So, having stayed up all Thursday night to watch the results, and having been glued to TV, radio, newspapers, blogs and (especially) Twitter ever since, I now find myself watching a live stream of nothing happening in front of a teal blue door as the future of the government is not announced – yet. Is there a medical name for an unhealthy obsession with events you have no power to influence?
I’m not sure I completely buy the “there’s no need to be afraid of a hung parliament” schtick that’s been going around since Cleggmania first hit. I don’t believe our politicians are grown-up enough to act in the nation’s interest and come together in the kind of coalition people seem to have in mind when they talk about it (interesting how “hung-parliament” elides neatly into “coalition government” in so many articles about the subject). I’m pessimistic enough to fear squabbling, back room deals and horse-trading on an epic scale and a re-run of the ’70s when sick MPs were carried through the lobbies on stretchers to keep the government of the day in business. But even that is better than what we have now. I’ve never seen a better argument for political reform than this - tactical voting guidance for how to vote if you’re in a Lib/Con or Con/Lab marginal, a Lab or Lib seat with a very small majority, a new constituency created by boundary changes or one of the oddities where minority parties have a shout. I’m lucky that my personal preference and the tactical necessity in this constituency point the same way so I can vote for what I want with a clear conscience. But if a hung parliament is the way to get political reform so that we never have to do this again, then bring it on. And, please vote.
I find myself praying nightly for a hung parliament. Partly because I want to see some long overdue political reform, but mainly, I have to confess, out of morbid curiosity to see what happens when the old system finally implodes.
On a purely personal level it will probably mean another election soon (the Tories are already tapping up their donors, apparently). As purdah has stopped much of the work I’ve been doing in its tracks and put a serious dent in my cash flow, that won’t be good for business. (Although I suppose no one within touching distance of the public sector will be able to afford to do anything at all soon, so I’ll be forced to diversify either way!)
For once I wish I was back inside a Department just to see this unfolding from the inside. The one general election campaign fought when I was working in Whitehall felt like a foregone conclusion. Lip service was paid to the possibility that things might change, but no-one really believed that it would. I remember writing lots of pointless briefing on the state of policy for new Ministers who I knew wouldn’t be walking through the door, and doing lots of compare-and-contrast of party manifestos to prepare colleagues for change that we knew wasn’t going to happen. It must feel very different in there now. For fellow obsessives, here’s the BBC’s take on what happens in a hung parliament and what Gus O’Donnell has said about the roles civil servants might play.
Turned the Today programme off, violently, at ten past eight this morning, but not before shouting things at James Naughtie that, had they been picked up on Sky, I would certainly have had to apologise for.
I lost it when Naughtie said that, by agreeing to the leaders’ debates, Gordon Brown made the election camapaign into a personality contest so must accept it when his personality becomes the story of the day. The idea that the media have been diligently following policy issues for years until being forced to talk about personalities by the sight of politicians debating in public is as hilarious as it’s infuriating. The papers have been desperate for something like this to happen to liven things up. They’ve finally got the gaffe they’ve been waiting for. Watch them make the most of it.
Trying to remember the last time I read a local newspaper. The headline in the local paper the day we moved in was Poplar Gang in Meatcleaver Bloodbath - which you’d think would be enticing enough to make me take out a lifetime subscription. But I don’t think I’ve looked at the Advertiser since. There are lots of reasons why. I live in the East End, but generally work and socialise elsewhere, and as I didn’t grow up round here my sense of belonging to a local community is pretty shaky. (As a side issue, I wonder if I’m unusual in not being locally engaged? And, if I’m not, does this make community action as a way of running public services look particularly flaky in London and other big cities?)
A lack of information becomes an issue when there are local elections being fought. I’ve seen no campaigning going on round here apart from a Respect battlebus which occasionally thunders along the Mile End Road. I haven’t been canvassed by anyone, there are few leaflets for the general election never mind the local one. There are lots of don’t-vote-for-Gordon-Brown-he’s-got-a-silly-grin posters, but they don’t help with local issues. There’s a referendum going on in Tower Hamlets to install a directly elected mayor that I didn’t even know was happening.
I’ll accept that my ignorance is my own fault, but having realised the problem I’m at a loss to know how to put it right. I can follow Tim Donovan’s BBC London blog, but he’s really writing about how national policy from the big three parties will affect London. The same is true for the Standard. London’s too big and too complex for even the BBC to get down to really local detail. Which is why I looked at today’s East London Advertiser and found, well, not much. There is – shiver me timbers! – a pirate standing at the general election, but nothing about the local poll. It’s completely unfair to judge the paper on one edition, but it’s hard not to think of Nick Davies‘ warning of the decline of local newspapers and the sense that as they decline so does local democracy. The local papers are also under attack from local authority freesheets pumped out by councils wanting to show what a good job they do. So, I suppose I do see a local paper every week – East End Life - where the idea of great headline is something like Council Achieves Record Levels of Satisfaction. I’m just not sure I want to base my vote on it.
