Saturday, May 29, 2010

Election Retrospective Blogpost Part Three (The Last One)

"No overall majority" is the correct definition of the outcome I believe. A hung parliament had been discussed in the run up to election day and now we had one. Despite it being on the cards, the political commentators and pundits seemed ill-prepared for this and there were numerous people expressing varying opinions about what would happen next.

"Constitutional Experts" were consulted. This is kind of ironic because we don't actually have a constitution. We have a series of agreements, rules and statutes that are referred to at times like this and are often officially described as the "unwritten" constitution.

Some said the Conservatives had won the most seats and were the defacto winners and Cameron had to be the next prime minister. Others said another election would be required as a minority government cannot function effectively. Others said Gordon Brown had to walk the plank immediately as his position was untenable.

The actuality that was finally agreed was that Gordon Brown had to remain as prime minister and Labour remain as the goverment as nobody else was in a position to take the job and somebody had to stay and do it until a solution was found. This irked many people who were hoping to see Gordon Brown unceremoniously frogmarched out of 10 Downing Street as soon as possible despite it being correct that he should for the moment stay. They vociferously shouted that he was hanging on by his fingernails and was in denial by refusing to accept that winning less seats than another party actually constituted a defeat.

Cameron and the Conservatives, as the party with most seats would have the first shot at forming a government. This could take one of two forms. They either had to create a formal coalition with one or more other parties that would give them a majority of seats or they had to gain at least a formal agreement (officially called "confidence and supply") from one or other parties that they would support the Conservatives in votes in the House of Commons. This would allow them to operate an effective majority. If neither form of agreement could be gained then they could not form a goverment because all the other parties could (and probably would) always vote against them meaning they were a lame duck and a goverment, only in name. If no coalition or agreement could be made then The Labour Party, having gained the second highest number of seats, would try to make a similar arrangement that gave them a majority.

A coalition formed with The Labour Party taking the lead seemed to confuse a lot of people (myself included). How could a party that had not gained the most number of seats get together with other losing parties and be allowed to form a government? This rapidly became known in the media as the "coalition of the losers". However strange it seemed to people, this would be a legitimate government.

Simply by historical reputation alone the Conservatives are on their own in parliament. Almost all other parties of any size feel ideologically opposed to them. They are not natural coalition partners to anyone. The mathematically obvious arrangement they could make would be with the Liberal Democrats who although they had had a bad election had sufficients seats to give the Conservatives what they wanted. The Liberal Democrats however were formed by a merger of The Liberal Party and The Social Democrat Party. The Social Democrats were formed in the 80s by a splinter group of disilliusioned Labour politicians. Not natural bedfellows to the Conservatives at all. If the Liberal Democrats were to align with any other party it would ideologically be with The Labour Party.

Whilst the above is true, the reality is that our major political parties are much more closely clustered around the centre of the political spectrum than ever before. The Labour Party throughout Thatcher's period in office had made themselves unelectable through a combination of infighting and ill-conceived policies. Throughout Tony Blair's period in office the Conservatives had done pretty much the same thing and both parties, having realised this, had subsequently moved towards the centre ground. The centre ground was always held by the Liberal Democrats who I might uncharitably suggest gained a lot of their votes by just not being Conservative or Labour.

The weekend following the election saw a period of intense discussions and political dealings. These were centered around the initially unlikely possibility of some sort of arrangement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Many people believed that even if the Liberal Democrat leadership could thrash out a deal with the Conservatives, their membership would find any sort of arrangement with them unacceptable.

