Deal or No Deal

I should imagine that many Liberal Democrats have spent today agonising over what should now be done. To the injury of a dreadful election result we may now be about to add the insult of a Lib-Con coalition. Many have recoiled in horror at that thought, myself included.

Labour and Conservative politicians alike scoff at our party. We have no experience. We are naive. We are simply a mish-mash of disaffected socialists, wet conservatives and bearded weirdos with no real driving principle. Even if all that is true, we are now standing at a major decision point and the stakes are rather high. The next few days are not just about policy. They are not even just about politics. This is a three-sided chess game with no written rules.

Despite the myriad permutations, I see three options for the Liberal Democrats. The first is that we simply remove ourselves from the melee and declare that we will take each vote as a matter of pure policy and support the ones we agree with. No coalitions, no deals. This is not a credible position. For a party to campaign for proportional representation and ‘balanced parliaments’ and then be unable to work with other groups would be absurd.

The second possibility is a Lib-Lab pact of some form. This is undoubtedly a much more comfortable position for a great many of the Liberal Democrat membership. Senior figures in both parties have pointed out that there are areas of common ground, including the Labour party’s new found commitment to electoral reform. Forgotten for 13 years, this became a key priority for Harriet Harman at approximately five past ten on Thursday evening. Indeed, the sickening parade of Labour hopefuls queuing up to convert to the cause of vote reform might serve as a reminder to those who feel more comfortable with a Labour deal that all that glitters is not gold.

Ideology aside, the maths for a Lib-Dem / Labour coalition barely stack up. The ‘finishing line’ for an overall majority is 323 (assuming Sinn Fein continue to absent themselves). Labour plus Liberal Democrats amounts to only 315. Even 100% support from Plaid Cymru and the SNP leaves only a majority of one seat. So the coalition would have four members, and only then if the parties had 100% discipline. This would not be a strong government in anyone’s eyes and would struggle to provide the radical platform for economic change that is required, even with a new Labour leader as Prime Minister.

The final option is the unholy alliance with the Conservatives. A great part of their Queen’s Speech would be utterly unacceptable to the majority of Lib Dems, myself included. As hard as it is to accept, the Conservatives have 5 times the seats of the Liberal Democrats and have an unimpeachable argument for keeping much of their program. With a combined total of 363 seats the programme could certainly be delivered, even with some disaffected rebels voting against key bills. Negotiations may falter however, simply on the basis of electoral reform. Cameron’s current offer is of no value at all and the Liberal Democrats can and should accept nothing short of a serious commitment to reform in this parliament. For 23% of the vote to carry less than 10% of the seats is indefensible.

Nick Clegg may be in an impossible position. Walk away from the Conservative deal and the Lib Dems can be blamed for ‘letting them in’ as a minority government by splitting the progressive vote. At the next election, perhaps as soon as the autumn, the old two-party system will be stronger than ever as people vote against Tory cuts and injustice and the failure of a hung parliament. Proportional representation will be as distant a dream as ever and the lurch from ‘tax and spend’ to ‘slash and burn’ and back again will continue for at least another generation.

The alternative is that Nick Clegg should wring the very best deal possible out of the Conservatives and perhaps dilute some of their most damaging policies. It will take great courage to lead the party into such a coalition. Liberal Democrats will have to support some truly awful policies in order to win some of the changes our country needs so much. If we can deliver some real improvements in the structure and funding of education along with fairer taxation for the poorest it may be the best option available.

Some Liberal Democrats will find this utterly unacceptable. I would remind them that this is politics, and furthermore it is the politics of the balanced parliament we all wanted. We can’t have all the policies we want because we didn’t win outright. Neither can anyone else. Liberal Democrats have long campaigned for a breakdown of right-left politics and a move to representative leadership. The time for that is now. Let’s not pretend that we are all going to play nice and share our toys. We should fight tooth and nail to deliver the fairness agenda that was the cornerstone of the campaign. Whether we are working with the Conservatives or Labour should be a matter of who can best deliver those key reforms. At the top of that list must be electoral reform.

The more I go to Church, the more atheist I become

A few weeks ago I was at yet another funeral.  Oddly enough I find funerals to be rather uplifting affairs, bringing together a family and giving everyone a chance to reflect on the brevity of life and the limited time we have to do something really meaningful with it.

For me, a lifelong atheist, nothing throws this into sharper focus than the 30 minutes or so spent in a cold church, muttering hymns at my shoes and shuffling uncomfortably as the vicar tries (and on one splendid occasion failed repeatedly) to remember the name of the person he’s paying tribute to.   For me the church, at least as a physical building if not an institution, is full of well-meaning folks who are completely wasting their lives talking to the sky.

