Register a complaint

Being subtle in the House of Commons is not particularly easy, let alone encouraged, so maybe it’s no surprise that Siobhain McDonagh (Labour, Mitcham and Morden) has gone full out neon-lit cuckoo-bananas with her Bash The Coalition Bill.

I’m so sorry; I mean, with her “Homeless (Voting Exclusion) and Head of the Household (Retention of Power over Vulnerable Women and Children) Bill.”

The idea behind the proposed law – which has no chance of progressing much further – has a sound core. It’s just the rest of the structure around it which lacks integrity. Surrounding the central argument is rice-paper and silly string, a ragbag collection of thinly veiled partisan attacks. It’s not surprise to me that a Labour politician wants to nobble electoral administration to benefit the Party; such an attitude was the basis behind their shameless attack against AV and the childlike squealing of ‘gerrymandering!’ during the ultimately killed off boundary change process. Nothing pleases Labour more than keeping the voting system and electoral administration firmly in their grasp, and McDonagh’s proposed Bill ensures the grip is tighter than ever.

One line of attack in the Bill – formally “Electoral Register (Access to Public Services)” – rubbishes individual electoral registration. The move to IER removes the nonsense of the ‘head of the household’ having the power to register (or in most cases, deliberately not register) people living at an address. In my “previous life” as an electoral candidate, it was something of an open secret that manipulation of the registration process by ‘head of the households’ and related problems with postal votes excluded women and young people from voting. IER will go some way to alleviate that problem. McDonagh tries to make a negative thing out of the loss of voters in Northern Ireland when they switched, ignoring the fact that many of the missing names on the Norn Iron voting register probably didn’t exist in the first place. Or indeed had been long since deceased.

The most remarkable piece of nonsense has to be the central part of her proposal. If a person wants to take part in any aspect of everyday life, then they must be registered to vote. I assume this is the same thinking which had the Labour Party promoting compulsory ID cards as part of the ‘war against terror’. Putting to one side the bizarre leap in logic required to accept the notion that wanting to drive has the same passion as wanting to vote, we get to the oddest sentence of all. Namely this beauty;

If someone does not like living in a democracy, that is fine, but they should not expect all the good things that democracy offers in return.

 

Does this remind you of Louise Mensch’s “you can’t be anti-capitalist if you use an iPhone” argument? I love the premise. “If you’re angry about an issue or specific policy, then you ruddy well better wait until an election, young person, rather than this placard waving protests you keep banging on about.”

It’s a wonderful piece of homeless prejudice too, as it completely misunderstands the journey many vulnerable people have to take to seek help. By making the register a form of National Registration Scheme, McDonagh takes the basis of democracy and squishes it into a flattened Colgate tube.

Reaction to her idea has been largely negative in the real world, where McDonagh and other MPs ignorant of democracy tend not to live.

Source, and source and source

Readers of a certain age may recall the fallout from the Poll Tax, during which time the electoral register shrank across the country as people tried all the could to avoid paying charges they couldn’t afford. Linking the electoral register with any kind of State benefits or crime-fighting purpose is therefore toxic in some areas, particularly Labour-leaning cities such as Liverpool or Glasgow which saw the worst of the backlashes. If McDonagh understood the problems people have with the words “electoral” and “register”, she would have realised that threatening to withhold benefits for non-registration sounds like a police sanctioned threat. It’s not the language of politicians generally let alone specifically Labour.

This horrible, twisted and offensive Bill will die a quick death, as the Parliamentary process is not kind to Ten Minute Bills and their related brethren. In the case of this proposal, which threatens women and children with social exclusion and places power in the hands of unscrupulous landlords, nothing could be kinder than a shot to the head. What a shambles.

 

Word of 2012

This has been the year which has seen media cannibalism: the Leveson inquiry and all which continues to fall from that, both merely implied and strongly hinted. It’s been a year of trust and mistrust, stretching around the world and filling both television screens and social media feeds.