The Liberal Democrats were also furtively but legitimately double-dealing with Labour and seeing what their options were if a deal could be made there. One of the Liberal Democrats non-negotiable conditions of any sort of arrangement with Labour was that it must not involve Gordon Brown as leader and ongoing prime minister. He was therefore required to announce his resignation as leader of the Labour Party in order to allow discussions to progress. The problem with making a deal with Labour was that the sums still did not add up. Even if they had an agreement they still would not have a majority unless they could could also gain the support of all the minor parties as well. The minor parties comprised of Scottish Nationalists, Welsh Nationalist and the parties representing Northern Ireland. You may be interested to know that there are a group of MPs representing some Northern Ireland constituencies who refuse to attend the House of Commons as their political objective is to unite with the Republic of Ireland. They therefore refuse to pledge allegiance to the Queeen and because of this, cannot take their seats in parliament. Even if they could have been lured into a coalition, their support could not be relied upon as they have never been seen in parliament. Getting this incredibly broad coalition to agree on anything would be almost impossible, and politically, probably highly unstable.

The outcome of the above wranglings was a full-on Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government. On initial assessment, The Liberal Democrats seem to have been the winners. They gained a poor third place in the election yet appear to have gained considerable political influence in the new government. It is also however speculated that if the coalition fails The Liberal Democrats will have the most to lose as people will believe they made the deal only to gain power and in the process abandoned their political integrity. It is thought that a small but influential hard core of both Conservative and Liberal Democrats parties are deeply uncomfortable with the coalition and may actively seek to undermine and destabilise it. The phrase "won't last till Christmas" is freqently bandied around.

It's often been said that the coalition we have is the worst possible outcome because nobody voted for this sort of compromise government. It's true to say that nobody voted for a coalition because coalitions do not appear on the ballot paper but I personally believe that, as with most of our elections, relatively few people vote for a party because they believe unconditionally with everything that party says. They generally vote for the party with the most number of policies that they agree with, or for the party that has the least number of policies that they disagree with. Politicians hate to think any vote for them is anything less than a ringing endorsement of everything they believe in but you only have look at potential voters interviewed on TV to realise that very few are blindly affiliated to one party alone. Many people vote for the party that they least object to or they vote for a party simly because it is not one of the other major parties. If all the people who voted believed passionately in the party that they voted for then party membership would be considerably higher than it is. Only a small minority of the population is actually a paying member of any political party. In that respect, I think many people find some sort of coalition acceptable as long as it acts in the country's best interest which is really all that you ask from a government in the first place.

My normal, intermittent, and non-political blogging will return shortly. Thank you for listening.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Election Retrospective Blogpost Part Two

Come election day the pollsters were predicting a hung parliament. Well hung. This will require some explanation - stop sniggering at the back.

A General Election elects the Members of Parliament (MPs) for the House of Commons based in Westminster, London. The election is held across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which make up the United Kingdom. The House of Commons has approximately 650 MPs each one representing a constituency - a particular area of the UK. The winner of the most votes in each constituency wins a "seat" in the House of Commons.

There is a second unelected house called the House of Lords. Historically the House of Lords was supposed to be made up of made up of individuals who although unelected were expected to be sufficiently wise as to always operate in the country's best interest and act as a counterweight against the possible excesses of a rogue House of Commons. This has always been a controversial state of affairs and House of Lords reform is always a subject under discussion. Currently the House of Lords contains a mix of individuals nominated by the major political parties via the prime minister and the monarch( life peers), twenty six senior bishops (the Lords Spiritual) and a small number of hereditary peers (family connections). Yes, you heard me right, God has a say in our political process and also if an ancient ancestor of yours went into battle for the monarch and pleased him/her that may well entitle you through birthright to have a say in running the country. Controversial in a modern democracy I'm sure you would agree. Members of the House of Lords can be appointed to government posts and many are definitely politically aligned. Although life peers are chosen from across the political spectrum, as a whole The House of Lords is generally considered more inclined in favour of the Conservatives. But let's get back to the election.

In the UK we operate an electoral system called First Past the Post. This is actually a slightly misleading name but in the way of many things in the UK - we've always called it that so why change?

