a third way

Earlier this year I likened the constitutional argument between Nick Clegg (House of Lords) and David Cameron (reducing the size of the House of Commons) to the horror film Saw, insofar as whatever one man achieves the other suffers personal/professional injury. I concluded that it would be better for the Liberal Democrats in the long term to play down House of Lords reform; the amount of damage done to the LibDems if they’re seen as obsessed with the issue will only benefit Cameron and his stirring backbenchers.

(Incidentally, Labour are now against House of Lords reform, which might come as a surprise to people).

Somewhere from the long grass is another constitutional tinkering that could be about to whack the Coalition in the face like Sideshow Bob and garden rakes. That’s the ‘right to recall’ issue, something Cameron said he supported at the height (or depth, depending on how you see it) of the expenses scandal.

Although it has been spoken of as early as April by the Leader of the House, ‘right to recall’ remains the reform that dare not speak its name. MPs were reticent to scrap 50 of their colleagues in the boundary review process so it’s not surprising that handing electors such power is down the list of priorities. It’s not as though other countries which use recall mechanisms make it easy – there’s petition chasing across the US on an almost daily basis as people rush to find millions of valid signatures. In the UK, a smaller population with smaller constituencies makes recall potentially easier to manipulate, handing the profession awkward squads (the Newspaper Comment Section Corps.) the power to play merry Hell for the sake of it.

“We should have the power to sack MPs!” is a populist move, which might persuade people to rush for a pen at the earliest opportunity. Remember, though, that the e-petition to bring back the death penalty barely registered much support at all, which dampens fears that the green ink parade will be orchestrated to chuck out any Cabinet Minister which looks at them funny.

If the push-me/pull-me games over House of Lords reform verses Reduction in the Number of MPs ends up with both defeated, ‘right to recall’ could be the compromise choice. It may have something of the gesture about it, though it’s easier to trail at either devolved assembly before being introduced at Westminster, and should see a genuine change in the attitude of MPs who think the expenses farrago has died down. Forcing a by-election in cases of criminal behaviour makes as much sense to me as chucking out of parliament lawmakers whose seat exists by virtue of a great-great-great grandfather getting into an emotional clinch with a washer-woman. General elections can be easily ‘ducked’ by MPs who don’t fancy having to face the music (as we saw with record numbers of retirements prior to 2010). The ‘right to recall’ would be almost unavoidable.

Constitutional reform is long overdue in the UK, in part because the mere mention of the administrative wheels behind the whole charade tend to make people glaze over (not just their eyes). The lack of will by any government, of any colour, is in stark contrast to the manner with which this Coalition has tried to get into the workings with spanners and hammers aloft (“spanners” is not a derogatory term meaning ‘Clegg and Cameron’, honest). That Labour, of all parties, stands against constitutional reform is jaw-slapping. That a party ‘of the workers’ chose to stand against modernising the voting system (which would give members of the public more say in who represented them in parliament, one of Labour’s founding principles) staggers me still today. The AV referendum would have been won had Labour chose to kick FPTP rather than Nick Clegg.

Lords reform may well be defeated by a bizarre combination of the now anti-reform Labour Party and backbench Conservative dinosaurs, in much the same way that reducing the size of the Commons was almost chucked out by the same tag-team of old school grumps and new breed professional politicians in Burton’s suits and safe northern constituencies. I warned the LibDems against looking like obsessives over issues like this, just in case the passion overflows. No party would lose face if, as an alternative to the bickering over the most serious reforms to our country’s governance, they helped ‘right to recall’ onto the statute books. Cameron once called for all parties to follow him in supporting the change: I wonder if he’ll now use this as his price for peace across the Cabinet table.

Hit parade

Arbitrary lists are the mainstay of the Internet, let’s be honest. And there’s nothing more arbitrary than a list of favourite songs.  Now, I remember even as someone on the wrong side of 30 when the NME used to leave newspaper ink on your fingers whilst today it just gives a bad taste in the throat. It can’t just be me looking at a chart rundown of greatest tracks of its 60 year lifetime with an incredulous glare. Dizzy Rascal, eh? Of all time, you say? Top twenty, for Dizzy Rascal?

