Not strictly an article but this seems like the right place for this.
In the run up to the 2005 General Election, the BBC Radio 4’s Today program put out a call for listeners to keep a weblog of their take on the proceedings. I sent in a sample of my writing and eventually they asked me to do it. There were about 8 or 9 listeners chosen to represent different parts of the UK.
This is a copy of that weblog, now no longer available on the BBC website. As this is an archive copy, some of the links may be out of date.
Since the election the feelings of disenfranchisement have increased and apologies are due for the apparent endorsement given to the Blair government in the last weblog entry, written the day after the election. 🙁
Wednesday 6th April
It’s quarter to ten, the morning after Tony Blair went to see the Queen and the doorbell goes.
There’s a nice man on the doorstep, dressed smart casual with a tidy beard: “Excuse me, are you a Labour supporter sir?”
“Yes, but I’m not going to vote for them.”
He doesn’t look surprised. “Fair enough,” he says, “would you like to meet your candidate?”
Across the road I see a group of people laden with election leaflets. We’ve got a new candidate this time, following the retirement of our long-serving, rather bland, Labour MP, Denzil Davies. She’s a woman from Carmarthen way, went to Oxford and all that.
I can’t help it, I’m annoyed. I get the same feeling as I get when I pick up the phone to one of those incessant call centre nuisances asking me to change my energy supplier or sign up for a great new mortgage deal.
“No thanks,” I say, “I’m not interested, sorry.”
The truth is, I’m afraid of getting sucked into a sales pitch and having to spend ages wriggling out of it, but I also start to feel guilty and rude. I’ve answered too quickly and shown my annoyance.
“OK,” he says, “no problem sir. Would you like to sign our petition?”
“Oh,” I say, a little taken aback, and pause, waiting for him to elaborate.
He shows the petition to me and explains: “It’s about road safety, they’ve taken away our school crossing patrol officer.”
“OK,” I say, scribbling my name illegibly on the form – it’s a way to assuage my guilt and neutralise the effects of my annoyance. I feel the need to elaborate.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “I just can’t vote Labour, it’s about the war. Maybe if Tony Blair resigned before the election and apologised.”
He’s still not surprised: “We all have our point of view,” he says politely, already turning away.
I close the door and grab the coffee I’d prepared just before the doorbell rang. After a couple of sips I start to think:
At least they’ve made the effort.
At least he wasn’t pushy.
At least they’re interested in local issues.
Then I think, hang on, who’s this ‘they’ he referred to – the ‘they’ that got rid of the poor Lollipop Person. Surely that ‘they’ is them, they’re the government after all. Then I start to get suspicious. Is this the result of some spin-doctor’s latest stroke of marketing genius? Has the order been issued: ‘Find a local issue – start a petition or something – distract them from the big issues – make them feel involved . . . ‘
You see, there is no trust any more. At the end of the day we went to war on a false prospectus and we’re still at war, despite Blair’s attempts to turn the volume down on Iraq – two million people took to the streets of London and millions more, like me, stayed at home and fumed at his arrogant and patronising attitude to the wishes of the people he is supposed to represent.
What else is going on? Oh yeah, the Pope is dead; long live the Pope and all that. Cherie Blair is a Catholic but so is Ann Widdecombe so that kind of balances out the party political impact. Charles is marrying his darling Camilla and the other Charles – Kennedy, is going to become a father during the election campaign.
It’s unlikely that many people know that Tony Blair was in Swansea the other day and while the rest of the country was happily watching Castle in the Country on BBC 2 we, in Wales were treated to a live broadcast of his speech to the Welsh Labour Party conference on the local digital channel BBC 2W.
It was a good speech, Blair at his most believably sincere, cleverer but of the same ilk as the speech that got Howard Flight into trouble – a wink-wink, nudge-nudge appeal to the faithful. He rallied the troops, reminding them repeatedly that Labour was in opposition for 18 years, until he arrived at the vanguard of New Labour to save the day.
He even made a point of vehemently distancing himself from Thatcherism, not an attitude I’ve seen him display on national television. Blair was on safe ground here – the majority of the viewers of his rousing speech and of the reports on the regional news programmes afterwards were Welsh, and therefore by definition much more likely to vote Labour than Conservative.
So, as things stand, this election I will withhold my vote from Labour for the first time, but what about the others?
I can’t vote Tory, like a hamster can’t lay eggs – it’s not natural; my father was a union convenor and I live on the edge of the Labour heartland of industrial South Wales. Scarily though, for the first time since I started voting in the early seventies, I am actually paying some attention to Tory Party broadcasts, kidding myself that I need to know what makes the enemy tick and perhaps out of interest because Michael Howard is a local boy. He went to the same school as I did (about ten years before me), and even though there is some kudos in the association, as far as I’m concerned he might as well melt back into the night.
Charles Kennedy seems like a nice man, and now he’s going to be a father it opens up a host of new photo opportunities for him but what’s he all about? Lembit Opik, the weird and wonderful face of Liberalism in Wales was on the regional news last night telling us that “Life’s too short in politics to slag off the other parties.” (I paraphrase a bit, but that’s the gist). I thought that’s what the Liberals were all about – the main message I get from them is: “Don’t vote for them, they’re crap; and don’t vote for the others ‘cos they’re crap as well – vote for us.” But why Charles, why?
Plaid Cymru (the Party of Wales) hasn’t even registered on the political radar, even here in Wales
The Green Party – who?
