The personal and the public: 10 years on

Ten years ago we brought down the Government, and then we got married. It was a very happy time, all in all. Lots of things are conspiring just now to bring it all back, and to remind us how long it’s been.

There’s Tony Blair’s resignation, of course (I could write a long essay on all the emotions that produces. Maybe another time. I guess there are enough of those essays about at the moment – you don’t need me to add to them).

And this morning I got an email from a friend who did one of the readings at our wedding (a few lines about marriage taken from Four Quartets), asking for a pointer to the text so that he could read it again at someone else’s. So I dug the wedding script out again and spent a happy half-hour wallowing in nostalgia.

Andrew has just installed MediaWiki here so that we can have our own household wiki, for shopping lists and so on — mundane stuff, mostly. (Much cursing during the installation process, which seemed to require a complete OS upgrade on our fileserver. Why are these things always so hard?). So this morning I put the wedding script in as the first page. Seemed a good starting point.

Doesn’t time fly?

Must be Spring

Everyone I know who has a blog seems to have written a new entry in it over the past few days; even those who hadn’t written anything for months. Perhaps they had time because of the Easter holiday.

I’ve started something new too, though in my case it’s displacement activity (I’m writing text for a book and I have to deliver it in a couple of weeks’ time): I’ve finally got tired of being an anonymous editor, and have created myself a Wikipedia account. I was stuck for ages on choosing what to call myself. Naming is so hard to get right.

There is a Posy Simmonds cartoon strip about displacement activities called “Nine to Five”, an ancient copy of which, cut from a newspaper, I’ve just located (the search for it was, of course, a displacement activity in itself). I’m just wrestling with my conscience about copyright issues. I’d love to post a scan of it. As far as I know, it’s no longer available for purchase or download.

I’ve always ignored because of its silly name (though perhaps as the Managing Director of Little Pink Cloud Ltd I should be less snobbish about such things). Anyway, today I found out that it’s useful. So I’ve started to use it.

Time should leave scars

I lost one of the small sapphires from my engagement ring a few days ago. On closer examination it appears that the ring is quite worn, which is probably why the stone fell out. I wear it all the time alongside my wedding ring so the gold must gradually have abraded.

It must be repaired, of course, but we don’t want the incident to leave no trace. Time should leave scars. The posh assistant at Catherine Jones was rather shocked at our request but the customer is always right – so they are busy on the phone at the moment looking for non-matching replacement stones. The best candidate so far is a pink sapphire.

Planning blight

This is what happens to urban areas when there is a grand plan – something that might involve demolishing existing buildings – under discussion but not decided upon (perhaps there’s a dispute over planning permission or there are problems finding the money). The motivation to maintain the existing buildings and streetscape is lost. What’s the point, when it’s all going to be pulled down soon? Things gradually decay. You can see it at the moment in Cambridge in the area around the railway station.

Recently I’ve realised that planning blight can happen on a domestic scale too, and that in fact our own house and garden have got a bad case of it. Ever since we moved into this house (2001) we’ve known that we wanted to make radical changes. (We bought it because of its location.) This culminated last year in a scheme to demolish the whole thing and start again. I was quite enamoured of the idea for several months and am only gradually being persuaded out of it by my more cautious other half.

Meanwhile none of the over-counter lighting in the kitchen works any more.


Consulting a hairdresser for advice can be daunting, but this time it was a refreshingly straightforward experience.

I like my hair the way it is, mostly: long and usually fastened up. It’s no bother like that, and trimming the ends is a trivial task easily executed by an untrained husband with a ruler and a spirit-level. The only problem is the bits that won’t grow long — little wisps that spring from my hairline all the way round, but most noticeably around the ears and temples, and never get to more than about 4 inches long, so they won’t stay tied up with all the rest. They’re especially irritating when outdoors if the wind is blowing, and unappealing when indoors again afterwards (strands sticking out in all directions). So I made an appointment with a posh stylist in town and explained the problem. Could it be fixed, perhaps by artful cutting, perming, something?

No, she said, it could not. Some people’s hair is just like that. There’s really nothing we can do about it. Cutting would only make it worse. The only way to keep those wispy bits under control is … hairspray! Now, why didn’t I think of that?

So I bought some, and tried it — and it works. It had simply never occurred to me as a possibility before. Not for ordinary day-to-day use, anyway. Hairspray, like make-up, was a thing for “girly” women and for very special occasions, not for normal use by sensible grown-ups like me.

I gave the hairdresser a big tip, and left happy. Such a relief to get proper advice.

Love miles

Over the past couple of weeks we’ve been socialising with some lovely people from far away, first at FOSDEM and then at home afterwards. It’s been great but (for me anyway) slightly two-edged because it all contributes to what George Monbiot calls “love miles“, and I had accumulated too many of those already. A melancholy thought.

This field starts empty

[This was my first posting to Marginalia. There is older material on my website, but that started life elsewhere.]

Introducing some friends to one another a few days ago I realised they all had blogs. I think I want to play too. Maybe. Odd thing for an introvert to be doing but we’ll see how it goes.

The title has taken nearly a day’s pondering. I wanted it to be a watery kind of thing because I’m sitting here beside a river, and all these ideas and experiences come whooshing by like flood-water. I was thinking this might be a place where I can catch hold of a few as they sweep past and arrange them a bit. I like the idea of water margins because I write a lot in margins. Eventually I found this, which seemed to do it:

… where a neat rivulet of text shall meander through a meadow of margin.

(It’s Sheridan, which is also nice because he was the MP for Stafford.)

