Cornwall

The X Factor, Boring Politics and the August Blog Hiatus

The casual passer-by to this page might reasonably conclude that I have been terribly lazy throughout the month of August. It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and there are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost is the fact that my job (the one that pays the bills) is currently at full stretch with the height of the Cornish holiday season. I normally delight in telling people how easy my job is (loafing around behind the bar, making the odd sarcastic remark) but August is the month in which you could probably stretch it and say that I actually earn my money for once.

Of course, the traditional tourist rush isn’t the only reason I haven’t bothered to post here. As you will probably be aware, this blog is mostly (although not entirely) about politics, and the beauty of the free availability of blogging websites is that non-entities like me have every opportunity to vent spleen in a public forum about the poor misguided fools who aspire to run our lives.

The trouble is, after the General Election and the initial excitement of the first hung parliament in nearly forty years, politics has become rather dull again. The Coalition, while by its very nature containing some finely distilled elements of pure evil, is doing its best to be as insipid as possible. Pickles and Gideon only slither out infrequently, while even David Cameron seems to have temporarily parked the shrill, fat-faced toff act from the months leading up to the General Election. All of these things have served to keep my bile levels in a manageable state over these last few weeks. I can’t say this is a situation I entirely welcome.

The Labour Party haven’t helped matters much either. Their leadership election could have been a golden opportunity for a party, freed from the shackles of a long period in office, to capture the public imagination with an eye-catching and far-reaching debate over the future of the country and the role of the left. Fat chance. It’s been a bunch of dull people talking about dull things in a dull way. They could at least have organised some sort of nasty spat between a couple of the candidates but we haven’t even been given that pleasure. Deeply disappointing.

And so I find myself nearing the end of August with very little to write about. I can’t even summon any great sense of disgust about the return (tonight) of the single event that will over-shadow everything else for the next four months. I refer, of course, to the over-produced, overblown dung-polishing extravaganza that is the X-Factor. I wish it would make me mad, but I just don’t really care, to be honest. There’ll be bad auditions, heart-breaking back stories, manufactured spats between the judges, the annual assault on the Christmas Number One and the whole thing will be reported and tweeted about endlessly and watched by millions (although I won’t be one of them). But, to be honest, it’s part of the furniture now and Cowell’s dominance of the Christmas charts (Rage Against The Machine aside) at least spares us from Sir Cliff.

So I’m hoping that things will get back to normal before too long. Cameron, Gideon, Pickles et al will soon be back from their holidays (one pictures them all collectively attending some sort of giant reptile camp for the parliamentary recess) and my natural irritation levels will surely soar again. And who knows, the Labour Party might even do something hilarious and choose Ed Balls as their Leader. Here’s hoping…

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Morris Dancing: it’s not big, and it’s certainly not clever

I had a near miss this weekend. My day job (i.e. the one that tends to keep most of the bills at bay) is at the rather splendid Quarryman pub, just outside Wadebridge in the People’s Republic of North Cornwall. I normally do the daytime shift on a Saturday, and would have been cheerfully welcoming the first serious visitor rush of the season for the Bank Holiday weekend, but a previous engagement dragged me away for the morning. Fortuitously, as it happens.

For this was the day the morris dancers came. I should state at the outset that the particular group of morris dancers who come to our pub a couple of times a year are an especially polite, friendly bunch who do their business swiftly, enjoy a quick pint and then amble off to their next destination without leaving too much mess behind. In short, they are absolutely no trouble to anyone. Except me.

I have an irrational fear of morris dancers. It must in some way be related to coulrophobia, the fear of clowns, but I haven’t found the correct term for it yet. I can’t exactly put my finger on what the problem is (apart from the obvious grand scale lunacy of the whole thing, of course) but there is definitely something about the stick-wielding, bladder-swinging, foliage-adorned extravaganza that causes the nightmares and the cold sweats. It may be the bells, it may be the beards – either way, I’m nowhere near my comfort zone.

Is it worse than my persistent Gideophobia? (Probably not, but put George Osborne into a morris dancing troupe and I may end up with a whole bunch of issues previously unknown to medical science.) Perhaps I should embrace my fears, sign up to the local morris dancing group and dive in headlong, pewter ale pot attached to my waist like a holster. Then again, perhaps not.

I don’t know what’s the matter with me really. I just thought I’d share all that nonsense with you…

Should prayer have a place at council meetings?

The National Secular Society is currently carrying out a piece of work examining the link between local councils and the inclusion of prayers as an item of business on their agendas. In some areas this has become an issue of some controversy, while in many other places most people would wonder what the fuss is about, either because prayer forms no part of their councils’ meetings or because it is a long-standing practice which the majority are comfortable with.

