Monday, July 30, 2007

Doctor Who - Timelash

It's later than usual this month, as my copy came late in the post, but here is my review from the Doctor Who Ratings Guide of this month's DVD release, Timelash:

A nice fun entertaining story

Cast your mind back in time...

The time: Early March 1985.

The place: Britain.

The event: The 'Cancellation Crisis'

Doctor Who apparently totters on the brink of being cancelled and fans rush desperately to save it. They set out to prove the series' values and look to the next story as a great symbol of just why the programme is so good.

The next story is... Timelash.

Few stories can have had a first transmission in such ominous circumstances as this one. Many fans were busy disputing the attacks on the series but a traditional simple tale that is at times a deliberate send-up was not what they needed to back up their arguments. Is it any wonder that Timelash has been criticised to the point that it is rare to find a 'Bottom Ten Stories' list that doesn't include this tale? This is a terrible shame as there is so much going for this story.

As one reviewer once said, this tale is almost like Doctor Who's equivalent of The Rocky Horror Show. In many ways it is a parody of the traditional science-fiction genre in which unlikely heroes are transported to distant worlds to fight strange monsters, rescue screaming heroines and overthrow tyrants before returning home. Numerous clichés are wheeled out in this story, ranging from the clone of the Borad, the attempt to explain a legend (in this case the Loch Ness Monster again), the vision of a devastating war that will wipe out all intelligent life, the tacked on ending, the rampaging monsters, the androids, the alien society where we only see a few individuals, the rebel groups, explanations being ducked and so on. Add to that a non-sparkling production and it would be extremely tempting to write this story off as a great mistake and an embarrassment to Doctor Who fans everywhere in their time of need.

And yet Timelash is so much more than this. Its roots are all too clear and indeed it is prepared to trumpet its debt to the works of H.G. Wells by featuring the man himself, showing him the inspiration for many of his works. Herbert is a typical young Victorian gentleman bound by the era's notions about the role of women and superstitions whilst eager to explore new lands and escape the confines of his home society. At times Herbert gets in the way but he behaves very much the way any ordinary person might behave if transported to a strange new world, clinging to the familiar and determined not to lose his only chance of getting home. Timelash may not be the most original of stories, but it does try to entertain, whilst at the same time makes an effort to develop some ideas, such as the Doctor's use of the kontron crystals. Glen McCoy's script may not sparkle but it does at least try.

Of the cast only Paul Darrow really stands out, delivering a very full of life performance as Tekker whilst the rest give straightforward performances that don't stand out at all. The production of Timelash is cheap, with the Timelash itself being extremely glittery, but there is at least an attempt to explain it in terms of the script through the Borad's inability to look at his own reflection, whilst the Borad and the Bandril ambassador are both realised exceptionally well. The music and direction of Timelash do help the story no end though, and the result is that this is in fact a highly watchable story that can bring great enjoyment. The best way to watch it is to treat it as a send-up of the series rather than a serious story and try to join in the spirit of things. 8/10
Timelash can be purchased from here.

Friday, July 27, 2007

On second chambers: Seanad Éireann

In the latest installment of my look at second chambers around the world, it's time now to look at Seanad Éireann in the Republic of Ireland. As I write this the new Seanad is in the process of being chosen, with two of the three sections now complete. (See Wikipedia: Members of the 23rd Seanad for the full list of members.)

Composition: 60 members chosen as follows:
* 11 members nominated by the Taoiseach
* 3 members elected by graduates of the University of Dublin/Trinity College, Dublin (they're basically the same thing) by Single Transferable Vote
* 3 members elected by graduates of the National University of Ireland by Single Transferable Vote
* 43 members nominated from five special panels ("Vocational Panels"), with nominations made by either members of the Oireachtas (the whole Parliament) or by relevant organisations connected with the field, and elected by TDs, outgoing Senators and local councillors). Single Transferable Vote is used for the elections, but with voting papers each worth 1000 to allow for greater fractions. The panels break down as follows:
**7 from the Administrative Panel
**11 from the Agricultural Panel
**5 from the Cultural and Educational Panel
**11 from the Labour Panel
**9 from the Industrial and Commercial Panel

One other point of note is that recent Taoisigh have followed a policy of nominating at least one Senator from Northern Ireland.

Fairness of representation: Where do we begin?

The university constituencies don't cover all tertiary level institutions. Many question why only university graduates can directly elect Senators, not all citizens. It seems graduates living abroad can vote - indeed many graduates in Northern Ireland are known to exercise their vote. (Don't ask me if someone with degrees from both institutions can vote in both!)

