Northernheckler's Blog

A Yorkshireman's adventures in the big Smoke

When does politics ever really engage the public ?

As it appears the election will finally be called tomorrow, and the media will be overloading us all with political stories for the next month or so, I’m wondering just how engaged the general public – as opposed to the kind of people like you and me – who write and read political blogs – really ever are about politics.

Clearly some of them always are, and lots of them sometimes are. If politicians could only get their heads around why and when they are, and perhaps just as importantly – why and when they’re not, then we’d have a very different political landscape

One of the recent big events politically on television would appear on the face of it, to have been Channel 4’s “Ask the Chancellors” Televised Debate Ask the Chancellors – 4oD – Channel 4 – featuring real Chancellor Alistair Darling, Shadow Chancellor George Osborne, and for the Lib Dems, the man described as the Hung Chancellor, Vince Cable.

It certainly lit up the world of Twitter, and would appear to have been judged a success in terms of people voting on the C4 website and the trending topics on Social networking sites Ask the Chancellors: a success for Channel 4 – Telegraph Blogs , but did it really capture the public imagination ?

Certainly with estimated viewing figures of just 1.7 Million it would seem that it did not. Compare this with the audience of over 8 Million for B N P leader Nick Griffin on Question Time BBC celebrates record ratings for Nick Griffin on Question Time – Times Online . What was it about that programme, which fired up the public so much more for a late night programme featuring a minority group politician, than for a peak time “Big guns” debate ?

When I went into to work the day after the Question Time with Nick Griffin, the whole place was buzzing with talk about the programme – even those who hadn’t seen it, were talking about it.

After the “chancellors”, not a murmur. This despite the economy being probably the key political issue of the day. So why aren’t people interested ?

For me these are difficult questions to answer. What makes it difficult for me peronally, is that, when all said and done I have to confess to being a bit of a political geek. The fact that you’re reading my blog probably indicates that you are too. People like us, look at politics news, and usually see every nuance of every development, and turn it over in our mind, trying to work out what effect it will have on public opinion – our moods soaring with every stirring speech from our chosen parties, and dropping into the slough of despond with each embarrassing faux pas. It’s not easy for people like us to understand the workings of the minds of people like my Mum, who at 72 reads the Daily Mail every day, but claims she only does the crossword, and never reads the articles.

As a ‘political geek’ I’m someone who is often involved in on-line claim and counter-claim regarding political minutiae, and so I wasn’t entirely surprised a couple of weeks ago to be challenged (via Twitter of course) by  independent candidate for Luton, and well known purveyor of oddly shaped vegetables Esther Rantzen (Esther4Luton) to watch Channel 4’s Dispatches programme regarding allegations concerning Labour politicians involved in unsavoury activity regarding payment from parliamentary lobbyists. Allegations which I was vociferously sceptical of, prior to seeing the programme.

It was an odd time for me as I was unusually not able to indulge my usual passion for all things politically newsworthy, and spent the best part of a week not really tuning in to Twitter, or the news, or any of my normal sources of information. I didn’t actually ever get to see the programme itself fully either. Instead I just got the background chatter from people I work with, the glimpses of other peoples newspapers on the train. In short I got the man in the street’s version of politics – not the politics wonk’s version. I have to say that the revelations about Stephen Buyers, Patrica Hewitt, Geoff Hoon, and Margaret Moran didn’t register on my radar at all, and when I came to catch up with this at the end of the week, it would appear that Labour’s reaction, had been to condemn the four out of hand, and more or less say – well we wanted rid of them anyway, it’s no big deal. Simples ! as those meerkats annoyingly say.

