Invitation to a Circus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ReBrand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clarkson the Parliamentarian

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who? Exactly.

Jamie Oliver’s pukka poverty

It’s Wednesday afternoon in Preston, the Lancashire city with some of the highest rates of unemployment in England. Looking for food on low- and fixed-incomes in Preston is not easy, and the results are less salubrious fare than “25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and a packet of spaghetti for 60 pence” as Jamie Oliver says he wants to “teleport” a poor family to see.

Besides Preston’s covered markets, in which you can buy from a wide selection of fruits, vegetables, South Asian and East Asian ingredients, Caribbean and East African foods, tripe, black pudding, fish and pigs trotters, stands the city centre branch of Iceland. The city center branch is rarely empty, and when I potter round for my usuals, it’s pretty much packed from the checkouts all the way back to the vacuum packed value bacon. Outside the entrance is a circular seating area based around an “inspirational” mosaic which has been hacked, scuffed and ignored from the day it was installed. Chain-smokers and women eating Greggs from the packet sit around watching other Prestonians go about their business. From the seating area outside a pub, men of a certain age consider the world through their pint glasses.

Inside Iceland the world of Jamie Oliver is far from peoples’ minds. A mother and her exuberant bundle of hyperactivity stop-start along the aisles, picking up or putting down the various in-house prepared meals Iceland proudly advertise as being a step above the kind of value meal cost-cutters which were involved in the horse-meat scandal. There are other mother-with-children grouplets all over the store, bagging multi-pack crisps, cartons of £1 orange juice and yoghurts. Everything the man in front of me puts out onto the checkout are in cardboard boxes: a Sunday roast, a pasta-bake type affair with sausages, Yorkshire pudding filled with beef slices. I stock up on pasta meals too, and a pork pie, and Yazoo milkshakes.

Oliver has skirted around the realities of poverty and poor living in Britain, though only with a camera crew or researchers around him. His most often quoted remark this week – concerning the couple eating cheesy chips in front of a “massive fucking television” – is typical of his comfortable ignorance. The poor are predominately proud as a rule, who want to show a brave face and nothing of the feet flicking madly underneath the water. Suggesting the aspirational route – eat pasta! make your own pasta! rustle up some ricotta fritters with tomato sauce! – is only throwing the map down from a very tall height, and that map probably doesn’t show the best route to travel. In the middle are jobs which can’t be found, money which is almost impossible to save, demands from banks and utility services that cannot be ignored, and food which has to be affordable, often for anybody but the person buying it. The low- and fixed- income families who want to show their children that they, like any other family, can sit down in front of a television aren’t trying to put TV over nutrition; it’s wanting to carry on as normal with as little negative judgement from strangers as possible.

Eating pasta with mussles in front of a moderately sized television may well be an option for some on low- and fixed-incomes, Jamie, but not from where I’m looking.

Affordable food is not necessarily healthy food. It can be, and indeed really should be if supermarkets had any morals about them. There are options but they’re shrinking. The price of chicken, once a fairly safe option for cheap stand-by meals, has gone through the roof. Most other meats have seen similar price rises. Fresh fruit and veg, so often packed into bags of 6- or more, cannot always be stored away for long amount of times, and they’re not as cheap as they used to be either. Faced with mounting living costs or the need to visit a foodbank, the low- and fixed income poor can’t count as an option the dozen or so ingredients required to make the “cheap” foods so many middle class TV chefs assume just lie waiting in the pantries and fridges of the nation. I wonder if Oliver knows this, deep down, and refuses to accept it.

There are moments of sense and reason in the Oliver interview, given to promote another of his social-conscience television shows. He is right to point to local markets and more sensible purchases, but has gone about it in the completely wrong way. The little dictator attitude is that of most typical Tories and small-c conservatives, who have provided a generation-and-then-some-long soundtrack of tuts and moans from the sidelines on most subjects under the sun. Education? Not as good as it was for the poor or those Northerners, don’t you know. Jobs? They’ve got no grit, those poor and unemployed folks, that’s the problem, need to bring National Service back, I say!

