Saturday, 9 October 2010

ath Up Serie

Or rather Catch Up Service. The bottom line of buttons on my keyboard (excluding the b and n keys, including the space bar) have packed it in and resolutely decided to stop working this week after my threats to savagely cut spending on keyboard maintenance. This kind of strike action is intolerable and I have taken steps to minimise the inconvenience by employing alternate labour in the form of the ease-of-use, on-screen keyboard. I also intend to introduce legislation preventing strike action unless at least 50% of union members on my keyboard are balloted, with a minimum of 40% in favour. I will not be held to ransom by small groups of rebellious keys and wildcat strike action (though I am strongly considering purchasing a new keyboard).
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The Tory Party Conference. Well that was interesting. Any talk of defence cuts, coalitions or the Big Society was roundly overshadowed by a mushrooming- pardon the language- clusterf*** surrounding the decision to withdraw child benefit from families with at least one parent paying the higher rate of income tax. At the start of the week George Osborne announced on breakfast television a fairly reasonable policy to help save £1bn a year whilst only affecting roughly 15% of families. Yet it quickly became clear that the policy was both uncooked, in it's collateral effect on stay-at-home mums and others in similar positions, and unknown, in its sudden announcement that seemed as new to your standard hack as it did to members of the Cabinet (illustrated by May's tete-a-tete with Paxman on Tuesday's Newsnight).

And so the fun began. The policy was savaged not only from the left, but was also attacked from the right as being an attack on the core of the Conservative's support and for perpetuating the image that Cameron and Osborne are smarmy faced, knee-deep in money, posh boys, 'unable to relate to the day-to-day concerns of the voters'- which, incidentally, is what they are. With his back against the wall Cameron reached for one of his true-blue policies, a tax-break for married couples, but not only would this negate a lot of the savings accrued through the child benefit purge, it is also an archaic, puzzlingly large-state, interfering, hash of a policy, with little place in modern Britain. The Tories had let the storyline get way out of hand. On October 20th the Comprehensive Spending Review will be announced, and the child benefit cut was something of a dry run. The Conservative's have had a sniff of their chosen medicine for deficit reduction and it doesn't smell good. Problem is, they're committed to it.
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A face that kept popping up throughout the Tory conference was that of their party chairman, Baroness Warsi. She had a poor week to say the least. It all started rather badly when on the Sunday preceding the conference she yapped her way through a grilling by John Sopel about her accusations of electoral fraud and, in doing so, managed the remarkable feat of not making Kelvin Makenzie look like the biggest tool in an interview. Then on Thursday she suffered the ignominy of being jeered by the baying-for-blood, savages that make up the Question Time audience these days whilst trying to defend the child benefit cut. To be fair it seemed a poor choice on the part of the Tories, like sending out your number 11 batsman to face the oppositions best bowler, but Warsi did herself no favours. When in a corner she attacks in an unpleasant manner reminiscent of Ed Balls, yet she lacks any of the upside that Balls, despite his drawbacks, brings to the Labour party. If Liam Fox isn't the next Cabinet minister to depart then the smart money's on Warsi.
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Speaking of Ed Balls, one must wonder what would feel worse. After waiting patiently for your dream job of shadow chancellor for several years, being passed over for that job for your wife, or being overlooked for that job for someone with no economic experience. Clearly Alan Johnson's appointment is a victory of pragmatism over politics, with Ed Miliband not wishing to invite further speculation on family feuds within the Labour Party, but you can't help but feel slightly sorry for Balls who has been pining after the job since the first shudders in the Brown administration. As Shadow Home Secretary, however, he can be an asset as he brings his combative style up against one of the weaker Ministers in Theresa May. Whilst both Milibands, Balls, and Yvette Cooper are all obviously talented politicians, one can only hope that Ed Miliband's 'new generation' can move beyond the kind of internal politics that are more reminiscent of a bickering family than of a democratic party.

Friday, 1 October 2010

What Ed Said

Ed Miliband's certainly not going to win any prizes for his public speaking delivery. On Tuesday a technical error with the auto-cue caused an awkward delay at the start of his speech, and his body language was much more subdued than that of the over-eager gesticulations of his brother and the more flamboyant presentations of other political leaders. Throughout the first twenty minutes he would occasionally stumble through his words like a predictive text service, pronouncing one word before quickly correcting to his desired choice (for an example see 'deprived/defied' at 15.11). But let us cast such stylistic aspersions aside and examine the substance of this cornerstone address for the Labour Party.

The first ten minutes were well-pitched and set a firm basis from which to embark. Call me sad but I thought the jokes were pretty decent, and his willingness to talk about his Jewish background stands in stark contrast to the last Jewish leader of one of the main parties, Michael Howard. But the heart of the speech was a mixed bag, part cocky, know-it-all, A-level politics student, part responsible new leader of progressive politics. Ed argued that New Labour had 'defied the conventional wisdom' but too often 'bought old, established ways of thinking', and after stating that he would not oppose every coalition cut, followed it up with a lengthy passage on the reasons to oppose the coalition's spending plans. The Times piercingly described it as (paywall) 'at times redolent of Vicky Pollard, the unintelligible schoolgirl from Little Britain, saying 'yeah, but no, but yeah, but no'. This was Ed's bad side.

But then things changed. He staked Labour's starting point for deficit reduction fairly near the centre ground, he talked frankly about immigration, and he issued a clear warning to the Unions about irresponsible strike action. I'm not convinced that his rhetoric on Iraq is genuine, and isn't just playing up to public opinion, but it was a refreshing viewpoint to hear from someone so high up in the Labour Party, as were his criticisms of Labour's record on civil liberties.

As the end came into view, his speech crescendoed with his talk of a new generation and optimism heading into the future. For people of my generation the future can appear like a stick in the hands of the baby-boom generation, comprised of student debts, a poor economic climate and a rapidly ageing population, ready to crush future hopes and dreams. Ed Miliband may not view the need for a new, empowered generation in quite the same way as I do, but to hear a politician talking of optimism going into the future and not simply writing off the young as over-indulged, lazy and work-shy, is a very positive signal to be sending out to young voters.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Labour Hearts Ruling Labour Heads

The kindness of others; Ghost of Labour past; No compromise with the electorate

It was Nick Robinson calling the election in his favour that proved the kiss of death for David Miliband. Sure, the teenage facial hair adorning his top lip can't have been good for karma, but when Robbo plumps for you you know you're done for. To be fair to the BBC's political editor, the facial expressions of the brothers had suggested the senior had been victorious, David sitting relaxed, grinning like a Cheshire cat, Ed ashen faced, like his cat had just been drowned. But as the rounds progressed, and the also-rans were eliminated, the affiliates shifted their weight decisively behind Mili-junior, giving him a final victory margin of just 1.3%. The brothers embraced, providing the papers with the photo they wanted, but more significantly, a genuinely poignant moment. Then Ed Miliband took to the stage to deliver his first speech as leader of the Labour Party.
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On 24 May nominations opened for Gordon Brown's successor. 33 MPs (12.5% of the commons members of the Parliamentary Labour Party) was the threshold, what seems to me like a perfectly reasonable number. You would hope that the person who is going to be the face of your party going into the future is a face preferred by at least an eighth of your MPs, but this being the Labour Party, there were quickly calls that the number was unfair and discriminatory towards the less popular candidates (which is kind of the point of the threshold in the first place).

Both Miliband's secured the requisite amount, and more, with ease, whilst Andy Burnham and Ed Balls rounded up the numbers to secure their place on the ballot with 33 nominations each. This left just John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, both candidates of the left, scuffling to make it. Both had called for all candidates to be let on the ballot but the party had stood firm. If the left was to be represented, some kind of deal was to be done. Abbott held not one, but two trump cards, in that she was a woman and she was black, so McDonnell withdrew and threw his provisional support by Abbott. Yet still Andrew Neil's 'chocolate hobnob' was short of the required number, and it fell upon David Miliband to patronisingly nominate her himself. It was like an inept high jumper asking for the bar to removed, and when told this would defeat the point of the sport, simply asking the world record holder for a leg-up. Hustings season was embarked upon with five contenders in the running.

Even the most ardent Labour supported would have to agree that the summer's leadership campaign failed to spark the nation's interest. The media were quick to point how all the candidates were Oxbridge educated, which is no bad thing, and how Ed Balls and both the Milibands had studied PPE, which again, doesn't seem unreasonable for politicians. However, even throughout the fifty-plus husting events that the candidates attended there seemed little significant friction between each candidates platform- this excludes Diane Abbott who from henceforth shall be widely ignored- and the campaign remained tucked firmly on the inner pages of the newspapers.

Whilst the candidates broadly acknowledged the successes of New Labour whilst arguing it was time to move on, it took two of its architects to make Labour politics front-page news. At the start of July Peter Mandelson published The Third Man, a book released and written as you would expect from someone with an ego as large, as the ads for it were creepy. The memoirs were quickly condemned for both timing and content and the world moved on.

