Friday, May 31, 2024

Ed Davey on his relations with Labour and Keir Starmer

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Ed Davey has given his first major newspaper interview of the campaign to Eleni Courea at the Guardian.

He again rules out coalition with the Conservatives, but would not be drawn on possible deals with Labour:

“I’m not talking about anything beyond what I’ve just said on the Tories for the simple reason that I want to campaign on Liberal Democrat policies … I think it was right that we’ve made it very clear that the Conservatives are anathema to us. I’ve fought the Tories all my life, I fight them every day.” On which high-profile Conservatives he would like to see his party defeat, Davey named three: the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt; the education secretary, Gillian Keegan; and the justice secretary, Alex Chalk.

Davey refused to set his conditions for propping up a Labour government in the event of a hung parliament, whether in a coalition or looser confidence-and-supply arrangement, though he said electoral reform had always been a Lib Dem priority. He said he had not spoken privately to Starmer since before the campaign began.

“I sat next to him during the king’s coronation,” he said. “We compared notes – and we talked about football as well. As you know he’s an Arsenal fan, I’m a Notts County fan … I think he probably knows more about football than I do, let me be very, very honest. I’ve always followed football but he plays it.”

Some question what differentiates Davey from Starmer. When asked this, he finds it easier to detail things they have in common. “There are things in his life which he had to struggle with and I’ve had quite a few in mine. There are actually more similarities in terms of our upbringing. We’ve had challenges to face,” he said.

All very interesting, though the opinion polls make it look overwhelmingly likely that Labour will win an overall majority this time.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Another extraordinary railway bridge at Keadby in Lincolnshire

The other day I showed you the combined road and railway bridge over the Trent at Keadby. It's not been lifted since 1956, which may be just as well, because it looks terrifying.

But there is another extraordinary railway bridge in operation on the Doncaster to Scunthorpe line near Keady.

The Stainforth and Keadby Canal links the waterways of South Yorkshire with the Trent. And this swing bridge takes the railway over it shortly before Keadby,

You can see it in operation in the video above. And that's the terrifying lift bridge that no long lifts below.

The Evening Standard praises those Lib Dem election stunts

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A comment piece by Jack Kessler in the Evening Standard understands:

Following the catastrophic 2015 general election, the Lib Dems haven't even been the third party of British politics. Yet under successive leaders, they have frequently punched above their parliamentary weight, based on an understanding that they must be different in order to generate the oxygen of publicity. They need to be, for want of a better word, a little bit wacky. And in Ed Davey, the party can boast a leader who has turned this into an art form.

If you remember anything about the Chesham and Amersham by-election of 2021, it will be the image of Davey destroying a model blue brick wall with a small hammer, while a bunch of activists held up yellow placards. It was a gimmick, obviously, but a brilliant one. 

This also explains why Davey has this week fallen into Lake Windermere while paddleboarding, got wet (again) on a Slip 'N Slide in Somerset, and cycled down a very steep hill in Wales, where his team appeared disappointed he failed to fall off.

The Lib Dem leader is happy to look a little silly if it means his party picks up two dozen seats in their traditional battlegrounds of the West Country and the South of England, where they can reasonably convince voters they are the lever to pull for those most concerned with ejecting the local Tory MP.

And I like his conclusion:

Ultimately, the Lib Dems do a pretty good job of being the Lib Dems. And as Change UK ably demonstrated, it's harder than it looks.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Joy of Six 1233

Janan Ganesh argues that the Tories' greatest disservice to the UK has been to misunderstand the US: "A bilateral trade deal with Washington was meant to offset the loss of unfettered access to the EU market. That no such deal emerged was bad enough (though as predictable as sunrise). But then Donald Trump and later Joe Biden embraced a wider protectionism. World trade is fragmenting as a result. So for Britain, double jeopardy: no agreement with the US, but also less and less prospect of agreements with third countries."

"This week’s official government report into the atrocities of Alderney suggests more than 1000 might have perished as a result of over-work, starvation, disease, beatings and being executed. The story of the brutal sadism of the Nazis on Alderney is not just a Jewish story. The clear majority of those who died were from the Soviet Union." Antony Barnett and Martin Bright on Lord Pickles's Alderney Expert Review.

Elisabeth Braw says countries mulling wider national service plans should learn from the Norwegian model. It's voluntary, selective and places on the scheme are highly prized.

