The arrogance of the ‘Big Two’ will cause their downfall in our new multi-party system

Who will win the next election? Nobody knows – but it depends on what you mean by the word ‘win.’ Can anyone win an overall majority of votes? Nope. No chance, for sure. Can anyone win an overall majority of seats? Maybe, but that’s not something that you’d want to bet on at the moment. The people at Electoral Calculus are predicting a Labour majority of 42, as well as suggesting there’s a 63% chance of a Labour majority. Do you believe them? You probably don’t.

Digging deeper into the forecasts of Electoral Calculus, we discover something even more interesting. In the 2010 election, Labour and the Conservatives combined secured 66.63% of the national vote – two-thirds, or as near as makes no difference. The picture, they say, will be broadly the same this time around. The two biggest parties will take two out of every three votes. Thanks to our electoral system, that 66% vote share adds up to 90% of the seats. Mathematics has a way of highlighting certain things, doesn’t it?

This has long been the case. The last time a party won a majority of the national vote in a UK general election was in 1931, when Stanley Baldwin’s Conservatives took 55% of the votes. (If you want a visual representation of how long ago that really was, look at the pictures of the candidates on that election’s Wikipedia page.)

For a long time, not many people seemed too bothered about the yawning gap between votes and seats in British elections. It was a cause that only really affected the Liberal Democrats, as most of the seats that went red or blue should technically have been yellow. Lots of their voters were protest voters, so they didn’t make much of a fuss when their party went under-represented in the House of Commons. The two big parties were able to suppress any calls for voter reform as a side issue for those weird Lib Dems. When there’s two of you and one of them, it’s easy to get the better of the argument.

That should have all changed in 2010, when a hung parliament gave the Lib Dems more relevance than they’d had for many decades. The failure of the alternative vote (AV) referendum meant the chance to reform the voting system went begging. After all, AV was a ‘miserable little compromise,’ so why take it? It wasn’t a system that would really change the electoral landscape. Lots of commentators say that the rejection of AV showed that voters weren’t too interested in electoral reform. Is that the case? Or, if they were offered a system that clearly and unambiguously gave parties the amount of seats that their vote share represented, would they instead jump at the chance to embrace that fairer system?

I’m referring here, obviously, to proportional representation (PR), the system that gives parties the same percentage of seats as they received in votes. The big parties have never wanted PR because it would destroy their in-built electoral advantage. Labour and the Tories want to keep more than half the seats, not 30-40%. They say that PR would bring about an electoral system of uncertainty and chaos. Now, the coalition isn’t exactly popular, but nobody can suggest that it’s failed as a system of government. The world didn’t collapse when Lib Dems and Tories started sharing power. The sky didn’t fall. We all continued on as normal.

The introduction of PR may mean permanent coalition. Would that be such a bad thing? One of the great complaints laid at the door of Westminster is that it’s too exclusive, too closed-off, and that it relies on the same old voices and the same old ideas. PR would bring new parties and new people into Parliament. It would open up the way that the UK conducts politics. It would show the world that the UK respects democracy, and that it values the choices that the British electorate makes. Allocating seats proportionally by nation would also help to bring parties from all four corners of the UK into the political atmosphere. We’d end up with a more accurate representation of how different communities within the UK really want the country to be run.

At the moment, Labour and the Tories both behave as if we’re still in the early half of the twentieth century, when they commanded 90+% of the vote between them. They patronise their critics on the left and the right. They reject anything that doesn’t correspond with their centrist world view. Speaking as a Labour member, I’d love for the party to engage with the more left-wing opinions expressed by the Greens, or by the sections of the Lib Dems that haven’t been stained by the Tory coalition. I’m sure that there are many Tory sympathisers who’d want their party to open their ears to UKIP (regardless of the wisdom of that idea).

The big two parties can’t reject PR, and they can’t reject the validity of the parties that challenge their dominance. It was easy to pretend that the two-party system still existed when the only pretenders to the throne were the Liberal Democrats. Today, Labour and the Conservatives find themselves fighting a war on multiple fronts. UKIP, the Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru – they all want to eat away at vote share and stake a claim to power and influence. Resistance is futile. The days of monstrous majorities are over. The party that will hold the biggest sway over Britain’s future will be the one that builds alliances and bonds with smaller parties. It’s not as simple as just agreeing with Nick – there needs to be a realisation that the old politics is dead, and won’t be returning. If the big parties engage with others, they might start off on a path towards a broader and more adult way of doing politics. If they stick with their arrogant, 1930s visions of one-party hegemony, they’ll pay the price at the ballot box.

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The Scottish referendum is living proof – you CAN get young people to the polls

I am a young person. You might not think that if you ever saw me face-to-face. I don’t get ID’d when buying alcohol and people don’t hand me leaflets for their awesome club nights, but I am still a young person. I’m 22. I’m also quite unusual for a young person in terms of political engagement. I vote, and I vote whenever I can. The only time I’ve not voted in an election for which I was eligible was a by-election in the West Midlands for the new Police and Crime Commissioner. Personally, I think that’s justifiable. Those elections are a waste of time. But anyway – I do still vote, and that is still unusual. It’s unusual for young people to care about politics. The political parties are always worrying that young people aren’t connected to the political system. They’re forever asking, ‘What can we do to get young people on board with us?’ I imagine they are, anyway.

Young people aren’t joining political parties at the same rate as they were in the past. They don’t vote at local, European or general elections in great numbers. You’d be forgiven for thinking that young people didn’t care about politics or the direction of the country. A lot of people did think just that, right up until the Scottish referendum blew that myth out of the water.

In the referendum, anyone over the age of 16 had the vote. And, shock horror, it looks like they used it. We can’t be sure, because none of the networks conducted an exit poll on the day of the referendum. (To go off-topic for a second – what a stupid idea that was. Why did we not have an exit poll for an election that could prove to be the most consequential of our lifetimes? It’s not as if the pundits had enough stuff to talk about in the gap between polls closing and results being announced. I know that for a fact – I was watching.) Despite the lack of an exit poll, it looks like young people did turn out to vote in the referendum. Turnout in general was exceptional, at way over 80% across Scotland. Young people drove that turnout in a way that was extraordinary. By doing so, they’ve shown that they are perfectly capable of getting engaged with a question of politics.