Then in September Tony Blair, know to some as the former Prime Minister, to others as an international war criminal, released his memoirs, A Journey. It is strange how someone who led Labour to power, and kept them in it for 13 years (for the Brown years were won by Blair in 2005), can now prove so divisive. But all five candidates were quick to declare, like kids on the playground, that they don't like him now, and never liked him that much in the first place. Blair himself made little secret of his preference for David Miliband, but the front page stories were all of tales of Labour's past, not of any vision for the future.

The only definitive view of Labour's future was that it would be in the hands of a Miliband. Diane Abbott never had a realistic chance, Andy Burnham was quite dull (the most interesting thing about his campaign being that Jamie Carragher had donated £10,000) to it, and Ed Balls, though slowly growing in stature, wasn't the right for for leader. Whilst their were similarities between the brothers platforms their was a key distinguishing feature. David was painted by many as the New Labour continuity candidate, much as he himself tried to shrug the the tag. He was clear though, that he believed Labour needed to reach out to the centre, and reconnect with the middle-class voters who were with them in 1997, but got lost in the following thirteen years. This appealed to the more centrist parts of the media and seemed like a logical analysis of Labour's recent failures. Ed, on the other hand, felt that Labour needed to reconnect with their tradition support, those that had been taken for granted by New Labour. Whilst this may also have been true, comparisons were quickly drawn, from those on the centre and the right, with Labour's folly that led them down an electoral cul-de-sac in the 1980s. Yet it would appeal to those on the left, those that in the end were the ones that needed to be wooed. It was upon these premises that the dividing lines were drawn.




Voting opened at the start of September and David Miliband was quickly installed as the bookies favourite. But as the result neared, opinion polls suggested that Ed would win it, including one for the Sunday Times that raised some interesting issues. Polling 1,011 Labour members, and using the same electoral system Labour uses, Ed Miliband came out winner in the final round by 52% to David's 48%. Yet of those same 1,011 members, 55% thought David most likely to lead Labour to victory in the next election, compared to 25% for Ed, and 45% thought David would make the best Prime Minister, compared to 28% for Ed. Whilst not exactly the same as the polling data misunderstanding illustrated in The West Wing clip, it was still puzzling. As John Rentoul put it: 'Vote Ed Miliband. No compromise with the electorate.'

And so it was. The MPs went for David in greater numbers than expected, but the second preferences turned things round for Ed, and the more junior brother in age, experience and reputation was declared the winner. Whilst David may be more likely to win a general election, Ed campaigned for the Labour Party electorate and reaped its rewards. His acceptance speech was warm and gracious in its acknowledgement of the other candidates and hinted that becoming leader would not lead to a change of tune towards a centrist approach as some had perhaps expected. It's early days, but much as I like Ed Miliband, and though I probably sit ideologically closer to him, I'd have felt a lot more confident in Labour's chances in the next election with David as leader. Like it or not, elections are fought on the centre ground, and though Ed may 'tickle Labour's tummy' and provide 'the warm feeling that all those deep Labour instincts were right all along', today could be a fateful day for the party. Here's hoping my early pessimism's unfounded.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Lib Dems Identity Crisis


At last years party conference Nick Clegg proclaimed- to much sniggering- that he aspired to be Prime Minister. A year down the line, and though he is only Deputy PM, few people would categorise his year as a failure. But whilst Clegg may be comfortable in his new surroundings in government, rubbing shoulders with Tories and making decisions that he is will now be held accountable to, there were rumblings that sections of his own party were less enamoured with their new bedfellows. And so the Liberal Democrats entered this week in Liverpool with some serious questions needing answering. A conference proceeded by Clegg's announcement that the party had no future as one of the left, and rounded off by Vince Cable's call to arms against capitalism, has sent out mixed messages to say the least.

The issue arises from the very nature of the Liberal Democrats themselves. They are a synthesis between the Liberal and the Social Democrat traditions, meaning internal divisions on certain issues are inevitable. What appears to have become apparent since May is that, if not the majority of its members, but certainly the majority of the people who voted for the Liberal Democrats are more of the Social Democrat variety, whilst the higher echelons of the party, those that now sit in David Cameron's cabinet, run more in the liberal vein. Whilst Lib Dem support in the polls has collapsed since the coalition agreement, as those who voted for them in the General Election, like myself, have deserted, the delegates in Liverpool this week sat like fans of a band making its commercial breakthrough, unsure whether to keep supporting the people they'd been following for the last few years, or brand the new, successful sound as having sold out.

There were no cries of 'Judas' as Clegg delivered his conference speech but it was a defensive piece of oratory, filled with denials- 'we will never lose our soul, we haven't changed our liberal values'- and pleas for support- 'hold our nerve', 'stick with us'. It was , in fact, a well-judged speech, pitched at an audience who may have dropped out of sync with his footsteps, but still trusted him enough to follow his path. Clegg, to date, has done a good job of selling the coalition to his party members, and has competently, if inconsistently with his pre-election thinking, put forward the case for the impending cuts.

While many members accept the coalition's belief in the need for swift deficit reduction, clearly other aspects are more of a hard sell. A motion condemning the Conservative's free schools policy was passed and planned reduction to universal benefits were also overwhelmingly rejected. When grilled on this Clegg extolled the democratic virtues of his party, but what good democracy if those Lib Dems in government must sit like nodding dogs as the coalition sees these measures passed. Five months into government and these are minor tremors, but come conference season next year cracks could open both internally within the Lib Dems, and within the coalition.

One senior Lib Dem who definitely sits in the Social Democrat corner of the party is former Labour Party member and current Business Secretary, Vince Cable. Last week I read a description of Cable as looking like a 'shot-down pilot being forced by his captors to read out a propaganda statement.' Today he was a Marxist revolutionary, proclaiming from the barricades the fall of capitalism. Ok, maybe not- but the mainstream media might make you think so. Cable obviously does believe in capitalism, but the kind he believes in is a more regulated, responsible kind, a perfectly reasonable desire in light of recent effects. Cable's speech was one for all those who consider themselves on the left-wing of the liberal democrats and showed the face of the party that I fell for in May. Unfortunately that face, like Cable himself, looks rather the worse for wear after the bruises and blows encountered from five months with the Conservatives.

The coalition has raised many questions about the Lib Dems identity, but it also provides the key answer to it. Right now the Liberal Democrats are a force in government, not a voice in opposition. Though the slogan 'Delivering for Britain' may seem more appropriate for a conference of the national union of midwives, the point is clear. The Liberal Democrats are influencing policy within Britain in a way they never have in their history, and there is little about that the rank-and-file members can condemn.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Summer Recesses

So my period of World Cup, Wimbledon and West Wing watching, that has lasted since my last exam (May 19th) through to this weekend, is coming to the end with the start of my summer job of tennis coaching on Monday. This stretch of bone idleness has seen my attempts at blogging diminish rather swiftly, but whilst it would be easy to blame it on my lack of motivation, I instead choose to lay all blame with the politicians. Bloody politicians!

The trouble is that nothing's going on. The Labour leadership race rumbles, or rather murmurs, along. Since I last blogged about it, Andrew Neill has accused Diane Abbot of being racist, Ed Ball's is suspected of briefing against Andy Burnham, while the two Miliband's make it look more and more like a two-brother race. Whilst Abbot and Burnham's campaigns are clearly doomed, Ed Ball's has actually been making some headway as Shadow Secretary for Eduacation, though this has been helped along by the first non-expenses cock-up by any member of the coalition.

Michael Gove is an intelligent and well-spoken member of Cabinet. His star has risen very quickly through the Tory ranks, however he is in danger of supernova-ing after taking a hit over his list of axed school building schemes, a list that contained 25 inaccuracies. Branded 'cavalier' by some Labour MP's, a 'miserable pipsqueak' by others (with insults like that you can see why MPs are seen as out of touch) Gove has taken a battering that, though he will in all likelihood survive, leaves him vulnerable should future mistakes be made.