Council prayers are something I’ve chosen to absent myself from since I was first elected to Cornwall County Council in 2005, and while some of the ‘old hands’ initially saw it as a direct attack on their beliefs, I think they mostly now realise that I (and the growing number of other abstainers) simply made a different choice.

Those who would defend the scheduling of a prayer session within a council meeting would probably point to a number of different arguments. Many would say it is a traditional item on the agenda, or that a quiet moment of reflection at the start of a meeting helps put them in the correct frame of mind for the business at hand. Many others would offer the slightly more trenchant view that “this is a Christian country” and that those who disagree should bloody well live somewhere else.

The only one of these arguments that holds any water for me is the second, that a calm period of thought at the start of a meeting is good for clearing the mental decks. Tradition is a complete non-argument because that puts forward the case for the perpetual status quo. Societies and traditions evolve (I chose that word carefully) over time and I believe that our representation at local and national level should reflect that.

As for the suggestion that this is a Christian country, I’m afraid that simply doesn’t bear any meaningful scrutiny. Only a minority of the population regularly attend a Christian ceremony, and the long-term decline in footfall at Anglican churches speaks of a growing trend towards secularism. I know that many people still identify themselves as Christians, even if their only contact with their religion is weddings and funerals, but apathy should not be taken for unqualified support.

I would never dream of trying to prevent anyone from practising their belief system, but equally I don’t think others should seek to impose their beliefs on me (or anyone else for that matter). Perhaps a better option than formalising prayers as an agenda item might be holding a voluntary prayer session prior to the meeting itself. This could provide that period of reflection while leaving the meeting itself purely for the business at hand.

I’m always happy to have a philosophical debate with anyone on the topic of what we believe, but I wonder if parliament and councils across the country need to enshrine a particular denomination within business items that otherwise have no connection with the ‘spiritual’. My concern about the first item of business being prayers has never been about what other people believe, it is about inclusiveness and the signals our elected bodies send out to those who aren’t part of the Anglican tradition, whether they are Methodists, Catholics, Muslims, atheists or whatever.

(See also: Council prayers campaign progresses to the next stage)

Why everyone’s vote should count

It seems strange that anyone should have to write a post explaining why, in a democracy, everyone’s vote should count, but it appears that the media’s favourite to be the next Prime Minister doesn’t agree. David Cameron is opposed to any form of proportional representation and this week spoke out against Gordon Brown’s (admittedly pretty cynical) plans for a referendum on changing the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system for the Alternative Vote (AV).

Of course, Cameron is acting in the interests of narrow party advantage as he knows that AV would be highly unlikely to deliver him an overall majority. (Strangely, however, while AV and its variants are not deemed suitable for the electorate at large, the Conservative Party has no issue with its use for their own internal elections.) Brown’s motives don’t seem to be a whole lot purer – the Commons vote on AV was a clear pitch for Lib Dem votes in Labour’s forthcoming attempt to avoid electoral armageddon.

Of course, AV is not proportional but it is at least a step in the right direction and Labour’s acceptance of it is a long overdue acknowledgement that FPTP is a bizarre anachronism in a 21st century democracy. The fairest solution would be the Single Transferable Vote (STV), a system which maintains the constituency link while providing a much clearer reflection of voters’ wishes than AV or FPTP.

One of the biggest problems associated with the current arrangements is the relatively small number of votes which actually have any impact. In the coming election the main parties will be fighting over around 150 seats which may actually change hands, and within those marginal constituencies they will target a relatively small percentage of swing voters. Estimates of the total number of these voters vary but there are probably fewer than 1,000,000 people whose votes will decide who forms the next government. (In 2005 more than 70% of the votes cast made absolutely no difference to the outcome of the election.) There is no incentive for the parties to talk to anyone else.

STV means that there are no safe seats and every vote counts. Therefore political parties need to tailor their policies and campaigns to everyone, not just the small minority who happen to live in a marginal constituency. And in the case of the Tories, it would lead to a much more even distribution of the Ashcroft money which is currently only targetted at the key marginals. There you go, in addition to the other obvious benefits STV achieves something which the taxation system can’t.

(See also: Electoral Reform Society – PR Myth Busting.)

So what was that all about then?

I was astonished to find myself on the front page of the Western Morning News today as part of a curious ‘process’ story on the use of Twitter from Council meetings. I haven’t actually seen it myself, as I tend not to buy confused right-wing newspapers, but I have seen the online version. That’s right, it’s your basic slow-news-day hatchet job and I shouldn’t really complain because I’ve written far worse about other people on these very pages.

