Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mumbai or Bombay?

The tragic news from India has had the side effect of bringing to light the question of the city's name - Mumbai or Bombay? And it's one that has left media organisations scratching their heads.

Invariably a lot of people are going to jump out and assert that the city's "official English name" is "Bombay", perhaps with something about us not calling the Italian capital "Roma" and maybe claims that language can't be changed. But a language is a dynamic thing, with usage prone to changing. And can't an entity change its name if it wishes? When Reginald Kenneth Dwight choose to change his name, didn't he become Elton Hercules John immediately? Or did some vague entity who makes "official" statements about the English language (there isn't one) have to declare the name had changed before the new one could be used?

So for all the controversial background to it, the name "Mumbai" is now used in English for this city. And also in my experience the city is not normally talked about much at all in the UK. So it's harder to make assertions about what regular usage is, although in my personal experience virtually every relevant conversation I've had in recent years has used "Mumbai".

"But we say 'Bombay duck' and 'Bollywood'" I hear people cry. This is true, but then the use of "Beijing" has not wiped out "Peking duck" has it? At the end of the day usage can change and change can be encouraged. And in this case the drive to us "Mumbai" has largely succeeded.

And of course now that a lot of media outlets are calling it "Mumbai", that's the term dominating search engines. So news websites still using "Bombay" are finding they're losing potential traffic.

See also meditations71: Bombay or Mumbai?, The English Blog: Words in the News: Bombay or Mumbai, Matt's Geography Blog: Mumbai Was Bombay and The Guardian: Bombay or Mumbai? How UK media outlets are finally moving with the times for other takes on this issue.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A nice big seat

I've just seen the piece BBC News: MP with... the biggest constituency about Andrew Turner, MP for the Isle of Wight.

The Isle of Wight is the constituency with the single largest number of electors of any in the United Kingdom and as such it frequently features in the numerous online discussions about constituency sizes that have appeared over the year. I've seen so many people make wild claims that the reason the Isle doesn't have two MPs is because of an inherent anti-Conservative bias amongst the Boundary Commission. So let's have a brief look at the facts.

When the Boundary Commission decides on the approximate number of constituencies in a review area (usually a county, unitary authority or London borough) it does so on the basis of a "quota" - the average number of voters per the current number of seats. It then either rounds the number to the nearest whole or combines two areas to avoid excessive disparity.

In the latest review the Isle qualified for 1.48 quotas. Rounded to the nearest whole that comes out as one seat not two. Now if this was a mainland area the solution would be to combine it with a neighbouring authority and have one seat straddling the two. But there's a big obstacle to this - the Solent. So the result is that the Isle problem must be solved entirely on the Isle.

Note Turner's comments about the possibility of giving the Isle two seats:
With so many people living there, the Isle of Wight is, he says, only a few hundred voters short of being big enough to divide into two constituencies.

It is something he vehemently opposes.

"You need to have one MP for the island. It is important. Maybe they should reduce the overall number of MPs at Westminster instead.

"That would increase the number of constituents in each seat, and then it won't be a problem."
To my knowledge neither the current nor the last boundary review saw a Conservative counter-proposal for two seats. In the mid 1990s the Liberal Democrats did make one very late in the day but apart from the timings (they were motivated by a realisation that the Isle could fall into their hands) there is no obvious way to divide the Isle naturally and equally. And it would divide the Isle's voice - something that is strongly valued as evidenced by Turner's comments. This time there was just one objection lodged to a single seat, and it wasn't by a party.

And so the Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight is left with the single largest electorate to represent. But Andrew Turner doesn't mind. Numeric exactitude would be damaging to the British way of doing things. British constituencies are based on natural ties and recognisable areas, not the random clusters of favourable voters with little roads used to link them that one finds in the US Congress.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The arrest of Damian Green

Like many others I'm absolutely stunned by the news of the arrest of Damian Green. (BBC News: Senior Tory [sic] arrested over leaks) So he's had information leaked to him that is sensitive of a political nature not a security one.

