The Plastic Hippo

May 12, 2010

Jolly boating weather

Filed under: Politics — theplastichippo @ 6:42 pm

Our new Prime Minister has described the formation of a coalition government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats as an “historic and seismic shift” in British politics. The old-Etonian, the 19th British Prime Minister to have enjoyed an education in the hallowed halls of Eton College, is probably right. But it remains to be seen if Cameron can work effectively with Clegg, the product of the equally privileged but less well regarded Westminster public school.

At Westminster School they have the annual “Greaze”, when teaching staff encourage the boys to fight over a pancake. Eton has its wall game, when young toffs destined for greatness knock seven bells out of each other under the satisfied gaze of their masters. Perhaps the PM and his deputy should compromise and take up Quidditch instead.

As the details of the pre-nup agreement to a civil partnership are revealed, it is becoming clear that the happy couple have annoyed some of the wedding guests. Key manifesto policy pledges from both parties have been dumped in a desperate attempt to seize power and the constant repetition of the phrase “strong and stable government” has a hollow ring to those voters who expected those policies to be in place. It seems principles are not a priority when there is a pancake to fight over or the opportunity to smash Brown of the Remove into a Berkshire wall.

In less than a week the two party leaders have shifted their opinions of each others policies with a breathtaking volte-face. What was once calamitous is now common ground and unacceptable proposals have become perfectly reasonable. It is impossible to estimate the reaction of die-hard Tories when they witness Cameron proposing legislation on proportional representation or that of Liberal activists when Clegg defends the replacement of Trident and the immediate imposition of £6billion worth of cuts to front-line services. The honeymoon is likely to be a short one with criticisms coming from within the two coalition parties rather than from Labour who will be happy to sit back and watch the marriage unravel.

If there is now such common ground between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, local elections and the inevitable parliamentary by-elections could prove interesting. It could be that either of the two parties may choose not to stand in local wards or marginal constituencies where the partner has a better chance of winning and once bitter political enemies may be forced by their leaders to campaign for the former opposition; hardly a victory for democracy.

A week ago, the Liberal Democrats were on the brink of breaking the political duopoly they had so long opposed. By entering a formal coalition with the Conservatives, the two party system is re-affirmed with Liberals flocking in droves to the Labour Party. Clegg may have grabbed a piece of the pancake, but he is running towards a brick wall.

May 10, 2010

Wanted: a fat lady to sing

Filed under: Politics — theplastichippo @ 3:38 pm

When Brunhilde at long last steps forward to deliver the final 10 minute aria in Gotterdammerung, even the most ardent lovers of Wagner breathe a sigh of relief. The electorate, like members of an audience at a Ken Dodd one-man-show trying to remember where they parked the car or what time the last bus went, have enjoyed the experience but now would like it to be over.

The days of shady political deals struck in smoke filled rooms are long gone and it`s difficult to imagine party grandees carving up power in a smoking shelter around the back of the Cabinet Office. But the horse-trading continues and there is much talk of progress and stability aimed not at the electorate, but at something called “the markets”. With a national deficit of an estimated £167billion, financial stability has got to be fairly high on the agenda if we are to avoid the wheels coming off as is happening in Greece. But it seems our politicians are more interested in placating the very people who created the mess in the first place rather than the folks who will be expected to pick up the bill.

Following the defeat of David Lloyd George in 1922 when divisions within the party consigned the Liberals to almost a century of obscurity, the only sniff of influence was during the last hung parliament in 1974 when Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson could not command a working majority. Jeremy Thorpe considered getting into bed with Edward Heath but the dalliance remained unconsummated over the issue of electoral reform, particularly proportional representation.

PR has been central to Liberal and Liberal Democrat policy for decades and the results from Thursday highlight the inherent unfairness of the first past the post system. Labour achieved 29% of the vote which translated into 258 parliamentary seats. The Liberal Democrats attracted 23% of the vote and were rewarded with 57 seats. Gordon Brown immediately offered a referendum on electoral reform but Cameron, having failed to secure the landslide predicted by Rupert Murdoch and in fear of the wrath of his paymaster Lord Ashcroft, is in no position to offer PR in a deal.

Rumours coming out of the smoking shelter suggest that Clegg may make compromises over PR but this will anger his party and may costs him his job. It is possible that the en pass might result in the removal of all three party leaders because grass-root memberships might consider that the inability to win a majority is a plague on all their houses. At this point “stability” ends up in the ashtray.

