The Row Over the Tampon Tax Could Be a Straw in the Wind

It’s nearly always tax and/or wages that causes revolutions and wars, isn’t it? The Peasant’s Revolt in England (the subject of an excellent new book by Melvyn Bragg)…the English Civil Wars…the American war of Independence…the Bolshevik Russian Revolution…even the 1990 Poll Tax in UK. The broad mass of populations in any country at any time are generally quiescent, pliable and docile. Mostly they are absorbed with the day to day business of living and raising a family and trying to enjoy some diversion from time to time. They often – quite rightly – fear that the replacement will be worse than the lot they have now. But every so often, something will happen that so enrages them that they take up their pitchforks/rifles/banners and rise up to drive out the elites – or at least a change in the leaders in that elite.

In England/UK, since 1649, the elites have been very clever in making JUST ENOUGH concessions to the plebs to stave off a revolution. I expect in terms of the planned cuts in working tax credits, which this week saw – according to some view-points at least – the most extraordinary political events and constitutional challenge in more than a century, this will also be true. There’s been so much comment on this that I don’t intend to dwell too much on that.

What intrigued me though almost as much was that, on the same day as the blue-bloods were upturning the agreements by the elected chamber, that very same House of Commons was discussing a Labour motion to demand the abolition of the so-called Tampon Tax. Now, Tampon is a trademark name, and so should really be called ‘Sanitary Towel Tax’, but this lacks alliteration and doesn’t look so good in a headline, so we’ll stick to Tampon Tax.

The issue is that that these are subject to a 5% VAT levy. That is only a quarter of the full/normal VAT rate applied in the UK. In reality, it’s not a huge amount. But the amount of the tax is not the critical point. The issue is that, no matter if all 650 MPs voted to abolish the tax, supported by every member of the executive, agreed by every one of the 850 (odd)(?) Peers in the Upper House  and given Royal Assent, that 5% levy would still be imposed. This is because VAT – which in the UK began as a replacement to Purchase Tax, levied on ‘luxury goods and services’ – is a European Union tax. And the bonkers rule in the EU is that this is an item that must be subject to VAT; furthermore, the rules state that once something has had VAT imposed on it, the tax can only be reduced to 5%. Not eliminated.

So, when Labour came into office in 1997 they wanted to abolish VAT on energy bills. This was a very popular policy – in a country a cold, damp and windswept country like the UK, fuel bills should certainly not be regarded a luxury, but almost as necessary in winter at least as a near-essential for life. But 5% it stays.

It seems that this fact – along with the dawning realisation sparked by the utter disaster of the Eurozone has made even the most unthinking liberal-lefty type – with their hand-me-down opinions and unquestioning obeisance to whatever is the broad, soft lefty view of the day – question the goodness of the ‘European project’.

‘No taxation without representation’ is what led the English Parliament to put a king on trial and chop off his head; it’s what led Americans – the same people (or at least their President and corporation chiefs) who now urge the UK to remain part of the EU – to ditch tea in the Boston harbour and demand their independence from England.

To my American friends, I respectfully ask them to imagine who they would feel if taxes were imposed on them by, say, an administration in Mexico, even if every Senator and Congressman, as well as their President, was elected on the pledge to abolish the tax. How would you feel about that? Furthermore, if a police officer in some small town in Mexico demanded that you be extradited to ther for a crime you are alleged to have  committed, even if there is no prima facie evidence for this, and then  you had to spend months in jail in Mexico without any charge even be laid against you and were ultimately subject to the judicial process and punishment applicable in that country?

How would you feel if every unskilled Mexican – indeed the entire population of that country – could legally up sticks tomorrow, sail through US immigration and immediately be fully entitled to exactly the same employment, housing, health, education and welfare rights as American citizens? Oh, and the skilled people you DO want – from Canada, say – who speak the same language and whose forebears shed their blood and guts on the same side along with your pa and grandpa’s generation -were unable to gain work visas?

Get it? Good! Because that is exactly the situation the UK is in re the EU.

US leaders have always wanted Europe to be one conglomeration. It makes diplomacy SO much easier. “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?”, more than one president has plaintively asked. Furthermore, they want the UK, as their most reliable partner, to be in there, to counter-balance those who – shall we put it politely? – have hsitorically been less reliable allies. Well, I’m sorry, but the US desire for convenience and tidiness is not a good enough reason to sacrifice your democracy and accountability. Or your individual liberty

Of course, corporate America is desperately hoping we will stay – big corporations in and outside the continent LOVE the EU. They are gagging for the proposed EU/US trade agreement – the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), as it will allow them the right – the RIGHT! – to buy off anything that is currently in public ownership and sue the government if they try to put a roadblock to it!

This week we have also the start of the full-frontal ‘project fear’ campaign by big business on both sides of the Atlantic as to the perils of the UK leaving. Very often they are the same groups – and very often the same individuals – who at the end of the last century warned that Britain would be become an economic backwater, denied inward investment, isolated and weakened, if we did not join full European and Monetary Union (EMU), and would be back, on our knees, begging to be allowed in, even on far worse terms.

Totally unashamed by their spectacular misjudgement and being completely ‘caught out’ by the reality, inverted from their own predictions, they are at it again. Corporations regard democracy as an unfortunate by-product of the free market. They work with any agencies and any party to suppress and castrate any movement that threatens their political interest. Through the IMF and World Bank, they first create the conditions that virtually ensure the failure of any attempt at social ownership of goods and services, then – as the price of rescuing the Socialist-led country – demand such painful cuts in public spending that said government is left exposed, compromised and humiliated that it resigns or is defeated, or gives in and throws their industries and social security systems and all those who rely on them to the mercy of the corporate Gods. This has happened over and over again in pretty much every part of the world, including the UK in 1976, in Africa, and South and Central America. It has been used to crucify generations of people in large part of Europe, notably Greece. See this superb interview with Yanis Varoufakis (starts 32.20).  His analysis of the situation in Greece and the EU will, surely, shatter any remaining illusions about this body. He compares it with a ‘power politics’ style 19th century force, crushing any country or people that challenges it. Did you know that, next month, ALL Greek businesses, from the lone fruit-seller to the largest corporation, will have to PRE-PAY all their taxes for a full year ahead? How, when they can’t even borrow from a bank the money equating to the profits they’ve yet to make?! Total, TOTAL madness. 

I could go on – and no doubt will as the referendum date is set as to whether we should ‘leave’ or ‘remain’.

It is possible Cameron will come back with a basketful of real reforms from his ‘renegotiation’, but I can’t imagine that he can achieve any agreement that, when it comes, will stop me voting to Leave with such vigour that I’ll break the voting-booth pencil. And, who know? Maybe millions more will do the same, partly inspired by the story of the Tampon Tax. Period.

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Corbyn may not shoot Trident but he’s shooting the messenger

Sir Humphrey Appleby (HA): It’s a deterrent.
Prime Minister (PM): It’s a bluff. I probably wouldn’t use it.
HA: Yes, but they don’t know that you probably wouldn’t.
PM: They probably do.
HA: Yes, they probably know that you probably wouldn’t but they can’t certainly know.
PM: They probably certainly know that I probably wouldn’t.
HA: Yes, but even though they probably certainly know that you probably wouldn’t, they don’t certainly know that although you probably wouldn’t, there’s no probability that you certainly would.

The best acronym ever contrived must surely be Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). It means that if any state with nuclear weapons fired one of them on another state with nuclear weapons they would be committing national suicide. Which is why no nuclear powers have ever gone to war in the 70 years since the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan ending World War Two.