Twelve months ago my word for the year summarised the prevailing mood of the time – what seems now as more of a flash than a precursor, although continued demonstrations in Greece, Spain, Italy and elsewhere show the natural progression of whatever it was people planted in 2011. That word and its intent has been overtaken by one of its core principles, which is why I’ve chosen the destination as the word of the year, rather than the means by which it is sought.

“Justice” has wrapped itself around this year and continues to direct the news agenda. It’s been the heart of the matter and the guiding principles. On the football pitch (and considerable time spent off it), ‘justice’ has been the heart of the alleged racial abuse between players and amongst rivals. Across social media platforms, most notably Twitter, teenagers have been locked up for abusing celebrities, putting under strain the arguments of ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘democratisation’ which underpins the popularity of new media.

In nations across the world, different definitions of injustice either fill our news pages or are conspicuous in not doing. Israel’s ‘pillar of strength’ operation against Hamas in Gaza is framed by whichever definition of ‘justice’ it is to which you subscribe. In the Australian Parliament, the injustice of sexism was put to the sword by Prime Minster Julia Gillard in the most unexpected viral video of the year. As Conservative MP Nadine Dorries learns the hard way that you can’t talk about politics whilst eating an ostrich’s anus on prime-time ITV, her pet subject of abortion reform was brought into stark focus in Ireland with the death of Savita Halappanavar, lifting even higher the position of justice within that notoriously difficult debate.

Anders Behring Breivik was jailed this year for his mass murder in Oslo and Utøya. His actions – and the sentence he might avoid were he considered unfit for trial – examined what we considered to be rightful justice. In Norway and in the UK, the death penalty argument was brought to light once again, setting against each other what each consider to be rightful justice.

“We need to see that justice is done” is a common politician’s refrain. The on-going MPs expenses scandal brings in questions of justice, certainly when members are arrested (or not) for fraud. The vexed issue of votes for prisoners, and the century-long debate on the injustice of unelected politicos sitting in the House of Lords, questions our nation’s definition of justice. Of course for many Conservative  MPs, the judgements from the European Courts strike at the very heart of British Justice, capital letters underlined in bold, standing proud over the tinier, illegitimate Johnny Foreigner Justice. How Britain deals with people like Abu Qatada – with or without European courts – reflects on how diluted or otherwise our justice system may well be. Parliament discussed the right to live – and the right to be born – as did British Courts.

For the BBC, the ‘justice’ sought by victims of Jimmy Savile and others has been the Corporation’s defining moment, causing again those who want the wholesale abolition of Auntie to take their chance in making the case. Somehow the Savile case has caused ripples across the country into most unexpected areas. I have to be very careful in how I phrase this, as I don’t wish to be sued, so I’ll just say that “People who should not have been accused of wrongdoing were wrong accused of wrongdoing and that was wrong.”

Across Europe the ‘sons of Occupy’ and connected relations continue to push against the economic and political establishment which rule their lives. In Spain, a theatre accepts carrots in lieu of payment, and of course Catalan independence is a drum beaten with the sound of the pursuit of justice. Elections in former Soviet republics, such as Belarus and Ukraine, shake the expected definitions of democratic representation. In Athens, supporters of Golden Dawn reject the establishment for ‘real’ justice as opposed to the establishment oppression (as they see it) in the age of austerity.

Last year, I chose “Occupy”. This year, “Justice”. I notice that the OED and others have considered ‘omnishambles’ to be the defining word of the year, which might be true for a narrowly defined Westminster village version of the ‘national word of our age’, but it doesn’t work as universal. Well, unless Mitt Romney had won, I suppose…

Mayoral stage show

It may have passed you by – or like most sane individuals you’ve decided to spend more constructive time contemplating how paint dries on different surfaces – but this May the good burghers of London are choosing their next Mayor.

One aspect of the contest which has turned the event into a Grade A Disaster is the attraction of all the candidates towards farce. There’s an argument in a lift or a Lord mouthing off on Twitter or the like, and all in the glare of camera lenses and very few actual voters.

