour.

I assumed that a proportion of the Conservative vote would be lost to UKIP, but also that a smaller proportion of the Labour vote would be lost to them as well. I assumed that half the BNP votes would be transferred to UKIP. This was before I had realised just how much weaker BNP had become in this election. And finally, as the Green party is now standing in 90% of constituencies, I assumed that in any constituency in which they didn't have a candidate in 2010, they would pick up a percentage of Labour votes in addition to the Liberal defection.

Here, then, is what I came up with after a little fiddling around with the proportions:

Defection Con-UKIP - 0.17
Defection Lab-UKIP - 0.08
Loss of votes for Lib when not incumbent - 0.7
Loss of votes for Lib when incumbent - 0.2
Lib transfer votes to UKIP - 0.1
Lib transfer votes to Labour - 0.35
Lib transfer votes to nationalist - 0.15
BNP transfer votes to UKIP - 0.8
Lib transfer to nationalist that go to labour if no nationalist candidate - 0.5
Swing Lab/Con/Lib-SNP - 0.25
Swing Lab/Con/Lib-PC - 0.1
Greens standing in 90% - assume all. Defection Lab-Green for new candidate - 0.06

PartyVotes 2015% votes 2015SeatsPoll standing 16/4/15

I will discuss these results in the next post.

Friday, April 17, 2015

An election model - part 2 - how?

In the previous post, I talked about why I was interested in attempting to model the outcome of the election. The starting point would be a spreadsheet containing the results of the 2010 election - not just the winner of each constituency, but the number of votes cast for each candidate - at least for those candidates who represented parties at a national level. I found a suitable dataset here.

In actual fact, it was more than suitable:
The data-set includes the British constituency results with the 2005 and 2010 share of the vote for each party, the candidates for each party (sex and race), the vote swing, seat changes, and constituency census data.
So I trimmed it down so that it only had the data I needed - basically, the votes for the main candidates in 2010. More specifically, it was the votes cast for the candidates of:

  • Conservative
  • Labour
  • LibDem
  • Scottish National Party
  • Plaid Cymru
  • Green Party
  • British National Party
  • UKIP
in all of the constituencies in Great Britain - that is, England, Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland constituencies weren't included in the table. With the exception of BNP, these conveniently represented all the parties which took part in the televised leaders' debate in March. I also ignored the Speaker's constituency.

In using this as a model to generate results, I made further assumptions.
  • The number of votes cast in a constituency would remain the same in the 2015 election as the 2010 election - in other words, the model would aim to redistribute the votes, rather than assuming a substantial disaffection with voting, or conversely an upsurge in voting, or even a significant change in the electorate.
  • Local processes within a constituency would be irrelevant - or more accurately, would average out across the country as a whole. A constituency might have a particularly good candidate for one party, but this would be balanced by the same party having a ropy one elsewhere.
  • Changes in voting patterns would apply in the same way across the whole country. Note that this can nonetheless be fairly specific - I assumed that there would be greater disaffection with the Liberal party where they did not have an incumbent MP, for example; and changes to popular feelings about then nationalist parties (SNP, PC) would only be relevant in Scotland and Wales, where candidates were standing. I also ignored the Speaker constituency.
I then specified a number of political changes of sentiment, along with the fraction of voters for particular parties that they represented. These can be tailored by changing a coefficient (ie. a number) in the spreadsheet representing this fraction - eg. "Proportion of Conservative voters switching to UKIP", "Proportion of Lib-Dem voters switching away from Lib-Dem without incumbent MP". All these coefficients are applied to the votes from 2010, to redistribute them. Obviously, the party with the largest number of votes following this redistribution wins that seat. The number of seats obtained by each party can be added up, to determine the shape of the House of Commons after this modelled election, and additionally, the total number of votes can be added up, to determine the percentage of people voting for each party, which can then be compared with returns from opinion polls.

So my aim, then, in trying to use the model, would be to specify a set of changes to voting intentions that would result in an outcome of vote percentages that correspond to the results of opinion polls. It would then be possible to look at what impact these changes might have on the size of parties in the House of Commons. Furthermore, the set of changes that I specified should have some resemblance to what seems to be going on in the real world ....

