In which I reflect on the morning after the night before

So it’s the morning after the general election. The Conservatives have won. The SNP basically own Scotland. Labour had a bad night, only made less awful by comparison with the Lib Dems who did exactly as well as you’d expect for a party who’ve spent the last five years doing pretty much the precise opposite of everything their followers believe in.

But apart from those obvious things, what can we learn from the 2015 election? Well, I’d suggest these things:

 

1. Polling in a multi-party election using a constituency-based first-past-the-post system is tricky. Really really tricky.

There’s a lot that polling organisations have to try to factor in when trying to forecast the result of a general election. There’s how well the votes for each party actually hold up on the day; there’s whether the undecideds split in a predictable way; there’s the popularity of specific local MPs or candidate that might differ from a national average; there’s how the parties’ popularity is spread around the country, and about 1001 other things beside. There are also specific known phenomena like the ‘shy tory’ which is the effect caused by conservative voters being less likely to disclose their voting intention.

However, even given all that the polls leading up to this election were quite consistently wrong, and it’s that consistency that ought to concern pollsters and politicians in the future. Polls have a margin of error on them, and you should always expect there to be a few outlying polls during any campaign, but actually during this campaign the public polls were incredibly homogenous, and looking at the politicians’ initial responses to the broadcaster’s exit poll, it seems like the parties internal polling was much the same. Either Labour or the Conservatives could be the largest single party, and the share of the vote between Labour and the Tories was too close to call. Neither of those things were true. The next few days and hours are likely to be dominated by party leaders falling on their swords – there are probably a few senior poll designers wondering if it’s time for them to do the same.

 

2. All the parties struggled to win outside their heartlands.

The Tories did best, and they took a couple of unexpected seats in the North of England, most obviously from Ed Balls, but they also lost seats like Wirral West. A lot of the Tory gains were from the Lib Dems in the South West of England. For Labour the former heartland of Scotland turned away from them, and they didn’t make inroads into the Tory vote in the south. And the Lib Dems don’t really have a heartland – they paid the price for that lack of ‘unloseable’ seats last night. What does seem to be happening is a fracturing into a SNP block in Scotland, a predominantly Labour stripe in northern England, and a big Conservative wodge in the south. David Cameron used the phrase ‘one nation’ in his speech in his constituency, and has a massive challenge now in holding the nations together. Is David Cameron the right person for that job? An Eton and Oxbridge educated, English, career politician is a tough sell in northern England, let alone Scotland. It’s going to be hard.

 

3. The Conservatives will need to get better at Commons party discipline

In 2010 the coalition government held 363 seats at Westminster. With that number of MPs on side, the government still lost votes on the EU, military action in Syria, and a number of smaller issues. At this election David Cameron is likely to have 328 or 329 MPs – that’s a tiny majority. It would only take a couple of bad byelection results to destroy it altogether, and Cameron will need to get all his MPs out to vote on every key issue. That’s going to be a challenge. The hard right-wingers and the EU sceptics on his backbenches will expect their backs to be well-scratched in return.

 

4. Rumours of the death of print media have been exaggerated (also known as: Twitter is a bubble)

Most of the mainstream print media in the UK has a right wing slant. There are exceptions – The Guardian amongst the broadsheets, and the Mirror amongst the tabloids – but the general mood is on the rabid end of Tory. In the closing days of this election campaign much has been made of the reprinting of pics of Ed Miliband eating in an untelegenic sort of a way, and of the personal attacks on Miliband’s personal life. Over in social media land though there has been a fightback with hashtags like #JeSuisEd and #milifandom and lots of hyperbole about how this was the social media election. But. But your twitter feed is a very narrow and selected. We all tend to follow people who are fundamentally like us, and the rest of the world is full of people who might not be like us, and those people have valid opinions too, whether they create a humourous hashtag for them or not.

 

5. The campaign for 2020 starts now. Sorry. But it does.

Because actual three week long campaigns are meaningless. The Question Time programme with the party leaders demonstrated that. The audience was properly angry, but largely angry about things that happened between 2007 and 2011 – the financial crisis, the recession, the start of austerity. If Labour want to win in 2020 they can’t repeat Ed Miliband’s strategy of keeping his powder dry until election year. Miliband was criticised throughout the parliament for being indecisive and not taking clear policy positions. Whoever is Labour leader when the dust settles needs to decide what Labour is for and start being that party straight away. One key difference between Labour and the Conservatives in this election, and between Labour now and Labour under Blair, is that Labour recently haven’t seemed proud of who they are and what they stand for. They need to fix that now, because voters decide early who they trust.

 

So there are my thoughts. I could probably come up with at least five more if I sat here long enough (stuff like – having a referendum really doesn’t close an issue down, does it? Proportional representation, Scotland anyone?) I shan’t though. I need to sleep. Good night (or morning or whatever it is) all.

