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EVEL is silly. Let’s have an English parliament in Tamworth

The idea of EVEL (English Votes for English Legislation) and the resulting chaos of two classes of MPs sitting in the same chamber is so ridiculous that it is hard to see why anyone would take it seriously.

Of the four countries of the union, three already have their own parliaments. Only England does not. Evel recognises the anomaly but dodges recognition of the fact that the United Kingdom has become a federal state.

That leads to the difficult question of where to site the English and UK parliaments: It would not be a good idea to have them in the same city, let alone the same building.

We could build a new federal capital which is not in the territory of any of the states as has happened with Washington DC, Brasilia and Canberra. That does not look practical for the United Kingdom but the City of Westminster could be declared a federal territory.

That would leave the political capital adjacent to the business capital in the City of London.

Then there is the question of where the English parliament should sit. My suggestion is Tamworth, the historic capital of Mercia, the largest kingdom of what was to become England.

It is also geographically central, has good communications with motorways and the proposed route of HS2 passes close-by. Birmingham international airport is only 18 miles away by the M42. It is already the sixth busies international airport and East Midlands airport is only a little further away.

The problem with Tamworth, as the English capital, is its association with the Conservative party. Sir Robert Peel was the town’s MP for good slice of the 19th century and his 1834 Tamworth Manifesto is regarded as the founding document of the modern Conservative party.

But that objection could be overcome: much of the legislation he saw through parliament in his two ministries would be accepted now by all shades as good.

His first stint at prime minister did not go well for reasons every politician today will recognise.  In 1834 he formed a minority Tory government but the Whigs made a compact with Irish Radicals that outvoted the government. Peel’s first ministry lasted 100 days. He did not return to power for six years.


Armenian genocide centenary: a personal reason for remembrance

Today marks the centenary of the Armenian genocide. It ceased to be a remote historical event for me the day I discovered, in the National Archives, that my father’s job at the end of the First World War was feeding survivors.

I was looking for evidence of his part in the rapid advance from Gaza to Aleppo in the last weeks of the war. The war diary of his unit, a horse train supporting the cavalry, is fairly colourless but after the capture of Aleppo it records day-after-day “feeding refugees”. It was chilling to realise what this meant.

Refugees in Aleppo

Refugees in Aleppo 1919. Source: Armenian Genocide Museum

Although the fall of Aleppo was described as a British victory there were few British soldiers there: mostly Arab and Indian units with a few Australians. Pierre Grant-Adamson, my father, who had gone to South Africa in the Boer War, was given a commission by the army there in 1917 to facilitate his return to the UK. He was quickly commissioned in the British forces and sent to Egypt.

I recall him expressing hatred of the Turks and the atrocities they committed but no reference to the Armenian massacres. I was a child and too young to ask the questions I now wish I had. I assumed they were atrocities of war.

Now, I wonder if it was his experiences in Aleppo that led him help and support Jewish refugees in the late 1930s.

It must have been traumatic to be brought face to face with the suffering of the tens of thousands of Armenians in Aleppo. After the initial killings in 1915 and 16 women, children and surviving men were drive out of their homes into the desert. The Syrian city and the camps beyond it were the place where many arrived.

This extract is from a speech Randell Davidson, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1919:

All the young men… had in every single case been taken away, and the old men, the women, and the children were the people who survived to be the victims of the deportation— From the village of E 212 individuals set out, of whom 128 (60 per cent.) reached Aleppo alive; 56 men and 11 women were killed on the road, 3 girls and 9 boys were sold or kidnapped, and 5 people were missing. From the same place another party of 696 people were deported; 321 (46 per cent.) reached Aleppo: 206 men and 57 women were killed en route; 70 girls and young women and 19 boys were sold; 23 were missing. From the village of D a party of 128 were deported, of whom 32 (25 per cent.) reached Aleppo alive: 24 men and 12 women were killed en route; 29 girls and young women and 13 boys were sold; and 18 were missing. I have purposely taken not one of the many accounts which give the facts in their detail, but a summary of that which the observer found to be the outcome. If we remember the phrase that “seventy girls and young women, and nineteen boys were sold,” and we look over the page to see what that means we find how, as they passed each town, the girls or young women were in most cases paraded in front of the house of any Turkish buyer who chose to come and take them for purposes described in detail, so unutterably horrible—girls being constantly done to death by those who took them in this way—as make the records appalling to read.

