The Obscurer

Category: Politics

Enigma Variations

I’m well aquainted with the format used in the Liberal Democrat leaflets round our way; for one thing, I used to deliver the things during my formative years. They never used to waste much time fannying about with criticising the Labour party (or “Labour can’t win here”, to give them their full title). Even when Labour was in power in central government, those Liberal Democrat leaflets would concentrate their fire on the Conservatives. Sure, Labour would cop a bit of the flak and rightly so, but it was the Tories, being the main opposition on the local council as well as the challengers and former incumbents of the parliamentary seat that the Lib Dems would focus on. And this suited me fine, being a generally pro-Liberal but definitely anti-Tory kind of guy.

Which brings me to the latest Liberal Democrat leaflet, which dropped, through my door the other day. And what do you know? Now it seems that all of the world’s woes are Labour’s fault after all, while of the Conservatives we hear nothing much at all. It’s an understandable air-brushing of course; now that the Liberal Democrats are part of the national government in coalition with the Conservatives it’s no surprise that the tune has had to be changed. But seeing as this leaflet is billed as a “Local News Extra” (my emphasis) it would be nice if it perhaps featured some succour for locally born-and-raised rabid Tory haters such as myself.

But no, instead we learn about how the “Liberal Democrats in Government have been working hard to tackle the shocking legacy of debt left by Labour”. Which is fair enough. But I must have missed the bit where the Lib Dems continually complained about the gradual growth in public debt under Labour prior to the recession, then opposed the fiscal stimulus afterwards. I certainly remember them explicitly stating before the election that we should wait a while before tackling the budget deficit lest such a fiscal tightening should snuff out any nascent recovery. In all, it’s hard to see how the level of the debt today would have been all that different if the Lib Dems had themselves been in government for the last few years. So what has changed since the election and now? Oh, yes. Power.

Nowhere, I think, better shows the logical contortions that being a Liberal Democrat now necessitates than when the leaflet comes onto the subject of the Nimrod aircraft programme, which employs (or employed) hundreds of highly-skilled workers at the BAE Systems factory in Woodford within the Cheadle parliamentary constituency. Says local Lib Dem MP Mark Hunter

I am bitterly disappointed that Labour overspending has led to the MRA4 Nimrod Project being cancelled. It makes me so angry that people in this area are having to shoulder the burden because Labour spent and promised money they didn’t have.

But as it says elsewhere, “Mark has consistently supported the Nimrod project at BAE Systems in Woodford”. Doesn’t that mean that he himself has consistently supported at least that part of Labour’s monstrous overspending, which has led to that “shocking legacy of debt”? If Nimrod is an example of Labour spending money it didn’t have, why didn’t he oppose it all along? Unless, of course, he doesn’t consider Nimrod itself to be a waste of money, in which case why the hell is the coalition cutting it? Why not continue to support Nimrod since it is an example of good spending by the last government, oppose its cancellation by this current coalition government, and campaign instead for those many and varied wasteful projects to be cut instead?

Can you have it both ways, really? Is Nimrod a waste of money or not? If it is, why did you support it in the first place? If not, why are you cutting it now? Oh, who cares, let’s just blame Labour and be done with it.

As I said, locally the Conservatives are the Lib Dems electoral opposition; as you can see above, the leaflet even includes a handy graph to show you just what that means. So, while tediously predictable, it still seems daft that in a local leaflet the Conservatives get such a free ride; Labour, meanwhile, get both barrels, despite the fact that they don’t have a hope in hell of winning here at the next election. But then, if my current voting intentions are in any way indicative of wider opinion, neither do the Liberal Democrats.


So, a great result for England on Sunday, no? Another fine victory over our greatest historic tribal foe. Makes one proud to be English, doesn’t it.
Sarcasm? Me? Oh no, sorry, you misunderstand. Were you still thinking about the football, and Germany? Oh well, I’ve already moved on; to cricket, and yet another one-day international victory over the hapless Australians*. But I can understand your confusion. An easy mistake to make.

