Conference Diaries – Day 4

1130 – Apparently I’m pathetic and have to stay in bed until 1130 after only 4 pints of Guinness . Surprising bonus: it’s now late enough that I can justify enough a full Irish as brunch. Winner winner, potato dinner

1400 – Just once I’d like to go somewhere on holiday where there isn’t a museum dedicated to how badly British people treated a country. Though for any Brits planning a Dublin trip – Kilmanhaim Gaol is fascinating and it does get your yearly dose of ‘Post-Empire guilt’ out in one hourlong visit
1530 – The Guiness Storehouse has a very Disneyesque vibe. Though hopefully there’s less indoctrination to children at Disney.
1610 – Top marks to the clearly 13 year old kid who tried to claim his free Guiness. Better marks to the cool uncle who did it for him when his dad wasn’t looking.
1630 – Managers of the world’s tourist attractions have one big lesson to takeaway from the Guiness storehouse: a free pint = Trip Advisor nirvana
1640 – officially the silliest thing at the Guniess store – Guiness themed tea bag holders. A big thank you to the worker who rather than fleecing me like the tourist I am, pointed out Guiness BBQ sauce wouldn’t get through in my hand luggage.

Conference Diaries -Day 2

0730- Very thoughtful of the hostel to provide only a cold shower this morning. They clearly knew I needed a good waking up

0900 – Officially at the conference – things are about to get evidency! Or not, things aren’t actually kicking off until 1200. Time to go get some culture and see exactly how bad the British Government were back in the day.
1100 – Top tip: animal rights advocates and fans of accurate taxidermy should avoid Dublin Natural History Museum. On the other hand this picture of what I think is a beaver is pretty fantastic.
1330 – First workshop on the James Lind Alliance and somehow I know more about the topic than someone else! Yes, it’s the only topic I have any knowledge on courtesy of a 6 week project last year, but still. Ego slightly boosted.
1600 – Second workshop in, 5 coffees in and I’m much more chatty than earlier. Can’t think why that is. Hyper me clearly isn’t too silly as at least two consultants said I had a good idea, doubling the lifetime count in that department.
1740 – Checked in to the hotel and absolutely knackered. If only there was a bath, free coffee and a king size bed to relax with. Oh wait, as I’m living on expenses tonight, turns out there is

Conference Diaries – Day 1

1030pm – Of all the things I got excited about as a child, three still strike me with infantile joy: tricking a vending machine into giving me more than I paid for; arriving at an airport for a holiday and catching something that unexpectedly falls from a cupboard as you open it just before disaster occurs.

On this occasion, I’m enjoying the second one. I’m off to a conference in Dublin, though first I have to atone my sins in the purgatory that is Terminal 3 at Manchester.

0045am – The hours free wifi has ran out. I am now doing a crossword. #thestruggleisreal

0400am – My Rainman-esque performance on the crossword is interrupted by what looks like a New Look store thrown into a blender and spat out onto several too-orange-for-a-British-winter ladies.

0415am – The New Look ladies have realised the security regulations include their VKs. Impromptu pre-flight drinks in the yet-to-open Delice de France it is. Makes you proud to be British

0435am – Got through security in what is a new personal best. Not that I time these things – that’d be mental…cough…let’s move on.

0445am – Having subsisted on only a Double Decker, satisfaction from well-done puzzles and the invigorating smell from the men’s lavatory since 9 o’clock last night, I’m now in Costa drinking half a litre of coffee.

0515am – The airport signs are now looking a little blurry. Either my glasses need a lens change or the coffee has kicked in in a big way.

0540am – The New Look ladies are back and they’ve found some friends! Benidorm, lock up your sons! Or daughters, we live in a modern world! NB. If you’ve never been to Benidorm it’s surprisingly fun, and the Spanish section is really nice.Only place I’ve been you can stumble out of the clubs, nap on the beach and get a fry-up before you get the first bus home.

0720 – On board, and somehow my evening in purgatory paid off and I’ve got a window and a empty seat next to me! In other news, the guy at the end is reading a Koran and listening to what seems like a call to prayer. The lady across the aisle looks incredibly freaked out.

0820 – Speaking of freaked out, it’s a little puzzling to wake up and realise you’re starting the descent to Dublin. Apparently I’m a bit tired.

1000 – successful navigated my way to the hostel and now in severe need of a nap. Turns out I can’t check in until 2, meaning I could have got an 11ish flight and avoided every fiasco up until now. One is less than impressed

1200 – I’ve refreshed with yet another coffee and found out on my aimless wandering that there is a big vote on marriage equality next month. Which official means the Irish Catholoicism ‘Sin Scale’ puts bumming below abortion. Not sure that’s the official wording of that policy.

