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.

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.

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.

Warming Up the Rubber Chickens

I don’t often agree with Tom Harris, the Labour MP for Glasgow South and Twtter ‘attack dog’. Lovely chap, probably, and a Doctor Who fan like me, so there should be some level of understanding between us; (I’ll check by way of these stock answers;

1) Patrick Troughton
2) Chiwetel Ejiofor
3) The sonic screwdriver
4) Still nowhere near as bad as RTD
5) I don’t think anyone, from producer downwards, actually knows what was blowing up the TARDIS in Series 5, so let’s just leave it as that)

Harris recently wrote against the leaders debate, those moments of “groundbreaking”/”useless” televisual delights from 2010, around which the general election of that year appeared to orbit. And like Harris, I would rather they never happened again.

I’ve written against the debates before and indeed hindsight suggests that even when writing about them at the time, there was an underlying sense of their uselessness. Looking back three years as we stand approximately two years away from the next general election and it all looks clear; repeating the leaders debates would be a huge mistake.

As a Liberal Democrat – and a small l liberal, no less – my default setting is “reform”.  There’s no cog or wheel of the British democratic system, which doesn’t need fixing. Our voting system is broken, our unwritten constitution needs writing, our Parliament needs reducing in size (and one part of it needs scrapping completely), the relationship between local government and local electors requires serious repair, and so on, etc, forever. Of course “leaders debates” seemed part of the solution back in 2010, within the context of the expenses scandal and total collapse in respect for politicians. They could even help decide the result, mixing in the “West Wing at Westminster” attitude Tom Harris writes about.

The debates had been part of the “reform” process, though as we look back, they’ve enacted more damage than repair.

Harris is not the first MP to bemoan the presidential manner of our elections. Shirley Williams and Anne Widdecombe used their allotted time with Jeremy Paxman during the 2005 general election programme on BBC One to do just that; and the then Ms Williams did much the same on the 1987 equivalent [yes, I’m the kind of person who watches general election reruns on YouTube. Judge me, go on.]  The British system has always been in danger of turning presidential, and it wasn’t specifically Tony Blair in 1997 who accelerated the process. By 1979 the media had already chosen to focus on the suitability of individuals as Prime Ministerial material in the context of that decade’s political and social unrest, with little in the way of opposition for them doing so. Margaret Thatcher’s handbagging of all and any opponents (usually within her own party), increased the importance of figureheads in the British system, despite that very system not being built to suit such a system.

By 1997, the PR driven “New Labour” campaign took advantage of the accelerated media let attitude towards presidential style politics. Forget the 650-ish individual fights across the country, many of which are interesting, complex, charged contests, it’s all about the money shots; three British party leaders getting on open-topped bus…(no, no, no, they get on helicopters and get cheered on arrival by hundreds of specially invited/vetted guests).

The good old days election campaigns which Harris invokes – men dressed as rubber chickens following candidates down the road being one of the great British traditions – are increasingly rare. That’s something to mourn. Like most people I want – expect even – a proper and thorough election campaign, something the leaders debate actively destroyed. They weigh down the efforts of all other candidates, blocking their efforts like the school bully standing guard at the top of the stairs or the toilet doors. Everything which the British system used to focus upon – the local contests in marginal seats, the make do and mend campaigns with cash-strapped associations – have been gradually pushed off camera. Little wonder that some people with whom I used to work assumed that the role of Prime Minister was directly elected.

Maybe this is nostalgia. Or senility. Nobody wants to become the old men huddled around pub tables moaning how music doesn’t quite sound like it did, and the last thing any political nerd wants to do is turn into an auto-anecdote robot; (“Oh, when Guildford declared first in 1974 you just KNEW things were going to change.”). But there’s a lot to be said for the low-rent, small change, and yes, honest way British elections used to be run. Let’s try to tempt one or two genies back into the bottle. The media must be persuaded to stop treating elections as Prime Ministerial bunfights, though political parties will also need to disable most of their machinery too. There are hundreds of MPs whose fights against placard waving, chicken suit wearing, leaflet waving protesters are ignored because of the bright lights of three (plus one) party leaders and their choreographed routines.

