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 These three could point to their place within the Party as being compromised by the outdated atmosphere of the majority male Palace of Westminster (particularly Wollaston, who has been overlooked for promotion in a marked nose-thumbing for not being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…

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.

can’t, won’t but probably will, pay

Some months ago, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an episode of The Reunion which brought together people associated with the Community Charge, aka Poll Tax, aka Thatcher’s Final Legacy Project. Guests included Geoffrey (now Lord) Howe, who proclaimed his continuing belief that by the end of the affair the system was fairer and more popular than at its launch, a former council worker who recalled receiving payment cheques scrawled on the back of used underwear, and an anti-Poll Tax campaigner who confirmed she was still paying back monthly sums to a Council which didn’t exist at the time over twenty years since the scheme ended.

Of all the problems with the Poll Tax, the most galling was its ‘one price suits all’ core, which meant a struggling family bringing home all they could to fill a cupboard paid the exact same sum as the husband and wife barrister superteam two streets away with more money than they could stuff in every cupboard in their house and its comfortable extension. By having little regard to ‘ability to pay’, the Poll Tax soon struck an iron-tipped arrow through the heart of families, their communities, and to an extent entire towns. And as ever with the dying days of Thatcher’s time of office, those towns were invariably Northern English.

Council Tax replaced the Community Charge in 1993, with each repayment band based on the 1991 valuation of properties (very Conservative). These bands have not been touched in England since, so where you live today continues to be based on the early-90s housing prices. As many people moving into new build housing estates have discovered, a very well priced house in rabbit warren suburbia can be ‘bracketed’ with not so nice properties over the road, producing an unintended saving of hundreds of pounds every month. Similarly local authorities that require of developers affordable housing can inadvertently include these properties in higher than intended bands. Unfair and uneven problems at both extremes.

For the record, Band D in England is for properties valued at up to £88,000 in 1991. What chance this price today? In Scotland, Band D is for properties up to £58,000. Meanwhile in Wales, where a revaluation eventually happened (of sorts), there is something nearing a “mansion tax” in the newly introduced Band I for properties over £424,001 [that quid is important, and clearly mansions are much cheaper in Wales].

At the rotten core of Council Tax – as with the Poll Tax – is the ‘ability to pay’ argument. Wealth does not equal income. A very well to do leafy home does not mean its occupier has a well to do salary to match. The inequality at the heart of the Poll Tax has festered for 20-odd years, families unable to keep up with payments as their salaries stall and local authorities feel pressure to continually plug their financial gaps with further and further, higher and higher council tax bills. As the push-me/pull-me battle goes on between central Government and local councils over what exactly one can do for the other, and at what cost, the ‘consumer’ pouring over bills at the action end is left with an increasingly unfair, unjust, uneven funding scheme. Banding by each local authority can be at the whim of whoever is in charge – almost always  the Conservatives, or Labour, or the Liberal Democrats, or a combination thereof. Invariably whoever is in charge at the time may find it necessary to raise council taxes as the most ‘palatable’ electorally. There is almost no link between the ‘central pot’ of local government funding and the local associations spending them. In 2003, Devon County Council increased its element  of the overall bill by 18%.

So why does Council Tax still exist? It is an unfair, unjust tax, punishing people on the whims of the housing valuations, the bands, and the political parties in Town Halls. The current push from Eric Pickles to persuade local councils to freeze Council Tax has left some local authorities unable to move in fear of being labelled as the council which dared to increase the costs to families and older people in times of economic hardship.

The most popular alternatives are some form of local income tax or local land tax. Both would be a jolt to the current ‘affordability’ argument initially representing a change in attitude towards a more locally relevant scheme. Local authorities could be given greater autonomy to react to changes in average wages or work with regional partners to provide a local(ist/ism) VAT claim-back scheme. Local authority funding has always been a complex multifaceted machine, money pouring into and out of local government at a pace of knots, leaving some councils with barely enough time to notice how little overall spend they have for the year ahead. There’s no good in central or local government being lumbered with a scheme which actively encourages councils to struggle in the short-term with no chance to plan genuinely long-term programmes of investment or employment (and most leisure activities can go to Hell in a provincial theatre.) The Tories love localism – it says here – so let us see some respect to the Councils. Give them the right to set their own local income or local land taxes, rejig the business rate rules, look for genuinely local solutions for a genuinely local(ist) problem.

