Pulling down the blinds – a true story

We are mid-way through a big house build project. As part of the build, we had the windows changed. The new ones really do make a difference to the noise from the road, but when they were fitted, the blinds in our bedroom were removed. The fitters put them up again, but inexpertly. So for the last few months, we’ve mainly just left them shut. It’s a bedroom. We’re generally asleep in there. The blinds are going anyway when the whole room gets redecorated.

Yesterday, the decorators wanted to check how much paint they’d need for the bedroom. So I opened the main blind. It’s not the first time I’ve done it, but the cord was so tangled I’ve tried to avoid doing it too often. Every previous time, I’ve carefully shut it again afterwards. Yesterday, I forgot.

Fast forward to the evening. Normally I’m the first adult upstairs, putting the kids to bed. Yesterday I was out at a community meeting, so it was my husband’s turn. Guess what? Annoyed that the blind was a) open, and b) not working perfectly, he yanked the cord and the whole thing came down.

By the time I came home, he was seething. It was the decorators’ fault, for wanting to look in the bedroom. It was my fault for permitting it to be opened rather than just switching a light on, and my fault for leaving the blind open when it was bedtime. He was ridiculously angry. I realised in part it was frustration with the build overall, and also that he hadn’t succeeded in fixing it back up and had broken our children’s reach-the-sink stool when standing on it to try. “I’m fed up with all this,” he complained. “Stupid blinds that fall off on me and I’ve had to throw a stool away because this room hasn’t been decorated yet.”

I picked up the blind, stood on a suitable-for-adults tough plastic stool and eventually managed to balance it on the top of the clips that hold it up – one had cracked when he pulled the blind down. It wasn’t perfect, there was maybe a centimetre of gap at the bottom where the cords had stuck and I could not get it flat, but it was maybe 99% acceptable given the imperfect situation.
“Don’t touch it again,” I told him. “It’s carefully balanced. We’ll need to get an expert in to set up the new ones when the room’s redone.”
“Don’t tell me not to do things I wasn’t going to do anyway,” he sulked.

About half an hour later, I was loading the dishwasher when I heard a shout. I ran upstairs. My husband had again pulled down the blinds.
“It was all wrong!” he said. “There was a chink and I wouldn’t have been able to sleep with all the light it would have let in.”
I was a bit cross. “Well now there’s no blind at all,” I said. “You’ve pulled two of the clips out of the wall and I’m not even sure if it can be put up again.”

It took me nearly 20 minutes – during which I heard again how it was all someone else’s fault except the actual blind-destroyer – but eventually, at nearly midnight, I managed to loop the cord over the remaining wall clips and suspend the blind. There was now a fifteen centimetre gap at the top of the blind. This was considerably worse than the balanced blind – perhaps 80% acceptable due to my hard work, but the best we were going to be able to make it. After all, neither of us are window blind fitters.
Until we actually went to sleep, my husband maintained that it would be easier to get sleep with the light coming in through a big gap at top of the blind than to suffer a tiny gap at the bottom.
Of course what we really need is to push on with the redecoration, and get new, tailor-made blinds on all three bedroom windows, that blend in perfectly with the rest of the room’s new colour scheme, but – even though we both know that – it all seemed to fly out the window when we got obsessed with a narrow focus on the short-term window covering.

What did we learn?:
* due to circumstances beyond our control, the state of the blind overall was not what we would want in an ideal world. But for the purpose we had – sleeping in a darkened room – it was sufficient;
* having the blind up was better than trying to cope without the blind all together which would have resulted in street and car lights visible all night and – when the bedroom light was on – greater exposure of us to the street outside while in our nightclothes or getting dressed;
* the option to purchase alternative window coverings was open to us, and always had been. We were not precluded from getting amazing curtains, it was just that having blinds made sense for those windows;
* in any case, we had already had the blinds fully operational for some time, and were going to purchase new ones when the room was redecorated in a few week’s time;
* besides, it was bedtime, you can only purchase window coverings if the shops are open or if you have the time to wait for internet purchases to be deliveries which tend not to be instantaneous (we’d still have been curtainless last nigh and probably a few nights more, even if the end product turn out to be great longer term);
* resolving the room’s need for redecoration soon would alleviate the whole window covering issue. Impatience with a bigger process was not only unhelpful but downright damaging to our interests;
* when something goes wrong unexpectedly, the people that caused the situation to occur may be multiple, but it is not helpful to blame others and refuse accept your own role in the process may not always be entirely positive, because that damages relationships;
* experts in something unrelated to the issue at hand – such as window fitters and decorators – can cause more problems when they wade into a similar but unrelated field – such as blind fitting – but non-experts will regard the two fields as indistinguishable and not understand why they got it so wrong;
* sometimes valuing what you have when it is 99% acceptable is better than demanding 100%, and risking bringing a whole structure down on top of you and ending up with something less good or no blind at all;
* there are people in life that – when something doesn’t work out as they wish – scream, shout, look to blame, look to say I told you so and that the whole disaster is not what they thought would happen. There are others that find an alternative stool to stand on and make the damned blind workable.

Party Leaders Debates 2015: let’s hear it from the boys?

Ofcom today issued its consultation on who should be allowed to participate in the Leaders debates on TV in the run up to the General Election and, as “major parties” be allowed two party election broadcasts on TV and radio in advance of the election.

Their suggestion is that the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats be allowed to participate as before, UKIP as a party that has recently won two by-elections and has the majority of European Parliament seats, it also has that status.

The Prime Minister has joined those who oppose Ofcom’s proposals, saying he would not want to be part of the debates if the Green Party were to be excluded. He is being accused of being chicken about the debates, but he makes a case of fairness as to why they should be included.

I’m not a member of any political party. I am not really a fan of Leaders’ debates – but that particular genie is already out of the bottle.
If the debates want to make it all about who comes over best on TV (“I agree with Nick!”) then it is only right and proper that the leaders of the parties running with a reasonable chance of obtaining seats in parliament are allowed to put their messages across.

Five thoughts:

1) Defining Major Parties
The Green Party, which had an MP at the last election rather than just obtained by by-elections, won three European Parliament seats and also has control of a local council (Brighton and Hove), according to recent polling has a younger, more female and better educated demographic – up to 18% of potential voters aged 18-24 (and 10% of 25-39 year olds) said they would vote Green according to data from YouGov.

The latest polling puts the Greens 2% ahead of the Lib Dems who are defined as a major party.

According to the House of Commons Library, the SNP (92,000) has a larger membership than the Lib Dems (44,000), UKIP (39,000) and the Greens (29,000). That means in terms of people willing to pay to belong, the SNP is closer to the Conservatives (134,000) and even the Labour Party (190,000) than the small parties, despite only putting forward candidates in one part of the UK!

Now that’s a bit confusing…

2) Content matters

We are about to go into the most uncertain election in decades.

While people in the media and beyond have criticised the Coalition, and the Lib Dems have lost support for “propping up an unpopular Conservative minority in a government no one voted for” (as a friend put it to me recently) rather than standing as a principled but powerless opposition party, it seems most likely that there will be another coalition, possibly with more than two parties in it after the next election.

That means that content matters.

