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….

Caucus envy

So, then, Rick Perry? Excited, aren’t we? He only beat God’s Representative On Earth by the narrowest of margins! And so, the Republican Party begin their long, ultimately fruitless search for a nominee to take on Obama, spending the GDP of a developing nation in their criss-crossing, attack ad developing, podium thumping electioneering jamboree.

(If you’re Rick Santorum, “podium” is “pulpit”, and if you saw his speech earlier this morning, you’d be forgiven for thinking CSPAN stood for “Christians Stand Preaching, Americans Nauseous”)

The primary and caucus period in the US is unlike any other election format enjoyed elsewhere on Earth; it is truly unique. Nothing is more bizarre, out dated, over the top or free from policy details and I’ve followed local administration elections in Britain for years. Listen to Michelle Bachmann for perhaps the most outrageous delusion this side of British National Party candidates claiming they will win seats at the next election. “There maybe a different Michelle in the White House next year!” she told supporters today. Maybe there will, Michelle, I understand they are always looking for interns.

David Cameron was instrumental in bringing primary-ish elections to the UK in the run up to the 2010 general election. In two constituencies now held by the Tories – Totnes, and Gosport – anyone who lived in the constituency could vote in a ballot to choose the Tory candidate. Turnout was piddling and strains between the local associations and Tory HQ stretched to breaking point. The primaries did poke the local party members into action, however, and opened the door to the possibility of the UK welcoming them in full in time. Indeed there was talk during the election period of legislation being introduced to allow “Open Primaries” in marginal constituencies across the land.  LibDems in Glasgow, Labour members in Cambridgeshire, Tories in Liverpool – imagine  the fun and games to be had there…

One argument speaks highly of Primaries. The Conservatives struggle to fight Westminster elections in, say, Manchester or Birmingham, so why not open up selection of candidates in the first place to get names and faces out there, and then run with the built-up momentum for the next X months or years (ideally) to reap long-term rewards?

The downside arguments write their criticism in neon lights. Atop them all is the cost: millions across the country compared to barely a thousand per constituency if done the traditional way. And for the avoidance of doubt, the “traditional way” can often be the rubber stamping of a single candidate by a dozen members of a constituency party on a rainy Tuesday night. Britain does not have the same federal administration as the United States or even France where the Socialist Party undertook its own Primary system last year. The consequence of this would be a lack of reporting and explanation, potential alienation between neighbouring regions as one party pours in money at the expense of another.

Political parties are dying in some parts of the UK, which means anything goes in the ideas machine for building up membership and activism. For parties with “black holes” in the national map, Primaries could be ideal. They might not exactly bring back the Hustings of centuries past, though conversations on- and off-line would be at their most political for years. It would remind “those in the know” that ordinary people happen to care about their political representation, they’re just sick of being taken for granted (in safe seats) or swamped for a month every five years (in marginals). Primaries would engage political parties like never before – forced into a contest out of their control beyond traditional election time, some parties might struggle to adapt to candidates they don’t necessarily know.

The “curiosity” factor of the US election process blanks out the rest of the world at this time of the Presidential cycle. We shouldn’t absorb so much from the US, but we do – Blair was much more of the Congressman than he ever was an MP. Primaries are an awkward fit for the UK system, just as The Leaders Debates caused the machinery of British elections to stop/start, reset, wobble at the edges like a cartoon. We were not prepared for the long-term consequences of the Leaders Debates…would we be happy with spending months in the audience of 6 wannabe Labour candidates in Sussex or a handful of LibDems in Dagenham in the form of an Apprentice/Question Time hybrid in the cross-fingered hope of political renewal?

Early last year, I wrote a blog post suggesting that my second preference behind choosing AV was introducing Primary elections. If I was convinced then I am undecided now. There is much wrong with the British electoral system – which is why we needed AV to succeed and why STV is needed for local elections pretty damn quick. Primary elections could be “fun” but not necessarily    useful. Walker’s Crisps ran a competition some years ago which allowed consumers to vote on a new flavour of crisp; thousands of people voted, resulting in Builders Breakfast filling the shelves the next week. Sales were awful and the product was swiftly withdrawn before the month was out. Proof that things like Facebook Elections and Leaders Debates create fire…..they do not necessarily create light.

Holy smoke

His congregation numbers 50. His ‘church’, such as it appears to be one, is called the “Dove World Outreach Centre”. That sounds more furry than fury to these ears at least. He is Terry Jones, a Pastor and current international media focus for his wheeze – “International Burn a Koran Day”.

It should not be right that searching for the word “Qur’an” – I prefer that spelling – returns dozens of results for Pastor Jones and his unbelievably successful promotional drive for the most leaden-footed act of symbolism since the 1990 Eurovision Song Contest. Seriously, give that a YouTube drive, every arms-around-the-new-Europe anthem will have you craving the return of communism before the voting starts.