There are no excuses any more. Politicians can’t just give up on attracting young voters. The Scottish results shows that they’re out there and they’re ready to vote for a cause that appeals to them. The lazy stereotype of the student who’s too hungover to get down to the polling station should be dead by now. You can’t blame young people for not voting any longer. It’s clear and obvious that they have the motivation and the will to make a difference in this world if the stakes are high enough. Now, you might say that the Scottish referendum is a one-off. You might think that, for those young people, the stakes in an election will never be higher again, and that they’ll never revisit the polls because no other election will matter quite as much as the one we’ve just been through. That opinion overlooks the fact that every election matters. Every election is important. Every election affects our lives in all sorts of ways. It’s easier to motivate young people for a vote with such a black-and-white outcome – Yes or No, stay or go. That doesn’t mean that young people can’t recognise the importance of other elections – they can – or that they aren’t willing to make a difference in their society – they are. The failure here is on the part of the politicians.

The three main political parties in this country do not represent the views of the young. That’s been obvious for a while, but it’s painfully clear in this new, post-referendum UK. The young don’t stay at home on polling day because they can’t be bothered to vote. They stay at home because none of the choices on offer are good enough to attract their support. The political parties know that turnout is strongest among the elderly. Instead of recognising the young as a potential market, they’ve targeted those people who are certain to vote. They’ve put all their eggs in one basket – a strategy that will backfire in spectacular fashion sooner or later. You can compare it to our attitude towards oil. We know it’ll run out eventually, so we concentrate all our energy on getting as much of the reduced supply as possible. That might work for a while, but it’s not going to sustain you for the long run. Politics hasn’t been a game interested in the long run for a very long time now. That explains why youth turnout hasn’t hit the heights that it should have.

When parties pitch themselves to the electorate, what do they speak of? Often, they talk of protecting pensions. They talk of hard-working families and the cost of living for parents. These things matter, of course, but these messages betray the focus of the parties. They talk to the over-30s, and nobody else. Listen out for politicians talking of a better future ‘for your children.’ Some of those children have the vote too, but you’d never have guessed it by the way our leaders talk. They don’t want the votes of the young, because they don’t think they can win an election with them. What’s the result of all this? Policies that favour baby-boomers and pensioners, two generations that have had it far easier than the generation that will follow them. It results in a society that doesn’t allow young people to get free education, well-paid jobs in decent industries, or properties of their own. When young people have policies pitched to them, they will turn out to vote. ‘No rise in tuition fees? They understand me – I’ll vote for that.’ Then, inevitably, the system shafts them, because the parties have to protect what they see as their core demographic.

Scotland has proven that the young will vote if they’re given something to believe in. If a party or campaign can convince young people that they’ll get a better future by voting for that party or that campaign, then of course they will go to the polling station and mark their ballot. Chasing the elderly vote won’t work forever. Pretty soon, the UK parties will have to recalibrate the way that they see young people. If they can get their votes, they’ll win elections – and we might even, surprise surprise, get a fairer society as a bonus.

This year’s US Open might be the most unpredictable major since…well, the last one

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome this year’s US Open, starting on August 25th. That’s over a week away, yet there are some certainties about the tournament that we can establish. The first is that it will be held in New York, as usual, and the second is that it will last two weeks. The third, more interestingly, is that it is absolutely wide open.

Seriously. When was the last time that a major tournament was so unpredictable than this year’s US Open? Well, perhaps it was this year’s Wimbledon, but since I didn’t do a WordPress preview for that tournament, you’ve got no way of proving that that’s how I felt. (It is how I felt. I also thought Murray would retain his title. Feel free to laugh at me, although he was playing great until he lost, remember.)

The US Open, my laughable predictions aside, is wide open. Usually, you can just go down the rankings, pick your favourite from the top four and call the winner, runner-up, etc. pretty effectively. That’s in contrast to the French Open, when you just say that Rafa will win and mock anyone who says different. This year, that’s not a strategy that will work. It’s my belief that the winner of this year’s US Open will come from the top ten of the world rankings, but that’s not exactly a stunning forecast. (Who was the last man to win a major while ranked outside the top ten? My guess is Thomas Johansson, but I can’t be bothered to work it out. Let me know in the comments if I’m right or wrong.) Let’s take a look at the current top ten and assess their prospects.

1. Novak DJOKOVIC (Serbia)

US Open best: Won, 2011

Form: Champion (Wimbledon), third round (Toronto), third round (Cincinnati)

What has happened to Novak Djokovic? The world no. 1 and Wimbledon champion has had two atrocious performances in the last two weeks. The Masters series used to be his playground – two defeats to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tommy Robredo isn’t the form of a US Open champion. There’s a chance that Djokovic could drag his form back together, but it doesn’t look possible at the moment. He says himself that he’s nowhere near where he should be, and that’s obvious to anyone who’s seen him play. Right now, he looks like he’ll lose to the first decent player that he faces.

2. Rafael NADAL (Spain)

US Open best: Won, 2010, 2013

Form: Champion (French Open), second round (Halle), fourth round (Wimbledon)

The reigning champion, Nadal has had a terrible build-up to this year’s event. A wrist injury means that his participation is in doubt. Juan Martin del Potro is living proof that you shouldn’t take a risk on a wrist injury – they’re devilishly difficult to repair. It may be best for Nadal to sit out the US Open and recover in time for the Tour Finals (an event he’s never won). In any case, he’s got no momentum, having not played since his terrible grass-court season.

3. Roger FEDERER (Switzerland)

US Open best: Won, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008

Form: Champion (Halle), finalist (Wimbledon), finalist (Toronto) [pending – Cincinnati]

By rights, Federer should be considered as a potential champion at the US Open. He’s having a good season – much better than last year, although he’s only won the two titles all season (Halle and Dubai). It’s just difficult to tip Federer as a Grand Slam winner anymore. Does he have the staying power to outlast the big guns over two weeks? He may well win the US Open. It’s just getting harder and harder to make the case for him as the last man standing.