And that's about all that's interesting to have happened since the budget. Parliament slouches towards the summer recess, whilst mine comes to an end. Hopefully come Autumn and conference season there will be a few sparks back into UK politics, but at the moment it's about as interesting as a third place playoff.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

The Budget

Every time there is a budget the BBC releases a useful budget calculator to work out the effect any changes announced will have on your wallet. I usually fill it in, finding that my consumption of alcohol is the only part of my lifestyle to cost me money. This time the freezing of duty on alcohol leaves my wallet untouched, but the point is that until I start earning an income, the budget has little effect on me personally. It may be selfish, but this prevents me from really poring over the detail of the budget document and coming up with a coherent argument on the key points. Instead I'll offer some basic observations:

  • The VAT rise, the headline-maker, is disappointing, being both regressive and coming without any kind of mandate. The Lib Dems especially will take a bit of a kicking on this, and is another clear indicator of the drawbacks for them of the coalition agreement
  • Some of the changes in benefits and tax credits- though popular with the right-wing press- seem particularly harsh. Examples here and here
  • The public sector would inevitably take a hit with the British economy in the situation it is. Whilst Labour would obviously prefer to be in office, it suits their narrative of 'nasty Tories' that the pay freeze for those earning over £21,000 and the pension review comes under the Tories' watch
  • The budget was worryingly sparse on green issues. As Caroline Lucas said, it 'nails the lie to any idea that if you vote blue you get green'. It's disappointing the lack of criticism the it has received on this front
Whilst many commentators declared yesterday as the defining moment of this parliament, we will not know quite how defining it is until we start to witness its effects. Balancing the books by the next election is an ambitious target, and one that, should it go wrong, could leave George Osborne looking foolish. For the moment he has the support of the majority of the press, and it is down to him and his Liberal Democrat counterparts to persuade the majority of voters that the measures taken in this budget are unavoidable.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The Labour Leadership Race- The Newsnight Debate

Assuming they avoid Iain Duncan-Smith levels of ineptitude, one of the five candidates for the Labour Leadership on show on the Newsnight debate last night, will be the Labour leader going into the next general election. It was my first glimpse of the five together and what follows are my thoughts on each's performance:

Andy Burnham

Despite being first to make his pitch to the assembled audience it wasn't until about halfway through the debate that I really took any notice of the former health secretary. For too long it seemed like he was simply an ambitious backbencher who had stumbled into the big-boys group, only to be quickly shouldered out to the edge of the crowd. He distanced himself from the others with the strongest defence of the Iraq war and a defence of New Labour's stance on civil liberties, but he was singing off last week's hymn sheet. He lacked dynamism and verve and stands a long way from making an impact on the leadership contest, let alone the post itself.

Ed Miliband

Before Gordon Brown was even making the humiliating last walk away from Downing Street and into political obscurity, I held a personal fancy for the younger of the Miliband brothers to be his successor. This was mainly due to his exposure as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, and his performance last night, though not clinical, is yet to shake me off the scent. His diagnosis of Labour's failure as being seen as the 'managers and technocrats of society' was acute and he was also clear in his support for the 50p tax rate for the highest earners remaining permanent. Presentation wise he was slightly suspect- each point he was made propelled toward the viewer with the force of some particularly violent hand gesticulations- and I can understand him being seen as not 'heavyweight' enough for the job. But if I had a vote in the leadership election- which I don't- it would be going his way.

Diane Abbott

I'm glad that Diane Abbott made it onto the ballot, and with some murmurings of her making a surprise surge in the race, last night will certainly have gee'd the horses up. Abbott took her presentational lead from Nick Clegg's performance in the first election debate, taking full advantage of her central position, and speaking directly down the camera. At one point, with a growing racket of the other four candidates speaking over each other, she cut through to make her point in an almost stunned silence, like a diminutive teacher asserting her authority over a group of rowdy, testosterone-filled teenagers. The substance matched the style as she put forward both her positions and her differences from the other candidates strongly, no more so than in her criticism of Labour's record on civil liberties towards the end. This provided a good ending to the night that she completed with her choice of John Smith as the Labour leader she most admired. All in all it was a good evening for Labour's left-field, left-wing candidate.

David Miliband

David Miliband is favourite to be the next Labour Leader and last night you could see why. He comes across as the most statesmanlike and provided solid, though not exactly inspiring, responses to the questions posed. At times the camera was searching for him but at one point towards the end, having landed on the senior Miliband blurred, the shot gradually came into focus. This seems to mirror Miliband's campaign as he has gradually shrugged off the criticisms of his failure to challenge Gordon Brown for the leadership, to become the clear frontrunner. Though I prefer Ed, I can't deny that David Miliband would make an effective leader of the Labour party.

Ed Balls

Ed Balls was the most willing of the candidates to address the reasons why Labour lost the 2010 general election and for that he must be commended. However, he seems to think that Labour lost because they did not listen to people like Mrs Duffy, nor speak their language. The former is a fair point, the latter a farce. Labour should not be speaking the language of Mrs Duffy, but listening to people like her and telling her why their approach is better nationally. Balls performed better than I expected, but came across as the most reactionary of the five and, in my opinion, the least principled. Though I am not a fan, I can understand the benefits of having Ed Balls in a front bench position. But leader, no.
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Whilst the debate was engaging and informative there was too little mention of the deficit. The coalition will attempt to justify all measures they take in this parliament with reference to the more than shoddy condition the nation's finances were in when they took the reigns. Any Labour leader must be able to defend, to an extent, why the deficit is so large, and how they intend to cut it. They must win back the trust of the British people in the Labour party's handling of the economy. For Labour to choose a leader without proper reference to these issues would be like choosing the winner of a football game with no reference to who scored the most goals.

Monday, 7 June 2010

On Drinking

Or rather Christopher Hitchens on drinking. The intellectual behemoth has recently published a memoir, 'Hitch-22', from which Slate are currently providing excerpts. Today's 'A Short Footnote on the Grape and the Grain' finishes with a must-read paragraph for all future alcoholics:

"Hitch: making rules about drinking can be the sign of an alcoholic," as Martin Amis once teasingly said to me. (Adorno would have savored that, as well.) Of course, watching the clock for the start-time is probably a bad sign, but here are some simple pieces of advice for the young. Don't drink on an empty stomach: the main point of the refreshment is the enhancement of food. Don't drink if you have the blues: it's a junk cure. Drink when you are in a good mood. Cheap booze is a false economy. It's not true that you shouldn't drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain. Hangovers are another bad sign, and you should not expect to be believed if you take refuge in saying you can't properly remember last night. (If you really don't remember, that's an even worse sign.) Avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than less and are not designed—​as are the grape and the grain—​to enliven company. Be careful about up-grading too far to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won't be easily available. Never even think about driving a car if you have taken a drop. It's much worse to see a woman drunk than a man: I don't know quite why this is true but it just is. Don't ever be responsible for it.

I'll raise my bottle of Budvar to that.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Up Hill and Down Dale


Every year, during the week of the May bank holiday half-term, my Dad and three friends go on a walking holiday. This year was to be their fifth as a group, and the Dales Way, running from Ilkley in North Yorkshire to Bowness by Lake Windermere, was the route selected. Unfortunately, with a month to go and accommodation booked, one of them was forced to pull out leaving a space. Thus, earlier this week I caught a train up into the Yorkshire Dales to join them for a couple of days of their week long journey.

Tuesday 1st June

The first day of the British Summer was one of steady rain, landing me in somewhat of a predicament as I searched in vain for my waterproof. Obviously before returning to York for the summer term I had dismissed the waterproof as surplus to requirements, meaning as I set off on my journey I was also setting off on an examination of the rain-resilience of a recently purchase
d tennis top. I'm happy to report that it did its job.

I caught the 13.58 train from York changing at Leeds onto the train heading for Carlisle. The train stopped at several industrial satellite towns, places like Shipley, Keighley and Shipton, before coming to Settle. Here, the transition from the urban, post-industrial settlements of Yorkshire to its idyllic rurality, was marked by the boarding of, amongst others, one man and his dog. The smell of the dog's damp coat permeated the carriage, letting the nose know what the eyes were already witnessing, the start of the Dales.

Settle marks the start of the Settle-Carlisle railway, a hugely impressive stretch of line both historically and scenically. It may sound slightly geeky to rave about the merits of a rail line but for someone all-to-used to trips up and down the East Coast mainline, Settle-Carlisle was something special. Field upon field stretched out away from the window, each a lush green, separated by the great divider of the countryside, the dry stone wall. Cattle sat, resigned to the soaking they were being subjected to, whilst occasionally one could spy a group of walkers tramping undeterred through fields and over stiles. The landscape would roll away gently from the train window, before gradually ramping up to a far-off horizon, the hills striving upwards as the clouds descended, both seemingly attempting, and in some cases able to, make contact.

I alighted at Dent Station about halfway al
ong the route at 4.15. Eerily I was the only one to leave the train and was greeted by the only two souls on the platform, my Dad and Dave, a fellow member of the walking group. At an altitude of 1,150 feet Dent is the highest station on the National Rail network and a clue to the lack of other passengers joining me in disembarking there is the fact that it lies a good four and a half miles from the village of Dent itself.

Rejoining the Dales Way, and with the rain, after a temporary intermission, rejoining us, we
made our way through damp meadows and cleared woodlands, arriving in Dent at 6.30. Though small, the dire conditions meant that little time was spared in exploring the village as we headed straight to our accommodation, The Sun Inn. The Inn was an established local pub with a few standard bedrooms upstairs that shared bathroom facilities. Though the sign outside promising 'the best ale under the sun' proved to be a predictably hyperbolic claim, the food was good quality pub cuisine and the atmosphere was warm, a happy balance of regulars and passing walkers. The day's activity had been but a gentle warm-up, but having caught up with the news and who had and hadn't made it into Capello's squad, bed was a welcome conclusion.