But it could just be that the Liberal Democrats have taken a peek into the consequences of opening the PR Pandora`s Box. If PR had been in place last Thursday, the situation would be even more unclear and this and future elections would be subject to the paralysis of wrangling, compromise and the absence of a credible mandate in the tough times ahead. More alarmingly, the likes of UKIP would be kingmakers and real bigots from the BNP would sit in the House of Commons.

The future is in the hands of Clegg. Minority governments do not last long and the party leaders` who were at each others throats last week and who are now attempting compromise and consensus in the national interest, are likely to be back in the bear-pit by October. A deal between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives makes most mathematical sense but the risk of being tainted by the inevitable train crash with George Osborne in charge of the economy and the abandonment of reform might rip the Liberals apart again. A deal with Labour would see the removal of Brown and a reliance on the support of all the other minor parties which, given the parlous state of affairs, is probably untenable.

Clegg may choose to cast himself as Seigfried, the slayer of dragons in the Niberlungen or as Parsifal, forever searching for a holy grail which, for whoever ends up occupying 10 Downing Street, might turn out to be a poisoned chalice.

***UPDATE***

An hour is a long time in British politics and Gordon Brown has now announced that he will step down. But the fat lady has yet to sing and this development only increases uncertainty and will lengthen the interregnum between governments.

Nick Clegg was very shrewd on the morning after the election to state that the Conservatives with the greatest share of the vote and more actual seats should have first crack at forming a minority administration. Ignoring what would seem to be a natural alignment between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, with the coy smile of a coquette and the sly wink of a harlot, the message was; “Come and get me, boys”.

This could, of course, have been a bluff to frighten Labour into promising a referendum on voting reform and if it was, it worked. But it could be the case that Clegg is politically closer to David Cameron than he is to Gordon Brown and what seemed like a done deal was halted in its tracks when Liberal Democrat MPs had their say. The shift to an agreement with Labour could also be a double bluff intended to win fresh proposals from Cameron. There is still no sign of the fat lady and the dangerous game that Clegg is playing has resulted in Brown going and a Labour promise on reform and the possibility of Vince Cable becoming Chancellor under a new Labour PM. Nick Clegg knows a thing or two about PR, and not just the proportional representation kind.

No single party, individual or organisation won the 2010 general election, but there are plenty that lost it and with it, their credibility. All the political parties did badly apart from, perhaps, the Greens and the Alliance in Northern Ireland. Other too, lost it, sometimes literally. The BBC seem to think we elect Prime Ministers rather than MPs and spent a fortune on its election night coverage which was beset with technical disasters throughout and is the cost of placing a camera in a helicopter to give us a 15 second shot of a party leader arriving by car at a pub really justifiable?

The press was and is even more bonkers than usual with the Murdoch titles in particular becoming increasingly unhinged by the moment and Sky News reporters, desperate to keep their jobs, have resorted to shouting at people who disagree with what Rupert thinks. There is on YouTube, footage of a senior Sky “journalist” squaring up to Alistair Campbell in the hope that Murdoch will spare him from the cull that is bound to follow the defeat of the News International proprietor.

Brown is going and if Clegg sides with Labour, Cameron will be toast as well. Nick has to be very careful if he wants to stay as party leader because if he falls off the tightrope he is walking his only hope for future employment will be doing PR for Susan Boyle, currently recording her version of “It`s Over” by Roy Orbison.

May 8, 2010

Banana republic

Filed under: Politics — theplastichippo @ 1:11 am

It`s called suffrage and it`s very, very important.

The active right to vote is a relatively recent innovation. Prior to the Representation of the People Act of 1928, men over 21 who did not own property and women under the age of 30 were not allowed the political franchise. It took until 1969 to introduce legislation that allowed all British citizens over the age of 18 to place a cross next to the name of their preferred political representative.

As a nation, we are rightly proud of equal suffrage; the right to vote regardless of race, gender, belief, wealth or social status and we recoil in horror when we see this universal human right abused in nations less democratic than our own. Any regime that disenfranchises its people is considered corrupt and dictatorial and our humanitarian hearts bleed in sympathy for the oppressed.