First Past the Post means the candidate with the most votes wins the seat. When the winner is declared, all votes for any of the losing candidates are effectively dead and lost. We don't do proportional representation (PR) which allows for the seats allocated in parliament to more closely represent the percentage of votes received nationally by each party. A system of PR has always been resisted by the Labour and Conservative parties as it has the potential to create a fractured parliament of minor parties. First Past the Post almost always creates an outright winner and this should make for a stable government. We don't want to end up like Italy which changes its government more often than the average Pom changes his grundies. The mathematicians amongst you will realise that under this system it is entirely possible that a political party could win a disproportionately higher percentage of seats relative to the percentage of votes they received as whole across the country. This happens. It also means that a smaller party who may gain perhaps five or ten percent of votes across the country wins no seats at all. The smaller parties consider this unfair and I can see their point. We have a long tradition of minor political parties and independent eccentrics trying their hand at getting elected. Even if they were to gain only 1% of votes across the country, PR would give them a small place in parliament but First Past the Post effectively shuts them all out.

At 10pm the polling stations closed and the exit poll was announced. The exit poll is the first indicator of how the election may pan out. On election day the media are only allowed to report on the barest of details concerning the events of the day. No politicians are interviewed and media speculation on the outcome is not permitted. A bit of a news blackout really which is a relief for the poor voter who's seen nothing but this for the previous month or so. The main news story reported on election day this year was actually about the leader of one of the minor political parties who was lucky not to get himself killed in a light aircraft accident - election day news reporting is rarely this exciting. The exit poll predicted a hung parliament.

To properly win an election a party must gain a majority. This does not simply mean they must win more seats than the second placed party. A majority means winning more seats than all other parties put together. First Past the Post makes this more probable than any system of PR. If a party wins more seats than anyone else but does not win a majority then this is a hung parliament and the shenanigans begin.

Come Friday morning we had a hung parliament. The Conservatives had won 306 seats, Labour 258, Liberal Democrats 57 and other parties gained 21. Politicians hate hung parliaments. Politics in the UK for the last 18 months or so have been dominated by two things. The failing economy and the way our MPs have claimed their expenses. As an electorate we had managed to upset almost all politicians in all parties. We had just reason to be proud of ourselves for delivering this ambiguous message to the political class who, because of the scandal over their expenses were viewed as little better than money-grubbing opportunists who seemed to think that charging for porn movies, garden landscaping, non-existent mortgages and state of the art plasma TVs were legitimate occupational expenses that should be financed for them by the taxpayer.

Trying to create a working government from this election outcome would mean the politicians would have to scrap it out like ferrets in a sack.

Final instalment later this week - if you want me to.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Election Retrospective Blogpost Part One

I have a strange desire to relate an account of the recent General Election here in the UK. It seems to have piqued the interest of people around the world and unusually as voters, even we were quite interested in it this time.

For the first time in 13 years we've had a change of government. Prior to the 13 years of Labour we had 18 years of Conservative government. This actually says less about our ability to form stable long-term governments and more about the inability of non-governing parties to form an effective oppostion to an incumbent government. Invariably whilst out of power, opposition parties spent more time fighting within themselves rather than trying to form an effective alternative to the current ruling party.

This time the country was ripe for change. Gordon Brown coveted the job of prime minister all the time Tony Blair was in the role. When he was finally handed the job on a plate 3 years ago he proceeded, in the most part, to cock it up big style. Convinced that he would and could impose his vision he was unable to cope with people being underwhelmed by his plans. His stewardship was marked by ill-judged, knee-jerk reactions to events or indecisiveness at critical moments. Despairing at his falling ratings he succumbed to the PR people who tried to teach him how to smile and appear engaging and approachable. These were characteristics he himself admitted he had never possessed and believed were trivial and irrelevant to a man of substance such as he. When he tried it, small children hid behind the sofa in fear. Adults laughed out loud in derision. He was encouraged by his handlers to pontificate on the outcome of popular televison game shows and talent contests. His unfamiliarity with these subjects was painfully apparent.

