Sunday, July 24, 2016

Political fragmentation - interesting times ahead for FPTP?

Even as little as ten years ago, the UK's (mainly) two-and-a-half party system seemed surprisingly stable. 

Taking the 2005 General Election as a baseline, you get:

Labour - 355
Conserative - 198
Liberal Democrat - 62
Democratic Unionists (DUP) - 9
Scottish Nationalists (SNP) - 6
Sinn Fein - 5
Plaid Cymru - 3
Ulster Unionists (UUP) - 3
Health Concern - 1
Respect - 1
Social Democratic & Labour Party (SDLP) - 1
Independent - 1 
Speaker - 1

Moving onto 2010 - again, the two-and-a-half pattern remains unchanged, as does broadly their total number of seats.

Conservative - 306
Labour -  258
Liberal Democrat - 57
DUP - 8
SNP - 6
Sinn Fein - 5
Plaid Cymru - 3
Alliance - 1
Green - 1
Independent - 1
Speaker - 1

If you take into account that four of the other parties plus the independent are all from Northern Ireland, the dominance of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the remainder of the UK (at 98% of all available seats) is even more pronounced 

But now for the first of our gamechangers - the 2015 election:

Conservative - 330
Labour -  232
SNP - 56
Liberal Democrat - 8
DUP - 8
Sinn Fein - 4
Plaid Cymru - 3
UUP - 2
Green - 1
UKIP - 1 
Independent - 1
Speaker - 1 

We all know what's happened here - the electoral collapse of the Lib Dems in the wake of their coalition experience in parallel with the Westminster breakthrough of the Scottish Nationalists following the independence referendum (which might have been a narrow defeat in the short term but so discredited the other parties north of the border as to in retrospect appear a triumph for the SNP)

But is this not just a straight swap in a stable system? Exit Clegg, enter Sturgeon? 

Possibly, but there are also other factors at work which may lead to further change, party fragmentation and political imbalance:

  • The resumption of the review of parliamentary constituencies will probably not only reduce the overall number of seats but reduce the number of safe seats for Labour in England, with the Conservative party being the prime beneficiaries.
  • Rumours of a breakway party from Labour continue - although any movement is likely to happen after the current leadership election.
  • UKIP have continued to poll solidly in the teens in the last few months, although it remains to be seen how that would translate into gains in Parliament. To date, their wins have generally come at local level or in elections with an element of proportional representation, like this year's Welsh Assembly elections.
  • With a power base in Holyrood as well as Westminster and now a strong pro-EU mandate to differentiate themselves from the rest of the country, the SNP show no signs of returning to the margins any time soon.
  • Plaid Cymru performed well at the Welsh Assembly elections this year with 20% of the vote.With an eye on the Scottish experience, they would be well placed to capitalise in key seats should Labour's internal problems continue.

And of course more generally no-one yet knows what impact Brexit will have on the country's political culture, the relative strength of any of the parties and the possible emergence of other groupings as a form of protest or otherwise.

There's nothing wrong with more political diversity, of course, and I can think of several European polities that have made cooperation and collaboration work really well over a long period of time. However, none of them use our first past the post voting (FPTP) system, preferring ones with at least a little proportionality.

For FPTP to work effectively, it requires one of two things - preferably both. It should have
a limited number of dominant political actors (that's parties to you and me, guv), all with a reasonable expectation of either winning a majority and forming a government. The system has to hold out the prospect of a swing great enough that office is realistically attainable - one dominant party is not enough.

Ideally, parties should also be ready to work together, both in the event that a majority cannot be achieved (that's coalitions or looser arrangements like the wonderfully named 'confidence and supply') as well as on an ad hoc basis where consensus can be found, to mitigate the inherently adversarial nature of FPTP.

For at least the last 30-40 years, I would argue UK has been in the interesting situation of having the former (competition) but not enough of the latter (collaboration) and has managed to get away with it, albeit at some cost to its political culture

However, future fragmentation and political imbalance would I believe threaten the stability of that first pillar and thus the electoral system as a whole, if not taken seriously.

All of this doesn't amount in itself to an argument for changing how we elect our MPs, although it certainly could be used to suggest that. It isn't even an argument against splitting the Labour Party - as an outsider that's a conversation I'm certainly not blundering my way into.