4. Stan WAWRINKA (Switzerland)

US Open best: Semi-finals, 2013

Form: Quarter-finals (Wimbledon), third round (Toronto), quarter-finals (Cincinnati)

Flaming out to Julien Benneteau in the quarter-final at Cincinnati epitomises why not many people are backing Wawrinka to take his second hard-court major of the year. It’s not that his Australian Open win was a fluke – it’s that he doesn’t have the bearing of a player who can win multiple majors. Of course, Flushing Meadows was a happy hunting ground for him in 2013, but I don’t fancy him to repeat that performance this time around.

5. Tomas BERDYCH (Czech Republic)

US Open best: Semi-finals, 2012

Form: Third round (Washington), third round (Toronto), second round (Cincinnati)

Berdych is a player who flatters to deceive. Frankly, he should be among the favourites as a big server on a hard court. However, it’s hard to find anyone who’s predicting that he’ll lift the trophy at the US Open. I won’t be predicting that, either.

6. David FERRER (Spain)

US Open best: Semi-finals, 2007, 2012

Form: Third round (Bastad), final (Hamburg), quarter-finals (Toronto) [pending – Cincinnati]

Another one who you can’t imagine as a major champion. He’s having a good run on the hard courts and may trouble some serious opponents. He won’t win the title.

7. Milos RAONIC (Canada)

US Open best: Fourth round, 2012, 2013

Form: Semi-finals (Wimbledon), champion (Washington), semi-finals (Toronto) [pending – Cincinnati]

Now here’s a prospect. As I write this, Raonic has just destroyed the stylish Italian, Fabio Fognini, in Cincinnati. He beat him for the loss of one game over two sets – ouch. He’s on a storming run of form. His game is gorgeous – I really got to like him last year, when he won the Thailand Open, beating Gasquet and Berdych on the way. I think he could trouble the very best at the US Open. He will outlast people who are above him in the rankings. The champion? I won’t say ‘yes’ – but I won’t say ‘no’ either, which says a lot.

8. Grigor DIMITROV (Bulgaria)

US Open best: First round, 2011, 2012, 2013

Form: Semi-finals (Wimbledon), semi-finals (Toronto), second round (Cincinnati)

A disappointing defeat to Jerzy Janowicz took some of the shine off Dimitrov in Cincinnati. He’s had a terrific season. You can’t deny that. Ignore, too, his poor previous at the US Open – he’s a different Dimitrov nowadays, and a former junior champion here. I don’t see him making his breakthrough this year, though. He seems to be petering out as the season progresses. The quarters beckon, but perhaps no further. A tournament of consolidation.

9. Andy MURRAY (Great Britain)

US Open best: Champion, 2012

Form: Third round (Queen’s Club), quarter-finals (Wimbledon), quarter-finals (Toronto) [pending – Cincinnati]

Murray’s had a dire season, but an upswing appears on the cards. As I write this, his quarter-final match against Federer in Cincinnati has not begun. I think he might scrape a win there. He was unlucky to run into an inspired Tsonga in Toronto and saw off Isner in impressive fashion. He loves New York and, for once, the pressure is off. He needs to win in Cincinnati, really – doing so would see him return to the top eight, and avoid awkward luck in the US Open draw. Of course, if Nadal withdraws, that’s a moot point. I see Murray having a big fortnight in New York. I think he’d be unlucky to bow out before the semi-finals. I also think, if I had to bet on anyone for the title, it would, for some unknown reason, be Murray who had my money.

10. Jo-Wilfried TSONGA (France)

US Open best: Quarter-finals, 2011

Form: Fourth round (Wimbledon), champion (Toronto), first round (Cincinnati)

A poor performance in Cincinnati took the gloss off a stunning win in Toronto, where he had one of the weeks of his life. Anyone who beats Djokovic, Murray, Dimitrov and Federer in a row has my respect. He doesn’t have the best record at Flushing Meadows, but it’s great to have him back on form. He’ll be a threat to anyone who’s unlucky enough to draw him in their quarter.

Time for predictions, then. Of course, I’m doing this without seeing the draw, so I’m kind of flying blind. I reserve the right to change them when I see who’s playing who. As I’ve said, I’m picking Murray to win the title, with my other semi-finalists being Raonic, Federer and either Tsonga or Djokovic. I think Raonic can reach the final, depending on the draw. I’m predicting a poor tournament for a crocked Rafa, and I think anyone after an upset should look at Ferrer, the ever-temperamental Gulbis and also Isner, who’s not all he’s cracked up to be. Young guns to watch? I recommend the young Czech, Jiri Vesely, who’s due a breakthrough, and Dominic Thiem, who impressed in the final of the Kitzbuhel tournament against David Goffin. Finally, look out for the wildcard American, Noah Rubin, who won the Wimbledon junior tournament as a qualifier. Impressive, no?

(P.S. I’d like to apologise for not previewing the women’s tournament. It’s not because I’m a massive sexist – although I do find the men’s game more appealing on a tactical level than the women’s. Sadly, the media makes it very difficult to follow the women’s game in any depth – often, women’s tournaments that run parallel to men’s tournaments get a paragraph of description at the end of a long article on the men. I’ll play it safe, and pick Serena.)

(P.P.S. Murray lost to Federer overnight. Proof, if proof were needed, that I know nothing.)

Charging drunks to use A&E? Oh, the humanity

Every so often, I read an article or hear a soundbite that makes me so angry, I decide I must blog about it, instantly. In reality, blogging is not typically the best option when I am so angry. The most useful response would be to bang my head off a wall while screaming ‘WHY?!’ over and over again. If I was desperate to use the Internet to express my anger, I could bang my head off a wall while screaming ‘WHY?!’ over and over again, film it, and post it on YouTube. I’ve decided, however, that doing this wouldn’t be a good use of my time, so – blog.

I read today that the health minister for Northern Ireland, a gentleman by the name of Edwin Poots, says it might be a good idea to charge people who turn up to A&E and need help while drunk or on drugs.

