At the First Time of Asking

Lorraine Fullbrook, Laura Sandys, Jessica Lee. Who these women are, and what they represent for David Cameron and the Conservative Party, could provide for many an uncomfortable truth for the glacial modernisation of the ‘nasty party’.

Sandys is the MP for South Thanet, the pokey-out bit of Kent built around Ramsgate and surrounding villages. Labour-held at Westminster since the Blair landslide in 1997, Sandys took the seat in 2010 with a lead of over 7,600 votes. Even with the whispers and rumours about Nigel Farage’s intended candidature here, the former director and member of (I’m not making this up) the Shopping Hours Reform Council, could have enjoyed another five years of parliamentary career. What made her choose to stand down early? And why has been joined by South Ribble’s Lorraine Fullbrook and Erewash’s Jessica Lee in choosing to only have one term in Parliament?

It has been well documented that women have found Parliament a difficult place to work. The initial burst of ‘Blair’s babes’ included a number who spoke out loudly and proudly against the working hours, the macho culture, and the blatant sexist attitudes of a selection of their male colleagues. In terms of attracting women to a Parliamentary life, Labour has been far more successful than the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives, primarily through All Women Shortlists. By the next election, over half of the CLP will be female, a record for Westminster. For the Tories, the doomed A-List championed by David Cameron was supposed to redress the balance by promoting women in target seats; the tactic proved unpopular and barely changed the make-up of the backbenches. A certain number of Conservative women in the recent take-up have certainly not stood in line with the leadership – Nadine Dorries is the Sarah Palin of Westmister, Louise Mensch flit to New York for family reasons, and practising GP Sarah Wollaston has many sharp thorns to stab into the sides of her colleagues. These three could point to their place within the Party as being compromised by the outdated atmosphere of the majority male Palace of Westminster (particularly Wollaston, who has been overlooked for promotion in a marked nose-thumbing for not being all humble and loyal).

Whilst Louise Mensch walked away immediately, Fullbrook, Lee and Sandys will continue in their jobs until a few months before polling day, when they will technically transfer everything over to their replacement candidates. Is there one common reason behind their decisions? Financial, frustrated ambition, realising politics is not for them? Is the possibility of a fixed-term Parliament on the backbenches as opposition MPs persuading current members to re-evaluate their career plans? Or is there something about being amongst the 2010-intake and a woman which has pushed them out?

If it’s the last of these suggestions, what does David Cameron and the Conservative Party aim to do about it? Should the Whips be having quiet words with their backbenchers about the reality of being a woman in the Conservative Party? Certainly the reputation of the Tories and women isn’t so good, not least because Cameron has not reshuffled many female colleagues into top positions around the Cabinet table.

The three constituencies involved are all, coincidentally enough, the kind of important marginal seats which Labour must win to be assured of success in 2015. South Ribble, based around the Lancashire commuter towns of Penwortham and Leyland, is a true bellwether, exactly the kind of seat the Conservatives need to hold to retain a hold in the North West of England. Labour won in 2005 with a lead of 2,000 votes, Lorraine Fullbrook gained it with a lead of 5,000. Not an easy defence for the new candidate.

Thanet is a tougher prospect for Labour, but the threat of Farage puts this seat into dangerous territory. Sandys leaves a tough ask for whoever replaces her. Erewash in Derbyshire can only go two ways, Labour or Conservative, and whilst it was Tory from 1983 to 1997, Jessica Lee gives her successor a lead of just 2,500 votes.

If the Conservatives has a problem with one-term women not feeling confident enough to defend tight majorities, is that because they lack the support from their Party? Have they been left to fight alone or is there a less obvious and complex reason? For David Cameron and his modernisation attempts, he might need to look for some answers and solutions quickly…

Invitation to a Circus

Paul Goggins’ death was met by almost universal dismay and grief, from fellow councillors in Manchester to colleagues at Westminster from across all parties. Charity groups and campaigners mourned his untimely death, having collapsed whilst out running with his adult son, and even the usually enthusiastic amateur psephologist community on sites such as Political Betting and UKPolling kept speculation about the electoral consequences to a minimum. (Although Wikipedia’s editors did, as is the way over there, create an article about the forthcoming by-election within minutes of his death being confirmed.)