1620 – Officially calling it a day and giving in to sleep. Hardcore first night in Dublin

0030 – woke up to have dinner 3 hours ago and somehow I’m playing cards with 4 Canadians. One of them is called Parker. He hasn’t heard of the Thunderbirds. I’m a little bit sad

An Introduction to the All Trials Campaign

For those of you who’ve read Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre (or spent time with me after a few drinks), you’ll be aware that publication bias is a huge problem in medical literature. For those who’ve not had the pleasure of being harangued by me after one too many margaritas, here’s a TED talk by Dr Goldcare explaining why publication bias is such a problem.

If you haven’t bothered to click because you’re too lazy, here’s a brief run down of the main points:

  1. Studies saying things don’t work aren’t published because no one cares when something doesn’t happen
  2. Watch the video
  3. Studies that replicate previously positive data and find negative data (i.e. we thought this helped heart attacks, turned out it doesn’t, even worse it actively kills people) aren’t published because journals don’t publish replications
  4. Seriously, watch the video, Dr Goldacre is much more entertaining than I am
  5. Because stuff isn’t published, doctors don’t know which drugs are dangerous and patients until someone notices that lots of people on drug X are dying.
  6. You still haven’t watched the video have you?
  7. This isn’t a rare phenomenon, it is a systematic flaw in every field of medicine. Half of all trials that are started vanish; the studies that don’t are much more likely to have positive findings

You don’t have to have the wisdom of Dumbledore to figure out that giving out medications without really knowing how safe they are is a bad idea. Hence, the AllTrials campaign was started, with the singular aim of having the results of all medical trials on humans available to view so doctors and other healthcare professionals can figure out exactly which drugs are best. The campaign petition has been signed by over 80, 000 people. If you’re not one of them, then sign up here. It’s also been signed by over 500 organisations, including such minnows as NICE, the Royal Society of Medicine and the BMA. Disappointingly, neither the University of Sheffield, Sheffield Medical School, Sheffield Students Union or the NUS have signed up so it looks like I’ll be sending a couple of emails out tonight. I would be less upset except Hull-York Medical School have signed up and it’s really depressing to be worse than them at something.

Happily, the fact the NUS has focused it’s energy in deciding not to condemn ISIS, rather than on All Trials won’t be stopping the campaign as a rather big beast has waded in to help. In fact, probably the biggest beast of all. The World Heath Organisation (WHO) have released a statement saying:

  • results from clinical trials should be publicly reported within 12 months of the trial’s end,
  • results from previously unpublished trials to be made publicly available, and
  • organisations and governments should implement measures to achieve this

Unfortunately the WHO has no legislative power to make any of these things happen. As much as nutters would like you to think the WHO is putting chemtrails in the sky to make you take vaccines that give you autism, the WHO simply can’t make international or national change on this scale. The WHO statement is nothing without action from people like me and you  – and we’re in a fairly good position to do that. As you may have heard, we’re having an election in less-than-a-few weeks, and political candidates have never been in a better position to be harassed over this than now. On this note:

  1. Email, tweet, shout at your constituency candidates in the street. Get them aware of the issue and ask them to sign the petition on the AllTrials website. Find contact details for every candidate here. (NB: Within one hour of this post going up, Joe Otten, the local Lib Dem candidate, replied to say he’d signed up to All Trials. Proof that obnoxious tweeting pays off)
  2. Attend a hustings and raise this issue, your candidates might not even be aware it’s a problem. Even if you vote for the eventual loser, you can guarantee the elected MP will have heard about AllTrials and might even be persuaded to dedicated parliamentary time to it in the future. Find hustings in your area here.
  3. Don’t forget about local councils. They might not be able to do much about an international system failure (hell, they probably can’t even run a bus system in all likelihood) but the local parties are the lifeblood of the national ones. Strong support on a local level translates well to strong support at a national level.
  4. And finally, if you’re a student – get in touch with your Student’s Union and your university. Having seen quite how science illiterate most student politicians are, it’d be brilliant to see the NUS actually dedicating some time to a serious scientific issue.

I would attach links to petitions and such but the Government site is down on account of the election, and for all it’s talk of direct democracy the NUS site doesn’t seem to have a facility to make one. Ah well, I’ll update this bit once I get anywhere.

Update 1: Joe Otten (Lib Dem), Jilian Creasy (Green), Andy Halsall (Pirate), Thom Brown (Above and Beyond) and Dominic Cook (UKIP), all parliamentary candidates in Sheffield Central, have signed up to the campaign.

