Fuckwits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And no cartoons.

South Shield of fair play…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lancashire – Boundary Review, take 2

And so it’s here, Schrödinger’s review, a wholesale review of Parliamentary boundaries which is both alive and dead, relevant and pointless, current and abandoned. Is it ongoing whilst also aware of its demise? It could be worth sitting down with a large cup of tea, or something stronger, to consider its position. First of all, a personal point. Whilst I had every faith that the Commission would take some notice of the Liberal Democrat proposals I supported (and in some cases assisted in selling at two public meetings), it appears that we failed to convince the scribes there to come round to our way of thinking. In some parts of this region the revised recommendations are – somehow – worse than the already cuckoo-bananas initial ideas. I challenge anyone to find a smaller community than “Reddish North” to be name-checked in a constituency. Anyway, to focus on the red rose county, here’s what the Commission now think should be the parliamentary make-up of Lancashire. You’ll find the maps for Lancashire over here.

Blackburn, Blackpool North and Fleetwood and Blackpool South are all unchanged from the initial proposals.

 Burnley and Accrington East and Pendle are significantly different from the initial proposals. Burnley is no longer divided somewhat arbitrarily across the town centre, which is a breakout of normality. It’s good to see Accrington isn’t cut up like a badly hacked onion either, though the justification for joining the two towns together is still fairly flimsy. There’s something of the “flat map syndrome” about it to my eyes, but at least the word “Pendle” has re-appeared on a constituency map. No explanation behind the reason to ditch it in the first place, by the way.

 The seat of Chorley has been left untouched, meaning it follow the size and shape of the council boundaries as initially proposed, as will Fylde.

 In the west of Lancashire, there’s a slightly different shape and a familiar name for Lancaster and Wyre, a modified version of the initially recommended “Lancaster”. The boundary alteration is the loss of Greyfriars, the most Fulwoodian of all Preston’s Fulwood wards, which is moved from Preston to join the towns of the A6 corridor all the way up to Lancaster city centre.

As ever, the city of Lancaster is split in half at Skerton, allowing Morecambe and Lunesdale to remain unchanged, All three parties agreed with each other on the “Fishwick issue”, brought about by the Commission initially proposing that the Preston ward of Fishwick should be attached to the rural expanse of Ribble Valley.

To balance up the numbers, Fishwick is now back with Preston, which loses Greyfriars but is otherwise exactly the same, so if these changes actually make it through the Commons (stop laughing), the constituency would be formed from almost the entire city, omitting Lea/Cottam, Greyfriars and the rural communities to the north. The modified Ribble Valley is essentially the seat fought at the 2010 election, taking in Bowland, Clitheroe, Longridge and Bamber Bridge/Walton-le-Dale. The ne thing this time round is the addition of Rishton and Great Harwood (dare I suggest amending the name to “Valleys of Ribble and Hynd”?).

South Ribble and West Lancashire have not been changed either, meaning that the former stretches from Leyland to the Southport border, crossing the River Douglas, and the latter brings together Ormskirk, Skelmersdale and all points surrounding. This leaves us with two very peculiar East Lancashire seats indeed, and these really are the Commission at their most…erm….well, peculiar. The new Rossendale and Oswaldtwistle gets a bonus point for mentioning Oswaldtwistle (let’s please have an honourable member for Oswaldtwistle.). The geography of the area is a bit tenuous, to put it nicely. I suppose it’s something that the connecting road is tarmaced at least. The shape of the seat resembles a dead rabbit, just squint.

Bolton North and Darwen joins together the northern suburbs from Bolton with the town of Darwen, logically enough, with a fair amount of hilly bits, moorland and twisty turny roads in between. To be fair, it’s an improvement on Rossendale and Darwen as currently exists (which the Commission seems to hate in its dismissal of our proposal). Wiser men than I will conclude what this means for the defending parties in each seat. It’s true that some already existing marginal seats will remain so – Blackpool, Chorley and South Ribble are already knife-edge without being altered too much. Significant additions of Tory territory into Lancaster and Preston will give Labour a bigger threat than usual, and in the east all three parties will face tough challenges in Burnley and Pendle.