An election model - part 1 - why?

Like any reasonably politically engaged person, I have an interest in the outcome of elections. I suspect, along with various other people, that the 2010 election may have represented a turning point in the nature of British democracy, as it seems hard to imagine how we can return to the situation of having one party with an overall majority. It's a little ironic that people having voted "no" to any introduction to proportional representation - to obviate creating "weak, coalition government" - they may now discover that it has become a feature of our first-past-the-post system.

But how can you get any idea of what the outcome might be? How can you move from the sort of percentage support figures that are published as the results of opinion polls to guessing at the shape of a future parliament? The era of the red/blue "swingometer" is long gone. It sounds like the sort of problem that would require a dedicated team of analysts, banks of computers and a round the clock operation to incorporate up-to-the-minute results from every constituency. And yet, a prediction of the actual shape of the parliament, in terms of the number of seats for each party and what that might mean in terms of the horse-trading required to build a government after the election, is far more interesting than trying to guess a relationship between percentages in opinion polls and numbers of seats.

Here is one small aspect of the complexity of the situation. Conventional wisdom says that the Lib-Dems are going to have a severe battering in the polls, and lose lots of seats. But another facet is that UKIP is likely to take votes off the Conservatives, and also Labour. Let's take a simple but imaginary seat, from the 2010 election:

Con - 35%
Lib - 30%
Lab - 20%
Green - 8%
UKIP - 7%

Conservatives have a margin of 15% over Labour, and Liberals are going to lose lots of votes. But suppose 10% of the electorate go from Liberal to Green, 5% go from Liberal to Labour, 10% go from Con to UKIP. None of those are really wild figures; none are really big red/blue political swings. But look at the impact this has on the result this time:

Con - 25%
Lib - 15%
Lab - 25%
Green - 18%
UKIP - 17%

All five of these parties end up with a significant share of the vote. The actual result I've put there is less important than the general principle that relatively small shifts have the potential to drastically alter the political landscape.

I wondered how feasible it would be to produce a model, and if feasible, whether it might generate outputs which would look anything like the real world. I was convinced that it was probably not possible to produce a model which examined what was going on in every constituency - that really would require complex analysis. But it occurred to me that if I had information from every constituency from 2010, and assumed that the same political processes applied to each one, then I could infer what effect that might have in each constituency in the 2015 election. And to verify whether my guess at the political process was reasonable, I could add up the votes for each party, and compare them with the results of current opinion polls ....

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Killing an aid worker

How can this possibly be an act that would be considered "righteous" by any deity?

That is all.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Aspartame - searching for the truth

There's this article.

It sets out to make the case that arguments against aspartame as a sweetener are garbage science. That's fine, I can handle that - you'd then expect that a good scientific argument would be presented to show that aspartame was safe.

Strangely, that's not the way the article goes. It refers to an "Iowa group" (though there is no actual traceable reference - bad science) and then says:
Of women who drank two or more diet drinks per day, 8.5 percent had some sort of heart disease. But, for women who either drank fewer or no diet drinks that number was only 7 percent.
And then it argues:
What is really going on here is a classic case of mixing up cause and effect. No, diet soda doesn’t give you heart disease. You already have more heart disease and drink diet soda to try to cut calorie consumption.
Let's assume that the sample of 60,000 people is divided into two, each numbering 30,000. 8.5% of the "user" group numbers 2550; 7% of the "non-user" group numbers 2100. So the article smoothly concludes - there are more people with heart disease in the "user" group, therefore there is no evidence that sweeteners are causing heart disease.

But the author hasn't made this case. It may be that the case is there, that the paper being discussed doesn't support the conclusion. But by short-cutting to the author's own conclusions and missing out the important science-y bit, the author is just as guilty of bad science. We don't know what expected levels of heart disease are (whether the "user" group is unexpectedly high, and the "non-user" group is unexpectedly low) ... or whether the reason the rate of heart disease in the "user" group was higher because of previous consumption (in other words, it had already caused the heart disease, the "smoking gun"), rather than trying to mitigate the effects of heart disease ... or whether the "user" group and "non-user" group were otherwise identical .... The web article, having failed to properly reference an article, then simply disagrees with the interpretation of the results, and accompanies this disagreement with name-calling and various other approaches designed to close down the debate, which pretty much amount to "only dumbasses would believe this".