Wednesday 2 June

Wednesday was scheduled to be a short day, so before setting off for Sedbergh we were able to have a quick look round Dent. This did not take very long as the village is made up of mainly just one cobbled road that curves through the centre, the independent local amenities of a village shop, a couple of tea shops and three pubs, creating a pleasant country atmosphere. On the main road there is erected a large granite memorial stone for Dent's most famous son, Adam Sedgwick. Sedgwick, born in 1785, was the son of the then Vicar of Dent. He studied locally before attending Cambridge University, and then in 1818, despite no prior knowledge of the subject, was made Woodwardian Professor of Geology. He preceded to more than brush up his knowledge of all things rocks, and is now recognised as a founder of modern Geology. During his time in Cambridge he also guided a young Charles Darwin, though in later years was to strongly
oppose Darwin's theory of evolution. His legacy lives on in the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, on Downing Street in Cambridge.

The walk from Dent to Sedbergh was just six miles and with the fine weather we were able to make good progress. Despite only leaving after 11, by lunchtime we were sitting on a hill side overlooking our destination. Sedbergh sits like an untied shoelace at the foot of the Howgills and as we ate lunch, on the hills above the town the shadow of the clouds dotted across the sky crept slowly over the hills like a slide show. We made our way into the town passing the many cricket pitches of the prestigious boarding school, Sedbergh School, before reaching the centre that consisted of a narrow main street walled with pubs, tea shops and book shops.

Since 2006, Sedbergh has been the Book Town for England, official recognition for its diverse
selection of second-hand bookshops. There's a bookshop for those interested in textiles, for those
interested in topography and for those interested in transport. For those just generally interested in books, Westwood Books provides the best selection of subjects, though the claim of coffee and a seating area is in reality a coffee machine with a single seat next to it.

In the evening we ate at The Bull Hotel where we learned of the day's tragic events just to the west of us in Cumbria. When we returned to the B&B we sat in stunned silence watching the 10 o'clock news, an activity normally only undertaken on these walking trips for the weather forecast that follows it. Whilst the whole country would have been shocked by what happened, over the next day or so it was noticeable how the people of Cumbria were particularly affected by the events occurring so close to them. The next day, a farmer who had been following the massacre unfold online mentioned how he had feared for walkers as the gunman's whereabouts had briefly become unknown. We had been completely oblivious to what was going on, as would anyone else who was out on the hills, but for those who had been aware of events as they preceded, the angst remained etched on their usually cheerful faces into Thursday and likely beyond.

Thursday 3 June

Thursday involved a 17 mile journey from Sedbergh to Burneside, a village just outside of Kendal, so an early start was made, setting off at 9.15. The morning consisted of three 90 minute bursts, during which we passed some grand unused viaducts, relics of the now disused west coast rail line, as well as crossing the M6 and the new West Coast Mainline, the two modern arteries of North-West England. We lunched after about 9 miles before setting out into the now sweltering afternoon heat for the last 8.

Just after three we passed a farmer who, on hearing of our destination, commented in the soft, jolly, northern fashion specific to Cumbria: 'Burneside. That'll take ye another four hours. S'only five minutes by car.' Despite the obvious jest in his tone, his point resonated somewhat with me. I'm no great fan of car travel, indeed I've never even been in control of one, but when travelling day-to-day from place-to-place, I prefer something a bit more time-efficient. It's just a bit depressing that in a day of seven hours of walking you cover the same amount of distance through your own power on a bike in two. You may be restricted to the route dictated by the roads, but you still move slowly enough to take in the scenery but fast enough to feel like you're actually getting somewhere.

Despite my quibble, I'm not going to deny there was a decent sense of achievement when we reached our accommodation. The Gateway Inn lies a mile up the hill out the other side of Burneside from the Dales Way, but to be honest it didn't look like we were missing out on much from not being down in the village. The evening's food was excellent, and the beer, though I stuck to the safe option of lager this time, was relished.

Friday 4 June

On Friday, as the rest of the group set off on the last leg of their trip up to Bowness, I caught the train back to York. Burneside has a tiny train station, to the extent that it is a request stop. This meant that as the train approached from Windemere, myself and the other guy on the platform were required to step out to the edge of the platform to hail the train down the way you would a taxi. The train took me down to Preston where I changed to head across the Pennines back To York. The journey provided mixed scenery, passing some impressive scenery basking in the summer sun, as well as some of the more grim Lancashire industrial towns.

I arrived back into York at about 2.30 in the afternoon. The two days away had proven welcome relief from the growing monotony of post-exam uni life, especially as a lot of people are only just finishing in the next few days, meaning last week I'd have been pretty secluded. For someone who hadn't been to the Dales before I was very impressed. The landscape is a lot more gentle than the more mountainous Lake District, and thus retains more of a rural serenity. This is also aided by the fact that the places we passed through were not yet buzzing with tourists to the extent places like Windermere and Ambleside are. The legs I walked toook us from the very north of Yorkshire into the South Lakes. In future, as I gradually grow to consider myself a part-time Yorkshireman, I intend to explore the Dales further south into the county.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

The Present, The Future


The good weather that initially greeted the completion of exams has dissipated, but no fear. A few more people have finished now and we've been working through DVD collections, an exercise that culminated on Tuesday in about six hours of film viewing, in which we finished off the second half of The Godfather before ploughing through Apocalypse Now and The Usual Suspects. Wednesday was spent shell-shocked, the fear of assassination looming every time I left the house.

Apocalypse Now was the only of the three that I hadn't seen before and I have to admit I didn't really take to it. I'm no fan of Conrad's Heart of Darkness around which the film is based and the themes that were replicated in the adaptation failed to grab me. Some of the surreal aspects made effective points in an amusing fashion, but others, for example the Playboy show, passed me by. At the length the film is as well, it'll be some time before I choose to give it a second viewing.

That's the present. As for the future, on Thursday I accepted my offer for an MA here at York. Assuming I get a 2.1, next year I'll be studying International Political Economy, the area of my degree that I've found most interesting over the last few years, and one that still combines both economics and politics. I've applied for funding but I'm not too hopeful, so the summer will be spent raising funds. As for why I'm doing it, job prospects obviously comes into it, but I also hold a genuine interest in the subject and wish to become more specialised in it.

I also had offers from Manchester and Sheffield that I shall turn down. There was part of me that, for a while, felt that not too leave York would represent a stagnation in life progress, but looking at it I like the city, the uni and the people who will still be about here next year. After next year I intend to move on, be it too a job or gap year. However, right now I'm pretty excited about next year.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

A Pageant of Galling Opulence

My morning routine at the moment involves waking up, half an hour checking the internet, followed by a shower, before heading downstairs to fix up a breakfast of a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee. If the weather's good I'll eat it outside, but more often than not my first meal of the day is accompanied with some BBC News viewing. This usually entails discussions of Icelandic volcanoes, striking BA workers, or the posturings of the new coalition government, but today Huw Edwards, with his dulcet Welsh tones, was on hand for live coverage of the Queen's Speech.

Watching the State opening of Parliament for the first time, I quickly came to the conclusion that it is a ridiculous spectacle of outdated procedure and archaic pomposity. 'Here is the entrance of the Sword of State and the Cap of Maintenance' Edwards announced, as an old sword and pointless piece of headgear were laid on a pedestal. The gathered spectators acted as if the Holy Grail had just been placed in front of them. Alongside our Welsh friend in the studio, Nick Robinson and the three party representatives positively salivated over proceedings and their conveyance of 'history' and 'authority'. To me it all seemed like pure tomfoolery.

Our unelected Head of State arrived, to address our unelected Upper Chamber. As the cameras panned throughout the corridors of Westminster, men dressed as if it was the seventeenth century kept the ceremony moving. In the robing room, Ken Clarke had accessorized his ridiculous garb with a regal looking, clutch bag-cum-purse in which the speech was kept. Once the Queen was eventually seated in the House of Lords some poor man was sent to tell the House of Commons to make their way over. As he made his way down the corridor a police woman yelled 'hats off, strangers', an act that was quickly trumped in rudeness my someone slamming the door in the face of the messenger. Unfazed, he withdrew a big stick and slammed the door with it until they let him in. It was all rather ridiculous.

The speech itself marked the dawn of the supposed 'new politics', but today was a stark reminder of how rooted in history our system is. Some people like that, but I fail to see any merit in retaining these ceremonial formalities. I don't see it changing any time soon, but as I took the last swig of my now lukewarm coffee, I felt rather bemused and very removed from the workings of our democracy.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

The Post-Degree High

The invigilator, a bald man who had customised his facial features with a greying goatee and square, thick-rimmed glasses, stepped up to the lectern and calmly announced that time was up and we were obliged to put our pens down. I had finished about five minutes before hand, running rather dry on material for the last question, but this was the official end. The entrance to Central Hall, where exams are sat, is from below, meaning at the start of the exam you emerge into the hall up a flight of stairs, creating a strange gladiator-entering-the-arena type feeling. With answer booklets collected, the invigilator once more leant towards the microphone. 'You may now leave...' The surge towards the door started, accompanied by a crescendo of 'how'd you find it's'. As we headed down the stairs, back into the bowels of the academic stadium, the invigilator again; '...and enjoy your afternoon'.

Your afternoon indeed! I've just completed my degree. I've got the next six and a half weeks off. A month and a half. 44 days. '... and enjoy your afternoon'.