I’m a liberal sort of fellow and have no objection to anyone doing whatever they wish with their time, within the bounds of not harming anyone else.  Standing there in a cold church listening to a vicar none of us had met and an organist who couldn’t play I couldn’t help but reflect on the irony.  Life is not everlasting.  We can do good things with the brief time we have.  The vicar and the organist were clearly ‘good people’, but to my mind they were great examples of how easy it is to waste it.

Why Engineers Shouldn’t Design Stuff!

It’s a small complaint.  In a world where people starve, kill each other and worse, this is going to sound like an absurd middle-class whinge.  Which it is, but here goes anyway.

It rained yesterday.  Not just the ordinary rain that we get on a regular basis, but the really heavy stuff that bounces off the pavement, runs down the street and overwhelms the gutters.  I’d rather have 2 hours of that than the usual 3 days of drizzle but it came right at the time of the school run.  So by the time I’d walked up the school drive, through the flooded playground and back down to the car park I was pretty soaked.

The school car park was a mass of three-point turns and kamikazi parents in family cars.  As I manoeuvred out of the car park my stress levels were up, but I made it out and set off.  Taking a deep breath and relaxing, I accelerated over 10mph.  In a BMW that is the point at which the car decides you are properly moving.  Accordingly, the doors locked and the parking sensors switched off.  And the little sensor that knows whether the doors are shut properly decided to tell me that the back door wasn’t shut properly.

It had known this from the second I closed it.  Before I got into the car.  Before I started the engine.  Before I engaged first gear.  Before I released the handbrake.  Instead of troubling me with this crucial information whilst I was in the car park, stationary and able to rectify my mistake, it waited for me to exit a junction and enter a one way street with no safe place to stop.  That, it judged, was the perfect time to tell me that my toddlers door wasn’t closed properly.

If anyone from Munich, or indeed anywhere on Planet Earth, can tell me why that is a good idea then I’d love to hear it.  Right now it has pissed me off enough to put me right off the blue propeller for good.

I pay your wages (and i’m happy to)

Sitting this morning in one of Barnsley’s recently refurbished park play areas with a coffee and a twix I got to pondering just what I get for my council ta (which for the record is just north of £100 per month). More to the point I thought about how it stacks up against my other monthly bills.

TV and broadband costs about £50 per month, and for that I can have as much conversation and telly as I want. I can also do all sorts of interesting stuf on the Internet.

Gas costs about £100, a bit more if you include the service contract. For that I have a warm house and occasionally (and briefly) clean children. If the boiler breaks I get it fixed.

Car insurance – both cars together are about £150 per month. If one gets bent they straighten it for me. It was very poor value until about 12 months ago when I recouped about 17k of my investment…

So, what do the workshy idiots in the Council give me for my £100 per month?

Unlimited use of large areas of well kept parkland
Empty bins every 2 weeks
Street swept every week or so
If my house catches fire they send someone round to put it out
They educate my children
They exercise a degree of control over the pubs and clubs in my area
They check that the local chippies and takeaways are ‘broadly compliant’ with health standards
They check that the buildings being built in my area won’t fall down any time soon
Unlimited loans of books and other media from the library
Enforcement of parking laws to ensure the roads keep clear

And probably a few more I’ve overlooked.

So when the direct debit fires again in a few days and takes me that bit closer to skint I wont begrudge it. The system could be fairer (ability to pay shouldn’t be measured by the size of your house) but local government spending is not unreasonable.

Ferry good indeed

I travel to Ireland quite a bit, and although I love the place it’s frankly a pain in the arse if you want to get to anywhere other than Dublin.

At the moment I mostly travel to a place about an hour south-east of Limerick. There are three airport options – Shannon, which isn’t well served; Dublin, which has dozens of flights per day but is a three-hour drive away or Cork, which isn’t well served, is 2 hours away but has a very nice hotel in the airport. So day-trips aren’t possible and there is always hassle with hire cars (Ireland seems to have mostly broken hire cars in my experience).

My normal route is an 90 minute drive to the airport (including parking time), 90 minutes wasted in check-in, an hour flying then 3 hours drive to the client. That means setting off at 4.30am and arriving, exhausted, at about noon. We then get half a day’s work done and stay in a hotel. Half a day’s work the following day then a dash back to Dublin to fly home, exhausted, arriving at about 11pm. In total we get about 9 hours with the client at the expense of 2 very long days.

