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 go to a party and consider a political tsunami

Two weeks ago I confidently announced the Friday was blogday from now on. And then last week I failed to post anything, so I think we can all agree that that idea’s going well. I have an excuse though, which given my mother’s reluctance to write me a note excluding me from blogging duties*, I shall explain myself.

I was at a party.

Ok, so it’s not a great excuse. It’s pretty much on a par with taking a  day off school to go to the Radio 1 roadshow, a common practice at my school, but another one I could never get my own parents on side with. Anyway, last week was the RNA‘s Summer Party which includes the presentation of the Joan Hessayon Award for new writers. As an award contender, I squeezed myself into my spanx, did my hair, applied actual make-up and made my merry way to London town. There were seventeen of us up for the award, which mathematically equated to a 5.88% chance of winning, and the winner was… drum roll please… not me. Ah well, never mind. It’s fantastic just to be a contender etc. etc. Cue much use of my excellent ‘magnanimous loser face,’ and many many congratulations to the very lovely and clever Jo Thomas who actually did win. Hurrah for her!

2014 Joan Hessayon contenders
2014 Joan Hessayon Award contenders

Whilst I was glamming it up in London Town being all writerly and control-panted, there were European and local elections going on across the country. The results of those elections caused a political earthquake, or tsunami, or storm (depending on the natural force metaphor selected by your news provider of choice), which is a media way of trying to make the story that UKIP did quite well and the Lib Dems did quite badly sound significantly more exciting than it actually is.

If you look at the actual numbers – I know boring, but potentially actually informative – you end up feeling that rather than looking at a tsunami you’re looking at a moderately sized wave, and nobody ever uttered the phrase, ‘Look! A moderately sized wave – run for the hills!’

There are a few reasons for thinking that politicians from the main parties should dial down the panic levels in relation to the UKIP surge (and be warned – there are very few jokes in this bit, but there are a number of moderately interesting statistics). Firstly, turnout in the European elections is always low. This year, in the UK, it was around 34%. As a comparison the turnout in the 2010 general election was just over 65%, so there’s an awful lot of potential voters who simply didn’t participate in this election. Within the 34% who voted, UKIP secured around 27.5% of the vote – that’s less than a third of the vote from a third of the electorate, and it’s always wise to be a little bit cautious about electoral figures based on relatively low turnouts.

Secondly, it’s very difficult to assess how much of the UKIP vote is either likely to translate into UKIP votes at a general election, or is suggestive of strong anti-EU feeling. Mid-term European elections are traditionally a repository for protest votes and dissatisfaction with the government of the day. A YouGov poll looking at general election voting intentions yesterday put Labour’s lead over the Tories at 7% (38 to 31) with UKIP down on 16% – significantly different from the European election results just a week ago. And we can add to that the fact that pre-election polls suggested a disjoint between voters choosing UKIP in the European elections, and voters who actually want to leave the EU. A YouGov poll just before election day suggested that 42% of voters who planned to vote UKIP, would actually vote to stay in the EU in a referendum on the subject.

All in all, that suggests that what we’re dealing with here is a significant protest vote, and the main parties have to decide how they deal with that. The answer to that question all depends on what they think people are protesting against. Is the appeal of UKIP that they’re anti-EU and anti-immigration? Or is it that people feel Nigel Farage is an ‘ordinary bloke’ rather than a media-trained slick politician? Some of those polling figures, combined with the fact that scandalette after scandalette during the campaign failed to dent UKIP support suggests to me that it’s probably more the latter than the former.

So here’s a crazy idea for the other political parties – less spin, less focus-groups, less trying to guess what the electorate might want and pretending to care, less trying to make Ed Milliband look like a ‘regular guy’ when he’s clearly the natural born leader of the political uber-nerds, and more saying what you really think and letting the electorate decide. The European election results suggest to me an electorate grown weary of politicians, tired of the disingenuous streak that runs through political debate, and which isn’t often challenged effectively by the Westminster bubble political press. So stop wittering on about which party leader has the best idea of the cost of a pint of milk, and try actually thinking something’s a good idea and then doing it. It really doesn’t seem that complicated. *Sighs wearily in the direction of Westminster*

So there you go – a writerly awards party and a little bit of electoral statistics. A lovely start to the day.

Comment your little hearts out and come back tomorrow when there will be a bonus blog post following on from Laura E James in the Main Character Blog Hop.

 

* At least I assume she’d be reluctant. I haven’t actually asked. That would seem like I was taking the whole endeavour far too seriously.

