Why I’m voting Yes to AV and why it’s crucial to vote

a ballot paperTomorrow sees a momentous occasion in British politics. It will be only the second time in the history of this country that the public will be asked to give their opinion in the form of a referendum, yet not many people seem at all excited about it.

Before I lay out my case for AV, it’s worth considering why the turnout is likely to be so low.

Particularly in my region, London, where there are no local elections to get people out to the polling stations, the turnout is predicted to be pifflingly low. We’re talking 15 per cent compared with 35 per cent in the provinces.

Despite weeks of explaining the pros and cons of both systems and some heavy-handed political mud-slinging, people just aren’t that interested. I believe this is down to a key disenfranchisement at the state of our electoral system, something that AV could fix.

Under First Past The Post, its easy to feel like your vote doesn’t count and be forced into a tactical voting compromise. Growing up in a Tory heartland, I felt there was little I could do to change things, especially with the centre left vote being split between Labour and the Lib Dems.

Simply put, under AV, you can have your say on a sliding scale, i.e. ‘I want the Lib Dems to get in, but if not them, then Labour and whatever we get, don’t let the Tories in again.’

Or, to put another way, the general collective consensus is more powerful than a concentrated group of people why think exactly the same way, as in the beer vs coffee metaphor put forward by the Yes to AV campaign:

the av system explained as beer vs coffee

The suggestion that this system is too complicated for the public to understand is one of the most self-damaging arguments that the No to AV campaign has put forward so far. For starters, it insults the intelligence of the population and moreover it conveniently skates over the fact that the AV system is already used and readily understood in many mayoral elections, such as the one that saw Boris Johnson elected in London in 2008.

The second myth that urgently needs debunking before we go to the polls is that of price. AV will not cost us £250 million. That’s just a bare-faced lie and Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg have both had the guts to say so in so many words. Electronic voting machines are not an essential or even necessary part of switching to AV and public education about the new system needn’t cost that much for the reasons outlined above.

Finally, I really don’t buy the idea that we shouldn’t switch to AV because only three other countries in the world have it. When we abolished slavery we were one of the first countries in the world to do that, so sticking with what we’ve always had and what few others are doing isn’t always a bad thing.

Whatever your political beliefs and thoughts about AV or FPTP, please go and make your voice heard at the polling station tomorrow.

It’s our first chance to directly influence a major policy decision in nearly 40 years and may be our last for another 40. Please don’t let it pass you by.
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The great irony of the NUS Millbank protest

This may sound perverse, but watching the scenes of today’s tuition fees protest, with smashed windows, flaming flares and burning placards at Millbank, I wish I was there. It brings back the sheer exhiliration of the G20 protests last year and it’s great to see people getting on the streets and making sure their voice is heard.

Wish you were here?

The bottom line to it all is that the Lib Dems have betrayed students. A major campaign promise from the yellows was to scrap tuition fees, now the coalition Government is set to triple them.

The hypocrisy is blatant and we may see a generation of disillusioned students turn to Labour as a direct result. NUS president Aaron Porter is spot on to call for a recall law, which would let the electorate show the Lib Dems exactly what they think of them now.

However, many of the protesters seem to be getting caught up in the moment and are not thinking ahead. Last year at the G20 protests, the majority of the troublemakers were hooded and masked by bandanas. The number of bare faced students who have been caught on camera breaking windows today is truly surprising.

Forget the rising cost of a degree, if you come away from today with a criminal record, then that will do far more to hinder your future employment prospects.

The Return of Red Ken

'Red' Ken Livingstone, Former London Mayor, on the cover of the New StatesmanKen Livingstone came storming back into the London limelight today, thanks in no small part to a gushing front page from the Evening Standard. The momentous event was Ken launching his Mayoral comeback campaign today – but this was not news, we had long known that he would be up for the scrap in 2012. The real news was that London’s most influential paper (yes, still) had welcomed the Lambeth-born left-winger back into its bosom after two years in the wilderness.

If the front page left us in any doubt as to the Standard’s approbation of Livingstone, then the 1,000-word editorial on page 14, penned by Ken himself, rammed home the point. This highly partisan soap-box rant serves as a wide-reaching manifesto, and includes populist measures, such as cracking down on bankers’ tax breaks and reducing bus fares, although Livingstone does stick by his principles in threatening to raise the 4×4 congestion charge to £25 per day.