I have accidentally found an alternative. Instead of the flying I am writing this from the Plus lounge of the Stena Adventurer. It takes a bit longer for sure – the drive to Holyhead is 3 hours and I still need to leave an hour for check-in. The crossing takes 2-3 hours depending on the exact ferry you catch. However, there are some serious upsides…

i) I haven’t had to lug my bags across a car park, onto a bus and through an airport. They are in the boot of my car.
ii) Check-in was a matter of reading out my reference number and hanging a card from the rear-view mirror
iii) At no point have I been frisked, had my shoes removed or had to place my laptop in a plastic tray
iv) There are three (yes, three) separate first-class lounges – one with leather-ish swivel chairs and plasma TV’s, one with meeting tables and one with just chairs. All have free drinks, snacks and waitress-service for full meals, reasonably priced.
v) The wi-fi is not just free, it also works. I don’t have to put my laptop away or fold up my table while we set off.
vi) the nearest person to me in the lounge at present is about 40 feet away. I can’t hear his conversation or smell his feet
vii) if the ferry is late (and it won’t be) it doesn’t matter. My car is downstairs, and when we arrive I’ll drive home.
viii) when I’m bored writing this blog I am going to go to my private cabin and have 3 hours sleep
ix) when I booked, I saw the price and that is what i paid. No ‘ferry terminal’ tax, extra charge for my golf clubs or a hidden fee for booking online / not booking online etc etc.

The price of the trip is £125 each way, plus £25 for the cabin (which I didn’t bother with on the day sailing out). It’s fully flexible – if you are late, just get the next one. If you are early, get the earlier one. Last time I flew it was about £150 plus the cost of the hire car.

So it’s half the price, 100% less hassle and Ryanair don’t get any of my money.

What’s not to like?

It must never happen again….

Last night I watched “The Miner’s Strike” on the telly. This morning I read a heartfelt and well-reasoned blog post on the subject, and felt compelled to add my tuppence-worth.

I was 13 at the time and the program simply reminded me of my perspective at the time. Born and bred in Wakefield, we too were pretty close to the reality of it, as were my wife’s family who all came from Grimethorpe.

Last night’s program astonished me in that the word ‘coal’ was hardly mentioned. It underlined the fact that the miner’s strike had very little to do with coal, even though it did start off as being ostensibly about the mining industry. It was a class-war, started by a power-crazed, dogmatic autocrat. And in the other corner was Margaret Thatcher.

Against the backdrop of a coal-industry that was oversupplying coal at loss-making prices after decades of massive public investment where clearly ‘something had to be done’ were two individuals who callously used their power to send good people into an appalling and distructive situation. I simply cannot understand how Arthur Scargill has escaped largely blame-free whilst the popular view is to rail against the police and just about everyone else. He started a strike without any vote and refused to consider anything short of total government and NCB capitulation.

The police did as they were told because that it was police forces always do. Individuals behaved very badly, as individuals do when forced to take sides. The pickets also did as they were told (or conditioned to do by years of “working class hero” culture) – they were equally manipulated by the NUM leadership who denied them a vote and rapidly became an embarrassment even to the Labour party they were affiliated with.

Orgreave was a dark day. It is widely portrayed as some kind of trade-union ‘Bloody Sunday’ and the misreporting of the events (for example the BBC showing events in the wrong order) certainly doesn’t help matters. There seems little doubt that the police initiated the violence, whether to protect themselves, property and the innocence or for some malevolent higher reason. However, that ignores the fact that somewhere in the order of six thousand pickets (including Scargill himself, complete with loud hailer) mobbed a relatively small place in Sheffield with the intention of forcibly preventing people exercising their freedom to simply go to work. 6000 people is not a picket line. It is an organised riot, and the police had to respond with similar numbers.

In the end, all parties lost. The miners lost their entire industry, partly because of the wider economic situation, partly because they got into a fight with the party that had seen their previous Prime Minister toppled by the NUM and partly because they refused to accept that change had to come.

The people, particularly in the coalfield areas of Yorkshire, South Wales and the North East, saw their society torn apart. Families went hungry and the ordinary “working class” people were divided and degraded. The UK in general squandered the opportunity to properly use a vast resource of energy, driven by a short-term economic view and lack of any real foresight.

Have we learnt any lessons? I don’t think so. Our current Labour government has misused the police and armed forces with a flair that would have taken Thatcher’s breath away. Angry protesters still flood the streets and have pitched battles with the police and achieve virtually nothing. Innocent people still die, whether they are walking home from work through London (see Saturday’s Guardian) or driving a taxi to a colliery. Young servicemen are still dying in numbers because of the political positioning, arrogance and fear of democracy of our government. Trade unions are still stacked full of people with political aspirations and an inability to see any bigger picture than ‘workers against management’.