The vocational panels is an interesting idea and in many ways is arguably more socially unifying than the British Parliament. Rather than a division on the basis of station in society, the Seanad is based on the idea of co-operation and interdependence in society. Of course it's not too clear if the current division of panels reflects modern Irish society correctly. The nomination process is much critised, especially as some nominating organisations are very obscure. And as party politicians are voting to (s)elect the Senators, it's unsurprising that they mainly elect party politicians. All of the 43 panel Senators just elected are party politicians. Smaller parties sometimes band together to increase their voting power - one such deal between Labour and Sinn Féin has given the latter their first Senator.

Having eleven Senators nominated by the Taoiseach usually guarantees the government of the day a majority in the Seanad as almost all nominees are from the governing parties bar a Northern nominee, although in 1994 the government changed mid Dail and the new Taoiseach was unable to replace his predecessor's nominees. My British readers (at least) will understand my scepticism about the wisdom of letting prime ministers directly appoint members of a parliament.

(See also Seanad Éireann Committee on Procedure and Privileges Sub-Committee on Seanad Reform: 2004 Report - be warned, it's a PDF.)

Powers and conventions: The Seanad is primarily a revising body with only powers to delay. If a Bill passed by the Dail is not passed by the Seanad within 90 days, the Dail has a further 180 days to resolve that it has been "deemed" to be passed by the Seanad. Money bills can only be delayed 21 days. The government has the power to reduce the time limit for "urgent" bills with the concurrence of the President, but this can't apply to bills to change the constitution.

The Seanad can request that the President appoint a Committee of Privileges to decide whether or not a bill is a money bill. A majority of senators together with at least a third of the Dail can petition the President that a bill is of "great national importance" and ask them to decline to sign a bill into law until it has been "referred to the people" through either a referendum or new general election.

Conflict resolution: As the Seanad usually has a built in government majority, conflict is rare, but the 1994-1997 government (which did not have the support of the nominees) did not encounter many problems. The inherent assumption is that the Dail is supreme and the Seanad's powers to take on the Dail are strictly limited. The right to petition for a referendum is a watered down version of the power to call a referendum that the Irish Free State Seanad originally had.

Protector against the tyranny of the majority vs bastion against democracy: Since the majority in the Dail can usually secure a majority in the Seanad and the powers are loaded in favour of the Dail, there's little the Seanad can do to stand up to Dail abuses of power. The option to petition for a referendum might prove handy, although could the President just decline the request?

Anything else?: The report on Seanad Reform linked to above makes for interesting reading, offering potential justifications for several of the current members - the university Senators are usually independent and nomination by Taoiseach seems the best workable way to represent Northern Ireland and other minority groups - but criticising others, particularly the panel system.

The issue of representing Northern Ireland is worth a little further analysis, not because I think it should join the Republic but because the way Diasporas are represented in parliaments is often a complex one. Recently specific seats for expatriates have been created in the Italian Parliament, bringing this question to the forefront. However I am sceptical as to whether an upper house alone is the best place to resolve this issue, and don't feel that prime ministerial nominations should be retained just to solve it. Any solution to the "wider nation" problem should cover both houses.

One point of note is that a lot of Irish politicians have served in the Seanad either at the start of their career or midway, after losing their Dail seat. The image of the Seanad as a back-up route to the Oireachtas, or worse a source of sinecures for unsuccessful politicians, is not an attractive one.

Anything worth copying?: To be honest not much, although the panels may be an idea worth investigating more, but the present electoral system just produces a house of politicians, many of them seeking a Dail seat in the next election. The current Seanad was created by Éamon de Valera to be a much weaker body than its predecessor and it shows. But as a means to represent a society in a unified fashion, rather than dividing it up along class or religious grounds, it can be commended for its boldness of thinking.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Whatever happened to holding one's nerve?

Am I the only one sick to death of the media and certain elements in the Party deciding that David Cameron's leadership is stalling? Is there such a thing as an addiction to Conservative Party Leadership Elections?

The problem in the Conservative Party in recent years is not that it has had bad leadership. The problem is that it has not wanted to be led.

Too many are used to whining, dreaming of a mythical age that never happened (can anyone tell me when Margaret Thatcher went and built a grammar school?) and looking for things to row about.

If Cameron has made one serious mistake it is to allow the media to build up an image of him as a man of gimmicks who chases popularity. Did nobody notice that opinion polls were never in favour of Cameron's espoused position? Who ever chased unpopularity for the sake of it?

Hopefully the media will soon find a new story to obsess about. Aren't we due another Big Brother row soon?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

On second chambers: The Irish Free State Seanad

Continuing my look at second chambers, and following some of the comments on my post about the Senate of Northern Ireland we now turn to the rest of Ireland. I'll come to the present Seanad in my next post in this series, but first I'd like to take a look at the Seanad in the Irish Free State, now known as "1st Seanad" (with the numbering for the current Senate starting from "2nd Seanad"). (For consistency I'm using "Seanad" rather than "Senate" throughout.)

