Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Trains of the day

Rare footage of the Liverpool Overhead Railway (closed 1957). Eerie and sad.

For more on this now vanished line, including a route diagram, see this post at Scott's "Merseytart" blog.

The appropriately 1950s music used to be the signature tune of "Children's Favourites" on the Light Programme every Saturday morning.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Do we care who leads the Labour Party?

Lord Heseltine said on telly the other day that it didn't matter who led the Labour Party, though his preference would be for Ed Balls (easiest for the Tories to beat).

This reminded me of my own feelings after the Tories' defeat by New Labour in 1997. There was a lot of media fuss about their leadership, and my reaction, and that of everyone I spoke to, was: "Who gives a toss?" The Conservative Party seemed hugely irrelevant. It felt possible at the time, and for long afterwards, to hope that it was in terminal decline, and that, if we just ignored it for long enough, it might simply disappear.

Do we actually still need a Labour Party? If we ever get proportional representation, a quite different party structure could be envisaged, in which the more liberal-minded social democrats in the Labour Party were absorbed into the LibDems, and the radical left merged with the Green Party. This would leave the illiberal authoritarians of the Blunkett/Reid cast, who need a new Authoritarian Party, in which quite a few Tories would also be more at home. The more libertarian-minded Europhobes on the Tory right ought to be in UKIP.

One of the most difficult problems with the Labour Party is its trade union link. I cannot see what trade unionism has to do with social democracy. Much trade unionism seems to be about maintaining differentials, which is pretty much the precise opposite of equality. BA cabin crew, for instance, understandably want to keep their relatively well-paid jobs, but that is of no concern to the rest of us. I don't really see why I should care if BA goes bust. How does the promotion of sectional self-interest assist the cause of a fairer society?

The unions do make a certain amount of noise about poverty, but that applies only to certain notoriously ill-paid trades like cleaning and catering, where jobs are often precarious and unionisation is weak anyway. I presume that most of the real poor are not working at all.

It's hard to avoid the suspicion that, for Labour politicians, the main purpose of the trade union link is simply to provide funding for the party. Quite why the trade unions still think this worth their while, when Labour governments nowadays are so deaf to their demands, is one of the great mysteries of our time. It is difficult to feel convinced that the phrase "The Labour movement" still contains any rational meaning. It is a hollowed-out vehicle that has been running on empty for a long time.

Still, as things stand we do have a Labour leadership contest, which those of us who are no longer in the party can watch from outside for its curiosity value. The best news is that Hattie Half-Bake isn't standing. It is bad enough that we have to put up with her as acting leader for the next few months. As for TV's Diane Abbott, I can't quite imagine her as Prime Minister but at least she will surely liven things up a bit. I was sorry that Jon Cruddas decided not to stand.

TV's Ed Balls would be a disaster. (His wife is at least as clever, and might have been marginally less obnoxious, though she shares his infuriating penchant for never answering the question being asked.)

The rest seem much of a muchness, so far. Perhaps the debate will illuminate their differences. None of them seems to me much like leadership material. The only person who comes across on the telly as a reasonable and competent human being is TV's Alan Johnson -- but he isn't standing, either.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

LibDem U-turn on nuclear power?

The coalition government's policy on new nuclear power stations is being reported as a U-turn for the LibDems.

In fact, though, I saw Vince Cable on the telly before the election already saying that, for his part, opposition to nuclear power was not ideological but economic. Nuclear power is fantastically expensive if you include all the building and decommissioning costs. His main concern was that it should not be subsidised by the taxpayer (as it always has been up to now). And that proviso remains, it seems, in the new government's approach. If they stick with that, the likelihood is that no nuclear power stations will get built in any case, so this "U-turn" looks a bit like a distinction without a difference.

I must admit I have long been a bit of a wobbler on this issue, and was never absolutely sure that the LibDems (still less the Greens) had got it right. If we look out to the medium and long term, the looming world energy crisis might mean we are going to need all the (carbon-free) energy sources we can get -- the James Lovelock view.

Where I know I differ fundamentally from most of the pro-nuclear lobby is that nuclear must not be seen as a substitute for renewables. On this view, it is an either/or question, hence the appearance of people paid by the nuclear industry, such as Sir Bernard Ingham, in the ranks of the anti-windfarm fanatics. The danger is that if the spotlight is shifted from renewables to nuclear, it provides an excuse for not bothering to pursue wind, wave and solar energy. (Which reminds me, how is the Severn Barrage study coming along?)

One point I have never seen mentioned relates to the (probably slight) danger of a Chernobyl-style nuclear accident releasing a vast radioactive cloud into the atmosphere. And it is this: What is the point of the UK not pursuing nuclear energy on those grounds, unless our nearest neighbours are going to do the same? France and Belgium already get most of their electricity from nuclear, and are completely signed up to developing it further. Radioactive clouds do not respect national boundaries. Furthermore, Germany and Sweden are, I believe, already rowing back on earlier Green-inspired commitments to phase out nuclear power.

I don't much like it, and maybe we won't need it, but I don't see any point in expending political capital on empty gestures.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Let's look on the bright side

Naturally I am gobsmacked by the past 48 hours, like everyone else. But whatever else about all this, there are some good things:

(1) The Heathrow third runway is definitely off. LibDems and Tories both said they were against it before the election, and the new govt confirms it now on its very first day. They couldn't possibly go back on this. This alone is a great cause for celebration.

(2) Fixed-term parliaments is a huge step forward. This isn't just a recent LibDem demand. Radicals have been campaigning for this for centuries. No longer will the incumbent PM be able to rig the election date to suit his or her short-term party advantage.