Let’s not demonise the low- and fixed-income poor. There’s ingenuity with that pride and sense too. It makes good copy to draw attention to cheesy chips and expensive unhealthy options, but that distracts from the real economic hardships facing millions across the country.  Maybe the best recipe for Jamie Oliver is not to brag about 101 solutions to national poverty whilst preparing yourself for another lucrative television programme. Come to Iceland or B&M Bargains without a camera or researcher to watch the reality of those people who can’t just be marched into a market for a swift transformation into people who could pick up dozens of fresh ingredients and all the necessary herbs and spices without denting their weekly budget.  It’s not “poverty” as our grandparents or great-grandparents might have known it, but whatever we’ve got cannot be fixed with theatrical gasps at the sight of a Greggs pastie or Bird’s Eye fish-finger. If you want people to see the Sicilian fishermen with their mussels and pasta, Jamie, you’re going to have to pay….

Politics and pay-rises

Should MPs have their pay increased by 11%?

No, of course not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything else would be cigarette-paper close to corruption.

South Shield of fair play…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

welfare state of the nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*Andy Flower, I’m told.

thank you for your question

The time is two o’clock in the morning, the place is CSPAN, and the topic for discussion is Barack Obama mumbling and stuttering like teenagers embarking on the school’s production of Hamlet. Or public park chatting up of other teenagers. It was nervous, however you want to call it, and as every line he was supposed to say to his soon-to-be defeated opponent Mitt Romney had been rehearsed thousands of times before hand, this was not the act we had expected.

And that word ‘act’ is the problem. Leaders debates in the US remain by means of tradition and one-upmanship, not by means of democratic accountability for the President or his opponent. Everyone knows this – the television companies, the candidates, the viewers. It’s the same complicity which keeps Eurovision on television every year, for roundabout the same results. When the UK experimented with them for the first time in 2010, the result was an inflated, Internet-driven Cleggmania (oh how sweetly does nostalgia paint that recollection), and ultimately the first election result since February 1974 at which the talking heads of the good ship BBC declared, “The people have spoken, but we’re not entirely sure what they’ve said.”

My opinions towards leadership debates have undoubtedly hardened, and they’re undisputedly negative. The great breakthrough in the UK brought no tangible results. We got some new memes for messageboards and Twitter – “I agree with Nick”, “That’s a good question, Elaine”, and  “I met a one-legged black sailor in Brighton who promised he could get me some crack if I followed him just a little bit further, not long now, just about here,  not there, around the corner, he definitely said seventy quid, don’t follow him until I hear the sound of a car engine revving”.
There wasn’t any more great revelation during the three prime-time debates than we’ve experienced in any modern election campaign. It was more Kinnock on the beach than “Yes We Can.” Having convinced the party machines that another sprinkle of American political magic would work over here, the media were handcuffed to them regardless of results. When those results deflated like  a souflee in a cupboard, nobody could be blamed outside the television executives’ plush offices. Mary Berry would not be best pleased; as in the US, we ended up whipping up the batter too lightly and cooking the recipe on too low a heat. Nick Clegg wasn’t responsible for “I agree with Nick,” that was a cack-handed flirtation technique passed on like notes in a classroom, just with notes the size of novelty cheques for the whole country to see.

If the current trajectory of the Coalition continues to head euro-like into a ditch, and then through the ditch into the engine room at the middle of the Earth installed by the Daleks during their battle with Peter Cushing, leaders debates in 2015 would be even less advisable than David Cameron appearing on Celebrity Masterchef. We know the three leaders too well, now, and their traits are no good for that format. Clegg hasn’t lessened his tendency to meander through sentences as though soundbites don’t matter, Miliband is such a dorky policy wonk that he can memorise one-hour speeches like a borderline autistic man on You Bet!, and Cameron is angrier than Stuart Pearson and The Fucker combined. It wouldn’t be edifying or constructive to watch them try to battle it out on primetime ITV 1 any more than it’s enjoyable watching former boyband members sticking a spiders nest in their eyes or whatever they do on X-Factor these days to keep the viewers away from Strictly.

