englandjigsawOver on CityMetric, Jonn Elledge writes that devolution is meant to be about practicality and delivery, and wonders why questions of identity are mixed up in it. I think there’s a problem with phrasing the debate in that way because both sides of it are ignoring a key third factor in delivering workable devolution: accountability.

Both sides of the practicality vs identity debate have strong cases through looking at different sets of existing facts. The economic case points out that the way regional and local economies work rarely pays much heed to existing political and cultural boundaries and if you’re creating structures to enhance those existing economies you need to take account of that. The identity case argues that the cultural and political links that have developed outside of the economic sphere are just as important as the economic links and need to be recognised too. As Jonn points out, existing devolution in Britain has been based primarily on those cultural boundaries rather than the economic ones, which has led to an expectation that further devolution (particularly within England) should follow the same course.

This isn’t actually a new argument, but one that flares up continually whenever local government structures are tinkered with. The Redcliffe-Maud proposals for local and regional government were based on similar ideas of economic practicality and foundered on questions of identity and even the more modest reforms of the 70s faced opposition to the movement of borders to reflect economic reality. This is why I live in Essex now, not Suffolk as was proposed back then.

As I’ve argued before, one of the key problems facing local government in England is the confusing mess of accountability and responsibility built into the current system. Even people who’ve worked in local government for years have problems keeping track of which acronymic organisation covering which patch of geography is responsible for which issue, which means that any attempt to do something often disappears into a mass of conflicting bureaucracies. The current proposals for devolution are doing very little to resolve this mess, and are even adding to it by adding another organisation (the city region) into the equation.

This leads us to a situation where we have some institutions and organisations that are based on practicality, while others are based on identity, but none of them end up being very accountable to the people they’re supposed to be serving. The arguments from the two sides (practicality and identity) end up sailing past each other because they’re both referring to different things and basing their arguments on different sets of facts.

That’s why I think accountability needs to be an important part of any devolution proposal. It is possible to create new institutions that work over historic cultural boundaries, but the people have to be part of the process and the drawing of boundaries has to reflect cultural links as well as economic ones. The technocratic practicality argument of ‘this is what is best for you’ has to yield to some local realities, but the identity counter-argument also has to accept that identities can change over time and people can have multiple ones.

Expecting cultural, economic and governmental boundaries to match perfectly is foolish, and any devolution solution is always going to anger somebody. Demanding that identity or practicality alone should be the sole consideration is going to lead to problems, and any solution that’s going to be successful in the long-term needs to balance the two through ensuring it’s accountable. Accountability isn’t just about the practical structures of the system but also recognising and creating shared expectations and culture amongst the people that system is representing and serving. That may be the common ground that enough of the two sides can come together on to create something that pleases enough (if not all) of them.

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labourlogoI should say at the start that this will be a post with a lot of questions and not many answers. Sometimes it can be easy to get an idea of where a party will go by looking at their history and the history of similar parties (as well as the theories derived from those histories) and extrapolating. The problem with doing that for Labour right now is that the situation they’re currently in doesn’t really have any precedents so everyone – no matter how much they try to tell you they can make an expert prediction – is stumbling in the dark.

There’ve been situations where parties have had leaders who are popular with the party memberships but not with the Parliamentary party (and vice versa) but never to this extreme. Even Iain Duncan Smith (an often-used parallel for Corbyn) had the support of around a third of Tory MPs when he was elected (and only lost his no confidence vote 90-75) while Jeremy Corbyn appears to have the active support of 10% or less of the Parliamentary Labour Party. In any large and factionalised party, you’d expect an IDS situation to come about occasionally, where a leader isn’t backed by a majority, but has a sizeable group behind them and is also the second choice (better IDS than Porillo, as some thought) of others. Corbyn had the other factions agreeing an ‘anyone but him’ line even before he was elected.

The exact opposite situation applies within the Labour membership. Here, Corbyn has wide support which continues to regard him as doing a good job and is actively mobilising to make that support meaningful. This isn’t just the usual ‘he’s popular with the membership, and we don’t want to anger them too much’ but a membership that’s almost pre-emptively angry and working to prevent their choice of leader from being removed. That contrasts markedly with those members who aren’t Corby supporters though, where he’s regarded as doing poorly.

