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What You Can Get Away With Nick Barlow's blog 2016-06-24T12:00:50Z http://www.nickbarlow.com/blog/?feed=atom WordPress Nick <![CDATA[So what am I thinking about today?]]> http://www.nickbarlow.com/blog/?p=4994 2016-06-24T12:00:50Z 2016-06-24T12:00:50Z I’m thinking back to 1987, when I got the chance to go to West Berlin on a school trip. I can remember seeing the Berlin Wall, one side of it covered in defiantly hopeful graffiti, the other flanked by a massive literal dead zone of concrete and search towers. The Cold War was something that was part of our lives, the threat of nuclear annihilation something that hung over our heads, the idea that this wall might come crumbling down in under three years faintly ridiculous.

I’m thinking about going back to Berlin in 2012, where the dead zone had been filled with towers, where we spent a day exploring a market that filled the space where that dead zone had been. A continent that I’d grown up in expecting its future to only be devastating war had chosen peace, openness and trade instead.

I’m thinking about how we spent a day in Guben (Gunther Von Hagens’ Plastinarium is a fascinating place) and were casually able to stroll over the bridge across the Neisse into Poland and back again. No passports, no papers, no visas were needed.

Mostly, I’m thinking about my brother. In 1990, when the walls were crumbling and the fences were being torn down, he chose to go and live in France. Through a combination of luck and dedication he found himself a job at Eurosport, rising from ‘the guy who occasionallydoes the English voiceover for the news’ to a full-time producer, travelling the world to cover various sports and bring them to a channel that covered a continent.

It was in France that he fell ill, in France where his doctors diagnosed and treated a brain tumour, looking after him in exactly the same way as they did anyone else who lived there. It was in France where he got the all clear, then the news that it had returned, and it was in France that he died and was buried. But by then, France wasn’t the distant and exotic country it had seemed when I was growing up, it was a neighbour where I could travel from the North Station on my Colchester doorstep to the Gare du Nord in Paris with ease, where borders were just lines on a map.

I’m thinking that until this morning it never occurred to me to think that my brother’s resting place was in a foreign country, and that my right to go and visit it without restriction was something that could easily now disappear.

And I’m thinking: how will we explain this in the future? How will we explain how we went from a Europe divided by suspicion and paranoia to one of friendship, partnership and open borders in such a short time and then we decided ‘no, we don’t want that’? How will we explain that we were willing to give away so much because a bunch of demagogues let themselves believe that their political careers were more important than anything else? What are they going to think about us?

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Nick <![CDATA[A question on Brexit and trade]]> http://www.nickbarlow.com/blog/?p=4990 2016-06-12T14:57:45Z 2016-06-12T14:57:45Z s300_EiG_for_Gov.ukI’ve already explained why I’ll be voting Remain next Thursday, and nothing I’ve seen, heard or read over the last couple of months has changed my mind on that, but here’s a question about the arguments of the Leave side that I’ve not seen posed:

Which countries are you going to make better trade deals with, and why haven’t they spoken up?

It’s a recurrent mantra of the Leave campaign that if we were no longer members of the EU, we’d have the freedom to negotiate our own trade deals with other countries that would be better for Britain than our current ones. Surely, if this was to be the case, then other countries would be lining up to urge us to leave the EU and negotiate these deals with them?

Trade is a two-way process through which – if it’s conducted fairly – each side should benefit. So, if leaving the EU means we can negotiate better trade deals, then not only will Britain benefit but so will the countries we make these deals with. So, if we would benefit and they would benefit, why aren’t all these countries queuing up to urge us to vote to leave the EU? Why, instead, are the leaders of so many countries outside the EU urging us to remain in the EU?

Who are these countries that we’ll supposedly negotiate these better trade deals with, and why aren’t they speaking up now? Or do the Leave camapaign believe that we can get other countries to agree to deals that are worse for them but to the benefit of the UK? That might have worked a couple of hundred years ago, but I don’t think we can recreate the Empire, even if we were to leave the EU.