Be warned that some of this is complicated as despite only lasting fourteen years it was subject to several constitutional amendments and effectively had three different (s)election systems over six elections in its life.

Composition: Start-up: 30 members elected by Dáil Éireann, with terms of three or nine years allocated by lot. 30 members appointed by the prime minister for six or twelve year terms. These arrangements were just to get things going.

As originally envisaged for permanent running: Members would serve for twelve years, with a third (fifteen) directly elected in a state wide Single Transferable Vote election.

The nomination process was complicated to say the least. Candidates would be nominated in three sections - senators up for re-election could renominate themselves; the Seanad as a whole then selected an equal number of candidates from a list submitted; and then the Dail selected a number equal to both the renominations and Seanad selection. (See Northern Ireland Elections: "An exceedingly severe test" - The Irish Senate elections of 1925 for more details of the one election that did take place.) Interim vacancies were filled by a vote of the Seanad; however the Senator would only serve until the next set of Seanad elections. (Also candidates had to be at least 35.)

Following changes in 1928: Direct elections were done away with and terms reduced to 9 years. The Seanad was now elected by thirds, with the outgoing Seanad and the Dail jointly voting by STV. The nominations were also changed so there would now be twice as many candidates as seats, with half the candidates nominated by the Seanad and the other half by the Dail. Sitting Senators lost the automatic right to renominate themselves. (The minimum age for candidates was now reduced to 30.)

Fairness of representation: Elections on a single nationwide constituency, whether direct or indirect, cannot be subject to gerrymandering or malapportionment.

The start-up and post 1928 composition both suffer from the dangers of duplicating the lower house. The prime ministerial nominations in 1922 and the election of 1925 diluted this a bit. Having the Seanad directly involved in nominating so many candidates for itself is also a tendency towards perpetuation.

The rights of parties who opt to abstain is always contentious, but it's worth noting that the decision by the anti-Treaty rump of Sinn Féin to boycott the Dail meant that it was not represented in the Seanad either. When most of Sinn Féin left to form Fianna Fáil and took their seats in the Dail this began to be corrected, but to a large extent the conflict between the Fianna Fáil government of 1932 onwards and the Seanad was rooted in the former's unrepresentation in the upper house.

The 1925 election saw a number of candidates elected who either benefitted from a very high local turnout (compared to a low statewide turnout) or who had the support of geographically scattered groups such as ex-servicemen or publicans. Such interest groups are traditionally badly represented in constituency based parliaments.

In light of later proposals and actions regarding the modern Seanad's composition it's worth explicitly noting that there was no direct representation for either Northern Ireland or the Irish emigrants. (This is something I'll come back to when looking at the present Seanad.) However there was nothing specifically stopping a candidate from Northern Ireland being put forward.

Powers and conventions: Originally: The Seanad could only delay, not veto legislation. However it could delay a money bill for 21 days and any other bill for 270 days. The Seanad had the power to call a binding referendum on any bill if a majority requested it within seven days of passing or if 60% of Senators requested it within ninety days. (5% of registered voters could also petition for a referendum but that's outside this scope.) This didn't cover either money bills or bills declared by both houses to be "necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety". No referendum was called while this power existed.

From 1928: The power to call a referendum was scrapped. The power to delay ordinary bills was extended to twenty months.

Conflict resolution: As the Seanad only had the power to delay, the Dail would normally eventually triumph in a dispute. Referring a bill to the people was one alternative, although this was never exercised. (It may well have been had the Seanad still had the power once Fianna Fáil were in power.) In 1936 following protracted disputes over constitutional changes, the Seanad itself was abolished - the ultimate in conflict resolution.

Protector against the tyranny of the majority vs bastion against democracy: As noted above, the initial boycott by what became Fianna Fáil meant that they and the votes that had sent them to the Dail were underrepresented in the Seanad for a decade after they ended the boycott. Now one can quite legitimately argue that was a consequence of their own choice, but even after 1934 (when the entire Seanad had now been elected post boycott) there was still under representation stemming from the earlier boycott and the self-renewal process of the Seanad. At what point does a house stop being legitimately elected in a long period and become a hangover with an out of date mandate?

Because of the boycott it's hard to test the Seanad's effectiveness on its initial powers, but the ability to refer a bill to the people is one way to resist the partisan interests of a majority in a lower house. Post 1932 the Seanad was taking a firm stance against the Dail but was unable to prevent itself from being abolished - a short term protector at best.

Anything else?: The 1925 election is an interesting test of using STV under very extreme circumstances - electing 19 members from 76 candidates. This is even more complex than some Australian Senate elections (last time there were 78 candidates chasing 6 seats from New South Wales). One has to wonder if a 76 candidate preference ballot paper is "manageable" for the voters so that they can cast a vote that is successful in electing a member.