 Steve Bowbrick finds Disney's Song of the South deserves its problematic reputation: "The movie’s full of inexplicably dark, even distressing references and cues. In an animated sequence Br’er Fox sets a trap and it’s a literal noose strung from a tree. The tar-baby sequence is inexplicably awful. Some superficial effort was made to place the film after emancipation but it makes no difference - Disney’s movie is an inescapably antebellum artefact."

"Of the webpages that existed in 2013, for instance, 38 per cent are now lost. Even newer pages are disappearing: 8 per cent of pages that existed in 2023 are no longer available." Peter Black explains why he quotes at length on his blog, rather than relying on links.

When I first joined the Liberator editorial collective, we held our paste ups - Cow Gum and Letrset, isn't it? Marvelous. - in an office at Gray's Inn. A London Inheritance looks at how its South Square was reconstructed after wartime bombing.

Iain Dale has disgusted Tunbridge Wells

Red faces at Conservative campaign headquarters.

Yesterday came news that Iain Dale gave up his LBC radio show to stand as the Conservative candidate for Tunbridge Wells.

Today came this from Adam Bienkov on Byline Times:

Departing LBC Presenter Iain Dale, who announced this week that he is quitting the station in an attempt to stand as the Conservative party’s candidate for Tunbridge Wells, previously told listeners to his podcast that he “never liked the place” and “would happily live somewhere else”.

Dale, who announced this week that he hopes to succeed Conservative MP Greg Hands as the MP for the area, said on his podcast ‘For the Many’ in 2022 that he had only remained in the area “slightly against my will”.

“I have lived in Tunbridge Wells since 1997, slightly against my will”, he told his co-host, the former Labour MP Jacqui Smith.

“I’ve never liked the place. Still don’t, and would happily live somewhere else”.

If it's any consolation to Dale, who was helpful to me in the far off early days of political blogging and whose style influenced mine, he won't be the last of the many Tory candidates appointed at the last minute whose online life will cause them embarrassment. I can see it being a theme of the campaign.

Meanwhile, reports LBC, the Tory deputy chairman and candidate Jonathan Gullis has been pictured campaigning with a convicted heroin dealer,

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

For the first time in 37 years a new parliament will meet without a member of the cast of The Railway Children

Whatever happens in the general election, the new parliament will be the first without a member of the cast of The Railway Children for 37 years.

For an explanation, listen carefully to Bernard Cribbins in the film's most famous scene.

I hope I cut that short in time. I didn't? I'm sorry. Please help yourself to a tissue.

What I hope you heard was Bernard Cribbins saying "Right away, Mr Cryer" as he dispatched the train.

Mr Cryer was Bob Cryer, a moving force behind the preservation of the Keighley and Worth Valley line. He was also instrumental in convincing the people behind The Railway Children that it was the perfect place for them to film.

When the man who had played the guard through most of the filming ran out of holiday and had to return to his day job, Bob Cryer stepped in. So that's why he's in the scene above.

In February 1974, Bob Cryer was elected as the Labour MP for Keighley. If you are surprised to hear of a Labour left-winger being involved in the railway preservation movement, a guest post on the blog by Joseph Boughey on the uncertain politics of railway preservation may interest you.

Bob Cryer held the seat in two general elections before losing to the Conservatives in 1983. He then served as MEP for Sheffield between 1984 and 1989, before returning to the Commons as MP for Bradford South in 1987.

He held his new seat in 1992, but died in a road traffic accident in 1994 to widespread dismay. You can read an obituary by Tam Dalyell from the Independent.

His widow Ann Cryer was returned for Bob's old seat of Keighley in Labour's 1997 landslide, and held it until she retired in 2010. 

And Ann had also been an extra in The Railway Children too.

But there was a Cryer in parliament after the 2010 election: Ann and Bob's son John had been elected as Labour MP for Leyton and Wanstead, a seat he has held ever since.

He was also an extra - a young one - in The Railway Children. That's him and his sister Jane in the photo.

Today John Cryer announced that he will not be standing at the general election. So for the first time since 1987 - that's 37 years - a new parliament will meet without a member of the cast of The Railway Children.

Labour council group leader in Leicestershire joins the Lib Dems

Good news from Leicestershire this morning. Charlotte Green, leader of the Labour group on Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council and the only Labour councillor in the new Hinckley and Bosworth constituency, has joined the Liberal Democrats.

The Lib Dem candidate for Hinckley and Bosworth is Michael Mullaney. Announcing the news on Twitter, he said Charlotte knows only the Lib Dems can beat the Tories there, so she urges Labour supporters to vote tactically to get the Tories out.

