Saturday, November 24, 2012

When marriage was "redefined" (sic)

And he shall prick that annual blister,
Marriage with deceased wife's sister.

Have you heard about the time when civilisation collapsed because the restrictions on who could marry whom were relaxed? When marriage was "redefined"?

No, neither have I.

It was the social issue that raged throughout the Victorian era - could a widower marry his sister-in-law?

It had been restricted under the old Marriage Acts but then was fully outlawed under the 1835 Act. But almost immediately a movement sprang up to remove the restriction and allow widowers to marry their sisters-in-law. The reasons why they might wished to do so could vary considerably - at one end of society high levels of maternal mortality meant that in many working class households unmarried woman found themselves taking on the maternal role from their deceased sister. At the other end it was common for families without male-line heirs to pass property through marriage and if the first daughter died young then remarrying her widower to another daughter would preserve the arrangements and keep the property within her family.

(Julian Fellowes, if you're reading this, please do not use this as a plot for a future series of Downton Abbey.)

The debate lasted many years with the first bill to change the law being presented in Parliament in 1842. Thereafter the issue came back almost every year, sparking the above verse in Iolanthe. In part the opposition stemmed from the view that marriage isn't just the union of two individuals but of their families as well. But it also stemmed heavily from religious interpretations, with many arguing it was wrong to go against the traditional Church list of forbidden unions.

Sound familiar?

Many widowers found themselves in this position, but perhaps the grandest was Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse, the widower of Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria. After his wife's death in 1878, there was hope of his marrying her younger sister Princess Beatrice. This led to the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) making a rare Royal intervention in the House of Lords when he gave support to the reform but it still failed to pass. The head of the Church of England described the opponents as "those bigots".

There were many further attempts that were blocked despite clear majorities in favour in the Commons, although the Lords was a stonier prospect. One such attempt fell in 1902 due to a filibuster by the "Hughligans", a ginger group of young Conservative MPs centred around Lord Hugh Cecil and including Winston Churchill. Notably at the time they were all bachelors.

Eventually the law was reformed by the passage of the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act in 1907, although the equivalent provision for widows to marry their brothers-in-law wasn't passed until 1921. The Act was straightforward in allowing the marriages, but also made provision to allow individual clergy to decline to perform such marriages themselves (and enable them to allow another clergyman in the same diocese to perform them in their own church or chapel).

Does anyone now find the idea of a widower being able to marry his sister-in-law objectionable? Who actually argues about this issue at all? Has the institution of marriage suffered because of this change?

And this is hardly the only reform whereby marriage is defined differently by religion and civil law. Divorcees cannot get married in some churches and only with special dispensation in others, yet the law did not stop Camilla marrying Charles in a registry office.

Let's hope the next reform of the marriage laws doesn't take another sixty-five years.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Get down, America!

This Presidential election is boring.

Yes it's easy to say that from afar. But despite all the coverage and all I hear from friends and family in the States, I'm left with my strongest feeling being "So What?" about the contest and both the candidates. If only there was something truly out of the ordinary out there.

It wasn't always this way.

Back in 1976 the US was faced with an exciting choice of either four more years of Chevy Chase doing the same joke all the time or a fresh faced outsider who some thought would make everything better again. Or there was another campaign in fiction that actually garnered thousands of votes in real life.

For many people if they've heard of "Howard the Duck" at all it's just as the name of a movie they've heard whispers of as one of the worst films of all time. Some may have heard of the intellectual property battles over the character, both the attempt by creator Steve Gerber to secure the ownership of the character and Disney's complaints about his similar look to Donald, forcing him into trousers. (Of course now that Disney own Marvel and thus ultimately Howard this should not be an issue. Has the duck finally dropped his trousers?)

But beyond the worlds of rubbish movies and IP battles, Howard the Duck was so much more. In 1975 he received his own comic book series that rapidly became a strong cult favourite. The key to understanding the series is that it's an existentialist satire in which the difference between seriousness and silliness is just a point of view. In it a foul tempered talking duck from another dimension wanders through our world, exposing and commenting on the absurdities around him.

Whilst travelling from Cleveland to New York, Howard and his human friend Beverley Switzler take jobs at the All-Night Party convention. Soon Howard finds himself as the party nominee on a platform of straightforward, honest offensive talking. He rapidly attracts the assassins and smear merchants.

With the slogan "Get Down, America!" and a managed campaign that tries to avoid saying anything, Howard could have swept to victory. But then on polling day the papers fall for a hoax and print an appallingly composited picture that purports to show Howard and Beverley in the bath together. These were the days before widespread early voting and the Clintons so Howard's chances evaporated. Nevertheless in the real world thousands of voters found a fowl talker from another dimension a better prospect than Ford or Carter (I can't imagine why...) and wrote-in votes for the Duck. Imagine if so many had done so and he'd actually won electoral votes...

But now in 2012 we have a boredomfest inflicted upon the entire world. If the media could leave the election to the States it would be okay, but when it fills the news everywhere one can't but express a rather loud yawn.