Charles and Camilla’s wedding will be a slight distraction as will the Pope’s funeral but I can’t wait until next week when the politicians roll up their sleeves and get down to business. I have promised myself to try and open my mind a bit and listen to all the arguments, and I will definitely go to the polling station on election day, if only to scribble ‘none of the above’ on the ballot paper.
Friday 8th April
I already mentioned that my father was a union convenor. In fact, I was a shop steward myself. It was in the late seventies and we both worked at an Austin-Rover car parts factory. I gave up my job there twenty years ago but the factory is still limping along and the few workers left have been subjected to pay cuts, longer working hours and crushing demoralisation as the car manufacturing industry in Britain has declined.
The factory makes pressings and also does some assembly work. When it was a part of Austin-Rover and before that British Leyland, Longbridge was one of the main places that the components were delivered to. Since then the factory has changed hands a few times and is now in the ownership of Thyssen-Krupp ( http://www.thyssenkrupp.com/), a German industrial conglomerate. The factory now supplies many other car-makers besides Rover, albeit it in a much reduced capacity.
Longbridge has also experienced change over the years and is now facing its most traumatic time to date. The Trade and Industry Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, appeared in a press conference looking suitably distressed as she told us that the last British owned volume car manufacturer in the UK is probably up the creek without the paddle of a government handout.
Some commentators reckon that this is a bad thing for the Labour government in the lead up to the general election; the Tories have described it as a tragedy, saying we should be concerned about the people who will lose their livelihoods and the implications for the wider community.
My feeling, based on anecdotal evidence I admit, is that the government’s apparent refusal to prop up the company will go down well with the electorate. I spoke to a couple of my clients in Cardiff this morning (I do a bit of freelance computer programming), and their view was that Rover should sink or swim on their own, just like they have to in their own company.
When I worked at Austin-Rover in the seventies and early eighties we had the same sort of crises occurring regularly; then we were told that we had to adopt more of a Japanese culture to survive – a flexible and dedicated attitude to work where the company always comes first and the workers have to do whatever is required without complaining. These crises have continued over the years.
(Here’s a link to a story from 5 years ago, when BMW decided to sell the Longbridge plant: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/690555.stm )
I still know people who work in that car components factory and one or two based in Longbridge as well and I know the effect that this will have on them, but the writing was on the wall over twenty years ago; even if I and my father tried to deny it at the time.
The problems at Longbridge and similar factories have been compounded by poor management and lack of vision – they’ve had a long time to sort it out but they haven’t. It’s very sad to witness the further decline of Britain’s manufacturing base like this but I think most people either don’t care or see it as a good thing that Labour will not throw good taxpayers’ money after bad to support these unproductive scroungers as they see them.
It’s not as simple as that of course, the implications of losing the UK’s manufacturing base will ultimately weaken the country’s strong position in the global economy and no amount of data-driven technology enterprises like financial services will compensate for that. After all, it only takes the click of a mouse to copy any amount of data from a hard drive in one country to a hard drive in another.
I wish our politicians would apply the same amount of brain power to maintaining a manufacturing base as they do to political spin. Surely they could engage in some lateral thinking and come up with innovative and efficient solutions. Maybe then there would be something to vote for.
Saturday 9th April
The Green Green Grass of Home.
Plaid Cymru (The Party of Wales) has surfaced in the form of a “Spring Newsletter” – white paper, black type and friendly green highlights. Funny; I don’t remember a winter, autumn or summer edition. It’s not pitched as a General Election communication although it is clearly timed to coincide with the campaign. Is this legal?
The newsletter has references to a proposed community hall and a snipe at the New Labour / Independent coalition ruling at County Hall for increasing council tax too much. They also appeal to residents to grass up any anti-social activity to the police. Examples of grassable offenders include: litterbugs, dog dirt depositers and people who park on the bus stops. Plaid reckon that “The police are particularly keen to prosecute people who engage in this selfish, deplorable practice.” That’s everyone with a car then, because the main bus stop is outside the main shop and everyone (and sometimes his dog) stops there to pop in for a packet of fags or the latest edition of the Daily “Let’s put the fear of God into everyone living in Britain” Rag.
There is a rash of new houses spreading locally, so Plaid are also keen to stress that they are not a “parochial elitist party” and openly welcome incomers, many of whom are English speaking retirees, older than average and therefore more likely to vote.
So, is this going to make me cross my heart for the Welsh Nats? Well, I’m sorry Plaid but you’ve already ostracised me by deciding that I am an anti-social activist – I mean where else am I supposed to park? Do you want me to hitch my horse to the double yellow lines across the road and then risk my life playing Frogger to get to the shop? Or do you want me to bypass the local amenities altogether and carry on to Tesco where there are plenty of parking spaces and where the beer is cheaper anyway? How about a park and ride scheme from the playground of the school up the road?
On another level the Plaid Cymru MP, Adam Price has started a campaign to impeach Tony Blair for “High Crimes and Misdemeanours in relation to the invasion of Iraq”. In an unholy alliance with George Galloway, Boris Johnson and others, he has established a website dedicated to these aims at http://www.impeachblair.org/.
There’s a lot to think about.
So many questions still to be answered, less than four weeks to go and I still don’t know what the Liberals are going on about.
Monday 11th April
Pass the Mustard Darling
This is turning into a very weird election campaign; I feel as if I am being targeted personally; it’s like they’ve been listening to my conversations, prying into my innermost thoughts even. It’s a bit like shopping in Tesco, where, whatever your personal shopping preferences are, you cut a path through the comestibles and consumables seeing only those items that appeal to you.