We actually need to know what the parties stand for because – as was the case last time – what the next government actually agrees to do may well be an amalgam of policies from the manifestos of the parties that form the coalition, the coalition agreement taking the place of the manifesto as an agreed statement of government.

So arguably, while not national parties in the sense of standing in constituencies across the UK, the nationalist parties views and policies might conceivably be part of the government’s statement of government and can’t just be ignored as only relevant to a part of the UK population smaller than the number of people resident in London.

 

And it would be useful to know about the leaders and what really matters to them if they get into power.
Here’s an example… When the Lib Dems were negotiating the coalition agreement, Nick Clegg gambled that securing constitutional change – with a referendum on the voting system and reform of the House of Lords plus taking on the until-then pretty much ceremonial role of Deputy Prime Minister – was enough to change the face of British politics that other key policies (such as tuition fees) that could not be agreed between the parties could be sacrificed. The Lib Dems also secured one of the two Cabinet posts from HM Treasury and a couple of important departments aligned with their world view, but on a fifth of the votes and a fifth of the government posts, they could only really expect to secure in the coalition agreement a fifth of the policies. The gamble didn’t pay off – the referendum didn’t offer voters the STV voting system but AV, the alternative vote system, which can produce results as far from the actual votes cast as the current First Past the Post system, but without being as simple to understand. Lords reform vanished off the public’s radar, mired in the general mistrust of all politicians, elected or appointed.

Could anyone have guessed this from the chummy “I agree with Nick”s of the TV leaders’ debate? Probably not – I don’t recall coming away from watching the three debates feeling that, if in a coalition, the Lib Dems would put all their eggs in the constitutional change basket. But those were the first real TV debates, and the leaders were not pushed on that issue. I hope that they might be this time.

Given the dev max that was effectively proposed as an alternative to Scottish independence, what could an SNP coalition partner ask for? What about the Northern Irish parties? UKIP? The Greens? As the 2010 election showed, we need to hear it because the commonalities could put one group of parties in power.

3) Context setting

Both of the issues above lead to a realisation.Debate will be very different if the Greens are included.

Think about it this way.

Ten years ago, UKIP was a fringe party of what David Cameron felt free to call “fruitcakes and loons”. With persistence and help from the rightwing press, their key themes of immigration and the EU have become mainstream issues on which all the parties now have to have views. Farage was portrayed as a character, and – like Boris Johnson – being a bit of a joker, a bloke, allowed his statements to be made without being picked apart properly by opponents. Now securing more votes is leading to greater scrutiny.

Farage is right about one thing: the professionalisation of Westminster politics means that there has been more focus on getting the soundbites out than on actual discussion of what the country we want to be looks like, acts like in the world and how we treat each other and our planet.

Today the Greens are smaller than UKIP. But small parties grow, as UKIP shows. The demographic that votes UKIP (older, male, less well educated) is almost exactly the inverse of those that intend to vote Green. Younger voters will statistically be voters for longer… so the political current should be with the younger group, if they are persuaded to vote at all.

If the Greens are not represented, the debate will be filled with Farage making statements that fit his world view. As was shown by the Clegg-Farage EU debates- no matter how sensible (and accurate) the points put against him, he will set the agenda, he will dominate the coverage, he will be the story.
The context of the debate will be ideas of the right, and a distortion of all the possible thoughts out there about what is important for the country. Having the left-of-centre Greens in the debate will open up wider issues: not just the environment but the economy, human rights, and allow for better quality of discussion.

4) Let’s hear it from the boys???

If Ofcom’s proposals stayed unchanged (and with the Prime Minister’s intervention that now seems unlikely), the audience will yet again be presented with a range of middle/ upper middle class, white, middle-aged men. They may even all be millionaires (even if it were only property-price paper millionaire status).

My heart sinks. If politics is seen to be a rich, white man’s game, then how do we encourage younger, more diverse groups of people who are entitled to vote that they should exercise their right to do so? Much as we wish it wouldn’t, the appearance of things matters.

Just hearing if from the boys is a really big deal.
Women lead the Greens (Natalie Bennett), the SNP (Nicola Sturgeon), Plaid Cymru (Leanne Wood), but you wouldn’t know it if you just saw the leaders of the (apparently) big four.
How can we trust that issues that predominantly affect women are understood if there are few women, and even fewer mothers, involved in politics and – when they are – they are excluded from being publicly visible in key debates?
And that’s only for the representation of 50% of the population. What about race, disability, those of us that aren’t millionaires?

For this reason, if no other, Natalie Bennett ought to be featured.

5) But what is the purpose of the Leaders’ Debates?
To hear what a potential Prime Minister might say? Then there would be almost no point in either the Lib Dems or UKIP being represented either.
To be a stage managed, presentation of part of the political discussion in terms that make it simple to write headlines? Is that really what our broadcasters are for?

Concluding thought:
So there would seem to be a case for the Greens to be involved in the debates. 
Less so the nationalist parties, as none of the leaders are seeking to become UK Prime Minister. It would be more likely that Clegg, not Sturgeon, would be the UK Birgitte Nyborg…
Now to write to Ofcom…

P.S.

You might be thinking “so what” or “oh dear”, or even “whatev’s”. You might genuinely think none of this matters.
There was a fascinating section in Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe review of the year – a brilliant personal view from Adam Curtis on why “oh dear” is not a good response for democracy.

 

Euro(w)s… Democracy versus Sovereignty

Croesus Pyre urn – if only his money were available to the Government in Athens right now and not burned up…

A few thoughts from watching Greece…

If one sixtieth of the population turns out on the street (e.g. marching against the Iraq war), our recent experience in the UK is that this is not sufficient for our government to change its policy.

There are riots, anti-cuts camps etc. in the streets of Athens.  The Greek Prime Minister has sacrificed his Finance Minister for someone that the Daily Mail tells me is “a populist” whose biggest achievement to date was delivery of the 2000 Olympic Games along with the crippling expense and squandered legacy that when with them.
But will the Greek government change its policy requiring more austerity measures?

I very much doubt it.
For much the same reasons.

There is understandably a lot of news coverage of the unpopular measures that the Greek government is going to need to take in order not to default and thereby avoid a financial crisis worse than 2008.

Much of the coverage has chosen to put the street protests in Athens in the context of the “Greece as cradle of democracy” story.

The question is whether the Greek government can or should decide that they don’t need to make the cuts being talked about (including 20% cuts to services and jobs in the public sector).  Given there is already 16% unemployment, this scares an enormous number of people there. According to Professor Peter Morici, writing in UPI:

Greece is slipping from a liquidity crisis into downright insolvency. Bond investors are demanding yields 20 percentage points higher on Greek debt than on comparable German debt. Rolling over existing bonds, as those come due, will be prohibitively expensive and the collapse of Athens’ finances seems inevitable.

But even if not inevitable, could Greece just be allowed to declare itself bankrupt? Could it default, if it were the will of its people?

This is where the difference between democracy and sovereignty comes into play.

Wikipedia defines democracy as:

a form of government in which all citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal (and more or less direct) participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law. It can also encompass social, economic and cultural conditions that enable the free and equal practice of political self-determination.