Except, to be fair to Esther Rantzen, I think she had both me and them bang to rights (I’m talking like Gene Hunt now – I’ll have to watch out). I couldn’t see any saving graces here, and none were offered by the party as far as I can see. The actions of these MPs appear to have been despicable and dishonourable.  In other circumstances this could have been very damaging indeed to the Government, and to the Labour Party, and yet – somehow – it hasn’t been.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been inch after column inch of coverage of it in all the papers Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon suspended over lobbying allegations – Telegraph . It’s not to say that the opponents of Labour out there in the blogosphere and twittersphere, haven’t gone ballistic over it. But if you ask someone who’s not a political blogger, someone perhaps who thinks Facebook is for looking at their niece’s wedding pictures, and for playing Farmville, ask them what they think about the lobbying allegations; then they’ll more than likely just look blankly at you. Geoff Hoon ? Geoff Who he ?

I don’t understand this. Sometimes the public really do get worked up about political stuff. Remember the #ILoveTheNHS hashtag ? the storm that was created when right wing Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan described the NHS as 60 year mistake ? It was huge. It was on all the newspapers, everybody heard about it, and it just grew out of nothing.

Completely spontaneously.

Except that it didn’t really – it had rumbled on for months with John Prescott amongst others, trying his best to make a story out of this, plugging YouTube videos of Hannan  – all to no avail. The story would not run. But then it did. It ran and ran and ran.

I don’t understand it – and for once I’m not offering any answers – just asking the questions. When does politics ever really engage the public ? and Why ?

Maybe we’ll find out over the next few weeks.

April 5, 2010 Posted by | blogs, economy, politics, twitter | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bleeding Heart ? OK, I can live with that !

This article was similar to many I’ve seen in the Mail : Teenage Vietnamese immigrant is discovered hiding behind car dashboard at Dover

It tells the story of a young 16 year old Vietnamese girl found huddled into the tiny space behind the dashboard of a car, apparently attempting to enter the UK immediately. It’s a harrowing picture that accompanies the article, and clearly demonstrates, just how desperate some people are to come to the UK.

I was sickened by the Comments which accompanied the article – A short selection :

“No Benefits = No illegal immigration.

“If the authorties spent as much time and effort chasing illegal immigrants as they do on motorists , we wouldn`t have an immigration problem.”

“It would be nice to know what happened to these people `attempting` to get into our fair country.  Let me have a guess? They`re still here.”

“Until we pull out of the EU, scrap the Human Rights Act and take control over our borders this crisis will not stop.”

“There is no point spending the money for airport xray machines as it really can’t stop the determined crazy muslim terrorist who wants to get his virgins in heaven.”

” 1. Place in detention centre.

2. Deport on next available flight, at her Embassies expense! “

“Zero tolerance. Depot (sic) them all!”

“Too many bleeding hearts in this country.”

“No wonder they want to come here! So would i if i knew i could get money, a house, food, heating and clothing for FREE!  However, i have a British passport and UK birth certificate, i’ll just have to work for the above.”

( I’m not going to systematically debunk any of this – see Tabloid Watch articles for regular fisking of this kind of stuff eg. : Nobody benefits from ‘immigrants on benefit’ stories )

Suffice to say that this kind of hatred and vitriol dismays me. Why you may ask ?

Well maybe because I’m a White Anglo-Saxon of vaguely Protestant working class upbringing – My culture and values are supposedly exactly the ones which these bigots and xenophobes are so keen to protect.

And what are those WASP values ?

Well I was brought up to believe that if someone called at our family home, then we didn’t keep them waiting on the doorstep – we invited them into the warm.

If we had visitors, then we didn’t give them the chipped cups and glasses – we gave them the best china – and we made sure that they had something to eat and drink from it as well – if we didn’t have enough – well we just shared what we had.

If friends came round, and it was a mealtime, then they were invited to join us, and if we were similarly given hospitality at someone else’s house we were expected (by our own families) to return the favour.

It’s still how I live my life, despite moving from a council house in the Heavy Woollen district to the leafy home counties, and despite become part of the so called ‘middle classes’.

I find that my children’s friends tend to like coming to our house – because they’re treated with courtesy and respect, and hospitality. Which I guess means we spend a little more on food & drink, and I guess inconveniences us a little. You know what though, I like it – and I can afford it.