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Nick <![CDATA[Why online voting creates more problems than it solves]]> http://www.nickbarlow.com/blog/?p=4986 2016-05-09T13:13:45Z 2016-05-09T13:13:45Z Election Polling Station SignAThere’s a new law in politics: whenever there’s been an election with a disappointing turnout (so, pretty much any time there’s an election in the UK) someone will pipe up with ‘we should vote on the internet, that’ll boost turnout’. Someone (occasionally me) will point out that there are lots of problems with the idea of online voting, most notably that creating an online balloting process that’s acceptably secure and secret is the sort of problem that stumps computer scientists.

The response is usually to wish away these problems (which, to be fair, is something even MPs do) and assert that because we can do other things online, we should be able to vote. Now, I could try and explain here why voting is different to banking or shopping, but others have done the job for me, so take a few minutes to watch one or both of these videos:


(The Princeton TED talk is longer and goes into more detail, while the Computerphile one is more entertaining, but they complement each other nicely)

The important point to note is that our current system of voting wasn’t created from scratch but evolved over time through various innovations that have helped to improve security and protect the secrecy of the individual’s ballot. It’s a process that gets regularly stress-tested (usually every May, with other localised tests throughout the year) and has proved that in most cases it can deliver what it needs to (unless you live in Barnet, of course). For online voting to have anything like the same degree of reliability, there are a whole lot of practical issues that need to be resolved. People – like me – who don’t want the sudden adoption of online voting aren’t doing it because we get some nefarious thrill from driving down turnout but because we have genuine concerns that it can deliver the secure and secret election process that everyone desires. I’d love to be able to vote online, but I’d also love to be able to fly and I’m not going to jump off a cliff in the hope I figure out how to do it before I hit the ground.

In the meantime, if you want to boost turnout in elections, there are other ways to do it. You could give councils more powers, so people regard voting for them as more important. You could change voter registration laws to make it easier for people to be automatically registered when they interact with any form of government. You could invest more in running elections to enable more information to be sent out to voters about what posts entail and who the candidates are. You could move polling days to weekends or make election days public holidays, so polling stations are open when people have more time to get to them. You could even adopt an electoral system that makes an individual’s vote more likely to count to motivate them to vote. Sure, none of these match ‘do it on the internet’ as the magic bullet that will solve all problems, but none of them introduce a vast range of new problems either.

Democracy is hard work, and making sure it runs smoothly is a complicated process. There are rarely trouble-free shortcuts to making complicated processes that run important things simple, and online voting is no exception. If you’re convinced it’s wonderful, then you have to address its flaws and people’s concerns, not wave them away because they’re inconvenient truths.

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Nick <![CDATA[Four more years]]> http://www.nickbarlow.com/blog/?p=4980 2016-05-08T13:43:29Z 2016-05-08T13:43:29Z
It's on a screen in Charter Hall, it must be official.

It’s on a screen in Charter Hall, it must be official.

As I get older, I’m definitely not as good at recovering from late nights as I used to be, and Thursday was a very late night. By the time I got home from the election count it was almost 7am and I’d only had to walk across Kings Meadow from Leisure World. I don’t envy those who had to drive home after the overnight count in there, nor those who had to be back a few hours later for the Police and Crime Commissioner count. For those of you who weren’t there, you can see the official result by clicking here, but the important part is that I was re-elected with 881 votes, which put me in first place for Castle Ward.

Two days later, though, and my head’s returned enough to normal to start thinking about the next four years, though I have to admit that this wasn’t a scenario I envisaged during the election. Sure, I’d daydreamed about being the one to come top of the poll, but I’d expected that would mean Bill Frame and Jo Hayes would fill the next two spots, not two Tories. I’d like to take this opportunity thank Bill and Jo for all their hard work as councillors for Castle ward over the past few years during which they’ve both accomplished a lot for it, often in the face of some very hostile and personalised opposition. I do have some feelings of guilt at having squeezed them out, but that’s just something that will motivate me to work harder so the work they’ve done won’t go to waste.