As for the football, what can I add to the obvious, and that England simply aren’t good enough to justify the hopes that some people place in them? On the game itself, I do think it a tragic irony that the one time a Lampard speculative, edge-of-the-area pop actually gets into the goal, the officials manage to miss it. Fortunately, such was the extent of Germany’s victory that any dwelling on that “goal” as an example of us being robbed has been kept to a minimum. On the other hand, it has reignited the old issue of whether technology should be used to prevent such mistakes again. I seem to be in a minority here in harbouring serious doubts over technology’s use. Perhaps, if you could guarantee that such technology was limited only to judging if a ball has crossed the line, then fine; but can you? Later that evening, when Argentina scored a goal that was clearly offside, technology was mentioned again; when Eire failed to qualify for the World Cup finals thanks to an Henry handball, again the benefits of technology were mooted. Where will it end? Before you know it, perhaps every goal will have to be analysed before it is given: to see if there was perhaps an illegal tug on a defender at some time during the long, labourious build up to it being scored; to wait for the committee to decide if, on balance, the award of the free kick that led to the goal was down to the attacker diving; or perhaps we’ll have to scrutinise each free kick, corner and throw in before it is taken just in case it results in a goal, eventually. And so the game as we know it will be buggered, all to prevent the sort of decision on Sunday which is extremely rare, and which was also so blatant that technology itself shouldn’t even be required for it in the first place. No, I’m really not sure it is a road we should be going down.

But a few words on the England team. I usually get pretty hacked off when pundits say stuff like “he would have scored that in the premiership”, or “why do England players look so poor here, when they look so good in the league?” It’s bollocks, mainly. Hansen and his ilk spend each weekend bemoaning terrible misses and poor defending, as players’ form fluctuates during the course of the season; but come the World Cup, all that is strangely forgotten, and they all seem to expect the players to be as good as they appear on the “Best of…” end of season review DVDs. But, as I said, I usually get hacked off by such nonsense…but when was the last time you saw a premiership back four defend as badly as England did against Germany (Burnley excepted)? With the possible exception of Ashley Cole, did they have a clue about their roles or where they were meant to be playing? It is easy to blame the manager – and if he has lost the confidence of the players then that may be fair enough – but what is any manager meant to do when his centre-backs take it upon themselves to wander about the field aimlessly, and with no regard to positioning or formation?

Capello has also got some stick for his attacking options: why didn’t Joe Cole play a bigger part?; everyone know we should play “Gerrard-in-the-hole!” Enough, already. Was playing Heskey really the reason that Rooney had apparently forgotten how to control a football? I doubt it. There is always some simplistic solution to England’s woes; four years ago it was the failure to select Defoe, before that it used to be the manager’s refusal to play a Waddle, or a Le Tissier. I’m sure that if Capello had listened to the media and played Gerrard where they wanted him they would just have found something else to whine about. Because there’s always something, and there always will be. Because, as I said before, we’re just not good enough.

The British media collectively announced another European victory over Blighty and common sense the other day, this time regarding contentious EU labelling legislation. You’ll remember the old Metric Martyrs story, years ago? The injustice that it was made illegal to buy a pound of bananas? I was pretty shocked at the story myself; shocked that the media expected me to buy bananas by the pound anyway. Does anybody? Don’t they buy them by the bunch, or by number? Isn’t the weight irrelevant to most people, be it in pounds or kilograms? Anyway, the whole story was a pile of crap regardless, since it was and is permissible to buy groceries by the pound, as long as the shopkeeper has a metric scale.

But having told us we should be buying items such as bananas by weight, the media has now changed its mind, at least with regards eggs. New EU regulation, apparently, will mean that items will have to be labelled with their weight. By a massive leap of anti-logic, some people have decided that if a box of eggs has to be labelled by weight, it can’t also be labelled to include the number of items in the packet. “It’s an end to buying eggs by the dozen”, apparently, despite the fact that eggs almost universally come in boxes of six. It takes a special kind of stupid to think that packaging will actually be prevented from mentioning the number of contents on the inside, and no mention whatsoever is made of this in the legislation. But we are talking here about our pathetically tribal, anti-EU British press here, so I guess anything goes. And it is my perhaps debatable allegation of tribalism here which means I can just about squeeze this brief observation into my post on the theme of “tribes”.