Following the election night debacle that resulted in hundreds of would-be voters being turned away from polling stations in Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham and London after queuing in the rain for hours, can Britain expect to be hauled before the International Court of Human Rights on charges of crimes against humanity? The thought of a bunch of dreary council officials being considered on a par with Slobodan Milosevic, Pol Pot and Simon Cowell is irresistible but is, sadly, a forlorn hope.

Britain can still hold its head high as the mother of all parliaments with reputation intact because the polling station doors slammed in the faces of the electorate came about due to another fine civic tradition. Utter incompetence.

Not long after the fiasco became apparent, tedious jobsworths were rattling off excuses. They droned on about unprecedented turnout, a Victorian electoral system in need of reform and students turning up to vote for the first time who did not bother to bring their voting cards. One presiding officer described “the absolute laziness” of the electorate. The turnout was only 4% higher than 2005 and the Victorian system seemed to cope in previous elections when turnout was even higher. The voting card states that, even if you are student, you are not required to take it with you to the polling station. Absolute laziness could be defined by not checking on how many people are entitled to vote and then not providing sufficient staff to manage the poll. Astonishingly, some polling stations ran out of ballot papers and it seems like more laziness on the part of returning officers not to ask Sharon down in the print room to run a few more slips through the photocopier.

In an age when we can vote off a celebrity during the commercial break and buy things using something called a mouse, surely it is not beyond the capabilities of the Electoral Commission and local authorities to master the most basic of all democratic procedures. If police officers were called to polling stations to move on frustrated electors who have been denied their right to vote in another country, our indignation would be visceral. Given the current political limbo, the people who are supposed to administer elections have about five months to get it right before it all happens again.

May 4, 2010

It`s SATs time kids

Filed under: Education,Politics — theplastichippo @ 12:14 am

Ed Balls is comedy gold. Born with a name that is beyond parody, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has mad eyes that blink a lot and a mouth that produces utter drivel. His weirdness probably attracted bullying when he attended a private boys school in Nottingham and, as so often is the case, the victim of bullying grew up to be a bully.

The general and local elections on Thursday are a minor distraction to teachers in England`s 17,000 primary schools who, with increasing exasperation, are preparing 600,000 10 and 11 year-olds for the Statutory Assessment Tests in English and Maths that begin on May 10. But this year it`s different. Teachers and Head Teachers have decided to stand up to the bully and boycott the tests.

All teachers and probably most parents agree that testing children is a valuable way of monitoring levels of literacy and numeracy in children and a way of measuring academic development. However, the imposition of SATs testing does neither and instead of merely being an administrative chore, SATs actively disrupts and damages the educational rights of every child.

Every parent and every teacher understands that each child is an individual and develops at a different rate. If they were around today, Ms Schicklgruber would proudly tell you that baby Adolf was walking at six months but Mrs Einstein would sadly relate that Albert didn`t speak a word until he was four-years-old and only then to complain about the soup being too hot. The SATs system assumes that every child is an identical statistic to be number crunched to justify claims that standards and achievement have improved under the current government.

Every child and every school that teaches them is expected to attain the same level of improvement regardless of circumstance. This seems to be a new definition of equality as Marcus, driven to school with his nanny in a Range Rover driven by mummy is judged without prejudice against Kylie who eats pizza in front of the telly in a house devoid of books. Kazsmer, recently arrived and without a word of English is expected to achieve the same arbitrary standard as Dylan, the veteran of 10 Glastonbury’s.

The pressure on schools to reach enforced artificial targets has resulted in the test being taught to stressed children by stressed teachers rather than a full, well-rounded curriculum. Without the required number of kids hitting level 4, the school is branded as “failing” and the government then sends in the Ofsted storm troopers.

But the most insidious result of SATs is that they produce meaningless school league tables which, according to the National Association of Head Teachers, “only serve to humiliate and demean children, their teachers and their communities”. The union has come up with better alternatives. Teacher assessment – you know, those people who are trained to teach and actually know the children – should take the place of SATs as at least this would be an accurate indication of progress or a lack of it. They also suggest that if the DfCSF really want a national picture to crow about, then an anonymous sample of a cross-section of schools would give them the result that they want. This makes sense as it would save a lot of money, give the department figures that it can spin and more importantly stop putting pressure on kids on the cusp of childhood and adolescence.

