Thursday, May 31, 2007

Hate still rages in Northern Ireland

In spite of all the work to rebuild community relations, certain politicians in Northern Ireland seem to still think it's acceptable to preach other forms of hatred. Ian Paisley Jnr, a (appropriately) junior minister in the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister which is responsible for equality, has attacked lesbian and gay people and claimed they "harm themselves and - without caring about it - harm society". (BBC News: Row over 'repulsive gays' comment) He seems not to realise that what is really harming society are not people who wish to be true to themselves and their identity, and in some cases form permanent unions (the lesser Paisley has never been consistent on unions) but sad twisted despicable little bigots in politics.

It is rare that I ever find myself in agree with Martin McGuinness, but he has said it well:

I don't know what he's going to do but I certainly think that we have a problem insofar as a junior minister in that department has expressed views which are a total contradiction of everything that the OFDFM is charged to do in terms of protecting the rights of all sorts of people within our society, including minorities. (BBC News: McGuinness slams DUP gay remarks)
Unfortunately the likelihood of Paisley Jnr being sacked by his father is zero. It seems to get sacked in the DUP one needs to have a "massage" for a "sports injury".

Friday, May 25, 2007

On schools...

I haven't previously blogged about the row over grammar schools, both because of heavy time commitments but also because I seem to be one of the few people in the Conservative Party who doesn't feel stirred on the issue. That said, I suspect that some of the backlash is more an anti-Cameron backlash that's been awaiting an issue rather than a specific crusade in favour of grammar schools.

Plus as so many have pointed out this is exactly the same policy the Conservatives followed in government for at least thirty years. But of course Margaret Thatcher and John Major didn't have to cope with the blogosphere.

State schooling is one of the issues I feel least well qualified to talk about because of my own schooling. (Okay technically for a time I attended a local authority run inner city school but it was a very unique set-up.) That said, I do get very annoyed with the way people who were sent to private schools get dismissed. Nobody at that age makes the state/private choice for themselves. Who at the age of 1 (I'm serious - that's when many people go onto the waiting lists for certain private schools!) gets up and demands that they be sent to a state school because of the effect it might have on a political career thirty-five years later?

What I do have experience of though are some of the effects that selective schooling can have, both on the pupils and parents. And there are some points that I don't see raised very much in the whole debate.

For example at the age of 6 I sat an exam that determined whether or not I got into a particular school. I passed the exam. However my then best friend (and next door neighbour) did not and consequently went to a different school. "What ifs" are always highly speculative, but I do occasionally wonder if my time at prep school would have been different for the better if we had both passed the exam.

When I did transfer from preprep to prep school there were, from recollection, only about four or five other pupils who made the same move and by the time I reached the sixth year there was only one other still there. (And throwing in the strange practice of my preprep school in having pupils move up term by term albeit sometimes staying in the same form and sometimes skipping terms - a very complicated system to explain - and there was not one person who I was always in the same form/"year" as throughout my early schooling days.) Some of this was because my preprep was mixed and my prep school single sex (although now it is fully mixed) but even so it seems a world away from others who talk of lifelong friends who were always there throughout their entire school days. When I moved on to the next school at the age of 13 there was again only one other pupil who made an identical transfer.

Additionally with one exception all the schools I attended were miles from my home - my prep school was by road 4.4 miles away, which at the age of 7-12 does feel a lot, and was also out of town - most public transport options were unviable (there's no train station at all near the school that's safely walkable for anyone that age). And it took pupils from all over - my classmates came from variously Epsom, Leatherhead, Bookham, Esher, Reigate, Redhill, Oxted and numerous other towns and villages across eastern Surrey.

Now one could ask whether any of this matters. Does it make a difference if a child goes to a local school, has classmates who they can easily meet outside of school and has a shared experience with others for many years? Or does it make no difference if they go to a school some distance away, have classmates scattered across a county that is not easy to traverse without parental support and have a very limited total "shared experience"? And just what difference - academic results? Social skills? Social life? Is this measurable?

This does open up one of the urban/rural biases that come up - in metropolitan areas the distance and transport factors are invariably smaller. But it's hard to deny that any form of selection between schools (whether by schools or by parents) widens the area in which the pupils come from.

