Wednesday, May 18, 2022

A note of caution on the prospects of a "progressive alliance": We are bad at predicting our own behaviour

Best for Britain is proud of its opinion poll, which forecasts how people would vote given various scenarios where parties co-operate with one another at the next general election.

Most Liberal Democrat and Green voters would vote Labour if their parties stood down, their findings say. Equally, Labour voters would mostly be happy to vote Lib Dem or Green.

It looks easy, doesn't it?

As Freddie and Fiona once put it to Lord Bonkers:

"All we need do ... is change the Labour Party constitution, have all the parties agree a common manifesto and then get them to stand down wherever we think they should."

But then F&F aren't old enough to remember the Alliance and what it is like when the Conservatives and the press are looking for divisions to exploit. It would be far worse now with more parties involved and what Lord Bonkers would call "the electric social media".

There is another problem with this poll. Most opinion polls ask people how they would vote if there were an election today. This one asked them how they would vote in a year or two's time given a number of different conditions,

The problem is that we are poor at predicting our own behaviour. As a post on the Research Digest blog once expressed it:

Psychologists have identified an important reason why our insight into our own psyches is so poor. Emily Balcetis and David Dunning found that when predicting our own behaviour, we fail to take the influence of the situation into account. 
By contrast, when predicting the behaviour of others, we correctly factor in the influence of the circumstances. This means that we’re instinctually good social psychologists but at the same time we’re poor self-psychologists.
So this sort of polling is unlikely to provide the proof that Best for Britain thinks it has. They might, however, do better if they ask people how they think their neighbours would react faced with these conditions.

For instance, I would not resent a progressive alliance as a way of denying people choice, but I suspect many possible anti-Tory voters would.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Up Caledonian Road to Copenhagen Fields with John Rogers

John Rogers takes us on another London walk. This time it's from Gray's Inn Road up the Caledonian Road to Caledonian Park in Islington.

I was in Housmans bookshop [09:00] the other week and emerged with a novel by Rose Macaulay. I still haven't got the hang of this "left wing" thing.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Cuckoos, lapwings and curlews in the Shropshire Hills

And I can't remember the last time I heard a cuckoo, yet when I was a child you expected to hear one on any spring or summer walk.

The cuckoo is not the only bird that is disappearing from Shropshire. When Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine Club (the thinking child's Famous Five) formulated its rules at its camp on the Long Mynd, the members found it natural to adopt the cry of the peewit (or lapwing) as their secret signal.

I knew the late Robert Smart, who had been a friend of Saville's and published several books of walks in the Shropshire Hills. The last time we met he told me he hadn't seen a lapwing on the Mynd for years. That must take us back to the turn of this century.

The only place I have seen Lapwings is the Outer Hebrides. The are entertaining birds - tumbling yet slightly pompous with it - that remind you of Dickensian clerks.

But the bird that really makes me think of the Shropshire hills is the curlew. When I started visiting the Stiperstones in the 1980s, the bird's haunting cry told me that I was getting near the summit ridge.

Today the curlew is in danger of going the same way as the lapwing, but there are people working to save it.

The film below threatens to be overwhelmingly sad, but hold on for a more hopeful ending.

But it's a sad fact that 50 years or more of environmental activism have not been enough to save what used to be everyday birds in these hills.

Christopher Hitchens saw through Vladimir Putin from the start

Here's The Hitch answering a question at the University of Western Ontario on 8 March 2005.

Unlike many commentators, he saw Putin for what he was right from the start.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

The first night of Oliver!

Embed from Getty Images

Oliver! is the great British musical. I regard that as a statement of fact rather than an opinion.

Legend has it that the opening night audience went wild, but what did the critics make of it?

Well, our old friend J.C. Trewin loved it. Writing for the Birmingham Daily Post on Friday 1 July 1960, the day after Oliver's premiere he confirmed the legend:

"May Dickens forgive me!" said Lionel Bart as he took that surprising thing, an author's call, at the end of Oliver! to-night. He came upon the stage of the New Theatre after the most triumphant reception a musical play, and a British play at that, has had in years.

As for himself:

After the twentieth call we knew what the first-night audience thought. I fancy that Dickensians will forgive Mr. Bart. exclamation mark and all. I repeat, this is not a night for pedantic analysis. You have either to surrender to it or to carp. Personally. I have not found it hard to surrender.

He names the songs from show that he think will prove most popular: I'd Do Anything, As Long as He Needs Me and Oom-Papah. 

Maybe it's just because of Ron Moody's performance of them in the film, but today I think first of Reviewing the Situation and Pick a Pocket or Two. 

Who Will Buy?, with its street cries, is in many ways the most interesting, while the least interesting, Food Glorious Food, was the one BBC Radio played to death for a couple of decades.