Monday, May 27, 2024

The soft man of Brexit? Steve Baker goes on holiday during the election campaign

Steve Baker, who had a majority of 4214 over Labour in his Wycombe constituency in 2019, has flown off to Crete for a holiday, despite the general election.

The Mirror reports:

Northern Ireland Minister Steve Baker defiantly told The Mirror that he had continued with his holiday plans despite Rishi Sunak calling a snap election. He said that before he booked his break, he and fellow MPs were assured by the PM that it would be ok to head off to the beach this week.

Baker has also complained that Sunak's National Service policy was sprung on ministers and MPs by special advisers without being properly discussed.

But let's stay with his holiday because it gives me an excuse to quote one of my favourite passages from one of my favourite political memoirs.

Here's Julian Critchley in his A Bag of Boiled Sweets:

David James, who retired from Parliament as Member for Dorset North in 1979, was dotty. His reputation for eccentricity dated from 1964 when as Tory MP for Brighton, Kemptown, he lost his seat to Labour by seven votes. 

When, a few days after Alec Douglas-Home's defeat (and my own at Rochester), I went to Conservative Central Office to interview the then chairman of the party John Hare, I murmured some words of sympathy. We had, after all, just lost a general election after thirteen years in office.

"It's all that silly bugger David James's fault," cried Hare. "The fool spent most of the three-week campaign in Scotland looking for the Loch Ness Monster." Indeed, he had, and the tabloid press had been full of it. 

The papers claimed that every so often a cable would arrive from some godforsaken Scottish village addressed to the Kemptown Tory agent "Have almost found the Monster. Hope all goes well with the campaign."

Tory HQ accuses party's MPs of failing to back election campaign

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Staff at Conservative Party HQ have sent out a candid report detailing failures by the party's MPs to get behind its general election campaign,

Trouble is, they've sent it to those same MPs.

The full story is behind The Times paywall, but Sky News has some details:

Staff at Tory headquarters accused some MPs of focusing too much on ministerial business and said some were refusing to knock on doors or were away on holiday.

And there's more:

Some of the concerns detailed by the Times include a reference to the Plymouth Moor View MP Johnny Mercer, where an issue with "MP cooperation" was noted.

Sarah Atherton, the MP for Wrexham, was accused of "refusing to engage" with a note saying she "wants to cancel this week's campaigning sessions".

Just another day of smooth professionalism from the Conservative election machine.

There will be a full Lib Dem Conference in September after all

Good news for lovers of the Liberal Democrat Conference and for party democracy: there will be a full-length event in Brighton this September.

This was to have been the fourth year in five without a proper Lib Dem Conference. When everyone expected an autumn election, and shortly before Rishi Sunak scuppered those expectations, the party's federal board proposed that a greatly curtailed event should be held this year.

Now comes news that the board wants to return to the original plan: a conference at the Brighton Centre between 14 and 17 September. This decision is subject to review by the federal council, but I can't see why it should object.

Let's hope that something doesn't crop up at the last minute - civil war between East and West Sussex, plague in Peacehaven, an outbreak of violence in Brighton led by a teenage Catholic gangster - to spoil things.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Sunak's National Service plan is a panic reaction that will hurt the Tories for years to come

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The Conservatives are trailing Labour in the polls, but it's the voters they are losing to Reform that obsess them. 

This despite the fact that votes they win back from Labour - or from the Lib Dems where we are their main challengers - count double. One on the Tory total and one off the Labour total.

It's this obsession with Reform that explains the sudden Tory conversion to National Service. It's pandering to the prejudices of elderly right-wing voters who have somehow convinced themselves they had to do National Service. They didn't: not unless they're into their eighties.

The National Service plan may bring back some Tory voters from Reform, though there is an anger about those voters that may not be assuaged by mere policy,

But it's absolutely certain that it will enrage new voters - and quite possibly their parents - for years to come.

You may say that few young people vote Conservative now, but at some point the Tories are going to have to return to sanity.

Sure, they will lose this election and their next leader will be a right-wing headbanger, but eventually they will tire of losing and seek a return to sanity.

When they do, they will find a large chunk of the electorate that is not prepared even to listen to them.

The Wonder Stuff: The Size of a Cow

Let's start with the trivia. Miles Hunt, the guitarist and songwriter in The Wonder Stuff is the nephew of Bill Hunt, a horn player who followed Roy Wood through The Move, ELO and Wizzard.