Tribalism, of course, is a feature of our party politics, so I’m on safer ground in this third part of my post; but elements of that tribalism still surprise me. I’ve felt close to the Liberal Democrats for many a year now, being something of a student activist and a member for a time. I veered away a bit during the useless Menzies Campbell’s era, and then smug Nick Clegg’s. I stopped understanding what they really stood for – I’m not sure they themselves know – but they still got my vote at the election. Following the formation of the coalition government I was surprised by some Labourite sniping at the Lib Dems, accusing them of betrayal and the like. As an outsider who saw the Labour party as my natural allies, such tribal anti-Lib Dem sentiments took me aback somewhat. It was a reminder of one of the things I so dislike about party politics.

And now? Well, while I still wouldn’t call the Lib Dems traitors, I am getting more distressed at the way their leadership seems to have so gleefully signed up to the Conservative’s agenda; for while I may like to think of myself a something of a pluralist politically, I still, pathetically, simply cannot abide the Tories. Now, I am sure that the Lib Dems will have exerted some sort of positive influence on the recent budget, but not enough for me to be happy. On such crucial issues such as how quickly the budget deficit should be reduced, how it should be reduced, and when to start, the Lib Dems were always more-or-less in step with Labour. Now they have performed a volte-face and say they are backing the Tory’s ideas, based on a post-election worsening of the UK economic position that hasn’t actually happened. When Obama wrote a letter to the G20 leaders saying we should be careful not to instigate cuts too soon, the coalition’s reply was that each government should act depending on its individual circumstances, apparently oblivious to the irony that they keep justifying the actions they are taking in Britain by referring us to what is happening in Greece. But at least the Conservatives can state that they went into the election saying they would start the cuts now, although my fear has always been that they haven’t so much dismissed the idea that cuts now can harm the recovery – a reasonable and arguable position – as failed to understand the economics of the theory in the first place. But the Lib Dems cannot claim such ignorance.

Now, I can see why Liberal Democrat MPs may be backing the Tory policies; they are in government, in the cabinet, and governed by collective responsibility. They may be supporting things they personally have misgivings about but feel they have to go along with, to toe the party line, in the same way the Labour leadership candidates are now fighting over each other to disown some of their former policies that they went along with at the time.

More surprising to me is the attitude of so many Lib Dem bloggers and commenters on sites such as Liberal Conspiracy, where they seem to have so seamlessly adopted some typical Tory rhetoric in an effort to defend the Lib Dems and their coalition policies, the sort of rhetoric they would surely have shunned just a few months previously. But I guess the question is did they actually shun such rhetoric previously? That is to say, perhaps I simply haven’t been paying attention, and that many Lib Dem bloggers have been saying these sorts of things for ages. In which case, perhaps I’ve been part of the wrong tribe, and voted for the wrong party, all along.

One of the coalition’s recent acts was to move to speed up a change in the age at which one can draw the state pension, an action that has been openly welcomed by some Lib Dem commentators. Perhaps that shows the gap between myself and some other Lib Dems; demographic changes may mean that a later retirement age could be considered necessary for the public finances, but how it can be actively welcomed is a mystery to me. In a few short years my expected retirement age of 65 has moved to a likely 70, and I doubt that will be the end of the matter. It’s demoralising, to say the least, to see the date at which you could retire move away from you faster than the years themselves are passing by.

Changing the state retirement age has been described by some as a wake up call for people to get their personal pensions in order. Well I thought I’d done that in signing up to my occupational pension scheme, but as public sector pensions are the next item in the firing line, I don’t know how that will fare. I assume that, at the very least, my contributions will have to rise again, just a couple of years after the last review meant an increase in my contributions. But I don’t mind that, as long as such changes are based on the financing and affordability of the pension scheme itself, and not just an attempt to make public sector workers pay more to redress the unfair way many private sector employers have chosen to abandon decent pension schemes for their workers.