That British National Party nominee, Carlos Cortiglia, represents a party that has been in long-term decline. In the aftermath of Nick Griffin’s disastrous appearance on BBC Question Time, the party has seen a collapse in its membership numbers and willing candidates to stand in elections. At the 2010 General Election, Griffin himself finished third in the Barking constituency, with no other candidate coming even close to matching that result. As a consequence of the perceived lack of direction within the BNP, this year’s festival of democracy across the UK, incorporating local elections in Scotland, Wales, hundreds of councils in England and inaugural mayoral elections in Liverpool and Salford, the total number of candidates standing under that party’s label is reportedly down by 80%.

That doesn’t mean the fight against the far-right has been defeated. A clump of micro-parties and grouplets have sprung up across England and Scotland as a result of the BNP’s terminal decline. From Britannia in Glasgow to the British Freedom Party in Liverpool, there are still fights to be had against the ignorance and idiocy of racial prejudice. The BNP are bust, their message is not. Such groups as the English Defence League and their touring circus of tracksuited clowns through the provincial high streets of the country, continues to attract support amongst the on-line hoards of anti-everything types.

Granting these micro-parties credibility is a stretch of anybody’s character. The BNP has not been defeated solely by protesters and campaigners: they’ve done it to themselves, too, infighting over scraps and breadcrumbs amongst themselves like so many children left alone to their own devices. Griffin was not brought down solely by Unite Against Fascism or Hope Not Hate; the slow puncture of his career has been that way out for years.

This week we got the latest twist in the London Mayoral election – an orchestrated no-platform exercise led by the struggling Ken Livingstone. As the tweets below indicate, there has been almost universal support of the no-platform decision:

I am not so full of congratulation and praise. There is something about “no-platform” which irks and annoys. Not that I’d agree with the BNP about anything usually – I’d argue against Griffin that grass is green and water is wet if I had to – it’s just the first word that comes to mind is the same one they’ve used; ‘childish’. Are we really still convinced that the BNP is such a credible threat that we have to empty chair them at every possibility? Does this not allow the remaining rump of that party to claim ‘victimhood’ and campaign on that basis?

The words “democracy” and “freedom of speech” are not merely scrawled terms on flashcards, they are precious concepts we need to fight for and cherish. Nothing good comes from making the case for a ‘better’ or ‘more valuable’ democracy on either side of the political spectrum. Jeremy Corbyn congratulates Ken Livingstone for refusing to share a platform with the BNP as though it is a triumph for democracy: if we discount the fact that this suggests the BNP have much credibility left in the first place, it still comes across as though Corbyn and Livingstone are proud of treating their idea of democracy as being purer than any other.

“We are more democratic than you,” is not a debating point, it’s masturbation.

There’s something about the way in which the BNP is treated that suggests people have not realised that the party has little selling power left. There are other threats on the far-right which are in danger of being allowed to flourish: the EDL marches and rise of the numerous grouplets show that there’s still battles to be fought across the country. All the BNP’s remaining living members can do now is point at the other candidates and ask “Who are those who threaten democracy if we are the only ones willing to have a debate?”

As the current Coalition is proving, having any kind of relationship with political rivals is difficult. There will always be awkward compromises and falling out. The “no platform” attitude amongst the Mayoral candidates shows that there remains an attitude against this political reality, one which takes the debate to rivals rather than hiding away through a misunderstood form of ‘pride’. The democratic thing to do – indeed, the mature thing to have done – is to have allowed Carlos Cortiglia to hang himself by his own words. We all know that the BNP and the micro-parties which its destruction has created have about as much credibility as Mark Lawrenson’s Premier League predictions every week, so why risk handing them publicity by having a strop in the name of ‘democracy’?

Londoners have a choice of seven candidates, all of whom can appear on television, radio or through leaflets at any given hour of the day. There is no greater or lesser chance of Cortiglia making his message heard by ‘no platforming’ a single debate. If the other candidates believe in their own policies for the next four years, they should be willing to take that debate to the airwaves regardless of who they might be close to in a studio or near to in a lift (even if that threatens to get Boris and Ken in a tizz again).