Now I will admit that I’m a man who enjoys nothing more than rattling up the debt on my local’s jukebox, and depending on mood, memory and the amount of ale consumed, that can be an experience akin to twiddling the dial on an AM radio. What I suspect has happened with the NME list is a brief talk with the guys in marketing and the one bloke who deals with SEO, from which came the considered opinion that to remain looking somehow ‘cool’ whilst still attracting casual readers/browsers meant choosing very obvious bands and very obvious songs. “Wonderwall”, for one clear example, would struggle to hit the top 20 of Oasis fans list of songs, and I include both Gallagher brothers in that. If the NME wanted to include Oasis whilst not looking too much like a magazine whose only reference material was a compilation album sold exclusively in a garage forecourt, then why not “Masterplan” or “Acquiesce”? Not exactly the very best work but at least a nod to something other than The Most Obvious Nomination…Ever!

And then we have the Madonna problem. Now, bless the NME, they needed a woman and what better choice than a woman whose back catalogue has shifted more units than IKEA. Problem – they’ve gone for the wrong song again (the best Madonna track is, by and large, “The Power of Goodbye” or “Frozen”, at a pinch “Nothing Really Matters). Problem number two – they could have chosen Kate Bush or Janis Joplin or any other number of female singers to provide a) the single female nomination they were clearly struggling to find, and b) one whose body of work fits with the NME’s former characteristic of ‘Magazine which doesn’t go for the obvious/mainstream.

Whilst I understand that they tried to go ‘off piste’ with Dizzy Rascal – “OFFICIALLY THE NINTH BEST SONG IN THE NME’S LIFETIME” – I would have stuffed the track about 100 places further down and to considered putting 99 places further down the Silver Sun cover version of “Too Much Too Little Too Late” just to prove a point. I know the NME wanted to add a rap track to cover all basis so why ignore “White Lines” as a cultural milestone rather than an arbitrarily chosen blip in contemporary urban music? Was this a panicked moment of ‘tokenism’ ?

My greatest concern is for the long term survival of the NME. It’s seen off almost all its rivals – from Record Mirror in the 70s through to Melody Maker and Select in the 90s and now stands fairly forlorn in the weekly magazine section of railway stations and corner shop newsagents. The relevance may have faded though the stature somehow remains, its reputation a shadow and showpiece. Why, then, have we got to the point where a magazine which commands respect can get away with picking the running order of Humdrum FM or a provincial town’s only indie club night (Once a week at Neon Jessie’s behind the Iceland, £1 entry before 11)?  I may live in Preston, not always known for having fingers on pulses but I can at least guarantee that the most prominent alternative club here would choose many hundred songs before considering the NME 20.  What exactly has gone wrong? Pressure? Ignorance?

All this said, of course, and without the realisation that all generations criticise the last for their taste in music. I’m just a little bitter at the lack of Abba and Fleetwood Mac. If anybody wants me, I’ll be at the jukebox. Oooh, “Pure Shores” by All Saints, could that sneak in somewere?

Bundle into Leveson

MPs of a certain type like to whip up problems which don’t exist, don’t they?

Remember when Nadine Dorries, the poster girl for Conservative MPs who don’t get out much, claimed that some of her colleagues were suicidal at the height of the expenses scandal? We didn’t get much evidence of this claim, though it underlined the reputation of some backbenchers for being ‘outliers’ of a wider unease about members of the press daring to shine lights into the Westminster village.

From Dorries to Gove, a leap of some imagination which might be hard to stomach before breakfast. The cerebral Michael Gove is the Education Secretary who talks and acts like it’s still the back to basics era 1990s Conservative Government of whom he’s a part, wanting to strengthen the national curriculum so as to introduce poetry by rote, time tables by the hour and Latin lessons from an early age. Now I’m in favour of re-introducing foreign languages in schools – it was a daft idea by Labour to scrap compulsory lessons – it’s just everything else about Gove that makes me feel uneasy. It’s conservatism with a big C and slight sneer, and when he’s not making teachers reach for the anonymous blogs, he’s making Lord Leveson reach for the coffee.

Gove and Leveson didn’t quite hit it off, to put it mildly. Just as Dorries tried to suggest that revealing the truth about expenses was somehow a bad thing because MPs were feeling their collars, Gove has tried to imply that Leveson is putting freedom of speech under trail. The Daily Mail which broke the story has followed it up with more soundbites from Tory MPs, including the self-styled libertarian Douglas Carswell. The result of all this is to add, in a drip-drip style of hints, allegations and suggestions, that the Leveson recommendations will be placed on a high shelf or within tall grass. This might not surprise more cynical readers, and “questioning David Cameron’s sincerity” isn’t exactly difficult.