(As an aside – and as a final, transparent attempt to crowbar this last section of the post into my tenuous overarching theme of “tribes” – it’s funny that when I left the private sector I assumed I was just changing jobs; I had no idea at the time that, as far as some are concerned, not least many denizens of blogs and newspaper comment sections, I was also changing tribes. Despite doing a very similar job, and working at least as hard and with the same abilities as I had before, little did I realise that to some private sector workers I was now a lazy, inefficient, incompetent and overpaid public sector worker, all pampered and bloated. Now, fortunately I am lazy, inefficient, incompetent and overpaid, slightly pampered and certainly bloated; but my many hard-working colleagues must be furious at such an unjust guilt-by-association, especially since I had never been the target of such daft generalisations when in the private sector because such contempt does not appear to be reciprocal. Nowhere I think seems to show this tribalism better than the matter of pensions, where too often the financial affordability of public sector pensions plays second fiddle to the argument that it’s not fair that some people have better pensions than others. Perhaps I had been naive in my private sector days, but my move to the public sector revealed to me that tribalism can appear in the most unlikely of places, and when you least expect it.)

But how else should I personally react to this supposed financial wake up call? Voluntarily increase my pension contributions still further? For a while I had been considering taking out some AVCs to supplement my pension, and I guess that is what some would still advise, but now I’m beginning to think: for what? To add to a pension that, with each revised retirement age, I am increasingly unlikely to ever see a payout from? I used to see things through the eyes of my parent’s generation, fed on Saga adverts of suntanned old folk enjoying their long, slow, golden retirement. Now it seem far more reasonable to assume that retirement will never happen and we will have to adjust to that reality and live for the day. Rather than work harder to pay more into a pension I will never see, perhaps I should just take it easy and take life as it comes: with an expectation that I will have to work till I drop, I’m not going to slog my guts out now for no reward later.

If the change in the state pension age was intended to make us all plan more for the future, then I think it will have failed to have had the desired effect on me. When combined with the events of last year – my father, after all, passed away aged just 68 – my response is more a “fuck it…this is my life now, and I think I’ll live for the moment, thanks very much.”


Swan, With Two Nicks

One of the criticisms levelled during “bigotgate” was that, in calling Gillian Duffy a “bigoted woman”, Gordon Brown was attacking his core support and displaying an ignorance of the concerns of your ordinary Labour voter. I thought at the time that that was pretty patronising and insulting, based on a tired assumption that the average Labour supporter is inherently opposed to immigration; and now that the election has been run and Labour’s vote failed to collapse any further following the discovery of Brown’s claimed contempt for a supposed Labour voters’ shibboleth, I think I’m justified in my position.

I’ve long been vexed by this strained factoid so beloved of some that most BNP voters are disenchanted former Labour supporters. It may be true, and in part it’s bandied as a way to portray the Labour party as out-of-touch and not listening to the public; but more than that it seems like a lazy smear, an implicit tying of Labour voters to racism while taking a swipe at the Labour party at the same time, because didn’t you know that the Nazis were the “National SOCIALISTS” after all, and that far from being on the far-right surely Nick Griffin and the BNP are a left-wing party, just like Labour?

But what’s in a name? You can argue about whether the BNP are far-right or far-left, but right-wing and left-wing are just simplistic, ill-fitting labels; best avoid using them if at all possible, that’s my opinion. But if you must insist, then to apply them correctly you’ll have to accept that their meanings have already been defined, the far-right label has been assigned to the BNP and their ilk, and that’s that. Meanwhile, by all means claim that, because of their name, the Nazis were “socialists”; just as long as you’re consistent, and similarly insist that North Korea must be democratic, and that a Bombay Duck is an aquatic bird.

But even ignoring all this, from my perspective, just what is this criticism of Labour? That racists feel dissatisfied with their immigration policy and have fled into the arms of Nick Griffin? If true, I’d say that’s a good thing. Put another way; why aren’t racists similarly leaving the Conservative party and supporting the BNP as far as we’re told? Is it because the Tories have an immigration policy that satisfies their bigotry? Well done them! That certainly seems to be the view of The Economist when they stated that the Conservative candidate in Romford had “managed to contain the BNP vote…by occupying much the same ground, with hardline views on immigration”. And in that light, is the failure of the BNP to breakthrough at the general election – and the collapse of their vote in the council elections in Barking – an unqualified good sign? I sincerely hope it is; I hope it is because people have turned their backs on their poison. I hope it isn’t simply because the main parties have just pandered to the prejudices the BNP have stoked, occupied “much of the same ground” that they do, and been rewarded for holding the bigot line. I hope.

