britain today

    Con/Dem Nation?


    My initial reaction to the Liberal Democrats' decision to form a coalition with the Tories was a combination of disappointment and a sense of betrayal (with a side order of impending doom, of course).

    I was, perhaps, naive. I said that I was voting LibDem, and that I actively wanted Labour to lose (while stressing that I wanted the Tories to lose even more). I was, I think, hoping for a hung parliament, which of course is what we got. But I was labouring (heh!) under the delusion that the LibDems were ideologically relatively close to Labour, and far enough away from the Tories that siding with them would be unthinkable.

    Clearly I was wrong.

    I had convinced myself that the only reaction of the LibDems to a hung parliament would be to join with Labour; and that seemed like the best possible solution.


    On election day my friend Tony Facebooked to the effect that he had wasted his vote (and it’s really annoying that, as far as I know, there’s no way to link to an update or a comment in Facebook). I answered:

    I don't agree. The only way you can waste a vote is to not use it. For example I voted LibDem in a safe Labour seat, but that isn't "wasted". In fact, it would have been more of a waste to vote Labour.

    My son made the same point when I told him about that discussion. Diane Abbott got 54% of the vote in Hackney North and Stoke Newington. (That’s a proper majority.) My vote wouldn’t have made any difference, though, would it?

    But in the days immediately after the election, as Clegg took his party into talks with the hated Tories, I began to regret my decision. It really felt like I had “wasted” my vote; or maybe misused is the better word.

    Things Can Maybe Get Better?

    However the coalition document that they published today is remarkable. If you’ve read any of my political posts over the years, you’ll know that the biggest thing going on for me for some time has been ID cards, and all the associated post-9/11 terror-panic fallout. So to read this, from the wordprocessor of the Tories (and LibDems) is remarkable:

    • A Freedom or Great Repeal Bill.
    • The scrapping of ID card scheme, the National Identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the Contact Point Database.

    • Outlawing the fingerprinting of children at school without parental permission.

    • The extension of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency.

    • Adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database.

    • The protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury.

    • The restoration of rights to non-violent protest.

    • The review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech.

    • Safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.

    • Further regulation of CCTV.

    • Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason.

    • A new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.

    I mean, that's pretty much everything we could want on civil liberties, right there.

    And a few other points are good. As my friend Stuart said:

    Most important line of the agreement? - We will end the detention of children for immigration purposes. #ge10Wed May 12 14:23:57 via TweetDeck

    (Gotta keep embedding those tweets, you know.)

    Dismal Science?

    On the other hand, I’m no economist; but as I said before, I don’t trust right-wingers to run the economy. And right now, I have a gut feeling that cutting back on public spending during a recession is exactly the wrong thing to do (cutting back on most public spending is nearly always the wrong thing to do, of course).

    Keep On Keeping On

    In conclusion, I agree with Charlie, pretty much. I don’t trust the Tories, but let’s see whether Clegg & co can keep this thing on track. And let’s keep a close eye on them all, and keep that list above in mind.

    You never know: maybe this really is “The New Politics”.

    The Big Disappointment

    The Boundaries of Voting

    I’ve been boundary-changed, and it’s made it harder to decide who to vote for.

    At the last election (and until a couple of weeks ago) We were in Hackney South and Shoreditch, which was Meg Hillier’s constituency. Meg wasn’t a bad constituency MP, at least inasmuch as she answered my emails the few times I got in touch with her. Not always in ways I agreed with, but still.

    But “ID Meg”, as I liked to think of her, was the government minister for ID Cards and the Database state; the biggest issue at all recent elections for me. Amusing, really, that she got into that role, if you consider my correspondence with her in 2005

    If we had lived on the other side of our street back then, we’d have been in Diane Abbott’s constituency. She was opposed to the war, and to ID cards. Plus I like her on the telly (though some, apparently, complain about her second job; at least it’s a political programme she’s on, even if it’s lightweight to the point of triviality).

    Five years ago I’d have voted for Diane. Today, with the boundary change, we’re in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, so I can.

    And I’m not going to.

    It’s all gone too far. Our electoral system is too fucked up; our Labour party is too fucked up, too corrupt. They have developed an alarming reflexive response, it seems, to always do exactly the wrong thing. A hung parliament – or, hey: a Liberal Democrat majority – might be just the change we need.

    At least that way there’s a chance we’d get some taste of electoral reform.

    Houses. Plagues. You Know the Rest.

    Diane’s leaflet came through the door today, and it tells me that she’s still against ID cards and the Iraq war. Why, then, I have to ask, does she still retain the Labour whip? It would be more honourable to resign.