Let’s not celebrate an unwillingness to debate with political enemies as a success for democracy. In the wider context, it makes those who stay on the stage appear more credible than those running for the door.

Word of the Year

End of year summaries and lists are in full frenzy, and if anything uses up space in late December space-fillers, it’s the “Word of the Year”. With this year being particularly cuckoo-bananas, trying to sum up the whole thing in one word is hard. It’s been a good year to disprove the attitude that ideology has died: this year has been, if anything, more polarised than any time in generations. Time-travelling Soviets could zip forward to any point during this year to assume the collapse in respect towards the police and politicians meant they were onto a winner. 
The “Occupy” movement has defined this year, with all the other protests and riots branching off like tree made from malevolence. Although the aims and ambitions of the “Occupy” lot haven’t yet achieved anything, their attitudes and methods dictate and decide the patterns of anti-austerity protests across Europe and the Middle East freedom marches. Each educates each other – methods, slogans, processes. As one “Occupy” movement uses foursquare or Twitter or Google+, so another learns to do the same. The aims may be fuzzy, the ambitions confused, but the methods are unlike anything the Establishment has seen before. This is what happens when the ideology which fed the 60s and 70s teenage marches is super-sized. 
Cynical about the markets and corporatism, comfortable with turning the word “occupy” into a capitalised brand, “Occupy” is the measure of 2011, its skeleton and its organs. Whether you agree with those who camp out fully or not, their actions have redefined the protest movement forever. The word “occupy” has been adapted, redefined, reformed, from something implicated with war and detention to expression and freedom. Suddenly “occupy” can also represent the possibility of change, not a determination to crush the human spirit. “Occupy” protesters are themselves an ill-defined bunch – some are more anarchic than others – though until their own organisation begins to break down they have successfully made an synonym of “organise”. 
Nominations for “word of the year” tend to focus on technology (“check in”, “share”, “Andrioid”) or culture (“hipster”, “chinos”, “pop-up restaurant”).  It seems more important this year to look deeper than material goods. That’s why politics retains its importance and relevance, and how 2012 is already defined by what politics cannot deliver.

parallel lines

For a small island with enough room (just) to move about in, we sure do like having our towns, cities and counties carved up by administrators waving their sharpened HBs on a lazy Tuesday.  Through centuries of governmental landgrabs and civil servant line wobbling, there is barely half-a-year free of local administrative boundaries, or parliamentary boundaries, having changed for the benefit of democratic cohesion and representative validity.

Common changes which carry on without much comment outside the local press, if at all, are the product of the Local Government Commissions, hardy souls whose responsibility starts and ends with the Town Halls and Civil Centres of Great Britain. Right now, if you’re that way out of an evening, you can comment on the proposed council ward shake-up of Purbeck council. THRILLING, I am sure you agree. Some of you may even learn where Purbeck is, for I’m sure it came as news to me.

Next week sees the bigger brothers of the local boundary shakers take to the centre stage of political discussion, and boy, will it be bigger. You may have heard the cries of “Gerrymandering!” from the summer of last year, from ill-informed bitter opponents of the somewhat overdue plans to cut the number of MPs and do something about the huge difference in Westminster constituency sizes.  When the Boundary Commission for England publishes its proposals for the 500 English seats in a weeks time, followed by Northern Ireland and Scotland before November, and Wales in the new year, it will be part of the greatest constitutional shake-up since devolution.  Not since 1945 have Westminster constituencies been subject to such radical reforms.

First off – the reasons why it’s obviously a good idea to take an axe to 50 Members of Parliament and a stretching device to those seats which border soon-to-be-abolished constituency units.  Quite obviously, all boundaries are fake. All of them, completely invented. From the decision to draw country lines round mountains and through lakes by means of happenstance and expediency, through to contemporary council ward shapes, every attempt by some form of establishment or other to carve up nation states begins with circumstances nobody wants. It’s a measure of man how we agree to the invisible lines which bind us into boxes and files and codes: most significance is only drawn in this country through somewhat petty partisanship.  I often wonder what opponents of the forthcoming parliamentary boundary review would do in Israel or Somalia or Western Sahara.