I am pretty good at science, and I don't know the truth about aspartame. I am genuinely interested to know if, in addition to making drinks taste disgusting, there are health issues that I ought to be concerned about, especially because it's becoming less and less possible to find naturally sweetened alternatives in supermarkets. So I'd appreciate it if both sides could cut out the arguments that don't stand up to critical analysis, and do a proper job.

One more thing. Levels of childhood obesity were significantly lower in the 70s and 80s, and at the time, drinks containing artificial sweeteners were far less common. There's a causation/correlation thing here, of course - lower levels of obesity were doubtless due to more active lifestyles and so on rather than the sugar we consumed. However, what would be most interesting would be evidence that demonstrated that use of artificial sweeteners actually improved health - preferably produced by an organisation that wasn't financially benefiting from their sale. If that evidence isn't there, then why can't we just stick with natural products? I'd rather consume what has been produced by a farmer than what has been synthesised in a laboratory, given the choice.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The morning after

So Scotland stays part of the UK.

Wisdom after the event is pretty useless, but I guessed at a 45/55 split in favour of remaining (a YouGov app asked me the day before). There was no real intuition there, just a guess that the final result would be a little bit more "conservative" than the polls were suggesting, as people lost their nerve (or as undecided voters thought it was best to go with the status quo). It was much closer than the referendum on electoral reform ....

My thoughts this morning? The three "English" parties have no electoral mandate to offer increased devolution of powers. The settlement that permits public (government) spending to be 20% higher in Scotland is, at least to my mind, undemocratic and an example of the unaccountability of central government. And nobody ever asked us if we still wanted a union with a country so eager to bite the hand that feeds (did I mention that you pay five times more to be a student in Scotland if you are from England than if you are from a qualifying EU country? Source). Those are just a couple of the points relevant to this issue which illustrate how Westminster and the political process in general is also disengaged from the electorate that didn't get to vote. As was commented by another English friend, "When do WE get to vote for independence?"

The turnout in the referendum was over 84%. The last time the UK saw a turnout of this level in a general election was 1950. At the last general election, it was around 65% (source). This shows that people are engaged by political questions, and yet they don't vote in general elections. Why is this? Perhaps because it feels like it makes no difference. Few of the political parties distinguished themselves in this referendum - and yet, there was a genuine sense amongst the voting population in Scotland that they were a part of something. Perhaps it was the very fact that it was largely detached from the Westminster political system - or maybe because, unlike the bulk of votes cast in the general election, it would actually count towards the final result.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Comment on the referendum

I would rather Scotland stayed. But not at any price. I really dislike the thought of you staying because you've been bribed to do so by the three "English" parties and continuing to have a chip on your shoulder about the English, whilst benefiting even more from the taxes paid south of the border, both direct and indirect (students from England pay more than students from the rest of the EU to study in Scotland - don't tell me there's no way around that). Stay as part of Britain and stop your greetin', or go away and find your own path and stop your greetin'.

My father was born in Scotland; my paternal grandmother was a Scot. I am proud of having a Scots heritage. From a Christian point of view, I also have more time for the Reformation as it was expressed in Scotland, and the way it has influenced the ideas of Scots politicians (as opposed to the greedy, self-serving old-boy-ism which shapes too much of English politics and discourse). But the Scotland that I care about was never the one that fell for this vain idea.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Who owns sermons?

When someone preaches in a church, who owns the sermon, from a copyright point of view?

