All posts by John B

On moving to SSL, infinite loops, and the downright impossible

Those of you who pay attention to such things (and, realistically, most of the people who read this blog are tremendous nerds about one thing or another) may have noticed the exciting green secure HTTP padlock to the left of the URL in their browser bar.

Yes, we’re now officially just as secure as a 3AM Donald Trump tweet about Saturday Night Live is insecure.

The adventure starts here

mobius strip
Artist’s impression of somebody trying to load this site recently

Not entirely unrelatedly, some of you may also have noticed that this blog disappeared for several days, my glorious content replaced with a dystopian hellscape of Too Many Redirects and Infinite Loop errors, because it did. Others of you may not have noticed this, because it didn’t. Extremely mystery, wow.

So first up: using TLS/SSL (which, in accordance with convention, I’ll refer to as SSL from now on) to deliver secure websites is a Good Thing, which more or less everyone serious now does.

It makes it a lot harder for someone to steal my login/password, for people to infect this site with spam links, for someone to pretend to be this site in order to confuse and bamboozle you, or for dodgy ISPs and hotel connections to stick ads and pop-ups in the middle of your browsing.

It also means that nobody snooping on your connection can see what you’re doing here (they can still find out that you’re doing  something on this server, but they have no idea whether you’re reading decent honest posts about IT security or downloading the secret archive of filthy dog porn).

Finally, because of all the above, search engines give SSL sites better rankings.

If you run a website, even one as modest as this one, you should move to SSL. You can get a certificate for free, which is extremely easy to deploy with most major hosting companies, or onto your own server.

But John“, you may well ask, “if it’s so easy to deploy, then why did your blog disappear for several days to be replaced by a dystopian hellscape of Too Many Redirects and Infine Loop errors?

Well, that’s a very good question and I’m glad you asked me it…

Continue reading On moving to SSL, infinite loops, and the downright impossible

The Corbyn Effect, or ‘you’re nobody til everybody hates you’

There were a couple of by-elections in the UK this week, both in traditionally-safe-ish Labour seats.

Normally in the sixth year of Conservative government, this would be a boring event that nobody cared about: a medium-strength opposition wins government seats at by-elections (even if, as with Labour under Neil Kinnock pre-1992 and under Ed Miliband pre-2015, it will go on to narrowly lose the general), but even a weak opposition holds its own seats.

However, the times right now aren’t normal, and so Labour was seen as under threat – from the shambolically dumb and awful neo-fascists of UKIP in depressed former pottery town Stoke on Trent Central, and from the Tories in part-ex-industrial-towns, part-nuclear-power-plant, part-grumpy-farmers Copeland. The threats were real. As the fascists imploded, Labour beat them by a not-exactly-resounding-but-better-than-feared majority of 2,620. Meanwhile, the Tories won Copeland with a majority of 2,147.

This fits the post-Brexit course of UK politics: Labour’s performance in 2010 and 2015 was artificially propped up because the kind of traditional Tories who don’t-want-a-person-of-colour-for-a-neighbour voted UKIP. Now that the Tory party is led by a petty authoritarian who hates everything from after 1953, rather than a toff who loves money and doesn’t really care very much about anything else, these people have gone back to the Tories.

Labour’s hilariously awful leadership and infighting over the last 18 months hasn’t helped, and certainly hasn’t provided an alternative narrative, but at worst Jeremy Corbyn and his backstabbier rivals are drilling new holes in the bottom of a ship that was already leaking and on course for the rocks anyway.

What does any of this have to do with popularity?

After the election, Momentum true believers – both within the Labour party organisation and outside – displayed an Iraqi Information Minister-ish commitment to presenting the results as a Great Victory. I was particularly struck by the quote in this tweet:

On the face of it, Lavery’s claim is ridiculous. But there are some completely reasonable definitions of ‘popularity’ under which he has a point.

Like most of the people reading this piece, I would score net favourability of zero in an opinion poll, because only a niche selection of transport and politics wonks have the slighest idea who I am. In one sense, that makes me 40 points more popular than Jeremy Corbyn. But in another sense it’s silly to say that I’m vastly more popular than Jeremy Corbyn, because if I organised a weird cult rally in my name then the turnout would be nobody; probably not even my boyfriend, and certainly not 50,000 Momentum pod people.