I can’t bring back cheesy 90s dance, or decent storylines to Neighbours (or Doctor Who for that matter), but sure as damnit I can try to move British elections back to Britain….Even if it means aligning myself to Tom Harris…

all trigger, no bullets

What we know in Britain as democracy is a clumsy and chaotic compromise position, moulded through centuries of give, take and establishment necessity. Without the structure from a written constitution, it’s been possible to grow electoral administration only as successfully as it is possible to call “gardening” the act of throwing seeds onto a pavement. Every element of our electoral and constitutional machinery is broken – from the way in which legislation is timetabled to the voting system for Town Halls. Nothing works as it should, or indeed could, and for all the talk of necessary “repair work” on that machinery, not one party leader seems willing to break out the WD40.

It’s only a few years ago that David Cameron appeared on television with his sleeves rolled up and a screwdriver in his hand. Politics was broken, and he was the emergency call-out man who could help fix it. With the formation of the Coalition, it seemed even more likely that something would be done, as after all there’s no group on these islands more obsessed with improving the democratic ills than the Liberal Democrats. Maybe, just maybe, something would actually be achieved.

And then they had to spoil it all by saying something stupid like, “It’s being considered very carefully”. This is establishment speak for “We’re not interested, go away”.

The cases of Eric Joyce, Patrick Mercer and to an extent Nadine Dorries in the jungle have brought into stark focus one of many problems which keep the 21st century United Kingdom anchored in the 19th century. The good voters of Falkirk, Newark, and Mid-Bedfordshire did not vote for their MPs to leave their parties (or for that matter the country to appear on reality television), nor did they vote for an MP to confirm he won’t stand at the next election after being arrested though would stay on as an MP, on full pay, away from his party. The people of Falkirk voted for a Labour MP, not an independent, and under our broken system they can’t do a thing about this. They can’t even protest at the next election, because Eric Joyce won’t be there to face their decision.

This situation is one amongst many cuckoo-banana realities of British democracy.

When Cameron and Clegg spoke of the “right to recall”, one of the ways these situations could be resolved, there was a sense that lessons had actually been learned. Maybe, just perhaps, “right to recall” was on its way, and Britain would be able to boot out errant MPs in-between elections.

And then, the proposals came out, and the chance collapsed like a flan in a cupboard. What the Coalition proposed was not “right to recall”, as wanted by Douglas Carswell, Zac Goldsmith and others, but a form of State-approved confirmation hearings. Rather than allowing members of the electorate to decide if an MP should be subject to a recall by-election, Nick Clegg and Tom Brake put their names to a process by which electors would have to wait for the establishment to make its own decision. Policing the police, and all that, and nothing close to how Cameron had initially voiced his determination to clean up politics.

“Right to recall” would deal with examples like Joyce, Mercer and Dennis McShane if there was a genuine will within their constituencies. There’s little to no danger of opposition supporters trying to “rig” referenda; who other than political obsessives would attempt to oust all 650 MPs? There’s plenty of clear and obvious safeguards against “rigging” – including only permitting the process to start after a resignation or under-12 month prison sentence – that fears expressed about all MPs being under constant threat sound nothing more than willing the long grass to grow.

The Clegg/Cameron approach to the “trigger” element of the process lacks exactly the power which voters need to keep their MPs in check. It’s exactly the same fault which killed off the AV referendum, boundary reviews and House of Lords reform – a lot of talk about weaponary, very little evidence of firepower.

There are so many faulty and failing elements of the British electoral system that’s it difficult to know where to start. I’d love to see a fully proportional system for electing local government, I’d love to see an end to the stubby pencil, I’d love to see votes at 16, but with every passing year it seems the UK is happy to slide back another decade into a dusty, irrelevant past. “Right to recall” is a sidestep into responsibility, maturity, and the present day. Or at least the 20th century. Let’s see it introduced properly.

top shelf and behind closed doors

In those hazy, lazy, faraway union-flag-quilt-and-Smirnoff-Ice days of the 90s, “lads mags” were all the rage. Whilst faded in glory today, they retain a certain grip on both supermarket shelves and amongst the court of public opinion. Recently a group of disgruntled feministbots raged against them with threats of legal action on grounds of human rights and sexual harrasment, provoking another flurry of he-said, she-demands outrage on- and off-line.

