This brought a tear to my eye today

At teatime today I did one of several live national TV interviews in Birmingham Grand Central shopping centre on UNISON’s reaction to the spending review.

As I was walking away a Pakistani man came to chat to me to ask who I was and what I’d done. I told him I was a union official and I’d been talking about the spending review.

He asked about my heritage and I told him my dad was Indian.  He was made up and said he was proud that someone of Asian heritage was speaking up for disadvantaged people.  He was absolutely made up about this and he shook my hand and his pride was so obvious.

I always feel privileged that I have a platform to speak up on behalf of UNISON members.  But the very human reaction from this man who felt people who looked like him had no voice really humbled me.

I’m not too proud to say that as I walked away I had a few tears in my eyes.


Poor graphic from the BBC on the junior doctors’ dispute


I saw the above graphic about the junior doctors’ dispute in a tweet from the BBC News Graphics twitter account.  What struck me was it looked nice but was not very informative.  In fact it was confusing at best, and misleading at worst.

It is a good example of how making something look nice does not make it clear.  The whole point of a graphic is that it is a visual display of quantitative information that should enable the reader to quickly and easily understand the numbers.  On this score it fails.  I used the term visual display of quantitative information as that is the title of the data visualisation bible written by Edward Tufte.  This is a book that the BBC News Graphics team ought to read.

So what are my beefs with this graphic?  I’ll list a few.

  1. The use of graphic uses area to encode the number of hours at each rate of pay.  It is not as quick or instinctive to accurately compare areas, as oppose to lengths.  That’s why bar charts are better; the lengths of each bar can be more quickly be compared than areas.
  2. In the left hand chart, the colour used to show the overtime rates says it is for 120 – 200% of basic pay.  This range of values makes it impossible to properly compare the current situation and the proposed rates of pay as it the reader has no idea what the actual % uplift is for each time period.  Are doctors currently getting lots of overtime at 200% uplift or is it mainly a 120% uplift?  Without knowing this no meaningful comparison to the offer from the government can be made.
  3. The second graphic with the proposed rates of pay is better than the graphic outlined in point 2 above, in that it does distinguish between overtime uplift rates of 133% and 150%.  However, it still is not that helpful as all it is showing is the distribution of the pay rates during the working week and not the impact on total pay.
  4. The graphics start at 07:00 and then run through for 24 hours to 06:00. This is potentially confusing because if the reader does not follow the times all the way through to the bottom, they may draw the erroneous conclusion that junior doctors only start shifts at 07:00. Why not start the graphic at the start of the day at 00:00? This is what most people would expect.

Graphics are like words, you should think carefully about what you are trying to say, and then choose accordingly.  From the above graphic it’s not clear the designer was actually tying to say.  The only thing I could quickly take away from it was that the hours that attract overtime were changing, as were the overtime rates. But it was not possible to make any meaningful comparison about the overall impact on pay. Surely that is the most important part of this whole story?

The graphic was nice to look at but not that informative.  Sometimes, nice is the enemy of clear.

Finally, just to show I’m not a total grump about the BBC Graphic Team below is a far better graphic from the BBC website story that the tweet linked to. It is simple, unfussy and very easy to read (also given my comments in point 1 above, note how easy it is to quickly compare the lengths of bars).


Private company wins election and will now run a council in Kerala

I blogged about the panchayat local elections recently.  One striking result is in the Kizhakambalam panchayat (similar to a parish council) of Ernakulam district in Kerala.

A Kerala-based corporate group Anna Kitex will govern the entire panchayat after winning the elections.

The Kitex Group fielded candidates in all 19 wards in the panchayat and won 17.

For more info go here and here.

So despite the overall win for the left in the various panchayat elections across Kerala this has to be of concern not just for the left, but for all democrats.  The opportunity for conflicts of interest are massive. 

Let’s hope this does not catch on.

Keralan panchayat local election results 2015 – good win for the left but..