Extending out of the authority funding arguments are the issues of two-tier government in some parts of the country and whether we need it (short answer; no: long answer; nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnoooooooooooooooo), and whether existing local authority boundaries reflect accurately the live/work/play realities of a population much expanded and redistributed from that which existed when the lines were last redrawn in the 1970s. Another reason for the UK to consider a great big fat constitutional and administrative reset button, reshaping the map to provide  more responsive and autonomous local government across the whole country. The experiment with Council Tax must now be dragging itself to the very end, with enough evidence to show it’s become as unrepresentative as Poll Tax was at its launch. Any tinkering with the scheme has been put off each time due to the party political implications, and with its 20th anniversary next year, I’d suggest Eric takes some time out from bullying some authorities into submission and starts facing the considerably loud music.

masters of the map

Constitutional reform turns even the strongest man to jelly. Tony Blair was known to switch to ‘glazed eyes mode’ whenever someone mentioned a policy not related to the important stuff – like academy schools and PFI hospitals and invading Iraq without justification, that sort of thing. Mention ‘House of Lords reform’ to Blair after the 92 hereditary peers fudge and you might as well have been discussing boot polish.

For David Cameron, constitutional reform was supposed to be over and done with by last Christmas. Help defeat voting reform, stifle the Lords and cover party funding legislation with more grass than you’d find on a teenager’s windowsill. Well you don’t always get what you want, eh?

In the week we find that ‘man of the match’ is to be trademarked I wonder what we could come up with for our D-Cam. “You can’t always get what you want” seems a bit over blown, even if it is accurate. After all, I genuinely believe he wants to reduce the size of the Commons for good reason and not just partisan advantage. This is the proposal which sees Nadine Dorries’ constituency disappear, remember, it’s not as though the Conservatives come out of this without some advantage. Anything which might just open the door to the possibility of a new constituency being formed called “Valleys of Ribble and Lune” seems like a ruddy good scheme to me.

(Disclaimer, that might just have been an idea for which I’m partly responsible. At least I admitted it now, eh?)

What phrase should be look towards selling off to the highest bidder then? “We’re all in this together” seems to have lost more credibility with every passing nano-second so that’s out. “Compassionate Conservative” joins “Quiet Bat People” in the lexicon of the clinically insane. What about “be careful what you wish for”? That could be the 2015 manifesto title. “Party Chairman Grant Shapps, there, holding up the Conservative Manifesto, ‘”Be Careful What You Wish For”, it’s cover showing Nick Clegg in a car with the windows slightly ajar and the engine running, hint hint.”

Regular readers will know that I’m somewhat fond of the ongoing process of reducing the size of the Commons, as I see it without all the nanny goat bleating from the benches opposite. “Gerrrrrymandering!” they….bleat, I suppose….like so many of those people who stand outside shopping centres handing out pocket sized leaflets entitled ‘Let’s Think About Jesus;.  Only in this case it’s “Let’s Listen to Ed Balls”, for which there can be no greater punishment for committing any of sins for which Christianity has cobbled together over the years. I admit that the boundary review has turned into a pile of arseache, with Nick Clegg gambling on acting tough on the one subject matter 90% of the general population don’t care if he acts tough about or not. You see, I’m not that obsessed about equalising constituency sizes to think that it’s the first topic of conversation at the Cricketer’s Arms, no matter how many times I try to shoehorn it into whichever debate is ensuring amongst the barflies. And trust me on this, I’ve had a punch swung at me for daring to suggest that black holes might exist, it’s a tough crowd.

In his pursuit of the one constitutional reform which benefits his party the most (….well, second most, there’s still an in-built Labour bias in the system due to First Past the Post but let’s not meander along that cul-de-sac),  Cameron is in the territory marked ‘at least he tried’. No assists, no goals – he could be the Stewart Downing of politics. Now there’s a phrase I know won’t be trademarked.

Good PR

Constitutional reform is the train spotting of politics, soliciting a response from anyone buttressed by enthusiasts against a wall at a party somewhere between pity and panic. It was said that Tony Blair, once part way through House of Lords reform in the early 2000s, suddenly acquired the look of a first date forced to sit through a three-hour subtitled German film on hairdressing, eyes like marbles and thumbs rolling over each other in tedium.

Most ordinary folk agree that tinkering with the constitutional machinery is a bit of an obsessive’s game, often undertaken by civil servants bored with their lot and in need of a map to scribble over. Local government in the UK is proof of this, entire counties destroyed and resurrected at the swipe of a sharp HB. Anything more significant – such as House of Lords reform, say – tends to become bogged down with more politics than, for example, carving up counties into manageable chunks, a consequence of Westminster being considered very, very important and provincial towns being regarded as very, very not. It’s little wonder that divvying up England into regional chunks or constantly jiggling about with the councils of Wales or Scotland tends to go along on cycles compared with dealing properly with a national democratic deficit, because the former is seen as necessary maintenance and the latter brain transplant territory.