There are concepts that sit alongside democracy, such as the rule of law and moral behaviour codes which require the honouring of commitments undertaken.

Wikipedia defines sovereignty as:

the quality of having supreme, independent authority over a geographic area, such as a territory. It can be found in a power to rule and make law that rests on a political fact for which no purely legal explanation can be provided. In theoretical terms, the idea of “sovereignty”, historically, from Socrates to Thomas Hobbes, has always necessitated a moral imperative on the entity exercising it.

While ancient Athenian democracy was direct democracy (open to all men who had done their military service, but not to women, slaves, freed slaves, resident aliens etc.), modern democracy is generally representative democracy, with decision-making passed to elected representatives of the people on the basis of the greatest number of votes gained at democratic elections.

While the United Nations requires only that a State is sovereign by having effective and independent government within a defined territory, modern states are – needless to say – a bit more complicated than that.

Money is behind much of the complexity.  The money required for a state to operate is equally international, with each country’s balance sheet containing in addition to its citizens taxes loans from the private sector and other purchasers of gilts and bonds.

In a democracy, sovereignty is granted to the government by the people and actions are carried out by the government in their name.
But countries can be seen to give over some of their ability to act independently (sovereignty) to their financial creditors – the added finance available to the country being for the general benefit of the people of the nation.

Greece’s position as a sovereign nation is also in the twenty first century inter-connected world context.  In addition to the national we also have supranational (e.g. EU and euro) and international (e.g. UN, IMF) layers of governance, providing us with both responsibilities (defence, finance, market access, honouring of commitments) but also support (financial, market access, political and military).  This is made contractual through Treaties – pooling of sovereignty granted by the people to the government shared with others at supra- or international levels for the general benefit of the people of the nation.

The question is that old point of “no taxation without representation”.  In a bailout situation between states, it is not only the taxpayers of Greece who have a legitimate interest in how Greece handles its debts but the taxpayers of the countries providing the help via the IMF and the Eurozone… welcome to the complicated world we live in.

So who can legitimately tell a country what to do is indeed a bit more complicated.

There is talk of just “letting Greece default” and cutting Greece loose from the Euro.
This is not something to be flippant about.  While a Greece-with-Drachma could devalue its currency against others in a way that Greece-with-Euro cannot, Greek default could cause a shockwave across the economy in the way that Lehman Brothers collapsing did.

If the Greek government were to default, it would not only be Greece that was affected – in taking money from others, Greece is part of an inter-related global political and financial system.

Nor would it only be Eurozone countries affected – French, German and American banks in Greece’s market and with Greek government gilts and bonds would be hit directly. This would affect the network connections between banks (that’s the way in which banks hold national debts, lend to each other and buy and sell loans).

And while Eurozone countries would be hit because of the common currency they have with Greece and the money they have put up to keep it afloat, it would also because of the inter-relatedness of their economies.
If Greece has its debt restructured (i.e. it pays out on its debts at less than 100 cents to the euro), Eurogroup leader (and Luxembourg Prime Minister) Jean-Claude Juncker has already warned of the contagion effect and potentially bleak prospects for Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Italy and Belgium. Greek debt restructured would be the mark-to-market of other European countries’ national debts.  And as Norman Lamont pointed out a couple of days ago on Radio 4 – it would beg the question whether a Euro in Ireland, Portugal etc. was worth the same as one in Germany – and when that happens the Euro itself fails. No sensible person could want that.

While the UK is not part of the Euro, we are also bound into this.  The UK has loaned money to the Greek government – we’ve already done so as part of our IMF responsibilities and would have to do so again.  It’s part of the deal in our pooled sovereignty at  international level.  And in case we are telling ourselves we should just think national, we ourselves have had an IMF loan within my lifetime, so it is part of our international role and responsibility.  The wider interconnectedness of international finance means our banks and our pockets would be badly hit by a destablised Euro.

That said, it seems the £95bn loan last year didn’t help because the cuts hit any prospect of financial growth and the markets don’t want to loan money to Greece.  Evidence of this is that Greek government bonds are already at 30% return rates (compared with 3% for the UK and 5% for Spain).
It remains to be seen whether throwing more money (another £196bn?) is enough to tip the balance or simply good money after bad.

But is there anything else that can be done?
In May 2011 at a conference in Lisbon hosted by Left Block and GUE/NGL, Unitarian Left at the European Parliament, French researcher Benjamin Coriat proposed an alternative to IMF bailouts:

  • the European economy should “break with financial markets”, imposing “conducting audits on public debts so that can be identified who owes and what owes and so we would see that after all creditors have to pay more than borrowers“;
  • The “European Central Bank must buy government bonds on the primary market in order to lower interest rates and leave the rating agencies out of the game”;
  • This would be accompanied by establishing a fair and balanced tax base in order to “reverse the counter-revolution” in which the rich get tax breaks;
  • there should be changes to macro-economic coordination in Europe towards achieving a balance between the centre and the periphery because “Germany can not only take the benefits of Europe and leave the disadvantages to the others”.

But this is in the realms of fantasy – and I can only assume that there were neither Germans (who are pretty annoyed with bailing everyone else out) nor anyone with a grasp of the sums of money involved in actually doing any of that in the audience?
Realpolitik also suggests that if the Euro is not seen to be functioning brilliantly, politicians are unlikely to want to grant more powers to the ECB.

Are there any other ideas out there?  Well, if Greece were a company, others would be sniffing round to buy it up at a bargain price rather than bail it out with the current management.  But happily for democracy, the crossover between capitalism and politics has happily not gone this far yet!

Anything else? American (and some German) economists propose a strong-economy Euro (e.g. Austria, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands), cutting loose weaker economies (e.g. Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain) for the good of all.  I can’t help thinking that one would go down particularly bad with the French…

But one thing is clear – the Greek government cannot give in to the street protesters.
Well, of course they can – but they’d need to think through the global consequences of doing so.
But if the street protesters want to change the government for another, democratically via the ballot box, that is of course their right.  Storming the parliament is not the way to do it.
But in a democracy, sometimes what is for the best for the people overall is not what is going to be popular.
Sometimes we have to elect people to do what we individually could not.
And honouring our international obligations matters, whether we’re debtor or creditor on the ask.

 

 

My Fellow Europeans: The State of the EUnion…

Today, the Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, made his first state of the union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg (watch it here).  As Ralf Grahn has already pointed out, whether he should is a point of constitutional uncertainty. Executive power in the EU does not really rest with Barroso – perhaps he should have been accompanied by Buzek, Van Rompuy and, for the rotating Presidency held by the Member States, the Prime Minister of Belgium… hold on, not certain who that is at present…

And the BBC said that the meeting of EU finance ministers today may well overshadow Barroso’s speech in any case covering issues of real importance – the economic crisis and regulation of the banking sector…

So leaving aside the issue of who should have been doing the speech, what did they say and what does it mean for EU citizens?
Firstly we should note that this speech is being given to the European Parliament, and that will affect some of the things that are said in comparison with – say- a speech given to the European Council.  You’ll see what I mean later.
Second, there’s no underlying coherence to the speech – as Mary Honeyball (who was presumably there) points out, it’s a shopping list.  but that’s inevitable as the EU itself is a messy sort of compromise between a lot of ideas.