In which a fat girl climbs a massive mountain, is up for an award (and rants a bit about UKIP probably)

It’s been a bit quiet on the blog of late, primarily on account of how I have been On My Holidays in the Lake District where great rains did fall from the skies, but the hotel had a jacuzzi so I didn’t really mind. Due to the blog quietness there are now a number of things that I could witter on about and I’m struggling to pick just one. Therefore, with no respect to theme or any notion of coherence, here are a number of things that have occurred:

 

1. I climbed a Massive Mountain

Between the holiday rains EngineerBoy, who, when not engaged in manly engineer type activities, likes a bit of outdoors, made me go outside into the countryside and walk about. Here’s me at the top of a Massive Mountain (which EngineerBoy, quite wrongly, termed a small hill).

Atop a massive mountain

The climbing of the massive mountain was something of an effort, on account of how I am Not Thin. However, I made it, and I realised that actually despite the Not Thinness, I’m not that unfit. All the Zumba-ing and Bokwa-ing might actually be having some effect, just not on my overall girth. Ah well, I suppose fit is better than thin, although both would be even better still.

 

2. I have a new kitchen

And it is a thing of great wonder and prettiness, at least until the first time I spill something in it and stain the worktop. After which it will be ruined for all eternity, but for now there is much wonder and prettiness and baking.

kitchen

 

3. Sweet Nothing is up for an award

See how I saved that one for third, so I could appear all nonchalant and not at all giddy about it. My debut novel, Sweet Nothing, is in contention for the Joan Hessayon Award. I’m not expecting to win. There are 17 contenders in total, so as the woman who wrote a romantic comedy about a mathematician, I have to acknowledge that 1 in 17 isn’t brilliant from a probability perspective, but I get a trip to London town where I will wear clothes that aren’t pyjamas and drink wine and get to do my best impression of a ‘nominated for an Oscar but didn’t win’ face.

 

4. There are European Elections coming up..

… in which I am led to believe UKIP are expected to do marvellously well. I find this disheartening for a whole range of reasons (some of which I banged on about previously here). The thing I mainly find disheartening though, is the quality of political journalism at the moment. It feels like nobody in the mainstream media is actually looking in detail at any of the party’s stated policies and pointing out the claims and assumptions that are simply untrue. There are some really good sites online that do this sort of thing (eg Channel 4’s FactCheck blog) but they don’t form part of the newspaper headlines or the nightly TV news, which is where most people get their information. It is all very weary-making.

 

5. And an audiobook

Back in writer land, the other excitement of the week is that the audiobook version of Sweet Nothing is now available to pre-order as a download from Amazon. I’m ridiculously excited about this. An audiobook sounds very much like something what a proper author might have.

 

So mountain, kitchen, award, elections, audiobook. Those are the things that are going on around here, along with a switch to Friday’s for my ‘regular’ blog day. At least I’m intending it to be regular, but you know what I’m like. Anyway how are things with you merry blog-reader?

In which I think about Europe

So, apparently these UKIP fellows did bally well in the recent local elections. It appears that the Great British public like the beer drinking, fag smoking, only very occasionally photographed doing a Nazi salute, “man of the people” vibe that UKIP candidates portray. Their surge in popularity has sent the Conservatives into their traditional flatspin over all issues that might vaguely relate to Europe, and forced the government’s hand over the question of an EU referendum.

Now, I’m not generally in favour of referenda (as I explained all the way back here). It’s a wariness linked to my general slight unease with the whole democracy thing. It’s all very well letting the people decide, but I’ve met people and some of them are not that bright.

It seems to be quite widely accepted that, given the choice, the British would probably vote against further EU integration and may even vote to leave the EU altogether. There’s some interesting poll stats from last November here. Attitudes to European integration are fascinating, and seem to go right to the roots of how we, as individuals, view our place in society and the wider world. It’s not at all weird or unusual for an English person to be opposed to Irish republicanism, opposed to Scottish independence, and also opposed to the European Union, when, in a sense, those are all questions of where we draw lines on maps, of who we consider part of the “us” rather than the “them.”

And that’s why, purely based on gut instinct, I’m massively in favour of the EU, massively in favour of us learning to see ourselves as European, as well as British. I think it’s a positive thing when we make our mental “us” as big and inclusive as possible. I think drawing lines between people, whether those lines are based on religion, race, gender, sexuality or geography, is just not a particularly nice thing to do.

It’s probably not a terribly practical thing to do either. Big business is now international. Organised crime is international too. Whatever the rhetoric, small national governments are struggling to get multinationals, like Google, Amazon etc. to pay national taxes and work within the letter of national regulation. Government/regulation on a continental scale might have a fighting chance.

So, yay Europe so far as I’m concerned, although it’s not a point of view you’re likely to hear vigorously expounded by too many politicians at the moment, which is a shame. It’s symptomatic of the wider problem of how modern politicians are led by polls and focus groups, rather than being prepared to try to influence and persuade based on their own beliefs. Ho-hum.

I think I mentioned, a few weeks ago, that I was maybe going to hold off the more political blogging in future. I’d say that was going well, wouldn’t you?