The most interesting thing in both the Parliamentary Party and the membership is the absence of much in the way of middle ground. There’s very little in the way of a ‘wait and see’ faction, more two polarised groups gazing warily at each other, neither wanting to take the first move because they’re not entirely sure what weapons they have to fight with. There seems little chance of the two sides coming to a mutually acceptable agreement on how the party should proceed, and even the prospect of the party stumbling on for a while appears to be lessening daily as the prospect of military action in Syria increases.

The prospect of Labour splitting is often raised, but the one thing I’ve found about splits is that even when people within a party agree there should be splits, they invariably suggest that it’s the other side that should leave the party. Looking at the history of the SDP for examples ignores that it was a one-off in British politics and most parties stick together even when factions openly hate each other because no one wants to give up the potential power of the party infrastructure and institutions. The SDP split occurred because the splitters assumed (wrongly, as it turned out) that they could never regain control of the party.

Under normal circumstances, this is a conflict that would likely play out over years, fought through lots of small challenges as backbenchers challenge the leadership at PLP meetings while Corbyn-supporting members push for positions of power in local party meetings, threatening reselections and deselections. There wouldn’t be one event that brought everything to a head, just a series of little feuds that coalesce together into a final position about who was in charge of the party.

As it is, though, we’re likely to get that denouement in a much more sudden and dramatic form. What happens to Labour when Parliament has to vote on any military action in Syria? No matter what way he chooses to vote, a large section of the Parliamentary Labour Party is likely to disagree with him, and the pro- and anti-Corbyn wings of the membership are likely to be diametrically opposed too. That could be the signal for the Parliamentary party to attempt to dethrone Corbyn, at the very time when he’s just reinforced his support amongst the membership. The question then might not be whether the party will tear itself apart, but just how it’s going to go about doing it and what remains when the process is finished. When factions can’t find a common cause with each other, the party doesn’t become something to rally around, but something to be fought over regardless of the consequences.

Like I said at the start, I can’t predict what will happen to Labour, but I’m struggling to see any way in which this ends well for them.

This is the blogging equivalent of me standing in the middle of the street dressed as a book and/or holding a big sign with BOOK SALE and an arrow on it.

Anyway, I have some books I no longer have the space for which I’m selling. Some of them are on eBay, some of them will be on eBay in the future when I’m allowed more than ten items on there at a time. Some of you may want to buy some, none, or all of these books (click on the image for a more details view):

If you do, just click on this eBay link to see if they’re up for sale there, and make a bid if they are. If they’re not, just get in touch with me and they can be yours for a very reasonable price. For a fuller list, look below the cut.

Read the rest of this entry

TheWestWingLabour Uncut is always a good place to go to for outlandish claims that bear no relationship to reality, and the opening of this piece is no exception:

Probably the greatest hour in modern television history is the magisterial finale of the second season of The West Wing: Two Cathedrals.

I’m not convinced it’s even the best episode of The West Wing, and the idea of it being the greatest piece of modern television feels somewhat akin to stating that Liz Kendall would be a popular choice for leader amongst Labour party members. I can think of a dozen Breaking Bad or The Wire episodes that are better than Two Cathedrals, and I’m sure people reading this can come up with lists of episodes from other series just as easily.

However, I’m not intending this to be a post about favourite TV episodes. It’s very common to see politicos and aspiring politicos cite The West Wing (and its hipster equivalent, Borgen) as being amongst their favourite TV. It’s an interesting phenomenon, given that it’s rare for people in any other profession to look upon depictions of their jobs in the same way. Indeed, the most common reaction of most people is to point out that dramas tend to hyper-idealise their profession and depict everyone involved as being way more competent than reality. In reality, we see things like the ‘CSI effect‘ where forensic scientists are seen as being able to achieve much more than they can, or that doctors and nurses complain how people see defibrilators as near-magic. Meanwhile, politicos are gazing on an obviously idealised portrayal of themselves and their abilities and are choosing to praise it rather than point out the flaws in it.

I’ve written before about how people – especially those in politics – think that ‘political drama’ and ‘drama about politicians’ are the same thing. It’s a building block in the idea that politics is just about the games white men (and the occasional woman) in suits play, while they walk up and down corridors being very clever at each other. The actual effects of the policies they’re talking about, and especially the people affected by them, rarely feature in them. Politics as depicted by The West Wing is all about the process, making big meaningful speeches (sometimes in Latin) and beating the other team, when the real thing is a lot more complicated than that. The trouble is that we have a generation of young politicos who think that’s all it is about, and it’s having the same effect as if we had a generation of A&E doctors basing their treatment plans on what they’d seen on Casualty.