Is it too late to suggest people write-in Howard the Duck once more?

Friday, October 05, 2012

Tipping may not be a place in China...

...but that doesn't mean it should be compulsory.

The other night I was in a restaurant where the food was good but the service less than spectacular. In particular the waitress was invisible at some key moments such as when my friend wanted an additional item which took forever to ask for and then to come, and then when we needed to settle the bill in a hurry, due to one of us having a train to catch. (Given the restaurant's location, that can hardly be a novel situation.)

So I was not exactly amused that when the waitress came back to collect payment she paused to circle wording on the bill stating "Service not included" and asked one of us to write in a final total on the paper bill, in spite of the card reader including a stage to add such a tip discretely. She then proceeded to compound her errors by handing first the reader and then the card to the wrong person even after we'd manually corrected this.

Because of this poor service and upfront pushiness we opted to add nothing to the card payment and left no cash tip. In this decision we were unanimous.

Service should always be included in the upfront price - that's basic consumer transparency and employee protection. Staff wages should never be random amounts at the whim of how customers feel at the end and tips should be a bonus reward for good service, not an automatic hidden fee. And substandard staff who push their luck deserve what they get (or rather don't).

In fact making staff rely on tips is illegal in this country. "Service not included" is a very misleading form of wording that takes advantage of the unsure and encourages presumptions on both sides that tips are automatic. It is perfectly legitimate to refuse to give a tip, especially when the service is not up to scratch. And if the serving staff decide to drop utterly unsubtle hints then they deserve it to backfire.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Flashback: Ghostwatch

Next month sees the twentieth anniversary of one of the most controversial and scary television broadcasts in the history of the BBC - Ghostwatch.

For those who never saw it or have forgotten, Ghostwatch appeared to be a real life investigation of supernatural reports at a London house, hosted by Michael Parkinson and Mike Smith, with on the scene investigations presented by Sarah Greene and Craig Charles. A phoneline was set up on the standard BBC number of the day (081 811 8181) for viewers to call on with their own tales of ghostly experiences. One of the calls played into the studio told of the horrific tale of a past resident of the house. Then at the end of the broadcast chaos erupted as it seemed a poltergeist had taken over the studio, ending with Parkinson possessed.

Written like that one could wonder how anyone could be taken in. But many thought what they saw was real. The resulting furore saw the BBC tape of the show confined to a forbidden vault for ten years and it has never been repeated.

Now yes the show opened with a Screen One logo - but who pays attention to such logos and remembers which denote fiction only? And of course many tuned in after the opening moments so would have missed both that and the "Written by" credit. There may have been a cast list in the Radio Times but not everyone had a copy or paid attention if they did. Yes anyone who called the number and got through heard a message stating it was fiction, but most didn't phone and for others the lines jammed. And finally there may have been a warning on Ceefax (I don't know if there was or not) but how many would have switched over to check that? Plus many television sets in children's bedrooms didn't have text.

But more fundamentally the whole concept of the "mockumentary", made as though it's a real live as it happens occurrence with the realism of video cameras instead of the film used for most dramas, was a very novel concept back then. Through in some real life big name presenters, who in those days just did not do that sort of thing, and an interactive set-up and it's easy to see why it convinced so many.

I don't think the same trick could be pulled today. The internet would make it much harder to pull off. Users of Twitter itself during the transmission may be only a minority of the audience but word would spread both before and during, undermining any planned shock. Forums and text messages would also play their part in spreading the truth of what would happen. And there'd be a greater likelihood of a row before transmission that could be picked up on by the media. So less of the audience would be likely to assume the events were real.

But at the time many assumed Ghostwatch was real. Perhaps we at first thought the family occupying the house were faking and the BBC had been taken in, but that view was dispersed by the turn of events. Watching it at the time it was easy to be taken in and many were. I doubt such a phenomenon will ever happen again.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

For those who hated summer camps and the like...

Yesterday while channel surfing I came across a rerun of Addams Family Values. And the very best scene is available online:
The perfect antidote to all the patronising smarminess of helpers and plastic artificialness that many a child has endured at one holiday activity or another throughout the ages.

Humans *will* walk elsewhere again

Neil Armstrong has died. And many have wondered if the Space Race is a thing of the past. It's forty years since the last Moon landing. Missions to Mars get routinely predicted and put back further and further. Heck even science fiction set in the future keeps putting the date back in the hope of seeming realistic.

But I believe it will happen. One day we will return to the Moon. And we'll go further. We'll go to Mars. We'll go all over the Solar System. We'll go to Alpha Centauri. We'll even go to the Andromeda Galaxy and beyond. And not just to explore but to expand, live, work and play.