This is not me saying the political parties have a duty to reverse back to the 1950s and all that “Do you have any more questions you’d like me to ask, Prime Minister?” There are far more natural ways to question our leaders, in a context more natural to the United Kingdom. There’s the annual Paxman Run, for example, at which all former leaders have tended to only just scrape a pass. Michael Gove wouldn’t stand for that level of disappointing failure. There’s the soft sofa shuffle, against which Cameron came unstuck against a former Blue Peter presenter (“How do you sleep at night?”) and Blair managed to implicate himself in yet more Iraq nonsense (“If there wasn’t any WMDs, I’d have just invented another reason, Fern. Now, back to the sponge cake which as you can see here has been resting for a few minutes….”)
I’ve no doubt that the legal minds at the respective HQs of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and UKIP are already forming a joint action against the media companies hoping for a repeat of 2010 in April 2015. If they manage to scupper the debates for good, rejoice. There’s enough reality television in politics without our leaders turning into contestants on Million Pound Drop. I’m devoted far more than normal people should be towards accountability, democratic renewal and electoral reform, but putting our political leaders into contrived Q&A sessions where Downton Abbey should be is an experiment I don’t fancy repeating. Like hair gel, or reading the Observer or using my left hand….
TO WRITE WITH.
                           

shaking up the House

In the light of whatever Chris Huhne does/has done to him next, the whiff of ‘reshuffle’ is in the air. Politicos like their reshuffles – it’s a day of intrigue and cunning, and often on a wing and prayer desperation. 3D Chess it ain’t.

Read any diary or memoir from those at the heart of Government – or those who wish they were – and the dreaded reshuffle period would lay behind their words as a ghost, a constant narrative waiting beneath the surface. Alan Clark would spend days plotting his move across the board – who is up, who was down, who did “The Lady” prefer to keep close? He would write about the sharks scenting the first drops of blood in the water – exactly, I presume, what is happening now around the Department for Energy and Climate Change.

Reshuffles are bewildering for most observers outside Britain. The soap opera which is the Westminster bubble goes as cuckoo-bananas as a shed load of Crossroads scriptwriters, with all the traditional trappings of news gathering thrown into one overflowing pot of nonsense. Doorstepping ministers, zoomed in close-ups of a ministerial car driving along Downing Street, the BBC reporter within the Houses of Parliament talking about “sources close”, which can often mean “what I’ve just been told directly” as much as it can mean “what Twitter is currently assured is happening.”

The ups and downs of Ministers and Secretaries of State is a world away from other businesses. It’s when politics becomes more ‘sport’ than ‘statesman’, with each self-taught expert in a specific field suddenly whisked off to another patch where they know nothing. Stephen Dorrell was sent to the newly created Department for National Heritage with no knowledge of modern British cinema – Gyles Brandreth writes in his diary how the new SoS was given a video of ‘Four Weddings and Funeral’ in his ministerial red box. Yes, the “Zeitgeist Tape” really does exist.

Chris Mullins writes in his diaries of the Blair years how his time in the lowly foothills of Government was markedly annoying by the very nature of the merry-go-round process of reshuffling. Just as one Minister for Africa builds up a list of contacts, off he goes somewhere else, sometimes sideways, rarely up, often straight out.

The only comparable business is football management, less so in modern times though it’s still there. Familiar names, similar gossip behind the scenes, who is up and who is unfavoured, who shall spend more time playing golf? There is an understandable amount of exhaustion at the same-old same-old around football managers and the merry-go-round of sackings and hirings. It’s a game within a game, with backs recently stabbed quickly patted, and often by the same person. Politics would be richer for giving Ministers a full 5 years to understand their jobs – but it would be far less interesting for the rest of us. It’s a game we’re addicted to; we’re all a little bit like the sharks in the water.