Given that the major powers never knew what point the other had decided the nuclear threshold had been crossed, it may also be the case – as many believed – that the possession of nuclear weapons has not only prevented nuclear war but has prevented any direct conflict between the major powers. The logic of MAD though depends on the other side not being sure whether – or in what circumstances – you would ever use those weapons. It’s a game of bluff.

The dialogue above from the sitcom Yes, Prime Minister, was when the argument was about ‘upgrading’ from Polaris to Trident, as the UK’s Continuous At Sea Deterrence (CASD) and when 2020 was a long way off! Now, the UK will have to make a decision whether to replace Trident with the next-generation of nuclear subs, at least one of which is supposedly on patrol at all times. This also means that this form of nuclear strike force produces the greatest likelihood that nuclear war will be avoided, because they could be fired even if the entire government and military command has been knocked out in a pre-emptive surprise attack – what in Whitehall is known as “a bolt from the blue”.

Those who didn’t grow up in the Cold War period and not have the proverbial mushroom cloud hanging over their heads may well be wondering what all the fuss is about with new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn stating that if you were to become Prime Minister he would never authorise the use of nuclear weapons, even if it was Labour Party policy to renew Trident.

The great political journalist and academic Peter Hennessy said the moment that you really know you are Prime Minister is when you are told by the head of the civil service that you must write personal letters to the commanders of each of the Trident (Vanguard) subs, to be kept in a safe on-board and to be opened only if all means of communication with the UK have been lost and it is presumed that the country  has been blasted, irradiated and burnt to kingdom come. You have to instruct the commanders of the subs what they should do in those circumstances. Only one Prime Minister has ever said for sure that they would retaliate and that was Jim Callaghan.

Coming to office in 1976 having uniquely held all three of what are regarded as the greatest offices of state other than Prime Minister – Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary – and an ex-naval man himself  (he almost certainly prevented a war over the Falklands when he was prime minister in 1978 by the strategic deployment of a warship to the area) – Callaghan later stated that had the UK suffered a nuclear attack, he would have instructed one of the then Polaris subs to retaliate. “But I would never have forgiven myself”, he mused.

For Corbyn, who was a unilateralist (or one-sided disarmer) even at the height of the Cold War and whose position on this can hardly therefore be a surprise, the issue of nuclear weapons is one of morality.

He believes it is repugnant and indefensible to even contemplate using such weapons which will be bound not just to kill millions immediately, but many more millions in a lingering, agonising death, not least because the whole of society and the means of food production and clean water would have completely broken down and large parts of the planet poisoned so much that it would be uninhabitable for generations. It is a perfectly understandable and, indeed, in many respects, a laudable view. And at least his position means means that there will be a national debate on the issue: something that has been lacking since the very earliest days, when the post-war Labour government (yes, that same one that introduce the welfare state, nationalisation of key industries, and cradle-to-grave welfare state) gave the go-ahead to develop Britain’s own nuclear weapons. Or as the then Foreign Secretary said: “a nuclear bomb with a bloody great Union Jack on top of it”. From the beginnings, the nuclear weapons’ issue has not just been about – possibly not even mainly about – deterrence, but an attempt to keep the United Kingdom as a world power. As one commentator put it recently: “Our nuclear weapons are being used every day – in diplomacy and in negotiations around the world”.

But we do need the debate because until now all the major decisions about our nukes have been made in private, and in secret, bypassing Parliament except for very occasional, formal votes on expenditure (themselves often disguised within other ‘estimates’), even though many would regard them as the most profound decisions that could ever be taken by a country.

It’s an issue which is nearly split the Labour Party several times. It was the increases in defence expenditure to pay for the UK’s bomb and the consequent cuts in the NHS in its very early days that led to the resignations of several Cabinet ministers of the post-war government t, including a future leader, Harold Wilson. In 1960, the party conference voted to abandon nuclear weapons, with the pro-nuclear then leader, Hugh Gaitskell, promising to “fight, fight and fight again to save the party I love.” In fact, when they did come back into power in 1964 under Wilson, they did go ahead with Polaris. Then, in the early 1980s, it was the election as party leader of a founder for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Michael Foot, which was partly responsible for defection of a number of Labour MPs, including former Cabinet ministers, to form a new, rival party, the SDP.

So, in the past, knowing what a toxic issue this is, Labour governments in particular have been especially nervous about the issue and have been very keen to keep the decision-making process as tight and restricted as possible. And Labour PMs have been very reluctant to discuss the issue in public, especially in the media, even when they’ve left office.

In 1983 when I was at British forces’ radio in West Berlin, Jim Callaghan’s office  agreed to an interview at the station while he was on a ‘goodwill’/meet the troops visit in the then divided city, and my boss generously asked me if I would like to do it. WOULD I? ‘His people’ had asked a couple of weeks before for an outline of the topics to be covered. He was still an MP but had no formal role in government, it wasn’t a news interview, so it was thought that was fair enough. I had told them – thinking about defence issues on a forces’ radio station – that I wanted to question him about his secret plan when in office a few years before to upgrade Polaris, which even most of the Cabinet hadn’t known about! (This article shows the ‘secret minute’ has been reclassified as Secret). He stormed into the reception, flanked by his armed bodyguards, and before we had even done the introductions said: “I can tell you one thing young man (well, I was then!) – I’m not going to answer any questions about Chevaline!”.

So, as Corbyn would say, let’s have a debate, but as he would also say, please let’s keep it civilised and respectful. Those who are anti-our current nuclear weapons let alone proceeding with a further ‘upgrade’ need to recognise that decent people, who also want to prevent war of any kind, who also love their children, and who also care about the planet, have different views on this and think the best way of maintaining peace and as the ultimate guarantor of our survival as a free country and think if we abandon nukes it won’t lead to a nuclear-free world, but a world where some very nasty regimes have them and we don’t. And, no, having nuclear weapons didn’t prevent 9/11, or 7/7, or the fight against ISIS. And lots of other threats. But, as I’ve argued before, that’s like blaming your home security alarm for not alerting you when your office or car  has been broken into. You need a range of conventional, effective forces as well (and an excellent intelligence service and diplomatic corps). And if you think there are no consequences in giving up nukes, ask some of the Ukrainians how they feel about giving theirs up now that Russian tanks have ploughed into their villages.

Nuclear weapons cannot be dis-invented and the idea that the Russian or Chinese leadership would be shamed by the UK’s unilateralism into giving up their nukes is naive and foolish beyond imagining, and fantastically dangerous and irresponsible. Given our world status now, we probably  wouldn’t become a nuclear state. But we do have them, have had them for a long time, and they form an important part in the collective security in Europe. That’s been my settled view for a long time and I doubt very much it’s going to change now. But I am prepared to debate and defend that view .

The new Labour leader is going to come under regular and intense scrutiny over this, perhaps more than any other issue,and ultimately it can’t be dodged. It could well split the party – probably not resulting in a new party being formed as such, but produce major blood-letting due to the dislocation between the views of the predominantly new members and supporters in the country and those of the elected MPs. The latter, of course, all won their seats on a manifesto that certainly did not argue for the UK to unilaterally abandon its nuclear weapons and who have a combined vote many, many more times the number who voted for Corbyn as leader.