In which I wonder if we’ve got it wrong about… coalition building

So, Ed Miliband won’t do deals with the SNP. Nick Clegg has ruled out deals with any party also doing deals with UKIP or the SNP. Politicians are ruling out all sorts of possible post-election coalition permutations. It’s sort of the precise opposite of what happened last time, and in a way, suggests that politicians have matured a bit in their approach to coalitionbuilding. Unfortunately they haven’t really matured enough. Last time Nick Clegg was like a toddler in the playground, and David Cameron bounded up to him and showed him some gravel he’d found. Fifteen seconds later they were bestest bestest friends and running up and down Downing Street playing aeroplanes. This time around our politicians are more like teenagers. They’ve got their little friendship groups and the risk of looking stupid by getting rejected by anyone else is just like totes beyond horrendous, so they’re all making very clear that they’re the ones doing the rejecting.

So they’ve grown-up a bit, but not so much that any of them are prepared to talk about what they would do in a hung parliament, and the only thing any of the polls in this election are predicting with any confidence is that it will be a hung parliament. The Conservatives seem to have just about nearly sort of inched ahead in terms of number of votes, but the vagaries of our electoral system means that there’s no guarantee that that will equate to winning the most seats.

It’s looking increasingly likely that, in addition to no single party being able to form a majority government, it’s going to need more than two parties to form a majority coalition. So that probably means either the Tories plus UKIP plus the Ulster Unionists plus the Lib Dems, or Labour plus the SNP plus the Lib Dems, but both of those options include alliances that have already been ruled out.

So why are politicians so keen to rule out what could be workable coalition options? Well some of them relate to points of policy – it’s difficult to imagine the uber pro-European Lib Dems as natural bedfellows of Nigel Farage, and that’s clearly also a stumbling block for pro-United Kingdom parties when it comes to doing deals with Scottish or Welsh Nationalists, but there can’t be very many people who genuinely think that Labour can make it into government without support from the SNP. The numbers simply don’t add up. The Tories position isn’t much better; if they can’t get both the Lib Dems and UKIP on board their numbers look equally unlikely to get them to the magic 326.

Even if Labour attempt to form a minority government they’ll only be able to do anything if the SNP vote with them, and that’s where we get to the problem with all this ruling out, because it’s a very specific form of ruling out. Announcing that you won’t do any ‘formal deals’ is very specific, and in no way rules out only attempting to pass legislation that you already know other parties definitely agree with.

Realistically as soon as the polls close on Thursday every party will be running around desperately trying to do deals with every other. And that’s not a good or a bad thing. It’s just the reality of the fact that the two parties who’ve dominated UK politics for the last century are increasingly under pressure from smaller parties. First past the post, like most electoral systems, only consistently gives you single-party majority governments if you only have two significant parties in the race. Multi-party politics creates coalitions, and minority governments who need to negotiate with opponents and make concessions and compromises to get legislation approved.

That’s not a bad thing. It’s just true. What is a bad thing is politicians pointing each other and using the fact that deals will be brokered and compromises made as a stick to beat the other with. What is a bad thing is the media printing pictures of party leaders as the whipping boys of their coalition allies. Because that just suggests that we all need to grow up a bit more – past the teenage stage and into the elusive functioning adult stage. Hung parliaments look to be here to stay; it’s probably time we all got over that and got used to the idea that compromise and talking to people you disagree with might not actually be the end of the world.

So that’s it. The election campaign is all over bar the voting, so tomorrow will be all books and loveliness on the blog with my (slightly belated) 52 Weeks: 52 Books update for April.

In which I wonder if we’ve got it all wrong about… migration

We’ve made it to election week. Well done everyone who’s still standing. Even more well done if you haven’t started skipping past the politics section on news websites and turning the TV over every time a party leader appears. I seem to have got through the campaign without blogging about politics at all, which feels a bit wrong, but demonstrates, I think, the level of election weariness I’m currently running at. I describe myself as a politics nerd, but I’ve been struggling to get mentally involved with this campaign at all.

However, the election is nearly upon us so I think it’s probably time to engage nerd brain and get my politics on. This week will be all about the election. Well it will until Thursday – then it’s really all over bar the voting (and counting). So this Monday to Wednesday half-week period will be all about the election, and the first topic is… migration.

The in-bound element of migration is an area where we’ve really seen how a small party can set the political agenda if they are sufficiently focussed on one thing, and repeat that one thing often enough, while employing a ‘man of the people’ sort of vibe and holding a pint of proper British beer. The Tories and Labour are both keen to talk up how they would deal with immigration and the language is all about control, reduction and clamping down.

And I can’t help but wonder if we’ve got this fundamentally wrong. I don’t just wonder whether the main political parties in the UK in 2015 have got it wrong. I wonder whether actually the whole of the developed world has got it wrong right back to the birth of the UN and the drafting of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. What that document says is that people have the right to ‘seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.’ It also says that a person has the right to not be ‘arbitrarily deprived of his nationality, nor denied the right change his nationality.’ What if in our most basic declaration on human rights we just said the people have the right to move across borders as and when they please? What if we established the right to migrate as a fundamental human right?