Tesco has long since striven to be all things to all men and now the political parties seem to be emulating them, but like I refuse to use a Tesco clubcard, I will not be categorised and targeted. Take Peter Hain’s latest attack on the self-indulgent ‘dinner party’ critics from the liberal middle class who are so hung up on the war and New Labour’s attack on civil liberties, that they forget that Labour is all about helping the poor and creating a better society.
Well I’ve never knowingly been to a dinner party and I’m certainly not middle-class but I am hung up on the war and the civil liberties thing. When are the politicians going to stop patronising us and settle for simple truth and plain speaking? Hain wants us to stop squabbling and leave the arguments until after the election; basically he’s asking us to trust New Labour. Hmm, actions speak louder than words dear boy.
Talking of action, I am not a political activist either; I’ve tried it a couple of times. Once, a few decades ago I tagged along to an anti-apartheid demo at a rugby match when South Africa were playing locally. Guess who was the most vociferous cheerleader at that demo – yes, our born-again establishment hack, Peter Hain, but that was way back when he had some views of his own and the guts to express them. I think he was a Liberal then; perhaps I’d better start listening to Charles Kennedy?
The MG Rover decline continues. Patricia Hewitt keeps the engine running for a bit by handing over a few million quid to pay wages and expenses for the next week. I wonder if those expenses cover advertising; I was amused by this billboard poster near my home.
Tuesday 12th April
Aw, weren’t they cute. Gord and Tone in soft focus, reliving their shared memories, reinforcing their shared values, trawling through their love and basking in the warm glow of their togetherness, it reminded me of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet when he spoke of marriage “stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart” * They were like a long-married couple; sure they’ve had their tiffs, their plate-smashing moments and their ‘I’m not speaking to you’ phases, but in the end all’s well and they cuddle up in bed together, reassuring the little nippers that Mummy and Daddy are not splitting up after all. Gordon Brown must have had to shower for an hour after putting on a performance like that.
If you managed to watch that nauseating Labour Party Election Broadcast all the way through last night without laughing or puking then you’ve probably had your consciousness nicked by a body-snatching alien. I could go on, but for me, dear old Michael Howard was the star of yesterday’s election matinee.
Here in Wales we were presented with a localised version of the manifesto and of Mike, the local grammar school boy, from an ‘ordinary’ family, made good. ** I saw him on the regional news and laughed out loud when he lauded the values and educational opportunities he got from Llanelli Boys’ Grammar School, note the Boys’ ; there was a Girls’ Grammar School a couple of miles away. The Girls’ school is now a comprehensive, and the Boys’ has been reincarnated as a decent Further Education and Tertiary College, Diolch Byth (it’s Welsh for Thank Forever, or something like that – it’s kind of a PC way of saying Thank God).
I went to that school and hated just about every minute of it. Far from being a furnace of academic achievement it was more a cauldron of failure and misery. I visited the bit of the old school that still remains at the heart of the college the other day, along with another old boy. He was making one of his once a decade visits from Australia, where he’s a psychiatric nurse (no thanks to the Grammar school). We’d only gone about ten steps up the old corridor when we had to turn and run because of the chill that penetrated the overcoat of over 35 years of complicated living – bracketed by the swinging sixties and the materialistic mayhem of the twenty-first century.
The place was infested with bullies, mad teachers and a hierarchy of blazers; from the worn out cheap fluffy rags endured by the working class boys destined for lifetimes of pen pushing or tool-making to the posh gabardine garments adorning future solicitors and Conservative Party leaders. Sure, there were many academic successes, but no more than now emerge from the comprehensive system.
And then Mikey comes out with the line that any sixth form grammar drama club would be proud of (not): “let the sunshine of hope break through the clouds of disappointment”. My wife is convinced that the Tories are deliberately trying to lose (again!). Why else would the party with the legacy of mega-media-manipulators Saatchi have let such triteness through their defences?
Due to his impending fatherhood Charles Kennedy has delayed the launch of the Lib Dems manifesto, so I’m still not sure what they’re all about.
Thursday 14th April
Life and Art
Shooting from the hip today – it’s a complicated life.
Pigeons, stabbings, immigration and painting. What is art? Who gives a toss anyway? Aren’t there more important issues? Like Dai Jones’s nephew’s noisy neighbours, or the disgraceful behaviour of the old woman on a motorised wheelchair with a soft spot for ‘flying rats’? I’ve got an exhibition of paintings on at the moment; it’s in a local gallery which is attached to the library. It’s in a part of town that is just outside the main shopping centre. Most of the visitors are regulars of the library, since everyone else does a U-turn at Smiths, which is the last place they can get a fix of sparkly consumerism before heading off into the hinterland of terraces.
There is a CCTV blindspot outside the library and the place is infested with pigeons, who have been amusing me during fag-breaks with their frenzied courtship rituals – the males (I assume) puff themselves up and harass the females until one of them gives in. During one of these breaks I get talking to a member of the library staff who is just coming back from lunch. As we speak about art and what a lovely day it’s turning out to be, an old woman zips up in a motorised wheelchair-scooter thing and screeches to a halt a few yards from us, out of range of the cameras at the other end of the street. She takes a huge bag of breadcrumbs from the guts of the mean machine and starts scattering them. Within seconds hundreds of pigeons descend and form a seething mass as they gorge themselves. The woman continues dipping her hand in the bag and throwing her bounty in a rhythmic practised manner.
“Look at her,” says the staff member. “I’ve got no sympathy, we should set up a video camera; she does it all the time. Flying rats – that’s all they are. Look at the building, it’s covered. Look at that sign on that lamppost, you know what it says?”