Anything worth copying?: Staggered elections are good, although I question if electing by a quarter isn't too long. The power to refer a bill to the people is a very good idea and one to allow for an upper house to go over the head of the fully single elected house. The post 1928 indirect elections don't fill me with much excitement though as such a system can make it very hard for a total renewal to take place and have some Senators with a very tenuous link to the votes that elected those who originally directly elected them. Also I don't think it wise to have a lower house involved in selecting any part of its own upper house.

The Brent Central Wikipedia war

One of the main dangers of Wikipedia is that when it comes to elections it can be very hard to verify much of the information added to articles, especially those that cite offline "local paper" sources. Sometimes it seems as though opposing sides are trying to get their own spin on it all.

The latest war concerns the new constituency of Brent Central. (Wikipedia: Brent Central (UK Parliament constituency)) With the boroughs of Brent and Camden losing a seat between them, sitting Brent South and Brent East MPs, Dawn Butler and Sarah Teather, will be facing off against each other. And already it seems each's workers in Parliament are editing Wikipedia to put misleading statements about the other. (The Times Online: Pushing the boundaries and The Independent: Pandora - Westminster war over Wikipedia) For what it's worth the main articles are at Wikipedia: Dawn Butler and Wikipedia: Sarah Teather.

This is not the first time I've seen Liberal Democrats taking campaigning onto Wikipedia - during the Bromley & Chislehurst by-election the main article and many individual pages went through numerous reverts, particularly on the issue of the Liberal Democrat candidate not living in the constituency despite passing himself off as a local man. (Wikipedia: Bromley and Chislehurst by-election, 2006) It doesn't surprise me that they still feel the need to peddle lies. Liberal Democrats wouldn't know honest clean campaigning if it bit them on the arse.

Monday, July 23, 2007

On second chambers: The Senate of Northern Ireland

To kick off this look at second chambers around the world past and present, let's look at the one other that has existed in the United Kingdom, the Senate of Northern Ireland which existed between 1921 and 1972.

As a brief disclaimer, I'm going to avoid wider issues such as gerrymandering, and the local government franchise. Whilst they were definitely part of the Stormont regime (although some of the gerrymandering originated at local level, though later reinforced by the Stormont government), they were not part of the Senate per se and can distort discussion of the structure.

Composition: 26 members (25 in practice from 1969). 24 elected by Single Transferable Vote by members of the Northern Ireland House of Commons with 12 elected at the start of each Parliament for two terms. The other two were the Lord Mayors of Belfast and Londonderry ex officio. In 1969 the Londonderry Corporation was suspended and no new elected body introduced before Stormont was prorogued. The Lord Mayor of Londonderry's seat was not filled.

Fairness of representation: One obvious distortion is that whilst the two county boroughs were directly represented, the six county council areas were not. (The gerrymandering of the Londonderry Corporation is widely known, but as the Mayor was elected by the councillors this point is perhaps beyond the scope of this analysis.) It's not clear at a glance if the Mayors were there to represent their cities, their councils, just the majorities on their councils or the people of the cities - four distinct (if sometimes confused) concepts. The 12 members elected at the start of each Parliament were elected by sitting members of the House of Commons. Abstenionist MPs thus did not have the opportunity to elect (abstentionist) Senators. Approximately 4 MPs were needed to elect 1 Senator, although with a sizable abstention this could reduce the quota. Micro parties in the Commons (and there were a number in the history of Stormont) would thus not be represented in the Senate unless they could band together. Consequently the 12 elected would be disproportionately representative of the larger parties in the Commons.

The precise political composition is not recorded as interest in the Senate was low but given the limited participation in the Commons by Nationalists, the fragmentation of opposition parties in the Commons and the addition of the Lord Mayors the chamber would have been even more Unionist dominated than the Commons.

The method for handling midterm vacancies isn't currently recorded on either webpage I'm linking to. Was there a convention that an opposition party with a vacancy could nominate a replacement unopposed?

Powers and conventions: I'm not too sure on these, although the Senate was regarded as "not designed to be a check on the legislature, but rather a place for reflection and revision of government bills - an additional means of finding parliamentary time" (Northern Ireland Elections: The Northern Ireland Senate, 1921-72) and in practice had virtually no political impact.

Conflict resolution: Again details are limited, especially as the Senate was never set up to be a check & balance on the Commons, whilst as both chambers were always controlled by the same party the potential for party conflict was minimal.

Protector against the tyranny of the majority vs bastion against democracy: This is rather more theoretical (especially given the limited information on powers and the lack of any reason to use them), but in terms of its composition the Senate could potentially have been a protector without being too much of a block to overwhelming changes in public opinion. As its composition reflected the outcome of two general elections it could resist a small change in opinion altering the balance of power in the Commons as at no point was even a bare majority of the Senate elected in one go. By contrast a landslide sweep of the Commons would bring with it many Senate seats and so securing a Senate majority would be possible for a new government with mass popular support. And as a government can call an election, what would there be to stop a new one calling an early election just to ensure it could get a majority in the upper house?