Pastor Jones is not standing down from his plan to mark the 11th September anniversary with a Qur’an Bonfire, with bouncy castles, clowns and Pin A Beard on the Infadel competitions to boot. It is certainly clever marketing – only by creating another Waco would this religious fringe loon have gathered further attention. Probably more support too: when Sarah Palin advises you to think twice about an idea, that idea is doomed.

Frankly, I have little time for most religious books and teachings. I have been led to understand that the word of whichever deity is being followed lives in the heart and mind; the idea of collating the teachings in book form occurred for less benign reasons than ease of reference. Thousands of students from times past and present will tear up the more tedious bits from Kings or Acts for joint material without FOX News knocking their schedules into an outraged hat. There may be somebody right now – right at the moment your eyes fall upon these words – using a torn page from Little Book Of Zen to snort whichever hybrid legal-high/washing powder has arrived in the post.

I almost wish Jones well. His publicity trick has worked. People feel aggrieved and irate, as though the books prepared for turning into ash are the only symbols of the Islamic faith. This entire event is fed by ignorance, on both sides of the argument. Islamic extremists use their cherry-picked cuckoo-bananas version of their faith to justify mass murder, while right-wing nutjobs who only just qualify as “Christians” blather from their pretend churches on the purity of their own specific thought processes. To have garnered so much attention for what, basically, cheapens all sides of the argument is one pretty impressive feat.

It was always going to take something to beat the hysteria around the “Ground Zero Mosque) – which is neither a mosque, nor at Ground Zero. Well, smack my mouth and call me kafir, here’s one just round the corner. If the word and teachings of a particular faith really do exist in more forms than just the written word, then both Jones and the crowds against him are partaking in utter wastes of effort. Symbolism is not a one-way argument.

bog books, pitbulls, bus stations

With Max Clifford such a big name in PR, why is the general consensus that he is a complete twunt?

Sorry, that is quite beside the point. Just getting it off my chest.

So, now, then, being a bloke, eh? For most tabloids in the 90s, it seemed easy to divide men of a certain age into two groups; the Loaded generation with all the chest-beating (and away fans clobbering) that went with it; or the Homebase loyalty card crew, happy to explain why azaelias and roses need different sized climbing frames. Then before Johnny Vaughn could even consider another career saving comeback, the century changed, and such slapdash divisions appear to have vanished completely.

Well, okay, flicking through Men’s Health gives the impression that the editorial team have found a convienient wormhole to 1996 to fill any leftover double page spreads. “How do you rate in bed?” articles in 2010, I ask? I thought Men’s Health was the magazine to which you upgraded after becoming aware of the beer gut you perfected while reading Nuts.

Anyway, ‘bog books’, then. While bar-flying a few weeks back, the general consensus was that no man ever outgrows the need for – as it was so expertly phrased – “an arm’s reach library”. If you have a significant other, it is obviously best advised not to keep a top shelf classic inbetween the hand-towels. That rule aside, pretty much anything goes, although I must stress that struggling to come to terms with a Polly Toynbee classics whilst otherwise struggling is only for real experts in the ‘behind closed doors’ field.

But yes, as though my magic, a segway from gentlemanly secrets to rightwing pin-up Sarah Palin. Not my particular kind of lady – well, slackjawed rent-a-quotes aren’t my thing, truth be told – but seemingly very fondly thought of amongst American teabaggers.

Go on, click the link. Dare’s you.

Palin has been setting up her Presidency bid since failing so badly in 2008. It’s a non stop rollercoaster for the hockey-mom/pitbull hybrid. I was merely quite bemused by the sight of the walking sloganiser standing behind a podium marked the word “GAYLORD”. Given she was talking to a bunch of teabaggers – go on, click it – I wasn’t surprised to see the BBC move the on-screen caption as far up the image as they could. They wouldn’t have to use any on-screen captions if the same company sponsered the Labour Conference this year…in at least two cases. Maybe three.

The fact that Palin seems to be the only credible voice of the American right fills me with despair. Exactly how she has done this seems to be the result of following the advice that ‘she who rants loudest and dumbest gets the Fox slots at Prime Time’. One only assumes that eventually her brain will run out of words, leaving the next Tea Party convention stuck with Scott Brown running over blacked-up actors with his truck.

No, wait…That sounds like something they’d actually consider doing…

The 20th Century Society are to appeal against Ben “boy” Bradshaw’s decision not to list Preston Bus Station. Not that I want to go on a pro-bus station rant at this present time, I fully support the appeal. The decision to scrap Preston’s iconic bus station in favour of a John Lewis just stinks to high heaven of short-term profit chasing and long-term ignorance. The new station would be smaller than the on in Sunderland. SUNDERLAND! SMALLER THAN! Is there any other reason to give for the retention of the one we’ve got than that?