As you may have noticed, it’s the realm of Westminster and its village which is occupying the time of the Coalition and its occasional bursts into behaviour more suited to a well-heeled couple going through a messy divorce. Not that I’m subscribing to the opinion that the Coalition has as much chance of getting to Christmas as a plump turkey. The issue comes down to what exactly was understood by both Cameron and Clegg as being agreed upon in those long ago hazy days of the post-election glow when the new world of Coalition government looked to the weary nation as so much unparalleled brilliance. When those feelings faded (about a week later?) constitutional reform was refreshingly high on the list of priorities, as though the LibDem influence on Cameron was a revelation on par with that experienced by a bored housewife at an Alpha course.

Sadly like the Alpha course, what burst out in bright lights and speaking in tongues (characterised by crowds of Liberal Democrat activists attempting to explain AV to bemused shoppers in town centres) fizzled out to drab coffee mornings. Whilst Fixed Term Parliaments passed without too much bother, everything else was fought over within an inch of its life – boundary changes and Lords Reform amongst them. The Coalition fought within its each other on the basis that the AV referendum and reducing the size of the Commons were the ends of the same see-saw, whilst Lords Reform was the hastily constructed barbecue at the back of the garden overseen by a slightly drunk father with lighter fluid and an indifference to food hygiene. Whilst Clegg was able to say “We took the voting referendum to the people, and the people didn’t like it”, Cameron could assure his backbenchers that a smaller House of Commons with equal size constituencies would be of benefit to them and the country as a whole. Fewer MPs, less cost, for the spin on one side, safer Tory seats and less in-built Labour bias amongst the urban cities, for the spin on the other. Nothing could be easier to get through.

And yet here we are, with House of Lords reform dead again, Clegg determined to paint his defeat as a matter of Conservative dinosaurs having a whinge about the possible end of the guaranteed retirement home. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, has started to look like a man approaching the Tony Blair stage in is attitude towards reform – the glare in the eyes, the deep sighs, the doodling hangmen on the back of his hand with a pairing knife, that sort of thing. For boundary changes/Commons reduction to go through – and it really should – he needs to force the hand of a Coalition partner fuming and an Opposition party gleaming. Of course Labour were never going to agree that equal sized constituencies are a good thing, shrieking “gerrymandering” all over the place as though they knew what it meant, but the messy way that the Coalition has got here has made Cameron’s work immeasurably harder.

There is a way out of all this, I think, though it means having to say goodbye to both Lords reform and equal sized constituencies. It’s one of those trainspotter obsession things, though, so people of a nervous disposition might want to make themselves a brew.

As we’ve seen in Scotland, local government elected under a system of proportional representation has made little though significant improvements to the democratic deficit there. Now into their third cycle of PR elections, Scotland’s local councils have seen former Labour citadels turned into coalition-led rainbow Town Halls, or at least in the case of Glasgow allowed local newspapers to save on red ink when reporting election results, blobs of Tory blue and and SNP yellow appearing in sporadic splotches. Perhaps more importantly, PR in Scotland gives people far more power at the ballot box – no longer forced to make a compromise themselves, people can vote how they really feel, spreading their vote amongst a number of candidates whilst remaining loyal to their favoured party.

English councils could go the same way if the Clegg and Cameron compromise position is to ditch the two contentious issues for something positioned in the middle. LibDems get PR on a significant level, Conservatives are given a chance for representation in northern cities (and, of course, Labour can make more of a headway into bits of the south which turned away from them post-Blair).

But it’s not just party political reasons for local council PR. As most fule kno, local government is dying on its proverbial, Town Halls robbed of investment over a number of decades, turnout in elections dragging along the bottom of the teen-percentages, drab debates wrung out over a number of successive days in newspaper letter columns. Despite the best efforts of various Commissions, local government is hardly representative of the people its purported to represent, with the scandal of uncontested wards in hundreds of elections every year only making matters worse.

By allowing voters the right to break out of First Past the Post and its horrific damage to democracy, there’s chance for a last minute CPR job to local councils. It’s more than party political concerns about Knowsley or Manchester being “one party states”, council areas in which only one party returns councillors, as Barking and Dagenham did having slain the BNP. The current position means complacency and arrogance sets in amongst councillors who don’t feel the breath of contest on their necks at election time, whose debates only fall amongst themselves. The less chance of an election, or at least an interesting one, the higher chance of discord or apathy. Local government is more than just ballot boxes, of course, but if that element isn’t fixed everything else falls apart.

Lords Reform can wait another few years, having been on the boil for so long anyway. Reducing the size of the Commons is much more important, and should happen if at all possible, though clearly it’s going to be a tight fight between the Whips and their charges.

Compromise then is reform where it’s noticeable – on the streets, at the Town Halls, in cities robbed of vibrant and relevant democratic debate. Allow people to have a real say in who represents them, as Scottish voters currently do, and allow Town Halls to become more reflective of the voters outside. It’s not right that some of our largest towns and cities are effective “one party states”, that some council wards have not seen a contested election in years, or that turnout in FPTP elections can be lower than 15%. A form of PR at council level will help push greater and wider reform. Any other position might make a lot of things much worse, at national level as much as local, and neither Coalition partner wants that. It might mean an early general election, for one thing….