Because almost all the Senate was elected by the House of Commons, there was no opportunity for voters to "ticket split" and elect one party to a Commons majority and another to keep a check on them. And in any case it takes more than just composition but also actual powers for an upper house to take on the lower.

Anything else?: The Senate was created as an afterthought and it shows. Originally there would have been a single Senate for both Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, but during the Government of Ireland Bill's passage through the Westminster Parliament this was amended to create separate Senates. (Northern Ireland Elections: The Senate of Southern Ireland, 1921) "Of course it developed into a sinecure for politicians who couldn't or wouldn't get into the lower house." (The Northern Ireland Senate. Op cit.) As early as 1926 there were calls for its abolition.

Anything worth copying?: Very little to be honest. The one point worth taking on board is the staggered elections. But having the upper house elected directly by the lower house is not particularly attractive as it primarily duplicates the lower house's composition, as well as creating opening for sinecures and placemen. And it is vulnerable to the ability of governments (or lower houses) to call a new election.

The inclusion of the two Mayors provided a link to local government, but it is a distortion of the role - Mayors are primarily chosen for civic municipal duties, not sitting in legislatures. (Executive Mayors, like the directly elected Mayors we now have in some areas, are as the name suggests executives, not legislators.) The idea of rotating mayoralties further makes it difficult to use them for a legislature as there is the risk a person will be chosen as Mayor for the sake of the legislature, not the municipality.

On second chambers: An introduction

The reform of the House of Lords has dragged on for years, to the point that some temporary provisions have now become a total joke (look for instance at a by-election to replace a deceased Labour hereditary peer!). But reform is pressing - with such a large proportion of members now appointed and that appointments process becoming publicly discredited, the House of Lords presently is "broke" and does need "fixing".

The idea of this little series of posts is to look at some other second chambers around the world from the past and present and see how they were composed, how they performed and whether they might offer guidance for a replacement second chamber in the UK.

To guide the analysis each second chamber looked at will have the following sections:

Composition: As it says on the tin (with a brief history of any changes).

Fairness of representation: What basis is the representation built on? Is it natural? Is it fair?

(I'm deliberately avoiding the use of the term "malapportionment" because there is debate as to exactly what it means - just an "unfair ratio of representatives to voters" or "unfair allocation of representatives to represented"? As you'll see as we go through, it's not always clear precisely who or what is being "represented".)

Powers and conventions: What powers does the second chamber have on paper? And which does it actually exercise?

Conflict resolution: How are clashes between the two houses resolved?

Protector against the tyranny of the majority vs bastion against democracy: How good are the chambers at responding to changes in popular opinion? How good are they are taking a longer term approach?

Anything else?: As it says.

Anything worth copying?: How far might this second chamber model work in the UK?

This will be by no means a complete tour but a search through some. I'll post my thoughts on a potential replacement UK house later on.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Is this the end of the English Democrats?

In 1990 a political party presenting itself as a credible force in UK politics fought the Bootle by-election and was outpolled by the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. Within a week the "continuing" Social Democratic Party folded.

This trend continued in the 1990s - there were times when serious "alternative" parties would decide against standing in particular by-elections rather than risk losing to the Loonies and seeing morale and credibility evaporate - see Wikipedia: Official Monster Raving Loony Party - Serious attempts to gather votes.

Tonight the Loonies once again outpolled a serious party. In Ealing Southall they got 188 votes, whilst the English Democrats polled just 152. Can the English Democrats seriously continue?

How long will Ming last?

A truthful poster for the Lib DemsThe Liberal Democrats haven't taken Ealing Southall, despite being in second place at the last general election. This failure is the worst by-election result for the Liberal Democrats since Richmond (North Yorkshire) in 1989 (when all three post Liberal-Social Democrat merger parties contested the seat and shredded the vote).

Nor have they taken Sedgefield and despite their hopes they have failed to reduce the Conservative share of the vote which instead went up. All the Liberal Democrats achieved here was to rearrange the anti-war vote - their vote increase of 8.0% is less than the 10.3% gained by Reg Keys last time.

How long can Sir Menzies Campbell last as Liberal Democrat leader? Can you hear the Liberal Democrat vultures circling?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Do conservatives automatically believe in the monarchy?

There's an interesting piece at ConservativeHome: Andrew Lilico: Should we care about the demise of the constitutional monarchy? which does provoke my above question.

The simplest answer would be "no but it looks otherwise". Both individual conservatives and conservative parties in many parts of the world are not seeking the establishment or restoration of monarchies and in some countries conservatives are actively seeking the end to monarchy (e.g. Australia).