The new leader has been basking in the warm approval of his party, especially its several hundred thousand new members/supporters, but sooner or later he’s going to have to face a much more hostile audience and series of interrogations, and the omens from his first couple of weeks in office are not good about his ability and his willingness to engage with those who have a very different view. His two major public speeches since elected Labour leader have both attacked the media, even berating them for reporting things which he has in fact said – such as his sponsored Early Day Motion (EDM) about wishing an asteroid would wipe out humankind  Well, OK, of course he wasn’t entirely serious, and was using it to make a wider point.but you wouldn’t have known from his attack on Tuesday that he had supported such an EDM (and if it’s now to be claimed it was entirely a joke it was a frivolous use of precious parliamentary time). He does tend to bask in his own self-righteous beliefs and gets very tetchy when anyone questions his own morality.

And it isn’t just Corbyn: his deputy, Tom Watson – whose views and attitudes towards press regulation are well known –  also has a tendency to get cross with interviewers who box him into a tight spot. Witness this interview he did with Simon Hoban of BBC Radio Merseyside, just a couple of hours after the leader’s speech.  It all starts chummy enough, with Watson trying to do the ‘ordinary bloke’ bit about his beloved footie team. But listen how hostile he becomes when the interview takes a direction which displeases him:

Hoban int Watson 29 Sept

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign and the excitement generated since has been like a huge shot of adrenaline into the whole UK political system. It has galvanised young people in particular and even if a lot of the ‘new politics’ do to me seem like a lot of the old ideas reheated, at least these constitute an alternative agenda and discourse and give hope to those who are being – and increasingly will be – hammered by cuts. But the total new membership of the party constitutes barely one and a half per cent of the electorate. There’s an awful lot of people out there who remain unconvinced by either the leader, or the policies – in as much as they have been articulated.

The debates – on nukes and all the other areas that Corbyn has pledged will be discussed – need to involve a much wider section of the population than the still very small party membership. And it can’t all be done on social media. Corbyn’s past statements, support, actions and ‘friendships’ are going to – quite correctly – come under relentless scrutiny now. If he thinks he can just deflect and characterise every criticism or every pointed, unhelpful question as part of a conspiracy by the mainstream media/Tory-supporting newspapers he will never reach out to the bulk of the electorate. Which would be a great pity, because this government certainly needs a credible, authoritative opposition. But that may be a completely MAD hope.

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When talking about migrants in France we need to speak English with care

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.” (Lewis Carroll – Through the Looking Glass).

if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. (George Orwell – Politics and the English Language).

He who controls the language rules the world. (Variously attributed to Josef Goebbels and Josef Stalin).

The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence. (Article 31 of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees)

Migrants, economic migrants, immigrants, illegal immigrants, asylum-seekers, illegals, bogus asylum-seekers, failed asylum-seekers, refugees, displaced persons, ex-pats.

The seemingly interchangeable and multiple-use Lexicon to describe those attempting – or have succeeded in – moving from one country to another.

Then there’s a whole load of other adjectives to describe their conduct and actions, such as: swarm (thank you, Prime Minister); marauding (we’re obliged, Foreign Secretary).

Once again, the subject of language used in reporting the European migrants’ crisis has come under the stethoscope; today it was the turn of the Jeremy Vine programme on BBC Radio 2 (which if you accept it as a current affairs, rather than a primarily entertainment show, which I argue you should, then it is has the biggest radio audience for any such programme in the UK). With his two guests and participation by listeners, Jeremy batted away on whether the BBC should use such terms as ‘illegal’ or ‘swarm’ in describing the human beings and their actions, specifically in Calais. (The segment begins at 33:00).

One gentleman defended the use of Cameron’s word ‘swarm’ which he claimed had no automatic pejorative meaning. “Come, come” suggested Jeremy. REALLY? It doesn’t suggest an attack of rather nasty insects. (Hmmm…just trying to think if I’ve ever heard of a “swarm of beautiful young women; of orchestral virtuoso or Nobel Laureates). Oh no! Says the punter. This is just typical BBC left-wing bias! And the BBC wouldn’t allow him to use other, even more descriptive terms! Mr Vine was perplexed at this and invited him to use the supposedly banned words. But this was ignored. There were other dispiriting examples of – to put it mildly – a lack of compassion for those landing on our shores.

Does it matter? Is it just semantics? Are those who worry and complain and argue about the use of words just too (here’s more words) sensitive,  pedantic, politically correct, ‘left-wing’, liberal, and overall, ya know, just typical hand-wringing, self-loathing, white middle-class Guardianistas?  Even worse – am I (we) hypocritical?

Margaret Thatcher was much exercised by the BBC’s use of words – not least in them using ‘British troops’, instead of ‘our troops’ in the Falklands’ War. In the context of Northern Ireland, the use of the word ‘terrorist’, for someone others might call a ‘freedom fighter’. And even a place name: is it Londonderry or Derry? ‘Stroke city’.

In another context, Thatcher spoke of people “drooling and drivelling”. To be fair, she immediately retracted the words and polarised – the most humbling performance from her that I can recall. It happened in a BBC TV interview with David Dimbleby on June 10, 1987 – the eve of that year’s general election (which resulted in her third general election victory with a three-figure Commons’ majority). This comes from the Margaret Thatcher Foundation:

Margaret Thatcher – Please. If people just drool and drivel they care, I turn round and say “Right.  I also look to see what you actually do”.

David Dimbleby, BBC (question paraphrased)

Why use those words? Is that what you think of people who say they care about people’s troubles? 

MT

No, I don’t [MT pauses] I’m sorry I used those words. But I think some people talk a great deal about caring, but the policies which they pursue—and I’m sorry I used those words—the policies which they pursue do not amount to what they say.

Specifically on asylum-seekers, she opined that she would believe the sincerity of those who campaigned on their behalf if they were personally happy to open their own houses to such people.

Somewhat ironically, a piece I found about a 2002 Home Office report in to the reasons asylum-seekers chose Britain cited Thatcher as one of the main ‘pull factors’! (Admittedly, Manchester United and the Spice Girls were also high up there).

The use of the term ‘illegal immigrants’ – not once, twice, but THREE times, including the cue (introduction) in one interview about the Calais situation by John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4’s Today motivated me to contact the Feedback programme on the same network, which broadcast part of an interview with my by presenter Roger Bolton (there’s a short ‘tease’ clip at the start and the interview itself runs from 08.00). Y

But, dear blog-reader, you’re a busy person, I know, so I’ll just elucidate my main point, which was that at the point of arriving in Europe (the main focus at the time was in Italy and the interview was with an Italian minister, Sandro Gozi, State Secretary to the Italian President in charge of European affairs), we have no idea of what their status is, or might be.  The fact that they have arrived at an ‘unorthodox’ point, rather than an established border, does not mean that they have used ‘illegal’ means or have illegal intent, for reasons which should be obvious who spends a few minutes investigating the circumstances that brought most such people there. They cannot ARRIVE at a normal border-point, because they cannot LEAVE by one. Try fleeing Libya and going to the airport to catch a plane to Europe.

It’s highly unlikely you’ll journey without being intercepted by one of the rival, brutal sects/gangs. You’ll likely be tortured, thrown into jail and your children kidnapped, with the dreams of their torture kindly being played down the phone, in order to export money off you. If you’re a Christian you’ve virtually no chance of making it out alive. Your only hope from escaping the most appalling brutality to you and your family is to pay a people-smuggler, and risk your life on a fantastically grotesquely dangerous boat, with various chances of being drowned, (or at the other end of the scale, dying from lack of  water), suffocated, or simply murdered.

If you make it to the shores of Europe your best hope is to spend months in a squalid ‘jungle’ camp and, eventually, just maybe find someone who can help you claim asylum. Thanks to the narrative, fed and re-enforced by the language of ‘illegality’, many of the citizens in this new, cold, strange land will regard you with at best deep suspicion and often active hostility.  You’ll likely be spat at, snarled at, even have excrement thrown at you. ‘Careless talk cost lives’ was a slogan during World War II. Sloppy use of language costs untold and completely unnecessary harm in this situation.