Gangbanged

Following a Daily Mail witch-hunt/campaign and the Conservative MP Claire Perry’s “Independent Inquiry” into online child protection (see the very good post from Ministry of Truth about defining the words ‘independent’ and ‘inquiry’ in this context), the UK is one step closer to State approved Internet censorship. The proposed law is now available to view, with its innocuous enough title of the “Online Safety Bill”.

I was born in the distant 1980s, making my relationship with adult material follow the usual path of “blissful ignorance”, “Late night Channel 4”, “dog eared copies of Whitehouse”, “copied VHS passed on from a friend of a friend’s friend” and then “Internet access” somewhere around early teenage-dom. If you don’t know ‘Eurotrash’ with the sound turned down and a quilt underneath the door, you don’t know the eagerness with which boys of a certain age wanted to see subtitled naughtiness.

That level of smut is a world removed from the Internet age, in which people of all ages are one Google search away from seeing all manner of explicit bits, bops and fiddling about. There is almost no taste or fetish for which a website exists, and the popularity of YouTube-style amateur upload sites makes it all the easier for a couple (or a lone bloke feeling a bit frisky) to show the world how they’re feeling for about…five minutes (three if, you know, it’s been a hard day at work and I’m tired and this bed isn’t very comfortable and…anyway…..).

As we all know, the Internet cannot be censored, making every innocent search for the latest news headlines or an amusing cat picture one click away from Roxxie Thrust-McKenzie having her way with two garage mechanics….

…No, sorry, the Internet can be censored to a degree already, with parental controls and filters. As with most things in life, forbidden fruit is thought to taste better, which is how most teenagers end up smoking, trying weed, drinking cider in a park or trying to view naughty images on line. Forget to change Google’s image search to “safe” is enough to reveal Page 3 models showing their assets, after all. “Opt in” systems for any kind of assumed adult material has all the practicality of attempting to stop office workers from playing Minesweeper. The point being – if grown adults decide to filter/control Internet access under their own roofs, they can do.

Suggesting that the Internet should be censored or blocked in some way often comes from those “in the know” who choose to ignore that ‘temptations’ can also incorporate video footage of hostage beheading, graphic CCTV footage of car crashes or the 9/11 attacks. Graphic footage of Premier League footballers having their legs broken during play can be on YouTube or Daily Motion within fifteen minutes of it happening. These graphic examples are often dismissed or ignored by advocates of Internet policing, an attitude which differentiates between violence and sex, but not between different kinds of erotica. The lie – “It’s about making the Internet safe for children” – is retold enough times to suggest that no middle ground possibly exists between “free for all” and “State approved content”. Are certain lobby groups unable to suggest out loud that parents might be to blame for children searching for XTube? Or are MPs ignorant to how the Internet is navigated beyond blogs and Twitter?

Of all the worrying/facepalm inducing sentences in Perry’s report is the recommendation that – ” The Government should also seek backstop legal powers to intervene should the 
ISPs fail to implement an appropriate solution. ” If private companies won’t deal with Internet access, then the State is going to have to haul them to court! That’ll teach them to know their own customers, control mechanisms and processes! It’s almost as though there’s wilful blindness going on…

There is much to debate about the pornography industry itself – from what viewing explicit material might do to a person over a long-period to safeguarding the wellbeing of those who choose to participate in the industry. Parents have a responsibility to educate their children to whatever extent they feel comfortable doing, a stance which might put me on the opposite side of the room to Harriet Harman. (If there’s any view I hold which puts me with Harman, I might have to consider medication). As user generated content websites prove, there’s only so much of a moral crusade pressure groups can inflict across cyberspace to defeat the great Porn Demon – humans will always feel sexual urges and some will feel comfortable in sharing their acts amongst an audience. The all encompassing “opt in” will do nothing to stop shadier/un-registered parts of the industry from exploiting the vulnerable or abused, it will only make the Morality Police feel better about themselves. That rush of self-congratulation might soon fade if the “opt in” accidentally blocks ordinary material (as some mobile phone blocks incorporate Facebook and Twitter) or accidentally ignores potentially arousing images (such as tabloid newspaper’s favoured roll call of flashed knickers, bikini beach shots and the like).

“Opt in” adult content will not make the Internet cleaner, or teenagers less likely to share dirty photos through text messages or BBM/MSN. Whilst it’s easier to deny freedom of thought than it is to research why sexual content is so popular to view/share/experience, the State is much more comfortable getting its groove on, and for that, we’re all left drowning in a deeply unsatisfactory wet-patch.

anger management

As people who know me would testify without delay, I have been known to react disproportionately to the merest of situations, often triggers which observers would struggle to explain even after detailed analysis. Following an innocuous remark directed my way, my balanced and mature response was a full-on flounce resulting in an unscheduled snooze at a bus-stop in Standish. That happened last year; I was thirty-one years old.