We’re promised “a Europe of opportunity where those that aspire are elevated and those in need are not neglected“.
A Europe that is open to the world and open to its people. A Europe that delivers economic, social and territorial cohesion“.  I’m not entirely sure what economic, social and territorial cohesion means in practice – presumably it means that we all help each other out, spirit level style.  But let’s look at what that has meant in reality.

Our interdependence was highlighted and our solidarity was tested like never before.  We have provided many of the answers needed – on financial assistance to Member States facing exceptional circumstances, on economic governance, on financial regulation, on growth and jobs“. Hmm.  If I was in Germany, I’m not totally sure I’d see bailing out the Greek economy where public servants can retire in their mid-40s as solidarity – solidarity needs to work both ways and the reform needed to equalise the exceptional circumstances needs to be in place.

Did anyone bar the most ardent, foaming-mouthed Europhobe really predict “the demise of the European Union” in the financial crisis?  I thought it was the Euro which was the target of most scepticism?
The European institutions and the Member States have demonstrated leadership. My message to each and every European is that you can trust the European Union to do what it takes to secure your future“.  I feel very reassured, don’t you? 🙂
He also cited various bits of legislation that were coming forward, prompting one MEP to say it felt more like a forward work plan than a state of the union.

Barroso then turned to the economic outlook in the European Union – better than it was, with higher growth than forecast, and high unemployment sustained rather than growing.   I’m guessing that “budgetary expansion played its role to counter the decline in economic activity. But it is now time to exit. Without structural reforms, we will not create sustainable growth” is essentially the idea that once we’ve used tax payers money to bail out the bits of the economy that are collapsing, we need to cut back until its sustainable.
We then got a couple of sentences referring back to the Europe 2020 agenda – “accelerate our reform agenda. Now is the time to modernise our social market economy so that it can compete globally and respond to the challenge of demography. Now is the time to make the right investments for our future“.

The demographic challenge mentioned is falling birthrates and rising retired populations.  Basically, to sort this out we need to refocus our idea of work – that it’s not just about full-time, visible in the workplace jobs.  If we need as many people as possible to work, then we need to be taking seriously the role that women play – in the workplace, and at home.
First of all, we can’t just assume that everyone should be in full-time paid employment, effectively farming out our childcare and other caring responsibilities to paid carers in some big societal experiment.

We can’t assume that everyone will be fit enough to work into old age.
We can’t just continue to assume that women will fill the gaps – if we’re going for real social cohesion, we need to normalise the idea that men will do some caring – for their children, their partners, their parents – just as women do.  That should meant that quality jobs can be done in part-time hours rather than the assumption that working part-time means a lower level of ability.  We do need to think about how we identify talent and allow demonstration of leadership so that we really can use everyone’s talents – after all if there are more female graduates than men from European universities, what’s happening to them all that’s preventing them being the majority in leadership roles too?
If Europe takes a lead in this, then I agree with Barroso that “this is Europe’s moment of truth“.
But I’m not totally convinced that this is the angle he’s coming from here…

Barroso also lists 5 key challenges for the EU in the next year:

1) dealing with the economic crisis and governance:
the proposed solution is effectively more monitoring and “true economic union” – I’ll post separately on this another day but I’m a bit concerned that punishing the banks is politically popular but not economically sensible, and a Europe-wide tax on financial transactions on top of national levies is – interesting, when banks are threatening to move out of Europe.
Don’t get me started on the “own resources” debate.  Seems the European Parliament took this to mean that EU direct tax is on the cards – I predict right now that this is unlikely to go anywhere.

2) restoring growth for jobs by accelerating the Europe 2020 reform agenda:
This is where getting more women and older people into jobs is mentioned – although again policy on this neglects the wider role of people as people and not just as workers.  We do this at our peril.
The numbers are interesting – 6 million people have lost their jobs across the EU this year.  There are apparently 4 million job vacancies.
To put this in perspective, there are currently about 2.5 million unemployed people just in the UK (about 7.8% unemployment rate) compared with 4.6 million unemployed in Spain (unemployment rate of nearly 20%) – there are over 22% unemployed in Latvia and an Eurozone average of 10%.
So that’s a lot of jobs needed. Barroso’s solution will sensibly “be centred on skills and jobs and investment in life-long learning” – again just hope that the needs of women, who are, post-children, often working below their skills level are addressed via this approach.
I like the idea of an EU-wide vacancy list, but I’m filled with dread at the idea of an EU skills passport.  Many of the things that make you good at a job are hard to quantify – as anyone who has ever tried to move between sectors will know- and we risk lowest common denominator-ing the descriptions of ourselves to fit.
I’m fascinated to know how the EU will cut SME red tape by 38 million euro, and if they succeed, whether the UK press would ever report it as it goes against the EU= bureaucracy message…
There’s a lot too about securing energy supplies and renewables.  I guess I’m less worried about how it’s done (although I don’t really want to live any closer to a nuclear power station than I already do) as long as the lights stay on and the heating works in winter.

3) building an area of freedom, justice and security:
This was always going to be hard to read when France is expelling Roma and I noticed the stress on “legal migration”, but the section was remarkably short on detail.

4) launching negotiations for a modern EU budget:
Then we come to the budget, and the Budget Commissioner has already screwed any prospect of sensible debate on this issue in the UK press.
An “open debate without taboos” says Barroso?
This is the issue of European policy where all Member States are mostly about protecting their national interest.  Most remeber to wrap it up as in the EU’s interest.  The UK, for reasons of historic handbagging never manages to.  So I really hope they unpack all the taboos, including location of the EU institutions (goodbye Strasbourg) and that more than 40% of the EU budget is still agriculture, and cuts through the l’Europe, c’est moi waffle of some others.

Yes, it should be about getting most value for our money – as long as that is in line with the priorities we most want to achieve!
And check out the warning that the budget will inevitably go up in future: “Europe offers real added value. That is why I will be pushing for an ambitious post-2013 budget for Europe” – you can call it “spending more intelligently, by looking at European and national budgets together” but that word ambitious will put the frighteners on people who see the EU as a malevolent force trying to take over national budgets rather than as a partner.  Barroso even mentioned some areas where a Euro spent at European level brings more than one spent at national level: “energy interconnections, research, and development aid” – essentially cutting costs, avoiding overlap and better retrun on investment.  But convincing some that even economies of scale are a good thing is sometimes a bit of an uphill struggle.

And is there a hint at job cuts in the institutions?
Of course, part of a credible European budget is the rigorous pursuit of savings. I am looking at the administrative costs within the Commission and other Community bodies like Agencies. We need to eliminate all pockets of inefficiency“.

5) pulling our weight on the global stage:
This is the tricky one. Not that the others aren’t, but Europe still has such a way to go in this area.
I have to admit that while I like being British and feeling like people know where I’m from as I travel the world, being British is not universally popular out there.  Nor is it that powerful any more.  Possibly except when seeking to trade.

But the “Who do I call?” question is still not really answered.  Should Clinton be calling Ashton?  Von Rompuy?  Barroso?  Hague?

