Wednesday 28 May 2014

You've let me down again

Like every right-thinking columnist in the country, I am extremely disappointed with your performance in the European and local elections.

I should perhaps clarify that I mean “right-thinking” in the sense of “correct” (though not, heaven forfend, politically correct) rather than as an indicator of my own allegiance.

Unlike many, I am not annoyed that 27.5% of you who voted chose a party led by Viz comic’s “Man In The Pub”. That is your prerogative.

But I am beyond furious that 66% of you could not be bothered to vote at all.

What on earth was so utterly riveting that it prevented you from nipping out at any point between 7am and 10pm last Thursday and marking a simple cross on a piece of paper? A journey that you could have avoided, as I did, by requesting a postal vote.

Don’t say “It doesn’t change anything” and “They’re all the same”. Because they’re not, as the triumph of The Man In The Pub demonstrates.

I keep hearing radio interviews with people banging on about how we need to increase numbers on the electoral register and perhaps extend the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds, but surely this pales into insignificance compared with just persuading the two thirds of the electorate already on the register to get off their backsides and at least feign an interest.

Our former third party used to be fond of arguing that we would all be more engaged if we made every vote count by abolishing the unfairness of “first past the post”. In the circumstances, it would have taken a heart of stone not to laugh at the almost complete destruction of the Liberal Democrats under a system of proportional representation.

It had all the appeal of watching a famous big game hunter being trampled to death by an angry elephant.

Not so long ago “I agree with Nick” was the political catchphrase on nearly everyone’s lips. Now the only person likely to utter it is Mrs Clegg, and he probably can’t even count on that.

The ejection from the European Parliament of that other Nick from the BNP was another bright spot, burnished by his explanation that the electorate had “voted for UKIP’s racist policies instead”.

Meanwhile Labour are furious with what remains of the white working class for daring to vote for The Man In The Pub rather than their union-appointed leader, who has performed the great feat of making Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock look like top Prime Ministerial material.

Among the erstwhile major parties only David Cameron seems to be avoiding serious questions about his leadership by keeping his head down and praying that his natural supporters will now return to the fold after registering their “protest vote”.

Over the coming months we will grow very weary indeed of hearing “Vote Farage, Get Miliband” trotted out as the entirely negative argument for voting Conservative.

Where are the positives? I am a natural pessimist, but even I am weary of the endless doom and gloom that passes for political debate in this country today.

Britain is a great place to live. (Clearly it must be, or immigration would not be such a big election issue.) The North East is the best place to live in Britain (as I am reminded every time I have to leave it to earn a living).

In my view we all have much to be grateful for but, if you don’t agree, you have the power to change it. Thanks to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011 we already know that the next General Election will be on May 7, 2015. So you have nearly a full year to practise going out of the house or to get a postal vote lined up.

If the two thirds of you who did not bother to vote last week could be persuaded to do so, all the polls and calculations will go out of the window because literally anything is possible. Surely that thought must excite you just a tiny little bit?

If not, please remember that those who do not bother to vote automatically lose all entitlement to that most cherished of benefits: the right to moan about the result.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

A chance to scale our cot sides in the polling booth

In my admittedly limited experience, children are born intensely conservative. They hate change.

Take my younger son. (Not literally, please.)

Now aged two, he has latterly taken to climbing out of his cot in the evenings. On a couple of occasions he has hurt himself in the process, so last week we gave him the happy news that we would be removing the cot’s sides to convert it into a bed.

Cue much pouting and floods of tears. Through his choking sobs, I made out the words: “My no want a bed. My want to sleep in a cot.”

A child with strong conservative views on just about everything

As with children, so with adult politics. Whenever we are offered a radical choice, we tend to fall back on the old principle of “better the devil you know”.

Hence the fate of the North East Assembly and Alternative Vote referendums. Or, looking further afield, the votes on independence for Quebec or the creation of an Australian republic.

I suspect that this augurs badly for those campaigning for a “yes” vote in the Scottish independence referendum, but it also creates a real mountain to climb for those arguing for our withdrawal from the EU, in the unlikely event that we are ever allowed to vote on that.

Particularly as the classic Big Lie about three million jobs going straight down the gurgler on our exit will be repeated relentlessly throughout any campaign.

This argument has featured to some extent in the current enthralling European election campaign, but for me the real impact of the “party of in” came in the letter I received last week from my elder son’s school.