Of course, all of this may be so much photocopier paper and highlighter pens. If there is no agreement between Coalition partners, never mind any other parties, there will be no boundary changes at all. Here’s to a whole host of “What might have been….”

Balls on Thatcher

Ed Balls blathered on Radio 5’s drive-time show last night. You can hear it here – http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01mk8w8/5_live_Drive_11_09_2012/

This is the transcript (testing my audio typing skills) of the closing part of the interview, at around 45 minutes. This deals with the “dancing on Thatcher’s grave” t-shirts which are doing very well thank you very much amongst Trade Union Conference stalls and websites.

Is this Ed Balls condoning the t-shirts until being backed into a corner?
In this transcript I’ve used (-) to indicate a significant pause, and italics to indicate any significant stress.

Approx 43:00
Ed Balls (EB):… George Osborne is preventing this Government doing anything to kick-start our recovery, to get growth moving. That is why this year, as I said at Treasury Questions, Government borrowing is up this year compared to last year…
Peter Allen (PA): Yes….That’s…
EB: …and his plan’s failed….
PA: I mean….you’re…..you’re talking about boosting public spending which is what got us into trouble in the first place. I mean…demand is something rather different isn’t it?
EB: Well….Peter….Peter…
PA: It can come from all sorts of things?
EB: We are talking about a cut in VAT, temporarily for a year. Bring forward infrastructure and investment because unless you get the economy growing and creating jobs you don’t get people paying tax, people are on benefits and borrowing goes up. Now for two years you and I have debated this and I have been saying for two years if they choke off recovery the borrowing will get worse. And it’s up by a quarter this year compared to last year. Because, in an economy, if nobody is spending and nobody is investing and we’re in recession things get worse. So Vince Cable, I think, I said this on Sunday, in his heart of hearts, Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat  Business Secretary, knows the Conservative Party strategy for the economy is flawed  and failed. He’s not allowed to say that.  And he won’t go out and say that, (-) he’s tinkering around the edges (-) with, as John Pienaar was saying, finding different ways to repackage inactivity and no action.  And it’s not good enough, and we need a new change and I understand why the Trade Unions are very frustrated at the moment because their members are having such a hard….
PA: Okay….
EB: …Such a hard time….But….What you can’t do is deny that the next Labour Government will have some difficult decisions to make and I said that to the Congress in those terms today.
PA: Mmm. What would you say to somebody at Congress who wore one of these t-shirts saying “A Generation of Trade Unionists will dance on Thatcher’s grave”?
EB: (-) Well…I…I actually said at the Congress today that nobody wants to go back to the hatred and division of the 1980s. Nobody wants to go back to the (-) lost days and strikes. Seven times more days lost in strikes in the 80s than under the Labour Government. Nobody wants to go back to the high unemployment and the terrible NHS waiting lists…
PA: …I was talking about the t-shirts….
EB: ….
PA: Not…not the….
EB: I think the T-shirt…..Expresses a view of that division…
PA: Are you condoning it?
EB: …which I reject entirely….Completely, completely.
PA: Completely.
EB: I don’t want to go back to the division of the 1980s. Er…(-) I don’t like that kind of politics.
PA: Yeah. So you would say to people “Don’t wear that shirt”? Don’t wear that t-shirt?
EB: (-). Yeah. I would say to people (-) do not wear that shirt.
PA: Thanks very much. That’s Ed Balls….

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….

a third way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

see-saw

In the “Saw” series of horror films, two men are often pitched against each other in contrived set-ups in which one must achieve a certain target to guarantee freedom, often causing the other to lose a limb or his mind or have his jaw knocked into the next post-code. In any case, “Saw” is popcorn nothingness with a central premise which is supposed to remind its audience that in extreme circumstances, people would do anything to survive.