The response, again, is WHY?!

Gah! Where to start with this nonsense? I don’t know, but I have to start somewhere, or my brain will buckle under the pressure and make a leap for freedom from my skull.

How do we pay for A&E services? Through the tax system. Do people who use drugs or drink alcohol pay tax? Yes. Yes yes yes. Even if they don’t have jobs – they pay VAT on the things they buy. They pay road tax if they drive. They even pay tax on the alcohol that they’ve used to get them into their drunken state. They pay tax – they contribute. We all contribute. Even a radical hippy who’s living in a commune in the forest somewhere probably paid tax on the wheelbarrow they used to move their stuff out there. Drunks and drug users have paid into the system too, so if that’s your criteria (I should add – it is NOT my criteria), then you can be quiet – they’ve paid for it, so they can use it.

But, I hear you cry, these people might not have paid anywhere near what I have paid into the system – me, with my respectable lifestyle and prompt income tax receipts. This complaint raises two issues. The first is a simple one – should we therefore perform tax audits on everyone who passes through A&E? Should we check exactly how much money they’ve paid in tax throughout the course of their lives? Should they only get medical care up to the value of the tax that they’ve paid? No, of course not – that’s totally insane! The second issue – should the amount of tax that you’ve contributed even matter to the level of care that you receive? Again, the answer is no! Not even a little bit! The great thing about our NHS is that it is free – free at the point of use to everyone. It’s a wonderful system. That principle is what raises us above other countries – specifically, America, where care is assigned to those who can afford it and where the poor live in fear of falling ill. Essentially, the reason why we shouldn’t charge for healthcare is because we should value life above money.

Another argument that I’ve read on this issue is that drunks and drug users who find themselves in A&E have only themselves to blame. Of course, this may not be the case. If you’re out having a few drinks, in a perfectly legal and respectable fashion, and some maniac decides to hit you with a baseball bat, should you not receive care because you’ve failed a breathalyzer test? Furthermore – should Accident and Emergency staff be so strict on what constitutes an ‘accident?’ If you go skiing and you smash yourself up because you took a risk on a slope, are you not responsible for the ill that has occurred? No treatment for you, then. Of course, I don’t hear anyone making that argument, because skiing injuries are a particularly middle-class way of getting yourself into A&E. Not like drink and drugs, which is how the riff-raff end up there.

Finally – what happens when they can’t pay? These junkie, alcoholic scum that we’ve decided not to treat? Well, they’ll stagger back out onto the street in a state. How many of them will get into further trouble? How many will die? How many will die specifically because the A&E system was forbidden from taking them in? What’s the value of those deaths in contrast to the money we saved by not treating them? Hell, if your motives are purely financial – won’t it cost more to transport their dead bodies to the morgue from wherever they ended up?

Mr. Poots is a moron who is chasing cheap headlines and who doesn’t understand the gross lack of human empathy that resides in his argument. If you charge for care, you bar the vulnerable from receiving care, and you open them up to further pain and suffering. What good does that do? No good at all. What money does that save? None – it causes greater problems further down the line. If we took the time to stop demonizing people and looked instead at the real issues – why people feel the need to use alcohol and drugs – then we might actually reduce these problems in our society, saving lives and saving money. Right now, we’re just trying to find ways to milk a few extra pennies out of people who we find unpalatable, and that isn’t going to get any of us anywhere – not even to our local A&E.

The Russia situation highlights the money problem at the heart of UK politics

Who would want to play tennis with David Cameron and Boris Johnson. I don’t think I would like to do that. What if they were better at tennis than I was? That’s the sort of embarrassment that would be difficult to live down. Last time I played tennis, the ball hit me in the face. If Boris Johnson hit a tennis ball into my face, I think I’d have to move to Alaska, or something. Somewhere that my friends and family couldn’t visit easily, otherwise they’d just be dropping in every fifteen minutes to have a good laugh at me. To be honest, it’s just as well that I don’t want to play tennis with the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London, because the going rate for a game is apparently £160,000. Don’t get me wrong – I work hard. But I don’t have £160,000. You know how it is. Student loan repayments, et cetera.

A Russian woman, Lubov Chernukhin, did have £160,000 to pay for a tennis game with Tories, and duly did so earlier this month. That didn’t go down well with some people at the time, thanks to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The issue resurfaced this week following the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over the Ukrainian warzone. The husband of Mrs. Chernukhin, Vladimir, is a former member of Putin’s government, which put Cameron in a sticky situation. Taking money from the Chernukhins makes him look silly, because he’s also keen to be seen to be pushing for further sanctions against the Putin regime.

The charge of hypocrisy, in this case, isn’t an especially valid one. Mr. Chernukhin left Putin’s cabinet in 2004, and both Chernukhins are now British citizens. However, Cameron’s Conservatives have a track record of interesting links with Russians. Over £1m has been pledged to the Tories by Russians since 2010. No-one is saying that you shouldn’t do business with a Russian. However, it doesn’t look good if you appear to be in the pocket of Russian donors at a time when the Russian government is behaving in such a disgraceful manner.

In all honesty, though, having wealthy Russians dousing the Tories in money isn’t my real issue with this whole story. Neither is it the continuing debasement by Conservatives of the sport of tennis (I like tennis). The real problem is the seedy, sickening role that finance continues to play in British politics. Stop for a second and consider the cringeworthy nonsense of all this. A tennis game with an incumbent prime minister and the mayor of a major world city? How is it that we live in a world where these things can be offered and purchased? What about the Ukrainian who paid £90,000 for – you’ll like this one – a bronze bust of the Prime Minister? Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous in your life? Our political parties need money. They have a lot of debt between them. Yet this is not exactly the best way to go about clearing those bills.