It's a more complex question than you might think. Technically, as the person who delivers the sermon, the preacher owns it. And yet, the church is likely to fairly freely make use of it - put recordings on websites, distribute copies of sermon notes, possibly use extracts in various contexts. And also the church has probably paid the speaker to speak. What rights has that bought? Normally it's not a big deal - the preacher and the church exist in a relationship with one another: the church promotes and uses the preacher's teaching material; the preacher is supported by the church. As an example of the lack of clarity about this which exists, in one church I visit, I kind of discovered that although there was no apparent microphone, my talks were being recorded to listen to later. I wasn't particularly bothered, though.

But there are some circumstances when it may become more of an issue. For example, what if the church wants to use the sermons in another context - perhaps for radio broadcasts, or for publication in a book. Who decides? If royalties are generated, who should get them? Or supposing there is a breakdown in the relationship between church and preacher? This article in Christianity Today discusses the issue. It suggests that the most natural approach is probably to consider that the copyright is owned by the speaker, but he in effect grants the church a royalty-free licence to use his written or recorded material.

What does this mean? It means that the church can basically get on and use the material as they would normally do, and the speaker would implicitly accept that. But the speaker still has control if the church were to decide that it was worth doing something different with the material.

I am involved with a Christian conference, and this raises another bunch of complications. Again, it's reasonable for the conference to use messages from speakers as though this royalty-free licence exists. But since the conference organisation exists in effect as a group of people who make up an ad hoc committee once a year, plus people who work on particular tasks pretty much on their own, how do we decide - or rather, who decides - what use the conference can reasonably make of material that's produced? To what extent should we be telling the speaker exactly how their sermon is to be used? Ideas on a postcard, please ....

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Review of "The Making of Swallows and Amazons"

Having rediscovered Sophie Neville through her blogs and recent autobiographical books, I was really pleased to learn of this latest book. It is a full account, largely from her own perspective, of the process of making the 1973 family film of "Swallows and Amazons".

I was a great fan of Ransome's books as a child, and loved the film when I discovered it. These recollections are published as a remastered version of the film is made available on DVD and Blu-Ray, and for people who are interested in the film itself, or its relationship with the book, it will provide as important a work of reference as Christina Hardyment's books. Additionally, it provides an insight into the painstaking process of making a film in the 1970s - at least from the perspective of a child actor (plus gathered reminiscences from other participants) - and this itself offers some insight into such diverse facets of 1970s life as public transport, health and safety, and diet!

As always, Sophie's writing is a pleasant, easy read. The book includes large numbers of photographs, both monochrome and colour, and she has gathered comprehensive information about just about everybody who was involved in the film-making process - it is interesting how widely people involved in this film spread out across the industry afterwards. This is much more than a book for "completists" or "obsessives" - as with her other books, Sophie has invested the factual elements of a significant moment of her life with the very human reminiscences that shaped it, to create a book that would be an enjoyable and interesting read almost regardless of a person's interest in the film itself.

Friday, July 25, 2014

"The Book Thief", Gaza, Ukraine, Iraq

It doesn't need me to say how good this book is. It was a fascinating and beautiful book to read, particularly having just finished a literature course. Both "contemplation" and "enjoyment" (as C.S.Lewis describes them) were present - that is, I found myself able to accept the odd narrative perspective of the book, and also wonder at the structure, and the structures within the structure, that Zusak has created. 

It seemed a particularly relevant book to read at the moment. Set in the Second World War in Germany, it portrays the impact of the War from the perspective of the "losing side" - both those who believed in Nazism and those who didn't - but in almost all cases, shows their humanity, and the price of the war.

I have no desire to multiply words regarding the fighting in Gaza or the Ukraine/Russian border or Iraq. Enough has been said: what is needed is for people to recognise the fellow humanity of other people. I included the word "simply" in that clause originally - but of course, there is nothing simple about it. Unfortunately, hope and history don't rhyme.
How long?

Friday, July 18, 2014


It's quite feasible to convert a text from a physical book to an electronic book. However, it's a multiple stage process.

The first stage is scanning the physical text. Here's a scanned image from a book called "A Memoir of Adolph Saphir D.D.".