We need smaller, more relevant democracy in this country, one in which the machinery of party politics is left to tick and tock far away from the streets and playing fields of peoples every day lives. To lost 50 MPs in one go is but a small step – it is necessary to take the axe to the ‘payroll vote’, reduce the size of most Town Halls and create more local, responsive parish/neighbourhood councils. Reducing the number of MPs by just 50 to 600 is a small, vital, and progressive step in the right direction. Having done nothing to reform the parliamentary establishment, it’s very rich of the Labour Party to sound off about ‘representing the people’.  Losing 50 MPs saves money in the long term, and opens up the possibility of greater,  more significant reforms in the long term.  Proportional representation, above all, an elected Senate, an axing of two-tier local government….Can you hear the creaking in the old guard’s strides?

What begins next week is not gerrymandering. The Labour Party can cry all it wants (not least because they did so well in persuading the Boundary Commission under their regime to divide Derbyshire, East London and a fair amount of Wales in their favour).  By making the new parliamentary seat rules so tight, so rigid, so difficult to twitch, alter, manoeuvre, the Coalition has created a refreshing alternative to the old school horse trading of years gone by. Having followed the most recent review, which ran up to the 2010 election having started over 10 years previously, I know only too well how ‘stitched up’ everything felt.

There is nothing in the Great British Rule Book which dictates “An MP must not represent both rural and urban communities”. We are a small island, where urban sprawl exists almost everywhere, and the outdated ideas of ‘rural isolation’ and ‘high street magnetising suburbs to its core’ all reek of ancient arguments dusted off by those most likely to do well from favourably drawn lines. It is not beyond the means of any conscientious MP to represent town, city and farmland in one go.

Cheaper democracy, and more vibrant too, as candidates fight over unfamiliar territory at the next election. Yes, the resulting constituencies in some parts of the country may have some contrived elements – watch out Leeds, things aren’t going to be pretty – though when did it become necessary for the United Kingdom to be marked up in straight boxes? This is not the United States, we do not need compact squares and rectangles to make it easier to colour in the lines.

Cheaper, vibrant, more reflective of the ‘commute to work’ culture, and more relevant to the population shifts in northern cities and the affluent south. The recent previous reviews finalised their ideas ready for 1983, 1997 and 2010;  from this year onwards, the reviews must take a maximum of 5 years. The most recent English review saw parts of the country experience two general elections and a change in Prime Minister before they finally got the chance to vote in the seat designed for them half-a-generation gone. It’s not very modern of our democracy to take outdated population figures and expect representative seats to be drawn from them.

Cheaper, vibrant, up to date, relevant, reflective – and independent. We are not the US – appropriation  is carried out by pen pushers and map mechanics, not political appointees and the interested parties. Our parliamentary representation is the more precious and important because of the way in which we draw our lines; it is vital we retain that independence, something opponents of the new regime seem to take for granted.

Is it a Tory gerrymander? No, and it is not because Labour supporters have proven it. The left-leaning Democratic Audit published its report and found rock solid Labour seats in Manchester, Liverpool, east London and Scotland remained even with the tougher, tighter electorate rules. As I discovered when thinking about submitting my own proposals to the Commission, the domino effect caused by the new regulations make the creation of isolated blobs of party support very hard indeed.

Labour’s opposition seems to be tainted by two flavours – bitterness that they didn’t get here first when they had the chance, and uncertainty over the safety of their smaller, compact inner city seats. It should do our parliamentary system some good if Labour, and all other parties, have to fight that little bit harder in newer, more unusual seats. Why the Labour Party is so obsessive in their opposition is beyond me; are they so cynical? Or bored, and in need of anything to shout down if it’s seen as easy enough to do?