But the most revealing part of the entire documentary last night was right at the end. The documentary had to wrap up with a quick 2 minute summary of what had happened post-strike and post-mining to the main subjects. Unsurprisingly, those pickets, who were fighting tooth and nail to “save their industry” because there was simply no other option have actually gone on to have happy, productive and fulfilling lives without the coal industry. Relaxed and smiling they told us how they had formed new careers and new skills. Things had turned out so well that they could look back on 1984/5 and say “wouldn’t have missed it for the world”.

That’s perhaps a lesson that large industries, governments and the trade unions could all learn. Change will come and fighting it is usually futile. If change is embraced and communities, businesses and governments work together then it can end well without all the pain, suffering and injustice of 1984.

Wanted : Politicians

As a kid I was quite interested in political debate and discussion. I’m no activist – I’ve never carried a placard and I only enjoy rallies if they have fast cars, but I did have fairly well-formed views on current affairs and would argue the toss until the cows came home. From being 18 right up to the General Election of 1997 I voted at every opportunity.

It was in 1997, when everyone around me was repeating the “time for change” mantra that I realised that I wasn’t going to vote. Not because I didn’t have strong views and beliefs, but because there wasn’t a single name on the ballot paper that came close to representing them. I remember driving to work and feeling quite odd that I wasn’t part of this great mood of expectation. I didn’t want New Labour in power and I equally wanted the Conservatives to lose.

Wind forward to 2009 and the European Elections. Living in Barnsley it really doesn’t make a fig of difference who you vote for so it’s quite hard to motivate yourself to bother, even if you do live 200 yards from the polling station. But although I hadn’t cast a vote in the last 15 years and I was more despairing of the political choices than ever, I was moved out of my armchair by the presence of the BNP.

The polling station is in the church next door to my daughter’s school and I took her with me to vote. As a bright and ever-so-slightly gobby six year old, she wanted to know who we wanted to win. I told her I wasn’t sure yet. We stood outside and studied the options. We went inside and studied the options. I picked up the pen and mentally ticked off all the people I couldn’t possibly vote for. In the end, I put a cross in a box. I didn’t vote BNP and so, above all else, I wasn’t the “one in six”. It was hardly a positive vote in favour of anything and I really struggled to explain it all to the wide-eyed kid who was asking me simple questions.

Since then I’ve thought a lot more about politics again. I now know a few things…

I cannot possibly vote for this Prime Minister. Brown cannot lead, cannot accept responsibility, cannot listen to the people he appoints, cannot listen to the people at all. He steadfastly refuses to be swayed by all opinion, right up to the moment where he does a total U-turn.

I cannot vote for the current Labour Party. They are steadily taking away our liberties and hiding behind the ‘war on terror’. They are spending a huge sum of money on an irrelevant nuclear deterrent, funding worthless quangos and giving jobs to GOATs, Mandelson and the rest of their ever expanding clique. New Labour has totally trashed the British political scene, undermining parliament and avoiding debate wherever possible.

I cannot vote Conservative. They have repeatedly leapt on the nearest bandwagon without any real policies or long-term vision. Their hunt for power is reminiscent of New Labour in the mid-nineties – desperately shedding any policies that look too “old Tory” whilst keeping just enough Thatcherism to keep the grass roots happy. They will win the next election because they will be effectively unopposed. I can’t say if that will be a bad thing; I don’t know what they plan to do.

I cannot vote Liberal Democrat. They have a refreshing honesty about their policies and are quite likeable. I like (wihout any deep analysis) the cut of their jib on environmental policy and I am, by nature, a ‘small L’ liberal. However, as an organisation they are hardly an inspiring machine and it’s hard to see Clegg, Cable and the other one whose name escapes me making a big impression on global politics.

So who can I vote for? The truth is, there is nobody out there for me to vote for. The centre-left has failed spectacularly when it could have achieved so much. Failure to engage in honest debates with people (and I mean real debate with real people, not courting the media and finely polishing presentations) has led New Labour into

  • a phoney war, with false objectives and no exit plan
  • economic meltdown which followed years of missed Treasury forecasts on growth and borrowing, not to mention endless independent comment that the economy was overblown which Gordon Brown steadfastly refused to listen to
  • an expenses crisis borne from fear of open debate on MP’s earnings falling educational achievement (despite rising GCSE grades) due to obsession with league tables and measurement
  • countless unresolved scandals – Ecclestone, cash for questions, the dodgy dossier

So now we have a pretty stark choice ahead. The far right obscenity that is the BNP or the opaque if not invisible Conservative manifesto. My personal politics are probably more ‘left wing’ than they have ever been before but the Labour party has made itself unelectable.

So, we need someone to turn the tide. Who is going to stand up and apologise for the mistakes of the past, present their ideas for the future and argue their case in the face of dissent? That’s the politics I want to see. I might disagree with you on a lot of things but you’ll probably still get my vote.