The urge to move to where you can best provide food, shelter and security for yourself and your nearest and dearest is a basic human urge. Whether we’re looking at the very first humans in Africa glancing at the big hill on the edge of their territory and wondering if there was more food and water over there, or at kids growing up in the countryside and moving to the city to find work, the reality is that from the very beginnings of humanity through to the present day we’re a species who move in search of sustenance and security. Why shouldn’t that be recognised in our most basic declaration of who we are and how we have the right to live?

Politically and ethically I think it makes sense too. The main driver of large-scale migration across national borders is inequality. People who are well-fed, comfortably-housed, and able to earn enough to maintain that situation are far less likely to move across continents. But if you made migration easier, surely that would change? Surely richer countries would be deluged with immigrants? Well maybe, in the short term. But in the longer term making migration easier, I suspect, would also make it less common. Stick with me – that’s not as bonkers as it sounds.

At the moment richer governments deal with migration by placing legal limits and controls on who can migrate into their countries. Dealing with migration is all about legislation, border controls, and refusing entry or removing people from the country. If governments were denied those options, maybe they’d have no choice but to deal with the fundamental inequalities that drive immigration. At the moment we’re able to pull up the drawbridge and close our eyes to poverty, violence, and anything else that goes on beyond our borders. If we were no longer allowed to do that we’d have no choice but think about how we actually make the world a more equal place. In the long term that means fairer trade and interaction with poorer countries, better peace-keeping, and a move away from the sort of foreign policy that creates and perpetuates inequality.

And yes, I know – I’m sounding a little bit ‘I believe the children are the future’, and I’m a stirring chord change away from waving my lighter in the air, but I’m not going to apologise for that. Moving around is something people have always done. I’m an economic migrant myself, and I simply don’t see why the fact that I was able to do that without crossing any national borders makes me intrinsically less of a threat than some guy cramming himself onto an overcrowded boat somewhere on the north African coast, so what I’d like to hear from the people who want me to elect them is a lot less about ‘control’ and ‘clamping down’ and a lot more about global equality and fairness.

And that’s my thought for today. Come back tomorrow when it’ll be all about tax, which is a really really fun topic. I promise it is.

In which I proffer a little opinion on the whole Jack Straw/Malcolm Rifkind thing

This morning’s headlines are all about Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind falling for a Channel 4/ Telegraph sting to where they were filmed apparently offering their services to a private company for cash. Both men have ‘strenuously denied’* any naughtiness, but have also referred themselves to the Parliamentary Standards authority. I have thoughts on this issue. They are threefold, and so, because I haven’t done one for a while, I shall share them with you through the medium of a numbered list.

1. The oft repeated idea that politicians need to tackle the perception that they are out of touch with voters completely misses the point.

Malcolm Rifkind, apparently, charges £5-8000 for half a days work. £5-8,000. The average (mean) salary in the UK is somewhere around about £27,000 pa. If we take the lower end of Rifkind’s half-day rate, that’s about 2.5 months income for an average earner. Or to put it another way, the average annual salary equates to less than 3 days work for a senior MP offering their services to a private business. A single jobseekers’ allowance claimant in this country is entitled to £72.40 per week. That’s how much the government has decreed an individual needs to live on after their rent has been paid. Someone claiming jobseekers’ allowance would take roughly a year and four months to get to an income of £5,000.

Rifkind talks about not being paid a salary. He has pointed out that he was referring to a salary from private business, over and above his MP’s salary, but it’s hard to get away from the impression that his £67,000 income from being an MP is insufficiently substantial to stick in his mind.

This isn’t a situation that creates a perception that MPs are out of touch with the rest of the population. It’s a situation that highlights the reality of just how out of touch they are.

 

2. If the best thing you can say about your behaviour is that it’s not actually illegal, that’s too low a bar

Both Straw and Rifkind have been at pains to emphasise that they don’t think they’ve broken and codes of conduct, and believe that their behaviour is well within the letter of the law. Well, so what? We don’t live in a world where there’s ‘illegal behaviour’ and ‘good behaviour’ and nothing in between. It’s the same situation as when UKIP get tied in knots explaining how some specific comment wasn’t racist, as if ‘racist’ and ‘fine’ are the only available categories of activity, and so long as they’re not racist they must be a’ok.