    And I can’t honourably vote for the former Labour party any more (not that I did last time, but remember, I was actively against the candidate then, too). We’ve come a long way now: we’ve reached the stage where I want Labour to lose. It’s a strange place to find myself.

    Maybe, I’ve always been more of a natural LibDem voter anyway. Any time I’ve done those “Political Compass”-type questionnaires, they tell me that the LibDems most closely match my answers.

    But even more than wanting Labour to lose, I want the Tories to lose. I remain profoundly mistrustful of them; I lived through the Thatcher years, you know? And It’s clear that, no matter how shiny Cameron may be, lots of his members remain the same old bastards. Witness this “I cure gays” bollocks from Phlippa Stroud. And Cameron has now backed her, I see. And she has denied it.

    So much for that. We know the Tories are the opposite of socially liberal; we know they take a reflexive antagonism to supporting public services; and we know we can’t trust them with the economy (you never can trust right wingers, because they believe the market is guided by an invisible hand; I mean, come on).

    I Can't Do Both, Gordie

    So now Brown is saying, ‘Vote for the kind of country you believe in; and come home to Labour.’ Sorry, mon: Labour no longer represents the kind of country I believe in.

    Keith Angus will be getting my vote.

    Link: "Long-standing party loyalties, even in a less tribal world, are not easily suspended"

    "... But May 2010 offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape politics for the better. It must be seized."

    Fascinating list of signatories to this letter in The Guardian: “Long-standing party loyalties, even in a less tribal world, are not easily suspended

    Corporal punishment: not on my watch

    There was an arse on the ??Today?? programme this morning, calling for the return of corporal punishment to schools. One in five teachers, he says, want it 'as an option'.

    Two points, then: a) that means four in five don’t want it, and b) why do you think it’s all right to use violence against children? (and as a corollary, how do you think doing so will make them less prone to using violence themselves?)

    42 referendums and and a resignation

    I can't decide on this David Davis thing. Is it just a stunt? Is he genuinely concerned enough about civil liberties to take the chance (small though it is) of losing his seat? Certainly he sounds sincere when he talks about his concerns about the growth of state power; and Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty counts him as a friend, it seems.

    But as others have pointed out he has a bad reputation on some other rights votes.

    Still, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’d be better than “Kelvin Mc-bloody-Kenzie”:… (as backed by Rupert Murdoch, of course).

    The most concerning thing, though, is the talk to the effect that the public is in favour of 42-day detention without trial. This member of the public most certainly is not, and I’m sure I’m by no means alone. And honestly: would people who’ve really thought it through be in favour of this kind of thing? I find it hard to believe. What happened, if it’s true, to the great British sense of fair play, of support for the underdog, even of disrespect for authority? Is this another facet of the grumbling about human rights that I wrote about before?

    Maybe we need to re-educate people about what is good and right. But how?

    And then Ireland have voted ‘No’ to the EU treaty. I can’t help but think that this is a bad thing. The EU itself has been a net good for Europe and the world, as I’ve probably said here before. Whether these reforms will really make it better and more democratic, or not, I can’t say: I haven’t studied it.

    Thing is, though, I would probably have been in favour of the EU constitution; if only because we could do with one in the UK. Admittedly, I’d want one that got rid of the monarchy and introduced an elected upper chamber in parliament, but one that further enshrined the European Convention on Human Rights would be a good start.

    It would be quite difficult to amend it, mind you, since you’d need a Europe-wide referendum.

    But I’m havering fancifully here: it was never meant to be that kind of constitution.

    What now, then? Who knows, really. I expect they’ll either re-work it slightly and try again, or just apply various components of it without the treaty.


    So the Tories took Crewe and Nantwich in the by-election.

    I don’t understand (never have) the mentality, the mindset, the brains of floating voters. I’m not saying that no-one should ever change their mind, in politics or anything else; nor do I think that people can’t be convinced by the arguments over issues - nor, for that matter, swayed by the force of a candidate’s personality. Furthermore, I speak as one who has voted against Labour, my lifetime-favoured party, in recent years.

    But floating voters - and in particular ones who’ll switch all the way between Labour and Tory - I just don’t understand them.

    Of course it’s possible - even likely - that no-one actually describes themself as a floating voter. They might all say, “I decide on the issues each time,” or even, “… by who I like…” That would be OK, y’know? I could get behind that, sort of. I mean, it doesn’t sound very committed; but it could be. On each occasion you could examine the candidates' and/or their parties' positions on human rights/the environment/tax cuts/hanging and flogging (or whatever your particular concerns may be). Match them against your own position and preferences, and see who suits you best.

