Friday, June 29, 2007

This Is Not A Love Song (Or An Answer, Come To That...)

Having belatedly gotten hold of my copy of Private Eye, I feel it's only right to once again declare an early victor in my Quote Of The Year contest. Admittedly, taking the laurels in June is not a patch on Ed Balls' sterling effort last year in taking the crown in February, but hey...

2007's winner is our recently departed foreign secretary, giving evidence (at least nominally) to the Commons European Scrutiny Committee. Having frustrated the committee by refusing to admit to any possibility of bilateral negotiations ahead of the Brussels summit (and quite possibly lying in the process), Mrs Beckett was challenged by our own Richard Younger-Ross as to her use of the term "meaningful negotiations". Her response?

"If I did use the word 'meaningful' I did not mean it to carry any significance at all"

Or in other words, "The word 'meaningful' is entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to words past or present is entirely coincidental"... For sheer bloody-minded butchery of the English language, Margaret surely deserves our fulsome praise.

PS This may be just another excuse to sing "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead!" To be honest, even I'm not sure...

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Contractual Obligation Blog Entry

My general strategy with this blog is to consciously not be topical, mainly because I think there are lots of people who are better at it than me but also in order to highlight things that are in greater need of attention. Nevertheless, it would probably be churlish of me not to offer some form of quasi-obituary of the Reverend Blair (or Father Blair, as he may soon be), not least because of my other blogging strategy.

It is important, I feel, that when we bandy around words like “good” and “great” that we have some semantic understanding of what they mean. This is particularly important given the number of deluded Labour members (as if there’s any other kind any more) who will undoubtedly try and pin “great” on him merely for winning three elections. Margaret Thatcher is a great Prime Minister, but not because she won three elections against the Winter of Discontent, The Longest Suicide Note In History and what can only be described as Neil Kinnock. Similarly, victory over Grey Peas Man, Tory Boy and the Vampire of Folkestone is not the stuff of greatness; being in the right place at the right time just isn’t enough.

Greatness, if such can be defined in Prime Ministerial terms, is surely a question of ideas; whether you changed what it meant to be British or to live in Britain. Goodness is more subjective; it might almost be summarised as leaving the place in a better state than you found it, combined with a sense of the mood of the piece. For example, it’s pretty much self-evident that Thatcher changed the very fabric of Britishness, so she is certainly great. Conversely, whatever your views on the necessity of what she did and the results in her time, there is a pervading sense with Thatcher that she did it with spite and with malice, something that is surely disqualifying from being a good Prime Minister.

The question, then, is simple; has Blair fundamentally changed life in Britain? My answer would have to be historical. Attlee was great, unquestionably, by my criteria. After him, there is the long rule of Butskellism, followed of course by Thatcher. In this chain, Blair’s contribution is largely to provide half of the name for the new Butskellism; Blameronism has a nice alliterative touch with its predecessor, at least.

But the real disqualifier from greatness is that Blair never faced the electoral math, never had to worry about losing an election. From 1997 to 2001 he did everything right, laid a foundation and guaranteed the landslide second term. Given what we know of that night at Granita, a great Blair would have opened up in 2001 with a second term on the scale of Thatcher’s, then jumped ship at the end and handed it to Gordon, avoided the lame duck years and made a real difference. As it is, he blew his political capital on Iraq (something for which I’m clear that 9/11 was only the excuse, not the cause) and resorted to hanging on for the supposed vindication of a third term.

I suppose it all comes down to my abiding memory of the Blair years; that arrival at Downing Street on May 2nd. I know that I felt like the crowds I saw that day; yes, I know now that those crowds were merely the first products of the spin that was to follow, but I still know that that is how I and my whole family felt. Blair had a mandate like no Prime Minister since Attlee, and he blew it fiddling around the edges and playing “Onward, Christian Soldier” in Iraq. Far from greatness, that was a betrayal like few others in British political history. Until the grass roots of the Labour party realise that and come to terms with their abject complicity in it, that betrayal can only continue in the hands of the man from Kirkcaldy.

Friday, June 22, 2007

No, Not A Felgate, A Toll…

As one born-and-bred in Gloucester, I have limited experience of the tolls on the Severn Bridges (the A48 being a wondrous thing, after all). But today, returning to Cardiff from a trip to Somerset, I found the whole experience unavoidable. Or did I? While recovering from my rage at the fact that the cash machines at the last services before the bridge (Gordano, for the record) were going to charge me, it struck me that with the toll now at £5.10, the bridges might be pushing towards the point of non-economy. So let’s work it out; assuming everyone from the north uses M50/A449 or A48 to avoid them, the tolls are only payable on journeys from the East and South.

From the South, the diversion route is M5/A38/A48 (Avonmouth-Gloucester-Chepstow) for a total of 69 miles, as against a direct route of 12 miles. My car (a MkIV Golf 1.4, for the record) gets 40mpg with a following wind, so the extra fuel use is (69-12) / 40 = 1.4 gallons, or 6.48 litres. With the current average fuel price at around 96 pence per litre, that’s an additional fuel burn of £6.22; added to the additional journey time (at least an hour), that decision is a no-brainer.

From the East, however, the diversion route is A419/A417/A48 (Swindon-Gloucester-Chepstow) for a total of 75 miles, as against a direct route of 51 miles. Here the additional burn is only (75-51) / 40 = 0.6 gallons, or 2.73 litres, at a cost of £2.61; so the question is begged, is my half an hour (or the carbon cost) worth £2.49? Moreover, consider that, as anyone who has ever used the M49 will attest, almost none of the bridge traffic actually comes from the south…

The irony is that none of this should be an issue. The one-way toll is the result not of politics, but poor design; the space between the ends of the original bridge and the junctions meant that bi-directional toll collection would lead to queues on the bridge itself at peak periods. That isn’t an issue for the second crossing toll plaza and the reduction in traffic due to the second crossing should have eliminated the peak flow issue on the first bridge. Then you can halve the toll to £2.55 and beat the economics.