This post is looking suspiciously as if it is a sort of re-run of my previous one; a moan about the parties’ immigration policies and a look to what the future holds, my current observations on the political scene splurged out and then reconstituted into some vague sort of order. If that’s what you suspect, then you’d be right. So, a-week-and-a-bit on, how are we fixed? David Cameron’s party won the largest number of votes and seats at the general election, but not an absolute majority. He’s made an offer to the Lib Dems to join in a coalition, and we’re waiting for Nick Clegg’s response. Cameron has, however, staked out a few red lines that cannot be crossed and where change in policy cannot be countenanced. Proportional representation isn’t one of them, but immigration – the subject that no one can talk about, and which the main parties all ignore – is. Go figure.

For a few days it was looking like the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats were going to strike some sort of deal; then yesterday Gordon Brown resigned while announcing that Labour and the Lib Dems have entered into formal negotiations, and this has shaken things up a bit. The Tories responded to Brown’s resignation by offering a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system. I stand by my previous post, where I stated that I hoped that a hung parliament could provide us with proportional representation (PR), and that a Liberal / Labour coalition is the most likely way to get it. AV is a step in the right direction but it is not proportional representation, and I would still like to hold out for PR at this time, fearing that a move to the imperfect less-than-half-measure of AV could park PR for an age. My heart, then, goes with Nosemonkey in this post, who broadly agrees with my pre-election hope for a short-term Lib-Lab coalition government that could run a referendum on full proportional representation and then hold a fresh election; by my head looks at the post-election arithmetic and tells me that Donald S is more on the money and that a Lib-Con agreement is the best bet. Last week I thought that the policy gap between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives was too large for them to ever do a deal, but the electoral mathematics does concentrate the mind, and despite complaints from some, that simple maths does mean that even if you assume the Lib Dems have a moral duty to join with Labour – and they most certainly don’t – even rabid anti-Tories like me can’t accuse them of a betrayal if they side with the largest party to form the most stable coalition on offer; instead I’ll keep my powder dry so I can charge them with betrayal based on what they do in government, if required. I’m torn then between common sense and wishful thinking, hoping for a “progressive alliance” (as the the current jargon has it) that would allow the voting reforms I want, would allow Labour to honourably drop ID cards and other albatrosses during the negotiations, and would hold a stable government together for the time being. But I think it likely that something somewhere has got to give.

As things stand there are three potential governments on offer; a Lib-Con coalition, a Lib-Lab coalition, and a minority Conservative government, and which I have placed in descending order of legitimacy and stability. Certainly, the first, Lib-Con option with an absolute majority of seats would be the most stable and would have more legitimacy than a Lib-Lab coalition of 315 out of 650 seats and 51% of the votes; but if the Liberal Democrats simply feel they cannot do a deal with the Conservatives, I’d personally still give a Lib-Lab coalition more legitimacy than a Conservative minority government based on just 306 seats and 36% of the votes, and in resigning Brown’s swansong is merely to make the Lib-Lab option a vague possibility; I don’t see it as a way to unfairly usurp the Tories, who, after all, simply did not win this election. I also don’t feel that the Tories can both defend the current electoral system and complain if Labour do stay in power with a supposedly “unelected prime minister”, since that is a feature of the parliamentary system they support; any new Labour prime minister would, if I’ve counted correctly, be the umpteenth “unelected” PM by such a definition, so unless the Conservatives propose a further change to the electoral system they’ll just have to lump it. It has, though, been argued that the Lib Dems’ support could suffer if they are seen to be propping up a failed Labour government, which may be true; but a slump in their support alongside a new proportional electoral system would probably still reward them with more seats at the next election than if they were to do the alleged noble thing and support the Tories while full PR is kicked into touch.

I do understand that it could seem indulgent to be worrying about proportional representation now, when there is an economic crisis to deal with, but quite apart from the fact that I don’t trust the Tories on the economy anyway I don’t think that organising a referendum on the electoral system need distract anyone from the matter of dealing with the deficit. Has no one heard of multi-tasking? Of course, now is the time for those hoary old criticisms of proportional representation to get wheeled out, such as the way it fails to produce stable governments. Oh, er, kinda like we have now under first-past-the-post. The “smoke-filled rooms” line has been allowed a run out too, and the warning that the current horse-trading could be a permanent fixture under PR; what must the public think of politicians at the moment, worry the politicians? But, as far as I can observe, the public aren’t nearly as interested in politicians as they think we are, and we’re getting on with our lives just fine, happy for those apparently baleful negotiations go on for as long as is necessary, and content for the media to fret and frown on our behalf, and to successfully misread the public mood again. And which is worse; for minority parties to have to trade policies based on a wider support, or for a minority party to have total power to impose its will with no regard to what a majority think? After all, in 2005 Labour was elected with the votes of just 36% of the electorate; they didn’t need to enter into any dreaded deals, but are we honestly suggesting that even those 36% got what they wanted? Since a mere 28% voted Labour this time, that seems unlikely.