“Don’t feed the pigeons?” I take a wild guess.
“PLEASE don’t feed the pigeons,” he says.
Within a minute the bag is empty, she kicks her steed into gear and whizzes back towards the town centre.
“Flying f****** rats,” he says disgustedly and goes back to his books.
I go for a walk around town to ease the boredom and escape the tedium of making polite conversations with bored senior citizens who make a ten second pretence of being interested in my paintings before launching into diatribes about their nephew’s neighbours or the latest scare story they’ve picked up from the tabloid press, usually related to immigration.
Part of the town has been cordoned off by police tape – there’s been a stabbing. I find out later that a young man has died.
Something like that puts things into perspective doesn’t it? I mean all this petty bickering between the political parties about the intricacies of screwing the maximum amount of money out of the population without making it too obvious. And the moral panic about immigration, as if it’s a new threat; without immigration these islands wouldn’t have any population to screw at all. I mean I know it needs to be controlled, but it is isn’t it? Over 100 years ago, when this town was a red-hot hub of industrial activity there were ‘floods’ of immigrants, a large proportion from England. They have now been absorbed and are as Welsh as the rest of us; I say us, but I have English blood and German blood and Irish blood and probably a hundred other wonderful variations from the human gene pool.
As for art; it is as essential to the continued survival of that gene pool as is food and sleep, and more essential than who sets the level of income tax. T S Eliot was a great advocate of the necessity of poetry and other forms of artistic expression in the creation of a healthy society. I have decided that I will study all the parties’ manifestos and vote for the one that is committed to giving the most attention to the encouragement of a healthy artistic and cultural environment, as long as it’s not Conservative or New Labour or . . . . . the list goes on.
I’m no nearer to making a decision but the Liberals are providing the right sort of sound bites at the moment. I’ll keep on listening and reading and hoping.
Friday 15th April
Who should you vote for?
According to: http://www.whoshouldyouvotefor.com/, I should vote for the Liberal Democrats. This is a website that claims to be unbiased and analyses your responses to a series of questions about election issues and then scores them against the main parties’ policies.
These are my scores:
Labour minus 4
Conservative minus 54; no surprise there
Liberal Democrats plus 76
UK Independence Party a worrying plus 7
Green Party plus 34
Crikey, I’m more Liberal Democrat than Charles Kennedy. Perhaps in future all elections could be conducted in this way; it would save a lot of grief. I’ll have to think about it.
Wednesday 20th April
Plaid Cymru, The Party of Wales, has been in the news a lot around here lately, since they launched their manifesto, so I’ve been thinking about Wales a lot. Like everywhere else I guess, it’s a culturally and politically complex place, but has certain characteristics that are worth noting in the context of an election campaign.
Wales is the definitive small country, as in “every year a portion of rainforest the size of Wales is lost to cattle ranching.” or something like that. You know the old one about a Briton abroad and an American tourist says: “Oh you come from England – do you know Tony Blair?” Well, it’s just about true in Wales – like Rhys Ifans, who won the best actor BAFTA the other day, I don’t actually know him but my mother knows the mother of the director, Kevin Allen, who directed him in the film Twin Town a few years ago. Also, Kevin Allen’s brother Keith, who took a cameo in the film and is a mate of Damien Hirst and has recently interviewed Mohammed Al Fayed, used to be a good friend of my brother. And the BBC newsreader Huw Edwards’s father lives in this area and once recorded “The Voice of God” for a community play I produced.
I could go on; hardly a day goes by when someone I know or someone whose close relative I know appears on the tele. (Welsh-speaking Wales is even smaller, but that’s another story.) The point is that this has the effect of demystifying celebrities, and as a consequence, authority – represented by politicians, especially now that they use the celebrity syndrome to maximum effect. I know it sounds obvious, but you get to understand that celebrities or other people in positions of power are just ‘normal’ people like you and me. Each one is a complex mix of characteristics – some good, some not so good.
Which brings us to Tony Blair again, and Michael Howard (some other Welsh guy with a connection), and the election in general. The politicians try to paint simple black and white pictures of the issues, as exemplified by the Tories’ poster campaign, and force us into making a choice between one or the other, but it’s much more complex than that and now we know they (politicians) are just as fallible, just as devious and just as inadequate as the rest of us. And even if we do trust them, we need safeguards to protect our liberties because our rulers are just as likely to get it wrong as Dai the Bread when he’s counting out his rolls.
Take ID Cards – OK, so even if I swallowed the myth of them being a vital tool in the fight against terrorism, there’s still the issue of those civil liberties, and even if I believed that the government’s intentions were benign (which I don’t by the way), what about say in ten years’ time when some right or left wing totalitarian regime takes power and has immediate access to all that personal data linked to ID cards? And I don’t buy all that bleating along the lines of “if you haven’t done anything wrong then you’ve got nothing to fear”, because who is it that defines what’s right and what’s wrong? What’s to stop a future regime from declaring that anyone who has ever driven a 4 x 4 should be executed for crimes against the environment, or maybe anyone who’s ever been a member of an amateur dramatics group should be sentenced to twenty years hard labour for being effete?
The other issue is of course the war in Iraq. I think I have now completely ruled out Labour; and the Conservatives of course; and don’t give me any of that “hold your nose and vote for Blair” doctrine espoused by the likes of Robin Cook and Polly Toynbee; it’s too late for that. That leaves me with the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, or None of the Above. I’m still afloat on those high seas of disenfranchisement and just two weeks to go. It’s probably going to be Plaid, mainly because they’ve got the best chance of defeating New Labour in this constituency, but I will get around to studying all the main parties’ manifestos before polling day.