The difference here is gross and net popularity. Both are important in political leaders, depending on the kind of organisation they lead and the kind of electoral system within which they operate, but we tend to dwell on the net numbers. So, I’ve put together a chart aggregating poll results in order to show gross popularity and unpopularity of various UK political leaders, which reflects the fact that most people haven’t heard of most of them:

This is based on two slightly different YouGov polls – one from 2-3 Feb 2017 of famous politicians and one from 13-21 Feb 2017 of Labour politicians (PDF). YouGov calculated the numbers for non-Labour politicians; I calculated the numbers for Labour politicians.

So the claim that Jeremy Corbyn is one of Britain’s most popular politicians is defensible. On gross popularity, he’s the sixth-most popular current Westminster politician, of the ones for whom I could find recent data. At the same time, he’s the most unpopular current Westminster politician by a fairly wide margin.

The problem here comes when we think about when the two different sorts of popularity are relevant.

If you want to dress up as an evil clown and sell albums to dumb flyover state poor people, then being extremely unpopular on net but with high gross popularity is a route to immense success. If you want to push horrific far-right ideas into mainstream UK discourse and then fuck off to America to do speaking tours to dumb flyover state rich people, then likewise.

On the other hand, if you want to become President of France, then the runoff electoral system means that you need decent net popularity. The two candidates with the highest gross popularity will get into the run-off, but then the candidate who the voters of France hate the least will be the winner. This setup kept Jean-Marie Le Pen out of the Élysée in 2002, and hopefully will keep his daughter out this year.

The UK Labour Party, traditionally, competed in the President of France space: a centre-left party that people voted for under the UK’s antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system because they thought it was less awful than whatever the Tory Party was up to at the time. That requires leadership with decent net popularity, and high gross popularity isn’t very important.

However, Corbyn’s popularity is the opposite: someone who has a strong enough following of fervent weirdos that their success condition is “shifting the acceptable window of mainstream opinion”. This isn’t a bad thing in its own right; there’s a reasonable argument that we need a Farage-of-the-left to counter the global rise of far-right ideology. The probem is that at the same time, it isn’t a particularly great idea for either side to chain such a movement to a moderate centre-left party seeking to defend its position in hundreds of FPTP seats.

Header image by The People Speak / CC-BY 2.0.

I have ruined the weird sidebar shape

I’m not saying blogging is obsolete, just that I’ve had a lot of outlets for my views lately that aren’t here, and also everything* has been sufficiently terrible that I’m not sure I want to publicly express some of the views, etc etc.

But I try and do this sort of thing at least once a month andI’m sad that the scroll-down has been disrupted by that. Will do better. Nag me as @johnb78 on Twitter if you think there’s something I should write about.

*my personal life is actually quite good for once but either you agree the world is falling to pieces or you’re at the wrong place.

Still, that railway, from the south

Southern’s parent company know that they’re in the G4S bracket of mean thugs. The government know it, and that’s what they’re for.  The RMT know it, and fighting them is their job.  The non-union marketing people at Southern, who are probably your nice mates, don’t. This is unfortunate.

Me at the New Statesman

The future, and other things I have no idea about

I’ve not been blogging here a lot lately. Partly because I’ve been doing that horrible thing known as “working for money and trying to forget”, partly because now that Facey and Insty exist, there’s no real need to stick amazing holiday photos up here, and partly because Brexit has completely fucked up my predictions and comprehensions about how the world goes.

Instead, here are some very different views (reproduced with permission) from very clever people who I know and respect on the future of the UK and how that affects the future of Labour. I struggle to disagree with any of these positions, which is unfortunate, because they are somewhat incompatible.

Richard / Academic:

I know many people who were heavily emotionally invested in Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader, so I understand strong reactions to the Parliamentary Labour Party’s coup: feelings of betrayal, anger, frustration, sadness, outrage.

What I can’t understand is denial that it has happened or what that implies. It is unprecedented to ask the country to elect a PM who does not command the confidence of the government that he would need to lead. The reason it is unprecedented is that it is an obviously terrible idea. It is mad.

Voters up and down the country will be perplexedly asking their Labour MPs “You said that you didn’t have confidence in Corbyn, so why are you now saying that I should?”