This announced that, from September, his school lunches will be free of charge. And instructed me in a rather hectoring manner to write back immediately if I did not want him to have them, explaining my reasons why.

As it happens, I am perfectly content for him to eat a school dinner, which is why I have been cheerfully paying for the privilege for the last year.

Once I could have met this cost from the child allowance the Government kindly gave us when our sons were born. Gordon Brown even threw in a £250 cheque to kick-start our elder boy’s Child Trust Fund.

Our benefactor, possibly giving an early example of the "Farage wave"

Then George Osborne decreed that, because I earn more than some arbitrary limit, this child allowance would be taken away again. Though no one ever actually wrote explaining how I could stop receiving it.

So the money still flows into a joint bank account, my wife spends it on the children, and it gets clawed back from me when I submit my tax return at the end of the year. A classic time- and money-wasting bureaucratic merry-go-round.

I am not complaining about being asked to make my contribution to cutting the deficit, but the logic of now giving me another benefit I do not need completely eludes me. In fact, it makes me fear for the sanity of those currently running the country.

Free school meals are Nick Clegg’s big idea and presumably designed to make me feel warmer towards his party. If so, it is a wheeze that has backfired spectacularly.

It has strengthened my desire not to see another coalition after the next General Election, and particularly not to allow the Liberal Democrats to become our permanent party of government, swinging like a weathervane between left and right.

Stolen, with thanks, from the Daily Referendum blog

I have already taken the opportunity to express my view in tomorrow’s European elections. Voting early because, about four general elections ago, I requested a postal vote that somehow became a permanent fixture.

I resisted the temptation to show my disgust with the loons currently in power by voting for a party dominated by even bigger ones.

That UKIP carnival in full swing

I do not seek to influence your own vote in any way, but I do urge you to cast one, no matter how much contempt you may feel for politicians in general and the European Parliament in particular.

The people who say: “Don’t vote, it only encourages them” are quite wrong. Because voting is the only peaceful way we have of exerting influence on those who seek power over us, and eventually climbing over our own cot sides to sanity and freedom.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 14 May 2014

The one thing The Guardian is right about

I have made most of my living out of the food industry since 1978, and it has required an epic amount of ducking and weaving over the years to avoid inspecting the killing end of an abattoir.

Because I enjoy eating meat, and suspect that I might never do so again if my theoretical knowledge of how it arrives on my plate was reinforced by a practical demonstration.

Pie factories, on the other hand, of which I have seen many, are counter-intuitively cheering: not only for their high standards of cleanliness but also for the complete absence of the nasty ingredients that urban legend would have you believe meat pies contain.

My least pleasant food industry experience to date was being taken on a tour of a battery chicken farm by its proud owners, who were about to float their company on the stock market. As a result I have religiously insisted upon free range eggs ever since.

However, it has been real religion that has dominated the headlines lately, as the old debate about the labelling of halal meat has received another airing in the tabloids.

An earlier outing of this story from 2010

This is presented by some as an animal welfare issue, but it really is not. Any unlabelled “halal” meat that makes its way into British supermarkets comes from animals that have been stunned before slaughter, in accordance with their standard requirements.

So there is no practical difference between benighted, wicked, ritual slaughter and the modern, friendly, secular kind. In both the animal ends up dead by having its throat cut. If you don’t find that concept palatable, don’t eat meat.

Those kicking up a fuss about halal are really concerned only with the fact that the unfortunate animals may have received some sort of Islamic blessing before meeting their destiny as little Wayne’s chicken nuggets.

With the best will in the world, I cannot imagine that hearing a few words of prayer, whatever their nature, can add greatly to any creature’s misery. They are at least more sensitive than a Tannoy blaring “Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye”.

It pains me more than I can say ever to find myself in agreement with The Guardian about anything, particularly after their hugely distorted monstering of the North East at the weekend, but on this one issue they are surely right. The halal furore has nothing to do with love of animals and everything to do with dislike of certain people.

Yes, exactly like Detroit. Hard to tell them apart.

Specifically, it reflects resentment that we are all being forced to conform to the beliefs and wishes of a small section of the population, about whose feelings we seem disproportionately concerned.

This produces the same sort of irritation we experience when told that we must not celebrate Christmas or have black sheep in our traditional nursery rhymes, for fear of offending one minority or another.