    But I’m not convinced that’s what the bulk of these ‘floaters’ do.

    See, I suspect that they mostly take little to no interest in politics (which is to say, little to no interest in the world) between elections. Then when one does roll round they vote whatever way their stupid, dumbfuck tabloid paper tells them to.

    Though I may be doing many people a great disservice there. And at least they do get out and vote.

    It’s just that sometimes the world might be a better place if they didn’t.

    Jeremy Hardy obviously feels similarly to me: on The News Quiz the other night he said that floating voters who switched all the way from Labour to Tory (rather than voting, say, Green or LibDem) were like someone saying, “Well, I’ve always had my hair cut at the barbers in the High Street, but this time I’m just going to set my head on fire!"

    On secondary school selection and the myth of choice

    My son will be starting secondary school in September this year. So towards the end of last year we spent a lot of time reading up on the policies of our and adjoining London boroughs, visiting schools, and finally applying.

    The application works like this. You can name up to six “preferences” (not “choices”, note). A central (London-wide, but I’m not sure under what body – I don’t think the GLA handles education) body assesses your application against the entry conditions of your first preference. If you meet those conditions, you get a place in that school; if not, they go on to your second preference; if you meet that school’s conditions, you get a place there, and so on.

    It’s not quite as simple as that, of course, because schools' entry conditions don’t just apply to your child in isolation; they have to take account of how many people are applying, and how many of those fall into each of the entry conditions, and so on. As well as that, not only do different boroughs have different conditions, but so do different schools within a borough.

    The entry conditions of most state schools, including the new academies, depend primarily on distance from the school. There are special conditions for children with special needs, but that’s a small minority.

    Now, all of this raises a number of problems – or contributes to them, at least.

    First is the fact that different schools have different entry conditions. This applies in particular to the new academies. Our closest, non-denominational, mixed-gender, state secondary, is Mossbourne, the much-cited flagship of the government’s new academies programme. We live about 900 metres from it, according to Google Maps. Close enough, you’d think. But their admissions policy goes something like this:

    • the first 10% if the year's intake goes to kids with special needs;
    • next, you get priority if you have a sibling already at the school;
    • about 60% of the remaining places go to the nearest kids within a 1km "inner zone";
    • the rest go to kids outside the 1km zone, but not by simple proximity; it now depends on how far away the next-nearest non-denominational, mixed, state school is.

    Confused? Most parents who have kids going up were. And it’s further complicated by the fact that there’s a test. Not a pass -or-fail test, of course: this is still a comprehensive school, so there’s no selection by ability allowed. Rather, this test is used to split the kids into ability bands. The entry conditions then ensure that an equal proportion of kids from each band is offered a place. This is to ensure that the school has kids of a range of abilities; to ensure that it is truly comprehensive, if you will.

    None of that is inherently bad: a school can’t take every kid, if more want in than it has places, so it has to have some conditions by which to decide which ones to take. And ensuring that you take on kids with the full range of abilities is egalitarian and in keeping with the comprehensive principle.

    The problem comes when the school is oversubscribed, and so is the next one in the area, and the next; and when they all have different entry criteria.

    Such is the situation in our corner of Hackney. Well, across Hackney as a whole, but we happen to be in one of the more problematic corners, since we’re right at the edge of the borough. That wouldn’t matter if the Hackney schools gave priority to Hackney kids, but they don’t: their distance criteria are based on pure straight-line measurements, ignoring borough boundaries.

    Again, that wouldn’t matter so much if all the other boroughs did the same. But they don’t. Our neighbours Tower Hamlets, for example, not only give priority to Tower Hamlets residents, they also have tied primary schools. If your kid goes to one of these, then they are guaranteed a place in the associated secondary school, if they (you) want it.

    But this is not intended to be a big bowl of sour grapes. Our boy almost certainly won’t get into any of the Hackney schools, but he should get into the next-nearest one, which is just over the border into Waltham Forest. And all of this may be moot, anyway. But more of that later.

    I referred in my title to “the myth of choice”, and I was careful to stress above that the application process allows parents and children to specify their preferences, rather than choices. That’s because of what happens next, after the application process has come up with a school for your kid.

    You get an offer. One offer. That’s it. (Or maybe none, in which you have to run around frantically making further applications.)

    It’s not like it was when I applied to university (and probably still is for university applications today). There, you could apply to five (or was it six?) institutions using the UCCA (now UCAS) form. They all assessed your application, and up to all of them made you an offer. You could then choose among your offers and decide which place would suit you best.

    That was choice. For secondary schools. despite what the government might tell you, there is no choice. All you can do is state your preferences.