The quoted material in his speech was from a report prepared for the UK parliament.

The terror for the Armenians did not end with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. In 1922 the British consul in Aleppo wrote to London about an area close to the Syrian border:

… on November 8 the Turks gave notice to the Armenians of Aintab & Marash and of the district, stretching Eastward to Birejik, that they must all leave the country in a month. This is done in pursuance of the policy that no Christians are to be allowed to stay in Turkey.

Aintab which formerly held 40000 Armenians now contains only 3000.

That the UK continues to appease the Turkish government by refusing to describe the massacres as genocide is a shame on our country. Others have classified the events as genocide and the Pope recently followed his predecessor in using the term.



Extraordinary election journalism from the Guardian

Today’s Guardian front page splash is an extraordinary piece of election journalism. It runs under a very long narrative headline:

From the Mail? In you go. From the Sun? Very welcome. From the Telegraph? That’s fine, have a seat at the front. From the Guardian? No way. Electioneering, Tory-style

Front page, April 23,

Front page, April 23,

The story is accompanied by a picture of Boris Johnson and David Cameron, at the nursery event from which the Guardian was excluded, holding up hands stained UKIP purple rather than Toy blue (but that might be printing fault). The nearest journalistic parallel I can think of is the stories which used to appear fairly regularly in regional papers, when they were banned from football matches because a team did not like their coverage.



The story, by feature writer Marina Hyde (licensed to comment), quickly broadens into an attack on Cameron’s campaign and his avoidance of meeting anyone not selected by his large team of minders. She writes (on the website the headline has become, ‘Lethal weapon’ Boris unveiled as giant voter defence shield for Cameron):

Of all the unedifying sights I’ve seen so far this campaign, the sorriest has to be Cameron’s entourage forming a protective huddle round him on a busy platform at Bedford station on Wednesday morning, while the prime minister’s eyes darted nervously about, wondering where his late-running train was. He wore the anxious air of a man who absolutely does not wish to be approached, and his fellow passengers could only have clocked it. He made eye contact with no one, and no one came up to him, until a lone woman asked for a picture. He didn’t seem to know quite what to say, essaying a half-arsed, “Fifteen days to go!” “I’m off to spend the day with Boris, which is always an entertainment …” he concluded, sounding like it was always a massive ballache.

Among the general election campaigns I have watched, 2015 is marked by the least contact between politicians and voters, other than those known to be supporters. How can it be, that politicians, who are asking to go to the House of Commons to heckle and be heckled at prime minister’s questions, are so afraid of queries from the electorate?

Marina Hyde does cast some light on how the electorate is being sidelined. she writes:

As for his [Cameron’s] vast road crew … students of political esoterica may care to know that the Tory operatives have a whole badge system going on this election. There are countless people whose job seems to be to busy themselves being busy (what was it Jaap Stam said about the Neville brothers?). Each has a small circular metal badge on their lapel. Some are yellow, some are green, some are red. There may be other colours.

Perhaps they’re medals – the purple hearts of stage management. I’d guess that they have their roots – like most desperately self-parodic elements of British life – in the petty, endlessly pointless hierarchies of a minor public school shortly after the end of empire.

The Guardian had yet to decide how, or if, it will advise readers to vote. My guess is it will be, anything to keep the Conservatives out unless the alternative is UKIP.

The average UK vote is worth 3.33 times mine. Time for PR

My vote is worth less than that of most people, The average UK voter has 3.33 times as much power as I do, according to Voter Power. a website using data from the New Economics Foundation.

In other words, I would have to vote more than three times to have the influence of the elusive average man or woman. To try to do that would be illegal so I will not try.

The disparity of power for voters in Central Suffolk and North Ipswich is because it is a very safe seat (for the Conservatives).