In which I offer contemplative musings (and a leaflet-based points system) on how to vote

So this Thursday is election day in locations across the UK. I appreciate how some of you might have missed this exciting news nugget by doing things like living in other countries. However, here in the UK, we are in the grip of election fever. I’m sorry. That’s not right. It turns out I’m in the grip of  fever, but I’ve got antibiotics so I’ll probably be fine in a couple of days.

The local elections have, however, pretty much failed to raise an eyebrow, let alone a fever. The possible exception to this is in our esteemed capital, where they’ve managed to boil the whole business of local elections down to a simple act of trying to remember whether it’s the balding whingey one or the blond bonkers one’s turn this year.

Here, in the hotly contested political battleground of St Suburbans ward in Normal Town, we don’t have those easily identifiable political personalities to pick between. We also don’t have very much sense of what each political party stands for in local terms. A nice Labour leaflet about how the Tories are cutting tax for higher earners is all very well, but I’m not entirely clear how my choice of local ward Councillor is going to change that.

The obvious response to this problem is apathy. And I’m not going to spend too long arguing against that. I’ve never bought the notion that voting should be compulsory. That would just mean that a whole load of people who don’t know and don’t care get rounded up and shoved into polling booths. Frankly, if you’re not fussed enough to put an X on a sheet of paper without compulsion, I’m really not that bothered about you not getting your say.

However, I do think voting is important. People fought wars, threw themselves under racehorses and drafted lengthy parliamentary amendments for my right to vote, so, personally, I’m fairly commited to exercising that right.

Local elections are a conundrum though – if only someone provided a handy set of suggestions for how to select who to vote for. If only that existed in blog form, preferably in some sort of numbered list.

Well here you go. To follow this guide you will need to start by collecting all the random election leaflets off your doormat (or retrieving them from the recycling). We will be adopting a leaflet-based points system. This means that, in my case, I can disregard the Lib Dem and Green candidates straight away as they haven’t even managed to send me a leaflet. Tough break for them, but sometimes you do have to be ruthless about these things.

 

1. Candidates should be rewarded for detail

Detail is good. Detail is what makes the difference between an intention and a policy. Any sentence that starts “We would support…” or “We would like to see better…” should be viewed with suspicion. These sentences merely suggest a willingness to go along with someone else who could be bothered to do something about whatever the issue at hand might be. They don’t suggest definite actions. Look for the detail. They gain points for that.

At my house the Tory is doing surprisingly well – perhaps because he’s the sitting councillor he has more facts and figures about what he’s up to that most of the others. There’s an independent also scoring well. Labour and UKIP are poor so far.

 

2. Look for local policies

There is a tendency to view local elections as a mid-term referendum on the sitting government. This means that parties are tempted to pack their election literature with guff about national policy. Unless it’s a policy that can meaningfully be changed at a local election that’s all just leaflet space filler. Ignore it. If it pleases you, you can even put big red lines through all the stuff that local councillors have no influence over. So that’s everything to do with Income Tax, defence, the NHS, our membership of the EU and university tuition fees, gone. I should warn you, you might not have much leaflet left.

On my count – Tory and Independent are still in the lead. Labour have made a bit of a comeback. UKIP definitely trailing.

3. Be wary of lunacy

There is a certain sort of person who stands in local elections. Of course, I mean civic minded, hard working, community spirited people. There is then another sort of person who stands in local elections. The loon. With care you can spot them. I suggest starting with the punctuation and layout of the leaflet. Excessive use of exclamation marks, randomly placed capitalisation, a willingness to pop quotation marks around almost any word or phrase – all these are symptomatic of an overly excitable mind, and also of a person without a friend prepared to proofread their election leaflet. That’s the first sign.

Further evidence can be gleaned from the obligatory “About the candidate” section on the leaflet. Writing these must be hell – it’s like a personal ad designed to appeal to all ages, genders and proclivities. However, any mention of a self-consiously zany hobby should cause concern.

Don’t want to be cruel, but, from my leaflet selection, I think UKIP are definitely out of the running at this point. Sorry.

4. Oh yeah, and do you actually agree with any of the policies?

Some commentators would suggest you consider this first, but I find that thinning the leaflet pile on the criteria above makes this stage much more manageable. For me, I’m guessing this is where the Tory is going to lose ground.

 

So by my own system the candidate who wins my vote is an independent socialist called Peter. That’s a turn-up for the books. Without this, clearly deeply well thought out, process I’d probably have voted Labour or even for the leaflet-less Lib Dem, but the system doesn’t lie. Maybe Labour and Lib Dem will learn from this for next time.

So that’s me mused out for the day. Please do subscribe in one way or another if you like my occasional ramblings, and do join in the chat. How do you pick who to vote for, if you vote at all? Was it unfair of me to disregard the Green, when leaflet production really isn’t very green at all? Any improvements and amendments to The System will be considered.