It may take a bit of time, but we'll get there eventually.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

30.15 million did *not* watch EastEnders on Christmas Day 1986

Last night ITV ran TV's Biggest Blockbusters, looking at the most watched shows on British television in several categories. It was an interesting programme, particularly when it highlighted shows that are now completely forgotten (e.g. Oh No it's Selwyn Froggitt, Market in Honey Lane or Mrs Thursday) or showing which comedians were more popular - it's a shock to discover that Mike Yarwood got slightly more viewers than Morecambe and Wise at their height when you consider the coverage each has got since.

However they repeated at least one big error in compiling their list - the claim that on Christmas Day 1986 30.15 million watched EastEnders (and thus Den giving Angie divorce papers was the most watched drama of all time). This is repeating a common misunderstanding of how the viewing figures worked, and reflects the BBC boasting at the time.

The given figure actually combines the viewers on Christmas Day itself with those for the omnibus repeat the following Sunday. About 19.5 million actually watched on Christmas Day - still a very impressive figure but not as good for boasting and often the media (and TV's Biggest Blockbusters researchers) overlooked the distinction. This was despite the point being made at the time - Granada complained more than once when Coronation Street, which then didn't have a repeat, get more viewers than the first screening of EastEnders but the latter got written up as the "winner" of the ratings battle. It's a pity that these myths get trotted out all these years later.

What was the most watched drama of the 1980s? It was in fact a movie - the January 20th 1980 screening of Live and Let Die with 23.50 million viewers.

So how many of the other figures and chart places can be taken as accurate? It's hard to say because there are several problems with viewing figures, not least the lack of a single industry wide system before 1981 and ITV counting households rather than heads until 1977. There's a further problem that the recording systems haven't always been very good at catching crowd viewers in pubs, schools, workplaces, open air screens and the like and so the precise figures for some shows may be undercounted. This most obviously hits live events like sport and Royal Weddings, but further down the charts could also hit current affairs shows and documentaries that might attract group watching with special parties at people's homes or discussion groups. Discussing Question Time live with other viewers didn't begin with Twitter!

One of the best written intros to how figures have been calculated historically that I've seen is Corriepedia: Viewing Figures (and no, I've never been a Coronation Street fan). It also highlights that back in the 1960s and 1970s Christmas Day was often one of the worst days for soap viewing figures, and there was a period in the 1970s when Coronation Street would actually skip Christmas Day altogether! How times have changed.

And other than live events we'll probably never see such high viewing figures again. Not only are there far more channels now, but with many shows having multiple screenings in a week plus the growth of one hour later channels and programmes on demand, audiences are becoming ever more fagmented. Timeshifting through digital and video recorders is generally incorporated into the final viewing figures for a show but with so many other opportunities to watch a programme there isn't a huge audience all at once.

But there are still exceptions when an event is live. Invariably they're Royal events.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Bill Mantlo and health insurance

As long-time readers of this blog will know, I'm a bit of a comics buff. But today I don't want to talk about a particular comic but about a creator and the horrific situation he faced, not just twenty years ago but since then.

Bill Mantlo was one of those writers who frequently forgot the limitations of the medium and the titles he was given. Assigned to write Marvel Team-Up, a disposable series of one-off stories featuring Spider-Man and any old guest star he instead turned out some epic masterpieces. Assigned to Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man, a second headline title for the character that just served to met a public demand he instead began crafting a distinctive direction and identity for the book, at times making it the best Spider-Man title on the market. Then there were licensed titles like The Micronauts and Rom: Spaceknight, both based on shortlived toys. Instead of churning out simplistic tales to just advertise the product Mantlo instead crafted incredible complex sagas that sold so well both books outlasted their toys by many years and set standards for other toy based books. And there was so much more - one estimate is that he wrote over five hundred issues and for nearly every single Marvel title. He didn't just craft fantasies but also sought to use his writing to explore very real and serious issues in a way few others did.

But on June 17 1992 Bill Mantlo was seriously injured in a hit and run accident. And unlike the comics there was no miracle cure, no happy ending. The story of his life is told in LifeHealthPro: Tragic Tale and it's not pleasant. It's a tale of where the focus of health insurance really is, and the damage that has upon not only on a patient's chances of recovery, but the wider damage it wreaks upon families. One of the most horrible points is when the insurance company brought in their own doctor to get a different report from the hospital's own staff. But the worst is that this is not an exceptional case or an example of the system not functioning the way it was planned. It was the system working as normal.

It's a terrifying insight into a world where profit margins are the primary determinant rather than basic humanitarian need. I hope we never go that way.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Bring back Neil Kinnock!

I never thought I'd write this. But tonight's Have I Got News For You with William Shatner hosting was just dire. Far too stiff and stilted, Shatner just didn't hit the right notes IMHO. Even Neil Kinnock was better than this!
So HIGNFY producers, please bring back Neil Kinnock before the next Shatner appearance.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bye-bye analogue television

Tonight is the second and final stage of the digital switch-over in London. I've blogged before about the screw-ups (The Digital Switchover screw-up) and for the moment am just thinking on the passing of an institution.

