Plumping

So, having done my best to ignore weeks of TV debates and the issue-of-the-day news stories (as we are far too thick to handle more than one issue at once).  Weeks spent turning a blind eye to the ever more strident front pages whereby newspaper owners try to convince themselves they are still relevant and that the largest issue facing the nation is a man eating a bacon sandwich (though, frankly, I’d be alarmed about anyone who does look good while eating – it would suggest weeks of practise in front of a mirror and a worrying degree of vanity) have finally come to an end (who says I’m not an optimist).

So, off I toddled to my Polling Station to place the 24th letter of the alphabet against my best guess as to the least idiotic candidate to make some vague pretence of representing my interests (or better yet, my views) on the political stage.  Not an easy choice, given that all of the parties appear to have been trying to prove themselves the most idiotic on an hourly basis.  Oddly, the non-news output of BBC Radio 4 has probably been the most helpful in making my choice: More or Less, The Vote Now Show and Hugo Rifkind on Campaign Sidebar.

In a case of (presumed) nominative determinism, my Polling Station lies on the corner of Asylum Road.  I lie within the constituency named Southampton Test – which makes me wonder if my vote is really going to count at all, presumably those in Southampton Live or Southampton Production will be making the real decision.  Still, its nice to know that there is some testing of this whole democracy malarkey going on (if only the same could be said for policies) and I’m glad to do my bit.  The station was empty, but I suppose that the hardworking families (which this election has all been about) will be busy working, so only we unwanted, lethargic singletons were available to exercise our franchise.

The list of candidates was surprisingly modest, unlike last time when I could have mummified myself in the voting slip – so extensive was it.  The LibDem candidate seemed less than confident as he appeared on both the national and local election lists – and I assume he wouldn’t be able to do both (or perhaps I’m wrong?).  As I have lived here for less than two years, I was surprised to be voting for a second time in local elections – were the Chartists more successful than I was taught in O-level History and we now have annual elections?

Given that no-one is willing to form an alliance with the Scots – maybe they should have a word with François Hollande, he could probably do with the help and the Auld Alliance has some historical precedent – I assume we’ll have to go through all of this again before the year is out.  I lived through the last example in 1974, and I wasn’t a happy bunny.  In those days, children’s television was suspended in the event of a General Election (presumably to get the under 10s out and voting) – so we lost two whole days worth and the first one was on my birthday!  I think we may be able to trace my disengagement with politics back to that day: think on E4, think on!

Election fever

With a bare 10 days to go until the General Election here in the UK, politicians are becoming increasingly febrile – while the populace are engulfed in a thick fog of ennui.  I am finding it rather hard to get excited about the vote, though I’m finding feelings of horror and depression much easier to generate.  It seems that no news bulletin can pass without a political bigwig taking a further swing with a sledgehammer at the very fragile foundations of my respect for their party and the political process – perhaps this is a deliberate process to get the masses to disenfranchise themselves?

Over the last couple of days, those hot-beds of revolutionary fervour – the Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph – have done sterling work to identify those people who will be first up against the wall come the glorious revolution.  Share and enjoy!  But otherwise, the more reactionary elements of the press (i.e. most of it) seem determined (like Chicken Licken) to convince us that the sky will fall-in should the next government by formed by the Labour party with assistance from the SNP – and this collapse of the heavens will find the poor English suffering a forced diet of haggis and Irn-Bru while wearing a kilt.  Of course, a coalition government dominated by its junior partner is a real risk in this country, as the last five years of rule by the Liberal Democrats with barely a whimper heard from the poor Tories has ably demonstrated.  Given the probable experience of the LibDems, if I was in control of the SNP (unlikely I’ll admit) I’d be very reluctant to be the junior partner in a coalition – it does seem to be electoral suicide (though Nick Clegg may yet surprise us – and himself).  And what about the poor Unionists in Northern Ireland – where are the scare stories about them being the junior partner in a Coalition?  I, for one, am not keen on the forced daily marches past my flat (which has the misfortune to lie near a Catholic church) and I really don’t look good in orange, though who does?  Still, I suppose it would be good for the mural industry.

Curiously given the very consistent predictions made by those paid to forecast such things, both major parties seem to be in denial about having to work with a hung parliament (sadly, this involves neither rope nor gibbet – though this might be a way to increase voter turnout!).  Given that a majority government seems rather less likely than Glen Miller winning the National Lottery and investing his winnings in a unicorn farm, it does make me wonder just how well considered the promises about the future contained in their manifestos might be – wishful thinking is all very well, but I’m not sure it’s any way to run a country.