Next, Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software has to be used to convert this from an image into text. This is pretty intensive in terms of computer power. I use Abbyy FineReader 10 Professional Edition. Here's a sample of the output from this (though much of the formatting has been lost in copying from a Word document into Blogger):
TT has been impossible to publish sooner the Memoir of the lamented Dr. Adolph Saphir. On account of his sudden death, which followed so closely that of his wife, there was a delay in the settlement of his affairs; and, consequently, no access could be had to documents of any kind till about the middle of last year—a year after his death. When I was then asked to write the Memoir, much time and labour were required to collect letters and documents from friends and correspondents of Dr. Saphir. But though there has consequently been delay, the Memoir will, I believe and hope, be not less valued by devoted friends, of whom he had very many, nor less interesting to the general public.
A good quality scan makes a difference - by comparing the image and the text, you can see how good a job the software has done in "reading" the image.

However, the most intensive stage is still to come. That is proofreading the text that has been produced. FineReader will highlight places where it was unsure about the translation from image to text, which means that the file can be edited directly in the software. Alternatively, a rough word processor file can be used as a starting point with reference to the original document. In either case, the Scan/OCR stages are pretty much just a question of getting round to them and then letting the computer run. The proofreading stage is a project in its own right.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

"Language versus literature" in the pulpit

I have nearly finished my degree in English Language and Literature. I have enjoyed pretty much all of it (though writing about the Benin Bronzes was pretty painful), and it is proving to be the jump-off point for lots of different reflections.

One is in relation to what happens in preaching, and Bible teaching. Frequently, teaching from the Bible can sound like literary analysis. The teacher takes a text, links it (apparently arbitrarily) with other texts, makes connections (apparently arbitrarily) with some of his own ideas and perspectives, makes (apparently arbitrary) assumptions about different aspects and shades of meaning, and draws (apparently arbitrary) conclusions. This is highly consonant with where we are culturally. From a literary point of view, there's a strong strand which says that meaning is not inherent in the text itself: it is imposed on the text by the listener/reader - hence, we can have black, or gay, or Marxist, or green readings of texts that apparently have little otherwise to do with those perspectives. But if one person derives a specific meaning from a text, it is quite possible that another person might derive a meaning which completely contradicts this. The effect of this understanding of the nature of the text and meaning is that any sense of authority of the text is completely undermined. The teacher explains a text - but this interpretation is just one amongst many; it only has force if you share his or her perspective; and if you don't, then you are free to ignore it. It raises the question of what exactly would be the point of Bible teaching - perhaps it's considered to be some shared existential experience which makes us part of the Christian community, but is not considered to have any real force.

However, this degree highlighted the fact that, in addition to the literature perspective to studying a text, there is also a language perspective. This was very interesting to come across - at various stages in the course, it became clear that the language approach was different. Writers on the language approach were reluctant to criticise their faculty co-members, but the divergence was clear. Firstly, they said, if you lose the idea of context, then you lose most of the meaning of a text. They talked in a Hallidayan way about register variables - field, tenor, mode. All of these have a bearing in understanding a text. And they said, with some deference to their colleagues, whilst different interpretations were possible, some were definitely preferable to others. In effect, whereas the literature approach puts the focus on the reader, the language approach places it back on the text and its purpose as originally written.

This will come as no surprise to Bible teachers from certain backgrounds. One of the thrusts in the Proclamation Trust approach, for example is to "take the listeners to Corinth". The literature approach takes words from 1 Corinthians, for example, disregards the context, and tries to go straight to understanding what it means to us. Proc Trust argue that to understand what it means to us, you need to understand what it meant to the people who heard it originally. Similarly, if a text was written as poetry (for example) then you don't try and interpret it as though it is a scientific treatise.

Or take the use of concordancing. This was introduced to us in E303, Grammar in Context. The idea is, if you want to understand the meaning and significance of a word, then look at how it is used elsewhere in the corpus. But this would be no surprise to those of us who have done Bible teaching. We are used to looking at how words are used throughout the corpus - so when we use the word "faith", for example, we know that we aren't using it in the modern, culturally-conditioned sense of "a leap in the dark". We don't only do this using one translation or version of the Bible, but refer to concordances in the original languages - Greek, Hebrew - to try and get closer to the actual meaning of the word. If we are using words in a way that is different from the way in which they were intended, then we are distorting the meaning.