Then there was the transfer at 13. (One of the reasons why the private and state sectors often feel so alien from each other and don't seem to have much mixing may well be because they aren't terribly compatible for natural switchovers. Indeed I can't remember anyone joining my schools from a state school, whilst almost all of the admittedly small handful who transferred the other way left at odd points, presumably because of the recession biting hard.) From the age of 10 - half my time at prep school - it seemed as though almost everything was being run for the sake of the Common Entrance and scholarship exams - the private sector's own "12+/13+". *

(* Is the 11+ taken in the year when the pupil is 11/12 or is it referring to the subsequent school year when they start their new school? One area where I've never been too sure about is the terminology for the different years in schools, since all the ones I went to used different names. One school had only five year groups yet somehow managed to have two "6th forms". Additionally because my birthday is in August I've always tended to associate each school year with an exact age as the best common standard but this isn't always the age normally associated with what happens in that year - for instance I took my GCSE exams when I was 15 whereas most talk about "16" as the age for taking them. To complicate matters yet further I believe the local state schools in Surrey had different age transfers from the norm when I was growing up, but I can't be sure why I recall this. Terms like "Year Ten" are utterly meaningless to me.)

The scholarships for the 13+ private schools and the public schools (and the two are not interchangeable terms) may also be similar in terms of the bias in results. Whilst this is no scientific study, my recollection is that there was a small but noticeable difference in wealth both at my prep school (the senior school years were divided into two forms of pupils being prepared for Common Entrance and one form being prepared for the school's own exams for scholarships) and in my brief time at a public school. All too often it seemed that scholarships were regarded by parents and schools as badges of honour, rather than a way to alleviate high fees and allow people from less well off backgrounds to go to schools. The public school seemed to treat pupils who got scholarships as superior to others and granting them extra privileges, sometimes in pointless matters like which staircases they could use (though in fairness to the boys who got them I don't remember many letting it go to their heads). In no way were the scholarships being used as a means of widening participation. If anything was breaking down the class basis of the schools, and I stress class not "socio economic group", it was wider changes in society and wealth generation. One can only guess as to whether nouveau riche parents see sending their children to private and public schools as a social statement.

For reasons I won't go into now, I had an expected further transfer of school, which whilst undoubtedly being one of the best things that ever happened to me was also at a very awkward juncture for changing schools. Much of my schooling career was set in cycles of preparation for various exams - "12+/13+" at 10-12; GCSEs at 14-15; A-Levels at 16-17. It's one thing to move pupils between forms and sets within a school but a very different thing to transfer them between schools, especially when they're locked into such cycles. (Plus schools rarely have the places to sustain such transfers.)

This comes back to the problem that choice is limited in education at both parent and school end. "Shopping around" is near impossible and so schools ultimately recruit on the basis of their reputation, whether formalised in league tables or informalised by word of mouth. Diversity of provision is all well and good, but ultimately is academic selection really the best way of delivering everything that schools aim to provide? And does selection really operate in a wealth blind manner? Most evidence suggests to the contrary.

Friday, May 18, 2007

So when will Five be a channel for all?

The news came today that Five has secured the rights to Neighbours after the BBC pulled out of the negotiations. (BBC News: Five wins Neighbours soap fight) As I haven't watched Neighbours for years, I don't feel particularly strongly about this. But one concern I do have is that Five is still very difficult if not impossible to receive in many parts of the country.

Sticking to analogue for the moment (but yes I will come to digital further down), Five has always been very much the runt of the litter of the channels. A decade ago I found myself retuning numerous VCRs for relatives so that the new channel wouldn't interfere. Then came the launch and the picture quality we got in Epsom was atrocious. And we are very close to the Croydon transmitter. Often I could only get a viewable picture by boosting the signal through my VCR. Then in subsequent years the transmission got much worse and was often completely unviewable.

Even this was better than the situation in Canterbury, where I spent four years. Five isn't broadcast there at all, for various transmission reasons. This is true in many parts of the country, with the result that for a lot of viewers a programme or sport event moving from one of the other four channels to Five is as good as going off the air. (Remember the row over Robot Wars?)

Now one could no doubt argue that this is an inevitable part of the free market (although show me the person who has chosen to live where they do on the basis of Five being available, or for that matter who can foresee what will move onto it!) but let's be honest - in some areas (although imported soaps isn't one of them) there isn't a free market in broadcasting rights. The various preservation orders (especially on key sporting events) and broadcasting mandates are put in place because of the belief that certain things should be accessible to all (and also because of the idea that people have already paid once through the licence fee). Channels that are not accessible to all being able to obtain these rights sits oddly with this.