This ‘red mist’ and its responses are analysed by people earning a lot more than I ever will researching what makes the behavioural ‘tick’, mostly in men, which turns frustration into an outburst. Basic, back of the envelope assumption would conclude that there’s a) inability to deal with intense situations brought from childhood onwards, b) a mental imbalance of some kind, or c) a bit from both and more besides. As with all personal problems, from drug addiction to persistent low-level crime, admitting there is something wrong is always considered the first step: from there comes working with others to resolve whatever is curdling the brain.

Critics of David Cameron use the term ‘flashman’ to deride the Prime Minister’s occasional bursts of temper and red-faced snapping. Like many who suffer from this tendency to react badly to pushes and prodding, Cameron looks as though his eyes genuinely do fall behind a cloud of red smoke, and his mind becomes blinkered to exits, alternative options, spaces to breathe. It’s partly the nature of Prime Minister’s Questions, I wager, though it’s clearly part of Cameron’s nature. The “calm down dear” approach to argument might have been ill-advised sarcasm, but from that event onwards the suggestion of ‘red mist descending’ has become increasingly convincing.

Where could Cameron go with this? Will he bring something of the Australian parliament to Westminster by swearing or biting the head of a bat?

I come to this from the little local difficulty involving Joey Barton yesterday. Now we all know that Barton likes his philosophy and chin-stroking consideration, which frames many of the arguments pro- and anti- defending him for repeated violent moments and verbal outbursts. The growth of wisdom, as Nietzsche suggests, may be gauged exactly by the diminution of ill-temper, and as Barton claims to learn from Nietzchean philosophies, you’d assume that the ill-temper/wisdom see-saw would have been  rebalanced at some point. Yesterday’s nail-biting, heart-pounding, sweat inducing final Premier League day was not ruined by Barton’s elbow/knee/head, though it has cast a shadow. As thousands of people watched the games unfold – I did so in a pub which showed both Manchester games on adjacent screens which didn’t help the heart rates – the Barton flip-out took over the conversations across the pub as much as the David Cameron “LOL” revelation threatened to hijack the Leveson inquiry analysis that day. Sometimes the silly, trivial, the curiosities are bugs eager to dig into the topic to take it over, to divert attention from the really important stuff. Luckily both games had enough other stuff happening – and Aguero’s goal, Rooney’s miss and such were momentous enough – to allow Barton’s ‘red mist’ to be pushed to the fringes.

Because of his repeated assurances that he’s learning, self-analysing, reflective, Barton’s constant return to the stage of silliness has stripped away almost all sympathy from neutrals and fans. QPR fans have taken to the internet and phone-in shows to disown him. Barton took to Twitter, his own personal Speaker’s Corner, to act bullish with an edge of accountability. The edge was as thin as the head of a southern-pulled pint, which exhausted yet more patience.

Over at the arena of politics, D-Cam has a few more days before facing another bear-pit PMQs. More often than not, the bun-fights with Ed Miliband bring out the worst in Cameron’s argument technique.  He usually ‘wins’ against Ed, because the Labour leader has all the weight of a speak and spell machine, though it’s how Dave conducts himself which gets the attention, blogs and commentary pieces. Whilst Labour are led by a man who struggles to set jelly never mind the agenda, Cameron’s fits of pique shouldn’t cause too much damage. The term ‘flashman’ has stuck, and some MPs know how to press the right buttons. Cameron hasn’t learned from Tony Blair about how to flavour temper with sarcasm and theatrical flair. It’s all in the tag, as Kenneth Williams would advise. It’s all there in the punchline, the pay-off – get it wrong, and you’re a bully or a short-tempered prat.

Where Cameron and Barton align is the apparent lack of willingness to change, to repair the damage they cause and the damage in their own mental well-being. Whilst many are now abandoning Barton for good – the Guardian which took him around an art gallery now snidely dig at his “copy and paste philosophy” – there’s still sizeable support for Cameron and the Coalition. The temptation to go over the edge must be strong for the PM – the three years before General Election 2015 is a timeframe sprinkled with landmines, death traps, nooses and Nadine Dorries. Pushes from Labour, pokes from the backbenches, irritation from the constraints of compromise politics in this era of Coalition – all the little things which stir up the smoke, colour the mist, send the heart pounding further, stronger, harder. For a man whose ‘flashman’ snapping has been constrained within the House of Commons so far to save his reputation, Cameron will have to deal with all this before it happens in the television studio or on the stump.