However, despite my disillusionment (which does rather suggest that I once had illusions) I do feel that it is my civic duty to vote – people did die etc, though I’m not sure when laying down their lives the conduct of this current election was quite what they had in mind (though lacking access to a necromancer, I shall never know).  Oddly, when seeking advice as to how to exercise my very limited power, it all seems to assume that I will vote entirely to improve my financial position.  Now, as this blog makes clear, I am at least as self-centred as the next man (unless he happens to be Kanye West) but I feel it would be terribly inappropriate (downright rude in fact) to assume that a vague hope of my slight enrichment is the biggest issue facing this country at the moment.  I feel that my vote should be used to improve the lot of the population at large, to the extent that is feasible.  As a result, I fear I will be seen as a dangerous aberration by many economists (and a source of horror to the late Ayn Rand).

By chance, I have been reading The Price of Inequality by George Stiglitz in the run-up to the election and he has something to say of some relevance to this process.  Initially, I found this work rather irritating as he kept repeating the blindingly obvious but after a while I found whilst he was still saying the obvious, it was stuff I’d never previously realised or thought about.  Whilst I am not necessarily convinced by all his conclusions – he is a much better economist than me and so may well be able to cover my eyes with wool – he has made me doubt (and largely abandon) some previously quite firmly held beliefs.  As I hurtle towards the grave, I have come to realise that conventional wisdom is much stronger on the “conventional” than it is on the “wisdom”.

The book is mostly based around the US-experience – though he does take time out to lambast the ECB and the Euro – but many of the conclusions seem to apply very directly to dear old Blighty.  In particular, in a world in which political parties gain the vast majority of their funding from a few very rich individuals and major corporations it is perhaps no surprise that their priorities do not align with those of the typical voter.  With most of the media also controlled by much the same interests (though The Guardian is, I believe, controlled (or at least bank-rolled) by Autotrader – and so in the hands of the second-hand car business and sheepskin coat) we can begin to see why the public may be disengaged from politics and grabbing at the lifebelt which the fringe parties seem to offer.  It also struck me that whilst we – the great unwashed – get to influence the political process once every five years and have to pick a whole raft of (probably fictional) policies, if you have enough money to pay for a lobbyist you can influence politics every day of the week and on very specific policies.  Money may not buy you happiness, but I suspect it does buy you quite a lot of influence over the world of Westminster, if you chose to use it in that way.

However, I think it may well be the sterling work of Tim Harford and Ruth Alexander on More-or-Less which may have the greatest impact on my voting choice in 7 May.  For now, I remain a floating voter – or perhaps a sinking one.

Hard working families

I believe this phrase is used by at least one of the two main political parties to identify its key demographic.  Frankly, there is no easy way to guess which one it might be (and I’m certainly not going to look it up) as they are virtually indistinguishable and I’m sure their main competitor is targeting exactly the same group, albeit using a slightly different buzz phrase.

I have a number of problems with the phrase, not least my own disenfranchisement.  There can certainly be a discussion about whether I am hard-working or not, but as a single chap I definitely fail to qualify as a family (either nuclear or conventionally-fired).  My belief is that, as a “single”, I am surfing the current demographic zeitgeist – with an ever growing number of single-person households.  We, the lone wolves of society, have been discriminated against for years with more expensive holidays and passed over for 2-for-1 offers (to give but two examples – grrr!) – but now it seems we are being deliberately ignored by the world of politics too.  Perhaps it is time we banded together – though I suppose we may find this difficult, which might explain why politicians believe we can be easily marginalised.

I feel the phrase “hard working” might also be a mistake.  Going back to demographics, an every growing proportion of the population is retired – and these people tend to vote – and so are no longer hard working in the traditional sense.

In its entirety, the whole phrase does make me wonder if Lord Shaftesbury worked in vain.  Somehow “hard working families” makes me think of small children up chimneys or down mines – otherwise, the little nippers are just loafing around in full-time education (which may not be their first choice activity, but is hardly economically productive).  Perhaps the need to get children back into work is one of the motivations behind the current opposition to human rights within the government.  It is perhaps worth warning our political masters – many of whom seem to be resident in some fictional past – that chimney sweeping is not quite the industry it once was.  Fun as Mary Poppins was, it should not be considered a documentary.