Something similar to the “Suez moment” that showed to the government of the day in the UK that it could no longer act alone internationally was felt at EU level at the Climate Change talks in Copenhagen last year.
Barroso acknowledges that “we did not help ourselves by not speaking with one voice” but that was not the whole issue.
Barroso may well be “impatient to see the Union play the role in global affairs that matches its economic weight” but ultimately the deal at Copenhagen was done without the EU.  It was also done without the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Spain and in fact without any of the member states that consider themselves big hitters.
In the end, the EU simply did not matter enough, because any deal was better than no deal at all.  that said, the future belongs to the BRICs, not even to the USA in the long run.  The EU is our best hope of still having some relevance.

If Barroso is serious about the EU acting internationally, then its staff need to be the very best diplomats and subject expert negotiators the Member States have to offer, especially in the Member States, possibly as seconded national experts, in the European External Action Service.

And if it is a cards-on-table discussion on how best to act internationally, then the interests of Member States, which vary, will need to be taken into account.  It’s hard to tell a proud shipping nation like Greece that, say, an Austrian with only theoretical policy experience of shipping is going to lead the delegation representing them in the relevant international forum.  That’s why Commission relations with Member States really matter.  The EU is just not going to be able to act with authority internationally if Commission staff attempt to bludgeon Member States into certain positions that don’t necessarily reflect what they would want.  Though I doubt anyone is attempting that sort of thing these days?
And if “size matters“, the issue of numbers of votes and seats are particularly important.  The rush to be represented as the EU should not be at the price of every Member State’s seat and voting weight – the measure should be what we have now, not what the USA has.

As for helping other parts of the world, while all Member States have “spheres of influence” where they are more likely to focus aid, I want to see that the pan-European effort adds to this rather than muddling efforts.
I’m not clear whether Barroso’s intended extra money for the Millennium Development Goals is on top of national budgets for the MDGs or whether the EU contribution includes the member states’ contributions?
Where’s the clear, coordinated campaign of strong voices against the stoning-for-adultery in Iran?
And yes, it’s crazy that different Member States have different equipment to help with the crisis in Pakistan, but are not necessarily coordinated to get it there helpfully.
As for a Common Defence Policy: don’t we need a common outlook on world affairs first?  Wasn’t that the lesson of Iraq?

I’m glad he pointed out that “Europe is not only Brussels or Strasbourg“.
However I encourage you to think on the statement “the Union will not achieve its objectives in Europe without the Member States. And the Member States will not achieve their objectives in the world without the European Union“.
While I obviously agree with the latter part of the sentence, I can’t help wondering:

– Should the EU have many objectives that are separate to those of the Member States?
– If so, where do they come from?
– How legitimate are they?
– To whom are they accountable?
– Do the EU population understand it?

Barroso rounded up with several of the www.bloggingportal.eu Barroso buzzword bingo ideas:  bedding down the new institutional set-up of Europe created by the Lisbon Treaty;  delivery is what counts; the Community Method (usually codecision- sorry, the Ordinary Legislative Process) is the secret of Europe’s success.

Barroso concluded his speech by saying to the European Parliament that “for Europe to succeed, the Commission needs your support“.
I slightly resent his further call for a “special relationship between the Commission and Parliament, the two Community institutions par excellence“.
If the EU is to work properly, even if the Council does do some things intergovernmentally rather than via the community method, it seems childish to pretend that it is inferior or frankly that the Commission and Parliament are more European.  The EU is a combination of these methods and the Commission atempting to sideline or alienate the Council where Member State governments are represented is hardly going to endear it to already sceptical peoples.

I’m trying to take a balanced view, but actually, this part of this speech has made me a bit cross.
Look at the Twitter summaries posted by the

European Parliament Europarl_EN twitter thread:
#Barroso
: Majority in this House wants more Europe #SoEU (yes that is a different hashtag from the one being used for the buzzword bingo #SOTEU)
#Barroso
: in a period of change: some want intergovernmental EU: I want community method #SoEU
#Barroso: People want more Europe/ support policies I have put forward #SoEU
#Barroso:On EU budget must win over public opinion about what EU budget should be used #SoEU

And this response by @Nosemonkey:
Note “win over” not “consult” RT @Europarl_EN: #Barroso:On EU budget must win over public opinion about what EU budget should be used #SoEU
Not all MEPs were uncritical of Barroso – Schultz wanted to know more about the haves and have-nots (of course, he’s the socialist group leader). Others were frankly a bit embarrassing – I mention no names.

But if most people in the European Parliament want “more Europe” then there’s a bit of a sales job to be done on why this is a good thing to the wider public.  Even in economically good times, the Constitutional Treaty’s referendums way back in 2005 were not all universally and enthusiastically greeted, and few people have had a chance to have their say since then.
There’s a series of posts in the EUblogosphere at the present on eurobarometer that might give some clues as to how the EU is seen at present.
If they want “more Europe”, I’d love to know how they communicated with their constituents on that point: in the UK, Euroelection leaflets are usually about local schools and hospitals and where Europe does get a mention it tends to be from those hostile to the EU about how it will be held back or withdrawn from.  I freely acknowledge that this is not the case everywhere, so what does a Europhile MEPs constituency surgery sound like?
And if this is a sign of the Parliamentary Europe that Vihar Georgiev talks about over on his blog, I think there’s a bit more discussion needed. And they certainly need a higher turnout across the EU to legitimise it.

It’s not that Barroso actually said anything so wrong in the rest of the speech.  It was just a bit – predictable.

Right at the moment, it feels a bit as if there’s a State of the EU for Brussels/ Strasbourg audience and a whole other speech needed for the wider public with a bit more clear language about exactly how the EU adds value.   Barroso was getting there in parts, but this appeal to the European Parliament’s ego at the end just wasn’t- right.

So the state of the EUnion is that the economy’s a bit messy but getting better, unemployment’s high but things are being done about it.  While finances are in a parlous state at present, working together saves money, more money is needed in the long run, more aid is needed for the rest of the world.  There’s a whole lot of debates still to be had about how things need to be done, but generally we’re all just getting on with it.
Not exactly inspiring, but then what politics is at the moment?  Even Obama’s halo seems a little tarnished these days.

And what a missed opportunity to kick off the whole “My Fellow Europeans” expression for starting speeches…

Eurobleugh

image from www.nicetomeeteu.com


What’s wrong with you, you may well ask?

I’ve had a summer broadly off Euroblogging, in the main part because so little happens in Brussels in August.
I’ve also for work purposes avoided blogging on a number of EU-related issues which interest me.  A necessary sacrifice.
So EU-wise my blog’s been a bit quiet recently.

The thing is, I’ve also used the time to work out a bit what I care about, what motivates me to blog.   Yep, it’s my navel gazing post only a month after the majority of EU blogs went through this …

Over the last couple of years, my euroblogging has evolved to be focused on the UK’s relationship with the EU, and looking at the EU through a gender focus and faith focus.  I blog irregularly as I’ve other commitments, but I hope my slightly different take is interesting for my readers.  And I think overall I’m pretty happy with these things as my euroblogging USP.