As a headteacher I’m not exactly poverty stricken of course, – but guess what – when my Dad was a factory worker, and my Mum was a part-time nursing auxiliary – we could afford it then too. Just a question of priorities.

And if you want to know what core British culture is about, then I’d say this – If my family came across a girl of only 16 years old (a little older than my 13 year old daughter and 16 year old son), wedged into a space in a car, clearly desperate and in distress,  what would we do ?

Well we’d make sure she was alright – we’d check that she wasn’t hurt – we’d make sure she could get herself cleaned up with a shower or a bath – we’d sort her out with some clean clothing; and offer her food and drink – and maybe somewhere to stay for a night or two.

Then, and only then, would we start to talk about the problems she faced in the future – and whether it would be a good idea to stay for longer, or whether we’d help her find her way to somewhere more appropriate.

So there you go – no pre-judgement – no fast track – just common decency and humanity.

Those are my values – they’re shared by lots of people – from lots of different cultural backgrounds. If that makes me a ‘bleeding heart’ liberal then I’m fine with that – I care about people, I want to live in a country that does too – not just it’s own people – but all people. Not just people who are like me – but all people.

Just in case any one was wondering.

February 7, 2010 Posted by | Family, news, racism | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chaos Theory ?

Happened to glance at the front page of the Daily Mail earlier today and saw this headline : £11bn VAT rise shambles: Chaos reigns on High Street with just three days to go before sales tax goes back up

Obviously a little concerning as I was on my way to London to do some shopping with my son and his friends. My dictionary defines “Chaos” as “complete confusion or disorder” – so I wondered what I might find down Oxford Street.

Well surprisingly enough I found it busy, yet strangely orderly. There were queues in some shops, but no real confusion – in fact in Primark they had a man telling people which till to go to – which speeded things up a bit. And at the tills, they seemed to know what they were doing – accepting all the usual credit cards, and cash as well – which wasn’t confusing a bit. And I didn’t see any marauding mobs of disorderly people. All very orderly really.

So “chaos” did not reign on this particular high street, although I’ll await reports of random burning and looting from elsewhere in the country. It seems that retail companies think it’s an insane time to change the VAT back, and don’t know when they’ll actually change their prices.

Not sure why they don’t know really – because they have had 12 months warning of this, and despite the mail saying that this is will be an “£11 billion VAT shock” I can’t really imagine that anyone will be “shocked” – ( feeling of extreme surprise) about this. You’ve known about it for a whole year !

Actually hang on a bit – £11 billion ?  Oh right – that’s how much we “saved” this year – so a net gain for the public, and (assuming their figures are correct ) that extra £11 billion should pay off 13% of the existing national debt – you know the one that the Mail (and the Tories) are always harping on about – which again should bring it in to around 50% of GDP (compare to United States current 71%, Italy’s ~100%, and Japan’s 194%) (Source : UK National Debt) (My figures are assuming GDP remains constant – not necessarily true, but you’ll catch my drift I’m sure).

The article goes on to say that the reversal of the VAT will cost around half a billion pounds to retail companies to change their prices – this averaged over the two changes, one of which has already happened, and one of which will happen sooner or later irrespective of whether it’s implemented this week or in a month or in a year.

Whenever it was implemented it is a predictable expense which well managed companies have had a long time to plan for.

The VAT reduction is an issue which is really quite interesting. It’s not easy for a lay man like myself to tell whether it really has made any difference to the economy – certainly 2.5 pence in the pound reduction is not a cut that’s left me feeling like I suddenly have loads more spending power – but it does leave shops slightly more margin for making a profit – and may well have stimulated the economy – the Mail’s claim that we have a “bumper sales period” amounting to a “shopping bonanza” would seem to indicate that. And yet I know people working in the retail industry who were deeply frustrated by the costs of changing catalogues at the last minute last year.

So why can’t we have some analysis and objective discussion of these issues – which I’d be seriously interested in having a truly expert opinion on ?