Data like these are used by the central campaign organisations of all the parties to help decide where they will put in the effort to get people to change their vote. Numbers of key voters are hotly disputed but the numbers of people who can change a general election result are often counted in the tens of thousands.

This is because small local swings make huge differences in the first-past-the-post system. If we want to make every vote count more equally we need to move to a system of proportional representation.

The existing system has suited the big parties well (Labour and Conservatives have been against change while the Lib Dems, who are under represented, have wanted it).

But now that we seem to be entering a time of less binary political power the pressure for proportional voting is likely to increase.

The Scottish parliament website says members “are chosen using a system called the Additional Member System (AMS). This system allows people to have a local constituency MSP and also adds other members to make the overall result more proportional. In this way more viewpoints are represented in Parliament.”

Currently the SNP has 64 of the 128 MSPs. In this general election with the first-past-the-post system the prediction they will almost sweep the board is worrying both the Conservatives and Labour.

This might just change English attitudes towards a more proportionate electoral system.

I have complained about the lack of attention from candidates and so has Mark Valladres, another Suffolk blogger, who last week wrote a post: Creeting St Peter: the candidate doesn’t even knock once… 

If he checks out the Voter Power website it will discover his vote, in Bury St Edmunds constituency, is worth more than mine – but not a lot.

The data at the Voter Power  site is also used by Democratic Dashboard, set up by people at the London School of Economics, which has a wealth of other information about the election in individual constituencies.



English newspapers and political parties are looking increasing like English nationalists

This morning a consensus among the London-based newspapers is emerging and it looks like English nationalism. It takes the form of presenting Nicola Sturgeon as a “demon” — not my word but that of a veteran media commentator, Roy Greenslade, in bis blog.

Splash headlines in both the Telegraph and The Times use the word “ransom”. Greendale writes:

Gone is the praise for her TV performances. Now she [Nicola Sturgeon] is the election’s demon figure as far as Fleet Street’s blue newspapers are concerned….

The sudden realisation that the Scottish nationalist tail could end up wagging the Westminster (Labour) dog is the major concern of most of today’s London-based national newspapers.

In a Telegraph column about the SNP today, Boris Johnson, asks:

You wouldn’t get Herod to run a baby farm, would you?

The Guardian, in which Greenslade writes, has a straightforward interview with Sturgeon in which she talks about the SNP being a “constructive participant” at Westminster. Matthew D’Ancona, one of the paper’s columnists concludes:

How can a prime minister who has to run everything past Holyrood be taken seriously? Such an outcome would, of course, be worse for Cameron than Miliband. But only just.

From the papers today and the words of both Cameron and Miliband, I get a sense that they have given up on the United Kingdom and are taking English nationalist positions. There is a reluctance to accept that an English majority is trumped by a UK-wide majority however a government is cobbled together.

Scotland has been effectively ruled by by whoever could muster a majority in England for a very long time. It is a some years ago, but few north of the border are likely to forget the way Margaret Thatcher used Scotland as a colonial guinea pig for her doomed poll tax.

Could it be that the centenary of the UK losing Ireland (except for the gerrymandered six counties) will be marked in 2022 by a majority in Scotland voting for independence?

David Torrance, a columnist in the Glasgow published Herald, get down the fundamentals of the campaigns::

For all its talk of promoting “the good life”, the Conservatives ultimately want a smaller state; for all its promises of fiscal rectitude Labour wants (one would hope) a more socially just society, while for all their non-constitutional policy agendas the SNP and UKIP want independence for Scotland and the UK respectively. Anything parties say and do during an election campaign is but a contrivance to further those central aims.

1959 election marked the start Tories slow decline in Scotland

In 1959, as a junior reporter of only a few weeks, I had my first taste of covering a general election. In those days politicians used their right to free use of school halls for election meetings and even the rawest recruit to the paper had to report on them.

My abiding memory is that the Conservatives draped the speaker’s table with the Union flag and that because they were public meetings there was always at least one heckler in the hall. Candidates would do several meetings in a day.