What it does at the very least point to is the likelihood that FPTP and our political culture - our way of doing political business, if you like - will have to work harder to provide good government in the future if we're to carry on in this vein

Perhaps much harder.

*While devolved and local governments have often had co-operation baked in to their electoral systems or at least had it thrust upon them, the Coalition Government of 2010-2015 arguably demonstrated how inimical politics at the highest level could be to cross-party collaboration, despite its undeniable successes and continuation for five years.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The radical centre - a place to be?

From Rebecca Solnit's mighty Hope In The Dark. The quote relates to environmental activism, but could apply to any field of social change or anyone weary of simplistic left-right divisions.

It's also very much in keeping with a community organising approach.
'Arizona environmentalist-rancher Bill McDonald [...] may have been the one to coin the term "the radical centre", the space in which ranchers, environmentalists, and government agencies have been able to work together and see the preservation of rural livelihoods and the land itself as the same goal.'

'The radical center, as writer and New Mexico land manager William DeBuys defines it is "a departure from business as usual," is "not bigoted. By that I mean, to do this kind of work, you don't question where someone is from or what kind of hat he or she wears, you focus on where that person is willing to go and whether he or she is willing to work constructively on matters of mutual interest. 

Work in the Radical Centre also involves a commitment to using a diversity of tools. There is no one way of doing things. We need to have large toolboxes and lend and borrow tools freely. 

Work in the Radical Centre is experimental - it keeps developing new alternatives every step of the way. Nothing is ever so good that it can't stand a little revision and nothing is ever so impossible and broken down that a try at fixing it is out of the question."

Friday, July 22, 2016

YA goes gothic: Frances Hardinge's The Lie Tree

A quick review for this remarkable YA-goes-Victorian-gothic novel from last year, recommended to me by @rae102011 and @shoppingoldfish.

Can lies, disinformation and fakery ever serve a higher purpose? What if you felt so passionately about an as-yet indeterminate truth that you were willing to fabricate evidence in its favour? To what extent to we make our own reality?

Frances Hardinge's The Lie Tree wraps these questions in a 19th century magic realist murder mystery and tells the surface story so elegantly it's easy to overlook the themes that lie below.

The tree of the title is both the central metaphor and the plot engine for the book. A legendary plant, when fed with a widely believed falsehood or rumour, it grants its keeper oracular visions of the particular truth they seek, be that as mundane as one's medical condition or as profound as evolution.

People will kill to possess the Lie Tree for the answers it purports to give, as the novel demonstrates. One such unlucky owner and murder victim is the Reverend Erasmus Sunderby, a fossil expert drawn to a remote island with his family under false pretenses. His young daughter Faith's clandestine investigation of his death and burgeoning relationship with the Tree forms the heart of the novel.

One of the great thing about a whodunnit is that it provides a clear foundation for a book - the pendulum of suspicion can swing back and forth, clues are progressively accquired, new insights into character are gained. The Lie Tree is a very nicely structured book in that sense. 

But, more than that, it means that Hardinge can weave in sophisticated themes around this tough yet flexible structure, like the phantasmagorical experience of grief, the evolutionary debates of the Victorian era and the limited options facing middle class women of the time. These very much enhance rather than detract from the story itself.

A real doozy of a concept, then, but also a very good, extremely readable book.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Noblesse oblige, Lichfield

I'm writing these words on a sunny morning in Lichfield, probably the most stereotypically, quintessentially English place I've ever lived in. 

The cafe I'm writing in is just a small bound from both the ancient cathedral and the house where Darwin's grandfather lived and worked. A quick stroll around the city cenre brings me to eighteenth century coaching inns, Tudor townhouses, the expansive glory that is Beacon Park and much more besides.

And there's more - the local arts festival is in full swing this week - bringing people into our micro-city, visiting its many independent shops and lending Lichfield a sense of occasion it (with a certain self-satisfaction) accepts as its due. Events throughout the summer showcase its thriving community and voluntary scene.

In short - I love living here.