    Our particular dilemma had another wrinkle, though.

    See, he and some of his friends decided that they wanted to go to something called The Latymer School, in Edmonton. I was surprised when I found out that this is a grammar school. Now, some years ago I was surprised to discover that these things still exist in England. I’m pretty sure that when the comprehensive system started in Scotland, it was done properly: we got rid of all the grammar schools and Secondary Moderns, as far as I understand it. So as I say, it was a surprise when I realised they still had some in England.

    But even then, I thought they were restricted to Kent and a few other places. I had no idea there were any in London.

    Still, there we were. We weren’t about to forbid him to look at a particular school, despite our natural left-wing reaction to the idea of a selective school. Perhaps of more concern is that he would be going out of the borough, with both a long journey to get there, and a less ethnically diverse mix than he’s used to from primary.

    When it came time to stating our preferences, we let him have the final word. Which is a lot of weight to put on the shoulders of a ten-year-old, perhaps, but it’s better than pressuring him into going somewhere he’d rather not go, and driving him away from us.

    One thing I can say: selection by ability is obviously better than selection by ability to pay.

    And another: we’ll be incredibly proud of him wherever he goes.

    He got through the first battery of tests, and took the second; and we’ve been waiting since then. And tomorrow, we’ll know.

    Human rights and human gains

    It is a tragedy that a member of the public, when interviewed on the radio, should say, when the phrase "human rights" comes up, "Oh, bloody hell, human rights, suffin fussin wussin mumble grumble," in a tone of disgust.

    The subject being discussed was the call to ban this “Mosquito” device, which is intended to stop kids and teenagers from hanging around shops or elsewhere by emitting an annoying noise which is too high for older ears to hear. But it could as easily have been the bugging of prisoner-lawyer conversations, or one of a dozen other triggers for what Dave Hill calls the seething classes.

    Here’s the thing, people: human rights are a good thing.

    I can’t quite believe I’m having to write that. Again: human rights, and governments upholding them, are good. An unequivocal good. There’s no question here; we’re not in any kind of moral grey area. Some things are as stark and as plain as the type and the paper on some of the entities I’m about to blame: treating people with equality before the law, with respect; acknowledging a basic set of rights to which every human being is entitled, and striving to make those rights available to everyone: these things are an unequivocal good.

    Let me spell this out in words of one syllable:

    That’s what our parents and grandparents fought the fucking war for!

    OK, went a bit over my syllable count there.

    It is just a few years since the incoming Labour government passed the Human Rights Act, incorporating into UK law the European Convention on Human Rights; how has our country got to the position, since then, that “human rights” has become a swear word?

    I blame the tabloids. Specifically, I blame the right-wing, ranting, seething, whinging rags of the Daily Mail, and the Murdoch-owned scumsheets. I blame big business and the CBI; I blame the petty little-Englander mentality of a disturbingly vocal minority of the citizens of our great, multicultural nation.

    What is to be done about it? How do we regain the natural state of the British psyche, where we stick up for the underdog, as well as have a respect for natural justice? Or, if not regain it (since it hasn’t really gone anywhere) at least make its voice audible again? How are we to make the complainers tone down, or better, teach them, show them, that human rights are for everybody (even the complainers), not just for the tiny minorities whose stories get wildly inflated in the tabloids; and that even those tiny minorities (where they actually exist) deserve the protection of those rights; and perhaps above all, that our society, our nation, is enriched and improved by our granting and acknowledging those rights?


    I probably don't need anything more than the title for this one. I mean, who the hell would ever think it was a good a idea to let McDonald's issue qualifications "equivalent to A-levels"? I've nothing against on-the-job training, of course: that's a good thing. And businesses sponsoring people to study for recognised qualifications, and so on: all good.

    But letting businesses issue qualifications that have that equivalence? I thought we were supposed to be worried about the devaluing of A-levels; it seems unlikely that allowing commercial interests to issue them (or their “equivalents”) will do anything other than further lower their value.

    And I feel bound to say: would you like fries with your certificate, sir or madam?

    Nutters, "Emigration, Death, Regret and Substance Abuse"

    I see that Tony Blair has become a catholic. No surprise there. But as an ex-catholic atheist myself, I'm feeling down with Nick Clegg.

    In other catholic-related news, there’s a fine analysis of ‘Fairytale of New York on the BBC website, after the Radio 1 farrago. And I hadn’t realised that Shane McGowan’s birthday is Christmas Day. So as well as Newtonmas, we can also celebrate McGowanmas on Tuesday.

    Rationalism and excess: what a fine seasonal combination.

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