My priority is going to be working hard to help the residents of Castle ward, just as it was the last time I represented them as their councillor. I’ve already got meetings filling up my diary, and have been busy reporting problems I spotted during the campaign and in the last couple of days. I am away on holiday soon, but when I’m back from that, I will be back out on the doorsteps again to keep talking to residents and finding out what problems you have and how I and the rest of the Liberal Democrat team can help. I’ve already reactivated and updated my councillor Twitter and Facebook pages, so please follow and like me to keep up with what I’m doing.

Even though I am just one councillor in the ward, there is a team around me, and we’re always looking for more people to join us. We’re always looking for new people to help with campaigning, to come up with ideas for how to improve the local area, the town and the country, or just to donate cashto keep the party running. We’re not a party who get millions of pounds in donations from big business or trade unions – we rely on our members and we’re run by and for our members, right down to every one of us having exactly the same power to make and change party policy.

You don’t have to be a party member to help me out, though. You can help by letting me know what’s going on in your part of the ward or what needs to happen to make things better, and by letting me know if there are any events you’d like me to be at as your councillor. I can’t promise to make it to every one, but I’ll do my best. If you do have some spare time and want to help while getting a bit of exercise, we always need volunteers to help deliver our Focus leaflets around the ward.

One thing the election result has shown me is the utter ridiculousness of our electoral system. In Castle Ward, there were 2442 votes cast for Liberal Democrats and 2414 cast for Tories, yet they got two councillors elected to one of ours. I’m more convinced than ever that England needs to follow the example of Scotland and Northern Ireland and elect councillors using the Single Transferable Vote system. It was interesting to note how many people I spoke to during the campaign expressed a wish to list the various candidates in order of preference, not just have the blunt instrument of crosses in a box. Colchester’s results aren’t even amongst the most ridiculously skewed in the country by the voting system – just look at Manchester, where John Leech is now the sole opposition councillor to 95 Labour councillors or the many tales of rotten boroughs the Electoral Reform Society have collected.

But electoral reform is something for the future, as it’s highly unlikely to be delivered under this Government. For now, the main priority for me is to work hard for the residents of Castle Ward and repay the trust they showed in me by placing me first. If you want to keep up with what I’m doing, then you can follow my councillor account on Twitter, or like my Facebook page where I’ll be doing my best to keep you all updated. I’ll share my councillor email address as soon as I find out what it is!

Once again, I just want to thank everyone who voted for me and everyone who helped to get me elected this week. I’ve now got a lot of work to do to show you your trust in me was well placed.

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Nick <![CDATA[Back, but in a bittersweet victory]]> http://www.nickbarlow.com/blog/?p=4977 2016-05-06T15:44:12Z 2016-05-06T15:44:12Z IMAG0652Sometime around 4am on Friday morning, I was declared elected as a councillor for Castle Ward, and not only that I’d got the most votes of all twelve candidates and topped the poll. You can see the full results by clicking here (pdf file). Sadly, my colleagues Bill Frame and Jo Hayes weren’t also elected, with two Conservatives filling second and third places.

I’ll write more over the weekend when I’ve had some more sleep and returned to something that feels more normal, but for now I just wanted to thank everyone in Castle Ward who voted for me and I hope I can reward your trust in me over the next four years.

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Nick <![CDATA[It’s polling day…]]> http://www.nickbarlow.com/blog/?p=4975 2016-05-04T17:25:34Z 2016-05-05T05:45:12Z clocktowerAfter all these weeks of campaigning, I can give you news of one confirmed loss from this election campaign – several pounds of weight from me. The election diet plan has had a very positive effect on me over the past few weeks, and there’s definitely less of me than there was in March.

That’s what happens when you spend lots of time either out knocking on doors or delivering leaflets, especially in a ward where it’s much easier to get about on foot or on a bike than it is by car. I’ve knocked on over a thousand doors, spoken to hundreds of people and delivered thousands of leaflets during this campaign, all of which meant that taking a day off from it to walk 14 miles wasn’t too much of a hassle.

Overall, it’s been a great experience to get out on the election trail again. It’s been good to talk to the residents of Castle Ward and find out what they want from their Council and to explain how we as a Liberal Democrat team can help to deliver them. Obviously, not everyone was in agreement with me, but if I am elected tomorrow, I will do as I did before and seek to represent all the residents of the ward as best as I can.