Neartopian towns

In the past, giddy with potential, I've described places like our little city (or in different ways Brixton, Hebden Bridge or Bishops Castle, say) as neartopian

This isn't because they are remotely within touching distance of perfection - in particular their pay-to-play mentality can sometimes be exclusionary. But Lichfield and places like it do foster some of the social, political and artistic conditions for imagining a better future*. 

And boy, do we need that at the moment.

Brexit mood music

Even in a place like Lichfield, you can't escape the events of the past month. The people on the table next to me in the cafe are party activists - councillors, maybe - avidly dissecting the results of the EU referendum and its consequences. To say everybody's (still) talking about Brexit is not to resort to banality - it's barely an exaggeration.

Now, I didn't write this to rehash arguments from Leave or Remain. Regardless of how you voted, we all have to deal with the same reality. The key questions about the future - about the economy, about health and social care, the enviroment and many more - remain unchanged and unanswered from before.

What the referendum campaign and result has done with all of this is it has upped the tempo. Turned up the volume on disagreement that was already there**. Conjured both crisis and, yes, opportunity.

I've read a lot about economic and political instability in the wake of the referendum result. I've seen a lot less about its social and pyschological impact (with one critical exception which I talk about below) but this will flow, subterranean, through the country too. 

Taken together, I honestly don't think you can underestimate what a potentially big deal all of this is. History has strong lessons about what happens when societies suffer under distrust, fear and political impotence.***

Noblesse oblige, Lichfield

So, at at a time like now, it is critical for civil society (stripped of sociological jargon, for people) that we reach out, talk to one another and listen - the very opposite of a Twitter barracking. We will neither find solutions to the challenges of the hour, nor heal the wounds of political division, if we cannot do this.

We have an opportunity here to find shared hope for the future and points of unity. 

And since Lichfield's has 250-odd years of practice at this (hi Sammy J, hi Erasmus D!), if we are the beneficiaries of this inherited social capital then, noblesse oblige! Which is to say we should step up and use it in the best of causes.

If you reckon this is a position you can take in the group that you volunteer with - go for it! Or if you'd like to start a conversation with me about this, please use the comment box below.

But if you're looking for something concrete - I have a suggestion for that too.


This handmade but heartfelt tribute to MP Jo Cox, murdered last month, was left outside the Oxfam Bookshop in Market Street for several days afterwards, acting as a place where people could mark their respect for a public servant who died doing her duty.

Her death has become symbolic of one of the most troubling trends coming out of the EU referendum campaign: the sense that it empowered a hopefully small number to become much more brazen in their racism and bullying.

Whatever happens next, whether you voted Leave or Remain, one thing I hope we can agree on is that this is unacceptable and that we can try our hardest to be a tolerant and inclusive society inside or outside the EU. 

Or, to use the now-iconic quote from Jo Cox's maiden speech in the Commons, that 'we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.'

With that in mind, The Hope Not Hate campaign are calling for people across the UK to organise local #MoreInCommon meetings to discuss how we can bring our community together around what we have in common and around our shared values.  

To date, 300 meetings are in the pipeline. It seems to me like an easy thing we could do in Lichfield to begin our shared project of hope and unity is to add our voices to something like this.

So, if this sounds up your street, please add your voice in the comments and we'll get this ball rolling.

Full circle

I started this post by talking about Lichfield, its history and beauty, but also its potential to help imagine a better future. At a time like this it would be all to easy to sit back and cultivate the former while neglecting the latter. Let's not make that mistake. 

Noblesse oblige, Lichfield, noblesse oblige.

*This is not to say that only 'nice places' are allowed to imagine the future - quite the opposite. There's nothing like a frontline for sharpening your need for a solution. But I would argue certain towns or communities, fortunately for them, have an intellectual tradition, a sense of civic space, a sense of voluntary action, a set of attributes which provide a platform to help locals conceive of a better future. You could get this in communities as wide-ranging as Christiania, Camden, Cuba or Clitheroe - the point is we live in a time where such places have a duty to release that social capital like never before and share it with others.

**Lichfield district voted 59-41 in favour of leaving the EU.

*** No, I don't mean the one you can't talk about without risking a Godwin's Law infringement, although Weimar remains a tragic study in democratic failure.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Cute title, sad book: Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

Like much of his work, Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (1968) is a fable of identity crisis and phenomenological breakdown. 