All the respect and remorse comes to pretty much nowt, however, with the likelihood of a fast turnaround by-election in Wythenshawe and Sale East expected by February 13. This weekend sees the first explicit campaigning of the campaign, with UKIP and Conservative members out on the streets. Prospective Labour candidates are named by ‘whispers’ and ‘sources close’ in the Manchester Evening News. Within a day of Goggins’ funeral in Manchester, politics has rucked up to the streets of Wythenshawe to introduce weary voters to the unconscious madness of a Westminster by-election campaign. Clowns and artists plenty, not many lions, in my experience. Maybe someone on a bike going round and round and round at high speed. Lots of greasy food.

By-elections attract the attention of statistic crunchers, Internet politics nerds, and the general Commentary Corps. because they have become so unusual in modern politics, and whenever they happen something unexpected is always likely to happen at least once. They almost always attract fringe or single-issue candidates (I remember at the Preston by-election of the year 2000 David Braid of the ‘Battle For Britain Christian Alliance’ fuming at the existence of women wearing make-up, homosexuality, and the Post Office.) Whilst by-elections caused by deaths are statistically less likely to occur these days – 15 occured between 1979 and 1983, whilst ‘WaSE’ is only the fifth since 2010 – the political world still feels a great nostalgia for the unexpected, unscripted, uncontrollable bun fights that they enable. It’s almost like a holiday, even in the safest seats where shock results rarely happen, even with events such as George Galloway in Bradford and the little local difficulty for Labour at Blaenau Gwent.

Fringe candidates have changed as politics in general has changed. No longer the sight of Sunday Sport candidates, so popular in the 1980s, taking advantage of the rules for free postage. No more Bill Boakes or Corrective Party. The need for candidates to register with the Electoral Commission has accelerated what might be called the professionalisation of
the fringe, a development you can see with the determined efforts of such grouplets to set up Twitter accounts and Flash/flash websites. There can be great joy in the smaller, obscure candidates joining in the fun and games for the unexpected one-off by-election circus, especially if they are from the long lost Natural Law Party providing unintentional comedic relief. Aside from, say, “Mr Mozzarella” who turned up at Crosby or the ubiquitous David Bishop of “Elvis Loves Pets” fame, there’s not much light relief at the midterms.

Whenever I peruse websites and blogs which promote alternatives to the mainstream political parties, my anorak tendency can’t help itself by urging those who want to stand to do so. So many flashes in the electoral pan – SPECTRE, Libertarian Party, British Freedom – vanish before they’ve done spamming The Daily Telegraph comments section. What a shame, says I, what a missed opportunity. What better way to record the mood of the nation than events like the Haltemprice and Howden by-election at which half a classroom turned up? Why can’t they all be like that?

This is my plea. For the madcap, the determined, the earnest, the otherwise disinterested, to make Wythenshawe and Sale East the place to be next month. Supporter of the Occupy movement? Horrifically racist? Split with a faction of a faction of a faction because of something somebody overheard somebody else say about Engles? Don’t agree with NHS reforms, immigration policy or putting pineapple on pizza? Just fancy having democracy happen all around you like a disappointing one night stand? Then please, find the money (*cough* £500 deposit, £120 registration fee *ahem*) and let’s make the by-election circus a celebration of everything to do with demonstrating, campaigning, democracy and plain old good fun. Think politicians “are all the same”, or worried that the big issues barely get covered or debated? Let’s get you all to south Manchester to fight it out with leaflets and photo-ops. I’m looking at you, Liberty GB, TUSC, BDP, Liberal Party, and all the other 330-odd registered as political parties (“British Unicorn Party”, “Truly Independent English Party”, “Patriotic Socialists”, “New Deal”), bring out the bunting and funny hats. Let’s make this by-election the biggest of its kind. Local residents might not thank me, but democracy sure will.

All over the place

The Internet is leaking. Or at least the bits I was under the impression were only visible to me and whoever temps for 38Degrees on days ending in ‘y’. With the hilariously misjudged ‘National Service Bill’ and ‘Margaret Thatcher Day Bill’, a tiny corner of Parliament’s website, that which lists every current proposed piece of legislation somewhere gunked up within the Westminster pipework, has become an unexpected adjunct to Twitter. Well, the campaigning bit of Twitter, which I currently imagine to be a Parish Church’s community hall in which two trestle tables are manned by a rota of Guardian, Independent, and New Statesman journalists with handouts and loopy juice. I’m no stranger to it only because, as a nerd, keeping up to date with this sort of thing genuinely interests me, although Jimbo Wales’ talkpage and New Years Honours Lists genuinely interest me, so maybe I’m just completely mad.