Even though most members of said minority probably have not the slightest wish for us to change anything at all. My wife comes from a Muslim family who always celebrate Christmas far more enthusiastically than I have ever done. While the nearest we came to a religious difference this Sunday was bickering over our shares of the crackling after I cooked roast pork for lunch.

My elder son, who is soon to be five, loves animals and wants to be a farmer. Like so many of his peers, he would unhesitatingly name sausages as his favourite food. Yet he is so soft-hearted that he rushes for the “off” switch whenever it looks as though the fox in the CBeebies cartoon may finally catch Peter Rabbit.

The other day he was invited to visit a friend’s farm and asked if there would be dairy cows, his particular favourite. No, we said, only beef cows.

“Oh good,” came the innocent reply. “Maybe they can show us how the cows make the beef.”

I sincerely hope not. Perhaps he will become a vegetarian when he is finally faced with the truth. More likely, I suspect, he will follow the family tradition of ducking and weaving so that he can keep enjoying the things we both find delicious without facing up to the grim reality of how they are produced.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 7 May 2014

Miliband's Labour is to politics what the Co-op is to retailing

I spent the appropriately joyless socialist May Day bank holiday wading through piles of accumulated correspondence, including the candidates’ addresses for the enthralling Euro elections.

UKIP’s was all about immigration and taking back control; while the Conservatives focused on their economic record and “fighting to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU”. At which point the cynic in me wondered why I had observed such limited progress on that front during their four years in power.

I cannot comment on the Lib Dems because they have not bothered to write to me, no doubt correctly concluding that one (and most probably both) of us is a lost cause.

And then there was Labour, which appeared to be fighting a completely different election from the others, focused entirely on domestic issues like “the cost of living crisis” and the NHS.

Easy to see where he gets his "intellectual self-confidence"

It is certainly brave of them to have picked another five word catchphrase for endless repetition, bearing in mind what became of the last one: “no more boom and bust”.

You can certainly argue “they would say that, wouldn’t they?” about the various interest groups who claim that Labour’s evolving programme would spell disaster. Turkeys rarely enthuse about Christmas, so energy companies, landlords and rail franchise-holders may all be expected to say that price freezes, rent controls and increased state involvement in the railways are all thoroughly bad things.

But that does not mean they are not right.

No one old enough to have experienced the Stalinist anti-service culture of the old state telephone, gas, electricity or rail monopolies would ever wish them back.

Furthermore, all experience suggests that free markets will ultimately deliver better and cheaper products and services than anything dreamt up by politicians and implemented by civil servants.

If you doubt this, consider the food retail market where, without any encouragement at all from Mr Miliband, the major players are making their contribution to alleviating “the cost of living crisis” by slashing prices.

Not content with spending hours of TV airtime and acres of newsprint telling us about it, one of them even tastelessly blazoned its message across the Angel of the North.

The reason for this is simple: the exponential growth of the discounters Aldi and Lidl, privately owned by German billionaires. Their great triumph has been to undermine the age-old British conviction that “you get what you pay for”.

I know thoroughly upmarket (even titled) people nowadays who boast that they rarely shop anywhere else for food and household essentials. Well, apart from Waitrose, naturally.

The market share figures bear out this polarisation, with the cheapest and poshest chains flourishing, while those in the middle are squeezed.

Retail experts predict falling profits from Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco. Already two of these cannot be mentioned on the business pages without use of the adjective “troubled”, and some suggest one may even go bust.

At which point there will no doubt be much wailing and gnashing of teeth about job losses and abandoned property, as there already is when village shops and other long-established independent retailers close their doors in the face of relentless supermarket and internet competition.

We could try to stop this perpetual retail revolution through Government intervention, or consumers could just be allowed to vote with their feet and purses.

Labour will always be on the side of intervention. Witness their policy review document, leaked at the weekend, spelling out some of the options to deal with our burgeoning obesity. Suggested measures included bans on shops selling cheap alcohol and restrictions on fat, sugar and salt.

Inviting the question why, if there really is “a cost of living crisis”, so many of us can clearly afford to eat and drink more than is good for us?

One of the more appealing Tory maxims is “trust the people”. Mentally competent adults should not need perpetual nagging about their choices on what to feed themselves, how to fill their leisure hours, or where to buy their groceries.

Luckily Labour already has its own model for how the people ought to shop. It’s called the Co-op.

With this grasp of maths, it's lucky they're not running a bank

Maybe its brilliant success story could be replicated in the handling of their national economy?

Oh, I forgot. That’s already happened.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.