The impression that politicians can be bought is not a new one. Anyone who remembers ‘cash for questions’ knows that. It’s also a poisonous impression. We must eradicate it from our politics. The idea of money buying influence has wormed its way to the very top of our political system. There’s no doubt that worries over money have the capability to constrict our politicians. When the Prime Minister is discussing sanctions against the Russians, will he be thinking about the legality or effectiveness of such measures? Will he be thinking about how best to target the Putin regime? Will he consider the possible economic impact of sanctions for the City of London? Or will the finances of the Conservative party, and their wealthy Russian donors, be at the front of his mind?

You may think that Cameron will do the right thing on sanctions, regardless of his party donors. I’d like to think so too, and the general consensus abroad is that the UK is leading the European charge on sanctions. The fact remains, though, that we shouldn’t even have to consider the alternative. Our political system shouldn’t be open to such compromising situations. The officials we elect shouldn’t have to solicit donations or appeal for cash.

It’s time to establish a limit on political donations. It’s time to eliminate the threat of corruption and remove the possibility of big-money donors ruling the roost over elected politicians. We don’t want to go down the American route, where all politics is awash with corporate money to an obscene extent. A taxpayer-funded political system, however unpalatable, appears to be the only solution. Perhaps parties could receive grants from the taxpayer in proportion to what they can secure from ordinary members. Whatever system is conceived, it has to be better than what we have now. Working men and women may not like the idea of paying for politics out of their taxes. The alternative – a political system dominated by some of the richest and most powerful people in the world – has done us no favours at all for far too long now.

The Schumacher accident has showcased the worst of the media

The news that a forty-five-year-old father of two has moved out of a coma, a coma in which he has been for nearly six months, should be cause for celebration. Indeed, it was a cause for celebration for hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, because this particular forty-five-year-old father of two is Michael Schumacher, the seven-time Formula One world driver’s champion and hero to many who love motor sports, including, I should say, myself. Some of my earliest sporting memories are of F1 and of Schumacher – seeing him return to the racetrack following a broken leg during the 1999 season, watching him win the title in 2000 for Ferrari and end the team’s two-decade-long wait for a driver’s championship, then the subsequent racking up of trophies until his final world title in 2004.

During this period, I loved F1, I loved Ferrari, and I loved Schumacher. Therefore it was extremely disheartening to learn of his ski accident last Christmas. And it was even worse, over the following months, to observe a media circus gather around his hospital bed in Grenoble. I know these things are unsurprising, and I shouldn’t really get too aggravated about the grim, murky depths to which the media will sink. But hell, everybody has a line, and this was mine.

Let me remind you of the highlights of this particular farce. We were treated to close-up photographs of Schumacher’s wife, Corinna, as she arrived at the hospital. We were also told that she was building a £10m medical centre at the Schumacher family home, and that she had spent, in the words of the Express, the ‘saddest birthday of her life…sitting at the bedside of her stricken husband with her children’. We had a whole parade of doctors and medical specialists rampaging around the news networks and the papers, solemnly informing us that Schumacher would never wake up, that he would spend the rest of his life in a coma, that he was in a permanent vegetative state. And then, of course, the piece de resistance, the scumbag excuse for a journalist who dressed as a priest and tried to sneak into Schumacher’s hospital room. (I’m not linking to any of these articles, by the way, purely because I don’t want to give them any more hits. If you want this rubbish, then find it yourself.)

None of this coverage was necessary. A great deal of it was not based in fact. Yet more of it was not authorised by the doctors treating Schumacher – liken it to a rubbernecker at a motorway crash, hanging their head out of the window and suggesting what might happen to the driver. The attention given to Corinna Schumacher was particularly disgusting, as she has done nothing at all to encourage press intrusion into her life, other than by being married to a famous racing driver – indeed, the Schumachers are well-known for the value they place on their privacy. If the newspapers want to write about Corinna’s pain, perhaps they could write about the systematic destruction of the boundaries that she, along with her husband, fought to establish between his public life as a sporting champion and their private life together? I bet that whole process has been rather painful for her.

The coverage on Schumacher was one long pointless howl into the darkness, a desperate attempt to generate clicks, hits and attention in a void of emptiness. The news media knew, as did anyone who followed the story, that updates on Schumacher’s condition would be provided by his loyal and long-serving manager, Sabine Kehm. She told us so herself, explicitly and forthrightly – if it didn’t come from Kehm, then it wasn’t news on Schumacher. You can count the number of updates that Kehm has issued since the spring on the fingers of one hand, but that didn’t stop the persistent spew of sewage from the news pit. It didn’t stop the articles proclaiming Schumacher’s recovery as an impossibility, telling us that he was a vegetable, that he would never be the same man again. Click the links, open the articles – no matter that it’s not news, that it’s intrusive, that it revels in the misery of a woman whose husband is in grave danger, and in the misery of two children under the age of eighteen who find themselves with a father fighting a horrendously difficult battle.

What does it say about the media that this is the coverage we got about a middle-aged man fighting for his life? Often, when we debate media ethics today, there are a lot of grey areas, but personally I think we can be fairly black and white in this particular case. It tells us that the media places little to no value on fact, on privacy, on respect and on basic human dignity. It depresses me especially, not just as a Schumacher fan, but as a student blogger hoping to one day work full-time in the news industry. Who on earth would look at this kind of coverage, filled with sickening untruths and distasteful impositions, and think, ‘Yes, I’d love to do that’?

In the short-term, invading the private life of a man in critical condition probably did generate a lot of attention for the sites and newspapers that decided to go down that route. They probably sold more copies and got more hits, and were almost certainly very pleased with the decisions that they made. In the long-term, though, I’d happily bet a lot of money that the way in which these outlets invaded the privacy of Michael Schumacher and his family will be seen as symptomatic of a shallow, grubby industry that, while chasing the lowest common denominator, busily dug its own grave and clambered inside.

#KeepFightingMichael

 

Miliband’s snap with the Sun may be the epitome of shallow, lazy politics

Seeing that now-infamous photograph of Ed Miliband, holding Thursday’s copy of the Sun out in front of him as if it were one of those enormous novelty cheques, with an awkward grin on his face, triggered a fairly typical reaction from me – a sigh, and a roll of my eyes. I tried to rationalise it all sorts of different ways in my head. Perhaps he was stricken by some sort of temporary blindness? Maybe he only saw the back cover of it, and was led to believe that he was posing with a charming, if amateurish, drawing of his own face, done by some well-meaning children? Or was he forced to hold the despicable rag, at gunpoint, with the holder of the weapon skilfully edited out of the photo?