Armed with a hacksaw and good intentions, if the media reports are accurate, is Liberal Democrat President Tim Farron, ready to sabotage, blackmail, stride into the Coalition agreement with an angrier voice than usual.

Now I like Farron, not least because he is Prestonian, and at the next leadership election he would get my first preference. On House of Lords reform, however, there’s the scent of a situation which could be a lot worse than he, or any of us, would really like to walk into. The saying “be careful what you wish for” is overused and trite but it still holds true. If a situation looks contrived, it usually is. When a good man goes to war, if I can coin a phrase, he rarely comes out unscathed.

Of all the issues which usually cause wobbles within governments, constitutional reform is somewhere near the bottom of the list. In fact some lists have it chopped off the bottom through bad photocopying and nobody notices. Education, employment, financial fiddling – these are the usual causes of turmoil around the Cabinet table, not taking hammers to the machinery of governance. Only with the  LibDems in Government would it become likely that electoral administration becomes headline news.

In an ideal world, Nick Clegg and the LibDems would achieve their constitutional reforming aims: give the United Kingdom a fairer, representative voting system; reform the House of Lords; reduce the size and cost of Parliament; reform local government including proportional representation at council level: and so on, and on, and on. The reality of the Coalition government means this wish list has to be put into the great big compromise machine, and “getting what we wish for” becomes laced with more danger. Clegg and Farron must know that the long term health of the Coalition is far more important than the rush to reform the second chamber? We should be known as the Party which helped improve the economy and take millions out of income tax, not the Party which broke off the Coalition agreement over constitutional tinkering.

Were I within the Coalition heart right now, I’d accept that David Cameron’s battle with his backbenchers is not a fight worth joining. Getting a smaller House of Commons with the associated boundary changes is a great achievement. House of Lords reform is over 100 years old, we can wait. Indeed, we can go into the next election saying “We wanted reform and still do, only the dinosaurs within the Tories and the current anti-everything Labour Party stopped us. The big two want things to stay the same, only we press on for greater reform.”

Make no mistake about this. The House of Lords needs reform. It is obscene that a developed, 21st century democracy has an appointed second chamber filled with people whose great-great-somebody won a title through a relationship with a well connected chambermaid. There is no place for a second chamber in which Bishops can rule on matters of law. But Coalition government means difficult decisions must be made. Compromise must be sought – and achieved.

We need to allow the Commons reduction to go through, paying the price of Lords reform. Because Labour won’t help us – it was solely the fault of the anti-everything Labour party that AV was defeated. Only the LibDems will continue to fight for constitutional reform, meaningful and relevant. But we need to realise what cannot be achieved in this parliament. Tim Farron is a fine man and one of our best parliamentarians. He would be best advised to stop the blackmail attempts for the good of the Coalition, our Party, and the country.

margins of error

If there’s one criticism of political bloggers and commentators which can stick to the targets like so much grease to the side of an oven, it’s the reactionary knee-jerk which comes from every daily opinion poll. Earlier this week, two daily polls put the UK Independence Party ahead of the Liberal Democrats, albeit by a single point, and from there came pieces in the Spectator about the trouble Cameron finds himself in and from Liberal Conspiracy rubbing hands in glee over the good all this does for Labour.

As a card carrying Liberal Democrat of twelve years standing, I am supposed to be weeping into my muesli and blaming Nick Clegg for every ill under the sun. Whilst I do have issues with the way the Party is going along a number of routes, the UKIP rise has barely registered with me at all. It’s a statistical blip. I know this because of my learnings. I know this because the newest daily poll has them below the LibDems again. By two percentage points.

There are poll findings which concern me, though these are more carefully considered points than the natural fluctuations (within most margins of error) of a voting intention straw poll. YouGov found that, amongst the younger voters, support for the Coalition is running at only 31%. When given the option “A Coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats” to the question “If you had to choose, which of the following options would be best for Britain?”, fewer than 10% of respondents agreed.

