Local Election Troll(eybus)ing

Today marks the first set of major national and local elections in what is already seeming to be an interminable and bitter campaign for the 2015 General Election. Some of you may already have gone out to vote and if you haven’t, I urge you to go and do so for whoever you think best. However, a couple of things have happened during the week which cast an interesting light on the process for me on a local level.

I’ve already written about the strange case of the Leeds Trolleybus – a hugely expensive, £250m white elephant which I’ve yet to meet anyone who supports, regardless of party affiliation, unless they are actually earning a living from the work involved in grinding its way through the planning process. Finding myself temporarily (hopefully) underemployed I went to watch part of the Public Inquiry into whether the Transport Works Act Order to enable it to proceed should be granted and to help out the local campaigners against it. Looking at the list of registered objectors who are participating in the attempt to put the case against the proposers of the scheme, it is notable in that it only includes one councillor (Barry Anderson, Conservative councillor for Adel & Wharfedale ward). Yet, as I previously noted, the official position of our local LibDem MP and councillors, as well as the Labour PPC and candidate for the ward I live in is also to oppose. So, what is actually going on?

The election material from both the LibDem sitting councillor seeking re-election today and the Tory candidate place opposition to the trolleybus right at the top. Perhaps belatedly, Greg Mulholland has sought constituents’ views on the issue and come out clearly against the proposals. There is agreement that it would be best if the money earmarked for the project could be used for another, better scheme.

However, below, you can see the election materials for the local Labour council candidate.

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Now, it is fine for them to decide that they don’t want to prioritise opposition to the trolleybus, or indeed, that they would like to remain consistent with their party’s line in using the Labour majority on Leeds City Council to vote the trolleybus through (and to continue to commit council resources to it rather than use them for any number of other things – the cost of engaging the QC representing the council and Metro to argue for the Order could perhaps have been used to reduce the impacts of any cuts elsewhere in council services, three months of QC time plus preparation would pay for a lot of dinner ladies and cleaners). Many of the things in those leaflets are interesting and popular, even if many of them are also outside the competence of a city councillor.

However, a funny thing happened. When I tweeted the Labour candidate and PPC, they replied saying that they opposed the trolleybus and that their materials set this out (which they clearly don’t). When I asked whether they would use their positions on the council to get the council to withdraw the application for the Order (which would enable them to kill it off were they to choose to do so), they said they would, but only if the money earmarked for the project was kept available.

Now, the North West Leeds Transport Forum, which is the principal group of local objectors, has made it clear that its preference would be for the money to be retained and used for a better solution to Leeds transport issues. At the local residents meeting I blogged about previously, that was also the line taken by Greg Mulholland. But what was striking to me was that at least the Labour position is that it would only object to this incredibly expensive and misguided proposal (which they agree is the wrong solution to local transport needs) if this happened. They also made the point that this was in the gift of LibDem Minister Baroness Kramer. So, they’d be happy enough for the Order to be granted and the trolleybus to be built even though they and everyone else agrees it is unnecessary and harmful.

With this attitude, no wonder Labour has a problem with being seen as responsible with the economy and public spending. They’d rather spend money on something, anything, however bad and unwanted it is, than save the money, if not for Leeds, but for the country. If the Department for Transport funding fell away with the failure of the trolleybus, it would mean that there would be £250m less pressure for cuts elsewhere in the economy to be made. Few in Leeds would weep for the loss of the trolleybus and unless and until the council come up with something better to improve public transport in Leeds, what would really be lost if the funding was withdrawn?

Just as we’re all used to little things suddenly being rushed into effect just before a local election (like the 20mph zone and speed cushions plus speed limit signs on single track dead end roads round my way) here’s a case of a massive piece of spending being ploughed on with regardless of merit, just to spend the budget in case it is threatened. If that isn’t profligacy, it’s hard to know what might be. And in a year’s time, they want to form the next government. Be worried.

Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse

Since he was about one year old, I’ve usually read OMB his bedtime story. The first real favourite was Kiss Goodnight Sam which on one memorable night he insisted on having read a dozen times. Fortunately since then he’s developed to the point when we can read stories which are more interesting for me and can hold his attention when read chapter by chapter over a longer period (although I’ve called a halt on Harry Potter as it took us the best part of six months to get through The Order of the Phoenix). When the Costa Book prize was being discussed on Radio 4 earlier in the year there was an interesting feature about Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse by Chris Riddell which had won the children’s book category and I decided to give it a try as it was described as being for the 8+ age range.

Riddell is the political cartoonist for The Observer and one of the most striking features of the book is the range of meticulous and intricate illustrations on pretty much every page. This has a slight drawback in a bedtime book as it makes it difficult to insist on OMB closing his eyes to listen (and hopefully, to drop off after the end of the chapter…). The illustrations are pretty amazing and reminded me of my German teacher at school (Nicholas Wilde) who was also the writer of illustrated children’s books and who used to do similar goth-tinged cartoons on the whiteboard and margins of our exercise books and worksheets.

Goth Girl is very much a book designed to work for both adult and child readers in a similar way to that found in many animated movies in the Pixar/Dreamworks style. That is, there are lots of features which are aimed squarely at adults which would fly over the heads of child readers while the underlying story and language are intended to be entertaining for children. However, unlike in films like the Shrek or Toy Story series where the “adult” references are generally lightly applied and themselves based on films and popular culture, in Goth Girl, the references come thick and fast and are decidedly literary. At times it feels as a reasonably well-read adult that the references are troweled on too thickly and I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of them, but they managed to be done with sufficient wit to be entertaining for OMB rather than puzzlingly gratuitous.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the plot of the book is rather thin and is very much a framework for showcasing the literary references. The heroine, Ada Goth, is the daughter of a thinly disguised Byron (although Riddell doesn’t go so far as to try and introduce Byron’s real daughter, Ada Lovelace’s mathematical prowess and contribution to the development of computing, perhaps slightly surprisingly given that a version of Charles Babbage does appear and his daughter “Emily Cabbage” is a character in the book). She is visited by Ishmael the ghost of a mouse who is haunting the sprawling Ghastly-Gorm Hall (so, we get the line from Moby Dick “Call me Ishmael” and are, as adults, lined up to view the setting as inspired by Gormenghast). The plot and characters then take in Frankenstein, Dracula, Jane Eyre, Mary Poppins, Tristram Shandy, Dr Johnson, Martin Chuzzlewit (here as a pugnatious political cartoonist perpetually in boxing gloves in the expectation of being fought by the subjects of his cartoons despite the fact that those cartoons are so obscure that nobody gets offended by them…), Gullivers Travels and most likely dozens of others. You get the idea.

The beauty of the illustrations and the fact that, at least for OMB, the story was funny enough to work without knowing any of the references mean the book is worth trying. It would have been an easier adult read had it not been quite so over-stuffed with references which might make some readers feel ever so clever for spotting, but on occasion just tired me out. I’m still irritated by not really knowing what the “metaphorical bicycle race” at the heart of the book was all about other than possibly the author having a competition with himself about how many literary metaphors he could load into one book. And the point of reading a book at bedtime is to help get the little one exhausted, not the dad!