I collected my stuff up and headed out into the afternoon sun. I started wandering around campus on the pretext of getting some money out to get a sandwich, but there wasn't the usual purpose in my stride. I ambled. People scurried past me, anxious to get somewhere, fast. My vision, that had been firmly directed straight down onto revision notes the past few weeks, seemed as if it could scan 360 degrees, without me as much as turning my head. I was taking everything in, not in a detailed processing sense, but in a more general appreciative manner. The trees swaying in the breeze, the sun glinting off the metal railings across the bridge, the stolid brown serenity of the lake. It must have been some kind of post-degree high.

So what am I going to do for the next month and a half? Good question. For starters, read... lots. Back in first year there was a time when I was getting through a couple of 200 page books a week. If I can get back to near that kind of prolificness I'd be pretty happy. I also intend to take advantage of the fact that we have all seven series of The West Wing in our house, though getting through all seven is probably wishful thinking. In a couple of weeks there's the World Cup, during which I intend to chant and rant against England enough to wind up my mates, but not enough for them to turn on me and savagely kick my Scottish ass back where it came from (which is England anyway, so the jokes on them). Then in the last two weeks of term they can return the favour by berating Andy Murray as he fails to win Wimbledon again. For any other spare time? Beer should do the trick.

To the completion of my degree...
Cheers

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Film Week


Well, for me at least. I've never been a particularly avid movie-watcher, but in the last week with revision taking up my days, and sleep my nights, films have provided the perfect diversion in the evenings. Over the last seven days the three that I've watched are Ae Fond Kiss, Four Lions, and Gran Torino. Although I have no intention of painting myself as an Ebert or a Kermode, here's my thoughts on those said three films.
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Last Monday I watched Ken Loach's Ae Fond Kiss on iplayer. It has since disappeared from there but for those who are interested you can find it here on Youtube. It's set in Glasgow and explores the relationship struck up between second-generation Pakistani, Casim, and teacher and Catholic, Roisin, as their different religions, cultures and family situations act as an apparently insurmountable hindrance to their pursual of the relationship.

It's the first Ken Loach film I've watched, and I'm aware that he's directed far more critically acclaimed pictures. The major downfall of this film is that it didn't seem to cover any new or original territory, and harsher critics could accuse it of simply being a grittier, more realist version of Bend it Like Beckham, with several, if slightly strained, parallels between the stories. That, however, shouldn't detract from what is a genuinely well-executed examination of cultural differences in multi-cultural Britain, and the remaining prevalence of religion in certain areas of this country. The Catholic Church is depicted especially cruelly through Gerald Kelly's scowling, dogmatic Priest. The acting is generally good, and the performance of the two main characters especially, provides some touching moments. On the basis of this I look forward to exploring Loach's work further.
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On Friday evening, searching for some light relief from the unforgiving task of Economics revision, Digg, Burnley and I went to see Four Lions (picture above). Obviously a film about suicide bombers isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea and there were certain parts of the film when I felt a self-awareness about what I was laughing at. However, watching Four Lions with pre-determined judgements will inevitably lead to missing out on the bulk of the film that is simply dopey, slapstick humour.

The jihadis portrayed in Four Lions are bumbling fools, who would struggle to organise a Doner Kebab, let alone a suicide bombing. Their stupidity helps to distance the events within the film from reality, as does all but one of the ridiculous situations they find themselves in in the film's climax. The fact that there are four idiots to the one straight guy means the idiocy is somewhat overloaded, but it is also true that some of the slapstick moments provide the biggest laughs.

If you're expecting a political message from Four Lions prepare to be disappointed. Critics can talk of the 'touching humanity' of the characters, or 'the brilliant takedown of the imbecility of fanaticism', but, in my view, the most political it gets is the veiled reference to the DeMezenes shooting- 'We shot the right man, but the wrong man exploded'. As would be expected from a film written by a combination of the minds behind Brasseye and Peep Show, Four Lions is simply a very funny film.
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As well as never having seen a Ken Loach film, I'd also never seen a Clint Eastwood film, actor or director, until yesterday. In Gran Torino he directs as well as acts, in what he has said will be his last role. Similar to Ae Fond Kiss, it is a story based around the clash of different cultures, yet it is one clearly rooted in America, if not forgotten industrial America, in this case Detroit.

Through the first half of the film it very much seemed like the end of each scene would involve someone pointing a gun at someone of a different race accompanied with a verbal barrage of racist epithets. I personally struggle to engage with books, films and TV shows that have an inherently unlikable main character, and in this case, the bigoted nature of Eastwood's Walt Kowalski rankled far into his apparent rehabilitation.

The second half of the film was better as Kowalski begins to practise the virtues of forgiveness and tolerance in his nurturing of his young neighbour, Thao. Whilst Eastwood puts in an impressive tough-guy performance at the age of 78, the acting of Thao and his sister Sue, lets the film down at times. In the end, Kowalski's gun-toting, DIY-hero, nature leads to troubles that culminate in a powerful finish, yet one that left me thinking whether the film was as much about generational conflict as it was about cultural divisions. Gran Torino is a good film, but appraising it as a social commentary is tough, especially as removed as from this side of the Atlantic.


Saturday, 15 May 2010

Cameron Picks his Cabinet

Let's get the big guns in first. Hague to the Foreign Office. He speaks well, though he does sounds a bit funny. He doesn't like Europe much, either. That'll show those Continent-loving Lib Dems. Osborne can be Chancellor. Did they really think we'd let some radical dinosaur like Vince Cable have that? He can go to Business. After all, I did promise George he could play with the money if he kept his mouth shut and his sneering face hidden during the campaign. I know Michael Gove said he'd give up his seat for a Lib Dem but we've invested too much hot air on this 'Swedish free schools' thing. He's the only one that really gets it anyway. A school for free? Sounds ridiculous.

These pesky Lib Dems. Got to slot them in somewhere. Tell you what, Clegg can be Deputy PM. It sounds pretty glamorous but doesn't really mean much. I wonder if he makes a good cup of tea. We'll give them Climate Change as well. They seem to be really into that stuff. I know we say we are, but we only do it because we have to. If it was really up to our members we'd be emitting carbon faster than you can say 'but I'll be dead by the time the icecaps have melted'. We'll give that to the grey-haired one, the one that seems to have been permanently pissed off since he didn't get to become leader a few years ago. Chris Huhne. That's him. And the two ginger ones. One of them must be a Scottish MP. We sure as hell can't get any up there! Danny Alexander. Sorted, Scottish Secretary. And the other? Former investment banker. To the Treasury, David Laws, to the Treasury.

Right. Looks like I've gone and surrounded myself with a group of well-presented, Oxbridge educated, 40-somethings, a couple of over-50 university-lecturer types, and a few lavishly-lunched behemoths, all male, all white. Probably time to get a few women into the cabinet. Cheryl Gillan and Caroline Spelman help to make up the numbers, and Baroness Warsi brings the minority quota up to... oh, just one... unelected as well. Yikes. Last one better be big then. How about Theresa May for Home Secretary. Yeah, Home Secretary. The one that became a bit of a revolving door under Labour as there's so much shit just waiting to hit the fan. Immigration shit, crime shit, national security shit. Yeah we'll give her that.

Oh, and tell you what. Because it'd look a bit stupid giving an old white man Minister for Women and Equality, she can have that as well. Adds a little gravitas. What? She's against equal rights for homosexuals? She can't be any worse than Chris Grayling though? He really blew it. Couple of weeks away from the Home Office and he goes and makes some stupid comment about gays in B&Bs. She voted against lowering the age of consent for homosexual couples to the same as heterosexual couples? Against gay adoption? Against repealing Section 28? Jeez. Try and keep that on the down low. Can't be doing with that kind of hassle. I've got a country to run.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The Deal is Done

As Gordon Brown stepped outside 10 Downing Street to announce his resignation for the second time in two days, I was sat in the library revising poverty and inequality for my Economics of Social Policy exam on Thursday. It seemed fitting. Since I came to any kind of political awareness, this country has been governed by the Labour party, a party founded by the working class to protect its interests against those of big business, against those of the rich. Labour has achieved a lot in its thirteen years of power- minimum wage, child tax credits, gay rights- yet I have never considered supporting it. Yes, there was Iraq, the sustained attack on civil liberties, cash-for-honours and cash-for-influence; but Labour's greatest failure is its record on inequality. The fact that the richest 10% of the population are now more than 100 times richer than the poorest 10% makes for a sad epitaph on the New Labour gravestone.

Not that the Lib Dems will be getting my vote again any time soon. Details are continuously emerging of the deal they have come to with the Conservatives, with Clegg set to be deputy PM and four other Liberal Democrats taking posts in Cabinet. I fear that the yellow bird I placed my cross next to last Thursday may well have been brought to the ground by a pellet from the Tory shotgun, bringing down with it an amnesty for illegal immigrants and a less Europhobic Britain. The resulting main course will likely be an assault on public services, enacted in the Tory's emergency budget. The decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives will surely not be popular with a lot of the parties grass roots, so whilst Clegg may be dipping his hand into the fire successfully on one side, he should be prepared for a flame-thrower from the rear.