I’m reminded of Tony Blair’s attitude towards Lords Reform, taking his friend Roy Jenkins’ Lords Reform and throwing it into quicksand. Cameron may well be doing the same with the press inquiry, sending out people like Gove to hint about his true intentions. As much as Leveson has been illuminating, MPs tend not to like bright lights shone amongst the darkest shadows.

Gove might think that the consequences to freedom of speech are ‘chilling’, but that’s only because he’s looking at the issue from the wrong way round. The lack of respect in this field encouraged the press to run feral and politicians to hide behind locked doors. Gove shouldn’t be criticising the process by which improvements are made to the machine; if sausages look grim whilst being made, look away until they turn up on a plate at breakfast, Mr Gove!

I’m not so fresh faced and naive to think that all will be well after Leveson. The relationship between the press, politicians and police will always be intertwined as much as before. But most people observing Leveson has seen green shoots of improvement throughout the processes, and would be knocked back further away from taking politicians seriously (and that’s not exactly registering high on any marker of late) if the end result of this is business as usual.  The press went far beyond what was expected in the pursuit of stories, and far beyond what was expected in their relationship with elected officials. If Leveson changes this attitude amongst those estates that are – and are not – answerable to voters, Mr Gove need to celebrate rather than snipe.

Remember, Gove, that freedom of speech was under threat by Labour’s constant attacks on civil liberties, and it was the formation of the Coalition which was supposed to safeguard personal freedoms. If Leveson was just a smokescreen, I fear Cameron didn’t really want you to blow so hard that we could see through the fog.  

different kettle of fish

Tucked away on the Lancashire Evening Post website is an update on the campaign by market traders against plans to turf them out onto the street.

Whilst the body text is the usual mix of market traders outrage and Council platitudes, the interesting content fills the comment section underneath. Now I know more than most that comment sections can be filled with all manner of outrage, cynicism and distrust. However in this article, someone using the pseudonym ‘turtle dove’  has dropped all manner of hints and heavy allegations which a number of other users, me included, suggest form the latest attempt by Preston Council to ‘fix’ any consultation in their favour.

Backstory is pretty simple. Having lost the Tithebarn regeneration scheme by virtue of the economic collapse and nobody supporting it, Preston Council has been desperately trying to chase a flashed ankle regardless of the state of the person connected to it. There is still talk of a Metrolink style tram system which would connect (un)willing passengers between Deepdale and an industrial estate, a multi-million pound shuttle service which is already covered by numerous buses.

I need not go into the attempts to demolish Preston’s bus station, other than to note that the rumoured cost of improving the place has shot up with every panicked press release from Town Hall, with the additional lie (for it is a lie) that the 1,100 car parking places are under threat from concrete cancer.

The Fish market controversy is ‘classic’ Preston Council. Having faked a consultation exercise, stage two is thinly veiled blackmail. The covered market is popular, always busy and has a community spirit amongst those people for whom the stalls are their living. Preston Council’s latest wheeze is to evacuate the Markets for no good reason outside vague plans to ‘regenerate’ an area left to rot (by Preston Council) whilst Tithebarn distracted them. To persuade traders to leave the covered market for the uncovered streets, the Council has failed to outline exactly why, without any prior warning, the market building is no longer ‘fit for purpose’.

This is where ‘turtle dove’ comes in, spreading all manner of accusations for which there seems to be no independent source for his claims.

These are, in no apparent order:

They don’t say an additional 6 million pounds capital investment needs to spent on the market just to keep it open. That is the heavy burden council tax payers will have to shoulder if it is kept open. If you support keeping the market hall open then you need to be aware of the full financial implications.

And

They don’t say that the market could close tomorrow because of problems with the ventilation or wiring or the escalator. don’t say it nearly closed last year because of vermin – problems which the traders haven’t addressed.

And also

The traders are business people and are playing poker with council in an attempt to get a better deal when they transfer

And additionally

The market traders are telling the whole story. They don’t say that the Council subsidises them to the tune of £76,000 per year. Their service charge has been frozen since 1996. 