Joey Barton is the very definition of the angry young man, and whilst I’m not about to dismiss him entirely, I can see why frustration with his constant return to idiocy on the pitch and at the keyboard has turned into abandonment. People can only take sympathy so far. If the constant misbehaviour never goes away, than either the person has a serious problem which requires longer-term help, or the person just has no intention of ever bettering themselves. Cameron is not some crazed loon at the dispatch box, though he has shown no sign of calming down the red-faced tendency or sarcastic snapping. The temper tantrums which infect Barton’s character, and those which taint Cameron’s responses, are parts of the same diagnosis, and both fans/voters will deliver their medicine whether it’s wanted or not.

Jumping into the ballot box

Some moons ago I wrote on the matter of Government reshuffles, those flurries of end of the pier entertainment which used to occupy the minds of ministers more than their job requirements. Read any diary or memoir of the time and the promise of a change in job underlines almost every decision, accompanying every minister like a shadow. The phone at the end of a corridor becomes more attractive than the office secretary.

The other parlour game of British politics is the good old fashioned defection. Once a mainstay of the political process, for whatever reason the high-profile ship jumper has become something of a rear treat. Defectors were always assumed to be somehow “special”, dismissed by former colleagues in often very colourful language (read Alan Clark’s diaries for the most colourful), welcomed with photo-ops and smiles by their new leader. MPs defect less often these days – Quentin Davies and Shaun Woodward being the most recent – and the prominence has been deadened over the years in any case.

Until, perhaps, this year: of the Jubilee, the Olympics and scaremongering Mayans. Starting with a piece in the Times and on ConservativeHome last week, rumours about defections from the Conservatives to UKIP have grown from just the two MPs to potentially a dozen or more. Suddenly the defection thing seems to have regained its relevance and, yes, sexiness. This is the stuff which pumped the blood of long since forgotten political times, after all. Of course, this drum banging intrigue does tend to fall apart at the sight of some of the names – Nadine Dorries is many things, but she’s neither particularly powerful and definitely not sexy. Bill Cash and the like are not exactly big hitters either, being much of the ‘old boys’ brigade for whom accompanying headlines – “Anti-EU backbencher joins anti-EU party” – would not cause David Cameron much of a headache.

The UK Independence Party has been a constant in British politics now for over twenty years. It has singularly failed to get any of its candidates elected to Westminster, but from Parish Council to Brussels, the UKIP success story is more remarkable than its critics might ever concede. Its done fantastically well despite only having one policy, changing its high profile leader Nigel Farage for an obscure Peer during the last election, and being unable to explain how its well paid MEPs have brought the country ever nearer its aim of leaving the EU from inside their very nice offices in Strasbourg. Somehow the party with little credibility outside its hobby horse has managed to grow in strength and size by achieving precisely nothing. What UKIP has always enjoyed, however, is a credible protest vote attraction to them. They are not the British National Party, knuckle-dragging anti-everythings without unity or purpose. They can’t point to success in their aim to drag the UK out of the European Union, but they can still attract votes. And with a hung parliament in 2010 and something similar possible in a reduced House of Commons in 2015, Nigel Farage knows exactly how significant his party has become.

Let’s assume one backbench Conservative MP defects prior to, or just following, next month’s local elections. No great problem for Cameron – if the jump is to UKIP and the defector is a known “old boy” looking for handshakes and a new tie, there is no real winner. Farage will point to his new MP sitting with fellow “one party states” George Galloway (Respect, Bradford West) and Caroline Lucas (Green, Brighton Pavilion) and talk of “a new breath of air in British politics”. Here comes the smaller parties, despite first past the post, proving that Britain wants real change. 

Two, maybe three, possibly four MPs going across would be difficult for Cameron to defend, though the nature and character of the “gang” may do his argument the world of good. “They are just one-policy nutters,” he could explain, “going to a one-policy pressure group.” Local Conservative associations might not appreciate their MPs suddenly taking a leap into the unknown like so many lemmings draped in the Union Flag. There could be more tension in the Party as different shades of right-wing battle it out amongst themselves. “Whilst that lot busy themselves like ferrets, ” Cameron would tell the House, “I’m getting on with leading the country.”
Things will get tougher if the rumours, some of which come from hints and allegations within UKIP, that the true number of Tory defectors is nearer two-dozen. That’s not normal. That’s unexpected. And that is a constitutional earthquake. Yes, it makes the Conservatives smaller in the Commons, less anti-EU and presumably less right -wing. Yes, it even shores up the Liberal Democrats within the Coalition, who find themselves speaking with a louder voice as the backbenches empty around them. Though what would a mass phalanx of anti-EU defections do to the governance of the country? Would it need the MPs to resign on mass, causing by-elections across the land to smoke out ‘true’ conservatives, forcing local associations to choose between party loyalty and perceived patriotism? Would Labour capitalise on the splits within the Government by forcing through amendments to controversial health, welfare and education legislation? Could they even force a vote of no confidence? Could there even be an early general election?