I’m still standing for the aims and values I wrote about at the start of the campaign and the last few weeks have shown me that this is the approach Castle ward and Colchester needs.

I also want to do my part in making Colchester a better place for everyone and carry on some of the work I was doing before. It’s about working on big things like the funding we got for the Castle, or the recent investment in the Mercury renovation but also the small things like improving on street parking in various streets, making waste collection more effective or just helping residents have their views heard on planning and licensing applications.

I’m standing again because I think Colchester needs a Liberal Democrat council to stand up to the cuts being imposed on us from central government, and to ensure that decisions about Colchester are made here in Colchester, not handed over to Essex County Council. We need a council in Colchester that invests in local services, not one that seeks to cut them or sell them off. Colchester is a great town at the heart of a great borough, and a Liberal Democrat-run council can keep improving it, creating more jobs and opportunities for everyone. I want to be part of that again, making sure that Castle Ward and its residents are fully represented and supported.

If you live in Castle Ward, then please vote for me and my colleagues Bill Frame and Jo Hayes today. Indeed, if you’re anywhere in the UK there are elections going on today, so please go out and vote so your voice can be heard. Even if you don’t like any of the candidates, use the opportunity to tell them why.

The votes are being counted overnight tomorrow, so we should know the result sometime around dawn on Friday. Whatever the result, it’s been an interesting time but I am looking forward to catching up on sleep and TV at the weekend.

And then we all have the European referendum campaign to occupy our time for the next seven weeks – who knows how much weight I might lose during that?

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Nick <![CDATA[The Pier to Pier walk for St Helena Hospice]]> http://www.nickbarlow.com/blog/?p=4956 2016-04-18T10:48:15Z 2016-04-18T10:48:15Z 20160417_144724Yesterday, I did the Pier to Pier Walk for St Helena Hospice to raise money in memory of my friend Martin Hunt who died last year. They run it every year, challenging people to walk the seven miles from Walton Pier to Clacton Pier (or vice versa), or if you’re really wanting a good long walk you can do it both ways for a total of fourteen miles. I did the latter, starting and finishing at Walton Pier.

It’s an almost completely flat walk as it uses the two main promenades (Walton & Frinton, and Holland & Clacton) with the sea wall linking the two. There are a few minor slopes, but this is an Essex coastal walk, so what might be referred to as a hill or a slope here is what would likely be nothing more than a speed bump in the road in the rest of the country. Luckily, the weather yesterday was great for walking – sunny for most of it, but not baking hot and with just a light breeze blowing. It’s probably not as easy (or safe) to do the walk when there’s a storm blowing in off the North Sea and the waves are crashing over the path. As a seaside walk, it’s also very hard to get lost with the only question you need to ask to check you’re in the right place being ‘am I on the path next to the sea?’

There are plenty of beach cafes along the way too, so if you want to make a more leisurely stroll of it, you can. Alternatively, you can do what I did and push yourself through the whole thing with the thought of getting some nice chips from Yates’ in Walton at the end of it.

There were over a thousand people doing the walk to raise money for the Hospice yesterday, with a really pleasant atmosphere and lots of encouragement along the way from the people who were just out to enjoy the sunny day. I think most were doing it in just one direction as I didn’t see as many walkers on the way back from Clacton as I did on the way there, but there were still plenty of people around.

As for me, I managed to finish to keep up a decent pace throughout the walk and do it in a little bit more than two hours each way, without picking up any injuries other than a little bit of sunburn to my face. Martin’s wife and daughter came to see me off at the start, and it was good to see them to remember why I was doing it and to hear about how much the Hospice had helped them during Martin’s last months. We did note that he used to complain about having to walk too far from his car to the Town Hall, so there was a certain irony in doing a walk to remember him but I’m sure he’d have appreciated it.

Thanks to everyone who sponsored me, and you can still do it by visiting my Justgiving page or by donating directly to the hospice. Hopefully next year I can persuade a few more people to do it with me, or find some other things to help raise money for the Hospice.

If you want to see more of what it was like, the pictures are below. Click on any one of them to see it full size.