For our Party to continue in the Coalition, our message must be distinctive, determined and far louder than it is currently. Voters are not learning about the success stories of the LibDems in Government – from the income tax allowance increase to pupil premiums and scrapping ID cards. The manner in which we have reigned in the Conservative Party’s natural tendencies has been lost amongst so much blather and bluster, most of which stems from a right-wing press desperate for an early election and/or a Conservative leadership challenge. Neither of these pipe-dreams will come to anything, though this can be only one reason why the polls are behaving as they are. In the run up to a festival of democracy – London Mayor, London Assembly, Scottish and Welsh councils, hundreds of English councils *and* two English Mayoral elections – there is bound to be other parties in the back of voters minds. In the aftermath of Bradford West, the power of voting “Other” has been proven to work. Of course voters are going to choose other options in an election period.

Any findings relating to dissatisfaction with the Coalition is of far more relevance than the ups and downs of party polling. 

I am not concerned that UKIP polled ahead of us by only one percentage point for two days in April 2012. By April 2013 such a blip would have been forgotten. Unlike  Nigel Farage’s party, we are in Government and making a change on a number of policies, rather than standing outside any sphere of influence obsessing over a European problem which doesn’t exist. There will be few UKIP voters taking votes away from the LibDems. What all LibDems need to do in the run up to polling day is what we always do: FOCUS.

cutting Preston’s councillors

The City of Preston has 57 councillors, representing different wards across the borough in either pairs or threes (there are two-member wards and three-member wards elected every year,with each councillor re-elected on a four-year cycle).

Preston’s Liberal Democrat group have proposed that fifty-seven councillors is far to much a number for a city our size, not least because of the existence of the extra layer of politicians we have as a two-tier borough underneath Lancashire County Council. Note “underneath”, not “alongside”. The need to be an independent unitary authority divorced fully from County Hall is a long, long overdue priority.

Anyway, we have too many councillors and something needs to be done. The Coalition has asked the various Boundary Commissions to reduce the number of MPs (as is right and proper); it is now time for the size and composition of Town Halls. Democracy is not best served with numbers of  elected officials increasing exponentially, as the previous law was leading to. Britain does not need so many politicians at any level –  especially not at regional/local level where a combination of unrepresentative geography, central government heavy-handedness, low level (and not so low level) corruption and apathy has neutered local administrations almost to the point where there’s no point having the bits dangling around anymore.

Smaller, more cost effective, more responsible local government is vital – a model which devolves to the streets more than it divides amongst its members. To this end, I have designed a model which reduces the 57 member Preston Council to 36 –  featuring eleven wards with three members each.

In my ideal world, there’ll be proportional representation electing these in addition to the reduction, but the journey of a thousand steps and all that…

My Proposals will reduce Town Hall by over half – from 57 councillors to 36, a move which will reduce the party-political antagonism and log-jamming so often seen at councils all over the country. More consensus from fewer members is the best way to move forward through these economically challenging times.

1) Ashton-on-Ribble

This would take the existing Larches and Ashton wards almost entirely into a merger, with the addition of the Docks (from Riversway) and the properties off Tulketh Road. There is an obvious and clear relationship between the component parts – Larches and Ashton especially – and the Riversway docklands forms a natural partner through shopping and leisure use. The geography makes sense to anyone who knows the area well – it would be a fairly ‘square’ division which respects the communities within whilst excluding only those electors who live near the Lane Ends
shopping area who I deal with later.

2) City Centre

This combines the existing Town Centre ward, in its entirety, with the remaining parts of Riversway – namely Fishergate Hill, Christ Church, and Broadgate. There is a clear continuation of population and interests here, with the existing boundary of the West Coast Main Line easily extended to the Ribble. The relationship between the component parts might not be the strongest, but in terms of geography and resources, including shops, transport and the use of Avenham Park, there is clearly no other solution which wouldn’t be disruptive.