This isn’t my first attempt at blogging, in fact, but it’s my first under my own name — which of course makes it much harder because I do mind what people think.

Well… we’ll see how it goes.

Why electoral reform

I’m in favour of representative democracy. I don’t have to justify that bit, do I? The bit I have to explain is why I believe it’s necessary to change the electoral system.

The system we have

The system we have in Britain is called First Past the Post. However many candidates are standing for a constituency, each voter only has a single vote and must choose only one candidate to vote for. The candidate receiving the most votes wins. This system sounds superficially fair, and it’s not bad if there are only two candidates, but it is deeply flawed in the more usual case where there are three or more.

First problem: tactical voting

First Past the Post causes tactical voting. This happens when there is a candidate who is OK but not great, another whom you definitely don’t like, and a third one whom you really prefer, but you think has little chance of winning. (Your assessment of the probabilities probably comes from opinion polls and/or data from past elections). You will have to decide whether to vote for the just-OK candidate or whether to ‘waste’ your vote on the no-hoper. Having to make this kind of tactical decision really annoys most voters. It encourages cynicism. It means that your vote is not a clear positive statement of what you believe in. Great things have been achieved occasionally by organised tactical voting (see Billy Bragg’s report on the ‘Vote Dorset’ campaign in 2001 for example; the election of Martin Bell to parliament in 1997 was another example) but this takes a huge amount of effort that wouldn’t be necessary at all if the electoral system handled your preferences for you in a sensible way – as it easily could if we adopted a preference-based voting system such as STV.

Second problem: safe seats

First Past the Post gives rise to safe seats. This happens because the population isn’t evenly spread among the constituencies. Many areas contain so many people who have a general tendency to favour one particular party that everybody knows that that party will always win that seat. This is bad for several reasons:

  • The party that always wins has no incentive to put forward a candidate who might attract popular support. The safe seat can be ‘given’ to someone the party leadership wants to get elected, regardless of likely local popularity. Local people won’t be happy and some may even abstain in protest, but enough of them will still vote according to their basic party loyalty.
  • The parties that always lose in a particular area have no incentive to take the problems of this area seriously. If they happen to be popular elsewhere in the country they may end up in government, so the decisions they make will affect this area – but since they have nothing to lose, they don’t even have to consider public opinion locally. This is obviously the opposite of democracy. For an example, look at what the Tories did in Scotland during the Thatcher years.
  • The party that always wins has no incentive to take the local problems seriously either! They too have nothing to lose because they won’t lose whatever they do. So, in fact, the people who live in safe seats will be neglected whoever is in government.
  • The individual voters are effectively disenfranchised – their votes make no difference so they might as well stay at home, and increasingly we are seeing them do so.

Third problem: lack of proportionality

An assembly elected by First Past the Post does not usually come out proportional with respect to the representation of parties. Political parties that suffer from this effect think that this is the most important problem. Most people don’t esteem political parties as highly as they do themselves, but still proportionality does matter. The current system delivers large parliamentary majorities based on a minority of the popular vote. The effect is an unstable ‘see-saw’ between the two major parties, with smaller parties having no real influence.

The incentive this gives parties to stay large at all costs is immense. A party that splits into factions is completely sunk. This gives rise to dishonesty in politics because parties have to pretend to be united when they aren’t. A proportional system doesn’t reward parties for staying large, so differences in opinion are more likely to result in splits. These splits don’t hurt because smaller parties can still band together in coalitions to form governments. And they empower the voters, because each of the smaller parties can say honestly what it believes in and how it differs from the others, and the voters can express through the electoral system exactly which nuance of opinion they prefer.

Solutions exist

Fortunately there are superior systems, so we don’t have to live with these problems. They are practical, they’re easy to use, and they work. For information about these better alternatives, consult the Electoral Reform Society. I joined the ERS following the 1987 General Election. In Cambridge the Tory had been in the lead with the second and third candidates neck-and-neck. I’d found it very difficult to decide how to vote, and this is what started me thinking about the whole issue.

What I do

I joined the Electoral Reform Society in 1987 and have been a member ever since. I’ve also been a member of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform since soon after I joined the Labour Party. I serve as Regional Representative for LCER. I also signed Charter 88 in response to its first ever newspaper advertisement.

After the 1997 General Election, all of us who wanted electoral reform were hopeful that it would happen soon. In anticipation of the need for a coordinated ‘yes’ campaign to swing into action once a referendum was called, a new umbrella organisation called Make Votes Count was set up. A group of us immediately stepped forward to form a local group in Cambridge, which was active for a couple of years. I served as Secretary to this local group.

It turned out that the first battle that had to be fought was within the Labour Party, and our local group’s main achievement was in training and supporting those of its members who were also Labour Party activists, so as to provide guest speakers to Labour policy forums in and around Cambridge. I myself, as a result of this, went through the training course that the ERS organised for Make Votes Count and became authorised to speak on behalf of the organisation at public meetings. We were successful in our objective in that all the meetings to which we sent speakers were persuaded to vote in favour of reform. It now appears, however, that the hoped-for referendum is not going to happen in the near future. Because of this, our local group is not currently active.

The main focus of my interest in reform has always been the electoral system, but I’m also in favour of reforming British political life in various other ways, for example by introducing a written constitution, increasing the amount of free speech and free information, and replacing the house of lords with an elected second chamber. In some ways my views on these issues look rather similar to those of a typical Liberal Democrat. People in the Lib Dem party have sometimes sought to convince me that I’m in the wrong party. But they don’t understand. I agree with them on some questions about how society should arrive at its collective decisions, but I differ on the more important question of what we need to decide and why.