12 April 2005

All over bar the shouting

The forthcoming General Election is causing rather a lot of excitement for what is, in fact, a foregone conclusion.
The plain truth is that, barring some sort of a political earthquake, New Labour is a shoo-in because not only do the Tories have to reverse Mr Blair's overall 167 majority (247 over the Tories themselves) but they need to do so in the face of some rather daunting electoral arithmetic.
According to the pundits, if the parties poll equal numbers of votes, Labour would still lead the Tories by 349 seats to 212.
For the Tories to have an overall majority they would need 41% of the vote, while Labour would need only 29%.
So it is possible that a situation could arise where the Tories have significantly more votes than Labour while Mr Blair still enjoys a comfortable majority in the House of Commons.
Interestingly, this scenario has already occurred twice in post-war elections: in 1951 when Labour had 48.8% of the votes to the Tories' 48.0% and the Tories ended up with 321 seats to 295, and in 1974 when the Tories shaded the national poll by 47.4% - 46.8% and wound up with four fewer seats than Labour.
The reason for this apparent unfairness is that people move about - mainly from the inner cities to the suburbs -and there is no speedy process by which the balance can be restored.
The result is that the size of the government's majority and even the colour of the government itself, owes as much to the workings of the Boundary Commission as the will of the people.
Not that the Tories can complain too much because during the 1950s and 60s the system worked the other way.
The great danger is that at some future election - possibly even this one - the Tories will hold the majority of English seats and will be kept out of power by Labour's strength in Wales and Scotland.
Then the West Lothian question: why should Welsh and Scottish MPs vote on English issues such as health and education when English MPs have no say over the corresponding issues in Wales and Scotland? will rear its ugly head.
And with it the even uglier head of English nationalism.


Philosophers call it "the systematic ambiguity of language" by which they mean that words often have more than one meaning making it difficult to express ideas with any precision.
Hence the frequent call during intellectual arguments for people to define their terms.
When philosophers discuss this problem they are usually trying to find ways to avoid it, while politicians, through spin and deception, seek ways to exploit it for their own ends.
The effectiveness of most political slogans depends on this ambiguity because they are designed to provide a warm glow of satisfaction which may not survive too close scrutiny.
As I have previously pointed out, phrases such as "affordable housing for local needs" provides just such a favourable reaction until you ask who will pay to make up the difference and who will qualify.
With an election looming it is as well to be on the lookout for this sort of thing.
Last week the Today programme interviewed six women from Watford who supported Labour in 2001.
Four of them said they wouldn't be voting Labour this time around because they had lost trust in the Prime Minister over WMD and Iraq.
John Reid was wheeled in to face the music from John Harrumphrys.
"There you are Dr Reid, it's a question of trust and the voters don't trust Tony Blair," Humphrys said.
After pointing out that Iraqophobes were a small percentage of the electorate, Dr Reid went on to deny that the electorate had lost trust in New Labour.
"They trust us on the economy, they trust us on the NHS etc etc"
Of course, this was an entirely different meaning of "trust" than the one referred to by Humphrys.
Humphrys was talking about honesty, Reid about competence.
This morning Shadow Chancellor Oliver Letwin was on the programme trying to explain why a Tory candidate had doctored a set of photos in his election material.
According to Letwin, this was a mistake for which the candidate had apologised.
There are of course two types of mistakes: the mere inadvertent slip and the deliberate act that turns out wrong.
With the latter the biggest mistake of all is to be found out.
Past examples of the genre are John Major's claim in 1992 that the Tories had no plans to increase the rate of VAT if they won the election (plans or no they put it up within weeks of the election) and Tony Blair's insistence that an increase in National Insurance is not in breach of his promise not to raise income tax.
The argument is that while National Insurance is a tax on income it is not Income Tax in the technical meaning of the term.
No wonder the voters have switched off.