I mean, I could critique the current common transport policy, the Tax Payers’ Alliance’s problems with the Trans European Networks Executive Agency, or seafarers and the ILO, but I’m not sure that would be very interesting.  I’ve tried to cover my interest in transport via practical posts on HS1 instead…
I’ve never cared a lot about agriculture beyond what I can see in the fields or arrives on my plate, and much as I care about climate change I’m just not sure enough on my numbers to do in-depth critiques of these sort of things.  So when I do do something in-depth, I probably do care about it, and I do know what I’m talking about.  I hope.
And have put off playing with my toddler to write it.

At the moment, with the “new school term” coming, I’m getting a bit of  a sinking back to school feeling.
I’m not quite sure why, but I suspect there’s an element of  not feeling very inspired by politics overall at the moment.

In the UK there’s a big and actually quite exciting political experiment going on – the first coalition government in a very long time and a referendum coming on a change to a voting system that none of the political parties specifically wants.
But while the big picture is exciting, day to day life is currently a question of which public service is going to change next and what does that mean for daily life for my friends and family.  And the attitude to the EU is – complicated.

And in the EU, there’s a weird sort of situation.
While the Lisbon Treaty is implemented (but hardly to public acclaim), and European External Action Service is established (and as male-dominated as we feared and expected), and the Council President is up and running (with an eye on consolidating a more wide ranging role during the Belgian Presidency of the EU), and all the little changes are put in place, I just don’t feel that there’s anything in particular to be enthusiastic about.
The euro is hanging in there, but I’m not finding discussions about greater economic governance inspiring – may be I would if the UK had been part of it and my daily life were being affected, but we’re not in “prepare and decide” mode any more, nor even “wait and see”.
And how long did it take the EU to get its act together for the people in Pakistan?

On top of that, I’m slowly realising that there’s no easy way back to Brussels in the near future.  To work there again any time soon, I’d need to make some pretty serious life changes.  I may not even work on EU issues soon.  But that gives me more scope to blog 🙂

I’m never going to be a daily blogger, or a several-times-a-day one.
I’m fed up with feeling that unless you can give all hours of the day to something, you are ancillary to it.  How on earth can any parent give 100% to anything, including their kids, and still make a difference in their other spheres of interest?  Why can’t the quality of contribution count as well as quantity?
And when it’s something I do for the fun of it, to test ideas and provoke conversations, I’m certainly not buying into a set of rules of the how and when.  I’m definitely a cat to herd rather than a sheep and so I guess I know I’m in good company in the euroblogging world 🙂

So I’m feeling a bit Eurobleugh.
I’m not in the mood for flannel, or theory over experience and applied example.
I want to know that it’s all worthwhile, that there really is an added value to me as a citizen in what’s going on – at all levels of decision-making.
I guess it’d be lovely to be seeing something happening that actually makes a difference for the good, rather than being the least worst option available.

So now I’ve got all that off my chest, let’s start September euroblogging with a positive attitude and see if there’s some good, persuasive arguments for what’s going on out there…

So are you going to have another one?

I’m losing count of the number of times I’ve been asked this question.

At best, it’s when my adorable toddler is running around being cute.

At worst, it was during a job interview – something which I think it is actually illegal to ask me.

But every time I wonder what exactly I’m supposed to answer.
Generally it’s a well-meaning question.
But actually it risks being quite personal and intrusive.

Think about it in the context of work.
Now I’ve had some months to think it over, I think the correct answer would have been: “would you be asking that if it was my husband sitting here in this interview and not me?
If it’s a question that an employer might want an answer to from a thirty-something woman, then there’s a whole load of assumptions that go behind that.
It correctly assumes that I would have to take time out of the office to have a baby and deal with the immediate issues with breastfeeding a newborn and postnatal maternal health – that’s one thing a father can’t do instead.
But I suspect it goes rather further than that, assuming that I would be taking the parental leave for any future child all by myself.  While for a couple, you may think of yourselves as a unit, at the moment your employer almost certainly doesn’t.
It’ll be interesting to see, if our law changes in 2011 to a system of shared parental leave, whether the assumption shifts from being that one parent will take all the leave to an assumption that each will take half.
And what did I actually say when I was asked?  Well, it was suffixed by, “I hope you don’t mind me asking…” and I think I said, “no it’s fine, and not at the moment“.
But it was sufficient for me to feel negative about the idea of working in that team.  What would’ve happened if I had joined and then got pregnant?  A sense that I’d gone against what I’d said before joining the team and therefore betrayal and untrustworthiness?

But it’s not just parental leave that figures in that sort of thinking.
What if my toddler or newborn was ill and I needed to take time off to be with them?  The rough truth is that childcare doesn’t do child illness.
You hear about “pink medicine babies” – the guilty reality that if the child is just a little under the weather most parents will shove a spoonful of calpol down their throats and deliver them to the childcare provider anyway.  They then spend the day dreading the call to say that their little bundle has a temperature and needs picking up NOW.  It’s not ideal from an employer’s perspective.  It’s not ideal from a parent’s perspective.  It’s certainly not ideal from the child’s perspective.
But – particularly in a recession, where it’s a financial imperative that people are in work- it happens.  All because people are afraid to take time off work to be there when their child is ill in case their work decides it can do without them, permanently.
Is it any wonder that the lesser-earning parent is often the one that takes the time out?   But again it is not always a matter of choice.  I keep hearing about employers who don’t exactly say to fathers that they can’t take time with their children but imply that they are letting themselves and the team down. But wouldn’t it be better if that didn’t automatically mean Mummy had to let hers down?

So are you going to have another one?
Is the question any better in your personal life?
It happened to me yesterday.
I was just getting my hair cut, and my toddler was pushing one of the chairs around the salon.  I’m sure she only meant it in a he’s-cute-wouldn’t-it-be-lovely-to-have-more way.
But it’s a risky question.

What happens if the answer is “Good God, no!  Awful little blighters, don’t know why we had the first one!”  Not the case for us, thank God, but how would the questioner feel if that was the answer they got?

Who knows what circumstances the family are experiencing?  May be they are sandwich generation, with adult caring responsibilities as well as a small child?  Not having a second one might be a matter of necessity rather than choice.

Who knows if the person they’re asking has tried and failed for months? Miscarriages are not exactly a bundle of laughs and not usually the thing to share in smalltalk situations.

The thing is, unless you are already pregnant with the next one, which I am not, it is impossible to answer that question without sounding defensive.

And you get all kinds of advice offered to you as if to compensate for the embarrassment caused.  Sometimes it just digs the hole deeper.
But ultimately the old platitude is the best: “it’ll happen when it happens“.
I don’t think you can really go wrong with that, as when it happens may be never…

The new Margaret Thatcher?

Watching the news tonight, this occurred…
One EU leader was nakedly pursuing their national interest at the press conference today.  And that leader is increasingly reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher demanding her money back.

But that leader is not David Cameron.

Cameron’s speech, however unpalatable to his host, was actually very pragmatic and sensible.
Consider an analogy put to me today. 
Say I have some friends who like skydiving.  They invite me to join in, but I decline.   And then one of them breaks her leg having jumped out that aeroplane.  Should I then have to pick up her healthcare bills, and agree to change the terms of everyone’s holiday insurance policies to do so?
 
