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.

Kippers!

Kippers really stink the house out. I discovered this a few years back on holiday with a group of friends where we were all staying in a large house in Bideford and one of them decided that he rather fancied kippers for breakfast one morning. Despite his best efforts – waiting until everyone else had finished their breakfasts, opening the window of the kitchen/diner and shutting the door, the aroma still spread around the whole house. They are, however, a traditional British dish, very healthy as being rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and considered very tasty by some. As a breakfast, from a nutritional perspective they may well commend themselves over carb-laden Continental fare like croissants and muesli.

In many ways, kippers are a lot like their namesakes, Ukippers. Ukippers are stoutly traditional British folk whose central aim in freeing us from the EU is to restore our national sovereignty. Having more control over our own laws and having more freedom to decide things in the national rather than European or global interest is a good idea.

However, as with kippers, the problem with Ukippers is that we can’t just look at the good without considering whether we can bear the bad. I’m not saying that Ukippers smell, but so many of the underlying things so many of them like and which they’d like to do were we no longer to be in the EU are somewhat stinky.

These come out most readily in the context of immigration. It takes no more scratching of the surface to release a pungent odour of racism from many Ukippers than taking a kipper out of its packaging. While Nigel Farage is able, perfectly sincerely, to talk in terms of wanting to be open to doing business with the world and welcoming those who wish to trade with us from wherever they may come, rather than just focusing on the EU, most of his supporters I’ve had contact with would prefer to seal up the borders. Most would be proud to be seen as the heirs to the caricature of Enoch Powell – while resisting the impoliteness of the BNP (whose ex-members they apparently ban) and the current government’s “Go Home” vans, they still agree that “nobody asked them” if lots of foreigners could come and change the character of the country and would rather like it if they went away. The more thoughtful line taken by Farage on the topic is no more than a good blast of Febreze (or perhaps Oust!) which doesn’t quite mask the whiff.

But, maybe that particular smell is just one that is actually generally present in society. Maybe it is like the odour of pub carpets which only really hit us properly when the smoking ban was introduced and we lost the mask of cigarette fug so had to bear the combined unspeakablenesses of years of spilt beer, sweat and pork scratchings ground into the floors of our locals.

Worse is the way that UKIP panders to these underlying failings. So, after starting out as common sense libertarians who wanted people just as much as the country to be treated as grown ups who could be trusted to make their own decisions, as it has grown in popularity it has shed these inhibitions to become increasingly populist. It’s not many people’s most pressing issue and the world hasn’t ended, or begun to end since its introduction but UKIP’s opposition to Same Sex Marriage is a case in point. As a band of self-styled insurgents against what they see as a LibLabConspiracy anything goes if it is popular.

But, unlike the kippers I maligned earlier, the whiff of Ukippers is not so easy to shift. The smell of my friend’s ill-advised (but for him, enjoyable) breakfast had dissipated by the next day. Ukippers on the other hand, are more persistent and they want to be. Supporting and voting for them won’t make any of the things they want happen, but will make it most likely that the very opposite of what they want will happen. They won’t win a seat in 2015 but will help to ensure we get Miliband PM. The hope seems to be that by hastening a large Labour victory in 2015 the Tories will be forced to adopt their agenda and so march on to victory or be swept aside by UKIP as the Liberals were when Labour established itself as the party for working people.

If they’re like kippers, Ukippers are like ones which have gone off and will make people tempted by them very sick indeed.

Rip it up and start again?

In every endeavour there always comes a point at which you need to think seriously about whether it wouldn’t simply be easier and better to start afresh. Halfway through making a lego model you realise that it isn’t going to stand up. Writing an email which you realise on re-reading makes a completely different point to the one you meant to make. Reviewing a contract where the amount of redlined text is greater than what has been left untouched and still it seems to have got further away from the deal you agreed. The problem of asking for directions and being told “well, I wouldn’t start from here”. The recognition that no amount of lipstick will make the pig any more attractive.

It is an unusual time at the moment because the number of different areas of public life where we seem to be approaching this point of decision are greater than I can remember. The protesters camping at St Paul’s Cathedral and occupying Wall Street seem to be demanding a complete rethinking of how capitalism works. Conservatives (and others) are clamouring for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. Labour is engaging in a bout of introspection to work out what it is for. Neither are close to what the self-styled campaigners for the interests of the 99% (ie everyone other than the richest) are campaigning for.

If this is the case, how come there’s no real movement to effect change from any direction? If the Labour Party is seen to be as wedded to the status quo and the interests of the 1%, how come there’s no movement to sideline it, much as the Labour movement sidelined the Liberals nearly a century ago or the SDP attempted nearly 30 years ago?  If the Conservative Party is barely worth its name how come there is no new party trying to carry the torch on or a significant move to UKIP?

Is it just that the practicalities of doing so are too hard? This seems unlikely, there are lots of disaffected people out there who are already working hard on their campaigns. However much politicians might listen to newspaper proprietors or large corporations they still rely on ordinary individuals for votes and for activists to trudge the streets.

Is it that the system is too heavily weighted in favour of the status quo? Perhaps, although when the status quo is something which even the leaders of the mainstream are unhappy with there must be some scope for change. At heart, it is hard to get to lead political parties without being a populist. That’s what gets you to your own “Clause 4” moment.

Or is it that in fact, however much most moan, the truth is that the majority’s desires are less highly principled than all that? We are living through very tough times economically and most people have been affected adversely to a greater or lesser extent. But, rather than wanting to smash the systems, all most people want is for the tough times to end as soon as possible. Although there is widespread sympathy for the more radical elements in the abstract, in practice, it would be too risky to leave behind everything that we already know. A fairer distribution of wealth sounds like a good idea, who doesn’t like things to be fair, but do we really want to give anyone the coercive power to confiscate 20% of the wealth of the top 20%? Are we sure we might not ourselves be in the category of donor rather than beneficiary? Which would be terribly unfair when we feel that we are the squeezed middle. Do we really want Nigel Farage to be PM or can we live with someone faceless in Brussels having powers that we don’t really understand?

Maybe following the convoluted cross-country route is going to be a better way of getting near your destination than back-tracking a long way to where you should have started from then finding somewhere to park and paying for a train ticket. Perhaps you were being a bit harsh on the pig and all they needed was a new hairdo and a bit of self-confidence.

It depends on whether you think the fundamentals of society are OK and just need to be improved within their own terms or that they are wrong and so harmful that a revolution is needed. Change is hard to deal with for most people. I’m not sure that we are yet in a place where the trauma of radical change in any of the competing directions being offered would be less than the hardships being faced if things were to continue largely as they are.

Until there is a coherent and realistic alternative future beyond the platitudes of “down with this sort of thing”, change is the last thing that will get real popular support.