In the mean-time in limbo, displaced to  goodness knows where, barred from work and trying to exist on a few pounds a week – mostly paid in vouchers, which you cannot use for anything other than food or essentials; certainly not the bus fare to get you to see the immigration official to plead your case, which if you miss, of course, you’ll probably be thrown into a detention centre and await a flight back to the living hell from which you fled.

To describe such people as ‘illegal’ (leaving aside the point – and you’ve seen it on a T-shirt  – that human being cannot be ‘illegal’, only their actions) is a nonsense in what m’learned friends call ‘the normal and natural meaning of the word’.

The UN Convention – cited at the top of this post – makes clear that although there may be a technical illegality in attempting to enter a country other than by presenting yourself at its recognised border crossings, no-one who intends to claim refugee status should be punished for doing so. Now, if there is no punishment allowed under intentional law, it cannot be regarded in any meaningful sense as illegal. Yet that is what Humphrys – three times! – stated, not as a matter of contention, but as a matter of fact. THAT really is toxic and feeds into the worst and most heartless narrative. And, as I argued in the programme, it REALLY matters when Radio 4 and above all Today – generally recognised as the most influential current affairs programme in the UK on TV or radio – uses it. Once it becomes accepted and unchallenged there, then it’s almost like being accepted as a new word into the Oxford English Dictionary: an accepted fact.

Many complain on many of these programmes about this crisis about ‘sob stories’. They state – or suggest – that life in many of the migrants’ home countries isn’t that bad. Get real, they say. They’re taking us for mugs. To which my response is: NO – YOU get real!

For a start, there is oodles of literature from independent sources and insiders’ accounts of life in ISIL/IS/Daesh. And, of course, we have videos from the ‘state’ itself, posted on various websites. You need a strong stomach to view this stuff – I don’t mean the clips they show on the news, but the full, original videos. It’s not difficult to find them –  a few clicks of the mouse should do it. I know that to watch this stuff is playing ‘their’ game – this is what they want: to produce horror, revulsion and anxiety about their truly dastardly methods. To watch it is to succumb to their ‘terror click-bait’, and is probably a against there law to view, so if Plod reads this and decides to prosecute me for seeing and then writing about it, I hope I can rely on some of you to be character witnesses!

If you don’t fancy this, or take a risk (and I must point out I am not encouraging or inciting you so to do!), let’s  say I’ve looked at it so you don’t have to.

I can tell you can find, in full HD, with some exemplary editing and high production values, women being stoned to death for adultery; beheadings of course – nice and slowly using a carving knife, or a bit quicker using a power-saw. Lots of lingering close-ups and slow-mo, cutaways/reaction shots at the moments before, at, and straight after death and in full, living colour. There’s a rather inventive technique of packing men into cars full of explosives and then blowing them up; making them kneel in a line, with explosives strapped to their bodies and then setting them off in quick succession, with, again, nice close-ups and rewinds of the nice, gory bits, when heads, body parts and internal organs/intestines fly away from their bodies. But the ‘piece de yer actual resistance’ is perhaps the drowning cage. Here, manacled men are put in a locked cage which is then lowered slowly into a lake of some sort; their heads gradually disappearing under water and their outstretched arms trying to pull themselves out in a last, desperate and futile attempt to rescue themselves. Here, though, there is some nice underwater camera work, as we see their last moments in close-up. Then the cage is lifted out and some good close-up work showing that, although they are brain -dead, their lungs are still furiously pumping water out of their mouths.

Horrific though it is to watch this, even more disturbing in a way was that the site I saw most of it mixed this real-life horror porn with sex porn. As an inset in the right of the screen there’s a young, bare-breasted lady jumping and down, with various enticements to see more. The key search words are a mixture of this sex and violence. So, we must assume that many young (and maybe not so young) men are masturbating as they see these death scenes, aroused by both the violence and the sex. Perhaps they reach orgasm just at the denouement. Or just after, when, say, the decapitated heads are placed on the victims’ backs.  So much for our supposedly superior culture, eh? The comments are often less than sympathetic to the victims of these appalling acts – more relishing the sadism and suggesting ways in which the victims could have experienced an even longer, more traumatic death. No doubt a lot of it young men’s bravado. But we also need to recognise that, for many young men, violence really is exciting.

Many of those arriving on our shores have witnessed scenes like that at close quarters and have every reason to think they’ll be next. I’m not saying that ALL those who arrive in Lampedusa or Calais have escaped such horrors. Some of them may, indeed, be economic migrants – ‘merely’ seeking a better life in Europe, if only for a few years.

I am not arguing that we can take everyone who’d like to come to Europe, let alone the UK, on that basis. Clearly, we need to distinguish between those fleeing persecution and in genuine fear of their lives. As others have agued, if the EU is not for this, then what IS it good for?

The least worst option would seem to be a quota system for asylum-seekers (following an initial assessment). Each EU country taking a percentage, based on their current size, population and GDP.  ‘Genuine’ claimants for asylum will surely not mind if they are allocated to, say, Belgium. If they object to their allocation and say they want to go to the UK, or another state, the answer should be: “Well, I’m sorry, but you say you are fleeing for your life/from torture/persecution. If that is the case, you surely cannot object to going to ANY country in the EU, with its democratic, liberal basis, equality under the law, and so on. If you have trouble in accepting your placement, then sorry, back you go!” Economic migrants would then be left to each country’s internal policies. Such a system would , I believe and hope, be acceptable to most UK citizens – certainly all that had an ounce of compassion and ideas of fairness (let alone respecting our international obligations since 1951).

But when such an idea was proposed to David Cameron, at the time when most migrants were arriving in Italy and a safe distance and several countries form UK borders, he didn’t want to know. Now that the problem has peaked just cross the Channel and just by the Eurotunnel he is complaining that the problem is being left to just the UK and France to sort out! This is perhaps the biggest crisis of our time and the biggest test of our humanity since World War II. We desperately need real statesmen (and women!) of compassion, guts and imagination; unfortunately we are cursed with (taken as a  whole) a generation of political pygmies.

And although this Blog is – yet again! – far too long – I feel I should also stress that I utterly condemn threats made to our truck-drivers and others (and to truckers being fined for having migrants on board when they’ve made every reasonable precaution to secure their vehicles). I also have great sympathy for all the businesses affected, often because they cannot meet orders, as their imports and exports are held up. I’m appalled at the waste of millions of pounds of fresh food which is having to be dumped every week because it has gone ‘bad’, and I am sorry for all those people who have otherwise been inconvenienced in their business or leisure.

So, y no means are all the migrants ‘golden’. But to condemn them all as ‘illegal’; as being no better than a swarm of locusts; of being in effect less than human, should be beneath us as a nation and as individuals. I do believe that a test of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable people. It takes guts and moral strength to stand up for those most vilified and those least able to speak for themselves. As I’ve indicated above, we need hard-headed, pragmatic  solutions. Ultimately, the only answer is for the countries from which people are fleeing to be made bearable again, for all creeds and religions. In the mean-time, compassion in approach and great care of language is called for.

And if that makes me one of the ‘drooling and drivelling’, then so be it,

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Why the lack of social mobility is a threat to us all

“They all ended up going to the City to do jobs they didn’t understand, yet ended up making oodles of money.” Nic Newman, talking about his fellow pupils at his public (private) school, quoted in article by Nicholas Hellen, ‘How Tim Nice But Dim Stays Ahead’, The Sunday Times, 26 July 2015. 