Thursday 21st April
There’s a lot of political noise in the media this morning about numbers; for example how many failed asylum seekers are there in this country? Are there 2,000, 20,000 or 200,000? What difference does it make? It’s only a smoke-screen anyway. I bet Alastair Campbell is drawing smiley faces on his cappuccino this morning after Tony Blair’s session with Paxman last night. Blair came out all Maggie-Thatcher-like about the reasons for going to war and projected himself as a strong, decisive leader, not afraid to make difficult decisions – then fudged the issue of the numbers of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, thus drawing fire away from the only issue that is a threat to New Labour in this election.
I’m afraid Paxman has been stitched up. Is he losing his touch?
Saturday 23rd April
Pigeons and other Pests
The exhibition is almost over. The pigeons are getting bolshier; you can almost feel their wings against your face as they cloud up and down the street en route for the negligently discarded pastie crust or the deliberately scattered breadcrumbs. I haven’t seen the old woman on her steed again, but yesterday somebody dumped a bag of bird seed just outside the door of the exhibition hall.
The pigeons descended in great waves…
Somebody’s due for an ASBO
At the other end of the street, near the entrance to the ‘mall’, a different kind of pest was at work. A group of people with out-of-town accents harangued the shoppers, so-called collecting for a so-called children’s hospital.
The day before it was half a dozen earnest young things wearing red tabards with the legend ‘Amnesty International’ in big white letters across their chests. I overheard part of their sales pitch as I walked past to the nearest convenience – “You see, it’s the Americans . . . . .” The rest of the words were lost in the general melee of a busy town centre.
After conveniencing myself I walked back past another red-aproned nuisance; again I caught a few words of their script – “It’s the Americans . . . . . .” And again the rest of the words were lost. I used to feel sorry for these people; out-of-work students bussed in to a strange alien place, and forced to smile as armies of miserable, unsympathetic punters try their best to deny their existence. I used to feel sorry for pigeons too, forced to scavenge from the dirty detritus of human society and dodge mischievous toddlers and small yapping dogs.
In the New Labour / Tory world of the Free Market, everything has to have an image, an attitude – even the pigeons and charity collectors are evolving, learning that image is everything, nagging and pestering people is just part of the plan. The philosophy is that if you push and prod enough people, enough money (or birdseed) will fall out of their pockets and into yours; that’s what it’s all about – promoting the brand.
Even the ethical and altruistic tendencies that most of us feel in one way or another are harnessed by the warriors of market forces; then they are focus-grouped, twisted and packaged before being shoved back in our faces by legions of pests, playing on our guilt and sympathy.
One type of pest virtually absent from our streets is the politician. If you don’t read the newspapers or watch the news on television you wouldn’t know there was a general election next week. Apart from that first morning after the election was called I have seen hardly any evidence of campaigning ‘in real life’ – it’s much easier for them to get the message across in carefully controlled sound and vision bites through the media. I took my camera with me on a walk around town hoping to catch a candidate and ask a few questions for this Weblog, but all I got was the pictures of pigeons above.
However, we are getting sick of being treated like bags of resources to be shaken down by ever more sophisticated marketing techniques, and we are evolving defences against these attacks. We know how to dodge the charity collectors and the pigeons; we know how to screen our incoming telephone calls, how to channel hop during the adverts and how to flit between credit cards and take advantage of interest free offers. The game is up; the age of spin is coming to an end. Everywhere people are dismissing the assault of the marketing pests with a simple wave of the hand. No wonder turnout figures are going down; we just don’t buy the hype any more.
Please politicians – don’t underestimate the population; as I have learned during the past two weeks while stewarding the exhibition and talking to the visitors, most people are decent gentle souls who can spot a salesman (or a pigeon with attitude) at a hundred paces and are perfectly capable of taking avoiding action. In an increasing number of cases that includes avoiding the ballot box and the latest gimmicks of the spin doctors.
Give us a break – tell the truth – if we don’t buy it, it’s not what we want.
Sunday 24th April
The Man from the Party
Strolling through the town yesterday on my way to the last day of my art exhibition I was accosted by a Plaid Cymru election worker. I recognised her as someone from my part of town so I stopped to listen to what she had to say.
“Can you tell me, will you be supporting Plaid Cymru in this election?” She asked.
“It’s looking that way,” I said, “but only because I can’t vote for Labour because of the war and stuff.”
She nodded, she’d heard it a hundred times already that morning.
“I would be interested in meeting the candidate.” I said. “There’s a few things about your policies I’m still not sure of.”
“He’s around somewhere; he shouldn’t be long.”
“I’m writing a Weblog for the Today programme. You know the Today programme?”
She nodded, but I wasn’t convinced.
“On Radio 4.” I explained.
She nodded again. This time there was a knowing gleam in her eyes.
“Let me give you his home telephone number.” She scribbled the number on the front of an election leaflet and handed it to me. “Do you want his mobile number as well?”
I declined and explained that I was holding an exhibition a hundred yards up the street and I’d pop back later. As it turned out, I didn’t need to; an hour or so later, she appeared in the exhibition hall.
“I’ve brought him to see you,” she said smiling, and left us alone.
I started to explain about the weblog and thanked him for coming to see me. “Oh no,” he said. “You are a constituent, I’m happy to talk to you at any time.”
