“Well, fine, you know, Paxman, I mean he’s lost his teeth anyway, he’s like Russell fucking Hearty these days.”

Cynicism about politics has existed since the first Greeks picked up some pebbles. Democracy, as wise men have said many times before, is the worst of many evils, and just plain doesn’t work.

Fresh from calling panellists and audience members “mate”, “that fella” and “Dave” on Question Time, Russell Brand faced Newsnight attack dog Jeremy Paxman for what appeared to be something of an old-fashioned slice of television, a long and characteristically sprawling interview during which Brand took apart (or tried to) every piece of scaffolding built around the country by Establishment & Sons, Ltd. Like the well versed man he is, Brand pebble-dashed objections, observations and general opinions with little regard to reason. This was not outrageous, nor was it Occupy; it was a proven performer performing.

The reaction has been immense, both on the largely pro- side, who consider Brand and politics to be the new Dawkins and religion, and from the anti- side, for whom the interview was little more than an exploration into the world of a badly dressed sixth former. Somewhere in the middle, surprise surprise, is where you currently find me. I am not subscribing to Brandism, nor do I dismiss everything he says as fluffy idealistic nonsense. As the man himself told Paxman, he can’t create utopia in a hotel room.

Not participating in the democratic process, as Brand advocates, is not a solution. Turnout at many elections, particularly local authority elections, are meagre enough as it is without celebrity-backed boycotts. The fewer people vote, the greater risk of one of two outcomes happening; the incumbent party holds on through lack of opposition; or extremists from either side of the political spectrum sneak through. Ah, people say, but we don’t agree with the electoral system at all, so such concerns don’t matter. I agree that the volunteer sector is proving that people can create opportunities for people to seek and provide help without local authorities’ direct involvement, but no town or city, however small, can survive on support networks created without some form of democratic organisation overseeing the results.

Unelected, unaccountable groups to whom local councils fob off services or decisions, the nameless “vision boards” and the like, are more unacceptable than volunteer groups running the local library. Rather than promoting non-participation in governance, Brand should encourage pressure being put on central government to award or return genuine power to Town Halls – abandon the use of arm’s reach boards and consultancies, and fire up true devolution through councillors to the people. I accept that not voting can, in itself, be a valid democratic act, but far more can be achieved by being within the process than always being outside.

The machinery of national politics needs rewiring, from lobbyists and pressure groups and how they work within the parties and not just outwith government, to the electoral administration of the country. Fix one element and the machine will purr again. Yes, your eyes can glaze over at the sound of the words “voting reform”, but lack of trust in the democratic process stems from members of the public knowing that it makes no sense for Britain not having a truly representative parliament. All those of you who complained – to me, with vigour – that your vote for the Liberal Democrats in 2010 somehow helped create Hell on Earth need reminding that your votes and millions like them, meant tiddly squat in a country where fewer than 100 of the 650 seats in parliament actually mean something. Far too many ‘safe seats’ created by First Past the Post can only – and has – encouraged apathy in millions of people who know that they can never change the government of the day.

Fewer government departments and less MPs would help reduce the cost of Westminster, and true devolution to the regions would loosen the London-centric media grip on covering ‘politics’. Our politicians are not representative of the nation at large – not those Labour front benchers who claim to be ‘on your side’ whilst backed by healthy donations from Unions, and who don’t earn, or would ever claim, anything approaching the average in their predominately working class constituencies; not Conservative members from the leafy shires who still do not understand the anger over expenses claims for comfy country pads and ample gardens. We need to open up Town Halls and Westminster to genuine representatives of the people, not just sharp suited bores straight from Uni who have only known a life of bag-carrying for MPs and climbing ladders within the system. If Westminster is to represent real people, those chosen as candidates by any of the main parties must stop choosing oiks who think The Thick of It was a lifestyle programme.

And yes, candidate selection and proper representation does go back to the dry electoral administration talked about earlier. Open primaries, proportional representation, recall elections, electronic voting, open hustings, votes at 16 – if we are a grown up democratic country, let us fix the machinery. There have been failed attempts at reinvigorating elections – the Referendum Party in 1992, the Jury Team, an ITV reality show to pick an independent candidate. Such ideas don’t necessarily have to fail if used as basis to try again.

Yes, Brand looked beyond such tinkering to a much wider, radical, less democratic revolution, but I’m a believer in representative democracy, and I don’t believe I could any easier create utopia in my room than he could in his. No functioning country in the western world could survive without corporations or democratic institutions. I know far more people who hang on every word of unaccountable, unelected corporate suits – Apple, Rockstar Games, the FA – than those who could name their MP. That’s a failing of the democratic system. That’s not to be ignored as a problem, but it cannot be resolved by the dream-world candyfloss created by a very smart, very clever dreamer. Brandism is but suggestions for a better world already in the mix of debate, particularly in a country of Whigs and Liberals, Churchill and Mills, Dawkins and Hitchens. Let us use Brand’s ideas to form a new structure for the country – but let’s not use his blueprint for the future. It won’t work.

Clarkson the Parliamentarian

Let us try to end the march of the Boring Snoring MP….

Two years before the 2010 general election (you know, “I Agree With Nick”, “Bigot-gate”, “Ester Rantzen Loses Luton South”, that one), one man was named as one of the best potential candidates who would really shake things up. That man was Jeremy Clarkson, the year was 2008, and the chosen constituency was Nick Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam.

There’s been talk from the man himself that maybe, just maybe, the idea of a double-denim wearing MP giving it the full Daily Mail might not be so outlandish. Indeed I’ve grown quite fond of the idea. Would it be so mad, bad and loony-tunes to have the infamously anti-everything Clarkson in the Commons, on Question Time, representing a small slice of England somewhere as in Independent?