Among the soon-to-be-talked-out Bills above lies another fringe-benefit proposal from the wackier side of the Tory backbenches, namely the “United Kingdom Register of Places Bill”, which at the time of writing hasn’t yet been published. The Bill is sponsored by Andrew Rosindell, who people may know for being the kind of Tory who speaks with an Estuary accent, walks around with a bulldog, and has a massive Union Flag as the background to his currently dead Twitter account. If ‘Working Class Tory’ still exists as a valid label, Andrew (or ‘Rozza’, maybe?) is yer man. The gist of his ‘Register of Places’ proposal seems to be a deeply held issue that the country has moved on since the 1940s, and isn’t about time we had Kircudbrightshire, Cardiganshire and Amounderness back on maps and road signs, for God’s sake, people, hmm? The bells of St Bonkers began to ring most clearly during the 10 minutes allocated for him (“Rozzi”?) to explain his reasoning. He said the Bill would “ensure that local authorities have a duty to preserve and uphold identities of genuine towns and villages that have been around far longer than…local government constructs“, whilst banging on like a broken SatNav about Dorset and Highgate and where he grew up and, oh yes indeedy, “Whitehall bureaucrats”.

By the end of his allotted time, I was no clearer to understanding what he was proposing to achieve. A big fat red reset switch, perhaps, to review every local authority in the country to ensure they represent the areas they’re supposed to, rather than be stymied by the 1970s boundaries in which many of them remain trapped? Redrawing local council wards to make way for the introduction of STV after 2015? Anything remotely progressive?

Nope. Not a hope. What Andrew wants is a time machine. He and other mavericks in the madcap organisations obsessed with ‘traditional boundaries’ wish to return to some fictional moment of English history where men were men and Lancashire stretched from Barrow to the Mersey without pausing to catch breath. And you know, I’d like to see a form of this happen in a way, but not under the leadership of Andy “Bruiser” Rozza, the man who would, he implies, force four London Boroughs to merge to enable one village to be re-united. Indeed his plea for local villages and hamlets to be respected beyond all other distractions suggests that he wants one single Government for the whole of England, to do away with pesky local councils, particularly those Labour ones oop North. It’s a charmless and blatant attempt to UKIPise the country, to redress progress in a retroactive and damaging way.

The unfortunate thing, for me at least, is how close A-Rozz gets to where I would like to see Government go with regards constitutional reform. We need to have a reset button moment, to take away all the local government constructs and start again – more representative local government with recognisable boundaries and responsibilities, and voted for by a fairer voting system. We need to do away with two-tier governance, to sweep away County Councils once and for all. We need to see true devolution of power from Westminster to Town Hall, and further to the streets. What nobody really wants is Rozza’s Register of Places, a paper-pushing exercise in nerdy nostalgia, where only people who obsess over the disapperance of Middlesex and  Lostwithel can be invited to stroke sepia maps of Ye Olde Countyies of England. The nerd-do-wells of the Traditional County Society cause enough damage as it is removing road-signs on a whim because their obsession commands they do. I don’t think an MP should be encouraging them.

True constitutional reform is the great overdue policy no Government dares touch. It’s left to “Bruiser” to tinker around with this sort of backwards looking history worship, rather than working towards a better future. We do deserve better than this.

Coach and Horses

“L’pool Sth P’way (ALLE) (ALE)” is the first thing I spot. Never one for troubling the Plain English Society, those good burghers of Network Rail have probably outdone even themselves here. The rot set in when printed timetables moved from intuitive layout (running down the way) to cuckoo-bananas (along the way with Scrabble-racks scattered about in ever growing undergrowth of anecdotes and emoji symbols.)

It’s a lazy Sunday as I run my eyes along the timetable. There are more pigeons than passengers. There are more men asking “Wanna help our lads in ‘vganistan madam?” than there are rail staff. There is a page of departures on a screen showing six rail replacement bus services to three trains, and the trains are all stopping short of their usual destinations. Chorley, Wigan NW, Burnely Man. Rd – the abbreviated adjuncts to the railways on this cold, lazy, dull January day.