In the UK some try to claim the Conservative Party is an inherently monarchist party, but given that the monarchy is never an issue in party politics here, no-one seems to have examined whether this support is just a traditional "it ain't broke, don't fix it", "it's not a priority to get rid of" or a genuine reverence for monarchy. When at meetings with other party members we've been asked to try to define what a "conservative" is, I've only ever heard one person out of many mention the monarchy at all in their response.

There is a fundamental difference between adherence to a concept for its own sake and resisting unnecessary change. Conservatism is traditionally the latter, not the former.

Peerage titles

There are many formal rules for how to refer to peers and understandably so, although I always get irritated with pedants who seem to insist that anyone who uses the most common name for a person is wrong - how many philosophers write about the "3rd Earl Russell" or whatever the formal term is? And my college at the University of Kent was always described as being named after "Ernest Rutherford" not "Lord Rutherford" - how do physicists, chemists and stamp collectors refer to him?

Nick Assinder reports that one of the newest ennobled peers is styling himself "Digby, Lord Jones of Birmingham" (BBC News: Commons Confidential: July 2007). I can understand why he may want "Digby" to still be there, but why not just style himself "Digby Jones"? Or even take a different title - what about "Baron Digby-Jones"? After all there was "Lord George-Brown".

The dangers of ConservativeHome

ConservativeHome has just proved how dangerous the site can be when unsubstantiated articles run on it attack individuals and imply actions they have no plans to do.

At the weekend they ran the piece Bercow defection is expected at time of maximum embarrassment based on nothing more than an anonymous briefing and with no attempt to get a statement from Bercow himself. Cue a massive round of attacks on Bercow, almost trying to drive him out of the party.

Then today a grovelling retraction was issued: John Bercow. Editor Tim Montgomerie states:

I now regret that post...

Although ConservativeHome has published more than 3,500 posts over the last two years the post on Saturday is the first to cause me real regret.
But too often ConservativeHome can't decide if it is a newsource for party members or a viewsource. The result is that all too often too many in the party feel a need to pander to it.

I look forward to the launch of Platform 10 which should generate some competition and encourage better standards.

How will anyone notice George Galloway's suspension?

Never mind George, you can go back to thisGeorge Galloway has been suspended from the House of Commons for eighteen days after an investigation by the standards committee. (BBC News: Galloway suspended from Commons)

Given that Galloway's attendance record makes even Sinn Féin look like a contributor to Westminster life, how is anyone going to spot the difference?!

Strange encounters in Ealing Southall

When I arrived at Ealing Broadway station today the first person I saw outside was none other than Sir Menzies Campbell! He was walking all by himself with a couple of Liberal Democrat activists following at a distance. I resisted the opportunity to stop and chat to him.

But stranger still was an incident later on when leafleting. I bent down to put a leaflet through a low letter box when I heard someone opening the gate. I turned round to see coming up behind me none other than Mark Oaten!

Fortunately I didn't shit myself.

Business transaction not political donation

Dizzy Thinks has an excellent piece on the difference between the business community and political tribalists when it comes to events. Rather than comment further I reproduce his piece here:

You say political donation, I say business transaction

The Ealing Southall by-election is getting rather funnier by the day. Allegations about possible lawsuits, and now we have "Tory candidates donates to Labour less than a month ago". Well that's the line Labour have pushed, which is understandable, elections and all.

It seems what has happened is that Tony Lit in his position as MD of Sunrise Radio, and his wife, attended an event which was celebrating diversity and was actually a Labour fund raiser with Blair and presumably other great and good Labour people too. They, that is Sunrise Radio had paid the Labour Party £4800 for a table at the event. Apparently the table also won an auction which it has yet to pay for with a winning bid of £4000.

There are of course some who would say this is evidence of shameless opportunism by Tony Lit. Weeks before he became the Tory candidate he was "donating" money to Labour. I think some perspective is needed on this though, after all, it was a business identity that was attending an event which, essentially, was a "here's a chance to lobby the Government" event as well as be seen in the local community and maintain a friendly business profile.

Whilst some people might call it a donation, anyone with a modicum of business understanding knows that the £4800 will be seen as a business transaction rather than an act of generosity. In fact, I would be surprised if it wasn't written off in the Sunrise books as part of a relationship building expenses ledger. One thing's for sure, personal political views won't have been a factor in the decision of whether to attend or not.

And to be fair, it sort of beggars belief that an event about diversity and the British Asian community would not have the nations largest Asian radio station in attendance in some way. The chances are they were probably contacted by the Labour Party and invited, rather than it being active participation the other way round. At which point a business decision was made to attend, because, funnily enough, from a business point of view it was absolutely the right thing to do.

Those of a more tribalistic persuasion might find this hard to stomach. Obviously a Labour tribalist won't buy such an argument because it (a) doesn't suit the situation to do so and (b) they're probably a public sector housing officer that doesn't understand the dispassionate nature of making a business decision. A Tory tribalist meanwhile will probably understand the point, but just see it as an excuse to blame Cameron some more I imagine.