Are there many people unconnected to Labour or the Conservative who swallows the guff trotted out in favour of first-past-the-post? The strong, personal constituency link between an MP and their constituents is one argument, but this ignores the fact that under the favoured single transferable vote (STV) system there are multi-member constituencies that not only maintain that link, but to my mind improve on it. One argument is that in first-past-the-post you can “vote the bugger out” if you don’t like your MP, but a Labour voter who hates their sitting Labour MP is on the horns of a dilemma on whether to vote for their party or against the sitting MP; with STV, as each party puts forward more than one candidate, you can do both. Of course, multi-member constituencies are likely to be larger than those single member constituencies we currently have, but I don’t see how the Tories can use that as an argument as they want to reduce the number of MPs as it is, and so, presumably, want to increase the size of each constituency and the number of constituents per MP. At least with STV, while you increase the size of the constituencies you also increase the number of MPs answerable to you, allowing you to shop around for the one more sympathetic to your position if you want them to raise an issue for you.

In all it’s hard not to see that at its heart the reason that most Tories don’t want full PR is because they feel it will mean that they will be shut out of power for generations by centre-left coalition governments. It seems an implicit acceptance that you think that your policies, even with coalition partners, will struggle to ever gain a majority support, and so you prefer to stick with a system that includes distortions that periodically work in your favour. Labour is no better; when I hear the likes of that shitbag John Reid apparently nobly admitting that Labour have lost the election, should listen to the public and allow the Tories to form a government, I hear a tribal Labourite trying to scupper the possibility of proportional representation in the short term so that Labour can benefit in the long term. When Reid says he fears Labour will be damaged by being seen to be clinging to power with the Lib Dems, my immediate response is to say I don’t care about the future of the Labour party; my more considered response is that no one knows how our electoral landscape will look under PR, and I’m perfectly happy with that. Proportional representation may let minority parties like the BNP gain seats, but only if they earn their support; it could also provide room for pro-immigration parties to flourish, and hopefully change the whole nature of that particular debate. I can imagine that the coalitions that are the Labour and Conservative parties have only been held together because of first-past-the-post, and that under proportional representation they could well splinter into more clearly defined groupings that provide the electorate with a far greater choice. It is way too simplistic to say that there is an anti-Conservative majority in Britain, there are many Tory policies that gain widespread, majority support, it’s just that the full package doesn’t; but it appears I have more faith than many in the Conservative party that a centre-right coalition could take power in the UK, just as they do all over the world. The fact is, though, that I don’t know how proportional representation will work out if adopted; I don’t think that it is a panacea and that all in the garden will be rosy, I don’t assume that it will mean I will always get a government that I see eye-to-eye with, and I don’t think that as an electoral system it is perfect (albeit I do think that its imperfections are less egregious than those of other systems). I don’t even know if a referendum on proportional representation would result in a vote for a change to our electoral system; but I think we should try our best to find out.

Say The Right Things

I’ve been busy with things and stuff recently, but that isn’t the reason I’ve barely commented on this general election gubbins. Considering this is the first election for ages where the result is up for grabs it’s been a remarkably tedious campaign. It isn’t the only reason, but I think the TV debates have been a large part of the problem. They’ve sucked the life out of the day-to-day campaigning, and from the first debate everything has seemed to hinge on what happens in each of the three weekly televised style trials with all else put on the back burner; and what has happened in the debates themselves amounts to “not a lot”. It could well be that my interest in politics has simply waned; but gone, it seems, are the daily twists and turns in a campaign that in the past would cause me to follow the news with a trainspotterish devotion during election times.