Due to the passing of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, another LibDem manifesto promise now in law by the way, David Cameron has very little wiggle room to call an early ballot. It’s no longer the case that the Prime Minister of the day can fire the starting pistol on a whim. The pressure to do so in most circumstances would not be enough to ‘create’ circumstances in which MPs vote down their own government, as often happens in countries which have Fixed Terms. If there’s a grouplet of UKIPpers in the Commons, the constitutional consequences are hard to ignore. What government is now running the country? It’s hard enough explaining why a Coalition has legitimacy now, imagine trying to do so if near enough two dozen Tory MPs cross the floor in one swift movement?

To have any legitimacy, the MPs would have to resign their seats and force by-elections. They would have to, for UKIP is not a parliamentary party and their electors cannot just be told that it’s normal for MPs to create parliamentary groupings over a weekend that didn’t exist before. Farage may well be the man with more power than most at the moment. 

He could probably absorb Nadine Dorries trying to “do a Sarah Palin” by coming across as a strong, independent maverick woman with a voice of her own and no man ain’t gonna tell her otherwise, no way, no how. He could cope with Mark Pritchard, not exactly a household name, acting as de facto leader of the UKIP Rump State. 
But if he finds himself with 20 or more MPs under his party label sitting in the Commons as a group larger than the SNP, larger than Plaid Cymru, and in greater number than all Northern Irish parties combined, he has the sudden strength of the starting pistol no future Prime Minister can ever use. How legitimate is Project Cameron now, he’ll ask, when we’re the Party his MPs are moving to?

Cameron has been exceptionally unlucky these past few years. He failed to win an outright majority against an unpopular Labour Prime Minister who dragged the country into the longest, deepest, most damaging recession in peace times. He has struggled to shake off the image of his Cabinet as out of touch, and has had to say goodbye to close allies within his Office at the least appropriate times. He has struggled to maintain opinion poll leads against a Labour Party led by a policy-wonk with all the charisma of a Speak-n-Spell machine. 

Now Cameron has another piece of bad luck shadowing his every move. And it’s not as though he hasn’t been warned.
To lose one MP might be considered misfortune. To lose two, careless. To lose over a dozen and have a rival effectively force a General Election onto you? That, Prime Minister, is incompetence. 

Everything to fear

Back in 2008, Labour’s Jacqui Smith explained why it was ‘vital’ to monitor email, internet and other communication use. That plan was eventually dumped, though its ghost has been hanging around Westminster and GCHQ for some time. Somebody called ‘Chris Huhne’ (where he now?) slammed the plans as being “incompatible” with living in a free country. Back in 2009, Jo Swinson   rightly criticised plans to snoop on social media users.

But what now for these Liberal Democrat MPs, and others, who are not in Opposition any more, as time has moved on and plans to create databases of everything typed, texted and crammed into 140 characters is drawn up by Coalition partners? To what extent has the dynamic changed between the instinctive liberal belief in civil liberties and the responsibilities inherent in being the junior partner in a Government? One hopes the dynamic has not changed at all: all Liberal Democrat MPs, regardless of proximity to the Cabinet table, must reject these proposals outright.

Labour have little wiggle room with this. The party who came up with the plans in the first place have an embarrassing record on civil liberties and freedom of speech, regarding these as optional extras. Under Blair and Brown, Labour were amongst the most authoritarian government this country has ever seen – ID Cards, DNA database, locking up children without charge and driving tanks onto the tarmac of Heathrow airport in the name of ‘counter terrorism’. Successive Home Secretaries attempted to outdo each other in their ‘tough stance’ on civil liberties, out-Torying each other as they went. John Reid relished becoming more of a Conservative Home Secretary than any of his predecessors, concluding that the ‘not fit for purpose’ Home Office should be beefed up, toughened out. Labour were enemies of civil liberties, making the decision by Theresa May to scrap controversial stop and search laws  and control orders within months of coming into power all the more remarkable – when the Conservatives are in charge relaxing civil liberty laws, you should be worried about the extent to which you were extreme.

This snooping law proposal is obscene, a return to the dark Labour days, and must be resisted. The ‘internet community’ showed how dangerous SOPA laws would be for intellectual properties;  it must now do the same for freedom of expression. “Nothing to hide, nothing to fear” is an obscene parody of the danger inherent in these plans. GCHQ is unaccountable, unreachable, yet Ministers feel it right to allow the tentacles of that agency to reach out of your phones, laptops and tablet devices like so many scenes from 1980s horror movies: licking your ears, sewing up your mouths, stealing the words from your fingers as you type. This is not “safeguarding freedom”,  this is theft of your thoughts, your ideas, your opinions. There can be nothing more idiotic than this concept of ‘safeguarding’ by way of making freedom less certain, less secure. Remember the lie “if we change our way of life, the terrorists win?”.  This would be the terrorists “winning”.