There is one final thing to consider though. The Labour Party have (presumably thanks to Tom Watson and Joan Ryan who are dealing with their by-election strategy) just sent a message to businesses around the country that it will (a) breach a trust it may have with them and (b) use them as a political football if it's expedient to do so.

In the short term they've created a story on a Sunday when the polls look horrible for Tories, a double whammy, and politically a great hit (even though the story is devoid of any sanity really). But, in the long term, they've probably just ensured that they're not going to get a decent hearing on the largest Asian broadcaster in the country for some time to come.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Can a man serve two mistresses? or What travelcard zone is Henley in?

When it seemed as though the Liberal Democrats's candidate for Mayor of London might be Lembit Öpik many flaws with the idea soon became clear. (Is London doomed?) And no, I don't mean the possibility that it could have resulted in the capital being hit by an asteroid. Rather it is the location of Öpik's constituency:

It's still not remotely near Zone 6 is it?

Henley is not so far out (maybe Zone 14 to Montgomeryshire's Zone 100) but is still not in Greater London. And this is one of the reasons why I am deeply uneasy about the idea of Boris Johnson running for Mayor of London. (There are others that I'll go into if/when he declares and the nomination battle is underway - and at the moment it's not entirely clear if Boris is running - see ConservativeHome's London Mayor blog: Boris confirms candidacy on his website... and ten minutes later the confirmation is deleted! - but let's stick to this one for the moment.) It's one thing for a politician to represent the same or overlapping areas on different tiers of authorities - there are many councillors who represent the same area at some or all of county, district, town and parish level, as well as those who sit in the Parliaments and/or Assemblies. But even they run the risk of favouring one "core" area over the rest.

When someone seeks to represent two very different areas then it is hard to avoid questions about whether they are truly committed to either. Or which they will give priority to lobbying for when the two are competing for the same resources. Or if they have strong knowledge and a track record in representing (and in this case administering) the new area. These are points that cannot be made about candidates (or potential candidates) from other parties and then quietly ignored when the same issues arise with a potential candidate from one's own party.

One way for Boris to resolve this would be to resign his seat in Parliament, not upon election for Mayor or even upon securing the Conservative nomination but now (if he is running after all). It would be a gamble certainly. But it would be the surest sign of commitment to the metropolis.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

What is "good" weather?

After heavy rain, London is currently experiencing what feels like one of the hottest Julys in my lifetime. Even at night it seems impossible to escape the heat, whilst in the daytime the sun beats down relentlessly.

And quite frankly I'm sick and tired of the way everyone is automatically assuming that this is somehow "good weather". TV weather forecasters are the worst - and the BBC should remember they are supposed to be unbiased.

For me sunshine doesn't bring a tan or joy. Instead it burns my skin - my hands are starting to look like a speckled lobster and if gets much worse they'll be physically painful on touch. The heat is also unbearable at times as anyone who's been on the tube this month can attest.

Why is this so universally considered "good" weather?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Ming stops delivering

Does he ever actually perform?At the Liberal Democrat campaign office in the Ealing Southall by-election, the three photocopiers are named "Dave", "Gordon" and "Ming". Only one of the three is not performing properly.

You've guessed it - the useless one is Ming!

Thanks to Telegraph Blogs: Little and Large - Ming conks out for the story.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Bravo Sarkozy!

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has refused to pardon prisoners on Bastille Day. (BBC News: Sarkozy says 'No' to mass pardons) He has instead decided that the French President's powers to pardon criminals should be used in exceptional circumstances and not as a means of keeping the prison population down.

Too often the opposite attitude prevails in this country, resulting in criminals being given lenient sentences and even non-custodial sentences, exposing the system to ridicule. If prisons have to be overcrowded until more have been built, or if cell space has to be reduced to increase capacity, then those are the only sensible options. Rationing prison places does nothing to deter crime or reassure society.

Interesting petitions

In a break from everything else that has kept me from blogging much lately, including campaigning in the Ealing Southall by-election, here are some interesting petitions on the 10 Downing Street website. All, for now, are from the Education and skills section.

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to...

And now back to the by-election.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Tom Watson - Two names and two faces

Labour's performance in the by-election in Ealing Southall is generating more and more nastiness. First we get the farce of an All Women Shortlist being imposed on the constituency, then retracted following a strong campaign against it. Cue outrage from the AWS advocates. (Antonia Bance: Ealing Southall) Then the shortlist that was put to the membership did not meet the hopes of those who sought to overturn the AWS in the first place. Cue outrage. (SikhSangat News: Labour Party Sikh Members Not Impressed By Labour Selection Process For Ealing Southall) It seems as though whoever in the Labour Party is responsible for overseeing the selection has decided that when it's not possible to please everyone the key priority is to outrage everyone.