(Before anyone raises a point about S4C in Wales, I'll be honest in that I'm not very familiar with it - when I've seen television in Wales it's been coming off the West Midlands transmitters - but I would totally apply this to Channel 4 as well if it was broadcasting "national treasures" that weren't available in Wales.)

One could of course sweep aside the whole set-up of preservation orders, privatise the BBC (can I claim a guaranteed standing ovation at the next Conservative Party Conference? ;-) ) and move towards total free reign in broadcasting. That is a perfectly consistent position. But the current set-up strikes me as either inconsistent or else a hangover from the days before Five began.

Now as I mentioned earlier, digital arguably sweeps aside some of these concerns. Possibly. Most of the reasoning for keeping particular broadcasting rights for the analogue channels only transfers to the difference between Freeview and pay per view channels.

But there's another potential problem. I don't know if it's just me, but Five, and the related Five US and Five Life, are the channels I have by far the most problems getting anything remotely resembling a watchable picture and audio. And this has been a consistent problem despite numerous retunes and channel updates. So once again Five is inaccessible. Why is this company so bad at broadcasting, whatever the mechanism? Do they make no effort to actually get viewers?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Gordon Brown - cowardly bully

Deep down, most bullies are secretly cowards, trying to dominate others as a way for overcoming their own insecurities. They invariably seek their goals by the easiest route and always despise fair play and genuine competition.

And in many ways this sums up Gordon Brown's approach to the Labour Leadership "Contest", big clunking fists and all.

Today comes the worrying news that John McDonnell may not be successfully nominated after all. (BBC News: Brown rival needs more supporters) Now some of this can be attributed to bitterness by Michael Meacher fans (or Labour MPs who, like me, just wanted to see the laugh of Meacher going forward) but Brown has refused to encourage Labour MPs to help ensure there is a contest, unlike Nicolas Sarkozy who urged France's Mayors to help give the public as wide a choice as possible. And it can be no coincidence that so many others who have been talked of over the years have declined to put themselves forward.

Why is Brown so scared of a contest? The favourite invariably wins a Labour leadership election, but it is far, far better to win over some opposition.

Four years ago many Labour friends of mine were proclaiming how Michael Howard had been "selected" "undemocratically" as Conservative leader after being the only candidate in the 2003 election. Where are they now?

Monday, May 14, 2007

So it's Brown vs McDonnell

I've been out all day so only just seen the news that Michael Meacher and John McDonnell have reached agreement that the latter will be the left-wing flag bearer for the Labour leadership election. Sadly this removes the comedy of seeing Michael Meacher claiming he could be a good Prime Minister.

One minor thought - this means that whoever gets elected, we'll have to update the "number of PMs who went to a university but not to Oxbridge". And that is a very small number.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Michael Meacher's flawed history

One of the worst things about being a history researcher is that it can be very difficult to ignore statements in the media that you know to be incorrect. Take, for example, this one by Michael Meacher, reported in BBC News: Brown takes on rivals in debate :

Mr Meacher was keen to stress the importance of having a debate within the Labour Party.

"The Labour party, throughout the hundred years of its history, has elected its leader every single time, except in 1931, which was very exceptional circumstances," he said.
This is wrong on several levels.

Prior to 1922 the position was "Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party", which was something of a different position. I forget exactly how many contests there were for the post (the first one in 1906 saw Keir Hardie elected with a one vote majority over David Shackleton), but a glance at David Marquand's Ramsay MacDonald suggests that the 1907 election was unopposed (Hardie stood down under pressure, Shackleton declined to run and Henderson was elected - page 102). Wikipedia so far doesn't list any contests before 1922 - see Wikipedia: Category:Labour Party (UK) leadership elections.

1922 saw the position redefined as "Leader of the Labour Party" and "Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party", although the latter post eventually became separate. Even then there were unopposed elections - 1931 was not as dramatic as Meacher makes out, for Ramsay MacDonald was still a member of the Labour Party at the point when Arthur Henderson became leader. As the leader was elected by Labour MPs only, it would have been entirely possible to hold a ballot. Instead for some time as the Second Labour Government limped to its resignation it had been clear that MacDonald's leadership was coming to an end and Henderson was the only likely successor - shades of this year.

