A rash prediction

There aren’t many certainties around the UK General Election due in May, so everyone says. As the proportion of voters backing Labour or the Tories, even under First Past The Post, dwindles, the maths become much more unpredictable. Sure, it seems extremely likely that the SNP will be the third largest party, eclipsing the Lib Dems, but that seems so plausible partly because so few people have any idea why anyone would still vote Lib Dem. But some continue to do so, inexplicable as it is.

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 12.49.10One thing that seems almost certain, though, is that there will be no Tory/UKIP coalition, barring a ‘kipper surge from the ~15% they’re currently polling.

The numbers and mechanics of majorities are vertiginously stacked against it. To the left are the five constituencies where the bookies think they’re going to win (h/t Kris Keane): Carswell’s Clacton plus four more that do not include Mark Reckless in Rochester and Strood.

It seems like a plausible list, although tactical voting in both directions will make it pretty unpredictable.

Let’s start with two clear rules. No sensible smaller party goes into formal coalition where the larger party already has a majority (and few larger parties offer it). And no sensible smaller party takes part in a coalition where they don’t get their larger partners over the line.

So, assuming UKIP win just those five seats, the Tories would need to be between one and nine seats short of a majority for it to be even worth considering for either party (ten short plus UKIP would see it come down to the Speaker’s casting vote). But for the Tory party, being short by just one seat would be pretty indistinguishable from being ahead by just one. The DUP would probably vote for Cameron for PM, in the “one short” scenario, and even in the “one ahead” scenario they’d be vulnerable to every single Tory backbencher with a grievance or a principle. Why give Farage a bigger national stage to swap one sort of uncertainty for another?

No, in order for UKIP to be a plausible partner for the Tories, the latter would need to have fallen significantly short, yet the two together would have to comprise a clear working majority. For example (and this feels like the bare minimum for it to be considered), if the Tories were fifteen short and UKIP won twenty seats, then coalition might be possible. Just possible. UKIP winning twenty seats is a stretch to say the least (remember when Farage got beaten by a man in a dolphin costume when Labour and the Tories weren’t standing?), and the Tories being just the right amount short is also exceptionally unlikely (they were twenty short in 2010, although none of this takes into account the Sinn Fein MPs who don’t take their seats). Combine that with the natural antipathy between two parties from the same “family”, and the whole thing becomes vanishingly unlikely.

This scenario is written about as plausible, but only because it suits various people to do so (UKIP, the sensation-hungry in the media, Labour, the SNP etc). I’d say it’s about as likely as tossing two coins and having them both land on their edge. Just this side of impossible.

The Smith Revolution

Another guest post from our pal Duncan Thorp on the Smith Commission report. Thanks Duncan!

chesmithLenin, Guevara, Khomeini, Robespierre, Smith. Well not quite, but change of some kind is coming, it transpires.

Broadly speaking, the Smith report is what we could have predicted. It’s somewhere between the radical demands of the maximum devolutionaries (“everything but war/money/foreigners”) and the counter-revolutionaries.

It’s fair to say that the result was not weak and tokenistic but it wasn’t even in the next village to Home Rule either. It somehow feels reluctant and slightly miserable, with an occasional spark of genuine enthusiasm.

There may also be a hidden sting in the tail in areas such as Income Tax; the package could be a mixed blessing. With devolution of certain financial powers but not others, an awkward settlement might leave a Scottish government simply forced to implement Westminster cuts. We’ll wait and see.

Also why was the process like 1979 and not like 1997? I.e. it was about a list of powers to be devolved – as opposed to a specific set of powers retained at Westminster, and then everything left over was devolved.

There are many additional policy and tax powers that could make more of a difference and improve lives, like corporate and employment law and regulation. Smith was absolutely right to say that we should have “powers with a purpose”. There wasn’t enough of that specific thinking.

Here are some examples where the devolution of company and employment law could have huge benefits for everyone, gradually achieved over time:

  • Statutory CSR and beyond for businesses (phased legal reform to genuinely balance profit with social/environmental concerns).
  • 50/50 gender equality on all company boards.
  • A living wage (end state subsidy for in-work benefits – plus no tax paid by anyone earning it at a 35 hour week or less).
  • Pay ratios (pay of CEO linked to lowest paid worker in the business).
  • Right to employee ownership (democratic vote to ask the workforce if it wants a co-operative).
  • Employees and customers elected to sit on the boards of all large businesses.
  • FOI laws to apply to any business delivering public services (this could already partially happen in a devolved context).
  • Better regulation for harmful industries like tobacco and weapons.
  • Minimum of 1% of the workforce of all big businesses from hard to reach groups – ex-offenders, long term unemployed etc.

Many of these ideas are now mainstream as we simply seek to build a more prosperous economy and more profitable and ethical businesses. Policies that are not that radical anymore and not “right wing” or “left wing” either.

