+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

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More seriously...

In which there is some serious election stuff to talk about

Despite yesterday’s post, I do still indeed live in a safe Labour seat which is still a safe Labour seat. As predicted, shifting my vote in any direction would have made zero difference to the electoral outcome. And, as I implied yesterday, we live in a country where the majority of voters don’t seem to support the agenda of the largest party, partly because, I suspect, this election has been driven by negative pressure: people voting to try to stop Outcome A, rather than to cause Outcome B.

A couple of things have occurred to me, about the election result, over the past two days. Firstly, this parliament – however long it lasts – is going to be a very bad parliament for individuality of representation. In other words, MPs are going to get hardly any chance to vote conscientiously. They’re rarely going to get to express an opinion, and they’re never going to get a chance to represent their constituency over their party. Unless, of course, the government whips aren’t going to worry about losing votes, or the opposition whips aren’t going to worry about winning every vote they can, the whole of parliament is going to be reined in very tightly, and the whips will always expect party allegience to triumph over everything else.

Secondly, there’s lots in the news right now about polling station chaos, voters being turned away, ballot papers running out, and so on. And this can, really, only be down to one subject which has been avoided as an election issue: local government budgets. They are, in most parts of the country, pared down to their absolute minimums; and the constant shaving-off of any extraneous costs is inevitably going to hit elections. Councils, trying to save a little cash, will have cut down on polling staff; that inevitably limits the throughput of each polling station. They might have trimmed their ballot printing runs, figuring that 100% turnout is never going to happen. Unfortunately, the more slack you trim, the less space there is if you’re wrong, and we end up with a system which can’t cope with 4,000 more voters per constituency.* If we’d had the same turnout as 2001 or 2005, then maybe most seats would have coped; but that, to be honest, was never likely to happen. If council budgets keep getting frozen, the same problems are bound to happen next time too.

* The figure there comes from Sheffield Hallam, one of the constituencies that reported trouble, which reported a 5.8% turnout increase, up to 51,135 or just under 74%.

In A Nutshell

In which we cover an election result that the reality-based media seems to have missed.

A late election result just coming in, from the often-overlooked Symbolic Forest West South West division. We take you live to the count…

As the acting returning officer for the constituency of Symbolic Forest West South West, I would like to announce that the votes cast in the constituency were as follows:

Alan Beard, Beardy Religious Party. 108.
John Jacob Alexander Damp-Etonian, Not As Popular As We Claimed Party. 11,207.
Claire Rebecca Redjacket, Not As Unpopular As You Thought Party. 11,206.
Frank Edward Balanced, Looked Good On The Telly Party. 7, 986.
Rupert Henry Purple, There’s A Polish Supermarket On Our High Street I Mean What Are We Coming To My Father Didn’t Drop Bombs On The Germans For Nothing Where Are All These Foreigners From Anyway Party. 1,073.
Dave Peasant, Scary Shades Fist In The Air Party.* 67.
Enoch Powell (Deceased), I Was Right All Along Party. 3.

I therefore announce that John Jacob Alexander Damp-Etonian has been elected to parliament, even though nobody really likes him and everyone else is going to claim they won anyway. Now, where’s my bottle of gin?

* I thought for a moment that lack of sleep had led to me imagining the Land Is Power party, whose candidate, standing with fist raised, looked like a nightclub bouncer playing Musical Statues. His main policy, apparently, was to replace income tax entirely with property taxes.

Politics, ad nauseam

In which we predict the future, badly

Back in 2006, there were some local elections, and I wrote what I thought at the time. It was written in what you might call a prescient situation: about a local council who had run up a huge deficit under Labour, before being taken by a Tory-Liberal alliance who co-operated to the extent of not competing for council seats. Possibly, then, like the general election after next; although things are unlikely to be that extreme.

Back then my point, essentially, was: it’s only worth voting if you’ve got something worth voting for. Abstention should be a positive choice. Now, though, with the general election coming along tomorrow, things are slightly different. I still don’t feel, now, as if there’s any one party that is really pulling my vote in. For some reason, though, I feel equally that not voting at all isn’t an option. I’m not sure why, but this election seems impossible to ignore.

So, I’m definitely going to vote tomorrow. I don’t know who for, though; I’ve become one of those mystical “floating voters” who doesn’t decide an election result until the very last moment. I’ll walk into the booth, make my mark, but I can’t tell you yet who for or why. You should go and vote, too. Largely, because you can.