Then in 1931/32 the leadership was again elected without a contest. Henderson lost his seat, together without about 80% of Labour MPs, in the 1931 election but remained leader for another year. In the interim George Lansbury, the one former Cabinet Minister to survive, was elected to head the Parliamentary Party - without a contest. When Henderson stepped down in 1932 (to focus on the Disarmament Conference), Lansbury was elected full leader without a contest.

Then in 1935 when Lansbury insisted on resigning, even in spite of a unanimous resolution urging him to stay passed by a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Clement Attlee was elected as leader unopposed. True he was regarded as a stop-gap until after the forthcoming general election (and he did indeed face a contest later that year), but he was still elected unopposed.

Plus at various times throughout Labour's history the leadership has been elected automatically at the start of each Parliament or even every year (when in Opposition). Numerous leaders have been re-elected unopposed - did Michael Meacher not notice these?

So ignore sweeping statements that unopposed leadership elections are alien to Labour - after all one produced their longest serving leader ever.

Can a political Jonah save himself?

Glyn Davies has emerged as one of the most unfortunate losses in the last Welsh Assembly elections, losing his own list seat entirely because of the Conservatives' success in winning two constituencies. Many tributes have appeared from politicians on all sides of the political divide.

In the aftermath many have urged Glyn to seek a return to politics, with several suggesting he should stand for Montgomeryshire at the next general election. (Glyn Davies: A Challenge Looms) This is the constituency currently held by Lembit Öpik, not exactly the most popular MP amongst Liberal Democrats at the moment and notorious for routinely backing campaigns that crash and burn. Now Montgomeryshire has a reputation for being a safe Liberal Democrat seat (although contrary to myth it hasn't quite been held by the Liberals/Liberal Democrats for all but four of the last 127 years - see my post An inability to get the figures right or just whatever will benefit?) but nothing is certain in politics and personalities sometimes can have strong positive or negative effects on elections. Indeed as Glyn points out:

This is what happened, in the 'constituency' vote, the Liberal Democrat candidate, Mick Bates, polled around 2,000 more votes than our man, Dan Munford - a great effort by Dan which makes Montgomeryshire a marginal seat. But the 'list' vote was as staggering as its been unnoticed. The Conservative vote surged up to 7,191 while the Lib Dem vote collapsed to just 5,111. We won by 2,080. For the first time ever, we absolutely hammered them.
So will Glyn Davies go for it? Many hope he will.

And can Lembit Öpik avoid giving himself the Backing Of Death?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

When another leader left...

Another classic Spitting Image sketch courtesy of YouTube, from a time when another politician who once seemed all conquering found themselves heading away, with few in their party missing them.

Peter Hain proves he should never be Chancellor

Peter Hain has made a surprising gaffe when announcing that he has received sufficient support to be nominated for Deputy Leader of the Labour Party:

Mr Hain said he was pleased to get such support as it was not possible - mathematically speaking - for all six declared contenders to get on the ballot paper. (BBC News: Deputy contenders claim support)
Clearly he's not very good at maths. So here's a simple maths lesson for him.

There are 352 Labour MPs.

Each candidate for the Deputy Leadership requires the support of 45 MPs (including themselves).

352 divided by 45 is 7.8222222222222222222222222222222

So it is possible for seven candidates to be nominated.

And Peter Hain has got his sums wrong. Let's hope he's never made Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Goodbye John Prescott

Goodbye!John Prescott is also retiring. (BBC News: Prescott to quit as deputy leader) So we may never again enjoy the wonderful spectacle of him standing in at Prime Minister's Questions. Or his appearances in the media. His dance on the front pages last summer truly gave hope to ugly people like myself. But Prescott has been a surprising comeback kid throughout the last ten years, often being seemingly written off for good only to survive another day. And who can ever forget when he purchased a pet crab and named it after Peter Mandelson?

The Meacher-McDonnell indecision

Michael Meacher demonstrates his ability to get photographed with world leadersThe previous news that Michael Meacher and John McDonnell had come to an agreement to ensure that Gordon Brown faces some opposition had cheered many, and both men are to be credited for having something that so many others on the Labour benches lack - balls. (So *someone* will take on Brown ) But now comes the news that the two have failed to reach agreement on who has more support, delaying confirmation as to whom will go forward to challenge Brown. (BBC News: Brown rivals delay bid decision) Kerron Cross has more information (Kerron Cross: McDonnell to Stand Down?), suggesting that McDonnell appears to have fewer nominations but is doubting the veracity of some of Meacher's. Will they honour the agreement come Monday?