I worked for the Leamington Morning News, the smallest daily paper in the UK. Only Conservative and Labour candidates were contesting the Warwick and Leamington seat.

John Hobson, later attorney general, was defending the seat which he had won two years before following Anthony Eden’s post-Suez resignation.

His Labour opponent William Wilson,went on to win a Coventry seat and earned his place in history piloting the Divorce Reform Act of 1969. That changed the grounds for divorce from matrimonial offences to the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage.

Two of my senior colleagues decided Hobson was not seeing how the other half lived and arranged to go with him to a council estate. They chose a house at random, knocked on the door.

It was not what they expected. There were thick fitted carpets and the tenant welcomed Hobson, opened a well-stocked cocktail cabinet and offered him a drink.

England was changing and the Conservatives won the election with an increased majority. Looking back, the most significant change in 1959 was that for the first time the Conservatives won fewer seats than Labour in Scotland.

This year the Conservatives are fighting to retain their last toe hold in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale: a 2% advantage for the SNP according to Lord Ashcroft’s latest poll but the margin for error means it is too close to call.

Labour is also facing wipe-out at the hands of the SNP.

If we count the change in Scottish politics from 1959, the evolution has taken 56 years.



2½ weeks is a long time in an election – anything could happen

2½ weeks is a long time in an election campaign. Either the Conservatives or Labour could yet win an overall majority. Or, a little more likely, one of them could make a big error and lose.

That  has to be the basis on which the strategists are fighting the campaign. And that is what is behind all the posturing about danger of dysfunctional coalitions.

Ed Miliband simply can’t say he would do business with Nicola Sturgeon. If he said he was prepared to form a Government with Scottish Nationalist support he would also be telling his own party members in Scotland that there was no point in voting Labour.

And that is just the message Sturgeon wants to get across.

In much the same way David Cameron cannot say he would rule with the support of UKIP. The Lib Dems say they would not support Conservative welfare cuts, but their credibility is shot by their record on student fees.

No party is in a position to say what it would do in the event of it not having an overall majority and having to seek a coalition or some looser form of support. It would be electoral suicide.

That is why they try to get the other side to say what they would do and so make one of the mistakes that lose elections. We have reached the situation where no party’s policies look like winning the election. But it would still be easy to lose the election

It is only in the early hours of May 8 that we will start to see if there is a need for the wolf to dwell with the lamb and the leopard to lie down with the kid.

Then the realistic bargaining can begin and it could result in some strange bedfellows and take a long time. But not as long as the 16 months taken by the Belgians in 2010-11.

The Young Fabians say in a thoughtful blog post the foundations are already being laid:

In the new era of multi-party politics the manifestos produced by all the parties take on a fresh significance as coded love letters to would-be partners in government.

And after a bit of decoding it concludes:

The seedy game of footsie between the progressive parties will continue right up to, and beyond, May 7th. Yet Labour has been more forward towards its potential partners than many realise. A subtle, but aggressive, pitch to plurality could be all the difference when the votes are in.

Put MPs on zero hours contracts. ‘It’s clearly not a full-time job,’ says Tory mag writer

Putting MPs on zero hours contracts is an idea which has a certain mischievous appeal. That it should come from the Conservative Spectator magazine owned, along with the Daily Telegraph, by the Barclay brothers is a surprise.

Of course, they would not be called “zero hours” which Ian Duncan Smith told Sky News this morning should be rebranded as “flexible hours contracts”. They are good for your “work life balance”, the Work and Pensions secretary is reported as saying by The Independent.

Journalist Ross Clark expands on the idea in the Spectator’s Coffee House blog under the headline. “It’s time to put all our MPs on “flexible hours contracts“.

He explains…

IDS would have a much easier job of convincing the electorate on this had he gone further and recommended that one particular group of workers was switched to the contracts: MPs. I am not trying to belittle the job of being a parliamentarian, nor try to assert that it is on a skill level with shelf-stacking. Scrutinising legislation is a skilled activity which deserves to be paid well. A rate of £100 an hour would be appropriate, I think.