It might start off with a fairly straight SF premise - bounty hunter Deckard pursues runaway androids around a decaying San Francisco - but as rug after rug is pulled from under the reader, it's clear that Dick's real concerns lie elsewhere than the ostensible premise.

Front and centre lies the problem posed by the androids of the title. They might legally be property and indentured servants, with intelligence but lacking in the empathy humans claim as their USP. But if people like Deckart and his wife Iran have to resort to artificially controlling their emotions in order to function, or have to participate in religious simulations to feel a connection to others, how different are they really in any meaningful sense?

If memories can be altered and implanted, as the book points out, how do they know they are not themselves androids?

And as the droids themselves become increasingly sophisticated, harder to tell apart from humans with a battery of psychological tests, this distinction becomes finer and finer. Deckard, whose career rests on being able to confidently identify and 'retire' droids, begins to behave erratically and question the meaning of his work.

So Do Androids Dream... is a novel about what it means to be human in a technological age. But it's a lot more than that too.

For example, as members of my reading group pointed out, it responds tolerably well to a recasting of its themes in social terms - bear in mind Dick was writing at the time of the civil rights movement and a great deal of political turmoil besides. You don't have to look far to find examples of second-class citizenship and extralegal killings in the US at the time. And Iran's decision to programme herself a self-accusatory depression is a nicely done sketch of traditional femininity in crisis.

While this is subtext, what is undeniably text in Do Androids Dream is a deconstruction of a hard-boiled, traditional, and yes, masculine way of seeing the world. The events of the novel chip away at the props of Deckard/Dick's life - his pride in his work, his belief that what he does is right. They hold out the prospect of material gain and romantic love, and then whisk them away. His manufactured religion of Mercerism is exposed as a sham. 

With deep irony, this race to internal rock bottom coincides with Deckard's greatest triumph in the eyes of the world - his successful 'retirement' of the last of the runaway androids. But such success no longer has any meaning to him.

This is Dick's signature trick: he takes you down the rabbit hole only for the Big Reveal to be a sarlaac pit.

The ending holds out at least the possibility of hope - that Deckard can choose to be content with his manufactured religion, his artificial pets and his dialled up emotions. But this is presented as a least worst response to purgatory, not an alternative, for Do Androids Dream is at its core a deeply unhappy novel, an authentic tragedy rare in science-fiction.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Mystery authors dominating Amazon bestsellers list

Out of curiosity, I checked what Amazon's 100 biggest selling fantasy and SF novels are right now. It's updated hourly, so the link above will give different information over time, but you can still draw some interesting information from it as a snapshot.
  • All but one of the top ten are either by J K Rowling or George R R Martin, and I can't see that changing much for a while.
  • Rowling and Martin together provide 14 of the top 100 entries.
  • The only other authors to have 2 books in the top 100 are Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, jointly for their Long Earth series.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 (19) are there as £1 or less deals.
  • Over 1 in 4 (27) are there are £2 or less deals.
  • Most of the cheap books are for authors I've never heard of, Peter Hamilton excepted. That doesn't make them bad, of course, just unknown to me.
  • Authors known to me other than Rowling and Martin make up only 15 of the top 100.  And I'm reasonably widely read and have good name recognition for authors I see on the shelves.
  • No, the unknown authors aren't just urban fantasy romances (although some are).
  • No, they aren't other genres mistagged (with one or two honourable exceptions).
  • Add in Rowling and Martin to the other known authors, compensate for imperfect knowledge and I'm still wondering who 3 in 5 of these best selling authors are.
Intriguing: is this the self-publishing revolution in action? Further analysis required.

Where did all these Games Workshop novels come from?

Here's a thing I discovered the other day in my local library - nearly a fifth of the books in the adult science-fiction and fantasy section were Warhammer (40K or Fantasy) novelisations.

That seems like a lot relative to the actual quality of the books - and yes, I have read some of them. But I guess you can explain it by the fact that the library-using demographic skews either young or old, and many a teen cuts their gaming teeth on Games Workshop.

I couldn't find any reportage on this phenomenon, so it might actually be worth looking into, if anyone's reading this.