Anyway, let us assume (for the sake of what I will call “this argument”) that hard working families are indeed a good thing.  I would imagine that such mythical folk would like a decently paid job (at which to work hard), affordable housing (in which to live), decent public services (to make life liveable, educate their offspring and in case of illness), decent public transport (to get to and from work) etc.  Oddly, none of these areas seem to appear anywhere on the agenda of either of the political parties which claim to be focused on helping the hard working family.  Not even a promise to abolish central heating and get Britain’s neglected chimneys back into use.

No, instead there seem to be two big policy initiatives this week:

1.  An oath for teachers: where does one begin?  I am rather fond of Tristam Hunt, he writes a very good history book, but really – is this the best he and his colleagues could come up with?  I suppose at least it should (but probably won’t) be cheap – and I’m sure has already generated many an oath from the teaching profession.

2. Reducing Inheritance Tax: so, ignore hard work altogether and just inherit money from your relatives (which ticks the family box, I suppose).  I realise this approach has worked very well for much of the cabinet, but not everyone is descended from millionaires.  I, at least, have spent several years trying to encourage my parents to spend their money rather than passing it on to undeserving-me in the (hopefully) distant future.

Senior figures in all political parties seem very keen to bang-on about any incident where they meet a “real” person – I seem to recall Gareth from IT completely trumped the economy in a recent speech – but really seem to have only a very vague idea about what we are actually like.  After the excitement surrounding possible Scottish secession, there seem a vocal group of parliamentary numbskulls who feel that only English MPs should be allowed to vote on issues affecting England.  Obviously, this idea could be extended further, so only female MPs can vote on women’s issues and only disabled MPs on issues affecting the disabled (which should lead to some very small votes indeed).  Perhaps (idiotic though the original idea is) we should go further, and most MPs will only be allowed to vote on issues affecting PR, PPE at Oxbridge and a few other areas of special interest – with only the very few “real” people in parliament (the splendid Alan Johnson is the only example that springs to mind, though surely he cannot be alone) able to vote on issues which affect real people.  It would certainly be a novelty with people voting on things for which they have some relevant experience.

Failing such a major shake-up in the political landscape, it is time for the indolent loners in society (I know you must be out there) to start fighting for our political rights.  It’s going to be tough for us – involving as it will both work and meeting other people – but our voice needs to be heard!

A little bit of politics

Fear not, I continue to eschew the shiny suit – and have yet to start work on a musical formed by linking together the songs of a long defunct, but once popular, beat combo using the minimum of plot.

While I was in Scotland last week, it became necessary for me to understand the detail of the voting system used for local government elections north of the border (you may like to consider it a form of weregild for my board and lodgings, as this is all the explanation I shall be offering).  You may recall that, last May, we Sassenachs were offered the chance to switch to a version of Proportional Representation.  I seem to remember that the forces of conservatism (with both a big and small C) opposed the change – and one of their primary arguments was that we, the electorate, were too thick to understand the proposed new system.  I can only assume that the Scots are made of much stronger intellectual material.

Their PR system is vastly more complicated than the very simple one proposed for England and Wales.  It took me a good 15 minutes to understand how it works – the basic principles were laid out on www.aboutmyvote.co.uk but it was rather sketchy on some of the key details (where, as we all know, the devil lies – though, given just one of his titles, I believe the devil lies pretty much everywhere).  Fortunately, perusal of the detail of the actual results and nine rounds of iteration taken to elect the councillors for one particular ward back in 2007 did help to fill in the gaps in my understanding.  I suspect I am now one of only a tiny band of individuals who actually understand how the electoral process for Scottish local government works – and I’m available for consultancy at a very reasonable rate.  Trust me, you don’t want to be attempting tactical use of your franchise without at least a decent first degree in Mathematics (and some legal training)!

Whilst on the subject of politics, in my continued attempts to support my local library I am currently reading Shirley Williams’ autobiography.  This is a rather good read, and does show the rather cyclical nature of both history and politics (even within a single lifetime).  She is also one of those annoying over-achievers who make the rest of us feel hopelessly inadequate – I fear she had fit in far more living before leaving school than I will in my entire lifetime (unless the singularity arrives pretty soon – and perhaps not even then).  I really must try harder…