Using Data to Tell a Story – RIP Hans Rosling

I caught this on the BBC News Website as part of a tribute to Hans Rosling, the Swedish statistician who died today. I hadn’t come across his work before.

I love the way Rosling visualises data to tell a compelling story – it’s a perfect example of where statistics and story can meet and it’s particularly relevant to today’s post fact, alternative truth, world.

In this case, he’s talking about the remarkable progress we’ve made in both wealth and life expectancy across the globe during the last 200 years. I’ve talked before about this, but Hans tells the story far better than I ever could.

The next time anyone – either from the left or the right – tells you that 2016 was the worst year ever and that we are all going to hell in a handcart, show them the video below.

 

Playing Fields of Dreams

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There’s absolutely nothing going on in the world of politics right now…but we are half way through the football season. The perfect time for a parent’s guide to children’s football.

1.Boot-buying

The choosing and buying of footwear is hugely important and your girl or boy will want boots loosely modelled on those worn by their zillion-quid a week idols. Most boots nowadays are hideous and resemble those fluorescent glo-sticks that people used to wave about in bad 1990s night clubs. I once threatened to buy my lad a pair of the Puma Kings, only to be told it would be social death and that black boots belonged in a museum.

2.Learn off-side

You will be asked to officiate as linesman and eventually you will no longer be able to say ‘no’ or hide in time. Being linesman is a kids’ football rite of passage and a profoundly uncomfortable one as you will be scrutinised by opposition parents while running along the touchline in wellies. My advice, go on YouTube to learn the offside rule and then use the flag as sparingly as possible.

3.Help out

Helping out with other tasks may help you temporarily avoid linesman duties. This will mean carrying huge bags of balls (relatively easy) or dismantling heavy steel goalposts and carrying them back to a shed which is five miles away up a 45 degree angled slope in the driving rain (really hard). Try to avoid putting the nets on posts before a game starts, which means finding invisible corners and clips while laughing children fire balls towards you during their pre-match kickabout.

4.Forget about lie-ins

Weekend lie-ins will now be over. Our home games take place 20 miles away from where I live and there’s been 9.30am Sunday kick offs on freezing November mornings. Also, double check timings before you set off. I’ve been known to arrive up to an hour early to be greeted by an empty field, a solitary dog walker and much eye rolling from my young Lionel Messi in the passenger seat.

5.Don’t believe the hype

Read some media stories and you might think under 12s football was like the Hunger Games but played out on muddy fields outside community centres in North Tyneside. In my experience, this is nonsense. The vast, vast, majority of parents and children are absolutely fine. And that old cliché – beloved by grumpy middle aged men on football phone ins – about children robotically copying bad behaviour of Premiership players, also absolute nonsense.

6.Don’t cross the line

There’s often a ‘Respect’ line these days, a piece of shiny tape designed to separate parents from the action. This is the playing field equivalent of the ‘fourth wall’ and crossing it will result in severe embarrassment to your child. Don’t attempt to take part in the pre-match training and try not to interrupt the half time team talk with an offer of a banana and a bottle of water.

7.Enjoy it

It is a real privilege being able to watch your daughter or son on a Saturday or Sunday morning and that feeling when they score, make a tackle or save that penalty – there’s nothing like it. Cherish it and enjoy it. It won’t last forever, even if they do make it professionally, earn millions from salary, endorsements and image rights and buy you that Mercedes you’ve always wanted.

Prediction klaxon – what to expect from 2017

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To misquote Sir Alex Ferguson, Politics,  bloody hell.

2016 was crazy enough but what on Earth could 2017 bring?

I’ve got a terrible record when it comes to predictions. If you’d listened to me there would be an Ed Miliband-led Labour Government in 2015, a narrow win for remain in the EU referendum and a Rubio/Clinton contest in the US with Clinton emerging the winner.

Anyway, here’s a few predictions for 2017 that I’ll probably regret in 12 months time when the exact opposite turns out to have happened.

Europe

Brexit will be triggered in March and this will start a two-year negotiating process that will likely take up too much time and energy in both Brussels and London.

However, Brexit will be the least of Europe’s worries this year. The Centre Right Les Republicains led by Francois Fillon will win the French General Election in May – although it’ll be closer than many think.

In October I expect Merkel to hang on in Germany. I won’t even try to predict events in Italy but expect more political instability following their vote against constitutional reform which means a system that has produced literally dozens of short-lived post war Governments will continue.

Meantime, continued conflict in North Africa and the Middle East will drive fresh movements of migrants across the Mediterranean. That will cause more headaches for European leaders who will, in turn, sit on their hands caught between domestic concerns and the EU’s increasingly untenable commitment to freedom of movement. That means the West’s biggest political and moral failure of the early 21st century will continue in 2017.

UK politics

Theresa May will have a difficult year with Brexit dominating just about everything she does or tries to do. I think it’s highly unlikely she’ll go to the country in May, a move that would be seriously out of character for a PM who looks increasingly risk averse.