Accepting that Sunday is the travelling man’s worst nightmare is what British people have done for decades. The attitude is passed down through the genes, like distaste for carrots or women reading the news or that Radio 4 announcer who sounds somewhere between Brian Blessed and Barry White. Sunday’s are Britain’s shut down days, an overhang from the days when the country actually closed up for good, leaving the hungover teenagers from generations past stuck without a SPAR or ASDA to nip to in their best club-smoked Superdrys. Whilst the Church still dictates one or two things around God’s day of rest – how crazy that the Bible was so specific about the total available floor space a shop must cover if it must open before 11am! – the slow erosion of its haughty status as the day of respectful reverence by all the louder, naughtier, busier days has only swept so far up the sands. For so many institutions, including our dear railways, Sunday is the day for respecting the Lord’s mysterious ways, by using his name to question the stoic pertinacity of rail staff who can’t fathom why being stuck on a coach with a luke-warm Upper Crust baguette is such an inconvenience.

Actually, it’s rarely the rail staff who lack total empathy for the weariness of the short distance traveller who wants a railway station to be a railway station, rather than an ad-hoc coach stop. The hi-viz wearing hired-helps armed with clipboards and no information are wound up and let go from about half-ten, when gangs of offcuts from 1960s Butlins promotional videos turn up to be given a 64-seater and rural back roads to negotiate with all the top-to-toe charm of a broken foot. With Sunday still a day of rest for the bus drivers union, this double-pay jaunt down an unknown A-road is more trouble and its worth. “Why,” they seem to ask on behalf of the Network Rail management who put them there, “would anybody need to travel on a Sunday?”

This question was certainly asked in its own little way two weeks ago when Network Rail once again, via those ever helpful souls in the Department for (wrecking) Transport, considered Boxing Day to be a National Day of Mourning.  Reason for the entire rail network to grind to a halt unless you were rich enough to have a flight from Heathrow on the 26th December? Politicians fought through the Christmas TV schedules to apportion blame. “It’s the DfT being stubborn,” tweeted policy wonk RoboSuit #4. “I blame the current Secretary of State” bleeped policy wonk RoboSkirt 5000. “A woman with five boxes and a carry-case wanted to travel from Carlisle to Leeds on Boxing Day. You won’t believe what happened next!” cheered BuzzFeed.

Boxing Day 2013 should, I hope, be the last of its kind. Outside the Heathrow Airport shuttle, not one train ran across the country. Train stations lay in poetic rest, lights twinkling from trees and arcade machines, clocks ticked for no man, pigeons snoozed in lazy repose, UpperCrust staff stayed tucked up in bed, no warmer than any of their products. Cost to the country? Cost to train operating companies for that matter? Nobody knows. Or dares ask. Union bosses must have looked on with barely disguised envy. All we need to do is wait until Boxing Day?!

It is far more important, far more necessary, far more bleedingly obvious, that this country needs to re-examine the impact of Sunday on its transport infrastructure. That the day after Christmas Day is automatically considered fair game for a shut-down lacks any kind of reasoned scrutiny. If Boxing Day falls on a Sunday, does that make the following Monday a further close-down day? Winding down the rail network on Christmas Eve makes sense – but the day after? Who within the confused layers of rail transport in the UK considers it sensible to enforce another day of family time together when so many people [/blokes] just wants to settle back home [/avoid another ‘Then Muslims’ talk with Auntie Jean].

Rather than look at changing the way engineering work, or staff working patterns, work in an age far removed from the decades ago framework on which so much of the railways still run, the industry is focusing on too many unnecessary ‘projects’ for purely self-congratulatory reasons. More trains on a Sunday or HS2? Less disruption due to a lack of available drivers, or more disruption thanks to HS2?

Not content with spending £300m on jollies and japes, the HS2 lobby is set to spend the same again, every six months or so, on propaganda and leaflet dropping. Not one penny on improving travel in rural areas, in remote towns, on Sundays, or on Boxing Day. Not one penny on the infrastructure, only on themselves. It will only get worse as the DfT, its lobbyist chums and obedient lapdogs such as Rail magazine, conspire to shut-out any criticism by nefarious means. When the only funding stream available to the industry is a £30bn London Euston expressway, rather than putting on actual trains to Blackpool on a Sunday morning, then we truly are living in a country with its sensibilities taken for a ride.

Which is more than most passengers could hope so, if they’re thinking of travelling to L’pool Sth P’way or not.