What is more worrying are reports that even combined the two lack enough support to get one nominated. It cannot be in the country's interest for Gordon Brown to be made Prime Minister unopposed. Are there no Brownite MPs who would be willing to help their own man by ensuring that he can face some opposition? Or are the Brownites scared that Brown can't win?

Cherie Blair - *never* First Lady

Not going to be missedTony Blair's resignation also means an end to Cherie Blair's non-role as Prime Ministerial spouse. So the Labour Party will no longer have to pay ridiculous amounts for hairdressers.

Cherie Blair has found out the hard way that this is a country where "First Ladies" do not exist and are not wanted. She would have done well to follow Dennis Thatcher's mantra that it is best to say nothing in public. Instead she has spent many years milking being the PM's wife and accumulating all the negatives as well. And her legacy is shown by the fact that none of the serious potential future Prime Minister's wives operates in any way remotely like Cherie.

The best thing Tony Blair has ever done

Goodbye. Good riddance.Sadly we've got another few weeks of him but the end is finally in sight. (BBC News: Blair will stand down on 27 June)

Everyone is scrambling to write the political obituaries and finding the same question - just what are Blair's achievements as Prime Minister?

Now a lot will rush and say "independence for the Bank of England" and "years of a strong economy", but I question whether these are Blair's achievements rather than Gordon Brown's. Scottish devolution? I would credit that to Donald Dewar. Indeed many of these supposed achievements seem to originated elsewhere from Downing Street.

The obvious exception is peace in Northern Ireland. Whilst others played their part (and have been rightly rewarded), it cannot be denied that the time Blair invested in the peace process (the area of government policy he gave more attention to than any other) has been essential for pushing the process forward.

And the other achievement is political. Blair transformed the Labour Party into a strong fighting force. He also destroyed the complacency that had built up in the Conservative Party. Indeed many of the changes made to the party in the last few years have been in direct response to the impact of New Labour. Ironically in the long run Blair's true political legacy may scarily be closer to the Conservative Party than the Labour Party.

And of course there have been failures. But rather than list them all, let's stick to just one - his own definition:

"My project will be complete when my party learns to love Peter Mandelson."

So he leaves with the project unfulfilled...

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Liberal Democrats search in vain

One of the searches that has brought people to my blog is:

ming campbell future

If they're having to resort to Google they must know the game is up!

Monday, May 07, 2007

When the Liberal Democrats had different problems...

Here, courtesy of YouTube, is one of the best ever sketches from Spitting Image from when the Liberals and Social Democrats were first contemplating merging. Now there was a time when the Alliance had a strong leader!

Liberal Democrat *leaders* in trouble

Going, going...The Liberal Democrats have officially denied that Sir Menzies Campbell's leadership is under threat. (BBC News: Lib Dem leadership threat denied) Clearly they've not been watching Yes Minister: "First rule of politics: Never believe anything until it's been officially denied." But Liberal Democrats turn yellow at the prospect of another leadership contest so will no doubt soldier on with a leader few have confidence in and who is widely ridiculed.

The same problems on a smaller scaleBut Ming can take comfort that he is not the only Liberal Democrat leader under fire. Michael German, their leader in the Welsh Assembly, is facing open calls for his resignation from 1/6 of the Assembly party, and it is widely reckoned the discontent involves at least half the grouping. (BBC News: No to coalition, says Lib Dem AM) Peter Black AM has been speaking out publicly (for instance in the ironically titled Speaking out inappropriately), calling not only for the party to reject all talk of keeping in place the rejected Labour administration but also calling for a leadership election. As he himself points out:

The leadership of course forms a integral part of the process he describes and therefore needs to be discussed openly as well. Nevertheless, I could always have taken the other option of secretly and anonymously briefing the media so as to undermine Mike's position. After all that is how the MPs got rid of Charles Kennedy. That, though, is not my style.
The leadership election has yet to be timetabled so it would be wrong to expect other names to declare now. But Peter Black is to be commended for speaking out so publicly at a time when many a Liberal Democrat will be thinking about how to get their arses on ministerial limo seats.