LDF celebrating their victory in Kollam on Saturday (photo from The Hindu newspaper website, photo taken by Suresh Kumar)

During my recent trip to Kerala it became apparent that there were elections coming up. Being a British leftie interested in politics, with family connections to Kerala, I made sure I followed the results as they were announced this weekend.

These were local elections were for panchayat bodies at a grama, block, district, and municipal/corporation level. The UK equivalents would be something like grama = village; block = village group;  district = county; and municipal/corporation = metropolitan or city council.

Why should anyone in the UK care about the Keralan panchayat local election results? Here’s a few reasons for those British folk of a leftist persuasion:

  1. India is the biggest democracy on the planet (with over 800m voters), it is one of the up and coming BRIC countries whose economies are quickly developing and it could well be overtaking some of the G7 countries in the next 15 years. India matters.
  2. From a UK perspective you might want to factor in that India is the second largest English speaking country in the world after the US, so understanding a bit about an English speaking country that will have increasing trade relations with the UK might be helpful.
  3. In the 2o14 general election the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) more than doubled their tally of seats and now have a majority in the Indian parliament. The BJP are a very right wing party with very close links to both the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Shiv Sena both of whom are extreme right wing Hindu nationalist organisations with a propensity to violence, particularly towards Muslims.
  4. The state of Kerala has a strong left wing tradition and a liberal culture of  different religions getting along without any problems. It is one of few states in India where the BJP have been unable to sow divisions and make significant progress. Given the dominance of the right in Europe and the bigoted nationalist right in the Indian national government it would be refreshing to see if the left can make some gains in Kerala.
  5. The strong leftwing tradition (that started with the election off a Communist state government in the first elections after independence)  means that Kerala has the lowest positive population growth rate in India (3.44%); the highest Human Development Index (HDI) (0.790 in 2011); the highest literacy rate (93.91%); and the highest life expectancy (77 years).

In the last panchayat elections in 2010 the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M) led Left Democratic Front (LDF) alliance lost a lot of seats to the Indian National Congress party (INC) led United Democratic Front (LDF). The BJP had very few seats after the 2010 elections.

So the two big questions were:(1) could the LDF claw their way back so Kerala could rebuild its leftist credentials and; (2) would the BJP start to make any inroads in this traditionally religiously  liberal state?

The simple answers to the two questions above are yes the CPI(M) led LDF did well and polled the best; but the BJP did start to make inroads in Kerala and won more seats (mainly at the expense of  the Congress led UDF). The Hindu newspaper headline was “LDF roars back, BJP makes a mark” which sums it up quite well.

I’ve knocked up a graph, below, that shows the seats won.

Kerala panchayat elections 2015 - seats won

The BJP scored two notable  results. They are now the second largest party behind the LDF in the Keralan state capital Thiruvananthapuram. In the Palakkad municipal elections they were the biggest party and only three seats short of a majority. The BJP results are worrying as they seem to be making inroads with their divisive and bigoted politics in the traditionally religiously diverse and tolerant state of Kerala.

Below is another graph I knocked up that shows the number of panchayat bodies where each party is the biggest.

Kerala panchayat elections 2015 – biggest party on body

Kerala is known for its high level of political turnout and it regularly delivers some of the best turnout figures in India. This time was no different as voter turnout was over 75 per cent, which is better than the 66.7 per cent in the recent UK general election. Given these are just local elections and the logistics of running an election in Kerala are far tougher than in the UK, these turnout figures are very impressive.

Looking to the future, two questions for Keralan politics are can the LDF win back the state assembly in 2016, and will the BJP win their first seats?

Keralan backwaters – some photos

One thing any visitor to Kerala must do is got for a trip down the backwaters. The backwaters are a chain of interconnected lagoons, lakes, canals and rivers that snake through nearly half of Kerala. Backwaters boat rides can be a few hours, overnight on a houseboat, or even a few days.

The scenery is stunning and the glimpse into village life is fascinating. I had a day long trip on a human powered boat (much quieter than boats with engines) it was one of the most relaxing ways I’ve ever spent a day – a natural form of Valium.

Click on a picture to enlarge it and scroll through the rest in full frame.