Viewing in Tongues – the Foreign Language Oscars

The Internet is often accused of shining too much light upon magic. No longer do blokes down the pub chat about the match without somebody flinging out their black mirror to quote every OPTA stat like an autistic vidiprinter. Stumbling over a potential classic read in a bookstore has become something of a minority interest sport, not just because bookstores are closing at a rate comparable to Working Men’s Clubs, but one quick scan of Goodreads gives you enough crib notes to appear as the most well-read member of your book club. With amateur YouTube accounts and news aggregator sites such as BuzzFeed and Cracked reducing everything from current affairs to album released into bite-sized cue cards, it’s little wonder that the pervasive opinion is that of the facilitation of diluted information somewhat reduces the anticipation, excitement and general thrill of how things used to be.

Partial credit for that view, as the drawing back of the curtain made possible by the Internet does have its positives points. What used to seem mysterious or oblique, such as the drawing up of nominated people in various award ceremonies, has become broadly open and available for comment. The ‘longlist’, so rarely mentioned before the expectation of transparency brought about by the Internet, is now part and parcel of the bauble giving process. No more is such openness exciting and, just perhaps, symbolic of the ‘window of the world’ ideal of on-line life, than the longlist for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (more correctly labelled by the august gentlefolk at BAFTA as ‘Film not in the English Langugae’, but who am I to suggest that our American cousins have an unfortunately skewed opinion of ‘foreign’.)

This year nine films from over seventy submissions have been put on the initial longlist, and I have endeavoured to find at least a trailer somewhere for a select few to chin-stroke for your delectation. In the spirit of the New Year, I will hand over to other Failed Critics to consider  those I have missed from both the longlist and unsuccessful others, out of a duty to be fair, and because I hope somebody else can stomach watching the entry from Thailand. No, I’m not doing it, watching it for research purposes was quite enough. Ask James.

From Bosnia-Herzegovina comes ‘An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker’ (‘Epizoda u životu berača željeza’). Low on laughs, this one. Director Danis Tanović explores what he considers to be the ‘omnipresent’ injustice in a country many years removed from the devastating civil war of the 1990s. A woman, Senad, falls ill during pregnancy, but has no means of paying for treatment when the child she is carrying dies. The trailer is unremittingly bleak. I recall watching Bosnia’s winning submission ‘No Man’s Land’ some years ago (it beat ‘Amélie’), so I know that their cinema has a somewhat downbeat side, and who could blame them? Stark and courageous as this clearly is, I think it’s not one for me to settle down of an evening to watch.

Similarly serious is the entry perhaps best known in the UK thanks to much broader distribution rights, Denmark‘s ‘The Hunt’ (‘Jagten’). This claustrophobic tale of mass hysteria in a small village beats particularly relevant drums in this country due to the ongoing concerns about paedophilia in the media and the well-known mob justice attacks on innocent people (including a disabled Iranian man earlier this year, and the infamous attack of a paediatrician.) As many fans of Nordic Noir will attest, ‘The Hunt’ speaks of shadow and light as close partners. It’s been a good time to be a Danish screenwriter, with ‘A Royal Affair’ making similar waves last year. The trailer for ‘The Hunt’ in its native language does look so much like ‘The Killing’, I’m just saddened by the lack of chunky knit jumpers.

I was taken aback by just how unexpectedly lovely ‘The Missing Picture’ looks. Already awarded the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, the third ever submission from Cambodia could well be the kind of film the Academy award themselves. Looking at the atrocities from the country’s dark past through a mix of animation and filmed segments, ‘The Missing Picture’  looks to be as much docu-drama as film, and is none the less compelling for that. The entire film can be found, without subtitles, on YouTube. From what I saw, this brave and moving piece would be a humbling and informative film and perhaps a companion piece to ‘The Art of Killing’, although not perhaps on the same night, or if you’re prone to emotional outbursts.

Hong Kong has made the longlist with ‘The Grandmaster’ (‘一代宗師’), a retelling of the story of Wing Chun grandmaster Yip Man. It is the first submission from the former British colony to make the January cut-off since 1993, and I can see why it’s been picked up for wider release. Slick, dark and beautiful in ways only East Asian martial arts films can pull off properly, ‘The Grandmaster’ is also notable for including scenes unique to whichever of the three edits you happen to find (original, European release and world-wide version). It could well follow in the ‘Crouching Tiger…’ tradition by crossing over into cult status if the mood is right, and I see no reasons why this isn’t possible.

These four take only but a sliver from the full seventy-odd entries from countries as diverse as Nepal, Italy and even The United Kingdom. I’ll await the results of the Academy’s considerations with interest. It’s worth the light being shone upon the world sometimes.