It’s entirely possible for behaviour to be entirely legal, and still abhorrently unethical, or a bit dodgy, or slightly disappointing. ‘Not illegal’ isn’t the same as ‘right’ or ‘good.’ There’s a whole range of behaviour that isn’t illegal but also fails to add to the some total of joy and kindness in the world. More than that, there’s a whole range of stuff that isn’t illegal, but still makes the world a little bit sadder, greyer and more disappointing. Which brings me to my final point…

 

3. Voters aren’t going to respect the office of MP, if MPs don’t respect it themselves

Two former ministers of state, prostrating themselves in front of an overseas agency for a quick buck. Really? Show some self-respect gentlemen. Neither of you, I’m guessing, is short of cash. You’re members of what should be considered one of the most august institutions on the planet. You’ve both been members of government, and you’re both still serving MPs in a period when the reputation of MPs has been tarnished by the expenses scandal, and repeated ‘cash for influence/access/questions’ type hoo-hahs. This is a moment in time when you need to be better than this. This is a moment for saying actually we ARE all in this together, and my MPs salary is more than sufficient to compensate me for spending all my working time on constituency and parliamentary business.

I’m not saying MPs should never have outside interests. I’m very much in favour of MPs coming to Parliament after spending some of their working lives in a real non-Westminster-bubble job, but if you’re an MP who wants to broaden their world view while serving in Parliament, can I politely suggest voluntary work? It’s good for the community. It’s good for the soul, and it won’t cause your voters to think you’re obviously just on the take.

 

And breathe… So there’s the rant for the day. A day earlier than usual I note, but the news world will have moved on by tomorrow, so I figured why wait?

 

*Why are politician’s denials always strenuous? Are denials never issued wearily, angrily, or cheerfully, or are journalists subject to strict limits on adverb use?

 

And if you want to read me in more jocular, more fictional, and less shouty mood, my first novel, Sweet Nothing will be out in paperback from August, and is available to order right now.

In which I obligingly try to generate an opinion on the topics of the day

So, as has been discussed before on these very pages, I am a feminist. I’m also quite interested in politics, and I write romantic comedies for a living. This means that, according the the memo that is sent out to bloggers each week by the nice people who run the Internet*, this week I am required to have opinions about both Harriet Harman’s Pink Lady Bus and Fifty Shades of Grey. This is a bit of a bind, because quite enough opinions have been expressed already about both these things, but the people who run the Internet are very clear in their expectations, so I’ll do the best I can.

Let’s start with Fifty Shades of Grey. Is it erotic? Is it glamourising abuse? Does it misrepresent BDSM? I have no idea. I haven’t read it. I haven’t seen the movie either. I have, however, had this conversation lots of times:

Random person: ‘So what do you write?’

Me: ‘Romance novels mainly.’

RP: ‘Like Fifty Shades of Grey?’

Me: ‘Not really… Mine are a bit more down to earth.’

RP: ‘Oh. You should write something like Fifty Shades of Grey. Then you’d be rich.’

More recently I’ve had this conversation a few times too:

Random person**: ‘What do you think of this Fifty Shades of Grey?’

Me: ‘I don’t know. I haven’t read it.’

RP: ‘Why not?’

Me: ‘It’s just didn’t really fancy it.’

RP: ‘Well that’s not fair. You shouldn’t decide you don’t like something until you’ve tried it.’

Me: ‘But… I said I didn’t know… I… er…. but….’

In the first conversation, Random Person is just doing the current variation on the conversation had by writers across the world throughout time. Ten years ago we were all being told we should write something about a wizard school. I have no doubt that writers who were contemporaries of St Paul were regularly told that they should ‘write some like letters to churches and that.’

In the second conversation though, Random Person, is being properly stupid. Of course it’s fine to just not fancy reading something. There are things in life about which it is appropriate to feel guilty about not caring more. It is entirely right and proper to have a pang of guilt when you drop your eyes to the floor and hurry past a Big Issue seller or a charity collection jar. The feelings of inadequacy when you donate £10 to a DEC appeal are appropriate feelings of inadequacy. Not reading a book, or seeing a movie, because you just don’t really want to is fine. So there you go – Fifty Shades of Grey – haven’t read it, haven’t seen it, have suspicion that neither liking nor disliking it makes you an intrinsically better person.

So, onto the Labour Party’s Lovely Pink Lady Bus. The essentials of this story are that Harriet Harman and other high up female Labour MPs are trying to engage directly with female voters by touring the country in a minibus with ‘Woman to Woman’ written on the side. This has caused lots of people to send slightly miffed sounding tweets about how this is patronising to women, and caused lots of Labour people to give interviews where they describe the bus as cerise or magenta or created by a fairy godmother from a pumpkin – really anything so long as it’s not pink.

My gut reaction is to agree with the miffed tweeters. Yup, having a special Lady Bus where I can discuss my special Lady Concerns with special Lady MPs is deeply patronising. Generally this sort of segregation into ‘Lady Concerns’ and ‘Manly Concerns’ is patronising to both genders. Lots of women care about stuff outside their front door, and plenty of men care about what goes on inside.