And this is what Trewin had to say about the cast:

Fagin is presumably allowed to get away. Something, of course. may happen to him later; but that it not in Mr. Bart's scheme, and we could not wish that much would happen to the old fence as Ron Moody presents him, in a fantastic-grotesque performance that is suited exactly to Oliver! if it is not entirely Dickensian ....

But this is not a time to consider the acting too closely. though such a major part as Georgia Brown's Nancy has full spirit. Keith Hamshere is meltingly Oliver. and a sketch of the undertaker's wife by Sonia Fraser. late of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, would aid any production. 

Ron Moody we all know. Georgia Brown is generally acknowledged as being a better Nancy than the film's Shani Wallis, though it's hard not to wish that Carol Reed's wish to cast Shirley Bassey had been granted by the money men.

Sonia Fraser had a long career in theatre and was a friend and collaborator of Miriam Margolyes. Keith Hamshere lasted over a year before he grew to tall to play Oliver, then made a couple of films and gave up acting to become one of the leading stills photographers in the film industry.

The Joy of Six 1050

"Those that claim to be the party of clever economics and fiscal responsibility would do well to remember this simple truth: the square root of fuck all is always going to be absolutely fuck all, no matter how creatively you’re told to to dice it." Jack Monroe asks why elected representatives and salaried journalists and presenters are trying to undermine the ten-year career and credibility of a food blogger.

Andrew Adonis reviews Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK by Simon Kuper: "In place of Kuper’s plan, I would instead introduce a different 'levelling-up' reform challenge for Oxford. It needs to radically broaden the social intake of its state school recruitment, which today is too largely drawn from grammar schools, sixth-form colleges and academies in London and the southeast".

Helena Horton on ambitious plans to rewild London.

Neal Ascherson is always worth reading: here he discusses the history of the extraordinary Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

"Tragically, he was discovered, captured, and deported during a raid in Toulouse in 1944 - first to Drancy, then to Auschwitz, and finally Kaunas-Reval in Lithuania. Of hundreds of people captured in Toulouse that day, only a handful survived. They perished without a trace." Janet Horvath says we should not forget the cellist and composer Pál Hermann.

"It was a big car park, but it was in bad shape. So in 2010, the Trinity Square high rise car park, an iconic brutalist building that dominated Gateshead’s skyline in the 1970s, was demolished, and a part of British film history was gone. Though not before the canny council sold tinned lumps of rubble to film fans for £5.00 a go." Tim Pelan watches Mike Hodges' 1971 film Get Carter.

Aldous Harding: Fever

Aldous Harding is a New Zealand artist now based in Cardiff. A 2019 Guardian review of a concert by her said:

In the years since 2014, when her self-titled debut came out in her native New Zealand, Harding has become cult-famous for her intense performances. They draw attention to the fact of their own artifice and have garnered comparisons to uncompromising auteurs such as Kate Bush.

Harding has a punk rock stare and, on her stool, she adopts cowboy postures that would be called manspreading if they happened on the London underground. When she sings, she is legion: Harding can sound like a child, like Joanna Newsom, or a dissipated émigré such as Nico. 

Saturday, May 14, 2022

The old road to Foxton Locks

I've blogged before about how I worked for the organiser of the Liberal Party Assembly in 1985. That summer the office was housed on two narrow boats at Foxton Locks.

The photo above shows where the boats were moored - on the arm that served the bottom of the inclined plane that once took boats up and down the hill here.

A lot has changed at Foxton since then, notably there's now a proper car park for visitors and a new road to serve it.

What used to be the road to the bottom of the locks is now a footpath.* Ironically, it is in much better condition than it ever was as a road. Then it had enough large potholes to keep a Focus team pointing for a fortnight.

I remember guiding the chief stewards van down it when he arrived to collect the assembly programmes which the printers van had brought a couple of days before.

Today it was all sheep and May blossom, with not a pothole in sight.

* The final stretch of the path is new - the old road ran along the bank of the canal for a little. But, going uphill, once you are through the first gate you are on what was the road all the way to the top.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Yesterday's local by-elections and a progressive alliance

There were two local by-elections yesterday. Both were in Conservative-held seats and the Conservatives lost both of them.

The results also pose questions about the practicality of and need for a "progressive alliance".

Take the by-election in the Frensham, Dockenfield and Tilford ward of Waverley Borough Council in Surrey.

Here, Labour and the Liberal Democrats stood down to give the Green Party a clear run against the Conservatives. The Tories lost all right, but it wasn't the Greens who won.

The victor was David Munro, an Independent who used to be the Conservative police and crime commissioner for the county. Munro is a former Army office who lost his career because he was openly gay.