Now for the science.  There’s no chance of Clarkson winning, because the First Past the Post voting system almost guarantees defeat. Yes, exceptions to prove this rule exist, and are more common lately – think of Labour losing Blaenau Gwent, and of George Galloway’s result in Bradford. Sometimes the will of the people defeats both the London-elite party establishment and basic mathematics. It has been proven, and far more in the post-politics age in which we are slowly entering, that First Past the Post does not always prefer the main three parties.

Ask UKIP, for whom numerous by-elections in this parliament have resulted in very close but ultimately useless second place runners up spots time after time. Were these elections run using, say, AV or STV, we would now have maybe three or four UKIP MPs, and despite disagreeing with them on pretty much everything, I’m a good little democrat and would accept their right to sit in the Commons. I don’t have the knee-jerk fear against UKIP or even the BNP which seems to infect usually normal and everyday people who treat proportional representation as some kind of evil fascism enabler. If the maths add up, then so be it, I don’t think using bogeymen works as an effective argument against dragging the UK into the 20th century.

I shouldn’t say this out loud, you know, but honestly, I’d like to see Clarkson as an MP, a one-man mission to end the Boring Snoring MPs, the photocopied professional bag-carriers too afraid to speak out without having every word polished beforehand. The lack of characters in British politics is one of the many reasons why the general public has switched off, and this problem can only grow if all parties continue to prefer conformity over confrontation. He may stand on the opposite end of every belief I hold, but I’d rather hear Jeremy Clarkson in the Commons than the likes of Rachel Reeves.

Who? Exactly.


When asked by The Daily Telegraph to submit memories of ‘sex ed’ the result was depressingly familiar, and familiarly depressing. “The teacher was…walking on eggshells”, reads one submission, the teachers were “…very uncomfortable and awkward”, and “all I remember was a teacher putting a tampon in a jug of water, LOL.”  (Do Telegraph readers use ‘LOL’ in everyday life, I ask myself? Maybe they think it means something else.)

Rewind to the mid-1990s and a High School in suburban Preston, surrounded by rows of post-war and 90s housing boom estates and old folks’ bungalows. My recollection of ‘sex ed’ at that school is just as damning; we watched a cartoon featuring a man dressed as an Arab walking backwards to represent the withdrawal method of contraception. In another video, children’s television presenters explained what was meant by the phrase ‘wet dream’. The sum total of all this was the kind of lesson you always marked down as being for dossing about and having a laugh – there was nothing beyond the basic and rudimentary biology of the act of sex; barely anything on life choices, and nothing at all on gender. This was “sex education” as a textbook regurgitating onto the science lab benches, and nothing more.

Whilst most Governments and opposition parties tend to fight over each and every line of national curricula (oh fine, curriculums), there is nothing more contentious than the content of ‘sex ed’. The hubris from both Left and Right, Christian and Secular, open-minded and conservative, produce a terrible, potentially dangerous, sludge of biology and handouts. Badly prepared maths lessons might leave gaps in the knowledge of parallel equations, but it’s the gaps in personal, social and sexual education where the problems really start, particularly at an impressionable age. Fighting over ‘sex ed’ is like trying to push-pull a revolving door, and it appears nobody in a position of power (elected at least) is willing to accept that change has to be made.

That last sentence was going to read “accept that something must be done”, but of course that mindset has been the cause of many problems within years of personal, social and sexual education. “Won’t somebody think of the children” usually means “won’t somebody protect my child from something with which I disagree”, and rarely for good or productive reasons. What we have ended up with is an ugly compromise between social conservatives, religious traditionalists and teachers, with the input pretty much in that order.

The current Department for Education guidance on what they call “Sex and Relationships Education” runs to 62-pages. It’s notable, and somewhat depressing, that the structure of sex education appears so rigid and academic, including the requirement by way of the 1996 Education Act and 2000 Learning and Skills Act ensuring pupils learn about the “nature of marriage” and “its importance for family life and the bringing up of children”. (That’s page six if you’re reading along). Little wonder opponents of gay marriage began to flap around like pigeons at Charing Cross station. “Well children, the nature of marriage has changed, AND IT’S THE NATURE OF THE DEVIL!”

In my day, the lack of Internet……at all….meant additional or supplementary questions came in the playground, or the walk home, or not at all. You wouldn’t want to be the child spotted staying after lessons to ask Mrs Sutcliffe about condoms or puberty or anything like that. To help with the awkward factor all children go through, on-line help is a…well, not Godsend, but fair darn useful, and of course the wisdom of parents, carers and friends will always help.

Of course Schools must have a role in teaching the scaffolding and foundations of both the act of sex and the biological realities of adolescent life. They should have, also, the freedom to go further into sexuality and gender if it’s felt possible to do so, and either within or outside offer help and assistance to pupils who wish to talk about specific problems or questions. Leave “the nature of marriage” to religious education, if it has to be discussed at all; don’t allow young people to become muddled up with the idea of having sex and being married as some kind of token system to qualify through life.

Inevitably we must look at pornography on the Internet (dramatic music, etc.). So much worry and woe about porn makes the debate impossible to hold: no, XTube, PornHub and the rest do not host ‘extreme’ material, whatever that might mean, and yes, quite a lot of material uploaded onto XHamster is actually quite dull/vanilla/out of focus. Children are always going to explore the Internet if parents have chosen not to install locks, just as children of my generation chose to (attempt to) steal copies of “Razzle” from the top shelf. The solution to ‘extreme’ porn can be found in those acts of legislation that already outlaw images of rape, abuse and injury; the solution should not be to potentially force vulnerable young girls into asking their parents if they can be allowed to look at something because the search-term “vagina, discharge” has been blocked on obscenity grounds.

Being mammals and occasionally horny ones at that, humans will always strive to fashion real life around biological urges. Sex education is just another example of that, grown adults trying to pass on the rules of the jungle in appropriate ways. It needs to be a lot better than the by-rote examples of my youth, and far more responsive and responsible to a generation brought up on Internet videos and the influence of sexual imagery on television and magazines. It’s neither useful nor appropriate to hijack sex education with something else entirely, however it might be tenuously related, such as the concept of marriage or the dangers of watching anal sex on a smartphone. It’s not going to be easy, or pretty, to teach young children today about pregnancy, the dangers of trying to make Internet porn into “reality”, or the ongoing fight against sexually transmitted diseases, if it remains impossible to untangle the conflicting arguments from ‘on high’. Let’s try and produce a suitable sex education structure for both digital Britain and the naturally curious/awkward/embarrassed minds of children.