And finally, David Cameron, privilege etched from ear-to-ear, enters Downing Street. Though it is not the result I wished for or feel is best for the country, it is the right outcome considering the result last Thursday. He does not hold the mandate he wished to so will have to tread carefully, leaving less of a footprint across the parts of the country that rightfully fear what the Tories could do. Though it is never good to be in opposition, there are worse times than this. Labour must regroup, take time electing a new leader, and consolidate the working class support that prevented it from suffering a deserved hammering at this election. It is only once it has re-established its connection with the people it is supposed to represent that it can look to enter government as a progressive force once more.


Sunday, 9 May 2010

Election Night

Swings and things; Takeaways from Efes and Labour (though not enough); A job well hung; The smoke-filled rooms

It's now over two days since the UK staggered into its first hung parliament since 1974 and, as of yet, no two parties have come to an agreement to get it back moving again. Talks are ongoing between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, and the consensus seems to be that a 'change coalition' will be agreed upon sometime soon. However, we shall see. I was going to write something about the election result on friday night but a hangover, a lack of sleep and 18 hours sat in front of BBC One's TV coverage meant that typing something up onto a computer screen was the last thing on my mind. The time that has elapsed since results night, and my alcohol enhanced state as David Dimbleby hauled my attention round the country, means that the chronology of the night is pretty hazy, but what follows is a rough recollection.

Having stocked up for the night ahead there were four of us who took our seats at ten o'clock for the start of the BBC's coverage. The exit poll had just been released, predicting a hung parliament and, more importantly to us- two of whom had voted Lib Dem, and one who would have had he sorted out a postal vote- a drop in the Lib Dems number of seats. The feeling in our living room was not to read too much into it, a sentiment echoed by the stream of politicians who patiently answered the obtuse questions Paxman barked at them like a grumpy St. Bernard.

Elsewhere in the BBC studio, Jeremy Vine was guiding us through a virtual world, that would have been enthralling for those who like their politics with a side-helping of hallucinogenics, but, for those of us not travelling through Interzone, left one feeling slightly queasy. Emily Maitlis had the job of analysing turnout, majorities and swing, within constituences, and was ably aided by Yougov pollster Peter Kellner and a giant iphone. Andrew Neill was on a seemingly pointless yacht moored by the London Eye, with seemingly pointless celebrities, seeking out their seemingly pointless opinion, while back in the studio David Dimbleby held the thing together. After an hour and a half of speculation upon the exit poll figures it was somewhat of a relief when the results started flowing in.

The early seats were safely held by Labour though with a significant swing towards the Conservatives. At about quarter past eleven Ryan bailed, leaving just three of us. He, like most other people in Britain, had normal life to live the next day. Slowly the Conservatives started to make gains, whilst the Lib Dem surge, as predicted, was proving rather shy in showing its face. The first real scalp of the night was the demise of Lembit Opik, who, on his way out will take his celebrity girlfriends and ego with him. Parliament won't miss him. Just after twelve o'clock, Richard also retired, a decision somewhat justified considering he had driven to Manchester and back that afternoon to vote. That just left myself and Digg, to-the-bitter-end veterans of the 2008 US Presidential Election and the 2009 European Elections, to watch the countries future unfold.

Whoever was doing the unfolding was making a right hash of it, tearing corners off and smudging bits all over the country. As we progressed through the Heinekens, each Tory gain was met by a drunken groan of discontent. Yet the gains they were making were scattered. While they took some seats far down their target list, they failed to take some marginals that they though were bankers. Goes to show, you can never rely on a banker. Post-Heinekens, during-Doner Kebab, the first personally important result of the night was announced as my Uncle John took Carlisle for the Conservatives*. Post-Heineken and Doner Kebab, during-Red Wine, my two residential constituencies of South-East Cambs and York Outer went Conservative. By the time the Greens took their first ever Parliamentary seat down in Brighton Pavilion, we were onto the Coffees. At seven o'clock, with a hung parliament virtually assured, I finally dozed off.

I woke again at about 10.30 to find David Dimbleby (who Digg assured me had been to bed for a couple of hours) still fronting the BBC coverage, with a hung parliament guaranteed. Richard rejoined us, fresh after his sleep, as the two of us sat groggy and unwashed, hoping for some quick developments during the day. All three main parties had reason to be disappointed. The Tories had failed to win an overall majority, Labour had seen a massive slip in both their share of the vote and in their seats, and the Lib Dems didn't realise the gains they had been hoping for. Its was as if whilst the three parties had been fighting amongst themselves, the electorate had stepped in and placed three very well-aimed kicks to the groin.

After four weeks of going at each others throats, by eleven on Friday morning, cooperation in 'the interest of the nation' was the new trend. First Nick Clegg announced that the Tories, through gaining the most votes and seats, had effectively 'shotgunned' first go at making a government. Brown followed with a thinly veiled plea to the Lib Dems. Then, at around 14.20, for a brief few minutes we though something might be on.

As the BBC's camera's remained trained on the lectern that David Cameron was due to speak from at 14.30, a banner ran across the bottom of the screen stating that Clegg intended to speak at 14.40.
'That doesn't give him much time to respond to Cameron's speech' I mused.
'Perhaps they've already spoken,' suggested Digg. 'They might both be announcing they've come to an agreement.'
'Or maybe they've spoken, and Clegg's rejecting the Tories and off to make a deal with Labour' I counter-speculated .
It sounded plausible to us.

It turned out there was no substance behind the Clegg rumour, and Cameron's speech was just the opening salvo in the negotiations between parties. If we'd thought it through a bit more we'd probably have realised that to come to a deal that quickly would have been rash, yet in our frenzied state it had seemed possible. As the coverage returned to the studio, an image of Jeremy Vine tumbling down the stairs of his virtual Downing Street flashed across my mind. 16 hours straight of election coverage can really twist the soul.

Two days later and it now seems likely that a Con-Lib pact will be announced soon. After the initial energy burst of election night I'm pretty burnt out by politics now, and my attention is turning to the rather more pressing matter of next week's exams. I've come to be pretty ambivalent about who forms a government, with all parties shaping up like over-exuberant surgeons, scalpel in hand, ready to slash away at public services. Some say this is the time to lose, with the post-operation diagnosis likely being to stay away from that particular surgeon. If if the Lib Dems can get the ball rolling on PR, whilst leaving the Tories to make the tough decisions on public spending I won't be too disappointed. Chances are we'll have the fun and games of another election in the not too distant future.

*Family ties override political allegiances with the Carlisle result. I spent an afternoon leafletting there back at the start of April, and my parents both spent the last week pounding the streets, sticking literature through letterboxes and knocking on doors. I met them yesterday, as they travelled back down to Cambridge, where they described the excitement of the count. With an eventual majority of just 853, at one stage they feared the worse as it looked like Labour may just cling on. However, after running a highly organised, near flawless campaign, the seat was won with a 7.7% swing. On Friday, my Mum, understandably very proud off her little brother, purchased a copy of every local paper going, so currently on my bed behind me, my Uncle lies grinning out of the pages of the Carlisle News & Star, and The Cumberland Times.



Thursday, 6 May 2010

My Vote, My Election

After a couple of productive days in which I was on campus by 9 and spent a good 6 hours revising, I'm now sitting in bed with a thumping headache and a mouth as dry as a backwards county in Alabama. Ironically, it was the presence of alcohol last night, rather than any absence of it, that lies behind my current predicament. I've decided that after tonight's election night frivolities I'll be going teetotal for the next two weeks until my exam's finish, as I can't really afford the lost time lying in bed, letting 6music nurse my hangover. However, for today, Nurse Good has prescribed some Velvet Underground, some Wonderstuff, and a couple of paracetamol to get me in a fit state to go and perform my civic duty of voting.

Since turning 18 back in August 2007 I'm yet to vote, my only opportunities being a couple of local elections and last year's European elections. This wasn't out of any political apathy but more borne out of a general apathy towards the parties on offer. No-one really struck me as a party I wanted to vote for.

In November 2008 a group of us got drunk and stayed up to watch an eloquent African-American stride to power after mobilising many disillusioned Americans with ambiguous words like 'hope' and 'change'. At five in the morning there was still about six of us watching as Obama made his much-acclaimed victory speech in Chicago. Through a haze of beer, wine and spirits it all looked very exciting. Imagine what it must have been like for young people that side of the Atlantic.

Six months later, in the European Elections of 2009, there was just two of us sat up watching as, for the first time ever, a Fascist party was elected in a British election. It had been a long night, and with the Tories and Ukip coming first and second in votes respectively, the BNP's successes were the vile icing on a bitter cake. Like vultures, they had fed off the carcass of voter disillusionment that had been exacerbated beyond all belief by the expenses scandal. My choice not to vote, not because of duck houses or moats, but because of laziness, had contributed to their success. Last month I saw Richard Herring's Hitler Moustache show in Cambridge, in which he discusses issues of race and the rise of the far-right in a very funny, thought-provoking ninety minutes of comedy. He asked if any of us had chosen not to vote in last year's elections. Me and quite a few others rather sheepishly lifted our hands. 'So there wasn't one person on that ballot paper you preferred to a Fascist?' he asked. Rather crudely he had hit the nail on the head. Even if the main parties don't appeal to you, they must strike a chord with you more than a fascist. The BNP actually got less votes than in 2004, but a greater share of the vote due to the low turnout, so every extra vote for Labour, the Lib Dems, the Conservatives, Ukip, the Greens, would have eaten into that share and lessened the chance of a BNP victory. I vowed that in future, if a far-right candidate was running in any election I was registered to vote in I would use that vote to try and stop them.