Neil Baker is an energetic, almost hyperactive, shiny-faced man, still endowed with the enthusiasm and glow of youth; but he is obviously an experienced and astute politician. He is originally from Stowmarket in Suffolk, where his family are sugar beet farmers – he first moved to Wales in 1977 when he was a teenager, later moving back to England to study Horticulture and set up his own landscape and construction business. The alluring hills of Wales pulled him back again in 1987, and after surveying the political landscape, he planted his roots in Plaid Cymru. He was first elected as a councillor in 1990 and is now the leader of Plaid Cymru on Carmarthenshire County Council.
First I wanted to know about his and his party’s position on the war in Iraq: “It’s absolutely outrageous,” he said. “I believe he (Blair) lied – blatantly lied. There are twenty-eight pieces of evidence against him.” (http://www.impeachblair.org/) He told me that Plaid Cymru are unashamedly Socialist and how he felt it was ironic that since New Labour came to power the gap between the rich and the poor had widened – that gap is “stark”, he said. Not only is it unjust but it is dangerous for society; he noted that it was very sad that the first gated community in the constituency had recently been established.
Neil Baker is a quietly charismatic man and it wasn’t difficult to talk to him, but I felt as if he was holding something of himself back; there was a tendency to constrain his comments to the boundaries of established party policy. Echoing the New Labour election slogan he said that Wales had to go forward, not back – forward to the establishment of a proper parliament for Wales, at least as powerful as the one in Scotland. Wales should eventually become independent from the United Kingdom but nothing could be done without the consent of the people.
Immigration was not a huge campaign issue, he said, although one man had harangued him about the problem of the Polish workers that had moved to the town since the expansion of the European Union – ironically the complainer was himself a Ukrainian from an earlier immigration. There is a meat packing factory on the outskirts of the constituency, in the heart of this agriculture-heavy county. It is owned by an Irish company, processes Irish meat and is staffed by immigrant workers. The factory is subsidised by the Welsh Assembly Government in the form of grants and by the UK government in the form of tax credits to the low-paid workers. They find it very difficult to get anyone local to do the jobs, he explained.
I asked him about his stance on ID cards; I didn’t get a detailed response, except that he thought they were an extremely expensive proposal and in the end will not be effective anyway.
Overall, I got the impression that he and his party are working very hard to project an image of inclusiveness and tolerance, heavily imbued with true socialist values. They are not an insular nationalist party but take a pragmatic approach, believing that an Independent Wales within the European Community would be the best form of government for the people. The fact that Neil Baker comes from outside Wales gives him an objective insight into the problems that we face and the options available for their solution.
Labour has ruled in this constituency for 83 years and in its heyday enjoyed majorities of over 20,000; in the 2001 election, Plaid Cymru reduced that majority to just 6,400. It’s still a big Welsh hill to climb but it just might be possible, especially since the sitting MP has retired and the Labour candidate is not well known in the area.
I’m still not sure myself; if Tony Blair had not snuggled up to Bush and was not threatening our civil liberties I would probably still vote Labour and if the Liberal Democrats had a chance here, I would probably vote for them. We do not have a Green Candidate, so it looks like I will vote Plaid by default – but I’m not entirely convinced.
Sunday 1st May
Truth and Apathy
In February 2003 over 2 million people marched in London to try and stop Tony Blair leading us into war against Iraq at the behest of the American President. Many millions more stayed at home and cheered at the television reports of the demonstration. Since then, commentators across the political spectrum have condemned the action and more evidence has emerged about the dodgy nature of the case for war.
This is one of the reasons why I cannot vote for New Labour in this election, not the only one, but probably the main one. This has got nothing to do with Michael Howard’s jibes at the Prime Minister or even Charles Kennedy and his party’s stance on Iraq; in fact every time I see Howard’s gleaming face or hear his glistening voice it makes me more likely to vote for Blair, no matter what words come out of his mouth.
This is just my own interpretation of what information I receive through the complicated fog that covers whatever passes for reality in the mad world of the early twenty-first century. I am capable of interpreting the pictures and the reports for myself; I do not need some half-wit mainstream politician or commentator to tell me what to make of it all.
For a long time since the beginning of the war a part of me wanted to think that the government had extra secret knowledge that I could be never aware of. I thought perhaps that they had been briefed of a terrible unmentionable danger, and that they were protecting us poor plebs from something we could not or should not have to confront.
In this constituency we only have four candidates. I cannot vote for New Labour and I’ve got no inclination to vote for anyone else. The Tories would be worse, I’m not convinced by the Lib Dems and I’m still suspicious of Plaid Cymru.
Yep – despite following this election closer than I’ve ever done before and despite sitting through more than the opening credits of a Tory Party broadcast (I even watched the whole of Michael Howard’s performance on Question Time – I’m still coming to terms with the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that induced), I am still completely disenfranchised – yep, I guess I’m becoming apathetic.
I will probably vote Plaid Cymru because they don’t have a chance of any real power, and hope that the results of this election will cause a political earthquake, or at least some minor tremors. Then maybe the landscape will change enough to allow me to feel at home again.
Sunday 1st May: 2nd entry
My Posh Uncle
The Lib Dems nearly had me then. I was just watching their election broadcast, where they use the ‘boy who cried wolf’ story in a very funny and clever way to remind us that both the Tories and New Labour had gone to war on a lie. I laughed a bit and even though it was narrated by Sandy Toksvig, decided that they would now get my vote simply for being entertaining.
Then, they blew it by putting Charles Kennedy on in a very formal pose to explain in words of one syllable what the message was all about. Suddenly instead of feeling like I was sharing a joke with an intelligent friend, I was being patronised by a posh uncle.
Oh well! Back to the raft of apathy.