And no cartoons.

Politics and pay-rises

Should MPs have their pay increased by 11%?

No, of course not.

It’s been funny watching the Westminster village act as characters in a soap opera would do when twists and turns appear which have been neon-lit for weeks beforehand. Yet this is not Eastenders or Pobol y Cwm, it’s real life, and in the context of an economic downturn, an 11% salary increase is just about as tasteless a joke as you could imagine. Even if you are Frankie Boyle guest scripting Family Guy. We’ve known about the upcoming decision on MPs salaries for some time, and yet only now do chickens start to run around headless.

Our MPs are paid, give or take, £65k for their basic work, plus all the expenses which got them into so much trouble before 2010. In response to the expenses scandals, two things happened at two very different speeds: the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority was set up (eventually) and each and every expenses claim was published in full. One of them seems to work quite well, the other not so well. And most MPs seem to agree at least that the one which works (in-house policing) is far better a system to follow than the one which seemingly doesn’t work (IPSA).

The issue remains one of trust, a currency with very little value around Parliament at the moment. And it’s an issue which “pro-pay rise” MPs have clearly taken to mean nothing at all. To scrap IPSA, to allow MPs to award themselves pay rises, to scrap any form of external policing of Parliament, would be the craziest and most self-serving decision in many a year. There is barely enough justification to give parliamentarians quite so much money in the first place (they earn forty-odd-thousand above the national average, after all.)  There’s no justification at all for adding ten grand (an amount which was once the usual wage for out-of-London checkout staff and the like, and may well be in some parts of the country for other such jobs.)

I don’t want to sound like Owen Jones, heaven forfend, but if MPs genuinely want to continue doing the job they like so much, then continue doing so for the current salary. There’s no public sector worker in the land who is currently happy with being ordered to stick with 1% pay increases and salary caps; this unhappiness would develop into something far uglier were the very people ordering that salary restraint voted in favour of such a large increase in their own takehome pay.

David Cameron is right – Westminster politics needs to be made far leaner, far cheaper. We needed to lose 50 MPs in the aborted boundary change process, and it’s to Parliament’s shame that they chose to become so petty about that minor stepping stone change. (Honestly folks, getting into a rage over gerrymandering because Little Hamlet was being moved into Mid-Countyshire made you look petty, childish and wholly unsuitable for office.)

I would go much further than a reduction to 600 – Britain can be governed by 500 MPs, a straight saving of plenty millions, and with a smaller, elected second chamber, the costs would continue to grow. If MPs wantht second jobs to top up their income, then they jolly well resign their seats. Hey, office workers would love to keep taking more and more paid work to make ends meet, and some often do, but they don’t have a country to run. If your MP thinks that being a law-maker can be done part-time with being a consultant or manager or director, then that MP can leave for someone else. At my most Owen Jones-ian, I would consider it necessary for the professional political class to consider if they’re in it to represent their constituents, or in it because The Thick Of It made it look “cool”.

IPSA is a vital organisation, treating MPs like so many quangos and bodies treat ordinary people (see Douglas Carswell’s very good blog on this line). MPs are too easily phased by the criticism of “real people”, because they so often refuse to meet with them. The Westminster village remains an aloof and arrogant club. They rightly surrendered the right to award themselves pay increases; they should now rightly refuse to accept one.

Anything else would be cigarette-paper close to corruption.

South Shield of fair play…

Labour have the chance to show they’re ready to try something different…..but prominent blogger Mark Ferguson puts forward a good reason to prove how they’re not.

When Louise Mensch left Crosby for New York, the Labour Party had one up in the resulting by-election by way of an already selected candidate who could legitimately use the ‘local boy’ tag. It chimed loudly with Ed Miliband’s  new cry – the still somewhat vague “One Nation” rebranding of Labour – and with it came certain victory. He used one soundbite very well – “The road to Westminster runs through Corby” – and then spoiled it all by claiming he won as proof of “one-Nation Labour”. I can only assume John O’Farrell lost as proof that Hampshire is technically independent.

Things are very different in South Shields, as they were in Manchester Central, and Cardiff South and Penarth. This is a slice of working-class Tyne and Wear, a safe-seat so monumentally strong for Labour that the Electoral Reform Society suggested there wasn’t much need for a by-election at all.

Whilst hyperbolic, that ERS post does contain a valid argument. South Shields has been Labour since Universal Suffrage, had a 13,000+ majority in 1979 never mind the 22,000 majority in 1997, and has awarded almost all its MPs with some of the most significant jobs in British politics. No other party but Labour could possibly hold this seat, a position which makes my democratic senses tingle, even whilst realising there’s hardly anything to be done to break the record.

David Miliband was given this seat – in every sense “given” – in the quiet landslide year of 2001, achieving rapid fire fast-forward promotion within months. Flying off to New York for a £300,000 job isn’t something many of his working class constituents can do, but he’s flying off now leaving a vacant seat looking very tempting for hundreds of Labour Party members. Doubtlessly dozens of local members hope to “do a Corby” by showing how much better things would be if the next MP isn’t so detached from the everyday lives of voters.

Unfortunately the Labour Party machine might not be thinking quite so similar nice thoughts about localism and respecting local opinion.

As Ferguson points out the selection timetable is prejudiced against anybody outside the Labour machine from becoming the next South Shields MP. The selection meeting takes place in London, in only a few weeks, and the South Shields CLP will be unable to fully scrutinise the shortlist in good time. It’s a curtailed timetable with a swift turnaround, made all the less fair by implicitly excluding anyone with a modest income or without ‘contacts’.