I'm now more politically engaged than I have been since I turned 18, so even if we didn't have a BNP candidate running I think I would be voting today. This decision is augmented by the fact that York Outer has a notional majority of just 200 to the Lib Dems over the Tories, so my vote will count a lot more than most of the electorate in this country. My vote for the Lib Dems, that is.

Out of the three main parties I oppose the Conservatives, and don't believe Labour's record after thirteen years in office warrants another five years. The Lib Dems aren't the radical break from the 'two old parties' that Nick Clegg claims they are, but they are, in my view, the more progressive of the three. If we had a Green candidate here in York I would seriously consider voting for them as I believe my views are most closely reflected in their policies, but even then our archaic electoral system might have forced be back to the Lib Dems. Perhaps by achieving a hung parliament we will be able to get the electoral change necessary to make Britain more democratic, by making everyone's vote count the same.
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Further afield there are several seats round the country I'll be keeping a close eye on tonight. South-East Cambs is now likely to be a close race after the Tories 8,000 majority was rendered null by the expulsion of the Labour candidate just a week or so ago. If the Liberal Democrats can pick up enough of the Labour votes they could mount a serious challenge on the seat. I'm hoping that the Greens can pick up at least one seat, with their best chances looking like Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion and Adrian Ramsay in Norwich South. There are two seats as well, where I'd actually like to see the Conservatives win (please forgive me). One is Morley and Outwood where Anthony Calvert has run an enthusiastic campaign to try and get rid of the menace that is Ed Balls. The other is Carlisle, where my Uncle is the Conservative candidate. Though you would expect the city to be Labour, a divided local party means that the Tories could steal it.

As for my overall prediction, though I don't like it, I expect the Conservative's to get a small majority- no more than 40 though. I'm hoping for a hung parliament, but have little idea of the kind of antics that could potentially take place over the next few days should that occur. After being excited about many things this campaign and generally being let down- the debates for example- I hope tonight is not the same.


Friday, 30 April 2010

End of the Week Feeling

After a solid day's work yesterday, in which I spent three hours reading in the library in the morning before editing and printing off my essays in the afternoon, today has reverted back to type. I've been sat in my room watching the snooker online whilst listening to 6music's election special, with not a journal article in sight. If there's a finer British institution- for time wasting- than the BBC, I'm yet to discover it.

The aforementioned BBC had its shot at the Prime Minister's Debate yesterday, pitting Brown, Cameron and Clegg against each other down in Birmingham. I watched it at Andy Brown's house where he supplied myself, Digg and Richard with a splendid feast of Indian food that rather overshadowed the proceedings taking place inside his tellybox. As with the other two debates my attention was held for the first half hour or so, in which, contrary to almost everyone else, we all felt that Brown asserted himself fairly well. Yet as the debate wore on it became indistinguishable from the previous two- it was too long, the same topics were waded through again and all three (that includes you Nick Clegg) engaged in cheap political point scoring. Whilst the debates have added a certain amount of glitz and glamour to our, at times, turgid system I can't really see many floating voters having had their mind made up over the course of the last three Thursdays. I know the X-factor/beauty pageant comparisons are clich├ęd but they're a pretty accurate reflection of what's taken place.

I'm off to Lancaster tomorrow for Roses. Should be good fun as long as the weather holds, and hopefully York will be able to overturn the deficit they face at the moment, and crush the Red Rose for the fourth year in a row. Obviously it means that I won't be getting much/any revision done this weekend. However, by the start of next week it'll be all engines go revision and election wise. Meanwhile, feel free to check out this enjoyable blog by the Green candidate standing against my uncle in Carlisle. For a Green, he's actually quite pleasant about the Conservative campaign, saving his more scathing thoughts for the local Labour party.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The Brown Factor

The digital (error) election; Your mic's still on Gordon; A sad spectacle; The guillotine moved into position

I was going to post something today about the internet effect on this election. However, Gordon Brown's gone and called some old lady in Rochdale 'bigoted', providing the first real gaffe of this campaign and further alienating himself from much of the electorate. So instead of any real analysis of the impact- or rather lack of impact- of online fundraising, the blogosphere and twitter I'll offer my thesis in a short paragraph before moving on to the calamity that is Labour, and Gordon Brown's, campaign.

I missed the first few days of the current election period whilst still on a family holiday in Cyprus so it wasn't until watching a muted Sky News in the departures lounge at Paphos airport, that I came across any real coverage of the campaign. The news being covered was Labour's dismissal of Stuart MacLennan, candidate for the Moray constituency, for some rather crude and expletive postings on his Twitter account. Fast forward a couple of weeks and the past two days have seen both Conservative and Labour suspend candidates for similar activities. Tory candidate Phillip Lardner was found to hold some rather outdated and intolerant views on homosexuality, openly expressed on his website, whilst Labour candidate John Cowan, in my home constituency of South-East Cambridgeshire*, fell foul of lewd comments he had made on internet forums. Whilst talk of stories from the blogosphere coming to dominate the news cycles, and Twitter being used as an effective mass campaigning tool have failed to materialise, the internet has still had an impact on the campaign. It's effect has been to add an extra layer of scrutiny upon those running for office, be it through their website, their Twitter or even forums completely unrelated to politics. What has become clear is that candidates enter the 'New Media' fray at their peril.

While the self-styled commentators of the internet have sat forlorn at their keyboards, failing to make the impact they had hoped, it is that age-old medium of TV that is defining this election. This is most obvious in the introduction of the TV debates that have taken place, adding a Presidential gloss to our electoral system. But what could prove to be more important in terms of the Labour vote, is this 28 seconds worth of footage of Gordon Brown speeding away from a meeting with ordinary voters- or 'plebs' as I'm sure he'd call them- in Rochdale. Whether the lady Brown's 'bigot' comment referred to is a jaundiced, old xenophobe is neither here nor there. What matters is the public's perception of Brown. This could well be the moment that he scuppers the Labour ship once and for all.

Labour's slip to third in the polls came largely as a result of the Liberal Democrat's unexpected surge in support after the ITV debate. However, the foundations for such a decline were set by entering the election with Brown still as leader. That he is resented on the right is little surprise- all Labour leaders are- but Brown's corrosive influence has been to alienate those remaining voters in the centre, who were part of the wave New Labour rode to power in 1997, and stuck with the party throughout the whole Blair era, Iraq and all. Through the Brown years there has been an exodus, creating the strong possibility that Labour will come third in the popular vote on May 6th.

Policy wise, confronting his biggest challenge, the financial crisis, Brown responded with what was close to a textbook response. Yet it is an inescapable fact that his cosying up to the City whilst Chancellor, allowing London to become the 'Guantanamo Bay' of the financial world (in that traders could get away with practises forbidden anywhere else), leaves some responsibility for the scale of the collapse at his feet. His profligacy in Number 11 also lies behind the size of deficit Britain now faces. His tenure as Prime Minister has been very much determined by errors he made before even taking the post.

At crucial moments Brown has appeared indecisive, from the election-that-never-was in the Autumn of 2007, to the expense scandal of last year. Within Downing Street he surrounded himself with a cabal that old Richard M. Nixon would have been proud off, a choice that blew up in his face with the McBride affair last Easter. And then there are the incessant media gaffes. Most of these have been innocent acts of incompetence (such as attending a summit of world leaders looking like this, or leading Al Gore into a cupboard at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit), but today's was the first to show his temperamental nature that has been much speculated upon. People who, till now, sympathised with him as a luckless man, struggling to deal with the constant press harassment that a modern day politician must endure, will find this error harder to forgive.

Should we reach a hung parliament, Labour might just hold on to power in a Lib-Lab coalition, though a potential dealbreaker in such a case may be the removal of Brown. It could be that it is Nick Clegg, rather than anyone from within Brown's own party, who finally stands on the fingers that have been clinging to the cliffs edge for so long. Should the Liberal Democrat's turn the other cheek to Labour's pleas or the Conservatives win an overall majority then Labour will have no choice but to jettison Brown and look to rebuild under a new leader. Though they currently stand just five points behind the Conservatives there remains a chance that the Labour vote could completely collapse, with those who sympathise with Labour beliefs but resent the current party, staying at home. If that's the case, then allowing Gordon Brown to remain at the head of the party for so long could have far-reaching consequences for the future of the Labour Party.