Monday 2nd May
Manifesto for the Arts
At the risk of disappearing up my own backside, I refer to an article I published a few years ago about the impecunious nature of the life of most writers: http://derecjones.com/writers.html. Similar arguments can be applied to other art forms. The basic premise is that writers (and other artists) are undervalued and underpaid.
Anthony Gormley (http://www.antonygormley.com/) was on the Today programme just now, calling for a manifesto for the arts, you may remember that he was the creator of the Angel of the North sculpture, the landmark at the entrance to Tyneside (http://www.gateshead.gov.uk/angel/). I didn’t hear the full interview but I gathered that he argued that the political parties are more or less ignoring the arts in this election.
Gormley is one of the lucky ones; he is a successful artist; he has found his niche. Most artists, including writers, work alone and unrecognised, and, in this mad market-led world that is obsessed with economic growth and the accumulation of material possessions, are sidelined to the periphery of political vision. It is time for a radical change.
Art and culture should be at the centre of our lives, not on the edge. Of course, this needs funding but why should artists be made to feel like scroungers, siphoning off resources from more important activities like the building of concrete edifices to house low-paid workers who expend their precious human breaths on trying to sell us things and services we don’t want or need.
There is not much in society that does not owe a debt to the artist. Every moment of every day we use products and engage in activities that originate from some artistic endeavour. For example: the patterns on your wallpaper, language itself, soap operas, the design of your car, images and text used in advertising; not to mention the multi-billion movie and entertainments’ industries. The ideas used have roots that stretch back through human history and feed off its remains; from Anthony Gormley, through Van Gogh and Shakespeare to the cave paintings of our earliest ancestors.
Yes – we do give money to the arts, mostly from the proceeds of the National Lottery and administered by visionless mouse-clickers. Here, we have the Arts Council of Wales, with its 80 staff, as well as countless other Lottery or publicly-funded bodies that leech the artist’s due and hand out scraps for which the artist is expected to grovel and beg.
These then are the main points of my ‘Manifesto for the Arts’:
1. Scrap all existing bodies like the Arts Council and its minor cousins.
2. Establish a British Arts Corporation (BAC) with a small core of full-time staff and part-time volunteers drawn from the ranks of working artists.
3. Collect royalties from anyone who uses the products of art in any way – even from long dead practitioners like Shakespeare, and give the cash directly to artists through the BAC.
4. Open well-equipped BAC funded Arts and Cultural centres in every town and encourage everyone to take part and express themselves in their own way.
Without boring you with the details of my reasoning, this would have immediate and dramatic benefits for society – crime would fall, physical and mental health would improve and everyone would feel more fulfilled and less disenfranchised. This would lead to much less spending on the police, the NHS and social work, and ultimately on the so-called war on terror.
Britain led the world into the Industrial Age, let us now lead it again – into a new age of individual creativity; where everyone benefits regardless of their capacity to screw as much money as possible out of as many people as possible.
Tuesday 3rd May
Make your mind up time
In a last ditch attempt to avoid confusion and hesitation in the polling booth on Thursday I decide to review the four candidates in this constituency by way of a read through their election leaflets.
I start with the premise that I have six choices, these are:
1. Vote Labour
2. Vote Conservative
3. Vote Liberal Democrats
4. Vote Plaid Cymru
5. Vote None of the above
6. Don’t bother
The Labour candidate is called Nia Griffith, a woman in her late forties with a good Welsh name. She has got a first-class honours degree from Oxford and is the head of languages at a comprehensive school. She has recently moved to the constituency as a result of her selection and says she is ‘committed to traditional Labour values.’
The leaflet is a very professionally produced affair in deep red and yellow with pictures from around the constituency. It is fully bilingual in Welsh and English.
Slogan:- ‘Working for Llanelli’
Adrian Phillips has the subtitle ‘putting Llanelli first’ yet he lives in Bristol so as to be near to both the constituency and London. He is also pictured around the constituency, and with Michael Howard. Adrian served as an officer in the Royal Hussars and runs his own business consultancy. Apparently his grandfather worked here as a railway manager
The leaflet, dominated by Tory blue, is half the size of Labour’s and is printed only in English.
Slogan:- ‘Putting Llanelli First’
Ken Rees is a local boy and has been active in Liberal Democrat politics for decades. He is a councillor and used to play rugby. I saw him in town earlier today, but he appeared to be shopping and talking on a mobile phone – he had no identifying stickers or rosettes on him.
His leaflet is a photocopied black and white A4 sheet, folded in three, there’s one picture of him and a small picture of Charles Kennedy.
Slogan:- ‘Llanelli Forward’ (?)
See my earlier entry for details of Neil Baker.
Their predominantly green-coloured leaflet is as professional as Labour’s and of course is fully bilingual.
Slogan:- ‘A Vote for Change’
So, let’s eliminate. The Tories and Liberal Democrats do not have a chance here and it shows. They obviously can’t be bothered to try too hard to woo the electorate – so bye bye.
Labour or Plaid then?
Definitely not Labour because of megalomaniac Blair.
That leaves Plaid Cymru. Hmm.
There’s always option 5 or 6.
Wednesday 4th May
Busses and Bribes
I don’t know if it’s the same everywhere but in this part of the world there are legions of elderly widows. These are the people who are bussed up and down the motorways in gangs and fill up the empty hotel spaces in Eastbourne, or take day trips to the Chelsea Flower Show. I should know; my mother and my mother-in-law are both members of this tribe of marauding merry widows.