This should serve as a reminder that parties do not own their supporters votes and cannot deliver them en bloc to another party. And also as another reminder that Twitter is not the real world.

Last night there was also a by-election in the Peacehaven ward of Lewes District Council.

There was no progressive alliance here: Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens all fielded candidates. But this did not stop Labour from gaining the seat by a mile.

The result was Labour 641, Conservatives 477, Lib Dems 32, Greens 32,

If the electorate is determined to get rid of the Tories, as they were in 1997 and as I sense they are now, then it will organise itself to do so.

Remember that in 1997 Labour came from third place to take two seats from the Tories - Hastings & Rye and St Albans - that had been Liberal Democrat targets.

You can hear these issues debated in the latest Oh God, What Now? podcast, where Layla Moran is the guest. I share her view that any alliances must be locally determined and not imposed from on high.

And is it good for Liberal Democrats to taken on a "progressive" identity?

I have seen a quote online from my much-missed friend Simon Titley that exposes its weakness:

"Progressive." What does it mean? The only discernible meaning is "not conservative" or "not reactionary"... negative definitions. The "p" word is a lazy word, so give it up. It will force you to say what you really mean. We need real politics not empty slogans.

I don't know where this comes from, but there is an archive of Simon's writing on the Liberator website.

Let me end by once again recommending the weekly local by-election previews by Andrew Teale.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

I don't! Northamptonshire crematorium scrapped as wedding venue after holding just ONE ceremony

The Northampton Chronical & Echo wins our Headline of the Day Award.

Congratulations to them, but not to the now-defunct Kettering Borough Council.

Northampton urban tree festival, Saturday 21 May

Save Our Street Trees is hosting a mini urban tree festival in Northampton on Saturday 21 May.

The event promises an afternoon of tree-themed fun for adults and children at Delapré Abbey, the country house and park just a mile from the centre of the town.

Between 2 and 5pm there will be yoga, crafting, art classes and tree trails to celebrate and support urban trees. All the activities are free (but donations will be welcome).

You can learn more about the festival on the Save Our Street Trees website.

The Northampton event forms part of the 2022 Urban Tree Festival, which runs from 14 to 22 May.

The Save Our Street Trees website has a full list of events, most of which take place in London.

Happy St Pancras Day to Liberal England readers

What with it being the saint's day of Saint Pancras and Steve Winwood's birthday, 12 May has long been a bank holiday here on Liberal England.

To help you celebrate this year, here are a statue of the young martyr I found in London the other week and a spot of vintage Spencer Davis Group featuring a 17-year-old Winwood.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The ventilation shaft for Oxendon Tunnels

You can find this ventilation shaft in a field just to the edge of Great Oxendon village. It served the twin Oxendon tunnels on the Market Harborough to Northampton railway line.

That line closed in 1981 (I was on the last train), and today you can walk and cycle through one of the tunnels on the Brampton Valley Way.

I was also taken with an old metal gate post that stands by the shaft.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

The Joy of Six 1049

"Some people believe that support for the war comes out of the propaganda itself. In a way, this is true, of course. But why do people believe it? The formulas work because people can use them for their own ends. The public are the victims of propaganda but, at the same time, it’s made-to-order just for them." Shura Burtin asks why Russians support the war against Ukraine.

Sean Kippen reviews This is Not Normal: The Collapse of Liberal Britain by William Davies.

"By marginalising the empowering role of institutions in Savile’s crimes, both the Netflix documentary and official inquiries ultimately preserve the reputations of those institutions, and absolve key individuals of responsibility. To date, few have been brought to justice for enabling, covering up or failing properly to investigate what he did." Chris Greer and Eugene McLaughlin on the response to Jimmy Savile's crimes.

Claire Fitzpatrick says too many women in prison today were the girls in care of yesterday. "Beyond the gaze of the community, their experiences are easily ignored. Yet the stubborn over-representation of those with care experience in custody must be addressed by dramatically improving the care and support that individuals receive at earlier points in their lives."

"The defeat of the Ringways marked the first time that the planners had been publicly defeated. It showed that great plans for recasting urban space were not some unanswerable edict from on high: they were political proposals that could be successfully fought against." Michael Dnes and Calum Heath discover the London urban motorways that never were.

When it comes to writing, argues Derek Thompson, simple is smart.