“A Party that cannot gain power without a big share of the working and lower middle-class vote cannot afford to be led predominantly by a group of Old Etonians, however gifted they may be. This makes a bad joke of democracy and nowadays it is seen that way, especially by the younger generation. It is also dangerous because when a majority of our leaders come from the same social strata, far removed from ordinary life, they are unlikely to make decisions which are acceptable to ordinary people.” Reginald Bevins The Greasy Pole. Hodder and Stoughton (1965), p.156.

Fifty years ago today Edward Heath became the first Conservative to be elected as the party leader – by MPs – and the first state-school educated Tory leader. Heath was from a lower middle-class background and was the first of a trio of successive Conservative leaders who became Prime Minister (Thatcher and Major were the others) and who were from broadly the same social class and were all educated at Grammar Schools (state schools for those deemed to be academically able).

As part of my summer research/writing I’ve been reading the memoirs of Reginald Bevins – thanks to users of Lincolnshire Country Library, who’d had enough of it 20 years ago, so was on the market. You have to be over about 65 or a serious political or radio anorak to remember him – he was the broadcasting minister (PMG) when Radio Caroline first sailed onto the horizon, hence my interest.

There’s only one oblique – though positive – reference to pirate radio, but it’s a fascinating memoir, published in ’65 as it ‘appens. Bevins was of Irish descent and born into a two up-two down in Liverpool and loved the city. So much so that, after he entered politics after ’45 (he served as a Major in the War) and had moved down to Surrey for six months, he found he hated it there and moved back up to the ‘pool. He represented Toxteth – THAT’S TOXTETH: FOR THE CONSERVATIVES! He lost his seat in ’64 and railed against the Conservatives’ ‘magic circle’ for choosing an aristocrat (Alec Douglas-Home) when Macmillan quit, and opined they would never win again with an Eton-educated leader!

How wrong he turned out to be. People – certainly or current Prime Minister – often say ‘it’s not where you come from that matters, it’s where you’re going’. There’s obviously some truth in that. And it would be ridiculous to exclude people from high office because they had a posh background and went to a top private school. It’s perfectly possible to be as such and have an empathy – and even some knowledge – of how us ordinary folk think and feel, and are motivated. But I think the current batch of posh political leaders are a different from the previous generation. Heath’s predecessor-but-two, Harold Macmillan, had stark memories of the abject poverty, hopelessness and degradation of the 1930s, and before that, the courage, decency and character of the working-classes, having served alongside them in the trenches of World War I.

He had a feel for the middle classes, too: “People often talk about what the middle classes want, well what DO they want? Could you find out and write it own and we’ll see if we can give it to them”, was his instruction to an aide. His government delivered record numbers of council (social) housing, a boom in material goods and led the way to a big increase in participation higher education, following his commission of the Robbins report . “You’ve never had it so good” was a warning, actually, not a boast or a gloat, but a warning against high inflation ruining the economic boom.

It’s surely no coincidence that Heath’s triumph in the Tory leadership race half a century ago coincided with the ‘golden generation’; when social mobility was its highest. Former Labour minister Alan Milburn is the ‘mobility czar’, who pointed out on Sky News yesterday that the post-war baby-boomer generation, of which he is one, born in 1958 (I was born within a year of him) had the greatest chance of moving up the social and educational ladder. There has been nothing like it before or since. The decline in mobility is affecting every strata of life and every profession – certainly not just politics.

A new report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, which Milburn chairs,  called Downward Mobility, Hoarding and the Glass Floor points out, with solid empirical evidence, the stark and grossly unfair divide we now have. I don’t think I can explain it better than this portion from The Sunday Times article – so here goes! (The pic at the top of this is -uncredited – at the top of the article.)

A privately educated boy with a low score in cognitive tests at age five is 18% more likely to be in the top fifth of earners at the age of 42 than a boy who got a high score but went to a comprehensive.

For girls the effect is stronger, with a 29% better chance for the low attainer who goes to private school. If a better-off boy who scores poorly at age five gains a degree, he is 111% more likely to earn a  high wage than his counterpart who got a high score at five but left school with no qualifications. The gap for girls is 156%.

It also helps to have a parent with a degree. For higher attainers, it boosts boys’ earning prospects by 12% and girls’ by 17%, while for low attainers, it boosts boys’ prospects by 69% and girls’ by 100%. There is even a correlation between the social background of a child’s grandfather and their career prospects.

Abigail McKnight, the author of the study, a senior research fellow at the London School of Economics, examined the cognitive test scores of a cohort of 17,000 born in 1970 and assessed how they had performed in their careers by the age of 42. Those in the top two-fifths were graded high attainers, while those in the bottom two were low attainers.

The figures show children from richer families perform a lot better at the age of five than those from lower socioeconomic groups. McKnight said that by the age of five, children from more privileged backgrounds had already benefited from better nurturing, which boosted their scores.

In short (and blunt!)  – if you’re a bit thick but from the right background you’ll still be alright, but if you’re bright but from a poor background you’ve little chance of breaking out and may even do worse than your parents (certainly in the prospect of owning your own home).

Of course, mobility implies that some will go down, and it’s hard to sell a true meritocracy to those better off, if they fear their child may end up – well, like those poor people! But whilst, if there are gainers there will always be losers – and we’d better face up to that – a society and economy based on individual merit must do better overall, for every class, than one based on the random chance of birth.

I firmly believe that one of the main reasons why the UK fell so badly behind in economic growth compared with its European and US competitors in the immediate post-World War II period was that higher management, and certainly ownership, was still largely based on the ‘old school tie’ and there were these terrible class boundaries between management and workers – a ‘them and us’ situation. Let’s just park the debate about union militancy and concede that there were some very poor people at the top of industry, and in other key decision-making posts, who were there because of their school tie and family connections. It was only when those started to be replaced by the – let’s call them – Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) class that things improved.

True, a new elite was then created by New Labour in the public sector and the broader political class; self-perpetuating, self-promoting and with a huge sense of entitlement. I think we can see the result of that in the terrible decisions and generally poor way that public services have operated, over the last 10-15 years in particular. We are, essentially, a more stupid society than we were at the height of the meritocracy. Worse, those who rule us now do not have the empathy with those who are doing less well, nor the moral compass to feel compelled to do something about it. They are dim, but often not very nice.

The road to well-paid employment and the professions – including the media – is increasingly through unpaid internships. Auctions are now held at summer parties for the top ones; yes, not only are you expected to work for nothing, you are now expected to pay for the privilege! Even if you can  afford to live on no income (often with those student debts lurking in the background like a bad smell) and don’t have the bank of mum and dad, a trust fund, etcetera, to support you, and you don’t have family/friends in London (where a lot of the top jobs are still located) where you can ‘crash’, most are excluded from those social networks to get in with a chance anyway. It’s a huge problem.

So, even if we accept the above arguments, what to do? Grand commissions and strategies are fine. But the really effective work goes on at the micro level. A huge part of this is – and I know I’ve blogged about this before – is the ‘c’ word: confidence. I’m not talking about the almost psychotic over-confidence of some wretch on a talent show who thinks they can sing like Pavarotti, when the noise they make is more like Pavolv’s Dog. (OK – clumsy attempt at humour; I was working on Caruso and Man Friday but that didn’t quite work either. Moving on…!). No, I’m talking about that social confidence and ease, which you usually acquire effortlessly if you’re in the middle classes. Not being intimidated or made defensive by authority-type figures, who seem to talk a different language. Just simple things like knowing how and when to shake hands, maintaining eye contact, speaking confidently. Stuff like the Barclay’s Bank (I know!) ‘Life Skills’ scheme has done, such as in this video.

