Too Shy Shy

I didn’t write much about the General Election campaign beyond a comment on Labour’s Zero Hours Contracts proposals. I’d felt for a long while that somehow, despite Ed Miliband’s oddness he was probably going to hobble somehow into Number 10 and that if he did, he’d probably be weak enough not to do anything too radical or harmful – most of his policy announcements or statements of general philosophy were pretty vapid and consisted of criticising the effects of market based policies but only replacing them with a temporary fix to hit a particular failing rather than to strike at the cause of that failing (eg by fixing energy prices- hastily amended to read retrospectively as capping them when in fact they fell regardless of intervention and those who’d fixed their rates ended up paying more than those who stayed on variable tariffs).

Since the surprise result last week of a clear Tory majority there has been a lot of speculation about what went wrong. Why did the polls stay level pegging even up to the eve of the election? Innumerable Labour MPs and pundits suddenly announcing that they knew their campaign and leader were duds all along (which struck me as deeply unfair – if they thought that, why not do something about it rather than let poor Ed, an obviously decent man, carry the can before circling to fight over the remains?).

The most interesting line has been about the phenomenon of the “Shy Tory” to explain why there were many more Conservative votes in fact than would have been predicted by the opinion polls. The first General Election I could vote in was in 1992 where the Shy Tory first came into view. I’d been a rather lackadaisical student Tory activist and my recollection is that nobody even in the student Conservative Association thought Major had much chance (perhaps skewed by fruitlessly trudging the streets of safely Labour Oxford East, perhaps because the Association’s membership included more right wing luminaries like Mark Reckless) so the overall result was a surprise.

The day before the election, on my train home from London I had the chance to read an interesting (if very long!) statistical analysis of opinion polling for the last 50 years of elections compared with the actual votes. I recommend reading it if you have time. The striking conclusion that it came to was that in 10 of the previous 12 elections, the opinions had understated the Tory vote share (now 11 of the past 13). It doesn’t go into the psychological or political reasons why this might be the case in any detail but rather looks at the methodology of polling (which was changed after 1992 because of how wrong it had got that result). Most strikingly of all, on its final page it suggests a Tory lead of 6 points for 2015, which is pretty much spot on. After reading it I was tempted, in the face of everything else coming out of the media, to put a bet on a Tory majority (which would have stymied it!).

From a personal perspective I can well see that there may be a Shy Tory effect. Those who read this blog regularly or know me well in real life (and in some cases describe it/me as rabidly right wing- though I’d prefer to think I’m at least reasonably measured and rational about it!) will not perhaps see me as particularly shy. However, I tend not to talk politics much with people I don’t already know well. At least not on a party basis. Curiously, I’ve found that often if you just talk about particular things that are happening or could be done, the discussion is more interesting and friendly. Until the point at which it transpires that what you’ve just said is Tory policy. Whereupon it gets taken down for being a sham or a front for some corporate conspiracy theory or a misdirection away from something else. Which makes further discussion redundant.

I was rather mortified last week when Mrs B told me she’d told the mum of one of OMB’s school friends, who I get on with well and who is also a local Labour councillor, that I’m a Tory member (fortunately she didn’t seem to hold it against me!). Even good friends of mine will accept it only generally in the context of it being an eccentricity that years of friendship makes just about tolerable. Memorably after the 2010 election one friend said she’d assumed I was a LibDem as it was as right wing as would fit with her idea of people she’d spend time with. So, I didn’t join with the rest of my facebook timeline in bombarding everyone with political messages (largely Labour, some Green) ahead of the election or indeed gloating about the result afterwards. It just isn’t worth the bother.

I think the phenomenon of Shy Tories will continue to exist until either there is an acceptance that not everything (or even most things) which might be proposed by the Tories are by definition evil or uncaring, or when many of those things are accepted and proposed by others so that you can support them without having to mention or be one of the Tories (the Blair effect). The reality is possibly that at least some Tories aren’t so much shy as just more introverted than those who want to shout their moral crusades on marches and placards, sound off on social media campaigns or to dominate a dinner party or pub night by chivvying everyone up to agree with them. We can find the campaigns run by The Sun and the Daily Mail to be cringeworthy without having to support those they are aimed against or be drawn into defending them and their proprietors.