The Standard’s reasoning for switching to back Ken can be easily explained. After two years as Mayor, Boris Johnson’s honeymoon has long since finished, and it is widely believed that he will step down instead of run for re-election (with one eye on No 10, no doubt). Furthermore, Labour achieved significant gains in London during the general election, with a swing of nine borough councils to the reds, so the wind is thoroughly in Ken’s favour.

But most interestingly for me, it can be put down to the change in editor at the Standard. Under Veronica Wadley, the Standard was loudly critical of Livingstone before the 2008 Mayoral election, with vicious headlines such as “Suicide bomb backer runs Ken’s campaign.” But it seems that, under the stewardship of Geordie Grieg (as of February 2009), the paper has taken a step back towards the left. Grieg has pinned his colours to the mast  today, and the Standard looks certain to be campaigning for change in City Hall in 2012, just as it did in 2008.

Yes, Prime Minister – Chichester Festival Theatre Review

Yes, Prime Minister at Chichester Festival Theatre review Jim Hacker David Haig Sir Humphrey Appleby Henry Goodman“I’m not so sure about a hung parliament – hanging would be too good for them,” quips Sir Humphrey Appleby, and there are plenty more puns where that came from.

Yes, Prime Minister has returned and politicians across the country will sleep much less easily as a result. During the 1980s, the BBC TV series was a roaring success; over five series (including three of the original incarnation Yes, Minister) it won over the most unlikely of fans, including Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn.

Paul Eddington played the endearingly incompetent Jim Hacker MP, who was given to grand public gestures and Churchillian declamations, whilst Nigel Hawthorne provided the perfect accompaniment as the devious Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey who sought to rein in Hacker’s idealistic tendencies.

Three decades on and the show’s co-writers (Sir Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn) have added edginess and controversial views to their already bursting arsenal of political irreverence and acidic public sector satire. After the sad deaths of Eddington and Hawthorne, the creators have moved to cast David Haig (The Thin Blue Line, Four Weddings and a Funeral) and Henry Goodman (The Damned United, Notting Hill) in the main roles. Haig’s turn as Hacker manages to combine statesman-like cunning with bumbling ineptitude, but sadly misses the loveable vulnerability that Eddington brought to the role. Goodman takes Sir Humphrey’s Machiavellian deception to a whole new level, whilst keeping the basic justification that what the PM doesn’t know can’t hurt him.

The plot nonchalantly juggles various hot-potato topics, including Middle Eastern oil imports, illegal immigrants and teenage prostitution. The section most likely to cause offence amongst liberal theatrical types, however, is the flippant treatment of climate change as the ultimate panacea for politicians looking to distract attention from their current failings. Referring to his proposed green reforms, Hacker boasts “even if it doesn’t make any difference, no-one will know for at least 50 years.”

It is in the second half, though, that the heady blend of intellectual farce and quick-fire wordplay starts to drag a little. With escalating volumes of spirits ingested, Hacker becomes increasingly desperate and absurd in his behaviour, and you suddenly become aware that this is new territory for the franchise. At no point are subtle concepts such as sympathy or compassion entertained which, whilst unsurprising, is a little disappointing as the play edges past the two hour mark.

Despite its discreet shortcomings, the return of Yes, Prime Minister is almost perfect in its timeliness. With the political uncertainty of a Hung Parliament a ripe topic for satire, this production will run and run. A West End transfer is surely inevitable. Indeed, it wouldn’t be surprising to see this show outlast the Lib-Con coalition it so superbly lampoons.

Yes, Prime Minister is on at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 5th June www.cft.org.uk

Article first published by Open Magazine

Election 2010: How Cleggmania Turned Into Henmania

Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg and British Tennis Player Tim Henman
Clegg and Henman: Separated at Birth?

So Thursday night’s election results were quite the anti-climax for the Lib Dems, worthy of England’s most disappointing tennis player. Feverish polls which had predicted a 30% vote share proved wildly inaccurate, with the third party even winning fewer seats than in 2005. It seems that the impact of the television debates has been grossly overstated, as The Times’ chief leader writer Daniel Finkelstein predicted at the very start.