Many have flooded the blogosphere and airwaves to point out that the leaking of information by civil servants and its use by politicians is routine - Churchill's contacts in the 1930s are amongst the most famous. I don't want to get into the hyperbole - this is not Zimbabwe and Gordon Brown is not Robert Mugabe (or Stalin), no matter how hysterical the accusations are made in the heat of the moment.

But what is worrying is the way government ministers are denying they had any foreknowledge of a politically sensitive move, especially as it the Mayor of London (or technically in his role the chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority) was informed. As we have recently seen the political control of the Metropolitan Police is multiple but I cannot believe the Home Secretary knew nothing about this.

We must await further information but this whole thing strikes me as a cock-up of enormous proportions.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bye bye Woolworths

Last month the Woolworths Local in Forest Gate was closed. Now the entire company is to follow. (BBC News: Woolworths enters administration)

Like so many others, I have memories of shopping at Woolies, but looking back it seems the store primarily filled in the gaps rather than offered anything distinctive. As a child it was the main toy shop in Epsom (and effectively the only one when John Menzies phased out their small section). It was also the only place in town with pick 'n mix. Later it was one of the main places to get videos/DVDs (and, in Forest Gate, the only one), especially as the music chains like Our Price and HMV were usually a bit more expensive. It's also been handy for general stationery requirements over the years.

But none of these are a distinctive section of the market. Woolworths always seemed a bit all over the place in terms of what it sold - for example when I was young I don't remember it stocking the magazines it does now (well did). It did a few books but I don't remember it getting anywhere near a supermarket best-seller section. And its video/DVD stock wasn't exactly awash with the longer shelf-life titles but nor did it feel like a current hot titles stock. One could go on.

Will we ever see a store like it? All business & marketing logic says not, but stranger things have happened...

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Conservatives and Ulster Unionists

The formal join-up of the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists was announced yesterday (ConservativeHome: David Cameron hails Ulster Unionist alliance with the Conservatives as a "new political force") and so far most of the reaction has been good.

I'll repeat my comments from four months ago (A Conservative-Ulster Unionist merger?):

But it's also a good move for not only both parties but the whole of the United Kingdom. For too long Northern Irish politics has been an isolated microcosm, with only half hearted efforts at organising by a handful of parties from both Britain and the Republic of Ireland, give or take a few small parties, and the result has been alienation and sometimes hatred, most recently when the DUP provided the majority of 42 days' detention or Iris Robinson MP's horrific comments about homosexuality.

A party that is a strong and credible contender at all levels of Northern Irish and UK politics, that can allow for full engagement with national and international politics, can only help to move political debate forward in the province. It also helps to anchor the Conservative Party in all nations of the United Kingdom, a contrast to Labour who've had to be dragged into allowing even membership by the courts and is determined to remain a Brits only party.

Will this lead to a sudden landslide in Northern Ireland at the next election, with seats turning blue all over? Well let's not get carried away - there's a lot still to do and hundreds of thousands of voters to engage with. But it's a good start with promising signs to come.
I think this still stands true and there's little on the basics that I haven't already said, other than to wonder if Labour have anything to say on this.

But as there's already been the invariable attack from the Democratic Unionist Party. (News Letter: DUP attacks 'political marriage') Assembly Member Michelle McIlveen brings out the old chestnut of whether all eighteen Westminster seats will be contested at the next general election, claiming it could lead to Nationalists winning again in Belfast South and Fermanagh & South Tyrone.

I don't remember the DUP expressing this concern when they were, in their own words, "running candidates in every seat in Northern Ireland, even if it means losing Fermanagh and South Tyrone and South Belfast to anti-unionist parties". At the end of the day any party has the right to stand wherever it likes (and can get nominated) and equally has the right to not stand. Seats belong to one, and only one, group of people - the voters of those seats. By all means parties can choose where to deploy candidates, but a party that aspires to offer all voters the chance to vote for it should not step aside, especially for a party that is elsewhere trying to exterminate it.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Liberal Democrat Run Tower Hamlets Borough Council - never ever again?!