But anyway, after all that, my prediction for tomorrow’s election is that there won’t be a majority. There will be a hung-balanced parliament, or whatever you want to call it; and the largest party will form a minority government, with everyone else promising to “do what’s best for Britain”. It will last a surprisingly long time, too; and then, just as everything seems to be going so well, in about 15 months time it will collapse over something like election reform. I know that, being so specific, I’m almost certainly wrong; but at least I’m making a guess. Wait and see if it actually happens.

Awoken by the poltical hubbub

In which there has apparently been a lot of fuss over nothing

Well, yes. It’s been quiet round here, hasn’t it. And, as I’ve said before, modern politics makes me want to retreat further into a bunker. There’s a reason why the three sane-and-national parties are so close together in the polls right now: on the surface they’re so close together on everything else. Do you support the ex-public-schoolboy who wants to cut taxes on business and cut public spending, or the ex-public-schoolboy who wants to cut taxes for lower incomes and scythe public spending? Or, of course, the ex-university-firebrand who is also going to cut public spending, but not yet? If you don’t like those, there’s the right-wing fringe: the doddery old chap who leads his party from the House of Lords, who responds to most questions with “I’m not a professional politican, so I don’t know all the details or what’s in our manifesto – can you ask me the questions I wanted you to ask me, please?” If you don’t like his apparent lack of knowledge of most things his party plans to do, there’s always the Cambridge graduate* who thinks that Ireland is part of Britain, and that none of those nasty foreign types should be allowed to settle here unless maybe they’re from a country like France where potential voters might want to retire to.** There’s probably a left-wing fringe, too, but they’ve not popped up on my radar.

Having said all that, I do feel slightly sorry for the former university firebrand, who, I’m told, caused havoc with the administration of my own alma mater back in the 1970s. Because, to be honest, I’m fully aware that politicians aren’t angels. Practically everyone I know, everyone I’ve ever come across, is willing to be polite to someone’s face, then complain about them behind their back. We’re all happy to say things in private, when we think it’s private, and we don’t expect that our enemies are listening in. If there’s one thing you can criticise Gordon Brown for over the events of yesterday, it’s that maybe he was too polite in public, and wasn’t willing to stand up strongly enough for what he presumably believes: that people who ask vague and poorly-stated non-questions that imply they don’t like the free movement of labour in Europe are, bluntly, wrong.

My vote, to be frank, doesn’t exactly make much difference. I live in one of the safest Labour seats in South-West England, one which even Michael Foot didn’t manage to lose in 1983. To move it to either of the other parties would need a monumental local swing: 13% for it to go Liberal, 15% to go Tory. The last local elections did see some movement towards the Liberals in some wards, but not, I think, enough to unseat our MP. Because of that, I don’t have any real expectation that the option I choose next Thursday will make any difference at all to the overall result. I’m fairly sure I promised one of our local councillors, too, that there was no way I was voting Labour whilst he still wanted to build a guided busway through Ashton and Spike Island; he still does, I assume, so I feel duty-bound to uphold my promise. Unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats also seem to like the idea, so it looks like this may well be the first election in which I end up spoiling my vote. Having said all that, though, the fuss over Gordon Brown and Gillian Duffy*** has had one effect on my voting intentions. For the first time in a couple of years, I’m considering voting for Labour.

* Robert Graves had a lifelong antipathy to Cambridge graduates. I must say, I think his instinctive reaction to them was wrong; but possibly, in this case, it would have been justified.

** Or they know how to build the nuclear power stations that he’s going to fill the country with, of course. I wonder how much uranium we have left.

*** Whose anger at being called a bigot is slightly tempered by the fact that she didn’t really understand what the word meant.

The World Turned Upside Down And Back Again

In which a book of history is the start of a thread back to the present

A while ago now, I bought a book, and predicted that it would quickly go on the Books I Haven’t Read list. Well, seven months later or so, I’m pleased to say it’s finished, and moreover, it sparked off a desire to read and know more. The book in question – if you didn’t follow the link – is The World Turned Upside Down, by Christopher Hill.