Devolution needs to be more of a revolution after the Smith report. Real change will only happen if the process doesn’t stop at the doors of The Scottish Parliament too – it’s about genuine localism, neighbourhood democracy and local community empowerment.

The unspoken point underpinning this whole process is “why devolve anything else at all?” Indeed why do we have devolution in the first place? Why can’t or won’t the Westminster System of governance reform society? If a UK Labour government was elected why wouldn’t they just do these kinds of things?

The answer is that it’s not about political parties or their policies, it’s about continuing with a failed, undemocratic political-economic system that pro-actively prevents change. The centralised Westminster System is slow and conservative and always will be and it’s bad for everyone in the UK. Perhaps the revolution will happen after the next election in that London.

Political and economic power goes hand in hand. Both need to be relentlessly decentralised, shared, dispersed, spread and pulled downwards to streets and neighbourhoods across the entire UK. Proper devolution. Scotland is currently leading the devolution agenda – but there’s plenty more to come.

(N.B. If you don’t like the Smith report at least recycle it, burning is so bad for the planet).

The Black Dog on My Shoulder

A fair few people found Malc‘s last blogpost about depression pretty helpful. Here’s a wee followup. Thanks Malc!

malc-bigFive weeks ago I decided to write about my battle with depression in this article.  Five weeks later, I thought I’d write an update, hoping that I’d be in a better place.  In truth, that was probably a failure in expectation – a fairly common experience in this journey I think.

The slight increase in medication didn’t really do anything for me for the first three weeks.  I had a couple of pretty bad episodes.

The first, I was away at a conference in Berlin.  At times I felt really good – I’m contributing a book chapter to an edited volume and we were discussing the theoretical framework, methodological issues and themes which would tie the chapters together.  Oftentimes this feels a bit out of reach for me, but I genuinely felt like I belonged in the discussion, which is progress.  On the other hand – the lack of familiarity, the vulnerability of not being able to speak the language and the distance from home comforts took their toll.  I opted out of the conference dinner to go for a walk then head to bed early, feeling better in my own company and not trusting myself to hold interesting conversations with the other participants.  The following morning it took me 40 minutes to get myself roused and out of bed – and I was presenting during the morning session that day.

The second, I was at home.  And I just couldn’t get out of bed.  Trying to explain this to someone who doesn’t have depression is pretty difficult.  I guess it’s like if you break a vertebrae or something – you physically can’t get out of bed.  Depression is (I suppose) like a chemical imbalance which has the same effect – part of your brain is screaming its desire to move, your body reacts to the other part of your brain which just says “no”.  There was no specific trigger, no reason that I was more “depressed” this day than others – I just couldn’t get out of bed.

That was around 2 weeks ago.  Since then, I’ve had some pretty tight deadlines for work, as well as a bout of the winter vomiting bug to contend with, which didn’t really help matters, but when those things were out of the way, I did feel that my shoulders were just a little lighter.  That said, I’ve had some “down” time – needing to sleep more than I should, feeling pretty run down and irritable – with good times that I have enjoyed being followed by pretty low lows.

There is no overnight cure for depression, I realise that.  Medication is part of it, and it’s a long-term treatment.    Support – from family, friends and fellow-sufferers is also a big help.  I can’t begin to thank those around me – and those who are not even that close to me, but who got in touch to say “me too”; to offer advice on how to deal with it; to set up a private support network of open ears.

So, again, this isn’t about my writing to help myself – though it does a bit of that.  It’s about helping others to identify a problem within, and to seek help.  Writing works for me, and so too does personal reflection: I’ve recently realised that I put too much pressure on myself, and have incredibly high expectations both for myself and events around me which are difficult to meet – with the result that when I don’t always succeed, my mood shifts downwards.  This is not something that I can fix quickly either, but it is something I need to be aware of, and try to deal with better.

Getting a bit philosophical now, but perhaps that’s the biggest thing for depression sufferers: the self-awareness to recognise a problem, and to take action to deal with it.  So yes: that’s what this is about – identifying issues and taking steps to address them.  I’m more hopeful of progress on some days than others, but I think the fact I’m thinking about this and I’m aware of the problem is a reflection that some form of fixing is happening.  So, I guess that’s something.

 

Sweden’s far right a glimpse of UKIP’s potential

farageflagAt half past four yesterday afternoon Mattias Karlsson, the temporary leader of Sweden’s far right Sweden Democrats, caused a political shockwave as he revealed to the press that he and his colleagues would block the sitting left-wing government’s budget.Just months after winning a record 12.9 per cent of the vote, the populist party have found themselves kingmakers in high-stakes game of political roulette by backing the  opposition Conservative-Liberal Alliance for Sweden against the minority Social Democrat and Green coalition. By doing what nobody thought they would ever dare they have gone from being a maligned outsider party to populist crusaders intent on wreaking as much havoc as possible.