Liberal Democrats not winning hereYesterday there was a by-election in the Mile End East ward in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. The result was as follows:

Rachael Mary Alice SAUNDERS (Labour) 1208 47.3354232% (+15.11246805)
Motiur RAHMAN (Conservatives) 630 24.68652038% (+12.46136646)
Hafiz CHOUDHURY ("RESPECT") 604 23.6677116% (-3.794909334)
Jainal CHOWDHURY (Liberal Democrats) 110 4.310344828% (-17.94119431)
TOTAL 2552

(A word of caution. There are several different ways to calculate party percentages in multi-member wards, each with their own advantages and drawbacks, and I've used the method that assumes all voters used all their votes in 2006 - see Croydon Official Monster Raving Loony Party: Croydon 2006 for a summary of methods, mine is "Method B". At the last regular election not only did Mile End East have a huge amount of ticket splitting by normal standards but also Hafiz Choudhury ran as an independent, getting 5.837730871% of the vote. One could in theory add that to the "RESPECT" share, but it's not standard practice.)

It has been a good by-election to campaign in - our candidate, Motiur Rahman, is one of those people who can inspire activists to stay out far longer than they planned. The Conservative result is the best in living memory in the ward in both absolute and % terms (see Wikipedia: Tower Hamlets local elections and also Tower Hamlets Borough Council Election Results for earlier results - Mile End East takes in most of the old Limehouse ward with some of the old Bromley ward).

Now there's a lot that can be said about the various candidates and parties (and I was semi-surprised to see Rachael Saunders, a familiar name from Labour Students from years past in the NUS) but whilst the "RESPECT" vote has continued to fall (a decline even sharper when you consider the votes Choudhury got as an independent in 2006) as flash parties invariably do, perhaps the most significant long term sign is that Liberal Democrats in the borough are crashing and burning, after a long history here.

Tower Hamlets has a long Liberal/Liberal Democrat tradition - before Simon Straight Choice Hughes's victory it was the last part of Inner London to elect a Liberal MP when Sir Percy Harris held the Bethnal Green South West seat in the 1935 general election and although he lost the seat after the war he successfully returned to the London County Council, with Bethnal Green sending the only Liberals. Harris's campaign methods were in many ways the forerunner of "community politics" used in the borough. Even in the 1950s Bethnal Green had a respectable Liberal share.

More recently the Liberals/Liberal Democrats grew electorally in the borough, controlling it for eight years and producing one of the most notorious administrations in recent local government history, including being served notice by the Commission for Racial Equality. The tensions stirred up saw the first ever British National Party electoral victory in the borough. Fortunately both the BNP councillor and the Liberal Democrat administration were thrown out in the 1994 elections. But "Liberal Democrat Run Tower Hamlets Borough Council" still remains a dirty term.

The Liberal Democrats briefly reversed their decline in 2002, but then crashed again in 2006, losing nearly 2/3 of their seats to Labour (the one shift in the borough the media failed to spot) and now have just four councillors. They are the smallest party on the council and look to be in terminal decline. Does anyone believe they will one day again ru(i)n the borough?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

British Obamas? Yes we've had a few

Peter Cuthbertson has contributed an interesting post CentreRight: After Obama, could it happen here? Yes, in 1868 noting that the UK had a Prime Minister from an ethnic minority 140 years ago. But many people now no longer list Jews amongst ethnic minorities and so forget Benjamin Disraeli.

I also remember a moment of the Question Time US election special when someone in the audience said that the United States is the only place where someone raised by a single mother could become leader. Again the UK has been there long ago, when in 1924 Ramsay MacDonald became Prime Minister.

So how long will it be before we see a non-white Prime Minister? It's hard to say because leaders rarely suddenly emerge in British politics but rather spend some time in the Commons first, and to describe someone as "going to be Britain's first [something] Prime Minister" is a kiss of death to a career. But I think after the next election we will be seeing several potentials on the front benches. This country is used to being led by non-white Britons - look at sport! All we're awaiting is the right candidate in politics.