* Cowan's suspension so close to the election means that Labour can not now stand a candidate in the constituency. This means that the Lib Dem candidate, Johnathan Chatfield, who also contested the seat in 2005, could now mount a serious challenge on Jim Paice, MP for the area since 1987. The notional majority is 8,000, but there are now 10,000 or so Labour votes to be scrapped over. Though I'm voting here in York, it means my friends back home now have a vote worth a lot more... Should be interesting.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Post-Debate Musings

It's Saturday afternoon, two days after the Sky Leaders Debate, and I'm at home, listening to The Clash and keeping a keen eye on the relegation battle unfolding in the final days games in the Blue Square Premier. For my team, Histon, to get sucked into the fold they would have to lose to Barrow, with Eastbourne and Gateshead winning and Forest Green getting something from their game against already relegated Grays Athletic. It's unlikely, but after going through three chairman, two managers and enough players to make up an American Football team this season, I'm prepared for anything. Twenty minutes in and we're drawing, with only Gateshead winning, so for now things are looking good.

Anyway, to the matter at hand; that is my thoughts on Thursday's debate and the surrounding goings-on in this intriguing election race. Thursday morning's papers saw the country's right-wing machinery in full force as the nation's front pages peppered Nick Clegg with unsubstantiated accusations, ranging from dodgy financial transactions to Nazi sympathising. The Tory strategy since Clegg's stratospheric rise over the last week has been for the party to gently scrutinise Lib Dem policy, whilst their tentacles in the media and the blogosphere attempt to strangle the leader's burgeoning reputation as a candidate for change. Thursday's attempts, timed to put Clegg off his game before the evening's debate, appear to have failed as he brushed off the Mail's preposterous claim, joking he'd gone 'from Churchill to Nazi in a week', and later published his allegedly shady bank statements, dismissing The Telegraph's completely overblown attempt at 'scrutiny'.

Football update. It's nearly half-time in the BlueSquare matches and Histon are winning 1-0. Gateshead are still winning with Eastbourne and Forest Green still at 0-0 against Oxford and Grays respectively. As long as things stay the same, the mighty Histon will be remaining in the highest tier of non-league football for another year.

Despite a day of media pressure, Clegg came out on Thursday evening and performed well in the debate, in what was a case of trying to consolidate the past week's gains. Cameron and Brown struggled to make any of their attacks stick and he was again quick to dispel allegations of wrongdoing when Adam Boulton had the temerity to raise the issue of that day's media barrage. It is somewhat of a coup for the Liberal Democrats that polling after the debate put Clegg as joint winner, along with David Cameron, as Mr Murdoch failed to engineer the result he wished. There wasn't any brazen bias apparent on Thursday, but immigration, an issue that came up the week before, and on which Cameron scores high approval amongst voters, was raised again. Electoral reform, an issue supported by Labour, the Lib Dems and the majority of the population, was circled round but never directly addressed, whilst foreign aid, on which Labour have an admirable record, was completely bypassed. Then again, as I'm sure any Conservative would argue, last week's slight Tory bias will surely be readdressed by the pinko-loving, socialist breeding ground, that is the BBC.

Can you smell sarcasm. Or perhaps it's trepidation. Barrow have just equalised meaning a couple of inconvenient goals in Eastbourne and at Grays could stick Histon in real trouble. Scratch that. Barrow now lead. Histon are still, staying up, but only just. Trepidation is giving way to full on panic, so I'll make this last bit brief.

Gordon Brown has been said to have performed better this week but I have to say, I didn't really see it. Perhaps it's because he was pretty shoddy in the first twenty minutes or so and after that my attention rather waned. I feel that an hour and a half is too long, and rather than having the first half themed and the second half open for general questions they should be restricted just to a single theme. I am yet to see a question in the general sections at the end that couldn't be incorporated under either domestic affairs, foreign affairs or the economy. Simple proposal: why not have three, one-hour long debates under those three headings. After the first two debates this year is it's not been what's been said in the debates that has made the headlines but rather the public's response to the debates as a whole. Whilst they've definitely added some spice to this campaign, there's some tweaking to be done for next time.

Update: Forest Green ended up losing meaning they are relegated along with Ebbsfleet and Grays. A 92nd minute own goal salvaged a 2-2 draw for Histon meaning that whatever else happened they would stay up. I'm suitably chuffed right now.


Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Cleggmania

Rumblings and stumblings in September; The tipping point; One man's progressive is another man's ...; Going forward

One Monday, back in September, I was at home reading our family's paper of choice, The Times. Inside it Nick Clegg had a guest column, scheduled to coincide with the start of the Liberal Democrat Autumn conference and the publication of a pamphlet, by Clegg, titled The Liberal Moment. In it, the leader of the third party argued for a change, writing:

'in the same way that Labour eclipsed a tired Liberal Party almost a century ago, the Liberal Democrats now offer a new rallying point for a resurgent progressive movement in Britain, replacing Labour as the dominant force of progressive politics' (The Times, Sept 17, 2009)

Despite this optimism the conference turned out to be rather rough. Clegg had to defend his coarse proclamation that 'savage cuts' were needed to tackle the deficit and then risked a backlash from the Lib Dem's strong student base when the possibility of scrapping the flagship policy to abolish tuition fees was floated. Even Vince Cable, so popular amongst party activists, was criticised for a lack of consultation before announcing his well-intentioned, yet sketchy, plans for a mansion tax. Despite the bruising, at the end of the week Clegg, undeterred, declared he wanted the top job, he wanted to be Prime Minister. The media reacted in predictably skeptical fashion. After all, it was like watching a 10-year old boy with little coordination, struggle to kick a ball round a field before turning to tell you he's going to play for England when he's older.

Now, with less than three weeks to go to the general election, Clegg's ambitious statement seems less like a ten year old's fanciful dream and more like Bobby Zamora's hopes of going to the World Cup. It's unlikely that Clegg will become PM as it is that the Fulham striker will be off to South Africa, but both look a lot more plausible than they did back in September. Whilst Zamora's goals have cut down European giants Juventus and quarter-final opponents Wolfsburg, Clegg has been cutting into the poll leads of the traditional heavyweights of British politics. And it all started with last week's much-hyped debate.

Clegg didn't do anything special in the debate. He spoke directly to both the audience in the room and at home whilst trying to paint the Lib Dems as, not only the party to succeed Labour as the leading progressive force in this country, but also, as opposed to the Conservatives, the leading force for change. All four polls conducted immediately after the debate finished deemed this a winning strategy, creating a media frenzy that rumbled through Friday and Saturday before erupting on Sunday. First off The Mail on Sunday produced a poll placing the Lib Dems top for the first time in over a century before the usually astute Sunday Times declared the new kid on the block nearly as popular as some guy called Churchill. Cleggmania was here.

It certainly shook the opposition leaders into action as the surge of the party in yellow placed target seats around the country in danger. Brown and Cameron came to a rare moment of agreement that scrutiny must be upped on Liberal Democrat policy while Cameron made a last-minute change to Monday's party political broadcast, replacing an attack on New Labour's time in office with a vacuous, presidential style advert for himself. As Cameron seeks to keep his hopes of an overall majority alive, Brown has started making overtures to the Liberal Democrats leader, seeing a Lib-Lab coalition as a way of returning him to 10 Downing Street. Clegg is yet to bite, dismissing Brown today as a 'desperate politician'. This has led to the mooting in some corners of a coalition in which the removal of the hapless Scot is the dealbreaker, paving the way to PM for one of the many waiting in line for Brown's departure. Whilst more appetising than half a decade of Cameron and chums, five more years with New Labour at the helm of British politics hardly enlivens the taste buds. But, were a coalition to be formed, it must be asked to what extent would the Liberals lead Britain towards a more progressive future?

Cleggmania is a bubble that has been inflated by all sections of the media over the past week, yet to say that it represents 'a new rallying point for a resurgent progressive movement in Britain' is a far cry from the truth. The Liberal Democrats are looking to pursue the ruthless cuts advocated by both other parties whilst policies such as the abolition of tuition fees and the raising of the income tax threshold to £10,000, though more progressive than the Tories and Labour, will predominantly benefit the middle class. The lack of discourse on Afghanistan makes it easy to forget the country is at war, yet when it is mentioned Clegg sings very much from the same hymn sheet as Brown and Cameron. A pledge for a phased withdrawal would not only be the sensible and popular choice but also likely bring the backing of a major national newspaper in The Independent. The choice of Liberal Democrat slogan for this General Election says a lot about the lack of diversity amongst the three main parties. 'Change that works for you/Building a fairer Britain' acts simply as a compound of the Tories 'Vote for Change' and Labour's 'A future fair for all'.

The Lib Dems will get my vote on May 6th. Not because of the last week but because, out of the dearth of left-wing candidates running in York Outer, they lie closest to my beliefs. Nationally, Brown and Cameron have two weeks and two debates to stick a pin in the Clegg Bubble that has expanded beyond all expectations since last Thursday. Expect too see a sustained attack from both sides on the issue of Trident in the foreign affairs debate tomorrow and a continued level of scrutiny right through to election day. Whilst the last week's hysteria has gone somewhat overboard, I hope they don't succeed. With a hung parliament we can perhaps see some form of progressive politics restored in Britain, but I hold no delusions as to the extent we are likely to get.