Although UKIP have their roots in euroscepticism and the Sweden Democrats in far-right ethnic nationalism, the two parties are riding the same wave of discontent with the political establishment across Europe. Sharing a European Parliament group and with a series of skeletons in their respective cupboards, the Sweden Democrats have succeeded in doing what UKIP have long aspired to – to reach a point at which they can topple governments and push their agenda of reduced immigration and an end to the perceived domination of political correctness and a liberal urban elite.

What happens now in Sweden is hard to say, but it provides a window into what might await the UK after next May. Sweden’s eight party system is a result of the country’s proportional voting system, but even in Westminster it is foreseeable that Labour could win a minority of seats and yet remain the biggest party, facing off against the remaining Liberal Democrats, UKIP, a reduced Conservative party and however many MPs they Greens might muster as they continue their slow march upward.

The idea that liberal Sweden would come to a point where a openly xenophobic party could be in a position of relative power was until now almost unthinkable. Even after the right-wing surge in September’s elections, there was an assumption that the traditional parties of the right would cooperate with the government rather than turn towards the Sweden Democrats.

Although there is no official partnership, the Alliance for Sweden has used the Sweden Democrats to put pressure on the progressive coalition without lifting a finger.The idea that the Conservatives, undone by UKIP at the polls but still unable to cooperate with Labour, should act similarly is not a completely unrealistic prospect. Carl Bildt, the former Swedish foreign minister, was quick to welcome the Sweden Democrat’s decision, immediately tweeting that it would allow a budget that was best for the country.

One of the potential outcomes of the far-right’s power play in Sweden is that a new minority centre-right government is formed and none of the policies produced by the Red-Green coalition to tackle the welfare and public spending cuts made by the Alliance for Sweden come to fruition. As yet nobody is talking about new elections, but Nigel Farage will be looking at his European partners’ very closely and dreaming about what might be possible come next summer.

10 pictures that will make you realise how amazing Edinburgh is.

cars

Someone’s day started badly this morning. Outside my flat on the street was the footprint of a trainer in dog shite, the thinnest of a progression from the corner where the offending pile sat.

As the footprints fade on the way up Leith Walk they are replaced by discarded receipts and an empty packet of Pannini football cards thrown on the ground by someone who had ripped open their purchase from one of the newsagents on the east side. The partially revamped street is flanked by jeeps and Mercedes in the customer parking outside the shops, whilst the road surface is starting to come apart again under the weight of the traffic. The landmark investment hailed by the Government and the Labour-led council is running slowly, the promised bike lanes are nowhere to be seen and people scrum on the corners waiting to cross the road.

Further up still the window of Harburn Hobbies has a model train display of the highlands and the classier cafes and tiny restaurants of Haddington Place seem at odds with the Greggs packets and bins littering the street. The maps show the top of Leith Walk as being a well organised roundabout, but in fact it is a loosely segregated square fed by four different roads. In other places such a huge expanse in a city centre might be a public square, but in Edinburgh people are shepherded in to pens to cross the road as cars take the  corners at forty.

Further up the hill the situation is identical. Crossing the street can take five minutes depending on which of the four main roads pouring into the area has priority. You can smell the fumes hanging in the air in rush hour and Leith Street, the main route for people crossing to the Bridges or Princes Street, does not even have a complete pavement up one side. Instead it is easier to cut through the big John Lewis, where small men in ill-fitting grey suits wait for people to buy the Nespresso machines they stand watch over. Sometimes, when the air is bad, the ventilation system of the St James’ centre pulls in the smell of diesel fumes from the street outside. The world heritage site most people struggle through every day looks blackened and cracked in the November grey.

North Bridge offers a prime view of Arthur’s Seat overlapping with the Crags like the layers of a theatre set before it dives into the canyon between the Scotsman hotel and the equally ornate Pizza Express. In the stair entrance next to one of the tartan and whisky tourist shops a figure lies in a foetal squat, his unconscious face hidden by a hoody. Beyond Hunter Square another Scotland shop pumps out bagpipe hits as people cluster around the bus stop and cyclists nervously eye the taxis on their tail. The regeneration project of an Ibis hotel, Sainsbury’s and Costa Coffee have already been tagged.

On the far side of Old College a group of first year students wearing 2014 leavers hoodies from English private schools look uneasily at the Gaelic scrawled on the walls and pavement. ‘Our language’ it says. Ironically, Edinburgh has just finished covering its entire campus in tokenistic Gaelic signage for the purposes of overseas students. It is one of the few places in Edinburgh where you really can see the language in public view. For Edinburgh though, the dismal urbanism is a bigger issue than what language you complain about the dog shite in.