Our attitude towards the ever changing, always shifting representative means seems mostly shrug-shoulders and rooted in the past. We cling to “Greater Manchester” and “Merseyside”, both of which no longer exist. We occasionally scratch our heads at “Middlesex”, and look in vain for “Clwyd”.  Our incessant bored fiddling with figures and numbers have awarded Southport with a PR postcode and L-accented Post Offices.  Next week sees one opportunity to take seriously the new chapter in representation which will revitalise our relationship with candidates, parliamentarians and politics. It’s lazy and churlish to whinge about the radical nature of the review process; remember, only 50 MPs are going. I would prefer far less with a proportional voting system; maybe you want even fewer than 500 by 2020.

If you want more information about the great boundary re-jig, then Wikipedia is your friend. Whatever happens when the Boundary Commission for England declares its provisional plans next week, let’s try and get through it without too much bruising.

I have been asked to advise the North West Region Liberal Democrats on some specific constituencies for the North West of England, and will be present at a number of North West public consultation meetings on behalf of them.. The proposals I linked to in this post are my own ideas, almost all of which are absent from those which are being considered by the NW Region. 

paradigm of enemies/friends

Almost every morning, Nick Griffin sends me an email. Styled “Chairman Nick Griffin” – maybe other titles for far right leaders didn’t work through the focus groups – these emails are usually donation requests or tirades against various equality groups and broadcasters. The most recent email, pushing the British National Party’s ‘troops out of Afghanistan’ policy, asks for £7,500 to help “expand” the policy for next year’s elections in Wales and Scotland. Any “generous gift” has to be submitted to the Party within the next seven days…

Griffin dragged the BNP from no-hope sloganeers to the European Parliament, and yet the Party finds itself today with all the splits and internal strife of a Student Union council. The only electorally successful far-right party this country has known has been rolling downhill like a cartoon avalanche, with all the high-profile expulsions and suspiciously organised party leadership elections characteristic of Cold War communist rulers.

The BNP had high hopes for this year’s General Election, with Griffin’s candidacy in Barking receiving the same early online bookies odds as Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion to win; Lucas did so, Griffin finished third. By the end of the week, all the BNP councillors on the Borough Council of Barking and Dagenham had been defeated, LBBD now consists of 51 Labour Councillors.

The General Election result was a complete disaster for the BNP, a failure to capitalise on the sense of apathy towards the mainstream parties, a ‘barn door with a banjo’ approach which Griffin has struggled to smooth over since. Council by-elections following the election – more adequate a guide to peoples opinions than YouGov polls – show a continued collapse in BNP support. Voter loyalty to the BNP brand is hemorrhaging at a time when their only specialist subjects of immigration and asylum remain contentious subjects. Invited onto BBC Question Time, Griffin was woeful, his prepared rants cut down and curtailed, his backpedaling became breathless, embarrassing, desperate. His credibility shot-to-pieces – by a Polish Spitfire? – Griffin has spend the subsequent months trying to piece together any remaining strips of credibility with the success of wallpapering with cling film.

Whilst the BNP undergo their internal Streit im Führerbunker it can not have been missed that the High Streets of many provincial towns have become meeting places for the English Defence League. The EDL are a throwback to a different kind of far-right protest group, where the BNP started out when electoral participation was considered the activity of ‘the establishment’ – a trait the far-right and far-left share. EDL supporters and their behaviour should fill older readers with nostalgia – the shaven haired drunken small town vandalism of yore was mistakenly believed to have faded out with SodaStream and dial-up internet connections. Chanting “You’re not English anymore” at anyone who dares question the ‘logic’ of the EDL is my current Favourite Punchline Of The Year.

Unfortunately, the EDL appears to have captured the imagination of the Professionally Disgruntled, more so whilst the Hamley/Gormenghast malaise infects the BNP. Consequently it has become far more difficult to measure and predict the next steps of the far-right – though it is easy to recognise the next steps, they’re usually very heavy and within knock-off Nikes. EDL supporters don’t do public meetings or electoral candidacies or reasoned debate. They prefer the 1980s Hooligan approach – turn up drunk, kick up merry Hell, scrap between themselves, leave on the next cheap coach home. There is no accountability for their actions, no justification for spreading untruths or subscribing to hyperbolic Islamophobia. Rather than “defending” England, the EDL promote an image of ignorance which is utterly alien to what it means to be English.