Hill is popularly known as something of a “Marxist” historian. It’s hard to judge, on the strength of one book, whether or not that’s true. Certainly, it’s not a book of armies and battles; or of great men and events, at least not the men whose names are still widely remembered. It is, instead, a book which examines the effects of those events on ordinary people. The events of the 1640s, whether you call them the “Civil Wars”, the “English Revolution”, or the “Wars of the Three Kingdoms”, gave ordinary people the opportunity to participate in political debate for the first time, and for a brief period, made it possible for radical politics to firstly define itself and secondly enter the mainstream.* Before the reassertion, first by Cromwell, later by Monck and Charles II, of military-monarchical power, various groups of Puritans, Levellers, Diggers, Quakers and Ranters were given the chance to express themselves and posit alternative forms of religious and/or social organisation and growth. It’s hard for an ordinary unlearned like me to distinguish between them all, and understand the fine differences of policy between people such as Gerrard Winstanley, John Warr, George Fox, James Nayler and Abiezer Coppe. And what great names they have! How many people do you know, nowadays, with a name like “Abiezer Coppe”?

The 1640s and 50s are not, as I said, a period I know much about. I know there was a complex series of wars through the British Isles, that Charles II hid in a tree, and that Oliver Cromwell died, but still managed to get himself hanged afterwards – not to mention, his head stuck on a pole, of course. But really, that’s about it. I have a little idea about a few other things: the men of Hull meeting at the White Harte pub and barring the king’s entry, for example; or James Nayler, the leader of the Quakers, comparing himself to Christ by entering Bristol on a donkey; but I know they are all just isolated scenes from a complex series of physical and mental wars. And, to be honest, reading The World Turned Upside Down hasn’t tidied up my knowledge of the period, because, as I said, it’s not that sort of book. It has on the other hand given me an eye into what ordinary people were doing and thinking, and what they felt able to say once the dead hand of government censorship was lifted from the presses.

It made me think of a book I’d like to write, and made me wonder how to start going about writing it. Regular readers might remember that last month we popped down to London for the London Zine Symposium; and were slightly disappointed by a talk on zine libraries and archiving. I particularly remember, during that talk, an audience member asking when zines originated; and the panel all giving wrong and misleading answers. One said they started with punk; another said they started in the 60s. In actual fact, the word “fanzine” comes from the science fiction scene of the 30s and 40s; but the idea of the amateur press goes back a lot longer than that.

That panel included people who thought that zines are intrinsically political; or, rather, that a self-published “zine” which doesn’t embrace radical politics isn’t actually a zine at all. The people who hold that opinion also tended, I noticed, to be the ones who didn’t think zines existed before punk zines appeared. They would, I assume, be completely unaware that the radical self-publishing scene first established itself in the 1640s, when England first gained press freedom. The political pamphlets published then by the people Hill wrote about are, in essence, the direct ancestor of the punk zines of the 1970s or the Riot Grrrl zines of the 1990s.

So, then, this is the book I’d like to write. A history of radical self-publishing, starting in the 1640s, going through the French Revolution, Chartism, and ending up with punk, Riot Grrrl and anticapitalist zines. The only problem is, I don’t know anywhere near enough about any of those topics to actually write it. I can see there the common thread, but I don’t have enough in my head to put flesh on the bones. The World Turned Upside Down, though, has shown me that there’s something there, that if only I had the time to investigate the existing material available discussing 17th-century pamphleteers, I could come up with something interesting.

* Much as the French Revolution, or rahter, the events preceding it, did 150 years later; which is probably why the term “English Revolution” was retrospectively applied in the last century. At least I’ve managed to relegate Robespierre, Mirabeau and co. to a footnote this time.

Humility

In which Yorkshire and the Humber turns nasty

This is just a quick note; I didn’t intend to write another political post so soon again. But I felt it needed saying, as someone who was born in the now-deceased Humberside and was a registered voter in the Humber region until last year. I’m ashamed, to come from a region in which a six-figure number of people are willing to vote for a party with no real policies other than removing citizenship from non-white people. The elected candidate claimed in his acceptance speech that he “heard a rumour” that the Prime Minister has considered annulling his election result. No doubt his party would love for that to happen. What is more important: this election result happened because of a drop in turnout. It shows how vital it is that we have an open democracy where voters are able to make an educated choice, and exercise their right to make it.

The Politics Show

In which we run through a few voting-related topics

I’ve been quiet about politics here lately, save for that post about revolutions the other day. The more noise there is about politics in the press, the less I want to add to the “debate”. All I feel like doing is pointing out the endless opportunism and hypocrisy of all, and that’s so plain it doesn’t need to be said.