But, as with Fifty Shades of Grey, I’m not really the target audience for Harriet’s lovely magenta bus. I’m already going to vote, and I’m a politics nerd so there’s a high chance that I’m already fairly decided on who I’m going to vote for. The target is women who aren’t fully decided, or more particularly, women who might not vote at all. In 2010 the turnout amongst women was slightly lower than amongst men, but women were slightly more likely then men to vote Labour rather than Conservative. Against that background it’s pretty obvious that engaging female potential voters is going to be important for Labour’s chances in May. If you look at the demographics by social class as well as gender, we see that DE (semi-skilled, unskilled or non-working) women are the group most likely to vote Labour but least likely to vote. Those are the women that Labour need to reach. So I’m torn on the issue of the Cerise Lady Bus. Part of me really hopes it doesn’t work, because it is hugely condescending, but part of me hopes it does work, because the women that Labour should be trying to focus on are a part of our society whose voices aren’t frequently heard.

So there you go – two issues on which I’m required to have an opinon and I sort of failed at both. Apologies.

 

*They’re lovely. A married couple called Duncan and Shirley. They have a bungalow near St Albans.

** Makes mental note: I really ought to learn my friends’ names.

In which there are still three whole months until the general election

I generally consider myself to be a person who is quite interested in politics. I can usually generate a blog post about an issue of the day if pressured to do so. I have opinions on all sorts of things: page 3 – no; fox hunting – definitely not; same sex marriage – sure, if you want to. But I’m finding that three whole months away from the General Election I already have election fatigue.

I’m feeling, already, as though the bulk of the political news that I read or hear is washing over me like white noise, and, I think, the reason for that is simple – the news, as it is reported, is nebulous. There are precious few actual facts in there to get hold of. Take this story from the BBC as an example. The headline, technically speaking, offers factual information – David Cameron has been challenged about his claim that a new Tory government wouldn’t cut per pupil education funding, but the fact is simply that some people have said some things, and some other people have said other things.

The story itself jumps between announcements about per pupil education funding and announcements about numbers of schools becoming academies – yes those are both to do with education policy, but they are quite distinct issues.  That’s not my problem though. My problem is that essentially the entire article is made of up X said, ‘…’ but Y said, ‘…’.

To be fair, there’s a handy video clip from the Prime Minister’s speech at the top of the article so you can see for yourself a little bit of what he actually announced. That’s good, but watching the clip just makes the article itself look worse. For example, take this paragraph: ‘Mr Cameron, speaking at Kingsmead school in north London, said that every secondary school in this “requires improvement” category would be expected to become an academy.’ Well maybe he did say that at another point in the speech, but in the clip attached to the article he talks about schools that can’t ‘demonstrate the capacity to improve themselves’ – that might not be the same as ‘every school’ at all, or it might just be waffle to obscure the ‘every school’ element. There’s no way of knowing from this article.

This isn’t BBC bashing. I just happen to have picked a BBC article. I could have gone for pretty much any newspaper, tv station or website, because what we have here is a very normal example of current journalism. It’s journalism without the skills, or time, or inclination, or incentive, or possibly backbone, to do very much actual journalistic work. It’s a process that goes something like this:

1) A politician makes a speech. A journalist picks out a few choice quotes, or possibly just accepts the few choice quotes picked out by the party in the accompanying press release.

2) The journalist knows that’s not enough. Their story needs balance, so they add a few quotes from opposition politicians disputing the thing the first politician said.

3) If they’re feeling really dedicated they probably have some notion that they should be looking into the politicians’ claims, so they add another quote from a relevant trade union or academic or random passer by who’s prepared to reckon something.

4) They publish their story.

There’s nothing actually wrong about it, but the process of filtering all those quotes through a professional news reporting organisation hasn’t added anything. There’s nothing that goes above or beyond what the people giving the quotes wanted to say. None of those claims or quotes get checked or probed, because the story is simply the reporting what each of the people quoted said, and it’s definitely true that they said it, so that’s all fine. The problem is that nobody reading these articles actually knows anymore about what is true than before they started reading. If anything, they know less because of all the additional white noise they’re now carrying around in their heads.

Of course we need reporting on what politicians say they’re going to do, and what rival politicians see as the problems with those plans, but the reality is that not everything that is reckoned, even when it’s reckoned by a front bench politician, has equal value. Lots of things fall into the grey area of opinion or projection, but lots of other things don’t. Some things are simply true or not, and without a mainstream media prepared to call anything at all as ‘true’ or ‘false’ it’s left to each of us to filter out the white noise. The danger with that is that the vastness of the range of information and opinion that washes over us leaves us overwhelmed and in a position where, when faced with a ballot paper, it’s very easy to wrinkle our brows and just give up on the whole idea of being able to make any sort of informed choice at all.

So maybe that’s a thing I could do to try to break through my election apathy – my own little mini fact checks right here in Alison Blogville. It’s an idea, anyway.

