Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Lord Sugar returns to savage another set of business mavericks

The Apprentice has burst back onto TV again at its normal time of year – with none of this conflict of interest because Lord Sugar is in the government kerfuffle- and welcomes another shower of business bastards onto our screens; all blustering and purring about how they are unstoppable selling machines and that they will declare war on low profit margins. Things are the same as ever.

This year amongst the contestants: we have an automaton who works 24/7 without switching off and I am sure will kill us all once Skynet orders the termination of humanity, a nutty inventor, a sexual harassment prosecution waiting to happen, as well as a woman who claims to have been taught to achieve a higher purpose personally by the Dali Lama. There were also the usual droves of interchangeable, deluded middle managers with career achievements as realistic sounding as a child telling you he will be a ninja astronaut when he grows up.

This year there is a bit of a twist in the format of the game show. Instead of winning the dubious honour of being Lord Grump’s business pet, the eventual winner will be showered with £250,000 of the mighty Lord’s money. The catch however is that the winner will have to start a business with the cash and will be forced to share control of it with His Lordness. Whilst this is probably better than winning the chance to be Lord Amstrad's lackey, this still strikes me as a bum deal. Especially as you can win this kind of money with far less effort, and with no strings attached, by picking the correct numbered box on Deal or No Deal.

As usual the process began with the contestants gathered in the boardroom, until Lord Premium Bonds descended from atop the mythical Mount Business and through the frosted glass doors of doom to greet them. He then barked at them to go out and sell some fruit with his £250 investment and be sure to make a profit lest they be flogged, or worse fired.

The two teams then set about picking their names, with the girls opting for Venture and the boys for Logic. What logic has to do with The Apprentice I don’t know, but that is their name anyway and I was left disappointed once again that no one had chosen a more sinister name such as Strike-Force or Knuckleduster. The boys then fumbled around in the task's early stages trying to work out if an orange was an orange, while the girls turned on their feminine charms to get a discount on fruit from the wholesaler and then hit the streets with their products.

During the task the boys attempted to sell orange juice - once they’d established they had actually bought oranges and not some kind of reddy coloured lemons - and tomato soup, whilst the girls prepared fruit salad and vegetable pasta. The fruit salad sold well although the girls seemed to be flinging them frantically at unwitting passers-by until they gave in and bought them, whilst the veggie pasta went down as well as Lord Sugar taking part in the Vagina Monologues. The boys on the other hand sold steadily, that is when they finally got round to selling. It took them nearly half the day to squeeze all the oranges and never really recovered. Naturally they lost.

Much of the loss was blamed on the enthusiastic but gormless manager Edward, who made insane statements such as: “When I was producing, that was production” and wouldn’t stop insisting how he could “roll with the punches”. He also then committed business suicide by admitting he had purposely underused his accountancy skills because he was ashamed of the negative stigma the accounting industry has. Lord Frown had heard enough and pulled out his firing finger, sent Edward on his way and that was that.

The first show wasn’t too bad overall but you do have to wonder if the show is still the great reality TV event that it was two or three years ago. There’s no denying that Stuart Baggs ‘The Brand’ took exaggerated confidence to new highs (or lows depending on your opinion) and one has ponder if that was the exact moment that the format jumped the shark. Still, whether the inevitable decline has begun or not, the show is still mightily entertaining and if today wasn’t enough to satisfy your appetite for watching big-headed salespeople blundering up business tasks, then you’ve got another episode to look forward to tonight.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

To AV or not to AV

I’ve decided to finally write something about the upcoming AV vote as the campaigning reaches fever pitch for the referendum on Thursday.

The campaigning itself has been anything but dignified and has at times perpetuated outright myth. This is true of both sides of the debate unfortunately. The No campaign tries to scare people into voting no, whilst the yes campaign seems obsessed with implying that AV will fix everything wrong with politics in the UK.

Now to explain where I stand on the issue: I am behind the Yes campaign. I feel that AV is a better system than FPTP, primarily as it fixes some of the problems with the current system. It’s been pointed out to me many times that AV won’t affect some constituencies as they already have an MP elected by a clear 50 per cent majority. This is absolutely true but AV cleans up the less clear outcomes in constituencies with a more spread out vote where there is no clear majority and where tactical voting comes into play.