What makes for good drama – and The West Wing is good drama, even if better has been made since – isn’t the compromises, muddled resolutions, and unclear endings that characterise reality. When there are so many people involved in politics who think that a drama about politics encapsulates all they need to know about it, it’s no wonder that we have such a shallow political culture that sees the main focus of politics as being the men at the top having showy disagreements instead of the effects their arguments have on the people at the bottom. You can keep watching it, but don’t imagine it teaches you anything about actual politics and what’s really important.


liberatorcoverI got the latest edition of Liberator in the post this morning, and was delighted to see that my article in it is mentioned on the cover. It’s based on the research I did for my Masters dissertation on the links between equidistance, tactical voting and Liberal Democrats winning seats and hopefully will prompt some thinking and discussion within the party. If you’re not a Liberator subscriber (still only £25 a year!) you’ll be able to read it when the edition is available online in the New Year, or you can read the blog post I wrote on the same subject a couple of months ago. You can also read Nick Harvey’s article from this issue on how the party lost seats because we believed our own propaganda too much)

If you have read my article, I’d appreciate any comments or thoughts people have, and I’m open to suggestions on topics to write about for future issues of the magazine if you liked this one.

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With the weather forecasts all predicting lots of rain and then the cold of winter to come in the next few days, yesterday seemed like the last chance to have a decent long walk this year, so I took the opportunity to head out on the Essex Way. The Way skirts around the outskirts of Colchester so I decided to walk out to West Bergholt and pick it up there, then head along it through the Stour Valley and Dedham Vale.

pringlesThe walk out to Bergholt is one I’ve done a few times. It’s relatively easy to do from the centre of town, and gets you out into the countryside quite quickly, taking advantage of the open space around Cymbeline Meadows. The main path from there takes you out past the farm at Lexden Lodge, then around a bit of the golf course and over the railway at Bakers Lane. The only problem with the countryside feel here is the ever-present roaring of the A12 which you pass under a little way after Bakers Lane, marked by the Pringles can-topped fence. I’m not quite sure if this is just creative litter disposal or the beginnings of some outside art, but they look interesting and the earliest ones have clearly been there for a while.

bergholtpathLeaving the A12 behind, the path continues across the golf course where I managed to get a little lost and so almost get hit by a ball flying over a hill. I soon managed to find the correct path and avoid any more inadvertent golfist attacks, plunging back into the undergrowth and the first bit of the path that was both boggy and strewn with branches blown down in the high winds earlier of the week. It’s still easily passable, and only a short cut through that leads out to the bottom of a lane that gradually widens as you head into West Bergholt and get to join the Essex Way properly.

essexwayOne of the good things about the Essex Way is that it’s pretty well waymarked and the red-on-white waymarkers are quite easy to spot so it’s hard to get lost on it. It also helps that it’s in a lot of open countryside so the paths tend to be straight and easy to find too. It cuts through West Bergholt than out past Armoury Farm, over fields and around an orchard to take you into Great Horkesley where it follows the roads for a bit before heading onto country lanes again. This isn’t the most interesting part as you’re just walking along the A134 and then another road for a while, but it passes quickly and there aren’t really any other ways to get from one side of Horkesley to the other without using the road.

alpacaThere were a couple of interesting sights around the edge of Great Horkesley, as the path left the road and headed into the countryside. First up, there was a paddock with some alpacas (I think, though they could be llamas) that watched me curiously as I walked past. Unlike other farm animals they didn’t either run away at the sight of a human or flock to the fence to greet me in expectation of food, just stood still and kept an eye on me until I was gone.

fallentreeThen just past them there was a rather large tree that had fallen down, almost completely blocking the lane. There was just about enough space for me to squeeze under it (shorter and more flexible people would have found it no trouble) but there definitely wouldn’t be any vehicles getting through there. There wasn’t anyone there, so there didn’t seem any immediate urgency to remove it, but I expect it’ll be gone by now. However, if you want to go and see for yourself (or just be stared at by alpacas) it was around here.