It took about three or four seconds for me to realise that none of these explanations were correct, and that what had actually happened was that Miliband had momentarily lost all common sense, forgotten all the things he had said and done about the Sun, News International, and Rupert Murdoch, and instead allowed himself to be stained by the very rag that he had tried, to a certain extent, to take on during his leadership. Miliband’s actual explanation for posing with the paper – ah, I was just supporting the lads out in Brazil! – was moronic, and can be seen through by a child, if that child is interested in such things. Taking a picture with that newspaper was one of two things: either an act of stupidity by a busy, badly-advised man who wasn’t thinking straight, or, much more worryingly, a cynical act of hypocrisy, shamelessly courting voters, in contrast to his own previous pronouncements on the values of the group which runs this particular newspaper.

To see Miliband offer a tacit endorsement of the Sun must have been, at the very least, extremely disappointing to anyone who votes Labour, likes Labour, or was even considering Labour for 2015. The Sun, we all know, symbolises much of what is terrible about modern British society. A friend of mine returned the free copy he received in Thursday’s post to the editor, criticising the paper’s record on women’s rights, LGBT equality, poverty and the environment. He was right on all counts, and could just have easily have added many other issues on which the Sun is wholly and disgracefully on the wrong side of the argument to his list – Hillsborough, of course, springs to mind, as does the paper’s casual anti-Islamic rhetoric.

I have no doubt that Miliband’s views on all of the issues cited above are directly contradictory to those of the Sun. He could have declined to be pictured with the paper quite easily, and could have explained that his own ideology is not one that the Sun shares. It might have even been a good opportunity to sketch out his own ideology, clearly and concisely, to the British public, many of whom seem to be thoroughly unaware of it. Instead, he managed to aggravate many of his own supporters, a good chunk of his own MPs, and practically the entire city of Liverpool. This is because what he, or one of his advisers, saw when that copy of the Sun made its way into Miliband’s hands was the expected circulation figure of a newspaper being dispatched into tens of millions of homes on the next day. A disaster was mistakenly viewed as an opportunity; it was seized and has backfired spectacularly.

What Miliband’s error epitomizes is the shallowness and emptiness of modern British politics. Whoever decided Miliband should have that picture taken believes that the British people will vote for a candidate who likes the same newspaper that they do, and that this newspaper in particular governs the voting intentions of the public. This is an extremely patronising viewpoint. The Sun follows the people, or attempts to – not the other way around, and anyone who thinks the Sun has this much power underestimates the intelligence of the voters. This was an attempt to widen Miliband’s appeal, using a tool that was completely anathema to the task, which managed to signify the political class’s contempt for the public, contradict Miliband’s own ideology, and highlight the fact that politicians no longer conduct themselves through ideas and words, but through photo opportunities and publicity shots. Let’s not forget, either, that both David Cameron and Nick Clegg had their picture taken for the same edition of the Sun. They’re all at it – desperately trying to appeal to the broadest church possible in the easiest manner possible. All three of them are symbols of the nullity and laziness that mars the attempts of our politicians to reach out to voters. In the end, however, it is the Labour leader who was the biggest sinner in this case, because he was the one leader of the three who ought to have known better, who had the most to lose from such a silly and avoidable mistake. In short, this gaffe degraded Miliband, and degraded politics.

Ah well. At least it wasn’t a copy of the Daily Mail.