Labour will hang on to Copeland in Cumbria when the by-election is held early in the year, but find its majority greatly reduced which will pile renewed pressure from the parliamentary party on to Jeremy Corbyn.

Another event that will add to the pressure will be May’s Local Government elections in Scotland where a number of councils that are hung or Labour will go SNP. This will provide more evidence of Labour’s decline in influence North of the border. For me the only solution to this problem for Labour is a truly independent, pro-independence but with certain ties to the Union, Scottish Labour Party, but I can’t see that happening this year.

Despite their best intentions, I think the Lib Dems pro Brexit credentials won’t lead to a revival in either their national or local fortunes. UKIP will take council seats off Labour in Northern towns and cities, but I still don’t think there’s enough to provide a real shock to a Labour leadership that still lives in a North London bubble.

Outside the bubble, the election of the first Metro Mayors will be interesting. Expect them to become big players on the regional political scene and be feted by their respective parties during conference season.

I think 2017 might be the year the public begins to question austerity – we will have had almost a decade of spending cuts – and if Labour is clever, it can use the social care crisis to land a few blows. The task for Corbyn is to channel some of that electoral anger and paint Labour as the insurgents, pitted against the forces of darkness on the right.

US Politics

Trump’s first year will be very interesting, but I don’t think it’ll be quite as explosive as most people think. For all the foreign policy bluster, I think he’ll follow Presidential form and spend his first term concentrating on domestic issues – in his case this will mean trying to roll back some of his campaign promises.

 

As for foreign affairs, it’ll be the usual bogeymen. North Korea will continue to sabre rattle but I doubt we’ll see regime change North of the 38th parallel. After all, Trump needs Kim Jong-un almost as much as Kim Jong-un needs Trump.

Sport

Notoriously hard to predict, but I’ll have a go. Obviously Celtic will win the Scottish Premiership, but I think the size of their victory this year could prompt some serious thought about whether the top Scottish teams should compete in a UK Premier League. The practicalities are hard to work out – which teams would be involved and in which English league would they start – but the Scottish league is starting to seem farcical to fans and, arguably more importantly, sponsors.

Still on football I’d expect England to do well in the Women’s UEFA Finals to be held in July. I think a semi-final or final spot is more than achievable given their World Cup showing.

In Tennis, I think Murray will nail another major, as well as Wimbledon. At 29, Murray is approaching late middle age in professional tennis terms and I think his hunger will see him lift a trophy in France, the US or Australia during 2017.

In Defence of Globalisation

NASA Satellite Photo of Earth From Space - Stock Photography

Globalisation has been receiving an old-fashioned kicking from both sides of the political spectrum recently.

It used to be a bete noir of what you might call the ‘alt left’, in fact there was barely a protest march in the early 2000s that didn’t feature middle class white blokes – usually sporting dreadlocks – nailing globalisation as the source of the world’s ills.

But Theresa May’s Downing Street address – where she talked about those who have been left behind by capitalism – signalled cross-party open season on the free movement of people and trade across the world.

Meanwhile, over the Atlantic, The Donald blames various international trade treaties, and by extension globalisation, for the decline of US manufacturing. He’s promising to rip up a raft of deals and appears to relish the ensuing diplomatic chaos.

Once key figures on the right wouldn’t have dared criticise a neo liberal economic orthodoxy  – that free movement of capital creates wealth that trickles down – but now it’s a target for them. What’s going on here?

After all, stats on global incomes show that spreading trade, markets and services around the world has lifted millions out of poverty in developing countries.

But while countries like India and China have done well out of globalization – although the gaps between their richest and poorest has increased – the workers of the developed world, particularly those involved in manufacturing, have not prospered. In fact, some have seen their incomes fall in real terms.

This is illustrated in something called ‘The Elephant Graph’ which you can see – along with a detailed description – here.

Those people have got angrier and angrier, and as seen in Brexit and Trump, have given the establishment a kicking. In turn, some politicians are now administering a kicking to globalisation.

Unfortunately, politicians are as integrated into the same unsettling globalized landscape as the rest of us.

After all, it is Governments that set the low corporation taxes that get countries racing to the bottom in an attempt to tempt the Apples, IBMs and Amazons to their shores.

But I’d argue there’s another reason swathes of people are fed up of the political class. They simply get it wrong too often.

This piece in the New Statesman does a good job of describing the ‘serial incompetence’ of Western Governments over the last twenty years – focusing on the dithering over the European migration crisis.

It’s no wonder some think we live in an age of political pygmies compared to the giants of the past.

Globalisation is a convenient scapegoat, but much of the anger with those who govern us could lie closer to home – in the blunders and missteps of national politicians who appear at times to be overwhelmed by events.