And this is why the BNP, with or without Griffin, needs our support.

Electoral democracy is the ‘tip’ of the activist iceberg. As any good Marxist will tell you, there’s only so much people can do within the constraints of democracy. From the ground up, that’s where you find people wanting action and results in their lives. But nobody can leave electoral politics to one side, it is within the fabric of our lives. BNP candidates within electoral politics provides a target for debate and discussion, however shallow and misinformed. If the trouble within the BNP splits the party into smaller, irrelevant splinter groups – look at the Left for what happens here from their perspective – the alternative is “debate by EDL”.

As ever with most things life, “be careful what you wish for”. Debate the occasional BNP councillor or deal with onslaught of bottles thrown by shaven haired drunk yobs with their faces covered by scarves? Deal with the BNP through public meetings, or suffer the violent rampages of the EDL’s ‘street justice’ ?

Battling and defeating the BNP should be the priority of anyone who considers themselves a democrat. There is nothing British about the BNP.

However, the demise of the Party has many negative consequences. They may have the credibility of a bunch of pub bores, but at least we know who they are and where to find them. Griffin could well be trying to herd cats at the moment, but the alternative is far-right mob rule and lynching justice.

So support the existence of the BNP. Keep enemies closer. The real threat – to Griffin and the BNP and to the wider strength of British democratic debate – is from the rabble who form and fester beyond them.

Why I support John and Edward

X-Factor viewers are not exactly in for a treat this year. Acts already out of the contest include a group who turned the self-referential nature of reality television on its head by being manufactured live on air; and a bite-sized Lee Evans with the inability to talk without breaking into tears accompanied by a soft-piano backing track, as though he pressed play on a tape-recording of sorrowful music whenever the moment suited it.

Remaining wannabes do not exactly justify the idea that the United Kingdom is the hotbed of musical talent. One contestant, Stacey, is something of a shapeshifter, talking like the a hairdresser from Hell one minute before channeling the spirit of a cruise ship warbler when she sings. A bloke called Daryl, whose attitude appears to be younger than the children he teaches, proves he can sing by unnecessarily holding onto notes at the end of each verse for the sake of a whooping applause.

Above all of the hopefuls sits the one last hope in reality television, however. I like to call it the “Michelle McManus Phenomenon”, relating to the woman whose success in Pop Idol some years ago was almost certainly down to the concerted nationwide effort to give victory to the antidote to variety shows. Larger than most pop stars, and without anything like a distinctive voice, McManus was the victor the producers, presenters, and music company did not want to touch with a bargepole. Her victory was probably best characterised by the mysterious disappearance of her second single days after appearing on television promoting its release.

“Michelle McManus Phenomenon” is about to happen again with the X-Factor secret weapon; two Irish lads called John and Edward. If enough Facebook petitions, bored tabloid journalists, and Twitter users can keep pressing Redial on their phones, these two lads may well be the death of X-Factors from this year hence. Imagine the power. “Jedward” have almost no actual talent; their singing is breathless and often out of tune, their dancing uncertain and without much choreography. Like John Sergeant on Strictly Come Dancing last year, their continued appearances are thanks to a population who want to stick two fingers up at the perceived wisdom that producers knows better than consumers. Nobody actually wants tone-deaf Irish kids on their radio every day, but imagine trying to give X-Factor and other such shows credibility ever again were they to win.

This is why I fully support the two frankly terrible young lads to win. Not because I am a fan of the show, or of them, or their “mentor” Louis Walsh. Because I remember the amount of laughing around the country when Pop Idol judges were forced to grin and applaud as Michelle McManus blandly warbled her way through a two-bit pop song. Because I remember Alex Parks on BBC One’s Fame Academy, the spiky-haired Cornish lesbian who sounded like Tracy Thorn with hiccups, but who nevertheless was an actual talented singer held back by the prejudices connected to winning a phone-in reality show.