What is the importance of all this? For Christians, we need to understand what the nature of Bible teaching is. It's not a subjective, literature approach, where meaning is all down to the reader/listener's interpretation. It's a language approach, where whilst we may not be able to fully unpack the meaning, we do accept that some meanings are more accurate than others. This further means that the message of the Bible is an objective matter - it's not something for people to take or leave, on the basis that someone else might interpret it differently. You may reject what a Bible teacher says - but if it has been faithfully explained, you are rejecting not an interpretation of the Bible, but the Bible itself.

Don Carson, in The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism, set about challenging what I have called "the literature perspective" and other ways in which postmodernism has altered our thought forms when it comes to understanding Christianity. But as far as I remember, he did not make reference to the fact that the language part of English faculties already assumes a greater role for objective meaning. It's not a simple question of "us against the world" - we have co-belligerents when it comes to epistemology.

The Liberals in this election

It goes without saying that the Liberal Democrats are going to be wiped out in this election, and probably in the general election next year. That's a depressing thought. There's a saying attributed to G.K.Chesterton: "The Christian Ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried." This still applies to Christianity - but it also applies to the Liberals. I'm not a Liberal; however, my values come closer to those of the Liberal party than they do of anybody else I would be likely to vote for. So here are my reasons for sticking with them.

  • They have demonstrated themselves to be competent, pragmatic and practical at all levels of government for many years. This is why I won't vote for the Greens - the one council they have run has turned into a shambles.
  • They aren't in the pocket of vested interests - either unions, businesses, or buddies they went to private school with. This is the reason that I continue not to vote for Labour or the Conservative Party.
  • They aren't systemically corrupt, hypocritical, xenophobic, misogynistic, lazy, exploitative, self-serving and opportunistic. These are a few of the reasons that I will not vote for UKIP.
What about their track record in government? They are described as having made a power grab; of getting into bed with the devil; of compromising their principles. Is this the case? I genuinely don't believe so. Let's talk about some details.
  • Tuition fees - the big one. They were forced, in coalition, to go against their manifesto promise. That was, undoubtedly bad. But how bad is the tuition fee settlement? Money Saving Expert does not present the new settlement as a disaster. Nothing is repayable until you earn over £21,000 per year (national average wage). What this means is, for the low paid, university access is, in effect free. The new student fee structure has actually improved access to higher education for the low paid. And it means that the higher paid will repay an amount which more closely corresponds to the cost of their education. Is that a bad outcome?
  • By being a part of the government, the Liberals have had the effect of seriously diluting many of the Conservative policies. Is that a bad thing?
  • They have also managed to introduce many of their own policies - for example, major increases in tax allowances. Make no mistake, these are not Conservative policies. And yet, they are government policies.
  • They managed to secure a referendum on a form of proportional representation. The fact that they lost was due to the opposing camp having the support of large groups who had most to gain from the existing system being preserved, despite it not being suitable for a system with more than two parties.
But should they have gone into the coalition at all? Well, what were the alternatives? 
  • The Conservatives could have formed a minority government. This would have given the Liberals less influence - would they have been less compromised? Arguably. Would they have had as much influence in the direction of the country? Almost definitely not. So more Conservative policies - would that have been better? I don't think so.
  • The Liberals could have formed a coalition with Labour. But Labour did not have a mandate to form a government. And furthermore, although there's a degree of revisionism now, I continue to be very disillusioned with the years of Labour government, and simply don't want them in power.
For many years, I protested at elections by submitting a spoilt ballot paper. I am still very frustrated by a political system which (on a national level) blatantly favours two large parties neither of which has the support of close to half of the population. For the first time in this government in my memory, we saw a government that represented the votes of a majority of the electorate. And although it didn't do everything right, it did actually work. I find it profoundly bleak that this one successful experiment with coalition government is likely to result in a return to a government which represents a minority of the electorate, introducing policies that have little to do with the will of the populus.