Through the Westminster Looking Glass

I was all set to write a nice easy post on how voting tactically might affect the bigger picture in the House of Commons this week. However, two things got in my way. Firstly, the English Democrats and UKIP both announced candidates for Sheffield Central meaning I need to rethink some of the statements I made in the last three posts. Secondly, my original idea required a reasonable understanding of the national picture. I set about doing that and 1500 words down a rabbit hole Alice would’ve been proud of and I’ve still no real understanding of the likely outcome in May. Read on for the ravings of a sleep-deprived loon.
Before we get going, I’ll lay out the four possible outcomes of the election

1. Outright majority – one party wins a majority of the 650 seats and forms the government. Historically, this is how most British elections work out
2. Coalition government – two parties teaming up can make a majority. Our current government is the first since World War Two
3. Minority government – when a party with less than a majority reaches an agreement with a smaller party that states the smaller party will support the bigger party on major votes e.g. a budget. Smaller decisions will not have a majority and the ruling party will have to make deals to pass legislation. Last seen under the Major government in 1996-97.
4. A second election – if parties can’t agree with each other than a new election might be needed. I’m happily ignoring this as if it occurs everything I write is moot anyway

As most primary school children (or American adults) could tell you, 650 divided by 2 is 325, meaning a majority should require 326 seats. But due to Westminster’s historical position on Ireland being set firmly at ‘being a massive tool’, Sinn Fein (SF) are understandably quite popular over in NI. This means whichever seats SF win are never taken, meaning the actual number needed to win an overall majority is 325 minus ½ of seats won by SF. This magic number is likely going to be 323. Which, when we look at the table above, puts us firmly in on the ‘holy crap’ train to Yikesville.

Party and ave predicted seats

Conservatives Labour SNP Lib Dems DUP UKIP Plaid Cymru SDLP Greens Respect
281 272 47 24 8 4 3 3 1 1
Con
Lab 553
SNP 328 319
Lib Dems 305 296 71
DUP 289 280 55 32
UKIP 285 276 51 28 12
Plaid 284 275 50 27 11 7
SDLP 284 275 50 27 11 7 6
Greens 282 273 48 25 9 5 4 4
Respect 282 273 48 25 9 5 4 4 2

Yep, you did read that correctly. According to the average results of the 7 predictions, there are two 2-party coalitions possible, one of which has been ruled out by both parties (CON-SNP) and the other which would quite possibly be a sign of WWIII (CON-LAB). Looking at 3 party coalitions, the Tories get no additional options, but LAB-SNP-LD or LAB-SNP-DUP do become options. And frankly, this is exactly why you don’t waste your afternoon averaging out national polling numbers – you could have just looked at the individual polls to tell you that governmental options are pretty limited.

May2015 Election Forecast Election ETC The Guardian Ladbrokes Electoral Calculus Iain Dale Average
Tories 280 283 296 274 285.5 280 275 281 (274-296)
Labour 264 280 261 271 270.5 283 275 272 (261-283)
Lib Dems 24 26 21 26 25.5 16 25 24

(16-26)

UKIP 5 2 5 4 4.5 1 8 4 (1-8)
SNP 55 38 47 53 42.5 48 42 47 (38-55)
Green 0 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 (0-1)
Respect 1 1 *1 1 *1 *1 1 1
DUP *8 *8 *8 *8 *8 8 9 8 (9)
SDLP *3 *3 *3 *3 *3 3 3 3
Plaid 3 2 3 *3 *3 3 4 3 (2-4)
*represents a prediction extrapolated from other national polling data
2 party options CON-SNP None CON-SNP CON-SNP

LAB-SNP

CON-SNP LAB-SNP

CON-SNP

None
3 party options LAB-SNP-LD/UKIP/DUP CON-SNP-UKIP/SDLP/PC/LD/DUP

LAB-SNP-LD/DUP

CON-LD-DUP

LAB-SNP-LD

None LAB-SNP-LD None CON-SNP-LD/UKIP/DUP

LAB-SNP-LD/UKIP/DUP

If you think it all looks like a bit of mess, well you’d be more right than a Tea Party convention in Kitty Hawk. I’ll simplify things into a list.

2-party options – CON-SNP (5 poll-predictions), LAB-SNP (2), CON-LAB (possibly by every conceivable measure past, present and as yet undiscovered)

3-party options – LAB-SNP-LD (5), LAB-SNP-DUP (3), LAB-SNP-UKIP (2), CON-SNP-UKIP (2), CON-SNP-LD (2), CON-SNP-DUP (x2), CON-SNP-SDLP, CON-SNP-PC, CON-LD-DUP

This gives us 26 predictions of 12 government formations. I’ve discounted the possibility of CON-LAB because this is already making my head hurt a little without having to add an ‘infinitely possible, not-quite-infinitely unlikely’ option.