Dissent is growing (see for instance Aberavon & Neath Liberal Democrats: Peter Black AM: Speaking out inappropriately) and it's been noticed elsewhere. As put in Blamerbell Briefs: Auf Wiedersehen Mike:

As you can tell from the numbers above, the Lib Dems only have six assembly members. Three of them are agitating for a change of leader, one of them is keeping quiet (because she's the person they are agitating on behalf), another is staying loyal to Mike German and the last one is Mike German. If that's an endorsement, it's ringing about as loudly as a lonely castanet.
German has also received the worst endorsement any Liberal Democrat can get - the support of Lembit Öpik. (Peter Black AM: The curse of Lembit) But it's not plain sailing for Lembit either. As one comment on Black's blog puts it:

A Cheeky Boy in trouble
I think a lot of us are fed up to the back teeth with 'Mr. Celebrity'. He seems to be trying to carve a position for himself as being some kind of elder statesman of the Party without ever having done anything to merit anywhere near that. IMPO his position is something that needs to be discussed by the Lib Dems in Wales as to why we did not move forward in this election.

Every time I see him on the TV, hear him on the radio or read about him in the newspaper I turn over, turn off or turn the page.
So once again the Liberal Democrats have done what seems to be the one thing they do well. Fight each other.

Does anyone want to place bets as to who will last longer - Campbell or German?

Sunday, May 06, 2007

French photographers

I'm currently watching the BBC News 24 French election special and at the moment we're seeing Sarkozy's motorcade heading to the UMP headquarters in Paris. Umpteen photographers on motorcycles are jostling for shots of the man.

Am I the only one reminded of Diana?

Cue a Daily Express headline on this tomorrow...

Royal guillotined

Voting in the French Presidential Election has now closed and Ségolène Royal has conceded defeat to Nicolas Sarkozy.

FANTASTIC!

Is Alex Salmond the new George W. Bush?

It may well look that way. The Scottish election had numerous problems and it now seems possible a legal challenge may be lodged. (BBC News: Labour may challenge Scots vote) In the constituency of Cunninghame North, Labour lost by just 48 votes, amidst numerous spoilt ballot papers. Defeated Labour MSP Allan Wilson may lodge a legal challenge.

I've just done the calculations (for those interested, the figures are at BBC News: Election Result: West of Scotland) and if the challenge is successful then it will totally reverse the numbers game in the Scottish Parliament. The top-up list seats in the West of Scotland region would remain the same - 4 SNP, 2 Conservatives, 1 Lib Dem (although the order of allocation would change slightly), so the effect would be to remove one seat from the overall SNP total and add it to the Labour total - giving Labour a one seat lead over the SNP (and also making some of the coalition numbers even tighter).

An SNP source ...described the potential action as "sour grapes".
On Thursday night the SNP were talking a lot about how damaging the voting problems had been. Now that those voting problems may have benefited them, they're labelling those who are seeking verification "sore losers". Why am I so reminded of Florida in 2000?

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Labour Deputy Leadership election

Whilst the Labour leadership election alternates between minor farce (Michael Meacher's candidature) and outright enigma (just why are so many people who've worked with Borwn convinced that he would be a disaster as Prime Minister but none of them, Meacher aside, are prepared to try to stop him?), the deputy leadership election has for the most part been a vanity parade as a series of (mainly) Cabinet Ministers seek little more than the opportunity to be an unsackable Deputy Prime Minister, possibly with a grace & favour residence thrown in.

But there's one candidate who's been the exception to this. And whilst I am reluctant to endorse any candidate in another party's elections, I have to say I am seriously impressed with some of what Jon Cruddas is saying.

Don't get me wrong - I don't agree with many of his policies. But what he's saying about party organisation and the need to reconnect with voters is something that applies far beyond the confines of any one party. As noted by Tom Watson, "he is striving to energise [his] party's grass roots. You can't do that from a TV studio." (Tom Watson MP: Deputy Leader of the Labour Party) Here are some of his comments from the Changing our Party section of his campaign website:
But grassroots campaigning has to go hand in hand with giving members a real voice. The policy making process in the Party must be overhauled- at present it is simply an exercise in top down political control.
As I've said before (For Conservative Democracy), Conservative members also need a real voice. Grassroots campaigning by members with a real say is one of the best ways to reconnect with voters, with human faces not mass media machines.