In any case, Treaty amendment can surely not be the most popular proposal that could be made just at the moment. 
The Lisbon Treaty may not have been perfect.  Like all Treaties, now it has been ratified it needs a bit of bedding down, a bit of implementing to see how that carefully compromised document actually works in practice.
After the Convention on the Future of Europe was first convened in February 2002, it took 7 long painful years to finally get a Treaty that could be ratified by all. 
Surely the last thing anyone is likely to want is to have to reopen that process so soon? 
And you don’t have to be that interested in politics to realise that the leader of a new type of British government, a coalition only weeks in place, with an overall Eurosceptic party behind him is highly unlikely to want to risk the whole thing falling apart over Europe. 
Talking about a veto plays to Cameron’s domestic audience, true, but what he said in essence may well turn out to be what others are thinking too if they’ve been through the Treaty-making process.

As for Merckel taking a role like Thatcher, well, she does seem to be asserting an increasingly nationalistic agenda, acting unilaterally on issues that have repercussions for not just the Eurozone but the whole EU – for example the banning of shortselling yesterday.
(And the consquences of that announcement impacted more widely than that, hitting the US stock markets). 
In times past, to make a big statement like “to save the Euro we need Treaty change”, you used to get the French and German leaders together, speaking as if they were truly the heart of the EU – the Franco-German motor powering the project. 
Not this time.
Merckel was speaking as Germany, as the piggybank of Europe. 
And going it alone is very Thatcher indeed.

Is there any likelihood that Germany might actually get that chance for Treaty change?
Well according to the press, there’s already a miniature IGC planned for June (without a Convention) to sort out the European Parliament which has a bit of a mess over voting. 
If a Treaty amendment were to be opened for “economic government” arrangements, that would presumably be the window? 
But it’s not that simple.  Change like that would mean prices would be extracted, whether CAP reform, power repatriation, a single seat for the European Parliament at Brussels… and that’s several years of negotiation, let alone vetoes and referendums.   

It may of course be the case that enough can be done without Treaty change. 
But proposals for “economic government” are likely to be contentious even if Treaty change was not a factor.  Even the spring European Council steered clear of that language, instead using “economic governance” to bee clear this is not supranational government that is under discussion. 

PS kudos to Christine LaGuarde for co-opting the phrase “we’re all in this together” in making her point to the BBC this evening.  After the seemingly far more cordiale visit to Paris yesterday, she’s talking to the British government in its own language.  Very neat.

10 random things about #myEurope

9 May is Europe Day.  No one in the UK is really likely to know or care, so (as part of the bloggingportal #myeurope blogging carnival) I want to take a few short minutes to celebrate some of the things that I love in and around Europe…

1) Europe is my continent, the place where no matter what the language spoken in the place I visit, however different it is from home in terms of weather and building style, there a sense of familiarity (working out which bit of Bratislava I’d want to live in, where I’d set up my B&B in France, whether I could take that job in Brussels etc. etc.) and a sense of interconnectedness between my history and those of the people living in the other countries near mine.  And yes I am aware that the common history is largely that of fighting each other in different combinations… so my Europe is partly about preventing future conflicts.

2) Oh wow, European food.  Yummy things.  Including but not exclusively sachertorte, Belgian chocolates, pastichio, bacon, queso de membrillo, French cheese (all of it), feta, beer, goulash, Parma ham, battered courgette flowers, crayfish, clafoutis/financier, asparagus, curries, British Beef with yorkshire pudding… I defy anyone to live in Belgium for 3 years without gaining what British diplomats call “the Brussels stone”.

3)  There’s something beautiful about countries choosing to work together for a common future, not something being imposed by an outside force.  Forgiving what has happened in the past, but not forgetting, and trying not to allow the memories that need to respected become a quest for future vengence. 
For example, Riga has an amazing museum of occupation, heartbreaking when you see the things that you have read about a thousand times that happened all across Europe and witness by those not even two generations before my own.   

4)  My B&B?  It’s a little near-retirement dream.  But I love that if I want to set up business anywhere I want to, I can.

5)  Such amazing diversity.   Not just of peoples, languages, cultural traits, but look at the geography!  From tundra and mountains to reclaimed land, lush green fields and pastures, to biblical dusty paths and scratchy bushes, coastlines, rivers and marshes, annual snow and wrong-sort-of-snow…  Flora, fauna…


 

6)  I gain a whole extra level of identity.  I feel like a kid writing my address on an envelope my house, my road, my town, my county, my country, my continent, my world, my solar system, my universe…  Being European doesn’t detract from me being British, or Kentish, or Ashfordian, it adds to it.  I’m one of nearly half a billion.  And that matters.  In a world where climate change deals are struck by the USA, India, China, South Africa and Brazil, being at the table counts, and you don’t get to be there if you’re not big. 

7)  I hardly dare mention it, but I’m going to.  If I want to buy strawberry jam in the shop down the road that was made in Spain, I know that the contents will be as safe for my child as strawberry jam that was made in East Sussex and will be lovely and fruity rather than filled with sawdust or plums-with-strawberry-flavouring.  It has to be, or they’re not allowed to sell it here.

8)  I love that it’s so easy to travel around Europe, crossing borders without tedious queuing and visas, fulfilling the quote attributed to Ernest Bevin “my policy is to be able to take a ticket at Victoria station and go anywhere I damn well please!

9)  Despite living on an island, I grew up living closer to Calais than to London, and could see France from the beach nearest to my house… and had a friend who lived on the other coast who could see that beach from hers!

 

10)  I have posted 10 random things in a random order, some triggered by the one in front, others completely disjointed.  If I was writing this list in French in the 1960s, this would be known as a stream of consciousness list!  How fantastic would that be? Tres Marguerite Duras. And that itself brings back the memory of reading L’Amant for A-level French. Not my finest hour!


P.S. Write on My Europe Week, or link a post on your own blog, in the language of your choice. Twitter away under #MyEurope and #EuropeDay. Share your Europe.

Leaders’ Wives…

… or how who you are married to makes you a news story…

 
(image from bbc website video package)

In the week since the election was called the focus has (thank God) swung a little bit more away from the women that the leaders of the three most popular political party’s leaders are married to, and back onto policies. 
Not that I’m actually that clear whether the parties have actually thought through the costs, feasibility and the practicalities of implementation of some of the things that they are campaigning on (may be they don’t have to – I guess that’s why there’s a much lambasted, primed for cutbacks but nevertheless non-political and permanent civil service) – but that a whole other issue.

We’ve seen the party leaders portraying themselves as family men.  And that’s meant a focus on the wives, two of whom it is reported have their own press officers.
For the current Prime Minister’s wife that’s probably not too much of a change, after all, Sarah Brown has been acting every inch the political First Lady for a couple of years now, for example leading events for International Women’s Day. 
So I guess it was the contrast that meant a lot was being made of the fact that Miriam Gonzalez, Nick Clegg’s wife, intended not to take a key role in the election campaign (and can’t even vote in it!). 
But even this story was eclipsed by the coverage of Samantha Cameron’s pregnancy. More of which in a moment.

All three leaders’ wives are intelligent, successful women in their own right. 
All three are probably entirely capable of saying interesting things in a debate on Mumsnet, although as a PR executive, tax lawyer and director of an upmarket stationers, it’s unlikely that they’d ever be asked to be the subject of one.