Here at least it's the final end of Ceefax as we knew it. When we first got a television with text I remember the fun of going through the various pages. In the days before the internet it was incredible to be able to access so much information, from news stories to weather reports to travel disruption to TV listings and so forth, all at the pressing of a few buttons... and waiting seeming ages for the right page to load. Sure there's the red button service on some of the digital channels, but it just doesn't feel the same. There was something about the blockiness of the old text system that just made it so reassuring, in a way that hasn't been replicated.

What about the signal itself? Well the harsh reality is that on modern television sets an analogue signal looks distinctly worse, largely because the modern sets are over analysing the signal. On a good old fashioned set you could got brilliant pictures given good reception. I grew up not many miles from the Crystal Palace transmitter and we always got brilliant pictures for BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel 4 on our fixed aerial, and pretty good on portable aerials too. Of course there had to be something to let the side down, and that something was Channel 5. I remember the lousy signal quality no matter what was done to boost it, and there were periods when we just gave up altogether. (It was even worse when I was a student in Canterbury. Because of potential interference with French television, Channel 5 simply wasn't available there at all. I often wondered if it was barred from obtaining the rights to screen reserved sports that were otherwise only available to the most widespread analogue channels.)

There was also the fun of trying to get good reception on portable aerials (a fun I haven't yet tried with digital) - the joy of wandering round the room trying to find the precise angle to get the best picture, of trying all manner of boosts through special devices and bog standard VCRs, of frustration with it all, and then triumph when you found the signal.

I wonder if people felt the same sense of nostalgia at the time of what we'd now call the "625 switchover"? I can't remember it myself. This was the time when the transmissions in the old 405 line format were finally ended and the 625 line format was left as the only service in transmission. Although 625 line transmission began as early as 1964 with the launch of BBC2 (which led to a bizarre series called "Theatre 625" - basically plays, or TV movies, shot in the higher definition format - I wonder if anyone would do a series called "Film HD" today?), and was brought to BBC1 & ITV in 1969, 405 line signals were still broadcast for older television sets up until 1985. And you thought it took a long time to switch-over to digital!

(Here's a little piece from that time. This clip shows the very BBC1 last signals transmitted in 405 lines in London. And it's the weather with Ian McCaskill:)

(Yes they did used to play the National Anthem upon close-down.)

And now as analogue passes away, I wonder how long it will be before we contemplate a shut-down of the digital system in favour of something more advanced?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

UKIP London mayoral candidate admits: I can't deliver my promises

More confirmation of UKIP as ineffective, this time from their candidate's own mouth, as he admits that many of his promises are things the Mayor of London as no power to implement. Courtesy of Metro: UKIP London mayoral candidate admits: I can't deliver my promises.

The headline says it all really.

The failings of UKIP

There's an excellent piece in the Telegraph entitled Why no decent Tory should vote Ukip by Abhijit Pandya, who spent a year advising UKIP, has seen up close just how useless, ineffective and incoherent a party it is. Amongst the damaging charges:

[The] party's MEPs are obsessed with infantile stunts. These include wondering around Brussels, at the taxpayer's expense, singing "there is a hole in my bucket". Entertaining as it is watching Mr Farage doing this, and giving bombastic speeches in the European Parliament, it does nothing to curb the powers of the EU.

...[T]here is not a single amendment to a European regulation forced by Ukip, despite being Britain’s second-largest party in the European Parliament... [I]t is extraordinary that Ukip has not, in over a decade, managed to develop a strategy to undermine European law by appropriate subtle and strategic amendments.
The party is more interested in ranting and raving than in the more thoughtful task of fully engaging with its opponents on policy terms. This is why its failure to alter the course of Europe away from a social-democratic federal state has been immense.
...[A]s a consequence of being a one-issue Party, they are just about split on everything else. Ukip will go Left, Right or centre to grab the next available vote.
For Tories yearning for the old years of glory, a move to Ukip would be a move back to the feeling of looking at the remnants of the Tory Party after its 1997 catastrophe... Worse still it would benefit Labour, and another Labour victory is the last thing this country needs.

It just confirms that UKIP is not a striding force for anything, but just a protest vote accumulating, rabble rousing, whinge-the-whinge not fight-the-fight shouty movement.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Flashback: The 1992 election

Twenty years ago today it was the 1992 general election. A record breaking election that saw the Conservatives win a fourth term, with the most votes for any party in British electoral history. And they did it without spin - compare Neil Kinnock's grandiose Sheffield rally with John Major going out on the streets and speaking common sense on a good old fashioned soapbox.

Yet for many Conservatives 1992 has become a forgotten election. For some the victory is an uncomfortable truth, that the party could win elections without Margaret Thatcher and thus justified deposing her. For others the memory of the next five years is dominated by so many problems that they'd really rather not remember them and secretly wish the election had been lost.

However there are signs of a slow change in John Major's reputation with even some of his old critics starting to reappraise his record - see for example It's time to give John Major the credit we so cruelly denied him by Peter Oborne in the Daily Telegraph. And the various historical rankings of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom have seen Major slowly rise up the charts judged by academics, in recent years overtaking Edward Heath (University of Leeds: Academics rate Brown one of the worst post 1945 PMs). Maybe he will rise further in years to come.