In which I wonder about the whole rolling news thingummyjiggle

Ok. A bit of housekeeping before we settle down to some serious blogging business. First off, did you all have pleasant festive seasons, and are you now cheerfully embracing the whole 2015 thing? I hope you did, and you are. You will also notice that it’s Tuesday and there is a shiny new blogpost for your delectation. Well that’s the way we roll now. Tuesday is the new whatever day I was blogging on before. I remember – I didn’t really have a system, did I? So, Tuesday is the new slightly random and not terribly predictable day, but with the exciting development that it will be much much more predictable. It will come after Monday and before Wednesday like, well like Tuesday essentially. Mark it in your diaries, and feel free to start a sweepstake on how quickly I’ll forget.

The world’s attention, so far in 2015, has been largely focussed on France, after the attacks by gunmen at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, the subsequent shooting outside a metro station, and the two hostage sieges that followed. It’s been a bit of a bruising week for liberty, but it’s not the first battering that that ideal has withstood and it won’t be the last. The idea that the pen is mightier than the sword has been around long enough to become a cliché for good reason. Pens create ideas, which are notoriously tricky to kill off. They tend to thrive wherever there are people getting together, talking, writing and thinking.

But I don’t actually want to talk about the gunmen, not least because being talked about, and having the idea of the terror they created fed and nurtured with each retelling, is very much what they would have wanted. Today, I’m not even going to talk about the cartoonists, police officers, and shoppers who were killed, because they deserve much better words than I’m able to offer. Today I’m going to talk about another group who help to create the ideas we all share. Today I want to talk about the rolling news channels.

Twenty-four hour news isn’t a new phenomena. Sky News started broadcasting in the UK in 1989. The BBC’s dedicated round the clock news channel started in 1997. In America, CNN dates back to 1980. So it’s not new, but the world around the news channels has changed, and I don’t think the news channels have changed with it. Or in fact, I think they have changed, but not in the right way.

When the BBCs news channel started the internet was a baby. Nobody in their right mind would have expected to use it get updates on what was actually going on in the world right now. If they tried what they would probably have discovered that what was mainly happening right now was that their modem was making a weird crackling noise that sounded like it was trying to send a fax. I sort of feel I ought to footnote the terms ‘modem’ and ‘fax’ for our younger viewers. I’m not going to. They’re enjoying all the lovely benefits of youth – I don’t see why they should get to actually know stuff as well.

Obviously, the internet has grown up a bit since then, in terms of technology, if not in content. Now you can read live updates on the butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the planet, when the resulting tornado on the other is still pottering around at ‘light breeze’ levels. The 24 hour news channels are fighting to keep up, pushed by the immediacy of social media sites to report what’s happening right now this very second. And that’s a problem because what’s happening right now this very second is usually confused and confusing, and that confusion leads to the breakdown in the very important journalistic distinction between ‘things that are actually demonstrably true’ and ‘random speculation.’

There is, I think, still a major role for TV news in the internet age, but it’s role shouldn’t be to try to ape the worst of the internet, by feverishly trying to keep up. Instead, the TV news channels need to accept that there is no way that they are going to be able to ‘reckon stuff’ quicker or more pithily than twitter, and that’s ok, because that isn’t news. I’m weighing in in support of 24 hour news channels that are largely made up of a picture of the newsreader drinking a cup of tea whilst the scrolling update across the bottom of the screen reads, ‘It’s a bit unclear what’s happening at the moment. Bear with us.’ These would be news channels with no speculation, only news – that can definitely include explanation of the facts behind the news, but absolutely no people just reckoning stuff (even if the stuff they might reckon is hysterically funny and absolutely terrifying in equal measure).

So there you go – that’s my radical idea. News that is only made up of news: no speculation; no guessing what’s going on as it’s happening; maybe even some actual journalism that amounts to more than reading out what other people have said on twitter. My alternate plan to ‘fix’ TV news, which will absolutely and definitely be brought in just as soon as I am Queen, is to make it a legal requirement that all news broadcasts flash the word ‘NEWS’ or the word ‘SPECULATION’ across the bottom of the screen at all times, depending on which is currently being offered. It wouldn’t stop them just reckoning stuff, but at least it would be nice and clear.

So there you go. That’s my thought for the week. Come back same time next week and I’ll try to have another one.

In which I sing the praises of casual fandom

So Missy is The Master. For those of you who have no idea what I’m rambling on about, Missy is a character in Doctor Who. In fact she’s the latest regeneration of recurring Timelord character, The Master. You know how Peter Capaldi used to be Matt Smith, who used to be David Tennant, who used to be etc. etc. all the way back to William Hartnell. Well The Master is exactly like that, only evil and with different actors.

And the latest incarnation of The Master, is known as Missy, because this time around the character has regenerated with lady parts, and is played by, Green Wing and Bad Education star, Michelle Gomez. However, the gender switch has caused mightily mixed feelings amongst the Doctor Who fandom. This range of views and comments on the Kasterborous site is a good example, but this list is way funnier so read it first.