The Deputy Leader should be the voice of the party with a direct link into Government; if elected I would refuse a departmental portfolio. This is not an election to be Deputy Prime Minister, it is an election for Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and that job should be honour enough.
One of the best pledges of all. How many other candidates are really and merely seeking to be Deputy Leader?

The party should not be seen as an inconvenience, best held in check and occasionally cajoled into knocking on doors and stuffing envelopes, but a real asset by which policy making is anchored in the day to day life experiences of millions of people.
...
We are constantly told there is widespread disillusionment and distrust with party politics. Turnout is plummeting, particularly in traditional Labour areas. But it does not have to be this way.

I aim to turn this decline around by getting real funding into local party organisation. I support the idea of constituency parties getting £3 per voter that will fund local organisers, boosting local activity.

I support capping party spending.

This will refocus political activity around the needs and aspirations of local communities, not politicians in Westminster.
Much of this is sounding encouraging. It's true that turnout is stronger in Conservative areas, but the decline all round is something that should worry all involved in politics. I would not be happy if the Conservatives win power merely because the party managed to benefit from plummeting turnout. Government needs to be for the all.

In my own borough [Barking & Dagenham] voters have turned to the racist BNP not because they are racist but out of fear and a sense of vulnerability and insecurity. Many are simply protesting against mainstream politics.
On an aside, I hope many anti-BNP campaigners pay serious attention to this. All too often they become seen as part of a "mainstream politics" conspiracy that wants to ignore the needs of voters and deny a voice to parties that are perceived as offering answers. Addressing the vulnerability, insecurity and disillusionment with mainstream politics is the way to fight them. Banning their voice and trying to encourage tactical votes against them does nothing to resolve these problems. It merely plays into the BNP's hands.

There is also little doubt that the centralisation of decision making and the outsourcing of services from democratically elected councils has taken power away from local people. Local communities and voters are feeling increasingly powerless.

Through this campaign I hope to bring people together to find radical new ways of engaging local communities and enhancing participatory democracy.
Of course one election for one position in one party isn't going to solve all this, but a start needs to be made. Each of the main parties has a crucial role to play in the political system (although I'd prefer it if Labour would play that role on the Opposition Benches!) and it cannot be good if any party sees its organisation collapse. I shall not comment on Cruddas's policies for the country (not least because he's not seeking a ministerial portfolio at all) but much of what he is saying about party organisation is highly encouraging and Conservatives would do well to study it.

The chances of my being a Labour member are about as likely as the chances of pigs flying, but I note that most of the Labour blogs I regularly read are backing Cruddas. And I wish him all the best of success!

Friday, May 04, 2007

The decline of small parties

One quick further thought about the elections - small parties have been generally annihilated in both Scotland and Wales. The Scottish Greens have plummeted to two seats, the Scottish Socialists and breakaway rivals Solidarity have been wiped out, so have the Scottish Senior Citizens Party, a single issue "save the local hospital" MSP has lost her seat and another independent MSP retired. This leaves just two Greens and an independent Nationalist in the Scottish Parliament. In Wales John Marek lost his seat and although independents polled well in a number of other constituencies, only in the special case of Blaenau Gwent (facing its third election in two years) where recent wounds are sore did any smaller party candidate win.

So was the brief plethora of small parties just a blip? Are we seeing a return to clear-cut choice in politics?

The elections

Due to a mixture of exhaustion and illness I decided against a live blog and instead just watched the results on the television last night. My thoughts in brief:

* A lot was made by both Labour & the Liberal Democrats and BBC commentators that once again the Conservatives failed to win seats in Manchester and Liverpool. Whilst this is true, it overlooks the fact that both these councils are comparatively small, focusing on the inner city urban area and there are Conservative councillors (I was very glad to see that Iain Lindley was re-elected in Salford - Cllr Iain Lindley: Thank you!) and even Conservative controlled councils within the metropolises. The Conservative success in Birmingham was built up over time by working inwards from the outer suburbs - but Birmingham is a council that covers both inner and outer suburbs.

* The Conservatives now control 20 councils in the North, more than Labour. Blackpool was a particularly astounding landslide. Let's here no more of this rubbish that the Liberal Democrats are the only challengers to Labour in the North!

* The Conservative gains in the Welsh Assembly were encouraging, although the inanity of the Additional Member System, whereby some of the constituency gains merely cancelled out top-up list members, makes me wonder whether this system really responds to voters. Similarly some of the Labour losses were compensated by the lists. We now have a situation where Wales can either have a Labour minority administration, a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition or a rainbow Plaid-Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. Much rests on what the Lib Dems decide, so it could come down to whether or not Michael German gets to be Deputy First Minister.