We did vote, though. However apathetic I might get about politics, I still keep an eye on the news and the policies; and voting’s important. To get back on to the French Revolution, it’s one of the rights that Robespierre fought for even as he was also fighting for the right of the government to purge anyone he considered to be in the government’s way. I know I keep harping on about the French Revolution, but it’s still rattling around in my head a lot and I’d like to get it out of the way to make room for normal things again. Getting back onto the topic: lots of people would say that the European Parliament isn’t important, that despite the laws that emanate from it, most of the work done there emerges from the back room of the Commission. To that I’d say: voting for part of a partly-democratic system is better than voting for none of it. Moreover, I have my own view of Britain, and how I’d like Britain and the regions of Britain that I particularly care about represented in the wider world. The MEPs that represent us form an important part of that.

The city elections made the news, being the one yellow blob on the map surrounded by a sea of blue; but we didn’t get to vote in those. Due to the city electing by thirds, only two thirds of the city wards participate in each election. This year, we were one of the wards which took a holiday.

I did hear, a few months back, of a campaign to end the “by thirds” system in Bristol and move to all-out elections. It seemed to be a Labour Party led campaign: at least, I first heard about it via a now-former Labour councillor, who had started a petition for it on the council website; and it emerged just after the council’s minority Labour administration had resigned. I could see partly why the Labour party might be attracted to the idea: although they only held about a quarter of the seats on the council, at the elections, over a third of the seats up for election were Labour seats. They lost heavily, as they were predicted to do, at a time when they were the party with the most to lose. What goes around comes around, though; at the next election, things will be a little more balanced, and Labour will only be holding about 20% of the seats up for election.*

I’m not convinced that there’s any need for all-at-once elections. It might make it hard for some parties, some of the time, to gain control of the council; but often those parties find themselves in the position they deserve. Moreover, it can be a good thing for it to take several elections for a party to gain control of the council, and the overall time taken is no longer. All-out elections would only make sense if proportional representation was brought in at the same time; and I can’t see the local Labour Party being in favour of that. Maybe they will be after the next council elections, though.

* Although that is still a higher percentage than they now hold across the full council.

Estates-General

In which we discuss differences between Britain and France

Politics seems to have become a bit of a grind at the moment. The same stories, over and over, over and over until all the details get confused; the government pushing on grim-faced against public opinion, and the Tories trying to jump onto the election-calling bandwagon on the grounds that they expect to win the election and want it to come along ASAP. It might be the sort of politics that needs doing; but it’s not the sort of politics that stirs the imagination. It’s hardly another revolution.

Jeremy Paxman announced on Newsnight tonight that the Prime Minister had announced a National Convention on Democratic Renewal. Either Paxman made a slight mistake or my ears did, because elsewhere on the Internet it’s described as a National Council on the subject. I was slightly disappointed. I liked the sound of a National Convention, possibly because I’ve been reading about the French Revolution a lot lately. By the time the French called elections for a National Convention, to create a French Republic, the Revolution had already been revolving for three years or so, through a succession of failed democratic structures one after the other.

Those democratic structures had different names, over the years, and differences in detail; but at heart they all derived from one concept: that the nation’s elected representatives are a sovereign body, because they represent the will of the people. They became France’s de facto sovereign body in June 1789, a few weeks before the Bastille fell; and its de jure sovereign body over the following months as they created that country’s first written constitution.* The National Council on Democratic Renewal, though, doesn’t sound like any of these French assemblies. Rather, it sounds like an earlier French assembly from 1788: the Assembly of Notables, a handpicked crew gathered to debate ways to save the country from ruin. In one sense, they failed, because their recommendation was for a democratic and representative body to meet in their place. I doubt whether the National Council on Democratic Renewal will come up with any recommendation quite so revolutionary.

Then again, that’s probably a good thing. You’ve probably heard about the actress and TV presenter Lynda Bellingham, who, a couple of months back, called for a revolution along French lines. I’m not sure if she realises quite what the French Revolution involved: that it wasn’t just a quick riot followed by a bit of workaday guillotining of the king and some aristocrats. Indeed, the king stayed on his throne for the first three years; the mass guillotining of “counter-revolutionaries” started a year after that, by which time France had provoked a major European war.** All in all, revolutionary government lasted for about 12 years in total; think back from today to the election of Tony Blair. That’s how serious a revolution is.

* After the fashion of the American one which, ironically, had partly led to the French Revolution. It was the French who saved America in the American Revolutionary War; and it was the American Revolutionary War which bankrupted the French royal government.