It’s not enough to have a sheet of great exam results, if you go to pieces at the interview. Schools and colleges must do a lot more about this confidence-building. People need mentoring through the whole process, from adolescence and through those first few years (say 14-25). But with the cuts in FE (and more to come, I think we can safely assume) there seems little chance of any cash behind this. So, it’s up to other bodies and individuals to take this on. A national voluntary scheme of confidence-building.

The one bit of good news is that with the Internet and social media, a lot can be done with home study, Skype, and so on. But one-to-one tutoring is still vital. I’m up for it. Even if it wasn’t something that concerns me and about which I’ve become increasingly conscious through my work, and I think is simply the right thing to do, I hope I would still want to do it, if only for enlightened self-interest. You see, like most people, my state and most of my occupational pension is unfunded: I am paying for today’s pensioners – and, in turn, I am relying on the future workforce to pay for mine (if I should reach that great age!).

It’s best if people do the right thing because they’re nice, but even if they’re not, it’s dim not to do this.

PS: There’s a host of programmes about Edward Heath, his life and times and politics, including archive programmes, on the BBC Parliamentary Channel, available for the next month for those in the UK.

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Confessions of a sub-teen and middle-aged ‘Avenger’

  It was a baptism by fire. It was a very complicated show. The final rehearsing and taping was just a fantastic jigsaw puzzle that required guts and good fortune to get right. The camera crew were absolutely magnificent…. The Avengers was in three acts and we had vinyl records for the music. I can remember the floor manager counting down the seconds– 10, 9, 8, 7… 3 ,2, 1– and seeing the needle come down on the record and hearing the theme music. Then they’d cut to camera one, who was trained on the caption ’The Avengers’, then another on a different caption and so on. The camera crew were wearing shorts and singlets, with sneakers on. As were the cable men. Everyone was absolutely stripped down for action. And, after the first commercial break, it was absolute hell as everything had to be reassembled and the cameras had to be moved, this had to be ready for that…. We were skating on thin ice, and it worked, the energy came through. If the phone didn’t ring, if the gun didn’t go off, we forgot it in a sense because there was so much energy and passion and it carried us through – it was all part of the experience. (Recording engineer on ‘The Avengers’ Bob Fuest, quoted in The Ultimate Avengers by Dave Rogers, 1995, Boxtree).

It was one of those slightly spooky coincidences that the death of Patrick Macnee, who played the secret agent character Steed in The Avengers which ran for most of the 1960s, came in a week when, holidaying at home, I have been bingeing on the 50th anniversary box set of DVDs of this landmark show.

As all the obituaries over the last day or so have pointed out, this series broke several moulds, not least in the, for its time, the very progressive idea of having female characters who as well being beautiful and sexy, were at least the equal of their male counterparts in intelligence, guts and even in fighting.

It was a show that had a big impact on me more or less right from the start when I was very young and I was sometimes allowed to watch it if I couldn’t sleep on a Saturday night. I’d slip into the living room in my pyjamas and my dad would grin and give me an “oh, come on then” kind of comment and I would sit on his knee and I would watch the show, enthralled, on the flickering black-and-white set. (By another coincidence my Dad also died on a June 25th – many years ago – at almost exactly the time that I heard of Macnee’s death).

But those infant memories were in the very early days, with the programme evolving from a straightforward police investigation series: Macnee was co-star to Ian Hendry, who is pulled into the life of a crime-fighter when his fiancee is murdered by drugs gangsters in the first part of the very first episode – hence the name of the series. The actors’ union Equity called a strike of actors on the ITV network at the end of the first series and no-one could tell how long it would last, so in the meantime Hendry accepted a film offer, thus paving the way for Macnee to get the starring role, alongside several female co-stars. Only that first part of the very first episode – discovered in an archive at the University of Southern California in 2001 – and two full episodes from the first series have survived and therefore made the box set. Seven episodes in the first series were broadcast live.

Can you imagine that? I’m just in awe of how they got away with it! An audience of millions and you’re doing a complicated action series within the confinements of a television studio, with cumbersome cameras, cabling and hot lighting of the time. You can see the actors sweating! You can also see quite a few shots in the top of the frame of boom mic’s, and sometimes other gear in reflection. But what an achievement! Even when the show wasn’t live, it was recorded ‘as live’ in an hour on videotape, which is almost impossible to edit and so fluffs and mistakes of the sorts alluded to above the captain.

Nowadays, there’s a big song and dance made about television soaps and the like when they do an occasional live show, It usually is part of an anniversary celebration and all credit to them for doing it and taking such a risk. But technology has moved on so much today, not least in the size and dexterity of cameras.

Fortunately, all the episodes from series two onwards survived, and you can see the series developing into ever more creative ideas, often involving fantastic conspiracies behind seemingly orthodox scenes and characters. A science-fiction element was also added to the mix. Of course, this was in a period when real-life spies and other Cold War intrigues were often making the news; there were suspicions of Communist and grand-scale criminal plots and, in Britain at least, right-wing takeovers of a country which was at times seemingly almost ungovernable, facing numerous financial crises and riven by industrial conflict. The period also saw the U.S. moonshots and the close prospect of a human being landing on the moon. It was a period of ‘gee-whizz’ rapid scientific breakthroughs, with both anxiety and fascination in the developments of computers and robots (both often featured in the plots), fear that we would all be wiped out in a nuclear holocaust, as well as the rapid change in social attitudes. If the ‘swinging sixties’ didn’t manifest itself much where I lived, in a workaday town in the midlands of England, the stylishness, and sexiness of the time was at least represented ‘on the goggle box’ on a Saturday night. Even the music was cool – Johnny Dankworth in first couple of series for main theme and some jazzy stings’.

By the time Diana Rigg joined and the fourth season opened in 1965 I was allowed to stay up to watch it and have fond memories of seeing the show with my brother and parents and sometimes  with family friends at holiday times, and then, next day, re-enacting the dramas with my brother! The programme fired my imagination in a way that no other did or has.

Yes, I enjoyed Thunderbirds, but they were obviously puppets! Yes, I loved Doctor Who – especially the ones set in contemporary Britain, where, again, sinister forces hid behind apparently bland exteriors. But clearly, there were men inside those Daleks and Cybernauts costumes, and although I enjoyed and relished in the fantasy and admired the skills that clearly went into it, I  found the suspense of disbelief little harder.

But The Avengers made me wonder that, when I walked into a normal store, or say the barbershop, if there could be some sinister goings-on in that office at the back. A dead body perhaps in a crate, or machine guns and explosives hidden in it to be used in a coup against the country. What did those whispers and sly looks mean? Was that a note handed by one assistant to the other, telling him to kill one of the customers, who was in fact a secret agent, or had unwittingly discovered their fiendish schemes? Because, dear reader, as a child there are all sorts of things that you cannot quite understand. Grown-ups stop talking about something when you come into the room. There are clearly things that are not to be mentioned in front of children. Sometimes the grown-ups say one thing and you know they mean another thing. There are meaningful looks that you can’t decode.

So, the whole world is a bit of a mystery and, if you like, a conspiracy of confusion and distraction. It is not too much of a leap of imagination to imagine something far more extraordinary going on. But the show itself demonstrated a perfect arc of development on what was at the start a  fairly low budget, studio-based show, to – thanks to money from one of the U.S. TV networks who needed the series on film because of the different standards of videotape and transmission used and who wanted something slicker and with higher production values – a 35mm movie production standard and techniques, including lots of exterior/location work. This was first in black and white and then in colour for the second Diana Rigg series (season five) – nearly three years before the ITV network in the UK broadcast in colour.