I live in a safe-seat for Labour, where elections tend to be try-outs for the “others” as there’s no way Preston would ever fall to anybody but Ed Miliband’s Party. To their credit, the Conservatives have chosen more women candidates recently than the Liberal Democrats have ever done (which isn’t hard, given the latter figure is zero). This is almost, kind of, sorta what the Labour Party could be doing in South Shields. Just because the Tories in Preston have been nice-but-useless doesn’t really matter; they were given the chance to fight a useless seat to give them experience, and as women from the south trying out up north, they could try out new ways of campaigning without blotting their future career prospects too hard. Didn’t win rock-solid Preston as a Tory? Doesn’t really matter, we can review how you did whilst being rightly semi-detached from the objective of the election itself.

Labour could do exactly this in South Shields, trying somebody who doesn’t quite meet the same model as the post-Blair era professional politician, someone who has more about them than a career path which avoids getting their finger-nails dirty. If a woman is selected – there’s not been one of those representing South Shields before – not a political bag-carrier woman known to the Party machine. If a South Asian – ditto – not a think-tank suit from Islington.

Despite talking the talk on “doing things differently”, Labour can’t help but micromanage their local constituency associations’ processes. In Rotherham and Middlesbrough recently, candidate selections were marred by controversy. At the former local members walked out of the selection meeting citing concerns over ‘outsiders’ and ‘stitch ups’. Not very “one nation”.

If we must have safe seats in this country, and we really should be looking at reforming our democracy to avoid having quite so many, then it’s time all political parties vowed to stop rushing towards professional politicians who use The Thick Of It as the context for their everyday lives. All main parties in South Shields should take the opportunity of fighting a foregone conclusion by stepping away from the norm. To an extent, the selection of O’Farrell in Eastleigh did just that; a writer and comedian who could talk “off message” and shake-up normal expectations. Unfortunately the media chose to ridicule out of context quotes from a 20-odd year book and he stepped down from candidature as a result.

Maybe all three main parties, and UKIP, could try tripping up the media and Twitter Outrage Corps. by choosing unconventional candidates in one big push. Maybe just one Party should, for greater effect. Not those who will finish fifth or seventh or even second. Maybe the Party who have already won South Shields without a vote being cast.

If Ed Miliband and Labour can’t loosen the parental ties in a seat like this, where and when will they?

welfare state of the nation

Remember the horsemeat scandal? A hurried panictime spread across the news media with more urgency than any usually given to food stories (such as those concerning the world’s population which has no access to regular food, or those nations with an obscene excess of the stuff.) Much to the dismay of Queen of the Gloom Kate Hurley-Burley, nobody died from eating horse DNA, so the heatlamp of scrutiny was slowly dimmed until there was barely a flicker left to read recent stories about dodgy fish. Daily updates from warehouses in Romania to three paragraphs on page twenty, and all because nobody died

In the light of Iain Duncan Smith claiming he could live on £53 a week, and the interconnected April 1 onslaught of welfare changes, the horsemeat scandal comes back to mind. Undercutting the media’s coverage was the inconvenient truth about the types of people who bought frozen ready meals on the cheap. Why do people buy low-cost, big bulk Tesco burgers fleshed out (if that’s the right phrase) with horse, or pile ’em high quid-a-box Lidl lasagna? What are these poor people thinking? Or doing?

Despite the popularity of Great British Menu and Masterchef, the general public are no more able to make confit of duck than they could name Zimbabwe’s highest scoring batsman*.

This is not primarily down to a lack of ingredients in most towns and cities, but their cost. On the now totemic £53 a week figure a Masterchef lunch is out of the question, even within walking/bus distance of the ‘world foods’ aisle at Morrisons. And I did say walk/bus for a reason; there’s a good chance that the economically challenged trying to rustle up something like a good meal every day won’t be able to hop into the car every journey. I should know, I’m one of them.

If you don’t already do so, join me in picking up odds and sods at Iceland every week, with bright £1 and £3 stickers on almost every shelf. Shopping budgets can only stretch so far even here, as IDS would find out if he took up the challenge to reduce his incomings to the bare minimum. It wouldn’t go amiss for David Miliband, able to fly off to a £300,000 job away from his working class constituency, to push his trolley around Iceland or Aldi either, to watch as banknotes become pocket-shrapnel far quicker than you realise. It’s not always possible to store away herbs and spices for future recipes if that week’s budget is taken up on basic ingredients.

The quality of food on a low level budget plunges too, which is both how any why the horsemeat scandal affected families on fixed or battered incomes. The bacon you fancy is far too expensive, that’s why what’s currently sizzling in the pan looks see-through and as though the pig was drowned. Pies are thick with tasteless pastry, chicken inflated with water, pizza barely covered with a shredded substance pretending to be cheese.

General assumptions of modern life are predicated on ideas about earning and spending, rather than saving and making do. It’s the opposite of the post-war generation (and the teaching they received) about the value of money coming in, the depth and breadth of opportunity. I know very well what happens when there’s too much month for the money, having been an office monkey with between 60-75% of my monthly wage taken in bills and private landlord rent. There’s only so often a northerner in a low-paid job can stretch the funds for social events, never mind eating something made from scratch. This is being repeated hundreds of thousands of times across the country, away from the cookbook world and glossy magazine fashion shoots.

How you react to the ready-meal reality of people defines your politics; some will urge people to aim towards better jobs with more pay, others would demand better pay and conditions, or more generous welfare payments. I think our current age is the most politically polarised time for a generation, fuelled by the very opposite of political anger. There has not been an ideology-age since the dual work of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair reshaped political parties as lifestyle management companies, and one consequence of all that is the righteous fury on both sides of the spectrum trying to reclaim their relevance. Somewhere away from all this is a group of ordinary people, millions in number, who couldn’t say with much confidence that they, like a Secretary of State of HM’s Government,  would live on £53 a week without any problems. The lifestyle choices you make now may well be formed by the comfort and complacency of your current surroundings. When these are taken away, even the taste of food changes with it.