Would it have been better to lose the 1992 election? It's hard to say, though if the party hadn't deposed Margaret Thatcher it's likely we would have lost. Indeed if the landslide had come five years soon, Thatcher might even have had the humiliation of losing her own seat. Such a result could have been the necessary blow to the neo-Thatcherite wing of the party and silenced the sirens who spent much of the last twenty years claiming that going more Thatcherite than even Thatcher did was the solution for the country. And some of the more Machiavellian might point out that a loss would have given the chaos of Black Wednesday to Neil Kinnock and John Smith. Perhaps the Conservatives would have taken rather less than thirteen years to return to government.

But losing would have meant the country being run by Neil Kinnock. And that's truly a horrific thought. Whether losing might have been better for the party, it would have been far worse for the country.

So as the BBC Parliament channel reruns the 1992 election coverage, a big cheer to John Major for achieving such a victory and saving us from that nightmare.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Happy Easter

Happy Easter everybody.

The Digital Switchover screw-up

London is currently undergoing the Digital Switchover. For several months now we have been bombarded with leaflets and posters telling us that analogue signals will be switched off and that we need to get digital decoders in order to continue watching television. So you'd think we've been overloaded with information and can easily find out everything we need to know.

Unfortunately in the midst of all this there has been a major information failure that has completely neglected two sections of the audience - those who've had digital television the longest and those who purchase second hand decoders, many of whom still use the earliest decoders. Many have reported that since the switchover began last Wednesday they have been unable to get the following channels:
  • BBC One (although it's still available on analogue for another ten days)
  • BBC Two
  • BBC Three
  • CBBC
  • BBC News
(The other BBC channels are unaffected.)

There has been no end of stress and frustration as people keep trying to add to and reset their list of channels in the hope of recovering the channels to no avail. The Digital UK website is useless on this - if you follow through the FAQ the section on Missing channels or wrong news service? pretends that all will be well by retuning. The telephone helpline is even worse, with operators trying the classic stalling tactic of stalling callers in the hope they will go away.

Only when rooting around submitting a question on the website did I find Why am I missing certain channels following a retune of my digital recorder? and that doesn't really explain the situation or cover all equipment effected.

Basically the problem is that the digital signal is being upgraded in strength (from 2K to 8K), but some older equipment is unable to handle the stronger signal and needs either a software update or to be replaced altogether.

It sounds simple, but I was only able to find out the full cause of the problem thanks to Svelte Kroton on the Gallifrey Base forum who wrote the following post in reply to my enquiry on the matter:
(Warning: You'll need to be registered and logged in to read it)

The reason they're missing those channels is because they've changed from a 2k signal to an 8k signal.
Currently BBC4, BBC Parliament, CBeebies, and the BBC Radio channels are still on a 2k signal on MUX B.
But from the 18th the rest of the channels will also change to 8k.
If your decoder box is too old to understand 8k signals, which is what it sounds like, you'll lose all tv channels at that point.
Some transmitters will continue to broadcast some less important channels in 2k for up to 24 months after switchover, but this probably won't be any of the channels you actually want to watch.

All the money the BBC spent on telling people to get ready for digital switchover, and they completely neglected to get the message across that people who have been ready for switchover for years, are about to find themselves without telly.
Bit of a shambles, really.

Indeed - a right screw-up. Given the nature of the advertising, people who've had digital the longest naturally have every reason to assume they have been fully prepared for years, and had no reason to expect this debacle.

And since the BBC is at fault, would it be at all unreasonable for people to get some of the licence fee back for services unavailable when the BBC gave them every reason to think they wouldn't have a problem?

Saturday, April 07, 2012

"The truth is there are none so pure as the impotent"

Here's a wonderful clip from Q & A, the Australian version of Question Time, as Malcolm Turnbull responds to the simplistic approach of minor parties who shout solutions from the sidelines:

A true statement the world over.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

April Fool

Yes, you guessed it right. That last post was an April Fool.

(Oh and does anyone know for definite if April Fools are invalid or not after noon? Or does the answer change depending on age and country?)

Up the revolution!

For all these years I was blind. Now I've seen the light. What the world needs is...


So I've joined the struggle and joined the Socialist Workers Party.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

How much for a Doctor Who episode on film?

The missing Doctor Who episodes have received a lot of attention over the years, especially last December when the discovery of two was announced. However perhaps less well-known are that there are a number of black & white 16mm film copies of many existing episodes held in private hands, and occasionally they pop up for sale.

Recently a copy of the Reign of Terror 1 (A Land of Fear) was auctioned on eBay and ended up selling for £1600.00 - a new record for any episode. Doctor Who prints are extremely rare on eBay but like buses two have come along at once - now a copy of the Web Planet 6 (The Centre) is up for auction. DOCTOR WHO TV EPISODE 1965 16mm film print

Anyone like to guess how much this one will eventually go for?