And The Wonder Stuff shared those bands's West Midland heritage, coming out of Stourport at the same time as Pop Will Eat Itself. Members of both bands had already played together in once called From Eden.

The Wonder Stuff album everyone bought was Construction for the Modern Idiot, the last the band released before splitting in 1993 - they were to reform a few years later. But their best-loved single was this, and it comes from the earlier Never Loved Elvis.

Wikipedia quotes praise for The Size of a Cow:

Record Mirror made "The Size of a Cow" its single of the week upon release, with Peter Stanton's review describing the song as "a rampant jingly-jangly-organ affair that trips at a happier than happy pace".

Reviewing Never Loved Elvis in Vox, Keith Cameron described the song and "Caught In My Shadow" as "paragons of pop virtue", noting "huge melodic sweeps, artfully clever lyrics and nagging hummability".

Music & Media linked the song to contemporaneous singles by the Milltown Brothers, R.E.M. and Susanna Hoffs in what they heralded "the return of the classic pop tune".

Writing in 2017, Jon Bryan of Backseat Mafia described "The Size of a Cow" as "the equal, if not better, than almost any other guitar-pop song of the 90s".

Talk of "the return on the classic pop tune" puts you in mind of Britpop, and The Size of a Cow feels like an earthier, beerier essay in that genre. Most important of all, it still sounds good.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

A blue plaque at the Rushden home of H.E. Bates

I didn't have much time to explore Rushden - a Northamptonshire village that mushroomed into a major centre of the boot and shoe trade in the late nineteenth century - so I made straight for an attraction I already knew about.

This plaque is on the Rushden home of the novelist and short-story writer H.E. Bates. He was born in the town and educated at Kettering Grammar School.

Rushden appears in several of his works - notably the novel Love for Lydia - as Evensford, while his Uncle Silas stories are set in the Northamptonshire countryside.

But Bates's best known works, thanks to television adaptions, are the Pop Larkin books, and they are set in rural Kent.

The Joy of Six 1232

Lynton Crosby's divisive approach to politics has wedged the Conservative party into a corner from which they cannot escape, says Adam Bienkov.

Nearly three thousand prisoners are still serving indeterminate IPP - imprisonment for public protection - sentences, which are a relic of New Labour's authoritarianism. Alice Edwards, the UN special rapporteur on torture, explained the need for reform on the eve of an important vote in the Lords. In the event, peers agreed to the government amendments she supported.

Carol Nicholson discusses Richard Rorty's views on patriotism and how they mesh with his wider philosophy: "National pride, he argues, is analogous to self-respect and is as necessary for self-improvement. Both self-respect and patriotism are virtues found in an Aristotelian Golden Mean between the vices of excess and deficiency. Just as too much self-respect results in arrogance, and too little can lead to moral cowardice, an excess of patriotism can produce imperialism and bellicosity, and a lack of patriotism prohibits imaginative and effective political debate and deliberation about national policy."

Helen Day is interviewed about Ladybird Books: "The rarest book of all is thought to be an edition of How it Works: The Computer which was commissioned by the Ministry of Defence in the 1970s.  This book is believed to be the standard 1971 Ladybird book by this name, but with plain covers, intended to spare the blushes of the staff who might feel uncomfortable being seen reading a children’s book. But it is unlikely that one of these books will ever come to light as they were all believed to have been decommissioned and destroyed after a few years."

“I can't imagine Rock Guitar without Pete Townshend ... My playing owes so much to him. I'm not talking about the blues-influenced playing which also underpinned the evolution of 70s and 80s rock music - Townshend brought to the scene a blistering clang of super-amplified but not over-saturated chords - razor-edged monoliths crashing angrily through our brains, biting rhythmic hammer blows which would change the likes of me forever." Brian May on rock's debt to the Who guitarist.

Tim Rolls remembers the night Chelsea won their first European trophy - the Cup Winners' Cup in 1971: "[Hugh ]McIlvanney closed his article with a pithy observation. 'Chelsea reminded us in Athens that the highest rewards can still be won by flair and grace and boldness.' Indeed. Of the fourteen players who played a part in one or both games, seven (Bonetti, Boyle, Harris, Hollins, Hudson, Osgood and Houseman) had all come through the club’s junior system, a wonderful achievement."

Friday, May 24, 2024

The two lost canal tunnels of Blisworth

Inspired by the research of Tony Marsh, Paul and Rebecca Whitewick travel to Northamptonshire and the Grand Union Canal to look for signs of two tunnel alignments at Blisworth that were begun and abandoned before the one we know today was completed.