Putting an end to such shows in the future is a bold aim. It could just work. To ensure X-Factor has to suffer a serious pride-fall from which it may never recover, all support must now turn to the two people who can bring down its empire. It’s time to vote like you’ve never done before. It’s time to celebrate the Britney Spears cover-versions and uncertain high-kicks and garbled half-forgotten lyrics. It’s time to hand victory to John and Edward.

It’s the least we can do for the good of our country.

Turnout at the next General Election may fall below 50%…unless the population are required to vote by law….

Liberal that I am, the last thing I want to do is follow Tony Blair’s footsteps in turning our democracy into anything more of a “banana republic” style joke. Democracy is precious, and for all the improvements made to the way in which our system works there are far too many ways in which corruption is now commonplace. I say this as an activist and a voter: postal voting “for all” has taken away the assurance of British democracy being amongst the best in the world.

Understandably the MPs expenses scandal (of which so much more is being played out as we speak) has turned off many more thousands of voters who have tired of parliamentarians of all persuasions. There can only be so many times MPs can promise to be “whiter than white” only to throw a strop when an attempt is made to close the scandal sooner rather than later. Turnout in 2010 will fall below 50%, of that I am confident, as a consequence of the expenses mess and the inability for anyone – most notably Gordon Brown – to do anything constructive about the sorry affair.

As with so many Prime Ministers, the administration of elections – voting systems and the like – flies over the head of Brown as a mere irrelevance. That our democracy is more flawed and failing now than it was 10 or 20 years ago means nothing. That Labour are a Government with less support than any other in living memory is just tittle-tattle. First-past-the-post means winner-takes-all, and that is – as they say – “end of”.

So how about we look at the “modernising for the sake of it” zeal of Tony Blair and the Department for Constitutional Affairs/Ministry of Justice addiction to fiddling about with electoral administration, to come up with something of our own? If it’s alright for Belgium, Greece, and Australia, it could well work over here. Could the United Kingdom be fit for….compulsory voting?

From “a stern letter” to “a month community service”, what to do with anyone who does not cast a vote under compulsory voting is often brought up as a damn good reason not to introduce it here. Certainly no party leader has yet suggested the nation should be forced by legislation to show an opinion at a ballot-box (and I know from experience that opinion can be, in red capital letters, “CORRUPT BASTARDS”). Compulsion does not equal with liberalism, and I agree that following this Government down the route of legislating for everything is not the way to install confidence in the minds of very suspicious voters. However there is a massive contradiction which doesn’t tally up with my liberalism; how can there be so many opinions on politics, expenses, and current affairs, and yet so few people turning out to vote?

How can – indeed – so many people phone X-Factor phone lines or get Facebook to analyse what kind of serial killer/vegetable/famous footballer they are while not walking to the nearest church at election time? Compulsion, with a small fine perhaps after two or three no-shows, would surely promote politics and current affairs at the most local level? It would certainly ensure candidates do knock on every door in fear of being labelled as the one who can’t even get out the vote when there’s a law ensuring it happen…

Of course compulsory voting has not been suggested by anyone for one very good reason, and for that matter why my personal liberal persuasion cannot quite feel totally invigorated by the promise of future telling sessions being a little busier. Compulsory voting would merely sour further the relationship between voter and Westminster. For all my hope that people would be willing to find out more about each party, each candidate, every issue, the reality would be far less ideal; voters would feel angry at the lack of a “none of the above” option, and dismayed that politicians have tried to repair a broken system by seemingly punishing ordinary people. Turnout is falling because of a failure of more than just access to a ballot box on a wet Thursday.

As a liberal, compulsion from “up high” never sits well with me. Belgium and Australia have their systems woven into the fabric of their states, and in Greece there is no penalty for not voting anyway. In the UK our negative opinion of politicians suggests high turnouts, even though this is not the reality: trying to force people to have an actual recordable opinion by means of a ballot paper would be something to aim for…were it likely to achieve anything. For all that it may kill off the purile insult “if you don’t vote, you can’t complain”, I guess it is not something for the United Kingdom’s rather unique electoral system.

Unless, of course, radical reform far beyond the tame introduction of AV is the elephant crouching in the corner of the room. Liberalism never was easy to align with reality…