This ‘drip drip’ approach of ‘truth’ reminds me of the constant, unfounded and ultimately useless propaganda used by the Council against the Bus Station. Costs to improve the station – the largest of its kind in Britain – went up from £2m to £5m in response to constantly favourable polls in the LEP and elsewhere. The more people joined campaigns to save the station, the higher the costs, until the ruling Labour Group chose the week after local elections this year to essentially confirm its demolition next year, when there are no local elections, in face of massive opposition.

Now it’s the turn of the covered market, which is suddenly beyond all help and repair, just as the Council realises that there’s no support for their policy. Market traders in other northern towns are not given this roughshod treatment, leaving Preston isolated as the only major population centre in the region for whom at least two landmarks are considered only good enough for scrap and selling.

If Preston Council really did listen to its citizens – the ‘your city, your say’ shambles has been kicked into long grass – they’d soon learn to leave both Market and Bus Station alone. But if ‘turtle dove’ is right, and there’s all sorts of secrets we don’t know about gathering dust on Town Hall shelves, how do we even try to fight back?

 

 

 

Destination Oldham

The woman in front of me at Deansgate does a double take. She has spotted the map above the ticket machine’s touchscreen now shows the newly opened Oldham extension. “Ooh, is the Oldham bit open?” she asks turning around to me. I dampen my anorak tendencies – there’s nothing a random stranger likes more than hearing detailed descriptions of every single stop on a line – and confirm that it has, indeed, opened and taking passengers up and down the line from the media studies magnet of Chorlton. “How exciting!” she beams. “Listen to me, ‘exciting’. Still, not much happens in Manchester, eh?”

I stop to consider what kind of Manchester she must inhabit for the opening of a new tram line to be the most exciting thing in her life. Then remember that I’ve made the trip especially to take the journey, so consider this is a score-draw.

Having closed in 2009, the Oldham loop-line disappeared from network maps, reappearing only as subject of approximately 1.4 million negative comments in the Manchester Evening News website. With Metrolink’s distinctive banana coloured trams prone to delay, spontaneously combusting or going to Altrincham in groups of 12, it’s little wonder that the delay in opening Oldham caused the Professional Newspaper Comment Section Corps. Given that most once-upon-an-age commuters have either moved house or died since Transport for Greater Manchester (yes, they aped Transport for London in the most obvious act of flirtation since Bonzo took a rabbit to the High School Disco to wave the thing by its ears in front of Celia Sprong.)

No section of the Metrolink ‘big bang’ expansions have yet opened on time, which one supposes is just another ape of big brother London Underground. This has opened up a shed load of criticism from just about anyone living with a Manchester postcode; even when lines are opened there’s always a failed tram somewhere, invariably at the MediaCity pokey-out-bit, causing back-ups in central Manchester that would cause the populace of most other cities to storm municipal halls seeking vengeance.

In anycase, excitable Deansgate woman boarded her tram to Piccadilly, leaving me alone on Deansgate(-Castlefield) with a return ticket and nobody to share it with.  The Oldham Mumps tram arrived a few minutes later, coming from what will eventually be the direct link through southern Manchester to the Airport. I was one of a number of passengers who stayed on at Victoria, though the crawl through the city centre (during which the tram runs at road level along side shops and shoppers) saw many people depart at Market Street or Shudehill. The greatest influx of passengers came at Manchester Victoria, and of these, I’d be generous to call the majority of them ‘enthusiasts’.  Dozens of men – and they were all men – with various shades of grey hair stood or sat with cameras and notepads close to hand. Six Metrolink uniformed men – and they were all men – stood in a clump on the platform, the least proportionate crowd control I’ve seen outside gigs.

Unlike the London Underground, Manchester’s trams are essentially silent. No constant roll-call of messages and warnings, or the over repetitive destination speeches (“This is a something line to somewhere, the next stop is someplace, change here for other lines and two arbitrarily selected tourist attractions.”). Metrolink’s delicately accented woman waits until a station is arrived at, says “This is an Oldham Mumps service, the next stop is somewhere”, and then keeps silent. Bliss. Joy be praised. She even says “Mumps” with a clipped Lancastrian accent, which is a bonus.

Whilst waiting for the first stop, I check Twitter for various related search terms. “Who the hell decided to call it Mumps?” asks someone. “As if a new line to Oldham is considered news!” sneered another. Tough crowd. “Freehold?!” said another tweet, stunned into just one word by   one of the newest stops on the newest line.