(P.S. I've been told that by the US definition of these things we've already had a black Doctor Who. Can you guess who? And no, it's not Lenny Henry.)

The return of the bendy banana

After years of fruit being wasted and prices pushed up for the sake of petty Brussels bureaucratic regulations, it seems a reprieve is finally coming. (BBC News: EU to cut out wonky fruit rules) In these troublesome economic times anything that will help reduce prices can only be a step forward.

But why did the European Union ever adopt such absurd proposals in the first place? They do nothing to benefit the consumer. Were the bureaucrats just looking for things to do?

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The end of the Progressive Democrats

The Irish Progressive Democrats have voted by 201-161 at their conference to dissolve after all their remaining parliamentarians and the party's founder agreed the party had no viable future. (RTÉ News: PDs vote to wind up political party) The PDs have had an interesting history as one of the most influential small parties in Ireland but also one of the most hated. Maybe it was because they were willing to criticise sacred cows. Or because they got things done. Or because of their tone. Or their mistakes. Historians will no doubt debate it endlessly.

But one point of curiosity struck me. The PDs are dissolving when they are still in government, in a sort-of Jamaica coalition with Fianna Fáil and the Greens. It is very rare for parties in national government to self-dissolve. Sometimes a coalition leads to a fusion of parties, but the formal mergers have generally taken place in opposition as part of a structural reorganisation. But I can think of only three other parties that have dissolved in government, ironically all called National Labour. The British National Labour Party dissolved at the end of the Second World War, but as it was part of an all-party coalition of national unity and I'm not sure if any members of the party still held ministerial office by 1945. The situation for the Irish National Labour Party is another exceptional case as it had broken away from the regular Labour Party in 1944 over accusations of communist infiltration but reunified in 1950 when both parties were part of a grand anti-Fianna Fáil coalition and the National Labour leader James Everett was a Cabinet minister. The Australian National Labor Party never really existed as more than a breakaway group in Parliament due to splits during the First World War who after three months merged with the Commonwealth Liberal Party. Although the product was the Nationalist Party of Australia I'd discount the CLP as the right in Australia has a long history of mergers and absorptions and the result is usually more a takeover by whatever name than an actual merger. (National Labor did, however, have a longer life and organisation at the state level in Western Australia until it two was subsumed into the Nationalists after defeat in 1924.)

None of these are completely comparable to the PDs. The Australian party was really just a vehicle of motion for a political realignment, the Irish party ended by undoing the split and the British party had politically really been defeated in 1940 when the National Government was replaced by an all-party coalition and so was in the unique situation of political opposition but in government.

Are there any other examples I'm unaware of?

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Victory for the Right

The right won a national election this week. Not that the media seem to have noticed - the BBC story is buried on their website and I can't remember seeing anything about it in other media, in sharp contrast to the endless deluge about certain other elections. But in New Zealand the conservative National Party has swept to power (BBC News: New Zealand opposition wins vote) and John Key will join a worryingly short list of conservative national leaders. Meanwhile Helen Clark has announced her resignation as leader of the Labour Party.

So does this, and Stephen Harper's recent advance in Canada, mean that the real conservative right (as opposed to the Bush Republicans) are now on the advance? There does seem to be something in the air. And how long will it be before they are joined at the world table by David Cameron?

And the new President is...

The votes have been now been counted. The results are in and the next President is:

Ros Scott.

Yes she's the next President of the Liberal Democrats.

What you thought I was late in with the news about some other election?

Don't be silly, the Americans take forever to count the vote. That doesn't stop them somehow declaring a winner beforehand!

Oh and here are the results:

Ros Scott 20,736 votes (72%)
Lembit Öpik 6,247 votes (22%)
Chandila Fernando 1,799 votes (6%)

Spoil ballots 49
Turnout: 47.8% (+0.4% on last time)

Not the winnerYes, the Cheeky Boy isn't very popular with his party.