Posted in Election 2010, newspapers
Tagged BBC London, East End LIfe, East London Advertiser, elected Mayor, Evening Standard, Flat Earth News, local democracy, local government elections, local newspapers, Nick Davies, Tower Hamlets referendum
We must accentuate the positive – a Tory chorus since Friday. So here’s a sneak preview of their next PPB - looks like they have Michael Gove on lead vocals, and is that an unexpected recall for John Redwood on piano?
1. We are too skint to have been away over Easter and so are not now stranded with two children and caffeine poisoning at a foreign airport, ferry port, Eurostar terminal or beach-head
2. Not only does Cleggmania put a spanner in the Tories’ works (just feel the outrage fizzing off the Mail’s presses – someone was stupid enough to let David Cameron prove that that he’s second rate. Heads must roll!) But just as satisfying, it could also really upset Rupert Murdoch
3. Spring is sprung, the grass is ris, and you can hear the birds in the back garden
Can’t claim to be the first to post this today – there are doubtless countless versions of this being uploaded onto blogs across the country. Here’s my contribution to the Bartlet tsunami. If only tonight was going to be half as much fun.
And here’s a question I’ve been waiting for someone to ask since this woeful campaign started:
Moderator: Governor Ritchie, many economists have stated that the tax cut, which is the centerpiece of your economic agenda, could actually harm the economy. Is now really the time to cut taxes?
Gov. Ritchie: You bet it is. We need to cut taxes for one reason – the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.
Moderator: Mr. President, your rebuttal.
Bartlet: There it is. That’s the ten word answer my staff’s been looking for for two weeks. There it is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now. (Debate Camp)
I was intrigued by yesterday’s story that the Tories will save money by capping pay at the top of the public sector so that no-one earns more than 20 times the lowest paid. They also say they won’t fill vacancies in public sector back-office functions when they arise.
Apparently bosses at 10 of the companies supporting the Tory plans for NI would take a combined £74m pay cut if the rule were to be applied to them. Or, as one letter in the Guardian points out, Stuart Rose can have his way on CEO’s pay as long as shelf-stackers at M&S get £750,000. Sadly, this doesn’t seem likely.
I don’t have a problem with slimming down government. Some public sector pay packages are excessive. Of course there will be cuts, and there is waste to be eliminated – although not as much as is being claimed. I’ve worked with officials on very high salaries who couldn’t manage their way out of a paper bag and that isn’t acceptable. My problem is with the sense that the private sector is to be protected at all costs, while the public sector is for losers who can’t hack it in the real world, and who don’t do anything important anyway so no-one will miss them when they’re gone.
There’s certainly an argument that government can no longer afford to do everything. The politicans’ job is to make some principled choices about what work needs to continue and what should stop, so that the important areas that remain can be properly supported. Announcing what these priorities will be would allow the electorate to make an informed choice about what might happen after an election. Fudging that issue pre-election, or pretending that the problem can be solved by screwing down pay in the public sector and allowing services to be run like a giant game of musical chairs is dishonest.
When I worked in government departments purdah always came as something of a relief. Purdah is the period before an election when new government business or announcements about new business are put on hold so as not to sully the fairness and purity of the democratic process. It means that for almost a month government communications departments can come off the announcement-a-day, got-to-look-busy treadmill and catch up on refreshing the website, doing something about planning for later in the year and generally doing those things that never rise far enough up the To Do list to actually get done.
On the outside, purdah is a curse. There are no hard and fast rules as to what can and can’t be done or what forms of communication are OK and what has to stop, The range of possible activity is so vast that no rule book could cover everything. Instead there is general guidance, guidance for civil servants, and dire warnings about what happens if you get it wrong. Because no-one understands the rules, everyone takes the most cautious possible approach to applying the guidance. Pretty much all activity stops.
I’m currently doing some work for an NDPB (non-departmental public body, close relative of the ALB - arms-length body, descendants of the great mother goddess Quango .) My client has just informed me that everything I’m doing MUST stop next week – which is the best guess as to when the election is going to be called - even though the calling of the election isn’t the start of purdah. My stuff can in no way be considered to be public communication, but so great is the fear of getting it wrong that even useful development activity is stopped until hostilities are over (I sympathise with their point of view, by the way, even though I disagree that the guidance fits this particular case.)
At the moment no-one knows when the election is going to be, and the shadow of purdah has been limiting what new work is commissioned since the turn of the year. At one point March 25 was considered a possible election date, so purdah would have kicked in at some point in February (and presumably started up again three weeks before the local elections in May). The general election might still be pushed back to June 3, which means full-steam ahead until May, and I will have wasted a couple of hours of Good Friday finishing off stuff which could have waited until next week.
I appreciate that allowing freelancers to enjoy their bank holidays may not be the most important reason to back fixed-term parliaments, but a bit of clarity would help everyone and would at least mean that business can be planned around a timetable that has some relation to reality.