After Rigg’s departure – the second female co-star to depart to take part in a Bond movie – it got much more camp six and silly and played for laughs and I didn’t enjoy those shows at the time and don’t now. Not that there wasn’t any merit at all in the series, but it had lost much of its special charm, magic and unique imagination by the final season (six), broadcast in 1969. I enjoyed even less its revival in the 1970s as The New Avengers.

Possibly, yes, it is a matter of nostalgia as well. In 1968 I moved to secondary/high school and we also moved house and I was losing childhood innocence. But one of the glories of the box set is that it not only provides the usual audio commentary, photo galleries, publicity releases, TV listings, magazine interviews of the time and even clips of the audience ratings, but there are also PDFs of all the scripts and the production schedule for each episode. 

Sometimes, when I’m in full anorak mode – undoubtedly ‘sad’ though this is – I’ve run it alongside the video of the episode. I definitely don’t think I’m wrong in believing that the ideas and creativity in the show were superior to anything before or since (especially given the production limitations of the time) and  certainly something that sustained over so many episodes, series and different incarnations. It certainly did also did strike a blow for feminism and other progressive ideas up until at least the introduction of the Linda Thorson character, Tara King, and provided a certain dissonance with the gender roles and lives portrayed in the commercials which funded the programme!

I think it all went wrong really when the American network provided too much of the money and it became more important to serve its interests than it did the British audiences and advertisers. It also became an important export for the country when it was desperately needed. One of the nice things about it is that, unlike so many popular showers – and The Avengers really was a very popular show! – is that none of those involved are anything but immensely proud in being associated with it. Macnee acted on stage and in many other roles and Diana Rigg is of course one of our most respected actors on stage and screen, yet she has never dismissed her time on The Avengers. Many of the writers, directors, editors and others in the production team(s) went on to further great distinction.

Perhaps the best demonstration of its hold on my imagination is that I can still rarely go past a church without wondering that, if I looked around the door in the Vestry, I would see that the sound of bells ringing, organ playing and choir singing was produced by a tape recorder, and the church was deserted, apart from the ‘newly arrived’ vicar, who would be pointing a gun at me!

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Can the UK be united ever again?

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The broadcasters had their special glass studios erected just outside Parliament, anticipating days, if not weeks, of to-ing and fro-ing, as politicians tried to scrabble together some sort of arrangement. The sandwiches had been ordered. The civil servants, in their usual meticulous fashion, had prepared around 16 pretty coloured folders, containing all the different permutations of manifesto pledges,  divided into non-negotiable commitments and those on which there could be compromise or simply be ditched.

The politicians and the media had the crucial bits of the Cabinet Manual memorised and were prepared with, respectively, their arguments and questions as to which permutation of parties would both be viable and legitimate.

As it is, the broadcasters, rather shamefacedly, are still in their glass-surround studios, and all the rest has been cancelled or written off. We have the first Conservative majority government in almost a quarter of a century, indeed with a larger majority than Labour had  in 1964, or after the second general election in 1974, and almost as large as Churchill had when he came limping back into power in 1951. But we have our country that is divided politically as never before and facing, in their own way, as daunting a set of issues, problems and conundrums that Labour faced 70 years ago in the ashes of World War II.

Before musing about  of those, though, the question that is naturally obsessing the media is: how did we not see this coming? How did the opinion polls get it so wrong? Is there any point in commissioning them again?

A few thoughts: it can’t be a coincidence that the three times that the opinion polls failed to accurately predict the final result were all times when Labour was expected to win and when the Conservatives’ position was understated. As in 2015, in 1970 and in 1992 a majority Conservative government was deemed to be on the wildish outside of possibility. Yet they won majorities of 30 and 21 respectively. Okay, this time it’s an even smaller majority, requiring only six defections or wins by opposition parties to reduce it to zero – entirely possible over the course of a five-year parliament – but gobsmacking it still was, when the final tally became evident in the early hours of Friday morning.

Caution should have been much more evident, given the unprecedented numbers so close to the election who claimed not to have decided how they would vote, and the elevation of previously fringe parties into serious players, complicating seat predictions based on uneven shares of the vote across the country (see below!).

Previous post-election surveys have indicated that a vastly disproportionate number of those who claim not to have decided end up voting Conservative. I did not commit this to writing, so you’ll have to trust me, but I said to the current Mrs Rudin as we walked to the polls that I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a big upset and I reckoned the Tories would do about 4% better than the polls suggested, which turned out to be about right. But only the day before I reckoned that, given the SNP, plus the other nationalists in Wales and Northern Ireland and the Green(s) are, for all intents and purposes, in the Labour column, the arithmetic must point towards a Labour-led government.

Another factor in my noddle (and one that needs to be taken into account in the polling calculations) was that the incumbent government almost always does better than the polls suggest – the” hold on to nurse for fear of something worse” factor. The leadership element is also especially strong in those ‘undecideds’. Can I really see that leader as Prime Minister and not being a disaster/embarrassment on the international stage? Siren voices (including some of the pollsters and pundits) were pointing out that no party has won that is behind on both the leadership question AND in judgement of economic competence. And Labour was WAY behind on both. Yet still the numbers said ‘too close to call’.  And finally, and uniquely this time, anxiety if not outright fear and loathing, at the thought of a Prime Minister being forced to make concessions to those who have been elected specifically to serve the interests of just one part of the parliament’s jurisdiction, and whose aim is the destruction of the UK. MPs are supposed to serve the interests of their particular CONSTITUENCY, and of the nation-state as a whole, not one part of it.

But in any case, DID the posters get it so wrong? They always protest that they provide a snapshot of voting intentions, not a prediction, and they always acknowledge a margin of plus or minus three percent. You should always read the small print! In an event, certainly if you take the ‘poll of polls’, they did get most of pretty well exactly right, as well as the share of the vote by the Lib Dems, UKIP and Greens; the share in London and, most significantly, in Scotland. And, of course, the Exit Poll  was pretty close, although still underestimating the share of votes translated to seats, at least, and not quite as close at last time. Also, as last time, many, especially Lib Dems claimed it was complete rubbish, even leading to the (so far unfulfilled) promise by former party leader Paddy Ashdown, and former Labour chief spinmeister Alastair Campbell, to eat their respective hat and sporran if it turned out to be right. Well, to be strictly accurate, the poll DID get it wrong – the final result was even WORSE for their parties!

But the final factor maybe the most crucial: people simply LIED to the pollsters and possibly even to themselves. There are not only the shy Tories (or s**** Tories, if you prefer), there are the self-denying Tories. In many parts of the country, ‘Conservative’ is a party that dare not speak its name.

After the pollsters called it wrong in 1992, the legendary/infamous editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, called the poll chiefs in and told them (no doubt in typical forthright fashion) that, as they had failed to do their job, he simply wasn’t going to pay them!

My final thoughts before voting were no more than a gut instinct, I suppose. It certainly did not reflect the the feeling on the ground or conversations related by Mrs R as she shopped in our nearby town. It was going to be Labour here, for sure and, indeed, their majority doubled in our seat, and at the same time, the local council, which had at one stage been overwhelmingly Conservative, was converted to a solid Labour majority. To the west, after the ejection of Esther Mcvey in what, by all accounts, was one of the dirtiest campaigns even for Labour (usually the true ‘nasty party’ on the ground) Merseyside is, for the first time, a Tory freezone. To the east, Manchester’s 96 city councillors are all Labour. London is different again.