There are a few key points to conclude from this. Firstly, that voter allegiances run too deeply to be significantly affected by three televised debates, which, lest we forget, less than 20% of the country actually watched. Secondly, that for the Lib Dems to ever stand a chance of unseating Labour, we will need drastic electoral reform, probably in the form of proportional representation. Thirdly, that faced with the option of voting for an unproven party in the middle of an economic downturn, the electorate bottled it, and understandably so. No time for a novice, indeed.

However there are a few silver linings. Firstly the Lib Dems could achieve significant gains from a hung parliament. As I write this, the Yellows are believed to be considering a power sharing deal from David Cameron which could see Lib Dem MPs in the Cabinet and even limited concessions on electoral reform. Secondly the fringe parties such as the BNP, UKIP and Respect failed spectacularly. Nick Griffin polled third and was verbally tarred and feathered and chased out of town by Margaret Hodge, Nigel Farage’s plane crashed, George Galloway even wimped out of hearing the verdict of my constituency, who roundly rejected him. Thirdly the Green Party took a big step forward by taking Brighton Pavillion to make Caroline Lucas their first ever MP.

At the end of such an extraordinary election it is easy to see this as a victory for those same two parties who we’ve been stuck with for 80-odd years. But the more you inspect the results and consider the implications of a hung parliament, it becomes clear that politics in the UK just became a lot more open and far more interesting.

UK Election 2010: Sorry seems to be the easiest word to say

Gordon Brown is a glutton for punishment. This is the only explanation I can give for his flagellant display yesterday after the so-called bigotgate blunder. After spending 45 minutes of valuable campaign time at Gillian Duffy’s terraced Rochdale home to apologise for calling her a bigot behind her back, I can only conclude that he is a masochist. To make matters worse, he even cracked out that smile. Gordon Brown smiles outside Gillian Duffy's Rochdale house after bigotgate
What does he have to smile about at this point?

He (or rather his aides) made a grave error in not switching off the microphone on his lapel after he climbed into a waiting car, but this is the kind of thing that could be swept under the rug easily. Move on, pick a new topic (say, the economy, which you are meant to be debating tonight), and distract the public. Instead, Brown castigated himself over and over again, issuing six apologies in six hours and branding himself ‘a penitent sinner’. What does this achieve?

One conclusion to be drawn from this is that we, as a nation, have become over-reliant on the power of ‘sorry’, as if saying it enough could erase our mistakes and bring instant, total forgiveness and atonement. But ‘sorry’ is a word which suffers from the law of diminishing returns. The more often you say it, the less powerful it becomes. It is often the most stubborn characters who can issue the most effective apologies; all the more effective because of their rarity.

Gordon Brown, Radio two, Gillian Duffy, bigot, bigotgate, microphone
There goes the election...

Before the election campaign started, Brown was 10-1 to apologise for anything during the televised leaders debates. This is because the public views Brown as a stubborn ox, unwilling to concede an inch to Cameron in PMQs. This is at once his greatest strength and biggest weakness. However it could have got him out of jail yesterday – simply apologise once and move on. The apology would have been all the more striking in isolation.

Where now for Labour? Can they resurrect their wounded prize-fighter before tonight’s crucial final debate?
I’m sorry, but I haven’t a clue.

UK Election 2010: First Televised Leaders’ Debate brings ‘Presidential Politics’ to UK

“Presidential Politics arrive in Britain tonight” yells the cover story in The Times today. It’s hard not to get excited about the first televised leaders’ debate on ITV tonight, but this description is indicative of a general confusion amongst the electorate.

UK Election Debate Graphic
Tonight's Line-Up (graphic by timesonline.co.uk)

After the last election, I asked a close relative who she voted for. “I voted Labour,” she told me “because I like Tony Blair.” As sound as that sentiment is, it was largely pointless in a consituency where Labour came a distant third with less than 10% of the vote. The glamorisation of the leaders, their wives, their houses etc. only serves to add to this general impression that we vote for the leader who we like/trust/admire the most. But in fact, depending on your constituency, you may be unable to effectively support the party of your choice.