It was such a nice day, the North Sea even looked blue

It was such a nice day, the North Sea even looked blue

Setting off from Walton

Setting off from Walton

'A good walk spoiled'

‘A good walk spoiled’

Meeting some of the people coming from Clacton

Meeting some of the people coming from Clacton

First sighting of Clacton Pier

First sighting of Clacton Pier

And here we are, with a board of memories and dedications.

And here we are, with a board of memories and dedications.

Greeted by jugglers at Clacton

Greeted by jugglers at Clacton

And a time-travelling policeman

And a time-travelling policeman

Turning around and heading back

Turning around and heading back

And meeting people who were halfway through their return trip

And meeting people who were halfway through their return trip

Walton Pier finally comes into sight

Walton Pier finally comes into sight

Watch out for the punning beach huts

Watch out for the punning beach huts

The final stretch...

The final stretch…

And we're done!

And we’re done!

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Nick <![CDATA[Worth Reading 190: Approximately me, in centimetres]]> http://www.nickbarlow.com/blog/?p=4943 2016-04-09T16:03:29Z 2016-04-10T08:59:42Z The UK scores worst in electoral integrity in Western Europe. Here’s why – Good analysis by Democratic Audit of all the flaws in the UK’s electoral processes.
It’s Confederate Heritage Month! Day 1 – For as long as I’ve been blogging, David Neiwert’s Orcinus has chronicled the dark underbelly of the American Right. This is an excellent post (with images that some may find disturbing) of the history of lynching in the American South.
Tories & Communists – Chris Dillow on the connection: “Conservatism and Communism have much in common. Both support inequalities of power which deny autonomy and self-determination to workers.”
The girl who stole my book – How an out of print crime novel was plagiarised to become an Amazon bestseller.
An Evil Genius – How social media makes it easy to be in the presence of something you hate. “Every dipshit, almost everywhere in the world, can now speak where they can be heard. It’d probably be a good idea for us to work out how to deal with that, sooner rather than later.”

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Nick <![CDATA[Why I’m stepping back up and standing for council again]]> http://www.nickbarlow.com/blog/?p=4941 2016-04-05T07:39:12Z 2016-04-05T07:39:12Z clocktowerLast year, I didn’t stand for re-election to Colchester Borough Council having represented Castle Ward for eight years. (I wrote about the reasons why I wasn’t standing again here) Since then, I’ve had lots of people asking me if I would stand again in the future, and following lots of requests from many different people, I have decided to stand again this year.

So what changed my mind and got me to put my hat back in the ring this year? For a start, my situation has changed and a lot of the things that were causing me to be under a lot of stress and pressure aren’t there any more. Being a councillor is never going to be an easy role, but it’s a lot simpler to do when there’s not a lot of other stress distracting you from it. Taking a break from being a councillor was something I needed to do last year, and that time away from the council has given me time to think more widely about things and look at some bigger issues in politics. (You can probably tell that if you’ve been reading the blog for the past year or so)

On top of that, I realised that I did miss being a councillor. Yes, there’s stress but there’s also the victories (small and large) you can achieve for the people you represent when you are one. It means that when you see something wrong and think ‘someone needs to do something about that’, you can actually do something about it, and also help other people to get the things they want done as well.

I also want to do my part in making Colchester a better place for everyone and carry on some of the work I was doing before. It’s about working on big things like the funding we got for the Castle, or the recent investment in the Mercury renovation but also the small things like improving on street parking in various streets, making waste collection more effective or just helping residents have their views heard on planning and licensing applications.

I’m standing again because I think Colchester needs a Liberal Democrat council to stand up to the cuts being imposed on us from central government, and to ensure that decisions about Colchester are made here in Colchester, not handed over to Essex County Council. We need a council in Colchester that invests in local services, not one that seeks to cut them or sell them off. Colchester is a great town at the heart of a great borough, and a Liberal Democrat-run council can keep improving it, creating more jobs and opportunities for everyone. I want to be part of that again, making sure that Castle Ward and its residents are fully represented and supported.

And this time next month we’ll see if the voters want to put me back on the council. In the end it’s their decision.