It is surely not a bad thing to introduce a system which is more democratic - if only slightly - that works pretty much the same way as the current one whilst fixing some of the problems with it. Especially if it means that the voting preferences of the people are better represented.

The No campaign has also troubled me as it approaches people with a few arguments that just aren’t true. When you actually do a bit of research it’s easy to find examples to the contrary.

What I’m going to do now is pick apart some of the points made in one of the leaflets that came through my door campaigning for No:

· The leaflet says: AV would produce more coalitions
But: Australia uses a preferential system similar to AV and have only had two coalition (including the incumbent Labor led government) governments ever using their preferential system (which has been in place since 1918).

· The leaflet says: AV is used by only 3 countries – Australia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji – and Australia wants rid of it.
But: More countries use AV than that. The leaflet actually means only three countries use AV to vote for a national government. An AV style preferential system is actually used already in the UK for the Welsh Assembly elections (which I myself have voted in) not to mention by all the major UK parties to vote in their leaders. Funny how such a "bad" system is actually used by them at all. Also it is worth mentioning that Australians don’t want to abandon AV. This article better explains where the misconception lies.

· The leaflet says: AV allows the second or third placed candidate to win.
Sorry what? If people’s preferences using AV actually give a candidate that would have come in third place under FPTP enough votes to win then doesn’t that highlight the current system’s flaws rather than disprove the new one?

· The leaflet says: AV will cost the country £250 million.
That seems like a lot of money to print new ballot sheets and to put up a poster explaining how people should vote using a number instead of an x. The No campaign reached this figure by adding up the £90 million cost of the referendum (which we pay even if we vote yes or no), £26 million cost for voter education and £130 for vote counting machines (which seems to be pure fantasy as no country that uses AV-like systems actually use these and there’s no obvious sign that we will either). Charlie Brooker for instance refers to the calculation as “the sort of magic maths which involves closing your eyes and repeatedly banging the calculator against your forehead” and I can’t help but agree with him. If you want to know more about the cost, here is a very good article laying out all the facts and figures.

· The leaflet says:
AV means that someone else’s fifth preference is worth the same as your first.
But: Yes that is actually true, but they only get one vote that counts towards the result as they do now. They do not get extra votes as this seems to imply. If a person's fifth preference is used then that means that his/her first four preferences had been eliminated from the count and their fifth hadn't but why should that be a problem if a party has not achieved a 50 per cent majority. Otherwise you can sometimes end up with a party, which the majority of voters wouldn't choose, winning by a 30 per cent majority; because the votes were split between two parties that better represented the interests of the majority. This silly video involving cats kind of explains it in a simplified way.

· The leaflet says:
AV will mean that supporters of the BNP and other fringe parties would decide who wins, because they will be eliminated first and then their votes could be counted again and again for other parties. That will encourage other candidates to pander to the likes of the BNP.
Are we saying now that supporters of the BNP and other fringe parties shouldn’t get a say in who runs the country? This sounds as if it's implying that people who vote BNP should be banned from voting or that their voting opinion shouldn't be trusted? Now I don’t like the BNP one bit, but if that’s the case then we should simply abandon democracy now. Also I don’t think politicians are so shallow and mindless that they would resort to outright racism to win votes (ok maybe a couple would) from BNP voters. Finally, the BNP itself is campaigning against AV as they know that they won’t even get a look at seats in parliament under the new system. So saying a vote for AV is a vote for the BNP is just fantasy.

 What I will say finally, is that I feel AV as Nick Clegg once said is “a miserable little compromise” but I also think it’s the best way to make politicians sit up and realize the country is in need of electoral reform. Otherwise I worry that those in power will continue to serve their constituents in a substandard way; fobbing them off as inconvenient and backing government policies they prefer instead of listening to what the voters want. It also improves on the current system rather than changing it dramatically.

After all if things don’t change they stay the same and I would honestly prefer things to change. I feel that the current system is flawed and can in some cases disenfranchise the voting preferences of the majority of a constituency. Rather than being the solution, I see AV as being the first step towards a better system. Surely that’s worth voting for?

But don’t feel like you have to be persuaded by my views, read around the issue and make up your own mind. Make sure you vote though, this could be the biggest decision we get to make as voters for some time.