Miliband must go after the tentative Ukippers, not the ex-Lib Dems

WordPress reader – imagine a scenario for me. You’ve woken up this morning, and you’re doing your usual morning thing, whatever that is. Everything’s pretty cool, until you happen to walk past a mirror and – woah! What the hell? It turns out you’re Ed Miliband. This is clearly some kind of Freaky Friday situation, you think to yourself, but seeing as you haven’t got a clue how to fix it, you decide, because you’re a pragmatic guy or gal, that you’d just better pretend to be Ed Miliband until everything is sorted out.
What sort of dilemmas are on your newly-Milibandised plate, then? The big one, I guess, would be how to get yourself a win in next year’s general election. The guy who was Ed Miliband before you was doing…OK, sort of, but everyone agrees he should be doing better. Have you got the policies that people really want? Well, again, you’re doing OK…ish. Old Ed certainly made some decent noises, got some decent themes, but he really wasn’t quite the finished article. If you’re going to be Ed Miliband for the foreseeable future, you’re going to have to give yourself a boost.
You’ve decided that you need to find yourself some more votes. The guys you’re in charge of only got 29% last time, so you need to find them somewhere. You look to your left, and you see the Liberal Democrats. They look a sorry bunch, and no mistake. A lot of their guys seem awfully similar to your guys, too. Perhaps you should put all your efforts into stealing those guys for yourself? That’s what the real Ed Miliband was doing before this Freaky Friday thing happened, with his anti-Nick Clegg attack adverts. If you carry on with that, then maybe you’ll get enough of them over to your side in order to scrape a win?
That’s certainly a plausible plan, well done. It might even work, just about. However, you’ve missed a couple of the problems that lie in that choice. Don’t worry – you’re new to being Ed Miliband. I’m here to help you out.
The first issue with chasing after the Lib Dem vote is that it’s probably largely futile at this point. The vast majority of 2010 Lib Dem voters who aren’t going to be voting for them in 2015 will have made their minds up on what they’re going to do next time by now. That’s because they decamped from the party, en masse, almost at the exact point at which Clegg took them into coalition with the Conservatives. The ones who were sympathetic to Labour, new Ed, will already be yours. They’re probably a bit left-wing, a bit socially liberal, and they’ll be happy with old Ed breaking away from the New Labour record on foreign policy, among other things. The rest are probably not going to be convinced by you, not now. The trouble with going after Liberal Democrat voters from 2010 is that they were ripped away from the party, brutally and painfully, in a kneejerk fashion as soon as Nick Clegg walked into the Downing Street rose garden with David Cameron. Changes of allegiance that are triggered in a messy, visceral bloodbath of broken promises tend to stick, and anyone who had their hearts trampled on by the Liberal Democrats in this manner last time around will already be firmly in one camp or another by this point in the election cycle – they care too much about limited, specific issues such as tuition fees, for example, not to be.
The second problem you face, new Ed, in hunting down these ex-Lib Dems is that it’s not an especially bold strategy. This may seem like an image issue, but you’ve not been left with a particularly good image, so that’s important. If you look like you’re trying to edge your way over the winning line to No. 10, then you appear disingenuous, slippery and overly tactical. It may not even be too successful a plan, either, because they tend to hang on like barnacles in the kind of marginal seats that you’ll need to win next time. It would be much better, rather than targeting a narrow band of special interest voters, to instead set out a broad vision that can attract wider support across society.
This, then, is where we find your real electoral prize, lurking in the shadows. It may seem difficult, Ed 2.0, but it’s a necessary exercise. You’re going to have to tackle UKIP. They may appear unstoppable at the moment, about to win the European elections, but that’s not the case. They’ve never won a parliamentary seat. They have no consistent, stable electoral base of voters. Their support appears wide-ranging now, in the middle of this unusual coalition parliament, but it’s never been tested yet at a general election. It is, therefore, soft, and ripe for the taking.
It’s been suggested that, while UKIP is often portrayed as being an uber-libertarian wing of the Conservative party, their support is actually much more similar demographically to what would have always been classified as traditional Labour voters. If this is the case, then these voters have not been in the possession of UKIP for very long. They can’t have been, or the party would have done better at general elections before now. They aren’t fixed to UKIP yet – but if you neglect them, then they can become so. You’ve got a lot of work to do. You have to show them that Labour isn’t the Blair-Brown party of big business, privatisation and deregulation (with social justice promoted on the sly). You need big announcements, on all areas of policy, that show Labour as what it has always claimed to be – the party that helps everyone, not just the elites.
This fight that you must take on, new Ed, isn’t just for the good of Labour’s electoral chances in 2015. It’s for the good of British politics too. There are many reasons why people are edging towards UKIP, chief among which is a growing dissatisfaction with the major parties. UKIP is the option for those who see no other way to get their voices heard. That’s an understandable reason to vote for them. However, that obscures the major disconnection between the party and the people who are tentatively, for the first time, offering UKIP their support. Nigel Farage’s party is virulently, violently Thatcherite, xenophobic and maddeningly libertarian, protecting the same elitist strands of society that always get the better end of the stick from British governments. Furthermore, no matter how much Farage argues, it is clear that the party has attracted for candidates people who appear to be both homophobic and racist, among other troubling things. These ideals don’t correlate with the voters who may be putting their cross in the UKIP box – the poor, working-class, middle-aged, left-behind people who just want a fair shot in an economy rigged against them. They would be betrayed by UKIP. Labour needs to win them back, and offer them a future that benefits them, because they carry the vast majority of British society upon their backs. That’s your challenge, dear reader, for as long as you are trapped in the body of Ed Miliband. I never did watch Freaky Friday, so I’m not sure how it’ll all work out.

A Labour offer to take back rail would be big, bold, and a winner

For the past three years, I’ve been commuting, during uni semesters, from a little village in Staffordshire into the centre of Birmingham, four days a week. That’s four trains a day, and two of those trains are pretty much guaranteed to be a total nightmare. I travel into Birmingham New Street station, which, as everyone who uses it regularly knows, is a malfunctioning, headache-inducing hellhole, currently being rebuilt and perpetually in chaos. In the three years that I have been a regular commuter, the quality of the service provided has deteriorated, and the price I pay for that service has gone up. It might just be me who hates rail travel, but I don’t think that’s the case (I have seen enough red-faced, fuming, people-shaped blobs of hate storming around the platforms of the West Midlands to discount the prior hypothesis).

Rail services in the UK, like most other things, are privatised. However, they aren’t fully privatised – not just anyone can rock up and start running trains from station to station. In much the same way that energy and water services operate, the rail network has been put out to tender, with companies applying for the franchises. This is a system that gives commuters all of the negatives of privatisation without any of the benefits. Competition can’t drive prices down or improve the service, because the contracts run for years at a time, competitors can’t operate on the same lines, and punishments for poor service are practically non-existent (witness the £72m fine for National Express, on a franchise worth £1.4bn). Meanwhile, the fees go up on a regular basis, the service gets worse, profits go up, investment in the rail network stagnates, and commuters get hammered from all directions. A pure privatisation model would be no solution to these problems. It would almost certainly lead to a failure in provision for ‘unprofitable’ rural lines serving smaller communities (those people do still need to use the rail system, you know), and would anyway be practically impossible to run effectively. The answer, clearly, is renationalisation – something at which certain figures in the Labour party, most notably a group of prospective parliamentary candidates for 2015, have been hinting.

Ed Miliband’s Labour leadership has been characterised by a fury against markets that are failing – energy, for instance. There are few market failures more obvious to the British people than the rail market. A poll running on the Guardian website shows 92% approval for rail renationalisation. People aren’t stupid, and they know when a service isn’t working. Trains are frequently overcrowded, delayed and overpriced. It’s also widely – infamously – known that the British taxpayer subsidises the rail network to a greater cost than when the network was in state hands. What a fantastic racket these companies are running! If someone came up to you and offered to buy your house for less than it was worth, smash all of the windows, rip up all the carpets, throw out all the white goods, and then charged you more than your previous mortgage payments to keep living in it, you’d ask them to please leave, politely but firmly (we keep things civil round here, I’m sure).