What was perhaps most surprising was that the news editor at this esteemed (Daily Mail owned) publication felt that publishing ‘tweets’ from a meeting that took place ten days ago was actually (a) news, and (b) worthy of the front page. What was less surprising was that the ubiquitous Tax Payers’ Alliance were wheeled out to foam at the mouth about… well, they weren’t quite sure really, but something was definitely an outrage. (I must confess to feeling slightly proud to have finally won my ‘TPA wings’.)

Life will go on and all of this will no doubt blow over in a day or two. While I’m still not entirely sure what the whole thing was about, I have at least learned one valuable lesson: beware the phone call from a friendly journalist on a slow news day.

See also: A Slow News Day

Esther for Luton – What’s that all about then?

I must admit to becoming more and more confused by Esther Rantzen’s ‘Independent’ candidacy for Luton South. For my sins I’ve recently started following her on Twitter and reading her website and, while I have to say she does her best to engage with her followers (up to a point, anyway), I couldn’t honestly tell you that I’m any nearer to understanding what she believes or why she’s descended on Luton.

I suppose it’s an attempt to catch a public mood in the way Martin Bell so famously did during the 1997 Election, but the situation is rather different in Luton South than it was in Tatton (now home to the lovely George Osborne, of course). Bell’s candidacy had a clear purpose, an obvious villain in Neil Hamilton and enough national media coverage to keep the unfolding drama at the forefront of everyone’s minds throughout the election campaign. So far Rantzen has none of these.

Bell’s clear purpose in 1997 was a crusade against sleaze, which had bogged John Major’s Tory government down so badly for the previous three years that it had ceased to function as an effective administration. Some may say that there is a comparison to be made with the current Labour government, but things are actually quite a lot different now. In 1997 the focus on sleaze was entirely directed at the Conservatives, and with very good reason. Aside from John Major’s ill-fated ‘Back To Basics’ campaign, which seemed to inadvertently blow the lid off an endless stream of ministerial affairs and auto-erotic asphyxiation scandals, a significant number of senior Tory MPs were found taking large sums of cash and ‘benefits in kind’ from a variety of foreign business interests. Libel cases collapsed, perjury trials ensued, and two high-profile Conservatives, Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer, ended up in jail. We’re not quite that far down the road yet and, for those who bother to look beyond the skewed media coverage, the MPs’ expenses ‘guilt’ is spread across the parties (in fact, it’s still the Tories who appear to come out worst).

Rantzen also lacks a clear enemy in Luton South. Bell had Hamilton, implicated in the ‘Cash For Questions‘ scandal, and there was high drama as the two men famously met in front of the cameras for the ‘Battle of Knutsford Common’. In contrast Margaret Moran, the sitting MP for Luton South, has bowed to the pressure in the wake of the expenses scandal and will not be Labour’s candidate in 2010. Had Moran stayed, Rantzen would have been able to ride the wave of media outrage and may even have seen the other parties withdraw, as Labour and the Lib Dems did in Tatton. Instead she has reverted to simply being a fringe candidate.

I suppose what troubles me the most is that I’m never quite sure what an ‘Independent’ actually stands for. Here in Cornwall there is a long tradition of Independent councillors, although their numbers have seen a steady decline over recent years. This label seems quite appealing to many people, particularly those who are disillusioned with mainstream party politics. “I vote for the man, not the party” is the refrain I often hear during local election campaigns. While this may initially seem like a seductive argument, it does beg the question: “what do Independent candidates actually believe in”? How would an Independent MP or councillor vote in, say, a budget debate in a hung administration? “I’d assess the facts and make the best decision for my area” is often the response, but how would any of the candidate’s residents have the faintest idea which way their representative would jump in such a situation? Electing an Independent is the political equivalent of giving a blank cheque to an individual MP or councillor. At least with a political candidate you have a pretty good idea what you’re going to get. Tory, Labour, Lib Dem and all the others at least publish manifestos which are open to scrutiny during and after an election campaign.

One of my favourite questions to Independent candidates when they show up on my doorstep is “How did you vote at the last General Election?” It nearly always throws them off balance and none of them like answering it (most don’t even bother). But I don’t ask it simply to be awkward – I want to know what their political instinct is when they’re faced with a difficult situation. I tried to ask Esther the same question on Twitter yesterday but, after being quite a feisty debater up to that point, she suddenly went all shy and stopped engaging.

It will be very interesting to see how the campaign develops in Luton, and if Rantzen starts to answer the awkward questions and actually sets out what she believes in she may yet deserve to make an impact on the 2010 General Election. As things currently stand however, I really can’t see the point.