1) CON-SNP

2) LAB-SNP-LD

3) LAB-SNP-DUP

4) LAB-SNP

5) CON-SNP-UKIP

6) LAB-SNP-UKIP

7) CON-SNP-LD

8) CON-SNP-DUP

9) CON-SNP-SDLP

10) CON-SNP-PC

11) CON-LD-DUP

Before I carry on much more, full coalition is off the table currently. The SNP won’t support the Tories at all, Labour won’t go into coalition with the SNP and the DUP are ‘not interested’ in joining any coalitions. There are other party squabbles as well but I could rule out coalition with just those three, and didn’t fancy adding to the patchwork quilt from hell that is this article.

That means we are stuck with a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement, which means a small party agrees to vote for a larger party in votes of confidence and budgets and nothing else. The large party then has to make agreements with other parties on a vote-by-vote basis. Not great but better than never getting anything through.

If a minority government is necessary, the Tories are right royally buggered. Here are their options again.

CON-SNP

CON-SNP-UKIP

CON-SNP-LD

CON-SNP-DUP

CON-SNP-SDLP

CON-SNP-PC

CON-LD-DUP

As the SNP have stated they will not support the Tories, then one lonely option remains to Mr Cameron – CON-LD-DUP. As last resorts go, a current coalition partner and a party that shares the values of conservatism and unionism aren’t half bad. What is more than half bad however is the distinct possibility that the Tories will not have any mathematically feasible options for 2 or 3 party minority governments. Even for a party that’s not won a majority for over 20 years that is a pretty terrible state of affairs

Given that Labour is widely thought to be heading towards less seats than the Tories on May 7th, you’d expect their options to be even more limited. However, Labour have the advantage of not having actively pissed everyone off the last 5 years (just passively doing it) and they have a few options mathematically available.

LAB-SNP-LD

LAB-SNP-DUP

LAB-SNP

LAB-SNP-UKIP

No points to anyone for spotting the theme. Unless the electorate swings towards them faster than Jeremy Clarkson swings at a producer after being told there’s no steak, Labour are going to be relying on the Braveheart brigade from Beyond The Wall to strengthen their governmental chops. If they had to make a deal over Irn Bru and deep fried pie, then ideally Ed Milliband would like Nicola Sturgeon to be his only dinner guest.

Disappointingly for Ed, 5 out of the 7 predictions I’ve looked at think he’ll have to bring Nick Clegg around the table for further support. Ideologically, Labour and the SNP are pretty aligned, and the Lib Dems would probably be pretty happy to scoot over to the left; it might even help them get over being Tory cannon fodder for the last 5 years.

I nearly removed the next idea from the piece entirely, based as it is off the predictions of a sole political journalist, Iain Dale, rather than statistics. However, said journalist has looked at every seat in the country to make his predictions, and they were just too interesting to ignore. He has the Tories and Labour neck-a-neck, no two party solutions at all and his model gives Nicola Sturgeon the choice of both biggest (David Cameron or Ed Milliband) and littlest spoon (Nigel Farage or the DUP’s Nigel Dodds) for what has to be the world’s least appealing ménage à trois. If you were worried about the Scots become independent a few months ago, you can start worrying about the real possibility that the SNP will essentially have the pick of the bunch when it comes to options on May 8th and none of them look too bad. Need the SNP to form a coalition? Probably have to give them a second referendum. Just want them for a minority party? Get ready to give a lot of nice goodies to Scotland. Happy for them to be in opposition? Get ready for a lot of heckling and stalling from a big block of new MPs who don’t care for the old Westminster clique.

Having looked at all of the national polls, what can we learn from them? Well number one, nobody has a real clue what’s cracking off. The Tories may get the most seats but where will the extra seats needed to get them a majority come from? Labour probably won’t win a majority or the most seats but seems to have more potential partners for a confidence and supply agreement. Secondly, this isn’t going to end prettily. If you thought the Con-Lib coalition came together in a ham-fisted way, wait until you see what we get on May 8th. A single majority seems very unlikely, the likely third party seem just as happy to wreck the whole system rather than get into government and if no one back down from their statements. If so, we might end with a three party confidence and supply agreement that has Labour simultaneously relying on nine N.I. MPs who want to stay in the union and a rabble of Scottish MPs who would jump ship if they had the chance. At the very least, it’s going to be very interesting.