I wish the Mail would do that, because as things stand this front page article is not news in any sense that I understand.

December 29, 2009 Posted by | news, politics | , , , , | Leave a comment

Who decides what the public think ?

NEW mak

Just got back from a week in Cornwall.

I had a very weak mobile signal. I could occasionally tweet. Could not get mobile internet on my laptop – so didn’t see any websites. Didn’t have a telly, didn’t pick up a newspaper.

So from being a news addicted politically aware blogster, I turned very quickly into someone who didn’t have much of a clue what was going on.

Even having been back for nearly 24 hours now, I’m still not up to speed – which sort of puts me on a par with the rest of the country – you know, the type that doesn’t do blogs, the type that uses Facebook to share family snaps rather than run political campaigns, the kind that follows celebrities on Twitter, rather than politicians. The kind that goes to make the coffee when the news comes on, and if they ever read a newspaper, it tends to be from the back to the front, or maybe just the back.

So what’s going on in the world – well it seems some bloke who advises the Government on drugs has advised them to reverse the recent reversal of cannabis’s grading as a Class B drug, and to reduce its classification. As a result he’s apparently been sacked. According to the BBC news on 5 Live, this has been done “On a whim” of the prime minister. Now the media are up in arms about the Government being dismissive of scientific evidence, and it would seem are presenting the Prime Minister in a negative light for his actions.

And with my very scant knowledge of what’s going on – I’ve barely any reason to challenge that perception – so it sort of becomes my own perception by default.

Except I’m not so sure (well you knew I’d be cynical didn’t you !). First of all it strikes me that if the Government had followed the advice, we’d effectively have a U-turn on a U-turn – and remember the last U-turn wasn’t in response to any great pressure, it was in response to the difficulties experienced in practice to the partial decriminalisation of cannabis – an admission that the new policy was not working. I can’t imagine many Governments being keen on a 360 degree turn.

Next it strikes me that an advisor should be doing his advising in private, not in the national press. I work with advisors/consultants as part of my local authority’s work for Building Schools for the Future – No one in the authority would take kindly to those advisors bleating the advice which we pay them for, to the general public. Neither would we feel bound by their advice – advisors provide a particular perspective on an issue – part of the picture. Not the full picture. If any of them sought to publicise their advice, and criticise the authorities actions in the light of it, then I suspect that the likely outcome would be that the authority would dispense with their services.

I also know that research evidence rarely proves or disproves anything – rather it tends to support particular hypotheses. So what ever evidence the advisor has or has not, it’s unlikely to prove conclusive (and I don’t know what the evidence is remember). It’s also likely to be part of a whole range of other indicators.

Governments don’t take decisions based on just one factor. They have to consider things like how popular a decision is likely to be for instance – and if that sounds cynical then just remember that no Government can do anything if they lose power – so popularity HAS to be a consideration. They also have to consider not just realities but also perceptions – because we need have no doubts that had the Government followed the advisors advice, they’d have been perceived (with assistance from the press) as being ‘soft’ on drugs, and as woolly liberals (not to mention dithering and U-turning).

If anyone thinks that scientific evidence is the only basis for legislation then simply consider the case for an outright ban on tobacco. The evidence is overwhelming – it IS a major cause of ill health and death in the general community. But whatever your position on a tobacco ban, I think most people would agree that there are a myriad of complicating factors that enter into the thinking that would lead to a ban. Tax income, freedom of expression, Nanny states, relationships with trading partners, employment, consequences of criminalisation – I could go on – but won’t – you get the picture, it’s not just about scientific evidence.

Everything I’ve said here though is without any knowledge of the facts of this case – I can’t even remember the bloke in question’s name. Which as I said previously, puts me on a par with large numbers of the population, people who don’t share my interest in politics and current affairs – but who have a vote just as I do.