3) Deepdale and Moorbrook

In the north-east of the borough, Deepdale is a 2-member ward neighbouring the two-member St George’s. I would merge these together with the addition of some terraces from Moor Park to enable a more sensible looking border with the A6 Garstang Road. This new ward would enable the whole of the ‘greater Deepdale’ area to be represented together, with so many similar issues and problems shared between them.

4) Fishwick

A simple merger this one – the existing St Matthews and Fishwick wards joined together in one. There is an obvious shared relationship between the two, which lie on both sides of New Hall Lane. From the demographic make up of the majority of residents through housing provision and  future of transport services, Fishwick and St Matthews are natural partners. The corresponding County Council division is exactly the same and I think it’s natural to pair them for a smaller City Council too

5) Fulwood North and Woodplumpton

This new division takes the existing Greyfriars ward, which lies to the west of the A6 and the south of the M55, and pairs it with two civil parishs – Woodplumpton and Broughton. The natural line of communication along the A6-corridor makes this pairing very sensible, with a shared sense of community and with a sensible geographic cohesion between each element. This does have the problem of being unlike all other wards with its rural/urban split, but options are limited in Fulwood and this one is an inventive way to join together parts of Preston in the context of a wider review.

6) Ingol and Cadley

The whole of Cadley joins parts of the existing Ingol, Tulketh and Ashton wards in this new seat, which would see the “Ingol” parts at the south of the Ingol/Tanterton ward attached to Cadley, with the Lytham Road area from Tulketh added too. This new ward is unlike the corresponding County divisions and as such is very different from any predecessor borough ward, too. However there is a clear community link between the three parts, transport links are excellent and with local schools and services shared amongst the new combined electorate it makes sense to bring them together.

7) Lea and Cottam with Tanterton
The civil parish of Lea and Cottam would be combined with the Tanterton part of Ingol in this new ward, which mirrors to some degree the County Council ward Preston West. The Lea/Lea Town bit and Cottam parts are very different in nature, not least because Cottam is largely new build and still growing. There is a geographic connection with Tanterton and the general nature of them all together has a sense which should make the transition to a larger ward largely hassle free.

8) Moor Park and Fulwood South
This is the new division formed by merging Moor Park with College, the ward which takes in what used to be the Sharoe Green hospital and the Preston College campus, and surrounding suburbia. The wards are good neighbours, with Moor Park always the more likely to ‘go Fulwood’ given the chance. It does mean that, once again, Plungington is divided between wards but that’s unavoidable given the nature of surrounding geography.

9)  Ribbleton and Brookfield
Combining Ribbleton with Brookfield follows the County Council division which covers the area, reflecting the shared nature and characteristics of these two wards. There are other options which could be considered – such as bringing in parts of Fishwick from the extreme eastern borders – though this would upset the mathematics and result in unnecessarily complicated splits along roads and through estates. There is an identity amongst those who live in these two wards which should easily work together in a City council context.

10) Rural Parishes
The remaining rural parishes, minus Broughton and Woodplumpton, would be combined into a single, large division, covering all the farming and rural/semi-rural communities of Preston. There is a real independent streak amongst the rural communities which needs to be maintained and cherished: having three councillors dedicated to them in such a way would be a boost to their arguments for economic growth and housing.

11) Sharoe Green and Fulwood Row
This division combines the whole of Sharoe Green with Garrison, which extends in an uneasy looking manner (on paper) through the eastern/north-eastern fringes. This new division is a mix of the new(ish) and potential expansion to come, and has within it the vitally important Royal Preston Hospital (for one reason) and growing industrial estates and employment centres (for other reasons). Bringing them together reflects the nature of the area and echoes the County Council division.

12) St Walburge’s
The rest of Tulketh, incorporating the whole of Lane Ends (including the one segment taken from Ashton) is combined with the whole of University ward. This causes Plungington to be divided between wards (again), though the whole of Plungington Road’s western side would at least be together as one. There is a clear line of communication between the two wards, especially where they currently meet along Fylde Road, Plungington Road and Eldon Street. The Lane Ends/Roebuck relationship is also very strong and would be strengthened further. The name comes from St Walburge’s Church, a good neutral name to balance the competing elements of the new ward.