Is online voting all its cracked up to be?

The Canadian New Democratic Party elected their leader at the weekend. As it happens they chose a sitting MP, Thomas Mulcair. It's a curiosity that just one year ago Mulcair was the sole NDP MP in Quebec in a generation (and only the second one ever) but now the NDP have most of the seats in Quebec (and Quebec has most of the NDP MPs) and Mulcair's victory is in part because the party needs to retain its position in Quebec. There's a further irony that what began as a western protest party is now led by a Quebecer (although this is not the first time that's happened - see the Social Credit Party of Canada).

But ironies and Canadian specifics aside, the leadership election experienced severe problems with voting. Votes could be cast in three ways:
  • Alternative Vote postal ballots, to be sent in advance with preferences chosen without knowing who would get knocked out early & who would endorse who.
  • Votes cast at computer terminals at the party convention, with delegates voting for a single candidate in each round with about an hour to vote each time.
  • Votes cast online from home, again for single candidates in each round with an hour.

And far from being a smooth process the voting descended into chaos with the website struggling to cope and being allegedly hit by a denial-of-service attack. (The Globe and Mail: Hackers attack NDP, delaying electronic leadership vote) The result was a mess as many people took ages to access the site and cast their vote, others either ran out of time or gave up, voting had to be extended multiple times and even split into separate periods for the convention and rest of the world, and eventually the leader was declared much later than expected.

Exactly what went wrong and why expected safeguards didn't work is no doubt already the subject of an investigation. But as an example of high profile online voting it's a worrying sign of how vulnerable it can be and how there's strong potential for disruption that deters many people from casting their votes.

Now sure online voting is used for a lot of private organisations. But most of their votes are much lower key with much less risk. The last online vote I participated in was for an alumni rep on a college council - who sets out to sabotage that sort of election? Rather fewer people than a high profile party or public election and so less conscious or financial consideration needed to be given to protecting the site.

I am sure there are all manner of procedures and safeguards that can be used for online voting. But either they're standard and the hackers still got through, or else the decision was made without enough consideration of the problem. And remember this is a quite technical and modern area it's unsurprising if those making the ultimate decisions and paying the cheques do not have the strongest grasp of every aspect needed. Prospective contractors can make their pitches based on the aspects, but they're ultimately selling to decision makers who have not grown up with computers all around them and often the necessary budgets are not forthcoming. A similar thing could be seen back during the run on Northern Rock when the bank's website proved unable to cope with the demand.

Could we safely use online voting for public elections? Leaving aside the wider issues I think the security factor is a big one that needs to be demonstrably handled first before jumping on the online bandwagon. A rerun of the NDP's problems on a public scale would bring a result into dispute, potentially ending up in the courts if the result was close, and would be far too tempting a target for the most disruptive. And with so much of our electoral administration split across many, many different bodies, including a lot of councils facing strong financial squeezes, I am not persuaded that no expense would be spared to ensure problems did not happen.

Minor tests

Just a quick note of warning that over the next few months I'll be doing a few tests on this blog to see how it handles various features.

I hope things will run smoothly but you can never tell!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Leading from outside parliament?

Party leaders don't always have to be in Parliament. Sometimes they can lead their party and seek the premiership from outside. Today we may discover if one such leader in Australia has been successful and if a party in Canada will pick another.

Right now the Australian state of Queensland is voting in its state election. As noted before (Leading from outside the chamber), the Liberal National Party is being led from outside the state parliament by Campbell Newman, until last year the Mayor of Brisbane. If he succeeds both in leading the LNP to power he will be the first Australian premier since at least federation to pull this trick off. Mayors of other big cities in other countries may wish to try and follow his example. But we won't know until later if he's been successful in taking the target sat of Ashgrove.

Canada has a much more developed tradition of this with many leaders being picked who do not initially sit in the parliament. Even premiers have won their party leadership and been appointed to office either before winning a by-election, such as current British Columbia premier Christy Clark, or going straight to a general election, such as current Yukon prmier Darrell Pasloski. Today is the final day of the New Democratic Party leadership election to pick a new leader for Canada's main opposition party. Two of the contenders do not have seats in the Canadian House of Commons, Brian Topp and Martin Singh, and if either of them wins (it's rather more likely to be Topp than Singh) then they will have to either try to enter the Commons via a by-election or else lead their party from outside parliament until the next general election, then hope they can pick up a target seat. The latter option was followed by the last two NDP leaders (Alexa McDonough & Jack Layton) but since then the NDP has become the official opposition and waiting may no longer be an option. The former route is more mixed - there's a partially observed tradition that a new leader trying to enter the Commons is not opposed by the other major parties, but not all follow it. Way back in the 1940s the attempted comeback by Conservative leader Arthur Meighen was scuppered when he lost his by-election to the NDP's predecessors. More recently the Ontario Progressive Conservative leader John Tory saw his leadership destroyed by by-election defeat in 2007.