But being an MP is clearly not a full-time job. How could it be when 100 or so of them combine being MPs with ministerial jobs and many others continue to work on outside careers? There is a fairly obvious answer: only to employ MPs when they are required: when there is business to debate in the House of Commons or legislation to scrutinise on one of the committees.

Sounds like a good idea but getting the necessary legislation through the house would be a lot harder than the protracted business of forming a government we are expecting after the election.

But perhaps the bill could be introduced in the House of Lords whose members are already only paid when they turn up. Lords who get a ministerial salary are not allowed to claim the daily attendance allowance according to the Parliament website.

Notes on a quiet election in rural England

Here in Debenham, a village in the heart of Suffolk, it is hard to tell there is an election going on. I have not seen a campaign poster nor has any leaflet from a party or candidate come through my door. Rarely are party political conversations heard in the village.

It is not really surprising, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich is a Conservative hegemony. Dr Dan Poulter, the MP, is sitting on a majority of 13,786. Political activists have presumably been drafted in to marginal constituencies in the eastern region.

Labour needs to win the bellwether seat of Ipswich which Ben Gummer took in 2010, turning a Labour majority of 5,332 into a Conservative victory by 2,099 votes. Shortly before the last election a Daily Telegraph review of his book on the black death suggested his victory would be a loss for literature. He is a personable man, a hard-working constituency MP and a very good writer: I look forward to his next book. (And, yes, he is the son of Lord Deben aka John Gummer.)

Both parties are getting as many activists as they can muster to canvas and leaflet Ipswich.

To the north of Debenham there is a fascinating battle in Norwich South which is one of Green’s key target seats. On the face of it, this is a marginal with a Lib Dem majority over Labour of 310 last time. The Greens were in fourth place with just under 15% of the vote.

But the Greens have a very strong organisation in Norwich: 15 seats on the City Council making it the opposition to the ruling about group which has 21 councillors. So the parliamentary constituency is demanding as many activists as the Lib Dems, Labour and the Greens can find.

So it is no surprise that there are few people canvass the electors of Central Suffolk. Voters go to the poll knowing their vote is not going to change the winner, but the result may be an indication of some underlying trends. How the Green candidate does will be interesting.

Last time the result was:

Results 2010

Table from Wikipedia

This year there are six candidates:

  • Jack Abbott (Labour)
  • Mark Cole (UKIP)
  • Rhodri Griffiths (Green Party)
  • Tony Holyoak (English Democrats)
  • Jon Neal (Liberal Democrat)
  • Dr Dan Poulter (Conservative)

Dan Poulter in open neck shirt.

It would take a major earthquake to unseat Dr Dan Poulter. He is a medical doctor and in his first term has become a health minister. I was disappointed to see him accept the restrictions of being part of the pay roll vote so soon (his predecessor Michael Lord was a deputy speaker and as such did not do politics). Dan Poulter is very active in the constituency and in his newsletters seems to avoid mentioning that he is a minister but concentrates on constituency matters particularly in the health area.

The only complaint I have heard about him comes from Conservative sources: he is reluctant to wear a tie and by having two shirt buttons undone he reveals his hairy chest.

Of the other candidates I know little except what is to be found on the web.

Jack Abbott, lives not far from me in Debenham, and at the age of 23 has become a welcome younger voice on the parish council. If standing in an unwinnable seat is the first step in an ambition for a political career he will be keen to make the best fist of it that he can.

But there is no sign of an army of supporters. I could not even find a biography of him on the local party website. But they do offer “free delivery” if anyone would like a Labour election poster.

The Diss Express does rather better, telling us he “has lived in the local area for over 12 years, attending Debenham High School, and said his interest in politics was triggered while studying at Sheffield University. Nick Clegg was the local MP and backtracked on his pre-election pledge not to vote for higher tuition fees.

And he raises an issue which is hugely important in many rural areas but which I have not heard any of the big guns raising. The paper reported:

Mr Abbott also said there was a “brain drain of young, talented people my age, who go away to university and don’t come back.” Part of that was due to a lack of graduate jobs and poor or expensive housing provision, issues facing everyone, but younger people were under-represented and Mr Abbott hopes to redress the balance.