What seems likely to me is that far from the sacking of this being on “a whim”, it’s more probably that it’s been thought out very carefully. I’d also suggest that the ‘advice’ that’s been made so public has not been done as an off the cuff throwaway thing either – it’s been planned with some expectation of the consequences.

The Government it seems have acted swiftly and firmly to defend their position and to sack the advisor in question. Whatever you think of the action, it is hardly that of a dithering administration. It’s pretty authoritative I’d say.

So who decides which way to sell this to the public ? Who decides how to take a story and turn it into a way to present the Govenrment in negative tones again ? More importantly – Why do they decide this ?

The news outlets in this country have a massive impact on public opinion – to the extent that for many people their opinion is effectively decided for them. It worries me, that most of this opinion forming is done simply by rubbishing everything the Government does – and I’m sure it would be the same for a Conservative Government.

This saddens me. They need to take more responsibility, make proper analysis of the news, give both credit and criticism where it’s due – and most importantly, to give some respect to the public and the enormous power which they wield over them.

[The picture by the way is actor Milton Johns who has nothing at all  to do with with this blog other than that I thought he looked suitably creepy ! Can anyone remember the name of the 1973 children’s drama series he was in alongside David Bradley (of ‘Kes’ fame) ? – Try to remember ! Try to remember Terry ! ]

October 31, 2009 Posted by | politics, Uncategorized | , , , , , | 6 Comments

Just where are The Telegraph coming from ?

Picked this up from twitter ( @gedrobinson RT @politicsofuk: Tories study plans for 20pc VAT #ukpolitics ) and felt I just had to comment straight away

The Telegraph is usually a pretty pro-Tory paper right ?

Well what about this one ? :  Tories study plans for 20pc VAT which ‘reveals’ that “The Conservatives are studying plans to increase VAT to 20 per cent if they win power at the next election”

Well that will go down brilliantly won’t it ? It will just turn voters on to the Tories by the thousand. Businesses will really enjoy changing VAT in May or June, after probably changing it in February as well, and it will really boost consumer confidence and make them want to go and spend money in the shops.

It will also proportionately tax the less well off more than wealthy as well – which is sure to go down well with the “Middle Britain” voters that the Tories are so keen to represent. Actually no it probably won’t go down so well with them. This remember from the party that usually says that it prefers minimal intervention from Government and a reduction in taxation. In fact I’d guess that this news would make quite a few people think twice about whether to vote Tory.

So who on earth in the Conservative party has thought up this little gift to Labour ? Well the telegraph says that “The proposal is being “very actively considered” at the highest level, according to senior shadow ministerial sources.”

Ah – so it’s not been officially discussed, and it’s not any body in particular – it’s sources – someone who knows someone, who knows someone, what said something about you-know-what, to you-know-who !

Most of the rest of the article is predictable anti-Government rhetoric – trying, as I highlighted in my blog last week Bailing out the banks & unemployment. to ride two horses at once. Blaming the Government for both raised unemployment, and for the borrowing which has helped avoid higher unemployment, (which if Friday’s headlines are to be trusted appears to be assisting the country towards an earlier than expected recovery from the recession).

However there’s some more odd bits towards the end :

We’re told that “The Conservative leader has also admitted that the introduction of road tolls and an end to tax credits for households earning more than £50,000 a year were among policies being considered” – so just to remind us who will lose out under a Tory government. Yep – it’s that Middle Britain group again. I’m not sure when he admitted that or who to – but presumably he did. Or maybe I am being too presumptuous because right at the end we’re told :

Last night, a Conservative spokesman said: “There are no plans for a VAT increase and there have been no discussions about it.”

Right. So panic over then. They’re not doing it at all. Not planning to. Not even talking about planning to. No.

So just how exactly does this little article help the Conservatives ?

It does make you think though :  if this is how they treat their friends, how do they treat their enemies ?

Update : Thanks to @labourmatters for this video of David Cameron and Gordon Brown discussing this very issue :

August 8, 2009 Posted by | politics | , , , , | Leave a comment


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