The bad taste from all this debate, be it flavoured by welfare reform or Union fears, will rest on the tongue of only a small percentage of the population. Whatever term you use, it’s likely that politician’s won’t be part of them.


*Andy Flower, I’m told.

It’s a "yes/no" question, Minister

And so, we’re getting another referendum. Possibly. Maybe. In time.

I remember those hazy, lazy far off days when the chances of Britain getting a referendum on anything was dismissed as pinko dreaming. We don’t do referendums, the Establishment sneered, that’s European.

“This is Britain,” went the line. “We have unelected, unaccountable political appointees in the House of Lords and that’s the end of it,”.

These days there is nothing which can’t be resolved without the mention of the word “referendum”. It’s radical, it’s representative, it’s hip and now and acknowledging the power of the people and all the rest. Crucially the referendum as concept is sewing itself within the fabric of our unwritten constitution – thanks to the e-petition scheme and a combination of Facebook and plummeting confidence in the political system holding referendums  is considered the strongest tool of all inside democracy’s garden shed. You can’t go too far into the nightmare world of On-Line Comment Sections without seeing people called WhitePower84 or Orwell Was Right directing you to their e-petition against or for the kneejerk demand du jour, and I think it’s fantastic that we’re walking down this particular road. “Referendum as threat” would make a cracking dissertation.

I recall when the very notion of Britain embracing the referendum was sneered at for being unsuitable. Holding a public plebiscite was an act which others did – the Swiss, for example, with their four languages and political neutrality and chocolate and giving Celine Dion her big break. Critics argued that a general election was the only referendum Britain needed, as we transferred our right to have a say to those MPs who sat at Westminster, that somehow holding a secondary vote was invalidating the result of that election.

Things changed with the Blair government, who gave Scotland and Wales the right to support devolution, and since then the Welsh have given a further thumbs up to awarding extra powers at Cardiff Bay. Voters in Scotland will soon have a say on leaving the Union, perhaps the greatest sign of the politician’s acknowledgement of the power of the referendum. “I act upon what the people say” and all that.

Of course the greatest example of the referendum on these isles was the AV referendum. I still shudder at the memory.

The “no” vote on voting change was a kick in the constitutionals, and no mistake. Voting reform was knocked back a generation. The campaign was not edifying, nor mature, and those who campaigned on either side revelled in behaviour unthinkable in a general election.

“No” supporters used the most shallow and cynical campaign tricks – “This baby needs a life support machine and a cute little puppy and hugs from his mother, not a new voting system YOU MONSTER” – which was nonetheless successful. The power of the repeated meme and all that, and something which must be combated by “In” campaigners next time round. Anything which was good for the defeat of AV will be considered good for the Scottish Independence vote too, and that’s all for the worse in the longer term.

If Cameron does go to the country after 2015 with an EU vote the difficulties faced by the Yes2AV experience will come back with a vengeance. Those in favour of the change couldn’t agree on a theme until a few days before polling day, and even when there was a hint of a united message, some of the adverts used by them accurately described a voting system which was anything but AV. Similar mess-ups both in Scotland and the EU votes would deliver defeats before midnight.

Britain’s future is within the EU, that’s my view now  as it’s been for years. I’m not particularly confident about living in a country which purposely isolated itself from the rest of the trading world at a time when every other major power is doing precisely the opposite. If there is to be a referendum, we “In” supporters must learn from the lessons of the AV disaster. We have to agree on a simple, single message, and use that message alone. We must avoid  falling into the trite, over-emotional garbage of the No campaign, which effectively distorted the pro-message without having to do anything. Crucially there has to be meat to share round years before the vote is even announced, as the AV campaign had nothing in the cupboard beyond an old tin of golden syrup, some rice and an old -fashioned manual tin opener.

The EU vote can be won because Britain needs to remain within the club for the greater, long-term good of both country and region. It would be a folly of ridiculous proportions to pretend that a Britain alone is a Britain strengthened, the kind of isolationist, borderline xenophobic thinking which permeates the “Better Off Out” brigade. But just as with the AV vote, it doesn’t take much to gain traction with peoples emotions. A “yes” to the EU is not a “no” to Britain. It’s not patriotic to support building a wall between these islands and Germany for the sake of feeling good about defeating bendy bananas and all the rest of it.

Saying “no” to AV was a constitutional disaster, putting back real reform of our voting system a generation or more, and slamming shut any real chance of improvements to the Commons, the Lords and so much more. An “out” vote in 2017 at the EU referendum would be much, much worse – economically, socially, politically. If there’s anyone worried about how the campaign might go, look back at the AV experience, take it, hold it close, cherish it……and then throw it into the sun. 

On the register

The Electoral Commission tends and cares for the Register of Political Parties, letting us keep track of who wishes to enter the great political bunfights at local or national level.