Now I’m definitely on the side of the pro-Missy people. I love the Master – he/she has always been my favourite Doctor Who baddy. A dalek is all very well, but their dialogue is kind of limited. And Michelle Gomez is universally awesome and entirely suited to the part.  In fact, I’m struggling to think of a TV programme that wouldn’t be improved by Michelle Gomez playing a mad woman somewhere during each episode. If I was in charge of the world (which, rather upsettingly, I am still not), I’d have Michelle Gomez, in character as Missy, presenting Question Time. I don’t think anyone can claim that wouldn’t make the world more fun.

Anyway, my liking for Missy is not the main reason I gathered you here today. The reason I gathered you here today is to point out that even if I hated the idea of a lady-Master (like a StairMaster but with boobies), that wouldn’t matter one little bit. I’m a fan of Doctor Who. I don’t own every existing episode on both VHS and DVD. I don’t quote old scripts as a leisure activity. I don’t spend large chunks (small chunks maybe) of my free time reading fan forums. I just like the TV show. I’m that sort of fan.

And that’s ok. There is, in fandoms off all kinds, a tendency to look down on the casual fan – the ‘I watched the whole series, but I ain’t paying that for the special edition boxed set’ fan, the ‘I’d love to go more often but it’s quite a long way and a season ticket’s nearly a grand’ fan, the ‘No, I didn’t buy the special platinum re-release of the album; I already own the special gold release from six months earlier’ fan. There’s a tendency for fans to try to prove their fannishness (totally a word) by showing their greater knowledge of the trivia of the object of their fandom, and there’s a tendency for fans to think they own the thing they’re fanning over. Well, you don’t. And us casual fans know that. We know that it’s fantastic to find a thing you really really like. It’s even fantastic to find other people that like that thing too. And that’s enough.

Casual fandom is ace. You get all the joy of really liking something, and none of the angst that more serious fans have to deal with when that thing develops in a way that they don’t like. You’re enjoyment isn’t ruined by scripts getting leaked on the internet, because you’re just not quite interested enough to go and read them. If someone tries to chat to you during an episode of one of your programmes you don’t have to kill them (well I say you don’t have to kill them – if they’re a repeat offender and it’s like a series finale or something, then maybe.) Casual fandom- it’s awesome. You should try it.

And here endeth the lesson. Tatty-byes.

In which I marvellously sort out the West Lothian question

So Scotland is staying. So far as I’m concerned this is excellent. I like Scotland. They have shortbread, a willingness to put batter around anything, and a refreshingly positive attitude to the notion of the wraparound skirt as menswear. All these things seem like markers of a jolly good place. So, yay Scotland! So glad you decided to stick around.

But politics moves quickly and with the ink barely dry on the final ‘no’ vote, the debate has already moved on to what we do next. Scotland has already been promised some form of ‘devo max’ with increased tax raising powers and greater autonomy over domestic policy, and David Cameron’s bleary-eyed statement first thing this morning promised to look at the issue of greater English autonomy over English domestic issues. This is the problem in UK politics usually referred to as the ‘West Lothian question‘  – in a nutshell, how does one resolve the problem of MPs from Scottish constituencies (like West Lothian) having votes in the UK Parliament on issues that only affect England (or England and Wales), when English MPs have no vote on the same issues in Scotland?

Essentially there are two possible ways to square this circle: either you continue to decide English domestic policy at Westminster and just don’t let Scottish MPs vote on those questions; or you establish a separate English Assembly or Parliament with equivalent powers to the Scottish Parliament.

The problem with the first of those is that you have a significant risk of ending up effectively two governments within the same parliament. The Conservative vote in the UK tends to be more concentrated in England, particularly southern England, whereas the Labour vote is stronger in Scotland, and also Wales. Obviously shares of the vote fluctuate but it’s fairly easy to imagine a situation where Labour hold an outright majority across the UK, but don’t have a majority of English MPs. In that scenario, who forms a government? Do we have a Labour government who are able to pass defence and foreign policy but are hamstrung on English domestic issues? Or do we end up with, for example, a Labour UK government, and a Conservative English government who time share the government benches and all swap places depending on what sort of issue is being debated?

The further problem with this solution is that by leaving English decision making at Westminster, you reinforce the idea that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own exciting identities, and England is just a sort of Britain-lite. This annoys the other parts of the Union because it downplays their contribution to what Britishness is, and it, increasingly, annoys some of the English as well, as it denies them any sort of identity at all.

So, for me, a new English Assembly or Parliament feels like the way forward. It’s an idea I’ve never been keen on in the past. Honestly, on a cultural identity level, I feel human, and then British, and then European, and then Yorksire, and then possibly, if pushed, English. But I also think that treating all four nations within the union the same, in terms of what powers they hold directly and what is exercised from Westminster, is the only potentially equitable way forward. So if Scotland is to have increased tax raising and domestic policy powers, then I suggest that Welsh, Northern Irish, and English Parliaments should be treated in the same way.