It’s the underlying messages that are interesting.
The coverage of Sarah Brown in recent months has pretty much been I-love-my-husband-he’s-great-and-handsome-and-that’s-why-you-should-vote-for-him-girls.  I guess the message is the Prime Minister is portrayed many ways but he’s human and a decent person loves him.  I agree with the Times article from the time of her Labour Party conference speech- this is patronising towards women voters, but good PR tactics and sadly (for feminists), terribly effective (ladies, we are our own worst enemies sometimes). 

Sam Cam (as she has become known – I sympathise as someone with the first syllable of my first and last name identical!) has been a high profile political wife since David Cameron won the Conservative party leadership.  
But she’s now having to endure a public pregnancy – bad enough that people feel they have the right to pat pregnant stomachs on mere mortals but to be publically pregnant through a stressful election campaign, with your own events calendar for the campaign, while being accused of timing it to be a publicity stunt and having still fairly recently lost a child?  Not only not fun, but something you should never have to go through.  And as for the look-how-viral-our-leader-is stuff from tories online… yuck.
I can’t work out how she’s got the time off work to do the election campaign…  I’m pretty clear there’d be no special leave for my husband from his employer if I was a candidate.  And certainly none the other way round given my job.

The Private Eye cover (“Leaders’ Wives”) called Miriam Gonzalez “the other one”. Well yes, as the one with the husband least likely of the three to be prime minister, that’s probably fair enough. 
But The Austrialian news is interesting on this point – is getting-on-with-it, you’re not voting for me but for my husband attitude actually earning her respect?  And if so, is it ironic given that attitude if that respect were then to be somehow transmuted to her husband?

As you can probably tell, I have a bit of an issue with the whole First Lady role.

Essentially we do not have a first lady in the UK constitutional set up. Nor tradition. 
We don’t vote for a prime minister (see here and here ) no matter what the UK press seem to think, because we don’t actually have a Presidential electoral system. 
And if we’re not really voting for the prime minister, we certainly shouldn’t be voting on what their wives say, think or do, or would or would not do as a ceremonial role were their husband to gain office.  
There’s a lot of campaigning going on to get women more involved in politics – I can’t help but feel that “vote Dave, get Sam”, or “vote Gordon, get Sarah” undermines the getting women into power in their own right. No matter what Glenys Kinnock says about it all being ok.
But at least MPs will still be able to employ their partners as assistants (that’s a tradition going back to Mrs MacMillan driving prime minister Harold around in their car!) 
  
But again, the UK political set up is actually very flexible. We do not have a written constitution, so if a prime minister wanted his wife to take on a First Lady role (or, if Caroline Lucas – the only female party leader – were by some incredible fluke make it to no.10, first gentleman) there’s no constitutional impediment to them so doing. 

And even if you have a written constitution like the USA, it seems the role of the First Lady needn’t feature, can be defined by the President and his wife themselves but can still have public money spent on it.  Of course that’s a whole discussion we still need to have here…

So a vote for Dave and Sam, or Gordon and Sarah, may well be a legitimate concept.
Even if it sets my (feminist) teeth on edge…

Where’s the change on offer for safe seats?

 (in the interests of impartiality, I should point out that these are showjumping rosettes and are available in a wide range of colours!)

This morning at the station I received my first leaflet of the election campaign.
The leaflet was for the incumbent MP and the word that leapt out was “change”.  Everything was about change, more of the same or a change. You have a choice and a chance for change.  Yes, change is a good thing indeed.

I’ve already pointed out the nonsense of the leaders debates as I have no option of voting for the leader o f a political party, merely for a constituency member of parliament.  So my choice is not going to be the sort of choice the press seem keen to portray.
But there’s an additional issue that affects the choice I actually get at the general election…
 
I live in a constituency where you can pretty much weigh the vote for one party. 
That party (once boundary issues have been taken into account) has about 54% of the popular vote in this constituency.  
So I guess I live in one of the 382 constituencies that the Electoral Reform Society has described as so safe that the election is over already.

So effectively my MP, expenses allowing, has a job for life.  As did his predecessor, and the one before that too. Regardless of competence, because of the party that they belong to.
In our first-past-the-post electoral system, that’s effectively it. 
This area becomes one for rookie parliamentary candidates to cut their teeth, and I don’t expect to be doorstepped.  Much. (Actually the house is new to the area too so surely someone should call and canvas if they want our votes?)

Democracy may well be the least worst alternative, but if I didn’t want to vote for the incumbent and to stand a chance to get the candidate of my choice elected, my only choice would be to move to an area which was more marginal and where there would be a real contest, or by choosing to live in an area where my party of choice always won the safe seats. 
But isn’t moving house rather a drastic way of getting to express oneself democratically? 

According to the Electoral Reform Society, first-past-the-post is also damaging for the prospect of getting more women into politics:

First-Past-the-Post lets down female candidates with the huge advantages it hands to incumbents, and by affording so few opportunities to break into national politics. It lets down women voters and constituents by limiting their choices and fostering a negative, aggressive political culture.

But while first-past-the-post is the “normal” system for Westminster elections, it is not the only voting system that voters are used to across the UK.  While STV is in use in Northern Ireland (and for local elections in Scotland but there’s a right old mix of systems in use in Wales and Scotland), Londoners use the Supplementary Vote system to choose the mayor, and we all use the Closed list Proportional Representation system for European elections which means that voters do not have any say over the individual candidates they helped to elect for each party. 

This proliferation of systems is confusing to say the least.  But it does prove that it is not beyond the wit of the British electorate to do sometihng more than mark an X in a box next to the logo of the party they want to elect.

There are two systems up for discussion in this election look to be Alternative vote plus (AV+) and the Single Transferable Vote (STV).  Politicians like to say that they keep a link between voter and representative at a constituency level (which is great if you live in an area where you actually have a choice for a change).  AV+ fulfills that by offering the chance for county-level top-up seats on top of the local area MPs – but does that create two tiers of MPs? 
In any case, multi-member constituencies can still offer that link and also, as AV+ does, give voters in an area more chance of having someone of their political views representing them in parliament.  And as the Electoral Reform Society points out, sophisticated proportional representation systems like STV offer us the choice of voting for the people we want and not just the parties (and that can matter – there’s a massive difference between a vote for John Redwood and a vote for Damian Green, or a vote for David Miliband and one for Dennis Skinner – sometimes its good to remember that most parties are themselves coalitions).

But ultimately, I’m not particularly bothered about which alternative system is used, and I’m not espousing one or another personally as it’s fast becoming party political and at the moment that is something that I do not do publically.

Essentially, if I have no intention of moving house any time soon, on the basis of voting trends in this area, if I were not to vote for the incumbent MP, I could potentially spend the rest of my adult life without ever getting someone I voted for as my representative in my national parliament.   I realise there are thousands and thousands of voters out there for whom that has been the case.  Doesn’t that seem a waste?   
A voting system that removes the concept of the safe seat, and requires everyone competing in an election, and crucially valued the votes of every voter more than first-past-the-post… is that too much to ask? 
Or is that one change too far for the candidates in this constituency?