I am a natural Lib Dem, but in my constituency of Poplar and Limehouse they lie a distant 4th. A vote for them would be nothing but symbolic. But, to come full circle, that makes tonight’s debate even more interesting. For my vote to count, I need to decide in my mind between Labour and The Tories. Oh the joys of being a floating voter in a swing constituency…

Election 2010: Straight Talking from UKIP?

As if proof were needed that this year’s UK general election is going to be the most personal in years, UKIP has blunderbussed its way into East London with all the subtlety and tact that you would expect from a party led by the political equivalent of Alan Partridge.

UKIP Poster, Bromley-By-Bow, East London
Subtle as a Sledgehammer

The reckless insensitivity of placing this poster in Bromley-by-Bow, a council ward with a 40% Bangladeshi majority, is as staggering as the its wording is ironic. Straight talking? The euphemistic use of the term ‘new people’ would suggest otherwise. I don’t know who the local UKIP candidate is, and quite frankly, I don’t care. Despite this, the incumbent Labour MP, Jim Fitzpatrick has plenty of reason to feel unsettled after upsetting the local Asian population last summer by walking out of a Muslim wedding.

If, as expected, the general election produces the largest turnover of MPs in a generation, then there are going to be some fascinating battles to be fought in London constituencies. Looking further north, the show-down in Hampstead and Kilburn between Oscar-winning incumbent MP Glenda Jackson and climate change activist Tamsin Omond should be very interesting indeed.

Over the next month or so I will endeavour to blog more about politics in the run up to the election, but for now all I want to say is there has never been a more worthwhile time to register to vote and make your opinion heard.

Shining a light: The Evening Standard takes a stand on poverty

It’s not hard to find fault with the Evening Standard, and even easier to find puns. Since going free their output has been of varied quality, lagging behind Metro for news coverage on some days. It’s clear to see that Standards are slipping. In this context, their splash today is all the more heartening.

Rarely do newspapers spell out their intentions as clearly as this. For me this is journalism at its hard-hitting, unashamedly purposeful best. David Cohen tackles the lingering issue of urban poverty, wading into child burials, unemployed graduates and single parents without a hint of Bono-esque faux-philanthropism. Whilst there are criticisms of the current Government, that is never allowed to overtake the dispassionate social observation that underpins this feature. What Cohen achieves is an eye-opening read for commuting Londoners, and with an estimated audience of 1.4million, the impact on the electorate will surely be significant.

The full article is well worth a read, and the Standard editorial team are clearly 100% behind it, giving it its own mini-site. The incredible gulf between rich and poor is easily overlooked in London, but from where I live the contrast is blatent. The sight of run-down council houses in the shadows of Canary Wharf makes for a powerful image.

The reaction on Twitter has been mixed at best, but for me this redefines what the Standard brings to the freesheet market: an agenda, original journalism and a powerful sense of indignation.

Barack Obama doesn’t deserve to win the Nobel Peace Prize… just yet

A distinctly modest looking Obama, back in July 2007 (flickr user: Llima)
A distinctly modest looking Obama, back in July 2007 (flickr user: Llima)

The announcement that Barack Obama has won the Nobel Peace prize today came like a bolt out of the blue. How can a man who has been in office just nine months warrant such an accolade? Whilst I am completely pro-Obama, and think he’s getting an undeservedly harsh time in America over health care reform, this prize does seem absurd.

Obama had only been in office for two weeks when he was nominated for the award, and since then he has refused talks with the Dalai Llama (an earlier Nobel peace laureate) for fear of angering China. This is hardly the kind of behaviour that will bring about world peace. Obama has been  greatly ambitious in his aim of global nuclear disarmament, and it will be interesting to see how he goes about this, but so far (and I have to agree with the Saturday Night Live critics here) it is more talk than action.

Given three more years in office, Obama may well merit the Nobel Peace Prize. But giving it to him now, just as the honeymoon period wanes in the States, is surely evidence that the world is still celebrating him, whilst his electorate have started to see past the wave of hollow optimism which ushered in his presidency.

Obama becomes the fourth American president to win the Nobel Peace Prize and by far the fastest. Previously Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter have won the prize, but they had to wait five, six and 25 years respectively after their inauguration before becoming laureates. This context makes Obama’s nine months to win the prize all the more ludicrous. I am certain that the smooth-talking president will come out with a statement of modesty, and so he ought. His work to bring about world peace has only just begun.