After that, it was out across more fields, surrounded by the scent of the onions that were growing in them. This was one of the most open and exposed parts of the walk, so it’s naturally the time the weather chose to go very grey and windy though the rain held off. Luckily the open fields did have a small wood in them to shelter from the wind in and have a cup of tea while sitting on another fallen tree, thought this one looked like it had been like that much longer.

dancingtreeFrom there, I roughly followed the path of the way (with a few shortcuts, as it does tend to meander in some places) through Boxted and Langham, and got to see the remains of a tree by the road that looked like the remains of a giant frozen in the middle of some ancient rave. You can find it just outside Boxted, near the interestingly named Wet Lane. It’s on one of the short cuts I took to shorten the route a little from one of the way’s meanders so you’ll have to leave the Way it, but this is one part where that are plenty of other interesting paths around and they all tend to intersect each other eventually.

I didn’t follow the Essex Way all the way into Dedham as I’ve walked around there a few times and find the Suffolk side of the river to be a nicer walk than the Essex side. I left the Way and crossed the Stour at Stratford St Mary, then managed to initially take the wrong path and found myself wandering in thick undergrowth for a while before getting back to the road and carrying on down to the right one. For future reference: the path under the A12 is a few hundred metres south of Stratford St Mary, at the second footpath sign, not the first one.

dedhamviewingpointThe path on the Suffolk side of the Stour is right next to the river, while the one on the Essex side (at least to the west of Dedham) is further away in the fields for most of its length. Yesterday was probably the quietest I’ve ever seen it – I think I only saw one other person in that stretch – and the sound of the A12 soon fades away as you’re walking along. I did spot this strange Roman-styled folly by the river which appears to just be somewhere for people on the other side to sit and watch the river, but please let me know in the comments if it has some other purpose.

startledhouseJust after to that there’s the Dedham lock and weir which I crossed over and then followed the road into the village. I had thought about carrying on down the river (on the Essex side this time) to Flatford Mill, then on to Manningtree to get a train home but my legs were pretty tired by this point after fourteen occasionally muddy miles, and I realised that not only was the bus to Colchester from Dedham due soon but that it also stopped at the bottom of my road. By that point in the day, the idea of a very short walk home was too good an idea to pass up.

I should probably write up more walks on here as not only is it motivation for me to get out more, I do get quite a few visitors from Google looking for information on walks in and around Colchester. Maybe that should be my niche…

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chaos walkingIt’s been a while since I’ve found a fictional series that’s grabbed me so well I’ve sped through the entirety of it in a short time, but Chaos Walking reawakened that desire in me. I’ve got that feeling where I want to find everyone I know who’s already read it so I can demand to know why they didn’t urge me to read it earlier, while also thrusting copies of it on everyone who hasn’t. I read each of the three books (The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men) in a day each over the last week, which is a testament to the strength of both the story and Ness’s writing.

It all starts quite small, in a little place called Prentisstown, which seems to be the last remaining settlement on a world where a war with the natives has led to the deaths of all the women and the infection of the remaining men and animals with Noise, which causes them to psychically broadcast all their thoughts to everyone around them. We see all this through the eyes (and Noise) of Todd Hewitt, the last boy in Prentisstown, still a month away from officially becoming a man. When his adoptive fathers send him away from there, he discovers that the world has a lot more in it than he was told and as he discovers more of the world, it becomes more and more dangerous as the history he knows isn’t as simple, or as dead, as he thought.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about the plot because these are books that thrive on the power of revelation as Todd (and the reader) gets to see a bigger and bigger picture. The revelations aren’t plot twists, more plot straightenings, unlocking a clearer picture of what went before which then drives forward the next part of the story. These aren’t shocks and sudden twists just to create temporary suspense, but part of the way the story unfolds and reveals itself.

Noise is a great concept, and one that’s woven into the story not just a gimmick on top of it. Ness has clearly thought about what it would mean to live in a world where your thoughts and secrets are potentially on show to everyone, and how there’d be a range of different ways to approach it. That’s especially true in the way someone like Todd (who’s never lived in a world without Noise) differs from his elders, who had it thrust upon them. Like the daemons of His Dark Materials, it makes the reader wonder what their Noise would be like and how we’d react to losing that privacy: do you change yourself to accept it, or try and change society to avoid it?

One question that does occur to me after reading it is wondering whether Patrick Ness had read Raccoona Sheldon’s “The Screwfly Solution” before writing it as there’s a definite thematic similarity between the two of them even if the way the story uses those themes is different. A quick Googling suggests Ness hasn’t discussed this in any interview or articles, so I’ll throw it out there for any enterprising writer who does speak to him to ask.

Anyway, I heartily recommend the series, especially worth reading before the inevitable film adaptation messes it all up.

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