Tom / Nurse:

Jeremy Corbyn is taking the honest strategy of canvassing and sticking to his beliefs that he has fought for for the last 30 years. By the time the next election comes along the country will see that the media can’t lie about him longer than he can be him.

The “coup and constant infighting” ( which he isn’t rising to) is led by those elected not following the wishes of those who elected them. The huge rise in party members shows that. For MPs to lie is normal; for MPs to go against the majority wishes of those who voted for them is just shameful. The current situation isn’t working for the people under the Tories – and I don’t see any natural Labour voters voting for people like Smith, who abstained on cutting welfare and has no real policy alternative.

It’s sad that, like myself, many traditional Labour voters have become middle class – but they’ve forgotten where they came from and the hardships it entails. This leads to leaning to the middle with the loss of real socialism, and  forgetting how a little help makes a big difference to those on the breadline. It’s just so disheartening.

John / Banker:

Brexit will be discredited as the reduction in investment and rise in unemployment bite over the next several months. The autumn financial statement will likely be a horror show and next year’s budget even worse. Davies, Boris and Fox will end the year empty handed without the treaties they promised would be easy to negotiate when they campaigned for Brexit. The constitutional problem with Scotland and Northern Ireland needs more time to fester.

While the government is tilting at windmills, the cost of denying the Blairites the chance to regain control of the Labour Party is not that high.

It is much more important to give the PLP conspirators a thrashing and continue a radical reorientation of Labour Party policy to the relief of poverty and effective housing and regional policies.  Maybe next year a challenger will emerge who is more effective as a leader and yet embraces the politics of inclusion rather than elitism. Owen Smith is most unlikely to be that person.

Do you have a completely incompatible position on the current state of the UK that I also have sympathy towards? Why not post it in the comments?

 

Southern Railway, now arriving in 1973

I did a piece at Citymetric on why the disastrous shenanigans at Southern Railway are actually a resumption of a very old battle. They paid me a lot less than a Southern Railway guard gets for the same hours. I probably enjoyed it more, though.

Image: an EMD E6A leading the US Southern Railway’s The Tennessean (public domain). Used solely to annoy lazy picture editors.

Actually, it’s about ethics in plebiscite campaigning

I’ve refrained from long-form comment on the UK’s EU referendum, partly because the debate is generally painful, but also because there are extremely clever people who’ve already made most of the points I’ve wanted to make.

One thing that I think is worth addressing, though, is the current suggestion that people are switching back to Remain because they “don’t know what Brexit looks like” (thanks to Paul Evans for the formulation here). I think this is definitely true; I also think it’s a positive response to a specific failure within the Leave campaigns [1], not just a fear of change.

The reason “we don’t know what it looks like” is that the people who are in favour of it have polar opposite, completely contradictory visions of what it should look like.

When Scots voted on their Remain/Leave decision, the SNP – to its great credit – published a long document containing the details of exactly what it would do in the event of independence. Some of these were criticised for over-the-top optimism about the actions of rUK and the EU, and others on the basis of their effect, but crucially Scots knew what the people in charge after a Leave vote would try to do [2].

That simply doesn’t exist for the UK EU referendum. The Leave campaigns, all of which include people likely to be in government in the event that Leave wins, have adopted positions that range from “staying in the free migration zone and the common market” through to “deporting settled EU migrants and relying solely on WTO basic rules for trade access”.

That – not the inherent uncertainty in doing anything that hasn’t been done before – is the crux of the “not knowing what it looks like” problem.

That deliberate, dishonest ambiguity is also why Leave has done far better than it would have done had it been forced to outline what it would actually be attempting to do in the event of a referendum win. As it is, “build a libertarian paradise with no tariffs and open borders”, and “Britain first, deport all the immigrants” types can rally round the same banner, even though they disagree with each other at least as much as they disagree with the current model.

[1] The existence of “Leave campaigns” with an S is probably the tl/dr of this.

[2] The SNP white paper was flawed and optimistic, but at least it was there for you to be able to critique its optimism and flaws. Similarly, a Leave manifesto that committed to a Norway model could reasonably be critiqued on the basis that the EU might not let us have one – but in the actual campaign we’ve seen every model of multilateralism/autarky from Norway through to North Korea thrown up, dependent on what the politician in question thinks the audience wants to hear. “Is their plan credible” is secondary to “do they even have one”…