 

* This Blog first appeared in the Birmingham Press – see http://thebirminghampress.com/2016/12/in-an-age-of-political-pygmies-globalisation-is-the-easy-scapegoat/

The Victory of The Donald

trumpNow that’s a front page I never expected to see. I was confidently predicting that the Donald would be sent packing by the establishment candidate.

Just shows how wrong you can be…

Here’s some immediate reactions – written on an East Coast mainline train – to another of 2016’s seismic political events.

  1. More evidence, if it were needed that sections of the electorate, and not just white working class people, feel angry, disconnected and left behind. The failure of the liberal centre left to address their concerns or find an alternative narrative is once again exposed. That doesn’t mean they’ll never find a winning position in this post factual world, but they are way off it at the moment. Naomi Wolfe and Ed Miliband get this.
  2. Hillary didn’t help. I believe that she was a victim of historical circumstance – and it is an enormous personal tragedy for her – but the Democrats played right into the hands of ‘The Donald’ by picking the most establishment candidate on Earth. How much does she charge for a speech at Goldman Sachs? She was the wrong pick from the start.
  3. The US is no stranger to poisonous political culture. I was struck by a paragraph in Death of A President which describes how some Texans cheered news that Kennedy had been shot. It’s unfair to label Trump as the cause of this but his behaviour hasn’t helped and has inflamed existing tensions.
  4. We are in for a nasty bout of rabid anti-Americanism last seen during Dubya’s presidency. This noticeably died down with Obama’s election, it’ll increase again now. The US will once again become an international bogey man to some, particularly on climate change.
  5. The Donald faces some enormous policy challenges. Part of the problem is delivering his promises in the context of global complexities. I’d argue it’s harder to be an isolationist – because of trends and developments in communications and culture – now than it was 30 years ago. And building that wall is a mammoth construction and infrastructure task and that’s even before you try to get Mexico to pay for it.
  6. You could see the 2016 result as another example of the decline of US influence and empire. The theory runs like this – the 20th century was the American century when its ideas, culture, and foreign policy dominated the world. The end of the Cold War was its high water mark of power and influence, but since then things haven’t gone well either in domestic or foreign policy. This election could be seen as another sign of that sharp decline. The Roman Empire took 500 years to rise and fall, America could do the same in half that.
  7. I don’t buy the idea that this is the US right’s last great hurrah before it is overwhelmed by millennials and other demographic forces. Trump’s tactics were incredibly effective. Until the progressive centre left wakes up and offers a different vision and better candidates, people like him will continue to win power by appealing to people’s deepest, and often justified, fears and anxieties.

Drowning in a sea of policy and Pinot Grigio

conference-picOne of the perks of my job is getting to attend party conferences. Journalists, politicians, and party activists all swimming in a sea of room temperature booze, buffet lunches and small talk. It’s most people’s idea of hell, but I find it strangely enjoyable.

One tip, if you’re a recovering alcoholic or detoxing, try to avoid party conference season.

Both Labour and Conservative events are soaked in the hard stuff. Most people, from senior party figures to lowly activists, appear to be trolleyed on copious amounts of free hotel-branded Merlot and Savignon Blanc.

The drinking starts at lunchtime and tends to continue until the small hours. This year, at Conservatives, I went to a reception that started – yes, started – at 11.30pm. Predictably by then, everyone was steaming drunk. Too drunk to hear the Secretary of State when he started speaking just past midnight.

But being a capable politician and probably the only sober person in the room, he sensed the mood and cut to the chase, urging everyone to elect more Conservative councils and drink even more – to loud cheers and another stampede to the free bar.

Walking out of the conference hotel in the small hours, past a number of  distinctly refreshed cabinet ministers and MPs, I got to wondering what politicians in ‘dry’ countries do to oil the wheels. How does stuff get done in countries where alcohol isn’t culturally acceptable?

What else, apart from the alcohol? It was well reported that Labour was ‘flat’, and Liverpool did seem strangely empty. Most of the delegates I met were depressed at the state of their party and British left.

And I thought Labour also displayed a noticeable policy vacuum.At their best, party conferences are political festivals full of interesting and dynamic events that sketch out the big ideas of UK politics. At Labour there seemed to be little of this.

Conservatives had the better fringe and, in my experience, the better events. One I attended with Policy Exchange and Conservative Home on the concept of social reform was outstanding.

It left me thinking that part of the centre left’s problem might be its paucity of bright new ideas and thinkers and a lack of intellectual ‘heft’. At the minute, the right appears more willing to engage with the big ideas – everything from drug reform to devolution.

And one more thing struck me about Conservatives in Birmingham – a noticeable lack of triumphalism.

Given the state of the British left you might expect your average Tory activist to be doing the Samba down Broad Street, but the shadow of Europe and Article 50 hung over this conference, creeping into fringe discussions and ministerial speeches. It was quieter and more reflective than it should have been.

But I’m writing this watching the news from Syria – close to 100 children have died n the continued bombing of Aleppo in the last 24 hours.

News like this, underlines the essential meaningless of these boozy annual political jamborees.