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Nick <![CDATA[Gaming a Tory leadership election]]> http://www.nickbarlow.com/blog/?p=4939 2016-03-24T14:02:04Z 2016-03-24T14:02:04Z
It was a lot easier when he stood.

It was a lot easier when he stood.

A Facebook discussion I was in the other day ended up talking about the mechanics of Tory leadership elections, and it prompted a few thoughts. Just to be clear, these are all about electoral strategy for candidates in that putative election, not about their policies or personalities except in as much as they might influence their strategy.

A leadership election is a two-stage process. In the first round, MPs nominate candidates and then a series of eliminative ballots are held. The candidate with the least votes in each ballot drops out until only two candidates remain. Those two then go to a ballot of the party membership which decides the victor. If only two candidates are nominated, the process jumps straight to the membership ballot, if only one candidate is nominated (as happened with Michael Howard in 2003) they’re elected unopposed. Another important point to note is that there’s no provision for candidates to enter the race after the initial close of nominations – despite media speculation, the rules don’t allow for a stalking horse election.

Even without stalking horses, there’s still plenty of scope for strategy within the initial stage of the process. Candidates are not only concerned about getting themselves into the membership ballot but also who they’ll face while they’re there. This can be seen in the final MP ballot of the 2001 election where several of Iain Duncan Smith’s supporters reportedly backed Ken Clarke in an effort to ensure that it was Clarke, and not Michael Portillo, who Duncan Smith would face in the membership ballot. (It was perhaps a foretaste of his abilities as a leader that the scheme came close to a horrendous backfire as enough of them switched to Clarke that he only beat Portillo by a single vote)

The interesting effect of this system is that while they can’t end up with someone supported by a small group of MPs become their leader, it is possible to become leader if you can get a third plus one of the Conservative MPs to support you. With current numbers, that’s 111 MPs. If you can rely on that many supporting you, there’s no way that you can be stopped from getting into the membership ballot. Every vote short of that target makes it easier for your opponents to co-ordinate their strategy and block you.

This presents us with an interesting situation if we have a candidate who only has limited popularity with the MPs, but is popular with the membership. Assuming that candidate can persuade around a third of the MPs to back them, the other challengers face three options: they can try and coordinate their voters to exclude the other candidate from the membership ballot; they can fight it out between them for the remaining two-thirds of the electorate and see who does best; or they can agree to rally behind one candidate. The latter option would be accepting that the candidate with membership support would be on the membership ballot, but would ensure that his rival is seen as the clear choice of the MPs in the hope members would react positively to a candidate with clear Parliamentary support.

To illustrate this, assume a contest has got down to the final three candidates: A, B and C. A and B both believe that C is more popular with the membership than they are, so would prefer them not to face the membership. Both A and B would also prefer the other to C given the chance, and think they would have the chance to beat them in the membership ballot. Their best course of action depends on how popular they think C is amongst the MPs. If they think C has the support of less than a hundred MPs, it makes sense for them to keep competing with each other as both are still likely to beat C and make it to the membership ballot. If C is more popular, but still short of 111 MPs, then there is an incentive for them to co-ordinate their voters so that both of them still get more than C. If, however, they’re sure that C will get 111 or more MPs supporting them, then the incentive becomes to pick one of A or B to give them a resounding victory in the final MP ballot and go to the members as the clear choice of the Parliamentary party, in the hope that will help them beat C.

Where this gets interesting is that these courses of action give C an incentive to make their support look smaller than it is. If we assume there have been more than three candidates, and there have been other MP ballots before, it’s in C’s interest to get enough support to make it through to the final three and no more. The further A and B believe C is from having 111 MPs backing them, the less incentive there is for A and B to co-ordinate to stop C. C thus has an incentive to hide their real number of supporters until the final round in order to create their best scenario for winning: getting themselves on the membership ballot without a strong ‘unity’ candidate against them.

In other words, when the next Tory leadership election comes around, expect there to be lots of shenanigans and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring where the actual vote tallies may not reflect the real support candidates have. It’ll be fun to watch, if you can forget that whoever emerges from it all will likely be leading the country afterwards.

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