The low-point of Gordon Brown's election campaign was meeting a woman who proudly declared she was a staunch supporter of his party but raised some reasonable questions about his policies during the brief opportunity she had to meet him. He reassured her of his resolute intentions and that he alone was the man best able to represent her in the years to come. Immediately out of earshot he described her to one of his advisers as a bigot. He had however forgotten he was still wearing a TV microphone and his "bigot" remark was replayed relentlessly throughout the rest of the campaign.

The Conservative opposition went into the campaign looking to capitalise on recent record ratings. A few months earlier the polls had predicted a landslide victory for their party. Despite having the most money to spend they ran a confusing and unremarkable campaign and their initial popularity steadily ebbed away. The Conservative leader David Cameron's privileged upbringing was constantly used against him calling into question his ability to relate to the lifestyle and needs of the ordinary voter.

Stuck in the middle were The Liberal Democrats. Perennial bronze medallists in every election campaign within living memory, they suddenly and unexpectedly became popular in the polls. Many people believed this popularity was simply down to them being neither Labour nor Conservative. The Liberal Democrats woke up on election day morning convinced that although they would not gain outright victory they were going to sweep up like never before and become the genuine third force in British politics that they considered their birthright.

OK dear readers - if you're still with me (and if you are, I take my hat off to you), I'll stop for now. I've set the scene. Later this week I'll describe how our electoral system works and how the above events panned out on election day. Betcha can't wait.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Real Weather

Ever seen a swimming pool boil? If you can't watch it all, then at least watch the period between 1 and 2 minutes.

I hope they didn't leave the car out.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Please Don't Touch the Old Women

Us Limeys never like to miss an opportunity to have a pop at the Americans. Personally speaking, all the Americans I've ever met have been charming and courteous and we'd do better to look to our own behaviour. The way the British behave abroad and their contempt for foreigners is a subject of constant embarrassment. As a body politic, the Americans are sometimes a little worrying but as individuals I have never had any reason to complain.

One of our favourite illustrations of American naivety concerns the film The Madness of King George III. It is frequently said that this was renamed for the American market as simply The Madness of King George lest those silly Americans would think it was a sequel and not worth seeing as they had missed out on part I and II. This is of course an urban myth but illustrates the level of our humour sometimes.

Renaming of films is an interesting subject and I recently came across a list of film titles which were renamed for (generally speaking) non native English speaking countries.

Here's a list of a few of them with the country in which the new title was used which I got from this month's edition of the fantastic Word magazine. See how many you can guess and then scroll down to see how you get on. I'll start you off with a few easy ones...

  • The Teeth of the Sea (France)
  • Is There a Pilot on the Plane? (France)
  • Night in the Cramped Forest (Taiwan)
  • Two Crazy Guys and a Lot of Curves (Spain)
  • The Sparrow Becomes the Empress (China)
  • Six Naked Pigs (China)
  • Shooting Towards Tomorrow (Japan)
  • Please Don't Touch the Old Women (Italy)
  • The Eighth Passenger (various countries)
  • Breaking the Ice (Spain)
  • Mummy, I Missed the Plane (France)
  • The Hitman is not as Cold as he Thought (China)

I bet you cheated. Here are the original titles....assuming they weren't renamed for the British market of course...

  • Jaws
  • Airplane
  • The Blair Witch Project
  • The Dukes of Hazzard
  • Pretty Woman
  • The Full Monty
  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  • The Producers
  • Alien
  • Happy Feet
  • Home Alone
  • Leon

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Iron Man III

They don't make 'em like they used us.....ground breaking special effects and bangin' choons...

Thursday, May 06, 2010


I've just been to exercise my democratic right, do my civic duty, or whatever other euphemism you like to use for the act of voting in an election.

I assume in the rest of the world it operates in mostly the same way. Schools, village halls and other public places are given over for the day and a little gang of people move into the building to administer the voting process. Here, I vote in the local primary school. It's always nice to go in there and see the world downsized by 75% so tables only come up to knee height and everything is conveniently to hand about 50cm off the ground. It's like I imagine it would be to visit Lilliput. Lovely.