Rhodri Griffiths, the Green candidate is a former Welsh deputy headmaster who has retired to Suffolk. He looks like a safe pair of hands for his party having previous experience in local government and standing as a parliamentary candidate in Wales.

His aspirations are realistic, saying on the Mid Suffolk Green’s website: “I aim to, at the very least, save my deposit at the general election in May!’

He might do better than that. Green support in the area has been building for several years. They have four councillors on Mid Suffolk District Council and in Debenham their candidate in 2011 pipped Labour by two votes to take second place.

Tony Holyoak is the parliamentary candidate for the English Democrats in Central Suffolk and North Ipswich.” That is all his About page on Facebook says about him. I don’t really want to know more.

Mark Cole, UKIP, runs a driving school in Essex but was brought  up in Suffolk. The UKIP website has a little more information.

Jon Neal, Lib Dem, is a Suffolk lad who returned to county a couple of years ago to work at an agricultural communications agency in Woodbridge. He has stood in the last three elections against David Davies in Haltemprice and Howden so has extensive experience of fighting in safe Tory seats.

He has a degree in British Politics and Legislative Studies according to his website.

Afterword: Since writing the above I have received my first election leaflet; it is for Kathie Guthrie the Conservative seeking re-election to the District Council on the same day as the general election. It was wrapped around Dan Poulter’s newsletter.

Suffolk Local News has no specific”vote for me” message.  Neither is there any mention of his role as a health minister in the main item headed: “Poulter protects our hospitals”. Odd.

Money will not solve health service problems. Morale needs lifting too. That goes for the whole public sector.

A British Medical Association poll of GPs which suggests a third of them are thinking about retirement in the next five years indicates ills which which will not be solved by giving the NHS more money. One in ten said they were considering working abroad.

The BBC report says doctors cited factors which had a negative impact on their commitment to being a GP  including:

  • excessive workload 71%,
  • un-resourced work being moved into general practice 54% and
  • not enough time with their patients 43%.

This suggests to me very bad morale among doctors. And in any workplace poor morale inevitably leads to low productivity. Doctors will claim their productivity is high and demonstrated by the fact they do not have enough time with patients. But it is very difficult to recognise your own low productivity.

Yet if you asked them what changes they wanted there would be a string of suggestions to make their work more efficient.

We are seeing low morale right across the public services, in the health service, education, local and central government and the emergency services. In many areas this is a result of pay freezes and redundancies coupled with feelings of not being valued by central government, local councils and their immediate bosses.

Money alone will not solve the NHS problems, But that is the only solution the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour are suggesting in their election promises.

I would be more impressed by politicians who promised to tackle public service morale, making the jobs ones to be proud of, where employees ideas are listened to. These politicians would rightly insist on monitoring the quality of work but would not centralise everything, recognise that diktats solve little and that box ticking inspections alienate.

David Cameron’s promises on GP access must be adding to concerns of hard-working GPs. Pulse, the general practice magazine, reports:

The Prime Minister said: ‘People want to be able to see their GP at a time that suits them and their family. That is why we will make sure that everyone can see a GP seven days a week by 2020.

‘We will also support thousands more GP practices to stay open longer – giving millions of patients better access to their doctor.’

The magazine continues:

GPs and leading academics have already warned that extending GP access in this way will make general practice more overstretched and could subsequently reduce the continuity of patient care.

A Pulse survey in April revealed that more than half of GPs believe that the Government’s move towards seven-day GP access will negatively affect the safety of patient care.

GPC chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: ‘This announcement fails to grasp the reality of a GP service struggling under extreme strain and without the capacity to meet current demands, resulting in patients already waiting too long to see their GP.

From the middle of Suffolk where I live Cameron’s promise of 12 hours a day access, seven days a week, to a GP looks daft. It would not be an efficient use of doctors. If the promise was to revert to an out-of-hours serve run and staffed by the county’s doctors together with some extra surgery hours to suit people who work away from the village I think there would be a lot more public support.

But we need to listen to what GPs themselves have to suggest about ways to improve the service.