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Off Their Trolley(bus)!

One of the many things you learn and learn to teach when you become a parent is the importance of impulse control. So you can’t always have just what you want as soon as you want it. Sometimes you can’t have it at all. Sometimes you get a choice of something else. But, just because you have a choice of something else, doesn’t mean that you have to take it even if you don’t want it.

The long-running saga in Leeds over the Supertram and its successor, New Generation Transport (NGT- the first UK trolleybus of modern times) mirrors this. The original Supertram project looked pretty neat – three lines of light rail radiating out from a loop around Leeds City Centre going to the NW, NE and SE of the city with the prospect of future lines covering the rest of the city and even linking up through to Bradford. When we first moved to Leeds in 2004 the preparatory works for it were already in place – you could see the places where the stops were going to be in currently pedestrianised shopping streets. The trams in Manchester and Sheffield gave a flavour of what could be achieved. It was a visionary project which, even without looking at the details much, made some sense and showed an ambition for organising travel within the city.

However, after cost projections for the project rose from £500m to £1bn or more and the economic case for the system fell down for the parts which would have linked some of the more deprived parts of the city, it was unsurprisingly cancelled by Alastair Darling as Transport Secretary in 2005 in a bit of pre-crash austerity. Instead, the Department for Transport said that a lower cost, bus-based system could be funded, if a suitable project was put forward. Fast forward to today, and we have NGT.

The thing is, after living in Leeds for a decade and in Headingley and Weetwood, through which NGT will cut a literal swathe, chopping down trees and demolishing buildings, I’ve yet to meet anyone who has got a good word to say about NGT. It doesn’t seem to meet any particular real need. Indeed, it seems that from NGT’s own business case, it will actually make congestion and emissions worse. The notional reduction in journey times during rush hour peaks is a matter of at most a few minutes and in reality, for most people, much less than that. For a “new generation” it also, peculiarly, doesn’t go anywhere near the areas which the Council has earmarked for large scale new housing development (on this count it would make more sense to be routed along the A65 towards Horsforth where large new developments are planned).

A sign of how unloved NGT seems to be is that at last week’s Weetwood Residents’ Association meeting, both the current LibDem MP for Leeds North West, Greg Mulholland, and the Labour PPC, Alex Sobel, seemed to be against. Although this wasn’t entirely clear, as neither called for it to be scrapped or said that they would work to secure this outcome at the Public Inquiry which is to start at the end of April. Interestingly, the LibDem ward councillors pointed out that Labour had whipped its councillors to vote for NGT (although this might have been before Alex Sobel had himself been elected – so he can’t be blamed for this any more than Ed Miliband can be blamed for the invasion of Iraq). What everyone seemed most intent on was securing that the £173m of funding earmarked for NGT got spent on something. I had the feeling that if in the end the Public Inquiry supports NGT, the local politicians’ current apparent opposition to NGT, or support for “doing something else for Leeds transport with the £173m” will evaporate or be airbrushed out of the record. Instead we’ll get election addresses about how they “secured major investment in Leeds’ infrastructure”.

Of course it would be nice to be able to keep the £173m which, even in an environment of cuts and austerity has survived the predations of George Osborne. There’s always a lot which could be done with such a large amount of money (even if nobody has come up with a particularly good idea about what should be done with it in this case). But, as with going out shopping with your children, when the thing they need isn’t available, they don’t need to get something, anything, just to secure that bit of cash from your wallet. When the something, anything, that they’d settle for is something even they don’t actually like or want, the best thing to do is for them to learn that it is better to get nothing. In this case, the “nothing” seems to be an investment in a fleet of Boris Buses by the local bus operator, without the need to bulldoze the Otley Road. Better still, this would improve transport in the whole city, not just the NW corridor.

If that means that the £173m doesn’t go to Leeds but becomes a saving for the Exchequer, that’s £173m of cuts elsewhere that suddenly have a much better argument against them. Both the leading parties seeking to form the next government say that they will be making further cuts, so why not let them make one that would actually be beneficial and only involve the death of a project that nobody is really particularly keen on and which serves no particularly pressing need?

Is there really no virtue in controlling our desire to spend money just because it has been promised?

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.