* Scotland looks scary - are we seeing the death knell for the Union? I hope that if the SNP form a government they will govern Scotland in its best interests and not run it into the ground just to stir up support for independence. But I'm sceptical.

* The huge number of spoilt ballot papers in Scotland is rightly concerning many. Having so many different voting systems at once, including some that are new to the voters, is a recipe for disaster. In 2004 London voters were given a first past the post ballot (for the constituency Assembly Member), an Additional Member System ballot (for the top-up list Assembly Members) which is not a second choice, a Supplementary Vote ballot paper (for the Mayor of London) which is a second choice and a party list ballot paper (for the Members of the European Parliament). I don't doubt many though the top-up list ballot was a "second choice", especially when they were given a second choice ballot at the same time. Similarly in Newham last year voters could easily have been confused by the council ballot paper (requiring up to three Xs) and the Mayor (requiring a 1 and a 2). Something needs to be done about the plethora of voting systems in this country, either by separating out elections or moving to using fewer systems. Would it be so wrong to scrap all the Additional Member System ballots and replace them with Single Transferable Vote?

* The English local council elections look encouraging. In my home borough of Epsom & Ewell the Labour Party have been finally wiped out of the council chamber, whilst across the country several friends have been successfully elected.

That's it for now but I'll comment again when the shape of the Scottish and Welsh Executives become clear.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

On the Union's birthday

Unfortunately I've been tied up all day so unable to write something substantive about the 300th anniversary of the Union of the kingdoms of England and Scotland. So here's a substitute - the National Anthem, as played at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo:



I have many fond memories of seeing the Tattoo several times when I was young and my grandparents lived in Edinburgh. Hiopefully one year soon I'll be able to see it again.

April 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 March.

First off the sites most people come from:

  1. Google (-)
  2. Blogger.com (+1)
  3. Mars Hill (+1)
  4. ConservativeHome (RE-ENTRY)
  5. MyBlogLog (+2)
  6. Wikipedia (-)
  7. Conservative Mind (+2)
  8. Facebook (-3)
  9. John Moorcraft (NEW)
  10. Cally's Kitchen (+4)
Dropping out of the top ten are Educationet Messageboard (at 11, down 9), Political Opinions (at 15, down 7) and Labour - loyal - searching for renewal (dropped off the radar altogether).

Not too many surprises here - the re-entry of ConservativeHome can be attributed to having left a number of comments there whilst John Moorcraft has written some posts on his blog in response to my football views (the cheek of a West Ham fan!). (John Moorcraft: West Ham United and Tim Roll-Pickering...)

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

  1. kent earthquake (NEW)
  2. what does your birthday say about you (-)
  3. tim roll-pickering (+1)
  4. alix wolverson (NEW)
  5. laura blomeley (-)
  6. sam rozati blog (NEW)
  7. freema agyeman butt (NEW)
  8. doctor who tonight (-2)
  9. conservative mayor of london conservativehome.com (NEW)
  10. kent tremor (NEW)
The Kent earthquake has drawn in a lot of visitors, possibly because my blog post went up not that long after it was reported. There haven't been many strange searches, the nearest to weird being "trustee model of representation" israel.

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

ABERDEEN, ADELAIDE, AMSTERDAM, BASILDON, BELFAST, BIRMINGHAM, BRISTOL, BROOKLYN, CALGARY, CHICAGO, COVENTRY, DUBLIN, DULLES, DURHAM, EDINBURGH, EMERYVILLE, EXETER, HONG KONG, KINGSTON UPON HULL, LEEDS, LEICESTER, LINCOLN, LITTLETON, LIVERPOOL, LONDON, LOS ANGELES, LUTON, MANASSAS, MANCHESTER, MIAMI, MONTREAL, NEW YORK, NOTTINGHAM, OXFORD, PARIS, RESTON, SACRAMENTO, SAN FRANCISCO, SANTA CRUZ DE TENERIFE, SEATTLE, SHEFFIELD, SINGAPORE, SOUTHAMPTON, STEVENAGE, SUISUN CITY, SUTTON, VANCOUVER, WEST HAVEN and "others".

Thank you all for reading!

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