More fundamentally, if the government has its way all of this should become irrelevant as the toll can be collected bi-directionally and automatically using the road user pricing system. But have they realised that? More’s the point, have Midlands Expressway Limited (the PFI operators of the M6 Toll road, an astoundingly underpublicised disaster in traffic planning terms) realised it? Nothing like total loss of control of revenue collection to really scare the shareholders…

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Having My Geldof Moment

I offer the following tale by way of apology for my recent absence from the blogosphere (such as it is). Moreover, one of the policy areas that will be up for discussion at Brighton will be the Jobcentre network and how we can make it best serve its users and society as a whole. In anticipation of that debate, I thought it might be useful to share my ongoing experience with the benefits system, not least since we must be able to do something better than the absurdity I’ve had to endure.

To start us off, there is the mere feat of getting your application onto the system. For fear of sounding parochial, I find that the best way for me to convey a large amount of information to a corporate body for a particular purpose is for me to fill out a form. What’s more, if that corporate body is a government that can’t find it’s computerised butt with both hands, I’m very much in favour of that form being a piece of paper.

With that in mind, I headed to my local (well, I say local, it’s actually an eight mile trip into Cardiff, then two miles out in a different direction and away from the two city centre Jobcentres that would be easier for me to get to) Jobcentre. They insisted that I phone a call centre in Bridgend. Unbowed, I went the next day and tried again; they asked a different question, did give me a paper form, but it turned out to be the wrong form. On the third day, I got the phone number again, started losing the will to live and gave in.

The phone call that followed ranks amongst the more surreal of my life, largely because nine-tenths of the “form” is comprised of tick-box question to which my answer (as a single white male under the age of 25) is pretty much always no. So I’m standing there for forty minutes basically regurgitating the Cheese Shop Sketch. What’s more, the arrangement does lead to a real human voice having to ask you whether you’re receiving compensation payments for time spent as a prisoner of war, and much as that human might well assume that someone born in 1982 would not be receiving such payments, as cogs in the machine they must ask the question, no matter how much it insults both their intelligence and yours.

Having completed the “form”, an interview is arranged for presentation of documents, negotiation of jobseeker’s agreement, etc. Having made the phone call on a Thursday, the interview is booked, and then confirmed by letter, for 2pm the following Wednesday at Alexandra House (i.e. my Jobcentre in Cardiff West). So far, all well and good.

At this point, a lesson in Jobcentre design practice. With Jobcentre Plus, a standard interior design has been established, all open plan and pine and metal. At the front is a welcome “desk”, i.e. a podium-type arrangement with a sign hanging limply above it. This desk is manned, if you are lucky, by a member of Jobcentre staff, but more likely by the Group 4 Securicor employee on door guard duty.

So I arrive in good time for my interview and approach said Group 4 man, who takes a look at the hallowed list and finds my name to be missing. He retreats into the open plan area and confers with a member of staff and her computer and then returns with the news; I do have an interview booked, but it’s at 2:20pm at Caradog House (i.e. one of the Jobcentres in Cardiff Central). He then claims that I have plenty of time and moves on to the next customer.

Two trains later, I arrive at Caradog House at 2:40pm and am fortunate to get an actual member of staff. She informs me that the interview was misbooked, but that the other Jobcentre should have recognised that and fitted me in; if I’d had a member of staff, maybe, but I got Group 4 instead. Moreover, my actual interviewer has moved on to her next subject because I was late and she’s fully booked. They do at least head to the computer system to get me a new appointment, but it is for a week on Friday.

So I go to that interview, now some two-and-a-bit weeks removed from the forms, and all seems well enough. But then the vexed question of payment comes up and the response is;

“Well, you sign next Friday and the payment should reach you the following Wednesday.”

“What about the backlog caused by your mistakes?”

“You’ll get it backdated then.”

“And what am I meant to do in the meantime to, you know, survive?”

“Apply for a crisis loan.”

And lo, having had my crisis caused by them, I have to waste my time filling out another form over the phone (cue more references to Wensleydale) and then travel into Cardiff again (Bus fare £3.20) to pick up my giro which just about sustains me until I’m finally paid, a month after the original application.

Now for me, it’s not actually that great a problem; I’m young and single. But for people with families, having enforced cash flow crises like this must harm their chances of getting back to work early, something we know is vital to getting people back to work at all. Between Jobseekers and the scandal of tax credits, we must show that we can make things better (as I am sure we can) for the millions of people suffering from these problems.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Taking A Little More Of Leo's Advice

I usually refrain from commenting on "news", normally because I'm hopping mad about it and this is not conducive to my writing. But I couldn't allow Ming's Independent Q&A to pass without some mention of his critical inconsistency.

When asked about Cameron stealing our environmental clothes, Ming gives the answer Leo would give, not accepting the premise of the question. But when asked about the "traditionally Liberal Democrat-dominated centre ground", he waffles about the authoritarian-liberal axis without cutting to the chase.

For all our talk about
that axis (and we're not wrong in the analysis), we continue to subconsciously accept the premise of the question, namely that "centre ground" and "centrist" are the same thing. In reality, we're not being squeezed off our ground because we never occupied it; the "centre ground" is just a perverse populist amalgam of the editorial positions of The Sun, Mirror, Mail and Express, and we were never there.

Ultimately, we will never make gains against Labour if we are not willing to accurately state where the parties are; hoping that the public will abandon a century of prior analysis in time for the next election is, frankly, hoping beyond hope.