All Metrolink tram stops have been given cheery little posters from TfGM, saying things like “A Perk for Central Park!” and “Nice one Newton Heath”, “Fab for Failsworth!”. I wonder how long that could keep going. If there’s ever a station opening on a Queen Street, I’d pay the advertising department all the money I’ve got to see what they come up with.

As each stop approaches, it soon becomes clear that only two kinds of people are waiting on the platforms; enthusiasts with cameras and twice their number in Metrolink officials/ticket inspectors. I can’t say for certain if anyone leaves our tram at any of the intermediate stations. Other than the Clipped Accent Announcer Woman, the only other sound is the beep-whirr-click of cameras.

Central Park was opened in 2009, then left to gather rust and publicity posters for local music events, leaving the glass and chrome canopy roof resembling the entrance to an abandoned tourist attraction in a recession hit corner of Spain. It seems to be in the middle of a cross-fingers and hope regeneration park, which makes the poster’s slogan – “A Perk for Central Park!” – seem somewhat condescending.

My personal highlight of the journey is the approach to South Chadderton, built like the very best bits of London’s DLR or a low-budget rollercoaster, dipping down from height to reach the station, which has been built in the ‘bowl’. I can imagine – and experienced – drivers having a lot of fun with that.

 Arrival at Oldham was not exactly ‘low key’.  Whilst all local journos had by then gone home – first services arrived just after 6am – there was a large crowd of photographers and curious locals who seemed close to applauding everyone who alighted. My fellow passengers divided into three types – a number stayed on the platform ready to ride the same tram back to Manchester, others left by the southern entrance, and others still followed me into Oldham’s town centre.

The route to Mumps is only temporary, as all maps are at pains to remind locals. A new line will cut into the town centre itself, leaving the current Mumps station as a briefly existing blob on the network. For a temporary station, it’s looking very much the part, not least because it’s been given all the corporate yellow gloss that TfGM can throw at it. The predecessor station was notoriously grim, though both suffer from being located on the wrong side of a dual carriageway.

At the recommended watering hole of the Ashton Arms, the landlady was deep in conversation with locals and enthusiasts about the new line’s opening. “Two years late, more expensive, longer travelling times and no toilets!” she summarised before serving me. “But that’s progress, eh?” I offered.

The new line will eventually cross the front of her pub, one of the few decent drinking places in Oldham town centre that doesn’t resemble a possible location shoot for the new series of ‘Shameless’. What was Oldham’s grand Town Hall is to become a ‘family leisure facility with cinema complex’, a piece of news which triggered a burst of memory from one of the old boy regulars. “There used to be seven cinemas in Oldham, at one time. Seven.  They told us that closing them down would do us good in t’long term, but look around you to see that for what it was!”

The journey back into Manchester is noticeably slower, with the driver, an assistant in a hi-viz jackets and two ticket inspectors (and/or revenue protection assistants or whatever we’re calling them this week) enjoying the view from inside the cab.

Views of life outside the trams show a very mixed economic and social picture of this part of Greater Manchester. Freehold and South Chadderton give very resplendent shots of empty, decaying factoriesa, their chimneys the only element not crumbling around themselves, green-blocked windows staring out across terraces and far-flung suburbia. There may be amble opportunities for photographers to make mean and moody shots of northern England from the pristine white platforms of the Metrolink, but it’s not so good a selling point watching so much of England’s industrial past left to rot and ruin.

As much as I enjoyed my….three….pints (and a packet of Scampi Fries, of course), Oldham is in need of whatever economic boost the trams provide. The walk into town is quite an eye-opener, with more For Sale signs than I could count attached to long since abandoned stores. The open market was a great sign, with people milling about occasionally stopping at a butcher’s or what seemed to be a bathroom fitting salesman, though even this is tucked away in the background with all the signs of it being left to fend for itself.

All that said, at Failsworth a number of people boarded who looked positively normal (teenage girl with scowl, two teenage boys with hats at a jaunty angle) and Victoria, where I departed, was a success for people shopping over people taking photographs. It’s doubtlessly overdue, dripping with cynical doubts and occasionally just plain not reliable, but Metrolink is a success  and this new line was an interesting day out experience. I will not, however, use the excuse of one decent pub for having daily excursions to Oldham.