** which the British were heavily involved in, even capturing one of France’s main naval ports at one point.

Topical

In which we are overtaken by events

It’s nice to be topical, even if it is entirely by accident. Earlier, I complained about the rather unbalanced media coverage following the recent hit-and-run deaths of Sam Riddell and Troy Atkinson. Three or four hours after I published that post, the BBC briefly announced that the city magistrates have remanded someone to await trial for Troy’s death.

It’s good news that the hunt for his alleged killer has barely taken a couple of days longer than it took the police to find Hannah Saaf. It was probably a trickier job, too; unlike the Riddell/Saaf case, the chap in question wasn’t the registered keeper of the car. He’s not the man police arrested shortly after the incident, and he’s also been charged with taking the car without permission. It’s quite possible, to be fair, that the police kept the Atkinson/Ahmed case out of the media for investigative reasons; it was presumably thought to be in their interest to broadcast pictures of Hannah Saaf far and wide in the hope that somebody would spot her.*

There’s still something about the relative treatment of the cases in the media, though, which leaves a slightly nasty taste in my mouth. The police might have now brought both cases to the same stage, in roughly the same time; but one of those stories has been all over the media in the past few weeks, and the other has been hardly mentioned. This isn’t any sort of class war: it’s just a comment on the type of people who have easy access to the media. If you want to get your story out there, you need to have either a good publicist or a story that fits the media’s mould.

* which they did, although she hadn’t actually got that far out of Bristol

Media Friendly

In which we compare and contrast two recent and similar deaths

This is a local news story. Which is to say: local readers will have heard most of the details of it before. Or, rather, it’s two local news stories together. People further afield may well have heard of one of them.

A couple of weeks ago, close together, two young people were killed in the Bristol area, in hit-and-run road accidents.

On April 28th, a 15 year old called Troy Atkinson was hit by a black Mercedes on Penn St, in the city centre. He died the following day, of his injuries. It featured in the local news, the police released the car’s registration and asked for witnesses to come forward; and then the news went quiet.

Three days later, an 11 year old called Sam Riddell was hit by a car in a North Bristol suburb. The driver fled the scene, leaving the car behind. It featured in the local news, and the police asked for witnesses to come forward.

There, though, the story changes. Sam Riddell’s story stayed in the news. The police revealed that the car’s owner matched the description of the driver, and that she had not come forward. More details came out about Sam Riddell’s happy family life, and newspapers started to publish photos of the car’s owner, presumably as her friends* and acquaintances realised there was cash to be made. The story slowly made its way from the local news to the national news, and came to a head when the alleged car-owner and driver was found, apparently hiding in a shed in Pensford. She was promptly charged, and is currently on remand awaiting trial.

I don’t know how far the police are getting in their investigation of Troy Atkinson’s death, because the press has been rather quiet about it. The police got as far as arresting someone, but whether he was charged or not I can’t seem to find out. And, apart from the manhunt aspect of the Sam Riddell case, there’s one rather obvious difference to the two cases. Sam Riddell was from Westbury-on-Trym; Troy Atkinson was from Hartcliffe.

Sam Riddell was brought up in a nice, middle-class suburb by nice, middle-class parents, who have made very sure that the story has stayed in the news. We’ve been given stories about what a nice boy he was, how he had lots of friends, played football, went to church regularly and had a happy life because of his firm faith in Jesus. I have no idea what Troy Atkinson’s upbringing was like, but, well, it was in Hartcliffe. Hartcliffe, if you’re not local, is a large 1950s estate, one of the most deprived areas in the south of England.** It’s a fair bet that Troy Atkinson didn’t go to church very often. It’s also a fair bet that his family isn’t very well off, because his friends organised a memorial march to help pay for his funeral. The Bristol Evening Post‘s response to the march was to print accusations that the mourners had carried out shoplifting attacks en route.

Maybe the news stories about Sam Riddell will disappear too now that the alleged car-driver is imprisoned. I suspect, though, that they will pop back up again as her trial date approaches, and then again in a few years when she’s released. If the driver who killed Troy Atkinson gets imprisoned, will it even rate a mention? This story, as much as any, shows how much your background matters. If you come from the right background, if you have an idea how to work the media and write a good press-release, you can keep your story in the news for almost as long as you like. If you don’t come from the right background, your story will sink without a trace.

* Or, former friends, I assume, given that they’ve now sold photos of her to the press.

** I can’t be bothered to check the statistics because that would involve getting up and going through to the living room; but I do recall that statistically Hartcliffe isn’t quite as bad as neighbouring Knowle West, which comes out as one of the worst places in England on several measures of social deprivation.