One thing that there will be (no doubt!) a lot of research about – especially as it’s always tempting for the loser(s)to blame the media not the messenger – is the effect on newspaper endorsement, albeit these were overhwhelmingly pro-Conservatives, or, most surprisingly, from ‘The Independent’ for a continuation of the ConDem coalition (a difficult one, of course as it was not on the ballot paper). Likely to have been much more significant, in my judgement, was the impact of the broadcast media’s obsession with the likely post-election deals  in the final stages of the campaign, to the almost exclusion of discussion of policies. This certainly played into the narrative of the Tories’ Australian strategist, Lynton Crosby. This, I am sure, will be part of the post-mortem for the broadcasters, who in other respects, I reckon played a blinder, especially in trying to extract some real answers from the pol’s on their spending plans (it’s not their fault that they signally failed to achieve this!).

Everyone Has One Vote – But Some Count For More Than Others

The voting system has magnified, distorted and denied an even vague relationship to the share of seats and party votes over the country – it takes nearly 4 million votes to elect on UKIP MP but only around 28,000 for an SNP representative. But electoral reform is hardly likely to be pushed by a government that has won a majority on 37% of the vote (or a Labour party that, ten years ago, had a majority of 66 on just a 36% share).

A look at the new electoral map shows how divided is the kingdom. You can now travel hundreds of miles in one direction and not be in anything other than a Conservative-held seat. But our major northern cities are without a single representative of the new government. And, of course, Scotland has only two out of 59 seats which represent EITHER the government party OR that of the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Strangely enough perhaps, Wales is the most balanced part of the kingdom, including a seat now blue which has been Labour since even before universal suffrage, but that probably reflects the poorly performing Labour-led Welsh devolved government there, notably in education and health service.

This division and disunity would be unhealthy at even the most benign times. Given the scale of the cuts in welfare and ‘unprotected departments’ to come, as well as the enormous challenges in a fast changing world, with so many forces barely controllable by any government (and barely talked abut in the election), it is is deeply worrying. And that’s not even to start to think about the possibility – perhaps even probability – that, by 2020, Scotland will have left the UK and rUK will have left the EU (not necessarily – in fact, probably not – in that order).

So Much For The Past…

Can Labour ever win again? Or at least – as has been said a few times over the last few days – is the next Labour Prime Minister still at school? If it does, can it do so without being just a kind of ‘Tory-lite’ party (as the SNP claim it became from Tony Blair’s leadership?). At the moment – and yes, fair enough, the party’s state is somewhere between grieving, shock, denial and despair – it seems to lack either the leadership or the necessary bold and imaginative thinking. The three camps seem to be: ‘one more heave’, ‘back to New Labour’ or old-styley Socialism. I don’t think any of these will work.

Without a full recognition of both the new situation north of the border AND recognition of the English MPs to control the devolved areas in their part of the UK, and the concomitant areas of taxation and public spending, there could be real trouble. Bizarrely enough, for the moment it may be that the anti-Tory majority in the unelected House of Lords that will prevent ‘English Votes for English Laws’ – and all members of the Lords ARE there to serve the whole of the UK. They have no constituency. So, maybe the Conservatives will have to reform the House of Lords to get what they want, and have promised. Ya couldn’t make it up! (Are you laughing up there, Lloyd George?)

But right now I feel physically sick at the thought of the effects of the coming cuts on the vulnerable, given my (mostly second-hand) knowledge of those made under the last government – and those were supposed to be the ‘easy’ cuts!

It is vital for our democracy and millions of lives that there is a credible, clearly competent and imaginative party and leadership, providing a viable opposition and a government-in-waiting – not one that will just wait for the current government to become hugely unpopular and tear itself apart. Not least because, with this already disunited kingdom, that could all be the case and the Conservatives could still win again anyway! Unless the election system does change and/or the Labour Party immolates, or agrees to dissolve itself (which probably CAN be discounted!), any new party, as with the SDP in the early ’80s, will merely split the anti-Tory vote and produce even bigger majorities for them.

Thinking caps on. Perhaps we’ll need those sandwiches after all.

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This election campaign has demeaned us all – but is no better than we deserve

Let us not be coy about this: the general election campaign, which concludes on Thursday, has been a carnival of nonsense and futility. Janan Ganesh, Financial Times, May 5

This is the 15th general election in my lifetime. But, political anorak/nerd that I am, even I can’t remember much about the first three (when I was, respectively, aged two, seven and nine). The first one that I followed with great interest was in 1970. I’d just become a teenager. Labour was expected to romp home and so I wasn’t too disappointed that my parents barred me from staying up to watch the results on TV, due to my having school the next day. So, my jaw dropped when my mum woke me up on Friday, June 19 (and, sadly, I didn’t have to look that up!) with the shock news that the Conservatives had won. I remember trying hard to think what that would be like. Would it make any difference? For as long as I could remember it was that Harold Wilson and yer Labour in power. This would be interesting!

By the time of the next general election – the ‘Who Governs Britian?” one – in the turmoil of a miners’ strike, the three-day working week and power black-outs – I was fully politicised and press ‘agent’ for the local Young Liberals. I even took part in a local radio phone-in with a member of the Tory government: “Sixteen, and he’s arguing with a Cabinet minister!”, remarked my dad, mock-smacking his forehead in an unspoken “what have I spawned?” thought.

The first time I could vote was the ’79 election that first brought Margaret Thatcher into office and I was reporting from Walsall Town Hall, via the station’s OB van, for Beacon Radio in the west midlands, for which I’d started to work just a few weeks before. In 1992 (another election where Labour snatched defeat from the jaws of victory), I was the BBC ‘minder’ at Sheffield Town Hall for David Blunkett – widely expected, within hours, to be appointed Secretary of State for Education in a Kinnock-led Labour government. Essentially, my job – as well as carrying out interviews and ‘scene-setting’ for the local BBC station – was to make sure he didn’t stray too far, and was ready whenever network radio and TV wanted him. I guided him and his guide-dog through the rafters of the building to our set-up, but failed to notice some obstruction on the floor, and the future Home Secretary stumbled and fell. I later pondered how he would have cursed me if his first picture with the rest of the Cabinet had seen him sporting a black eye! (Yes, I know, him being blind, HE couldn’t have seen it…BUT!). By the way, he was extremely nice about it all. I blame the dog!

So, anyway, since before my voice broke, you could say I’ve found campaigns exciting, fascinating and always with elements of high drama and unpredictability, both in the campaign and the outcome. And where there was a real debate on the future direction of the country.

But not this time.

I agree with everything  Janan Ganesh writes in his column today, except for the swipe at the media, which I think overall – press and broadcasting – has done a superb job. Perhaps most impressive has been the quick turn-around in elegantly written pieces about the various TV debates. And the broadcast interviewers (Andrew Neil take a bow!) could not have tried harder to elicit proper answers from politico’s. The fact that they failed is no reflection on their skill and persistence.

I do agree, though, about the voters being culpable in this lack of candour. Any honesty by one party, e.g. on cuts they plan to make or taxes that will have to rise, would doom them. The electorate, as Shirley Williams said a few weeks ago, needs to grow up. We cannot have Scandinavian levels of welfare and a world-class public health and social care system, education, and so on, AND try and pare down our deficit – let alone tackle the country’s gargantuan accumulated debt – with US levels of taxation.

We’ve been treated like spoilt, selfish children; but to a large extent – you, dear reader of my Blog, excepted, natch! – it’s no more than we deserve.

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