The first debate on ITV began in what was for me an ominous and eye-roll inducing manner, with a question about immigration. After each of the three party leaders had spoken it elicited my first comment on the election, via Twitter.

As an open borders man they’ve all lost my vote. Bunch o’twats. When’s ‘Outnumbered’ on? #leadersdebate

At the time I didn’t really mean that I wouldn’t vote, but as the leaders reprised their roles in the Sky and BBC debates, during which each of them tried to outdo the others and to show how they would be the most effective at tackling immigration – taking it as read that it is a problem, is too high and needs to be reduced, without advancing any reason for why it is a problem and too high – I was taking the “fuck the lot of them” option more seriously. As it is I will probably still vote non-Tory on May the 6th – in my case that’s Liberal Democrat – but that’s nothing to shout about.

The fact that each leaders’ debate – and #bigotgate, the sole example, albeit tedious, of anything outside the TV debates being considered devastatingly newsworthy by our media – was concerned with the matter of immigration gives the lie to the “you can’t say anything about the immigrants” trope. For one thing, the statement that “you can’t say anything about the immigrants” tends to be used when talking about immigration, rendering it as prima facie bollocks; for another, if it is true that you can’t talk about immigration, at the very least our tabloid press never received the memo. The fact is that you can talk about immigration, as much as you like; it’s just that having done so you’re not then protected against being called a bigot in return, if you’re talking to someone who thinks you’re displaying bigotry. And it’s not even “closing down debate” to be called a bigot; it is debate. You’re free to respond to and deny the charge of bigotry if you like. That’s how this free speech thing works. If anyone has genuine cause to feel restricted in saying what they feel then it is apparently those politicians who in private don’t have a problem with immigration and see some anti-immigration rhetoric as bigotry, as it surely is, but who in public have to pander to people’s “legitimate concerns” – which range from the legitimate to the xenophobic – rather than to actually defend immigration and the huge benefits that it brings as evidenced in countless reports, or to even defend immigration on liberal grounds as a right in itself.

The one thing the TV debates have done, however, is to have thrown the election wide open, as Nick Clegg hijacked the “change” vote by virtue of standing next to David Cameron for 90 minutes and robbing the latter of his USP. The Liberal Democrats soared in the polls, but for the most depressing of reasons I fear. I doubt very much that many people saw the first debate and were swayed by the Lib Dems’ rag-bag of policies; they saw a reasonable, normal looking person who was well presented and who exhibited a devastating ability to write down the questioners’ names and to then refer back to them in his closing speech, and who was neither a scary alien robot creature from planet Tory, nor Gordon Brown. It’s a crap reason to decide who you’ll vote for and to alter the course of the election so decisively, and for that reason I’d be happy to see the back of the leaders’ debates from now on, but we’re obviously stuck with them. I hope, though, that they have at least served one purpose. They have made a hung parliament all the more likely, a hung parliament that may well require the ruling party to rely on the Liberal Democrats, and which could in turn ensure we finally abandon the anachronistic First Past The Post electoral system in favour of some form of proportional representation. Nothing illustrates FPTP’s failings more than those projections that show that, based on current polls, the Conservatives could end up winning the most votes with Labour pushed down into third place, and yet the electoral system would award Labour the most number of seats in parliament. If that does happen, I wonder how the Conservatives, with their staunch support for FPTP, could possibly object if Labour, as the largest party in the House of Commons, are then given the first chance to form the new government?

Shh. Come with me on this. After the election Labour are the largest party, and the Lib Dems agree to work with them on the condition that Gordon Brown steps down, and either voluntarily or by palace coup, he does. The new Labour leader becomes prime minister on the understanding that there will be a referendum on proportional representation and a fresh general election held under the new rules immediately following that result. First Past The Post is ditched for the Single Transferable Vote, and following a new election everyone lives happily ever after. Future elections even feature an open and mature debate on immigration.

What do you reckon? I know, I know; you were with me up to and including the “everyone lives happily ever after” bit, but after that I went a bit daft.

Woolly Bully

A few years ago I read Andrew Rawnsley’s book Servants Of The People, and very fine it was too; it is a well written and entertaining telling of the early New Labour years full of interesting anecdotes and incisive analysis. But, I wondered as I read it; what to make of all those florid descriptions of private conversations between two parties where the author wasn’t present? How reliable a record were they of what had actually occurred? This was easily resolved; they simply weren’t to be relied upon, not at all – how could they be? – and to think otherwise would make me either deluded or a fool.