Should we try this more often in the UK? Alex Salmond pulled it off in Scotland and there's no reason why Salmond should by sui generis. The obvious comparison to Campbell Newman would be Boris Johnson but there's equally no reason why someone who's been successful completely outside Westminster politics couldn't become a party leader and lead a bid from there. Or perhaps someone could take a mid career break from politics and then come back refreshed and renewed. I suspect it would take a smaller party to try this first - perhaps the Liberal Democrats in their quest to be "different" could give it a go? (But no, not Lembit!)

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Roger Helmer - Goodbye and good ****ing riddance

It is no secret that I am not a fan of Roger Helmer, one of the most useless Conservative MEPs. Quite apart from his regular bigotry, he has achieved sweet FA for this country in Brussels, just ranting the rant unlike other MEPs who actually work to get the best results for the UK's interests - and he himself has said all he's achieved is talking the talk. I've called for him to be deselected before and so I welcomed the news that he was retiring, only to curse when he retracted it.

Now comes the news that Conservative MEP Roger Helmer joins UKIP (BBC). Being a bunch of ineffectual talk-the-talkers rather than achievers, UKIP and Helmer are well mad for each other.

Meanwhile the Conservative team in the European Parliament has become much more efficient per MEP.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Sixty years ago

Sixty years ago Elizabeth II came to her thrones. It was a very different age. The internet, mobile phones, digital television and so much more that we take for granted hadn't been invented.

Since this is a mainly political blog, here's a quick rundown of the political facts from the time. In 1952 Winston Churchill was in power, whilst the opposition leaders were Clement Attlee (Labour) and Clement Davies (Liberal). Davies was the newest, having been in post since the end of the Second World War, whilst Churchill had been leader since 1940 and Attlee since 1935 and within five years all three had left their leaderships. The Liberals were at their lowest point in their history, having got just 2.5% and six MPs in the election the previous October. Labour lost power at that election and was starting what would turn out to be quite a turbulent thirteen years in opposition. The Conservatives were in office, although Churchill's government contained a strong "personalist" element with a number of the non-party war time ministers returning to the Cabinet, making for quite a "GOATy" government and it was not until 1955 that a fully conventional party ministry was in power under Anthony Eden.

And around the Commonwealth who were the other Prime Ministers at the time? They were:
Such names are a reminder of just how long the Queen has reigned. But the shortness of the list, and the name "Ceylon", are also a reminder of just how much of the Commonwealth has gained independence since then. The world is a very different place today; the Commonwealth especially so.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Draft Gordon Brown

With a Scottish independence referendum on the horizon, unionists are looking for a heavyweight figure to lead their cause, who can take on the separatist arguments and who can win there.

Now who's the last person to beat Alex Salmond in Scotland?

Gordon Brown may not be from my party. There is a lot of his political legacy I detest. But he is undeniably the biggest figure from Scotland to stride the political stage in recent decades. He is recognised globally and stands head and shoulders above the likes of... erm... whoever the current leader of Scottish Labour is.

So can we persuade him? Can we draft Gordon Brown to save the Union?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Referendum questions

A referendum is the will of the electorate. But just which electorate and how many of them?

Whether people like it or not, referendums are an established part of the way things are done in this country. It's been nearly a century since the first legislation was passed establishing them (the Temperance (Scotland) Act 1913 which allowed for local referendums on prohibition in Scotland) and they've become ever more common in recent years.

But less clearly established are the basics for referendums like who gets to vote, the precise requirements for a change to take effect and who selects the options available & writes the question. In the run-up to just about every referendum I can remember there have been rows over at least one of these. This ad hoc approach is not terribly constructive and it may only get worse with a referendum on Scottish independence that brings the prospect of a fourth mess, determining which legislature has the power to run the vote.

Determining who gets to vote is a mess to start with. We have several different electorates in this country, mainly because of the different voting rights of ex pats, EU citizens, members of the House of Lords and so forth. The result is some people can vote in some elections and not others. So which ones should get to vote in a referendum when it isn't obvious which tier of government it affects? And there's a further problem that ex pats within the rest of the United Kingdom don't get to vote at their former homes, whereas ex pats within the rest of the world do. Would it be fair if there was a referendum in Northern Ireland and a Belfast man who'd moved to Dundee didn't get a vote but one who'd moved to Dublin did? And then there's the issue about whether the voting age should be lowered for individual votes - which was already tried in an unsuccessful amendment to the AV referendum and which may be tried again for the Scotland vote. Will the young get the vote only when they might be expected to vote the right way?