(3) As has been widely noted, the Alternative Vote is not designed to be a proportional system (it can't be, because it retains the single-member constituency). But it is a preferential system, so the elector does get a bit more power. Above all, voters need no longer try to second-guess how everybody else in a particular constituency might be voting. Under such a system, we can at least stop worrying about tactical voting (provided the system is properly explained to people). Also, once people have got used to numbering candidates in order of preference, it lends itself to easy conversion to STV at a later stage -- you just have to combine groups of constituencies together.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Tories, PR and short memories

People have short memories. Everyone is correctly pointing out that most Tories currently harbour a visceral hatred of the idea of changing the voting system, and a great attachment to first-past-the-post.

They are also implying that "it was ever thus". This is not so. The last time there was a big groundswell of support for proportional representation, in the 1970s, most of that support (other than from the Liberals, of course) was coming from the Conservatives, including some quite leading ones who had been in Ted Heath's government of 1970 to 1974. There was also a phenomenon jokingly known as "Moggism-Levinism", after then Times editor William Rees-Mogg and his star columnist Bernard Levin, both of whom banged on endlessly in the mid-1970s about the need for PR "in the national interest" -- this of course when the Times was still a respectable, non-Murdoch paper.

Indeed, I remember many on the left in those days describing PR as a sinister right-wing plot whose real purpose, in their view, was to keep Labour out of power. I was an elected member of the Council of the Electoral Reform Society for much of that decade, and although we did have some maverick Labour Party members on board, a greater number of Tories were in evidence. In truth, it was an issue that cut right across party lines. It was only when Mrs Thatcher's extremist far-right clique hijacked the Tory party that this changed.

It is funny to see party tribalists on both Tory and Labour sides now rushing to the defence of first-past-the-post. Their arguments generally purport to be altruistic but in fact they are usually calculating party advantage. The Tories who oppose PR claim that only FPTP preserves what they claim is the essential constituency link, but probably their real reason is that Tories always represent only a minority of voters (this was true even at the time of the Thatcher "landslide" in 1979) and, under PR, the country's natural anti-Tory majority would always find expression in terms of seats, as it has mostly not done under the present system.

Peter Kellner in Rise of small parties shackles the big beasts pointed out on Sunday that the political landscape has gradually changed over the years and it is now quite likely that even if the system remains unchanged we are going to end up with hung parliaments in future:

Last week’s inconclusive outcome may be the first of many, even if first-past-the-post survives.

The reason is that the Labour and Conservative parties no longer dominate politics as they once did. In 1951, only nine MPs did not take the Labour or Tory whip; in 1970 the number was 12. By 1979 the number had climbed to 27, but the 70-seat Conservative lead over Labour delivered Margaret Thatcher a 43-seat overall majority.

Last week even a 70-seat lead would have been insufficient. As well as the 57-seat contingent of Liberal Democrats, 28 MPs will represent eight smaller parties. To secure an overall majority of just two, the Tories would have needed 86 more MPs than Labour.

(...) One of Cameron’s problems is that his looks like such an English party. There will be 298 Tory and 235 non-Tory MPs in England; but the rest of the UK returned just nine Tories compared with 108 non-Tory MPs.

To which the Tories could counter: those lopsided figures are exaggerated by first-past-the-post. They secured the support of one Scot in six. A proportional system could have added another nine MPs to accompany the solitary figure of David Mundell.

There is an even bigger reason for Conservatives to dislike first-past-the-post. Had Thursday’s voting figures been reversed, with Labour winning 36% of the vote and the Tories taking 29%, Labour would have enjoyed an overall majority of nearly 70. Even after the latest boundary changes, which in effect gave the Tories 12 extra seats, Britain’s political geography remains tilted against the party.

Yet the Tories are fiercely attached to the system that causes them such anguish.(...)

This being so, perhaps more Tories might start changing their minds about this. Michael Portillo, as so often, is already ahead of the curve. He said on telly the other day that he was beginning to see the advantages of a more proportional system.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Election: Good news, bad news

Good news:

(1) How marvellous that the ghastly humbug Esther Rantzen only managed to come fourth!

(2) Total lack of progress by the BNP and UKIP.

(3) I am delighted by Caroline Lucas's success in Brighton for the Green Party.

(4) Gutter press propaganda in favour of the Conservatives and its smears against Labour do not seem to have had much effect. It is remarkable that the Tories failed to do any better than 36% of the vote in such favourable circumstances for them. The newspapers seem to be losing some of their influence.

(5) Good riddance to Jacqui Smith, who was a thundering disgrace.

Bad news:

(1) The defeat of Evan Harris in Oxford is a grave blow. From the rationalist/secularist point of view, he was one of the best MPs in the House.

(2) Above all, it's a tragedy that the Lib Dem score was not enough to give them the clout to secure a proportional voting system. We may not get another chance. I hope I am wrong.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

What a stupid woman

Janet Street-Porter on this week's Question Time said she was turned off by the prime ministerial debates on TV. Because all three candidates were men, she said, she found it all irrelevant and couldn't relate to it. "Hello", she added, "more than half the electorate are women!"

What a stupid attitude! It was noticeable that her remarks gained no sympathy at all from the studio audience of both sexes, who just looked bemused.

It causes me to wonder once again why it is that so many (not all) women in public life so often come across as just irredeemably silly. One thinks also of Anne Widdecombe, Melanie Phillips, Caroline Flint, Margaret Hodge, Tessa Jowell, Germaine Greer, Hazel Blears, Jan Moir and several others.

Of course, there are also quite a few sensible women. And there are some silly men (John Redwood, Peter Hitchens, Sir Stuart Bell, George Galloway, Christopher Booker), but proportionately a lot fewer. I'm not talking merely about people whose opinions I disagree with -- that would be a very much longer list -- but about those who lack common sense and say things that are simply idiotic.