Here’s the most recent additions, which acts as a companion piece to those recorded as leaving the Register in the months after this year’s main elections.
Where a web-presence is available, I’ve linked to them. All links are followed at your own risk, I can’t vouch for their safety, and I don’t necessarily agree with the policies or contents of any/all. 
October 2012
*”Royalist Party“, registered to Mr Thomas Harrison.
*”Zero Tolerance Policing Ex Police Chief”, otherwise known as Kevin Hurley, Surrey’s first Police and Crime Commissioner
*”UK in Europe Party (UK EPP)”, registered to Mr John Stevens. It might be this which links to this
*”Nottinghamshire Independent Forum“, registered to Mr Barry Answer. 
*“UK Yorkshire Socialist Alliance Party”, registered to Mr Ian Wilson
*“Democracy2015” registered to Mr Andreas Whittam Smith. At the Corby by-election, candidate Adam Lotun stood for Democracy2015 and received 35 votes. By way of comment/comparison, David Bishop got 99 for “Elvis Loves Pets”.
*“Pro Liberty”, registered to Mr James Rigby
*“nine eleven was an inside job” registered to Mr Simon Lane. This (in)famous candidate stood at Croydon North, receiving 66 votes, three more than Robin Smith from the Young People’s Party. His Facebook profile is (largely) open and contains links to some of his other “inside job” conspiracies.
*“Bristol 1st”, registered to Chris Luffingham, the candidate from which is now the first directly elected Mayor of Bristol
*“PLC Party” registered to Andre John-Salakov.
November 2012
*”Patria”, registered to Mr Ian Johnson. I have tried numerous search terms and can find no web presence. 
*“Don’t Cook Party”, registered to Mr Richard Murfitt. A candidate aligned to this lot, Mr Mozzarella complete with comedy Italian accent, stood in the Corby by-election.
*”New Democracy”, registered to Mr Richard Laycock. There’s no website, yet.
*”The Community Party”, registered to Mr Arya Hussain. It might be this person or this one, but there’s no website that I can find.
December 2012
*”F.A.I.R”, registered to Mr Gordon Barker. It’s not the easiest search term to put into Google, and with a few attempts I’ve found nothing.
*”The Entertainment Party”, registered to Mr Gwinyayi Nyagowa. “Your search term Mr Gwinyayi Nyagowa did not match any documents”. Searching for “The Entertainment Party” and “TEP – The Entertainment Party” brings up nothing either. 
*“The Ethical Governance Party”, registered to Ms Sarah Goldsmith. 
*”Wigan Independent Network”, registered to Councillor Garry Wilkes. He doesn’t/didn’t like the PCC elections

Bad days at the electoral office

Back at the faroff long-agos, the BBC would take up by-election reporting with gusto, putting Dimbles and Peter Snow in a room with two MPs hoiked against their will from the escalators at Hammersmith Tube for an evening of chat and analysis. The fondest held memory is Snow taking the 60% vote share of a comfortable victory and, “just for fun”, extrapolating how the country would vote were that the norm across the land. And with that, the credits would roll and they would all sink off to whichever club BBC personalities went to in the 1980s with….Well, I don’t think this sort of innuendo is allowed anymore, is it?

Anyway, the Beeb prefer to show repeats of “Hardtalk” and dual-broadcasts with BBC World Service nowadays, so amateur psephologist types do the analysis themselves across the nerdier parts of the Internet, across messageboards, chatrooms and invariably Twitter. It saves on paying Peter Snow to walk through greenscreen rooms pretending to stomp over the Home Counties like a gentleman Godzilla, doesn’t it?

These versions of the art of chin-stroking by-election results aren’t exactly neutral, but at the best of times parliamentary by-elections are crap shoots from which comfort is garnered from whoever wants garnering. On that turn of the sixpence, here’s my take on November’s democrogry.

Manchester Central

That sticky out bit is Moston, which would stretch the definition of both “Manchester” and “central”, if you were looking at the map for the first time. Maybe that’s number 101 in the top 100 reasons for the plummet in turnout, people not being aware that “Manchester Central” referred to the whole council area, not just the glass-and-chrome city centre?

Okay, so actually the record breaking turnout, for all the wrong reasons, has more in keeping with ‘central’ constituencies having a tendency to do this, such as Liverpool’s Riverside and Leeds’ Central, where Hilary “son of Tony” Benn was elected on a barely respectable 19%. It’s worth remembering that Manchester Central had the lowest turnout of all the constituencies which fought at the general election. Any such disinterest/apathy is worrying, for it opens the door to extremists and complacency, but it’s as much a right to turn up as it is not to, and the good folk of Manchester know how to make themselves heard when they need to. Incidentally, this was the lowest turnout in peace-time, with the war-affected Poplar by-election of 1942 registering exactly half that which came out here. As wise men often say, makes you think.

Let’s deal with what we need to deal with first. Didn’t Respect do terribly? Only 1% of the vote and beaten by Pirates. In what will be a notice we return to later, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition performed particularly badly, but with less name recognition than Respect (George Galloway), it’s surprising to see them score so highly here. By the way, in 2010, the Manchester ballot paper gave voters the choice of Socialist Labour, Socialist Equality or Workers Revolutionary, and they all lost their deposits too. Maybe there’s not that much of a lefty streak here after all? Unless there’s too much lefty choice to go round, obvz. (Surely not?)

Yes, Ed Miliband’s bag carrier Lucy Powell won handsomely. There was no betting shop this side of the moon who thought it otherwise, though the sharp increase in vote shows a real kickback after the Cleggmania surge of two years previously. The Liberal Democrat slump has been well reported and recorded. Yes, it’s a record drop, the furthest drop since the party was formed in the year 1988 and by most measures amongst the worst “Liberal” performance for generations. Reasons? There’s plenty. We’re the party of protest now being protested against, for one thing, and at times of economic uncertainty there will always be targets. Note how the Conservatives fell from over 4,700 votes to 754, just as much a poke in the eye as they’d ever get in Manchester. They remain without a single councillor at Manchester Town Hall.

This is the only by-election of the six not to see UKIP save its deposit, a point which has been swept aside by the wave of relative success they were to have elsewhere. The increase of 3% put them almost above the Conservatives, which I guess is what you might call a clue in a narrative arc.

Cardiff South and Penarth
The word here was “yawn”. Or the Welsh translation. Google suggests “dylyfu”.

Here in the southern swathe of the Welsh capital, refurbished and regenerated beyond recognition, attached to one of the few Conservative certainties in South East Wales. The result when it came was pretty much ‘as was’, a sort of holding pattern rather than a result. Labour held on, vote going up by 8.4, whilst the Conservatives fell back by the same measure. This widening gap between the top two wasn’t particularly odd on the day, even within the context of highly unpopular PCC elections. There was a steep drop for the Liberal Democrats, again par of the course, although the 10% vote share is a highly resilient figure going forward.