To do that is really complicated. You need to work out an fair way of raising and allocating taxes to UK and individual nation spending. Doing that is a potential minefield, and involves the Treasury, in particular, loosening its grip on huge areas of policy and spending. Doing that super-fast, as David Cameron says he will, would be colossally stupid. Constitutional amendment has to be done right. If it’s not, you’ll be dealing with the fallout for not just years, but potentially decades or centuries. Constitutional changes have to be crafted and considered, and that’s doubly hard to do if you’re a country that doesn’t really have a clear single document written constitution to start with.

So what’s my vision for an English Parliament? Well first-off, it shouldn’t meet in London. London is the capital of the UK. It’s a major international city, and should be the place that all four nations can look to as their shared capital. An English Parliament should meet somewhere a bit more, well a bit more English. I’d suggest Winchester, or York, or Salisbury –  somewhere with a bit of Englishness in its history. I also feel that a properly English Parliament would stop around 4pm each day for tea, and members would show disapproval of another’s speech not by barracking and catcalling but by tutting pointedly.

So there you go Mr Cameron – the West Lothian question resolved before breakfast. Just, please, try to take a bit more time finessing the details.

In which I wonder if we get too hung up on the f-word

I’m a feminist. I’ve described myself as such since I was about 14 and I’m not about to change now.

I think that girls across the world should have just as much right to go to school as boys. I think that women and men should be paid the same for comparable work. I think that on the three separate occasions during job interviews when I’ve been asked whether I felt I’d be taken seriously in the role I shouldn’t have just sucked it up and got on with the interview; I should have queried why the interviewers thought that might be an issue. I think that expecting the man to automatically pay on a first date is dumb. I think that a man holding a door open for a woman is fine, but I think a woman holding a door open for a man is fine too – generally letting doors slam in people’s faces is bad; that’s not actually a gender issue. I think that conviction rates for sexual violence against women are shockingly low. I think that the tendency in the media to describe women by their age and appearance first, and job or role second is depressing and damaging. For all those reasons I’m a feminist, but.

But, I also think that we need to accept that the term ‘feminist’ has become a bit tricksy of late. Various celebs have declared themselves ‘not a feminist’ and there was recently a spate of ‘I don’t need feminism’ selfies, where women held up signs explaining their reasons for rejecting feminism. This was followed, inevitably by a much bigger spate of ‘I need feminism’ selfies, which I absolutely support, but I worry that by simply responding with a chorus of ‘Oh yes, you do,’ we’re missing a point. If you do an images search for ‘I’m don’t need feminism because’ you’ll see that there are two repeated themes in the rejections of feminism. The first is that feminism is about supremacy over men, and the second is that feminism encourages a victim-mentality by defining a range of inconveniences as gender oppression.

The first of those perceptions is, in many ways, the easiest to reject. Feminism isn’t about saying that women are better than men. It is about rejecting the automatic reverse assumption. It is about rejecting the notion that an area of life/work has less value because it has historically been primarily undertaken by women. It is about rejecting the notion that gender should be a primary decider of your path in your life or career. And that works for men and women. Hurrah for the male nursery nurses, and dental nurses, and just plain nursing nurses.

The second problem is the perception that feminists see oppression everywhere and revel in the role of victim. Well, here’s the thing. Some people revel in the role of victim. Some of those people will be women. Some of those women will be feminists. Don’t confuse personality trait with wider philosophical message. Nonetheless, the perception that we are the girls who cry wolf, is damaging to the cause of equality. It legitimatizes the patting of women on their collective head, and the shuffling away of grievances onto the pile marked ‘women making a fuss.’

The saddest thing is that all those young women holding cards saying, ‘I don’t need feminism because… I’m not a victim’ or variations on that theme are making a feminist statement. They’re saying I’m not defined by oppression. They’re saying that they believe in their own ability to take life’s opportunities and make the most of them. But they’re rejecting the political and social force that got them to a place where posting a picture of themselves in a public forum making a political statement is permissible behaviour for a young lady.

Ultimately, ‘feminist’ is just a word, and maybe it’s a word that both sides of this argument need to be less hung up on. If you believe in equality of treatment, choice and opportunity for men and women, then what label you put on that should be secondary. Feminism has become a troublesome word because, at some point, the people who say ‘I am a feminist’, and the people who say they’re not, started using the same word to mean different things. If feminist meant man-hater, or eternal victim then I’d be lining up with the girls holding those ‘I don’t need feminism..’ cards myself, but to me it means something quite different. And that’s the problem. If we don’t agree about what it is that we’re embracing or rejecting how can we identify our disagreement and our common ground?

So a question for the comments section: Would you describe yourself as a feminist? And why or why not?