There’s plenty of threads to pick at here. Let’s start with the body image argument, one which has a very valid foundation even if the rest of the building is unsound. The desire for a body beautiful worries men as much as women, only the boys chasing a six-pack tend to be pushed aside by mainstream media’s coverage of teenage body image crises. As long ago as 2001, the British Medical Journal warned that male concerns about chasing the magazine “approved” look was leading to suicide.

Whilst it’s valid to point to the ladies with the ample balcony and cry “foul”, the lack of any concern for the male equivalent is worrying. Young men are likely to be as wary of not looking “built” as young women are for not appearing to have a glossy-cover body. (And this is before we look at something like the cover of Gay Times, for example, where the well-built and tanned cover stars might attract more concern for perfection from a community already beset with issues of self-confidence and image problems.)

And then we get to porn. Good old fashioned, every day porn. The days of my youth were peppered by attempts to read the top shelf goodies which even by the 1990s were still heavily censored – and for that matter, heavily hirsute, if you know what I mean. What teenagers of 2013 can access with a few clicks makes the 1993 versions seem as tame as Victorian ankle-flashers, but even then dire warnings rained down about the dangers of seeing half-naked women in the pages of “Whitehouse” and “Razzle”.  Iceland would like to outlaw Internet porn entirely and Labour in this country have hinted a similar policy would be forthcoming if they win in 2015. There’s a lot of sayings crossing my mind here – horses, stable doors, the closing of such.

I’m not in denial about the realities of some members of the pornography industry, or of the harsh and often dangerous circumstances for women behind the XXX website banners. But I’m not here to defend the State-sponsored censorship of the Internet on the back of a misguided concern about safety, either for children or women or both. If this sounds like “protesting too much”, I counterargue that the reality of Internet porn is as much wobbly and out of focus amateur videos uploaded to Cam4 as it is slickly edited “professional” material locked behind passwords and subscriptions.

My automatic discomfort against any form of legal threats and censorship comes not from an obsession with porn, but a determination to stand against the moral guardians strongarming common-sense. It’s unjust and unfair for feminist outrage corps. to dismiss lads mags as unacceptable whilst implicitly allowing Take A Break and Closer and others to zoom into wobbly thighs and lumpy stomachs with thick red circles and thicker yellow arrows. If Zoo magazine showing a glamour model is sexist, of what crime is Closer guilty for showing a soap star without make-up under the label “ROUGH AS!”?

A debate has to be had about the attitude towards sex and sexuality which has taken the State unaware, that much I accept. There’s no validity in the “BAN THIS FILTH” argument, especially from such moral champions as The Daily Mail who run an hourly sidebar of shame ticking off women (specifically) for being too thin, too fat, too garish, not garish enough, too daring, too old-fashioned, too feminist and not feminist enough. They’re not being “the best friend” pointing out fashion tips, they’re being the bitter bitch behind the net curtains hating women for being themselves long after their own beauty has faded.

Maybe I’m naive, but teenage boys finding women attractive is the way of nature. If they didn’t have Zoo (or page 3 or anything as soft/censored as I did in the 90s), they’d have some way to beat out (snigger) their natural desires. Ditto women, for whom there’s enough sniggering and tittering about fit men within the pages of their magazines. There’s no innocence amongst women’s glossy magazines when it comes to showing the flesh of either sex, or the demands on men in the bedroom. Is that not counter to the belief amongst certain kinds of feminists, or am I being dismissive?

The debate the country needs must look at everything which relates to sex and sexual politics, and that has to be cut through by some pretty obvious realities about human nature. The fallout from Leveson shows just how dangerous the topic of press freedom can be, especially when the State is put under pressure to regulate or censor material before publication. Let’s not pride ourselves on being a country in which, during a time when people are reminding us “not to let the enemy win”, we sleepwalk into blocking, banning and censoring material on the grounds of morality.

Preston needs changing to stay the same…

Preston City Councillor Bill Shannon, (LibDem, Ingol), has set out why he believes the city council requires serious reform if it is to survive in the long-term. In short, Cllr. Shannon believes Preston can no longer remain as a mid-sized unit on the banks of the River Ribble, constrained by the compromise boundaries drawn around it forty-ish years ago.