Both Plaid and UKIP moved forward, the latter saving one of their five deposits, making a good case for themselves in a seat which they gained only 2.6% at the election. The Plaid result should be seen in the context of the Welsh Assembly, perhaps as an indication of how different devolution has treated the nationalist parties. The surge enjoyed here retained the deposit they lost two years previously, a mark of how un-nationalist Cardiff is compared with the places across the North where the party speaks its language – literally – to much greater effect.

The only other thing to note in this quiet election is the Communist candidate gaining seventeen – count them – votes from his bottom place two years previously. 
What do we deal with first – Louise Mensch or Mr Mozzarella?

Remember when David Davies had a rush of ambition to the rectum, flouncing off to stand in Haltenmprice and Howden as a make-pretend Liberal Democrat? Well looky-here. Corby became the next location for an unnecessary by-election, and with it came a host of jokers and knaves to bother the printing presses (which is good for Corby, where the trouser press has been in good use for some time).

Let’s start at the bottom up, shall we?  The United People’s Party landed rock bottom last, under a party formed by the former editor of the Independent as a group created to re-examine what democracy means in the 21st century. It managed thirty-five votes, which is about a third less than David Bishop managed, standing for “Elvis Loves Pets”. I think we can draw our own conclusions, here, can’t we children?

The map above should give you a clue as to why Corby tends to go with whoever ends up winning the election. The blob at the north-west is Corby itself, all industrial and manufacturing and vaguely Scottish. The great swathe of otherness is East Northamptonshire, all tiny villages and handful-shized towns where people work every hour God sends to prepare for an appearance on Masterchef Professionals.  Lots of gastropubs in the rurals you know, why do you think Mr Mozzarella of the Just Eat franchise stood here?

Actually, why *did* he stand here? I don’t think he had any choice, like those page 3 girls who stood as “Miss Great Britain Party” candidates a few years ago in Britain’s most worrying brush with exploitation-as-democracy in some time. Anyhoo, there’s no surprise that the squashed up blob of Corby tends to outvote the rural expanse at times when Labour are on the rise, and the Conservatives do the reverse all other times. Point in fact – the Tories won here in 1992 with 44.5% of the vote in a 4-pronged race; Louise Mensch managed 42.2% under the same circumstances ballot paper wise in 2010. Give Labour over a dozen of candidates and what happens – nearly half of the votes cast, and that’s without anyone misunderstanding how to use AV.

The unfortunate loss of the LibDems deposit was by the very slimmest of margins. The party needed only 10 more votes to be absolute sure of keeping the £500, losing as they did by scoring 4.96% of the vote, not enough to keep the money. If there’s anything to like about the Corby result, it’s  the BNP result, something we should mention now in case I forget. Who loses when voters go to the polls for no good reason in the middle of an economic thunderstorm? Not the far-right, who fell back 3 points here to just 1.7, a collapse in real terms from 2,525 votes in 2010 to only 614 this month. By any measure, that’s a complete collapse, and it couldn’t possibly happen to a nicer bunch of people.
Lessons learned? That “the road to Downing Street runs through Corby” isn’t that bad a slogan, as it goes, and clearly the Conservatives are not safe in the semi-rurals after two years of trying to sound like it. With the narrative arc in full flow, notice how UKIP (2010 result – n/a) finished with over 5,000 votes, which isn’t bad from a standing start, unless your a Conservative in similar bellwether seats chewing your nails. 
A point about the Greens, while we’re at it. There is a place in British politics for a Green Party, though it doesn’t seem to fit that they have a place within British politics outside Brighton. Unless they have deeper pockets than we all realise, how can they afford so many terrible results across the country, even in the bizzarro-world of by-elections?
Croydon North
London elections are a bit special, let’s get that out of the way. With the assumption that all the media and its dogs prefer London to anywhere else in the country, more candidates stand in London elections on average than anywhere else in the country. It’s not just a population thing, London attracts candidates because the London-based media is attracted to places it can travel to on a single flash of their Oyster cards and expenses forms.

To show this in full colour, Croydon North attracted Simon Lane (“nine eleven was an inside job, and also capital letters are symbols of the illumniati”), Lee Jasper, Winston McKenzie and a Conservative with cerebral palsy who chose charity work over massive research job salary packets. So bonkers, all told, and that’s without mentioning that there was an official Monster Raving Loony candidate, whose website proudly declares him to be pro-cuts, pro-Coalition, and pro-Prince Harry.

Dealing with the LibDem collapse first, then, and here it was only then 10 percentage points, and a lost deposit. Not good, though I’m  not one of the voices wailing into my FOCUS newsletters. Our candidate has a proven record elsewhere in London and was a refreshing voice on the one phone-in I heard via Croydon’s community radio station. She was also, by the by, the only woman on the ballot paper, something of a surprise in London. Is Croydon statistically more male than any other London Borough? Or is a call from Julia Gillard needed?

Here’s the thing. It’s not Marisha Ray’s fault that her vote collapsed, or that the number of LibDem voters fell from over 7,000 to under 900. This was a very odd election, in a very odd part of the country, where by-elections always attract mammoth ballot papers. This election had Winston McKenzie and Lee Jasper fighting it out for attention and ego points, and when both have reason to go after Labour’s candidate from different angles, there’s going to be a squeeze. That squeeze came on us, and whilst I accept we have our part to play in explaining or justifying the Coalition’s record, I can’t see this result or others on the same day being some form of coordinated punishment. There was a lot of issues, direct and otherwise, coming down on Croydon in the run-up to the election and it shows in the vote changes of other parties, not just us.

Let’s look at UKIP, who didn’t soar as they did elsewhere. From 891 votes to 1,400 in one leap is hardly a measure of success, even with a high profile and provocative candidate. Winston McKenzie has already switched party to party to party before, even standing as a Veritas candidate at one point, and this doesn’t help his credibility very much. The gay outburst (that is, an outburst about gays, not an outburst which was a bit camp) probably bruised liberals more than it did his election chances, if we’re honest. All the same, it’s an indication that UKIP hasn’t got it right in London.