Mr Balls disagrees. He has scrapped Key Stage 3 SATs for 14-year-olds but doggedly clings to useless tests for 11-year-olds. He has threatened teaching unions with legal action if they go ahead with the boycott and has told school governing bodies to suspend Head Teachers and dock their pay if the tests are not carried out. An economist by trade, Balls only ever enters a classroom to be photographed or filmed for publicity purposes. He seems happiest in early years and is keen to join in with the finger painting and stickle bricks.

He and his wife, fellow cabinet minister Yvette Cooper, have three children and as they work hard in their constituencies to be re-elected, they can easily afford child care when they are out on the stump as they have claimed for a second home to allow their children to go to school in London when the family home is in Yorkshire. His kids are alright, ours are not.

Whatever the outcome of the election on Thursday, be it good or bad for children, or Ed Balls, we can only hope that this stupid, meaningless and wasteful system that gives children, schools and families so much grief is finally consigned to the dustbin of political ambition.

If you want to frighten your kids into doing their homework, show them a picture of Ed Balls. If you want to make them laugh, just say his name.

May 2, 2010

Wait a minute Mr Postman

Filed under: Politics,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 11:27 pm

If you missed the deadline for new applications for postal votes or to vote by proxy in the general and council elections, don`t worry, some kind hearted political activist somewhere might be in a position to make sure your vote is not wasted.

There are various reasons why postal votes are necessary. The housebound, incapacitated and elderly currently enjoying the superb social care lavished on them by Walsall Council need a postal vote because, due to adverse economic conditions, the chauffeur driven limousines’ allocated to take them to the poll have been “repositioned”.

Our armed forces, currently tripping over IED`s in Helmand province, cannot slip out of the fox-hole and take a snatch Land Rover to downtown Lashkar Gar to cast their votes either in support of or against a government that has left them ill-equipped in an illegal war.

Ex-pats, basking in the Spanish sunshine, sipping Sangria paid for by the winter fuel allowance also have the right to participate in the democratic process. But there is another small but growing group of British citizens who are very interested in postal votes.

In theory, postal voting on demand seemed like a good idea as a way of combating voter apathy and woeful turnouts. Less than 60% of the electorate bothered to return Labour to power in 2001. But the system has a serious flaw. The right to a postal vote “on demand” without having to give a valid reason is a fraudsters` charter, particularly in marginal seats where every single vote is vital.

It did not take long for the corrupt minorities in political parties to spot a mile-wide loophole in the system. In 2004, a judge overturned the results of the local elections in Aston and Bordesley Green after six activists including two candidates were caught in a police raid on an empty factory at the dead of night. Between them, they were completing hundreds of postal ballot papers. Their defence was that they were helping “illiterate” locals to vote. In his summing up, Richard Mawrey QC said this;
“Postal voting on demand is lethal to the democratic process. Wholesale electoral fraud is both easy and profitable.”

The government huffed and puffed and promised change but nothing was done. Last year more electoral fraud was uncovered in a Sparkbrook by-election. There are currently at least 39 separate investigations into electoral fraud being conducted by police forces across the country due to “irregularities” in previous elections. An estimated 50 complaints have already been received in the run up to the bun fight on Thursday.

It is worth pointing out here that any comment or discussion of an on-going police inquiry, internal council scrutiny or pending court cases comes under the sub judice rule. Even on a humble blog such as this, any opinions published that could influence proceeding might be considered as contempt of court. More importantly, it could give slimy defence lawyers a chance to claim defamation and therefore an unfair trial, resulting in the guilty escaping justice.

Walsall has its own problems with postal voting. There has been a huge increase in applications for postal votes across the country and in Walsall there are now 24,000 registered postal voters. It could just be that the electoral system in Walsall might not be able to cope with the level of ballot papers coming through the council letter box. Some papers have already been sent with a return envelope addressed to another council a long, long way away.

In marginal wards like Bloxwich East, Brownhills, Birchills Leamore and Palfrey, a swing of less than 100 votes could mean victory. With the postal voting system still open to “massive, systematic and organised fraud”, as the learned judge observed in 2004, perhaps voters wishing to cast their ballots by post should give a reason why and offer some proof of identity and eligibility as part of the process.

It would be shame to see Postman Pat banged up as an accessory to a crime so we should invite official observers to oversee the poll to ensure a fair, free and honest election. Returning Officers in Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Myanmar aren`t doing a lot at the moment. Maybe we should give them a call, they are experts on elections and democracy.

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