Lifestyles of the Censored and Redacted

Some of you may recall the time Jack Straw found himself embroiled in an unusual tabloid newspaper scandal. He had taken his son – William Straw – to a police station to ‘shop him in’ for selling cannabis. A court ruling blocked newspapers in England and Wales from reporting the story. The press in Scotland could report the story without any problem, though this meant national broadcasters could not review the Scottish papers for fear of breaking the law. With the Internet very different to how it is today, such a story limped on, impeded by the strength of the legal system blocking an industry’s ability to print the news.

Fast-forward to today, and the Straw incident seems to much innocent and forgiving. We now live in the age of the “super injunction” whilst the so-called “hyper injunction” is already in use in some jurisdictions. The two well known early examples involve John Terry, and the Guardian newspapers remarkable Trafigura story. In both cases, media outlets were initially unable to report what had been blocked, or why it had been blocked, or who was involved on either side of the case. The Guardian’s front page at the time resembled a Kafka post-it note. “Somebody rang, can’t say who, or why, or their number, or for whom they’d called.”

The details from the legal document are worth summarising here –

Trafigura’s lawyers, Carter-Ruck, produced an extraordinary legal document, whereby they persuaded a judge to not just suppress a confidential and potentially embarrassing document, but also to deny anyone even mentioning the existence of the court proceedings and court order.

This week, Conservative MP and author Louise Bagshawe found herself brought into the latest injunction farce, during recording of the BBC programme Have I Got News For You. During the “odd one out” round (featuring Person A, Person B, Person C, and Person D), Bagshawe mentioned a footballer “whose name definitely does not rhyme with….” and the sound was cut. (Memories of the “Are you a friend of Peter Mandleson” episodes, of course).

In these very contemporary cases, the injunctions have only just managed to hold. Bloggers and tweeters have navigated themselves around the blocks like speed-skaters. It took only a number of Google searches to find the name of Trafigura (though remember that the legal block had initially forbid even Hansard from printing related questions, wrapping ties around freedoms within and beyond Parliament). The current injunction relating to “a family-man footballer whose name rhymes with such-and-such” is all the more bewildering because the person with whom he shaked up can have her name and face and womanly bits flashed all over the tabloids (Imogen Thomas, and no, I hadn’t heard of her either) whilst the footballer has the ”freedom” to live in anonymity.

Keyboard warriors have been tip-toeing around the legal injunctions in an act of defiance ever since they were first used. Identifying the footballer (well, footballers) is not difficult at all, just as identifying Trafigura was child’s play. This does not mean the courts are powerless against the First Twitter Corps. To coin a phrase, there’s many things we don’t know we don’t know.

The mood music is not melodic. The press is losing its fight against institutions and companies who can afford not to care. We tend to question the “might of the press” and rightly criticise the tabloid media’s moral high-ground and grandstanding. It’s easy to mock the morals of the redtops – chain up the pedos and look at this cheeky up-skirt pap shot. How far away from the press do we stand in the fight between privacy and press freedom? Can any celebrity – usually men – demand and expect privacy on their own terms?

We feed and fear the beast, the core problem in this entire issue. Investigative journalism still brings in the stories for the quality presses and tabloids alike – the “he is shagging her” breadcrumbs may make the headlines for being under injunctions, chances are the real scandals will never be uncovered. Beyond the locked doors and along the corridors sings the silent truths hidden and locked away. Our press may not always be moral, but they are free; injunctions of the strength, breadth and depth as we see today are compromising that freedom. Lawyers over-riding Parliament is one thing (and is sometimes greeted with pleasure and applause). But journalists?

It is very dangerous for the might of a lawyers hand to flatten both Parliament and the Press. It is not uncomfortable ground to inhabit – the whistle blowers and freedom-fighters and investigators at the heart of truth as much as Parliamentarians. This is much more than “[][][][][][][][][][] and [][][][][][][][][] have conducted a private affair.” At the core of this is covering up as much light as corporations can afford (and that’s a lit, enough to exhaust Professor Brian Cox of all his superlatives and metaphor). Choosing sides in arguments is not always easy. It’s difficult when the only right and moral choice includes tabloid journalists and Members of Parliament. Enemies closer and all that…