The Labour surge is impressive. It’s a marked up-shot, adding eight percentage points onto an already commanding lead. The significant drop in Conservative share can’t be just ‘a UKIP thing’, so there has to be something in the movement between Labour and LibDem votes. I can’t see much leakage going to the minority candidates, especially not from the Conservatives – notice how the National Front only managed 161, about the same number of votes in a single block of flats. I’ve not seen anybody question whether Andrew Stranack was somehow abandoned by voters because of his disability, and indeed few people brought up Steve Reed’s sexuality, so maybe there are reasons to be cheerful. Here, as in Corby, the Greens struggled in a crowded field.

Let’s go back to the TUSC lot, for the start. In times of economic hardship and disquiet with the ruling government, where do people go? The opposition, yes, but one kind? In my lifetime protest movements seemed to rely on the fringes, and indeed the anti-war movement could only survive with help from the non-aligned movement who were aided and assisted by the left and hard-left. Stop the War and associated protest groups were founded and moulded by the socialist groups who had been sent to the margins in between moments of greatest unrest.

For whatever reason, and there’s  bound to be plenty, the TUSC grouping of left/hard-left groups just hasn’t made itself known to a wide audience. In a seat like Rotherham, in a time like ours, to gain so little is not good at all. It’s plain embarrassing, and I say that as a LibDem about to talk on our 8th place.

The protest votes for the whole went into three directions – UKIP, BNP and Respect. I’m not going to lie here, I don’t think UKIP are fascists in suits or knuckle draggers. They’re not fruitcakes, or loonies or whatever David Cameron called them. What UKIP is made up of, mostly, is disgruntled people, and disgruntled people without a clear direction of travel. Under Nigel Farage, they’ve become a party of Europe not wanting to be in Europe, turning up to claim expenses without putting in any work. In the UK, they are political pygmies, without a single elected Councillor, without a single elected MP, without a single elected anybody. Using the old BNP trick of co-option onto tiny minute parish councils, UKIP can claim to have some kind of representation outside Brussels, but this doesn’t wash with most folk who know their onions and their bendy bananas.

What UKIP actually want, or how they managed to get 22% of the vote here without explaining anything, is the real question. The adoption scandal broke with exceptionally good timing.  It was used to get sympathy for both the parents, and the candidate. Why the lack of success? Jane Collins is not George Galloway, and Rotherham is not Bradford. Crucially, perhaps, Nigel Farage is not Galloway either. There’s a lot of bom, but not enough bast. Whilst George can speak with passion and target that passion to something relevant (usually the Labour Party), Nigel is too eager to use “Europe” as a codeword for anything and everything, and it will put off swing voters. “Europe” as a catch-all is not a popular electoral subject, as many polls have shown, and people are not made more popular by talking about it again and again and again.

So, then, the Liberal Democrats. What do we blame? That our candidate was a bloke with a ponytail? Well, it might be a reason, keep hold of it. Again, I’m not going to wear a black cap here and call time on us all. This was a bonkers byelection even by most standards of these things. We had the adoption case, Labour’s controversial stitch-up/selection, high profile Yvonne Wilson, and a candidate called Clint who came with backing from the English Defence League. We would always find high profile elections like this hard, moreso in government. We suffered a lot, in many ways more than we did in Manchester. In fact the 2.1% we ‘gained’ here is the worst result, of any mainstream party, in any by-election in recorded history for a mainland constituency. What I am certain of is that this was just a kick in the shins as part of a very complex and unpredictable election. We’re not going to be srtuffed like this again.

It’s notable that the BNP, whilst saving a deposit, which is very rare for them (only 4 ever in their history), it came with a short drop in the share of the vote. Clearly they are not attracting votes like they used to, and should no longer be the bogeymen of British politics. Using the BNP as some kind of scare tactic is nonsense when they’re clearly so unpopular, toothless and broke. Look at the figures – UKIP at over 4,600 votes from 2,220, whilst BNP slipped from 3,906 to 1,804. That is a party in decline, here and in Manchester and elsewhere, and there wasn’t many elsewheres for a group with such little money. If this month has shown the death of anything, it’s the demise of the BNP.


Give Peace a chance.

By-elections are theatre. Nobody knows who will turn up to stand, or to vote, and as such there’s no real guarantee that the result will marry up with the opinion polls of the day. This is why Peter Snow was so funny in going “just for fun” when taking the election result from one constituency across the country. There’s no such thing as uniform behaviour, much less uniform swing.

Here in Middlesbrough the election seemed to carry out its business without much publicity. Croydon had big names in Lee and Winston and Rotherham had scandal, walk-outs and Yvonne Ridley. So away from all that, the ‘Boro just had candidates standing for election without the media taking much notice.

The result was another disaster for TuSC, who claim to speak for the working class, and BNP, who do the same with a different accent. Neither showed much chance of a break through, less so the BNP who lost 4 percentage points to lose over 1,600 votes in real terms.

The success of Labour needs framing in context, too. Sir Stuart Bell didn’t hold a single constituency surgery for years following an physical attack, which attracted criticism all the same for being dismissive of his constituents. It’s not for nothing that the winning candidate saw his vote share climb from under 50% to above 60%. Voters do notice this sort of thing, you know.

A saved deposit for the LibDems may seem out of the storyline somewhat, although it’s worth remembering that the candidate and his team were behind the success in Redcar next-door. Good campaigners show their mark in many ways, not least a saved deposit and a better overall result than the Conservatives.

And then we get to Imdad Hussain and the Peace Party. No, me neither. Indeed, nobody really knew who this former Labour councillor was until the results were announced. Any clues? Well he was embroiled in a bit of a scandal and defected, although why he went here rather than Respect is anyone’s guess. What we do have is a nice electoral quirk to finish up with – the first time that the Peace Party had saved a deposit, a slice of the unpredictable nature of this business we call politics.

Just for fun, you understand, we ran these results through a super computer, and do you know what it said? Wait until 2015, when the votes really mean something.