Seeing as Andrew Rawnsley does apparently believe his words to be utterly reliable, I can only conclude then that he is either deluded, a fool, or a deluded fool. Let’s take the example in the news, Rawnsley’s allegation that Gus O’Donnell verbally warned Gordon Brown about his bullying conduct towards his staff. Rawnsley defends his story as being “100%” accurate, his source “24-carat”. Utter, utter arse. Let’s assume that this conversation did take place; the only way he can credibly insist that the story is 100% accurate is if he was there, and he wasn’t; even if he were, we’ve all been in situations where our account of events and our reading of a situation differs markedly from others who were also there and whose opinions are just as legitimate as our own.

So, in the absence of actually being there, the only other way Andrew Rawnsley can seriously claim that he has covered events with anything like a 100% accuracy is if he has spoken to both parties involved, and I think we can be pretty sure that, in the case of O’Donnell and Brown, he hasn’t. In order to justify his 24-carat claim, then, Rawnsley has all but admitted that he has spoken to Gus O’Donnell and has his first-hand version of events; but if we are to believe that there are two sides to every story – and I think we should – then that must leave us with Rawnsley’s account being 50% accurate at best. Add in all other factors – O’Donnell, being human, will have all manner of reasons for overplaying or underplaying his part, even for outright lying when briefing a journalist – and I’d rate the veracity of Rawnsley’s story at about 27%; the quality of his source may be 24-carat, but the quality of his sources story is more like die-cast metal. Which is not to say that the story isn’t true, mainly or wholly, just as die-cast metal is perfectly good when it comes to the manufacture of Space 1999 Eagle Transporter or Star Trek USS Enterprise toys. But just as you wouldn’t want to be handed a die-cast metal spaceship at the altar on your wedding day, a die-cast metal story hardly seals the deal. Apart from anything else, one day you’ll drop that Eagle Transporter on you aunt’s kitchen floor and snap the engine off in a jagged white break; and the bay doors of the Enterprise will get loose over time and then you’ll lose that orange plastic space shuttle that clips on underneath, and you’ll never find it, no matter how often you check the back of the sofa, and it won’t ever turn up, not even when you move house, although you’re twelve-years-old by then and no longer bothered, because it must have gone up the Hoover, let’s face it.

I digress. The point is that Andrew Rawnsley has been told something, written it in a book and claims it to be true; but he can’t know that, so it’s just a story he has been told and cannot possibly verify. He was on Newsnight yesterday along with Daniel Finkelstein who similarly stated that he knows these claims are true because loads of such stories have been going around Westminster for years. Well that’s a slam-dunk! Received wisdom is now historical record! Frankly it calls to minds the dubious police practice of “trawling” for allegations rather than actual evidence, yet Finkelstein even referred to these allegations – my choice of word, since that is all they possibly can be at this stage – as being examples of the sort of “facts” that journalists should report (although, since he doesn’t seem to know the meaning of the word “pedantic” that could merely be down to his poor knowledge of English vocab). Honest to fucking God it makes you want to cry. Whatever happened to a bit of journalistic scepticism? Is it left behind in the cloakroom when they enter the lobby? Are they too dim to countenance that at least some of these stories could be the ulterior imaginings of Brown’s opponents, or is it that they are too busy congratulating themselves on being “in the loop”? Are they naïve or arrogant? Judging by Rawnsley and Finkelstein’s performance on Newsnight I’d say the latter, actually.

Look; I’m not saying that these stories aren’t true, I simply don’t know and yes, I can well believe them. But the likes of Andrew Rawnsley and Danny Finkelstein don’t know either, unless they were actually present at any of these alleged incidents; the difference is that while I entertain doubts and keep an open mind, they seem to have abandoned their critical faculties so as to confidently claim an insider’s total knowledge based on the self-serving rumours that swirls around parliament’s bars and tea rooms. Well they’re welcome to their credulity, but the rest of us should bear in mind that these are stories, authored by politicians and the like, and adapted by journalists with books to sell and column inches to fill. That’s hardly a recipe for accuracy, reliability and truthfulness in my book.