J.W. Logan MP and his portable meeting room Free Speech Hall

Denied the use of village school halls by the Tories, my hero J.W. Logan took his own building around with him. I had imagined that it was some kind of tent, but an account in the Leicester Chronicle of 7 December 1889 shows it was far more than that:

On Saturday evening Mr. J.W. Logan, the Liberal candidate for the Market Harborough Division, addressed crowded meeting at Church Langton in his new portable building, to which has been given the appropriate appellation of Free Speech Hall. 
The building is an exceedingly neat and commodious wooden structure of oblong shape, being thirty feet long by twelve feet broad, and capable of accommodating about 150 people. Seats are arranged on each side to hold four, leaving a gangway up the centre by which the platform is reached. 
The heating apparatus consists of an elegant little stove, light being supplied by means of a couple of large lamps pendant from the top. When lighted and comfortably warmed and filled with an enthusiastic audience, as was Free Speech Hall on Saturday evening, it is not easy to imagine when inside that the erection is anything other than a permanent one. 
A lamp is hung at the entrance outside, and along one of the outer flanks is inscribed in large characters, "The system that will not bear discussion is doomed." 
The whole affair affords an additional earnest of the zeal and indomitable pluck of Mr. Logan in the cause which he has so thoroughly at heart, and is calculated to falsify the prophetic inspiration of his Tory friends, that he would ere long return to their fold - the wish of course being father to the thought.

Logan did start out as a Conservative, but - at least as he told the story - he was so shocked by the poverty he saw in Ireland that he became a Liberal and a thoroughgoing Radical at that. I must blog about this one day.

The Chronicle, which was clearly a splendidly Liberal newspaper, said that this Church Langton meeting was held "on the Green, in proximity to the rectory gate".

This puts it more or less in the area shown in the photograph above. This now includes the village war memorial, which includes the name of Logan's son Hugh, who was four years old when this meeting took place.

Norman Lamb on his time as a minister... and Danny Alexander

Norman Lamb has been interviewed by the Institute for Government for its Ministers Reflect series.

You can see a short clip from it above and read the full transcript on the IfG website. (The interview took place in March 2020.)

As the Liberal Democrats could find themselves part of a coalition government after the next election, it's important that we learn from our unhappy experience between 2010 and 2015. So this interview makes useful reading.

But it may not make happy reading for Danny Alexander, who does not come out of it well.

Here, for instance, is Norman Lamb talking about his role as Nick Clegg's parliamentary private secretary, which he took on after the offer of a ministerial role was clumsily withdrawn:

I found it to be a fairly hollow role. I was involved in central discussions and I became part of the core team around Nick, but I was also conscious that the power lay with Nick and Danny - Nick primarily went to Danny and not anyone else - which caused, I think, some frustration amongst many people. A lot of people felt that Danny wasn't necessarily the best influence on Nick, and I still feel that strongly.

And when asked by the interviewer to expand on this point, Lamb says:

I think that Danny was hopeless on the health reforms, he passed it all and didn’t really understand the issues, in my view. In my view, the great sadness was David Laws falling early as the chief secretary .... The caricature of David was as right wing, as a sort of Tory in disguise, but actually, internally, he wasn’t. He was the one who was fighting against ending the indexing of benefits, he was fighting for a real terms increase in education spend and a real value to the pupil premium. 

His fall from the Treasury meant that we lost an intellectually coherent Liberal in the Treasury. We ended up with someone who was trying to convince Tories that he could be trusted doing this vital role of chief secretary to the Treasury. It was a case of overcompensating, which you quite often see.

That overcompensation was pretty much official Liberal Democrat strategy after 2010 - you can learn that from an article written by Nick Clegg's then political adviser, Richard Reeves, in 2012.

Reeves thought the Liberal Democrats had first to prove they were mature enough to be in government, but it is hard to imagine any other party burdening itself with this demand when it had just won a share of power through the ballot box.

A better model, Norman Lamb suggests, was that offered by Norman Baker as a transport minister. Lamb recalls that Philip Hammond (then the transport secretary) complaining to him that Baker was difficult to work with and did not comply with the protocols:

Norman, who I’ve got a lot of time for, was a press junkie who was just going off and actually doing what he ought to be doing, I think getting the message out there about what a Lib Dem minister was achieving. 

Lamb goes on to add:

The interesting thing was that the two of them ended up getting on quite well in transport and having a degree of mutual respect, I think because they were both assiduous - I think the dynamic ended up working quite well.

So next time we Liberal Democrats find ourselves in coalition, we need to have more confidence in ourselves and in the approach to the country's problems that we have just fought an election on.

And we need to make sure  we have someone at the treasury with the intellectual equipment and confidence to stand up for themselves.

In 2010 our front bench had as much expertise on economics, if not more, as those of the two larger parties. Think Vince Cable, Chris Huhne, David Laws and Steve Webb. We should have drawn on that pool of talent and used Danny Alexander's talents differently.

You can explore all the Ministers Reflect interviews on the Institute for Government website.

Monday, May 09, 2022

Graham Moffatt's career in films

As promised, here is a short film about the actor Graham Moffatt, who was landlord of The Swan, Braybrooke, between 1948 and 1958.