Lembit Democrats Losing Here.

So where will the Curse of Lembit strike next? There's an interesting thread (well as interesting as any Lib Dem thread) at Liberal Democrat Voice: What next for Lembit? Lembit Öpik doesn't seem to know if he's rising star, would-be elder statesman, celebrity politician in the Charles Kennedy mould or the "character" of the party. The result is he gets treated as alternatively the Clown Prince of the party or a privately hated figure.

Does this lack of enthusiasm for him have any bearing on how well his campaign to hold his parliamentary seat will go?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

It's almost over

As much a politics junkie as I am, I have been getting ever more sick to death of the US Presidential election. Compare it to the Canadian election that was called and fought in about six weeks! (And shame on the media for barely giving a mention to one of the most successful Conservatives in the Anglosphere. Stephen Harper is practically unknown in this country, even amongst Conservatives.)

Soon it will be over. I have a suspicion it's going to turn out closer than expected. And if we do get another case of the popular vote going one way and the electoral college another I hope the US will actually make a decision about whether they want such a silly system. Or if it's the Democrats losing again they can stop whining and remember that it was the college not the popular vote that gave John F. Kennedy the White House. (Or that Barack Obama did not win the popular vote in the Democrat primaries...)

Teen pregnancy - is it the media's fault?

The search for a scapegoat for the number of teen pregnancies seems endless. We blame too little sex education then too much. We blame celebrities then we come to our senses. We blame parents yet at the same time we seek to lock them out of decisions about how to raise children, most recently with the suggestion that parents will have no right to opt their young children out of sex education classes.

Now the latest suggestion is television. (BBC News: TV shows link to teen pregnancies) And I think this one may be closer to the mark. Television has long played a key role in shaping cultural attitudes and is it any surprise that it can have more influence than institutionalised attempts to instil values?

For the last few decades society has never really decided what its attitude to unmarried sex is. We forget that not only is marriage less common than it used to be but also people get married much older these days. A new series of attitudes have only partially developed, with the result that the interlock effect isn't present. Young people are given very different impressions about whether it's a good thing, a bad thing, something to admit to, something to hide and so forth. That's a very mixed set of messages and is it any wonder that teenagers don't always understand contraception or seek advice, or for that matter admit to having taken risks. Often the result is that the media pushes in one direction and there's little pushing in the other.

There is no one solution to the issue of teenage pregnancy and its foolish to suggest there is a single source to blame, or a single magic wand to wave to solve the problems. But it must be addressed from the starting point of the wider society we live in, not focus on individual elements. We also have to stop assuming that all problems in society ("citizenship" and "Britishness" are others) can be solved just by amending the school curriculum. That is just passing the buck.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Vincent Cable you're no Lembit Öpik!

Have I Got News For You this week was fun with Tom Baker hosting and he was as mad as ever. He was, however, a little more presentable than the one time I saw him in the flesh - one day about eight years ago I was at Charing Cross station and saw him walking across the concourse in a macintosh looking like a flasher on the prowl!

About as exciting as everBut also of note was one of the guests - none other than the Liberal Democrats' very own Mr Excitement, Vincent Cable.

Now Cable has been in vogue in the last year, first stunning the world with a joke (although given his reputation as rather dull it was stunning in itself that he could deliver one) and talking a lot about the economy at a crucial time. But he hasn't got the self-mocking likeable chap style that other politicians who've been on Have I Got News For You have and it showed with him being way too serious at times. He certainly doesn't have the certain something that Charles Kennedy has, and that wasn't just developed through a billion appearances on C-list celebrity shows.

The main entertainmentAnd of course there's another Liberal Democrat who's been media whoring and it's one of the few things he does well. Lembit Öpik may be a political joke, and a cheeky one at that, but when it comes to comedy appearances he more than has what it takes.

Mr Cable I watched Lembit Öpik. I laughed at Lembit Öpik. Lembit Öpik was a favourite of mine. Mr Cable you're no Lembit Öpik.


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