Threshold requirements are another mess. Practice around the world varies quite widely - some jurisdictions require only a simple majority for change to be enacted, but others have all manner of additional requirements - minimum turnouts, minimum proportions of the total electorate, majorities in a minimum number of constituencies, supermajorities (60% or 67% are both quite common) and more. All of these are in place because of a belief that a change brought about by a referendum will be long lasting and should be resistant to a minor swing in public opinion undermining it. But these thresholds are normally predetermined in advance. Since most referendums in the UK have been called by those wanting to make a change by popular backing, unsurprisingly there's been a reluctance to add conditions that might make a change victory less likely. We've probably now reached the stage where it's too late to introduce such thresholds. That may seem democratic but it must be worrying that some referendums, particularly those creating elected mayors, have had very low turnouts - the lowest I'm aware of was 10% in Sunderland. There is a point where the result stops being the will of the people and becomes the will of the too few.

What about who gets to select the available options and write the question? We've already seen the opening shots in this debate this week. It's a difficult one with no obvious answer and for that matter the UK precedents aren't so great. We've only had two comparable referendums, one on which country Northern Ireland should be in, the other on whether the UK should stay in Europe. Here are the exact questions:

Northern Ireland referendum 1973:
  • Do you want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom?
  • Do you want Northern Ireland to be joined with the Republic of Ireland, outside the United Kingdom?

European Community referendum 1975:
  • Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?

Both are simple and to the point. There's no reference in the former to precisely how Northern Ireland should be governed, regardless of which country it is in, whilst the latter similarly makes no reference to the revised terms of membership negotiated by the Labour government of the day. Nor were there multiple options to decide between, and thus no rows about which system to decide between the options.

But it could be more complicated. One case from elsewhere that is often brought up in relation to Scottish independence is the 1995 Quebec referendum. This asked the voters of Quebec the following question:

  • Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?

And if you think that's complicated, the 1980 referendum question was even longer:
  • The Government of Quebec has made public its proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations; this agreement would enable Quebec to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, levy its taxes and establish relations abroad - in other words, sovereignty - and at the same time to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency; any change in political status resulting from these negotiations will only be implemented with popular approval through another referendum; on these terms, do you give the Government of Quebec the mandate to negotiate the proposed agreement between Quebec and Canada?
(And considering the ballot paper was bilingual that's a monstrous piece of paper.)

Now a quick reading of the 1995 referendum question suggests a Yes vote would mean there was a mandate to negotiate a different relationship and that no lasting change would take place as an immediate consequence of a Yes vote. After all that was the position in 1980 (and the earlier referendum question explicitly stated it). However the 1995 referendum was somewhat different. This became an issue in the referendum itself, with disputes about just what a Yes vote would mean.

One major consequence of the referendum was the federal parliament passing the Clarity Act which basically gave the federal House of Commons the power to decide if a future referendum question was "clear" or not, to determine the threshold for change, and effectively to veto a referendum vote if it was deemed to have not complied. The Quebec National Assembly passed counter legislation asserting a simple majority is sufficient and that no other parliament or government can impose constraints on Quebec. That particular legislation has the snappy title of An Act respecting the exercise of the fundamental rights and prerogatives of the Québec people and the Québec State. To date the supremacy of these pieces of legislation has not been tested in the courts.

Now the Scotland situation has not reached the levels of Quebec but if the current rows between London and Edinburgh aren't resolve soon then we could face a similar mess but I really hope it doesn't descend to a Quebec style mess of disputed questions, Clarity Acts and sovereignty assertion acts, complete with lots and lots of lawyers rowing for all eternity.

However in the long run something needs to be done to take the sting out of these questions. Ideally there needs to be a broad consensus across the board, and perhaps a standing committee to determine the options & questions, so that when a referendum is announced there will be no uncertainty about any of the factors, let alone a dispute about them. Until then each referendum will bring many more questions than just the one on the ballot paper.

Monday, January 02, 2012

"Mummy, what does 'santorum surging' mean?"

So far the US Presidential election is just dull.

Compared to recent contests this one just hasn't caught fire. On the Democrat side the euphoria from when Obama was first elected has now died down as even his most ardent supporters realise he can't walk on water and isn't going to deliver endless change they can believe in. But he's basically unopposed for his party's nomination. (Yes pedants I know there's probably a few non-entities who've managed to get their name onto the odd primary ballot paper but that won't make a difference.) The last incumbent President in such a position who went on to lose re-election was Herbert Hoover back in 1932. That should give Obama comfort until he remembers that Hoover fell in harsh economic times - and no Obama can't simply magic away the world's economic problems. We're not in Doctor Who!

On the Republican side we have the return of Mitt Romney and the succession of "stop Romney" candidates, and all it's done is reinforce perceptions of the Republican Party as full of nutters. Now just because I'm a British Conservative doesn't mean I should automatically cheer on anyone from one of our "sister" parties around the world - you don't see many Conservatives cheering on Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel at the moment despite their parties being founder members of the IDU. The nuttier wings of the Republican Party are not ones that should be copied here. But they can at least make things exciting - and at the moment that hasn't happened. Instead it's one long dull fest.

Of course there is the occasional moment of humour, especially with Rick Santorum. For there is a not very nice meaning for "santorum" and if he pulls off an early primary win a lot of people will be searching for more information on him.

So why are journalists so keen to write that "Santorum is surging"?


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