Back in January, I drew attention to the Western Telegraph's rather sparse coverage of the savagely critical Ombudsman's report (Ombudsman) into the County Council's conduct in the Stephanie Lawrence affair.
As I pointed out, Pembrokeshire's leading local paper tucked the story away on page 27 and gave it less space than the Daily Telegraph, which has the whole world to choose from.
I might also have mentioned that the Sunday Times, Western Mail and two national television networks all gave the story more prominence than Wales' biggest selling weekly newspaper.
More recently, the Telegraph managed to find space on page 32 for a report on the recent Dragon's Eye revelations about the alleged threats against BBC journalist Simon Morris; allegedly uttered by Cllr Brian Hall in front of two allegedly credible witnesses.
There must, presumably, be some explanation for the Western Telegraph's decision to downplay these stories.
While I wouldn't want to encourage readers into the logical trap known by the Latin tag 'post hoc ergo propter hoc' (literally translated: after this, so because of this) the information I was given at the December meeting of county council, in answer to my questions about the authority's expenditure during the financial year 2003/04 on advertising in the various local papers, may have a bearing on the matter.
Incidentally, for whatever reason, these figures, which are published in the county council's minutes, failed to make the pages of the Telegraph.
These were:
(a) County Echo (Fishguard) £3,031
(b) Tenby Observer £14,928
(c) Western Telegraph and Milford Mercury (both owned by Newsquest Ltd) £247,610.
Unfortunately, the council was unable to separate the Telegraph sheep from the Mercury's goats but, having spent an hour in the library, Old Grumpy can say that, during the year in question, the Mercury's share of the booty was two pages of public notices (£2,000 approx).
That leaves a healthy flow of roughly £245,000 (£4,711 per week) into the Telegraph's coffers.
As I warned earlier, it would be wrong to jump to conclusions on the basis of this evidence alone, but it does provide the foundations on which several interesting hypotheses might be constructed.


Might is right

The Local Government Act 2000, which introduced us to the wonders of Cabinet government, was designed to "streamline decision making".
This has been achieved by removing the last vestiges of democracy from the system.
The last time I attended a council meeting was in February and I will not be repeating the experience until May 18.
Even when the meetings do take place they have about as much in common with true democracy as Stalin's Politburo because the Chairman has absolute power to curtail debate whenever he/she sees fit - which, when members of the opposition are speaking, is quite often.
In any case, the Council has had almost all of its powers transferred to the Cabinet which meets monthly - average duration of meetings, less than two hours.
A few weeks ago I said that the efficiencies flowing from democracy were not amenable to analysis by the bean-counters of the District Audit Service and the other night I came across this from the great philosopher Karl Popper which seems to support that view.
According to Popper (The Open Society and its Enemies, 1945) "Human existence is first and foremost a process of problem-solving; successful societies are therefore those societies which are conducive to problem solving. Because problem-solving calls for the production of trial solutions which are then subjected to evaluation and criticism those forms of society are superior that permit the untrammeled assertion of differing proposals, followed by the genuine possibility of change in light of open discussion and criticism."
The enemies of the open society are those who believe that winning the vote trumps winning the argument.



Cross purposes

According to recent polls the French are set to reject the proposed European constitution by a large margin.
From what I can gather, French antipathy to the new arrangements is based on the feeling that they tilt the EU too far towards Anglo-Saxon free market capitalism and away from the corporate state which they favour.
Indeed, only a couple of weeks ago, while fighting against proposals to open up the European market for services, President Chirac was reported as saying that free market capitalism was now as dangerous for the European enterprise as communism had been previously.
Paradoxically, we British opponents of the constitution feel that it takes us too far towards the corporate state that has paved the way to economic stagnation in places as far apart as Japan, Germany and, of course, France.
We can't both be right!

Down at heel

We tend to think of inflation as the rate of change in the price level, but it is rather more complicated than that.
Take shoes, for example.
When I was young, the soles on a pair of leather shoes would last no longer than three months before you required a trip to the cobblers for repairs, while modern shoes with their composite soles can last for years.
The best shoes I ever owned were bought during a closing-down sale in Milford Haven's Charles Street.
Made in Poland, at £9.99 per pair, I wore them every day for six years.
I thought they were indestructible but one day late last summer I noticed my feet were getting wet whenever I went out in the rain.
Close inspection revealed a large crack across the sole caused by plastic fatigue.
Nevertheless, expenditure of £1.66 a year on footwear seems like a good deal to me.
So, there was nothing for it but to buy another pair.
The shop only had two styles within my price-range (under fifteen quid).
The first pair examined were of a brand called "The Diplomat" so, not wishing to be accused of travelling on a false prospectus, I bought the others.
They were made in Portugal and a mere six months later the uppers have parted from the soles.
Still, if nothing else, my prejudices against the European superstate have been reinforced by this episode.
The brand name of the duff shoes?

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