The problem for Labour is that they are nervous of Conservative attacks portraying them as far-left. The party is still, a generation later, scarred by the elections of the 1980s, when Labour was painted as a collective of Soviet Marxists about to nationalise everything from Land’s End to John O’Groats. You see this narrative still today, in the Tory newspapers which label Miliband ‘Red Ed’ and talk of his Soviet-style plans on rent control. It’s pretty pathetic, in all honesty, and one of the reasons why political debate in this country is being held back. The Conservatives are locked into a set of ideological blinkers, rendering them incapable of recognising any idea that sounds vaguely like state intervention, or goes against the principle that free markets are the Best Thing Ever. Labour, meanwhile, aren’t really trapped in an ideological box like a bad mime artist, but are terrified of appearing as if they are, because they believe that’s why they lost to Thatcher all those times. What this means is that sensible Conservatives who want to use government to help people aren’t listened to, that Labour try desperately not to look like a party of democratic socialists despite having that description written on the back of their membership cards, and that good solutions for problems get jettisoned by both sides.

Labour needs to have the courage of their convictions, and approach the issues that face this country head-on. If the best way to fix a problem involves looking like you’re left-wing, then that doesn’t matter, as long as the problem does indeed get fixed. A decade and a half of pretending to be just softer-around-the-edges Tories didn’t work for Labour in the end, and it won’t work in 2015. Rail renationalisation, if not of the whole network then at least of failing franchises, would be exactly the kind of bold move that reshaped the political narrative. It would bring hundreds of thousands of votes to Labour, and it would help to ease the woes of millions of commuters who dread the morning rush hour. If the solution is the right one, then, sometimes, it’s alright to be a little bit of a socialist.

Ideas of what is or isn’t ‘earned’ will define this era of politics

As the old saying goes, ‘A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’, and this was the idea which underpinned how we all thought about wages, work and social progression. You get what you deserve, what you earn, and that’s how you get along in life. However, in today’s Britain, in this economy, these ideas have been skewed and subverted, and the fight to resurrect the principle of something being ‘earned’ is being fought across all sorts of political battlefields.

Take one issue: welfare spending. By rights, it shouldn’t be a major issue, because benefit spending largely goes to pensioners, not the unemployed. Yet people across Britain are positively apoplectic about their ‘hard-earned’ money going to ‘scroungers’. What gets people going is the idea that those on benefits haven’t earned what they are getting. No matter what you say to them about the underlying social contract, giving others a chance, or any other arguments for social security spending, this point of principle still continues to fuel the argument.

We see it too in debates over sky-high salaries in elite industries. Bankers get millions in bonuses, footballers earn thousands every week: we all know the clichés. The market says this is what they are worth, but the general public don’t really believe that. Do they earn this money, really? Can anyone do a job that genuinely, demonstrably, should produce that kind of reward? And what does it say about our society that the highest earners do so in industries that are often corrupt, exploitative or lacking in what we might consider ‘value’?

At the bottom end of the income scale, the same issue causes problems for millions. The lack of a living wage for many people – the inability to earn enough to sustain a normal family life – cripples huge swathes of the population. Ordinary working people are not getting a fair shake out of this economy; pay packets do not go as far as they used to. The numbers – which show earnings going down in real terms – tie in with the emotions – people feeling that they aren’t paid what they deserve. Working hard, day in, day out, and not making enough to get by.

Looking at the issue from a different perspective provides the same answer: the notion of wealth, rather than earnings, and how wealth distorts the economy. The richest tenth of people have between 25-35% of all income. Yet their share of the wealth sits between 60-70%. Wealth is more often unearned too. Someone inheriting an estate does nothing to deserve the windfall that they get. If the value of your houses increases by a whopping great chunk, then you are a great deal wealthier but you’ve not earned that. The statistics I quoted earlier in the paragraph show that the economic system favoured in the Anglo-Saxon countries is designed to perpetuate the wealth gap, and to ensure that assets are hoarded by the same people, in perpetuity, forever increasing in value through no action whatsoever.

This idea of ‘earning’ something, or not earning enough, or too much, stretches across politics ideologically, not just on the basis of a few disparate issues.  Debates about wealth are a typically left-wing issue traditionally, yet it is the Liberal Democrats – now clearly a party of the centre-right – who first proposed a mansion tax. Labour toys with offering a living wage to all, and makes proclamations about the unjust nature of high wages – especially in banking – that the Conservatives do not and cannot follow. However, it is the Tories, and the right more generally, who leads the way when it comes to attacking unearned ‘waste’ in the benefits system. They all recognise that this concept of what is earned and not earned strikes a chord at the hearts of voters – they just approach it from different angles.

Like many concepts in today’s politics, rows over what is or isn’t earned stem from the Thatcherite economic settlement left to the UK in the 1980s. It was during this period that the gap between rich and poor started to grow, and those at the top saw their incomes spiral – whether their job performance merited it or not. Under Thatcher, the free market was allowed to determine more and more elements of economic life in Britain, and a market has no concept of earnings, or of value – it simply pays what it is rigged to pay. At some point, Britain lost its sense of what the true value of work was, for those at the bottom and those at the top. Britain became comfortable – too comfortable – with gross disparities in wealth, and too liberal in its attitudes to wealth accumulation – allowing financiers to gain massive fortunes without questioning whether what they did valued it, ensuring that unearned income was not punished too punitively by capital gains tax or inheritance tax. Furthermore, the jobless were put on the road towards today’s ‘strivers versus skivers’ stand-off, and ‘social security’ became the much harsher sounding ‘benefits’. Welfare spending came to be seen as a handout, not a hand up – unearned and useless, not an investment in those who were less fortunate in the employment market.

Any party which wishes to be truly successful today has to recognise that the public want a much fuller explanation of where tax revenues are being spent and why they are being spent in these areas, and that they also want to know where the parties stand on the value – the morality, even – of the people who earn much more, or much less, than they ‘should’. For Labour, the challenge will be to defend their idea of social security, and to reinvent benefit spending in the public imagination as something that doesn’t have to be earned by sending jobless graduates into branches of pound shops. The Conservatives, meanwhile, must justify their free market approach that allows wages to sky-rocket in some industries and stagnate in others, and which consolidates the wealth of the few while eliminating the wealth of the many. As the collective pie grows smaller and smaller, both left and right must come up with more convincing arguments about who should and shouldn’t get bigger slices of it.