The words of George Orwell are so often invoked in cases like that so as to lessen the impact. Make no mistake about the lessons from history, especially those written not solely as fiction but as a warning.

I am liberal by instinct (you wouldn’t want to choose being liberal, it’s like consciously choosing to be gay or an Aston Villa supporter).  My suspicion about Governments of all colours comes from their actions – as their words are often blocked by FOI requests and firewalls. Labour were rightly beaten by good sense and reason as they continued their assault on freedom of speech, but the Hydra in Westminster tends to have skin which is coloured red and blue: one hopes, beyond all hope, that there’s no orange. Liberal Democrat MPs must ensure these proposals are voted down and out at every opportunity. Not just on the broad brush “freedom of expression” motion but from each and every angle – legitimacy, cost, reason, sense, achievement. How can this forever morphing ‘war on terror’ have shaped itself into an attack on the millions of innocent British people using email, chat rooms, message boards, Twitter? What justification can there be  to ‘root out’ the bad guys by having everyone clicked ‘suspicious’ like so many Minesweeper boxes flagged for uncertainty?

This has not been a good few weeks for the Coalition, so anything which manages to knock down the reputation yet further must be a hum-dinger of a plan. This stinks to the highest heavens from the lowest sewers of the Big Brother tendencies within the Home Office. We’ve been here too many times recently, the shadow of ‘terrorism’ seeping into proposals like so much bonfire smoke in the eyes. We cannot allow this plan to happen – it’s disproportionate, it’s alien to British values and it’s just plain old damned wrong. Real time monitoring of conversations – just read that phrase out loud! – is not the act of a Government that respects its people. It’s the act of a Government out of control. We are a better people than that. Resistance must start now.

Keep Sunday vaguely notable

Nadine Dorries is the Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, and is the poster girl for the sort of bloke who enjoys Alpha Course meetings as a come down from the BDSM club nights he usually visits. She is an “anti-everything”, often giving statements on the hot topic of the previous day in the most bizarre fashion. You might recall her claim that the expenses scandal had done so  much damage to her colleagues that some of them were “on suicide watch”.

The latest splurge of opinion soup to vomit from Dorries reacts to proposals (released through the pre-Budget leakathon) that the Olympics would be a fine time to relax Sunday Trading Laws. Currently, Britain allows shops to trade on Sundays only if customers can potter around for an hour beforehand fondling the biscuits, flicking through magazines and putting items back in the wrong place having reconsidered buying novelty garden gnomes for a fifth floor apartment.  The basis for restricted trading on Sunday is largely based on religious observance; Sunday is the day of rest, after all, and that means mowing the lawn and listening to Desert Island Discs, not stocking up with BOGOFs at Morrisons.

By restricting trade, shops can offer the same service within constrained hours, often paying staff more for the “novelty” of working on a ‘special day’. This can cause head scratches amongst people for whom Sunday is no more special than any other, who find themselves clock watching before they can set out to buy what they need.

Nadine Dorries’ reaction was typically provocative. “Is the coalition secretly implementing an anti-Christian agenda?” she fumed from her Twitter account, surrounded by the strictly observant religious idyll of Mid-Bedfordshire. (What is “Mid”, anyway? That’s a term used by estate agents and wannabe poets invoking Wordsworth. Apparently it contains a town called “Houghton Conquest”, which sounds like a particularly bad non-league football team).

I’m not sure Dorries is quite in the same….planet, I suppose….with this latest tirade. Relaxing Sunday trading laws will be difficult – there are questions of employment law and employees rights to consider – but that does not mean they  would bring about a destruction of the nation by any measure. Families are not going to split over the right to wander around B&Q, nor will the Church slam the doors on people who choose out of town shopping centres over the pulpit. It is a natural extension of the policy as it currently stands – there is nothing stopping a person buying their weekly shop through the Internet at 3am on a Monday morning or during a lunch break at work. Why ‘bubble wrap’ Sunday trading? If there’s nothing sacred about buying on-line during a lazy Sunday, why keep the High Street within the constraints of a previous generation’s attitude?

Dorries is more often wrong than right, choosing to pick fights in empty venues. Her proposed sex education Bill was a puritan’s wet dream (if such a thing exists, though it would have made a Saint a bit frisky). Otherwise known by the nickname “Won’t Somebody Think of the Children Act”, it would have required schools to drive all their female pupils to one of the Small Isles away from dirty boys and their dirty bits and bobs and desire to hump everything that moves.

There is no compulsion to consume from anyone outside PR companies and advertising agencies and yet Dorries sounds downright scared of what might flow from relaxing the laws, even temporarily. I know there are questions to be asked about consumerism and capitalism generally – they will always be there to consider. Relaxing trading laws would touch the surface of those topics and as is so often the case, Dorries attempts to tackle the subject only to appear completely out of her depth.