Then we get the farce of Tom Watson MP claiming the Conservative candidate is not a registered voter. This is because he didn't bother to look properly. Under changes to electoral law made by Tom Watson's government, candidates are entitled to stand under their best known name rather than their full formal name. You would have thought that the person in charge of Labour's election campaign would know current electoral law!!! Clearly he also doesn't know the electoral law that it is illegal to publish false statements about candidates under electoral law. (Tom Watson MP: Who is Tony Lit? and also Iain Dale: EXCLUSIVE: Labour Breach Electoral Law in Ealing Southall)

Is this Tom Watson? Or is it Thomas Anthony Watson?Next Tom Watson dug his hole deeper by attacking Tony Lit for sometimes going by his full name (Surinderpal Singh Lit) and sometimes by his given name (Tony Lit). (Tom Watson MP: Who is Tony Lit? [2]) This from a man presenting himself to the world as "Tom Watson" when his full name is "Thomas Anthony Watson". Has he not noticed this?

And for the record I technically go by several variations of name. As well as using "Tim" as my first name, there is deep ambiguity over whether or not there is a hyphen in my surname - I use one but other members of my family don't. And as many internet registrations don't allow spaces and hyphens "timrollpickering" has almost become another name for me. I am sure many others do. Perhaps Tom aka Thomas Anthony Watson would like to spend more time getting his facts straight and less making gaffes.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Time for a Constitutional Convention?

The announcements about constitutional debate and change (BBC News: Brown sets out reform proposals) and the immediate refusal to even consider addressing one of the biggest grievances (BBC News: PM says no to English-only votes; and yes, I do still oppose a two tier MP solution but think there has to be some change made) exposes the very poor way in which constitutional changes are made in this country. All too often one governing party rams through changes with few if any concessions to opposition concerns, creating long-term instability for the sake of short term gain. And it exposes defenders of perceived unfairness to the charge of self-interest - anyone who thinks Brown's attitude on the West Lothian Question does not have such a tinge probably thinks that Joh Bjelke-Petersen was only concerned about communication problems in rural areas when defending the "Bjelkemander". (Malapportionment - irritatingly often confused with gerrymandering - is something that is worryingly creeping into this country, albeit covertly and perhaps unintentionally, due to the Boundary Commission's rules.)

Currently we're in a transitional period where the problems of devolution are starting to rear their heads in earnest, where completing the reform of the second chamber has been dragging on for years, where local government remains a mess, where the rights and responsibilities of both citizen and state are not fully codified and so forth. Some solutions could tackle more than one problem - for example both the United States and Australian Senates are made up of an equal number of senators from each states (give or take the provision for territories). Could an "equal say" upper house make it easier to resolve the problems of voting power in the Commons?

So perhaps it's time there was a grand constitutional convention. Yes it'd be made up of the usual politicians and scholars. But to sit down, address many of the issues fully and openly, and try to find ways forward to resolve them would surely be a better way than relying purely on the government of the day. Whether we need a written constitution or not is an open question that could be debated as part of this process. But rather than calls for piecemeal tinkering, perhaps now is the time for a real examination of how this country is governed.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

June on this blog

Once again it's time for the monthly look at who's been visiting this blog. For those who wish to see stats for earlier months you can now click on one of the labels at the end of this post. Comparisons are with the stats for May.

First off the sites most people come from:

  1. Google (-)
  2. (-)
  3. Mars Hill (-)
  4. Wikipedia (+5)
  5. MyBlogLog (+1)
  6. ConservativeHome (+10)
  7. Facebook (+6)
  8. Imaginary Walls (NEW)
  9. Caroline Hunt (RE-ENTRY)
  10. Young Unionists (RE-ENTRY)
Dropping out of the top ten are Cllr Iain Lindley's Diary (at 11, down 4), Antonia Bance (at 12, down 8), Cally's Kitchen (at 29, down 19) and Peter Black AM (dropping off the radar altogether).

A bit of a shake-up of positions, but the top three seem as unshakable as ever.

Then we have the top ten search engine requests that brought people here:

  1. doctor who blink (NEW)
  2. what does your birthday say about you (-1)
  3. doctor who tonight (-1)
  4. tim roll-pickering (-1)
  5. seals of office (NEW)
  6. sutton surrey map (+1)
  7. non oxbridge prime ministers (NEW)
  8. problems with christian unions (NEW)
  9. laura blomeley (-1)
  10. langua franca (RE-ENTRY)
Rather a tame month compared to some. Meanwhile amongst the eyebrow raising searches are quentin davies sleaze - is there something we've not yet been told? - and "radley college" bullying, something I'll address another time.

Finally as ever we have a list of all the cities detected that people are in:


Thank you all for reading!


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