Whilst disagreeing with Cllr. Shannon on certain subjects I won’t go into here, he’s absolutely right about the future of our city. For Preston to survive, it needs to change, and that means a slow but sure process of amalgamating services as a precursor to full merger with neighbouring administrations.

The fix-and-fudge of local government reform generations ago has left its mark across the country, particularly England where there’s been less change than in either Scotland or Wales. Almost all the local authorities created in the 1970s as a compromise position to the contentious Redcliffe-Maud report remain in place today, their sizes and shapes unmoved despite mammoth changes in population, work-load and responsibilities, employment and the like.

Nobody in Manchester, for example, can fully explain why the council area is such an elongated blob. Of course cynics can suggest plenty of reasons – it kept out largely Tory-leaning bits in Trafford and the semi-rural north, it ensured the Airport and its growth area had to use the “Manchester” name, and so on. Generations away from the map redrawing, the reality on the ground is a population almost unrelated to the official demarcation lines.

Preston, like Manchester, is a city constrained by the flicks of an administrator’s pencil. The city doesn’t stop at the Ribble; people who live to the south are no less “Prestonian”, or less likely to work in Preston, on the grounds of living on the opposite side of an arbitrary border.  The reality of life in this part of Lancashire has seen Preston grow in stature and relevance, and all within the lines of a borough decided upon on a coin-toss in the 1970s.

The financial consequence for the city and its people is profound and dangerous. The only way to safeguard the integrity of Preston, and to ensure the financial security for the services provided for people who live here, is to be bold on the manner in which administrations are formed.

Cllr. Shannon builds a two-step process. Initially councils need to share services, cutting back on duplication which builds up in the everyday processes of providing day-to-day services. As Preston is a two-tier city, served by 57 city councillors and ten County Councillors, there’s plenty of duplication amongst the administrative scaffolding around the representative buildings housed here. Numerous towns and cities across the country are dealing with the Government’s budget slashing by sharing services, and this process can only continue.

The next step, hinted at in Cllr. Shannon’s statement, is a full merger with neighbouring authorities, and is something I’ve always supported. It’s not enough for back-room staff in Preston to work alongside those in the Boroughs of Fylde and South Ribble. Preston is an economic possibility stifled by its status, locked in by suspicious and cynical council leaders in neighbouring towns.

The modern economic reality is too serious for such parochialism. Our city boundaries need to respect that work, study and play in this part of Central Lancashire is no longer respectful of invisible lines drawn on across rivers and along roads. There’s no legitimate reason for South Ribble, Chorley or Fylde being separate when hundreds of thousands of residents already treat Preston as their “hub” for employment, university or college study, or social/piss-up outpost. There’s no legitimate reason why, having cooperated in reducing costs by merging backroom jobs, local councils can’t take the natural step to amalgamate.

My principle is “sphere of influence”. If you live in Tarleton, you’re within the Southport “sphere of influence”, only to be denied by the decision to create Sefton in the 1970s. Preston suffers the same – thousands of potential workers, students, and wealth creators living in Bamber Bridge, Leyland, Chorley, Kirkham, Lytham, all denied by an arbitrary line on a map.

Let’s respect opportunity more than geography. I’ve no time for the types in historic county organisations who wish to reclaim parts of the world which have no existed in forty or more years. I don’t accept calls to “bring back” such places as Middlesex or Westmorland, no more than I do any request to scrap decimal currency.

There’s far too much broken with our democracy – the voting systems at local councils are as close to “corrupt” as you can get, and Scotland is proof of how to resolve that simply by converting to the STV voting system. One other issue is the size and composition of the councils at this level – outdated boundaries drawn for partisan reasons. Cllr. Shannon says we need the “necessary courage” to create a new council, what would inevitably be called “Greater Preston”. I agree with him.

“Preston” was once over  half the size it is now, growing in size only when the separate borough of Fulwood was added in the 1970s. Now the next step has to be taken, not just to correct the problems of Prestonians living far beyond official borders, but to ensure the financial security of Lancashire’s true heart. Anything else is not an option – staying still won’t mean staying the same.