Wales under review

Much later to the party than their counterparts across the other bits of the country, the Boundary Commissioners for Wales are gearing up to show off how they’ve managed to carve up Cymru under the new parliamentary constituency rules.

Reducing the number of MPs to 600 was never going to be without controversy – the English Commission was accused of treating the exercise like men of Empire armed with a ruler, a sharp HB and northern Africa. Their “Mersey Banks” will go down in legend.

Welsh MPs and commentators have been heavily critical of the consequences of the law, as the country will lose ten MPs,  25% in one strike. Arguments for and against have been oft-repeated – the Valleys seats are too small, the Valleys seats have to be that small, Welsh language constituencies must be protected, there should not be any protection for seats in Wales as there has been in the Highlands. Perhaps inevitably, Labour have been most critical, claiming the new legislation disrespects the Welsh people and their parliamentary history. In one waft of a hand, ten constituencies are removed from the map, Wales loses any influence within Parliament for purely partisan reasons.

These claims are so much fluff and bluster. The loss of MPs everywhere as part of this process does not rob anyone of their voice, influence or supply of green ink to write letters to the local gazette on the matter. Britain has always had too many parliamentarians – the reduction to 600 should be a first-step, not the final destination. Wales has its own Assembly and will have forty MPs shouting very loudly for attention – I don’t believe the loss of influence argument much at all.

The Welsh Commission have left it this late through all manner of confusion and administrative cock-ups. Their Local Government colleagues dropped enough balls to drown the First XI, which impacted on the national review. We’ve finally got whispers and hints on what’s to come this week, putting into motion the very tight timetable which has to end by October 2013.

North Wales should be the easiest for the Commissioners to fathom. Ynys Mon (Isle of Anglesey to you and me) has to be attached to the mainland somehow, which is handy because the Menai Strait isn’t exactly the Amazon (if you allow me to coin a phrase). The towns of the North Welsh coast are compacted together like neat jigsaw pieces, so expect Wrexham, Denbighshire, Flintshire and (Aber)Conwy to be largely touched. Good news for the three parties in contention to mop up the seats here – y Blaid will pick up the Anglesey/Bangor seat, Labour and Conservatives will divvy up the rest. One to watch? Wrexham, a dim and distant Conservative target which might yet one day turn blue.

South Wales has a trickier time of it. There’s a fair few mountains and valleys which get in the way, and the small town attitude is not mere awkwardness. The pride and tradition of the industrial and mining past will live on as long as women of ample bosom have enough breath in their lungs to belt out “Land of my Fathers” at fifty paces. This is where the problems start. Cardiff will lose a seat, and this puts the Liberal Democrats under particular strain in holding on to their only bit of the capital city. Swansea will be divided into two – one bit attached to Gower – whilst Newport is likely to be broken up into “doughnut” style into central and outer seats.

What happens to the Labour bankers (if you will) depends on how many mountain passes and mining villages the Commissioners choose to split down the middle.

Mid Wales will see both east and west sides of the country carved up as never before – the statutory minimum constituency size is not kind to sparsely populated rural hinterlands and as a result there will be clumsy rural/urban combinations. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will be concerned with how the Carmarthen/Pembroke mathematics work out. Geography may have to mean nothing for the sake of making the numbers work – as the English Commission has so enthusiastically displayed.

For your perusal, a very convincing 30-seat Wales is presented on the Syniadu blog, written by blogger Penddu.

The Boundary Commission will present its initial proposals this week on their website

Ballot papers decide elections though the administrator’s pencil is sharp enough to make points in the fabric of democracy. How Wales is governed in the long-term depends on the decisions of the Assembly and of Westminster – the loss of 10 MPs in one go will colour that debate intensely.