Here in Wales, since the introduction of free local bus travel they are marauding at an ever greater frequency, making quick forays into neighbouring shopping centres or hopping from town to town on a chain of local bus services to explore the outer limits of Wild Wales. Some of them have taken to referring to the bus as their Rolls-Royce and the bus driver as their personal chauffeur – they love it. It’s their reward for surviving into old age, generously handed to them by the Welsh Assembly.
Another development that has increased the collective serotonin levels of people of pensionable age enough to fill the Bala Lake is the winter fuel allowance – this is the smartest move that New Labour has made in its eight years of power. The old biddies are well and truly hooked and are now starting to get the jitters because Tony Blair has scared them into believing that the Conservatives have a chance of winning the election.
These old birds flock together in each other’s parlours or in the cheap coffee shops in the town centre and chat about Edna’s latest knee operation or the price of cod liver oil capsules in Holland and Barrett. Lately they’ve been talking about the election.
I went to visit my mother last night; she’s 72. Last week I asked her who she was going to vote for – she was not sure, maybe Labour, maybe the Lib Dems because Charles Kennedy seems like a nice man; definitely not the Tories because Michael Howard gives her the creeps and probably not Plaid Cymru because she’s suspicious of them for some indefinable reason – just a feeling. Last night I asked her the same question; there was no hesitation – Labour.
– Why? I ask.
– Because of the money isn’t it.
– You mean the fuel allowance?
– Yes, but it’s not just that.
– What else?
– Well – the bus passes – I know it was the Welsh Assembly who gave us that but it was Labour who gave us the Assembly. And anyway, I get £300 because I’m over 70.
– What about your friends?
– They’re all voting Labour – everyone I speak to is voting Labour. They all ask ‘who are you voting for?’ My friend Margaret who’s 85 is always saying: ‘Don’t vote Tory, you won’t have the money mind.’ They’re petrified that the Tories will take it all away. Yes they might give it to us in dribs and drabs but what’s the use of £5 a week or whatever it is, you won’t notice it and they’ll only take it back in some other way. We can’t wait for November – that’s when we get it.
– In time for Christmas? I ask. To buy presents for the grandchildren?
– No – everyone goes on holidays with it. It’s so nice to get that money in a lump sum like that. If the Tories get in you won’t be able to cael gafael of it. (It’s a Welsh expression, it means get hold of it – she makes a grasping gesture with her hand as she speaks.)
– I laugh.
– Last year I used it as spending-money in Canada, after putting £20 on my gas card to make sure. (My sister paid for the flight and hotel). You go by a polling station now on Thursday and you’ll see hundreds of old people with their sticks.
It’s in the bag Tony, paid a phoeni. (Another Welsh expression meaning ‘don’t worry’) You’ve got the grey grannies on your side; you’ve given them something worth hobbling to the polling station for. There’s a lot of them about – and they all vote.
Thursday 5th May
The news has gone boring again; no more sitting on the sidelines and ogling at the antics of the politicians, no more shouting at the ref, I’ve got to get in the ring and throw a punch – I have a grave civic duty to perform.
Trouble is, I still don’t have a clue. I’m in danger of ‘sleepwalking’ into the polling booth and automatically giving the kiss of my vote to the Labour candidate, like the habitual peck on the cheek to a partner in a long-dead relationship. Why is it so hard to accept the reality that things have changed? That elation I felt when we first landed New Labour just eight short years ago has turned into bitter disappointment, yet I am bound to her like Gollum is to the Ring.
Ending a bad relationship is hard. Please Gandalf; give me the strength to throw the ring that binds me into the mountain of doom.
Thursday 5th May – Part II
I did a slow drive-by past the polling station. It was deserted; couldn’t bring myself to stop and vote. Still dithering – can’t accept it’s all over.
Thursday 5th May Part III
Ambled to the polling station – oh, the idle joys of self-employment. Nearly went in and voted. Got talking to a couple of the people going in and out; the consensus is that Labour has won, but it is said with a resigned sigh rather than with any enthusiasm. Surprised at the number of younger people voting; perhaps there’s still hope
Will try again later.
Thursday 5th May – Part IV
Just been and gone and done it.
In the end I didn’t hesitate.
It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. All the babble and bluster of the election campaign went out like a blown candle – I didn’t really have any other choice. A vote for Labour would, no matter what the doyens of the party tried to say, have been a stamp of approval for Tony Blair’s behaviour over Iraq and would also have given him my permission to continue his attack on our civil liberties by pursuing such policies as limiting the right to trial by jury and ID cards.
I did consider the Lib Dems earlier in the campaign, but they had no chance here and the local candidate didn’t seem too bothered anyway. A vote for the Conservatives was never an option; so that only left Plaid Cymru.
So, that’s it then. I’m not quite as adrift on the high seas of disenfranchisement as I was at the beginning of the campaign; there is a pin-prick of light on the horizon – or it might be an unreachable star.
Friday 6th May
A Mixed Bag (but sweet enough)
Some good things happened yesterday; some not so good things happened as well. Overall, I’m a bit disappointed but not surprised. On the plus side it’s just possible that there will be enough Labour rebels to scupper the proposed ID cards and other attacks on civil liberties and I can’t imagine Blair having the cheek to lead us into another Iraq at the behest of Bush. Locally, Labour won with a small increase in their majority but a little less share of the vote.
Oh, what the hell, I’m glad Labour won. Apart from the aberration over Iraq they are the best, bravest and most intelligent government we’ve ever had. They’ve worked incredibly hard to get the balance right – now they just have to work a little bit harder.
Well done boys and girls, keep up the good work; just be careful of the company you keep.