We have notoriously poor levels of turnout for our elections. Many put this down to simple apathy and indifference to politicians and their dubious credentials. I think it's more likely that because of the system we operate here, if you are in a so called "safe seat" it's very likely you know who's going to win and therefore, if you're contemplating voting for anyone other than the likely local winner, there's actually not much point in turning up. In some constituencies it is often said that a tactically shaved monkey wearing the right coloured rosette will get elected. This I suspect keeps a good few people away from the whole malarkey.

But I think the government is missing an opportunity here. Betting. Why, when you place your vote can't you have a flutter on the outcome as well? Polling stations seem to be abundantly staffed with mostly bored looking people. I'll have a fiver on the nose on the LibDem candidate and a £2.50 each way punt on Labour. This way, even though I might be voting for a certain loser (that'll be my free bet), I might still win a few bob on the outcome. The odds may be pretty short in some places but it'll be like the Grand National. Everyone will have a go and everyone could be a winner. The turnout will be up and the incoming government will get a few quid out of the process - and looking at our current state of our economy, they're gonna need it.

Because it's like the Grand National when even the most ill informed punter will want to waste their money you will get a fair number of people voting for probable losers. Little old ladies will bet on "that nice man with a pink hanky in his breast pocket". Astrologically challenged nitwits will perhaps bet on number four on the list "cos Mars is in my orbit this month and it's fourth closet to the" and so forth. This improves the odds for the hardened gamblers who are betting on winners and also should improve the returns to the government. Turnout would rocket up to 90% in a trice I reckon.

In some parts of the world voting is compulsory. Here you don't have to if you don't want to. In the one the part of the world where I do know you don't have a choice, the entire country is populated with habitual gamblers anyway.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

British Pathé

I'm not a big surfer (of the web or the aquatic variety). With the former I like to think I don't have the time and tend to think I should be doing something more worthwhile and with regard to the latter, I am geographically and climatically disadvantaged.

I have a few websites I visit regularly - news and journalism sites, my favourite blogs, inevitably wikipedia and youtube and a few others. However, a website really has to grab me in order to make me consider making any sort of long term commitment.

Via a link in a blog I found over the weekend I landed on the British Pathé archive. I'm completely hooked. Pathé was originally a French company that came up with the idea of cinema newsreels. These were short films reporting a summary of the week's news or perhaps just something interesting to report from around the world. These were shown before the main cinema feature film and each newsreel was preceded by the distinctive Pathé rooster crowing.

The original link I was directed to is simply of a housewife visiting various shops and going about her daily business in an unremarkable area of north London in 1948. It's three years after the end of the Second World War so food rationing is still in place. The interesting thing to me is that it is my part of north London and the street she lives in (Crescent Road) adjoins the road where I currently live. I can see now somebody walking around the same streets that I walk around now, but 62 years ago. The street layout is exactly the same now as it was then. The Town Hall is unchanged. Incredibly, the fishmonger is still a fishmonger. I don't suppose it's of much interest to most people but here it is.

Housewife's Story

I tried a few other searches and found some footage from 1938 of the village I grew up in, 240 miles from London.

Gypsy Farm Fair - Yarm - Yorks

The fair still visits Yarm every year although it's now a fun fair with no horse-trading but I remember us being told at school about the original purpose and history of Yarm Fair but until now I'd only ever seen a few old photographs.

The archive spans the globe. I encourage you to try a few searches, maybe where you live, or a subject that interests you and I'm sure you'll find something to watch. The archive is comprehensive so there is some really weird and eclectic (and yes, sometimes plain boring) stuff in there but the good stuff is absoutely gripping. The quality is often poor and sound often missing but to me, that just proves they've saved everything which is what a proper archive should be. It should be comprehensive and not selective. I've lost a lot of hours in here this weekend.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Legs II

D'oh! It's obvious isn't it. This is the reason for the unusual leg activity described in my previous post....