They also find some remains of the railway that was used to ship goods over the hill before the tunnel opened.

There's more from Paul and Rebecca Whitewick about their railway and canal explorations on their website.

Tory election campaign hits an iceberg in Belfast's Titanic Quarter

Rishi Sunak's shambolic election campaign rolled into Belfast today and James McCarthy of Belfast Live was not impressed:

Having been informed by the Conservative Party that the visit would be taking place at a fourth-floor office block in the Titanic Quarter, reporters arrived to find no PM and no press conference.

After a flurry of frantic phone calls we were directed to a car park half a mile away from where we had been originally sent to and once again, there was no sign of the Prime Minister or his officials.

Several more phone calls and a WhatsApp location pin later, we were met by the Secretary of State's SPAD who walked us through an industrial complex to the waterfront. There, to our surprise, the Prime Minister was having the time of his life, zipping up and down the water on an electric speedboat, under the watchful eyes of the national media.

Having found the correct location, you would have been forgiven for thinking that all would go to plan from here on in, but in true Thick Of It style, it was like a clown running through a minefield.

While the national media captured the Prime Minister's aquatic adventure, local reporters were prevented from filming the Prime Minister disembarking the boat and eventually frogmarched to the other side of the road by the Conservative Party's press team to a location where we could merely watch on through a fence.

But McCarthy got his revenge when he was finally allowed to meet Sunak:

When I asked the Prime Minster if given that we were in the Titanic Quarter, if he was captaining a sinking ship, it may have elicited a smirk from the Secretary of State, but in reality, the Prime Minister's answers were full of the usual bluff and bluster.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

IN COLOUR: Wilson, Keppel and Betty at Dudley Hippodrome

"If anyone asked me why I continue to fight," said Lord Bonkers, "I should show them this."

"This" is a video of the beloved novelty dance act Wilson, Keppel and Betty rehearsing at Dudley Hippodrome in 1949.

Dudley Hippodrome was demolished last year after a long campaign to save it. The last star to perform their before it became a bingo club in 1974 was Roy Orbison. It must have looked great at night when those tall windows were still glazed.

And you can read about Wilson, Keppel and their various Bettys in an article by Luke McKernan. Here they are as we know them best.

Sunak takes questions from two "members of the public" who turn out to be Conservative councillors

Rishi Sunak is very bad at politics. So bad, it seems, that his handlers are afraid to let him meet any voters.

Here's Adam Bienkov for Byline Times:

Rishi Sunak has been accused of faking support for the Conservative party, after taking two questions from supposedly ordinary members of the public, who turned out to have been Conservative Councillors.

Broadcasters on Thursday morning carried footage of an individual wearing a hi-vis jacket, asking the Prime Minister a question about his Rwanda scheme, during an event at a warehouse in Derbyshire. 

The man told Sunak that “the biggest issue is going to be immigration over this election campaign” before asking him whether “your Rwanda plan is going to see results and stop the small boats coming.”

The Prime Minister thanked the man for his “important question.”

However, neither Sunak, nor broadcasters informed viewers that the man asking the question was actually Conservative Leicestershire County Councillor Ross Hills. 

Ross Hills represents the Mallory ward on the county council.  As Bienkov says, he is a dentist, but he wasn't anxious to talk when asked what he was doing at a biscuit warehouse.

Byline Times later identified a second hi-vis jacket-wearing man asking Sunak a question at the event as the Erewash Conservative councillor Ben Hall-Evans.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The King George V Bridge over the Trent at Keadby

I remember Scunthorpe. Coming from Doncaster by train, you crossed endless flat Lincolnshire fields until you rattled over the wide Trent at Keadby. Then. all of a sudden, you were in a large industrial town of steelworks and railway sidings.

Scunthorpe probably isn't what it was in those distant days, but the bridge still carries both road and rail traffic. And as this silent British Pathé video from 1933 shows, it used to be even more remarkable.

The National Transport Trust tells its story:

The King George V bridge was opened by King George V, the chairman of the Great Central Railway company and Lindsey County Council on 21 May 1916.

This Scherzer rolling lift bridge carrying both road and rail traffic across the River Trent was built between 1912 and 1916 by the Great Central Railway to replace a previous swing bridge built by the South Yorkshire Railway in 1861-64. It carries a double track rail line on the southern side, and the twin carriageway A18 road on the north side.

Its 163ft electricity powered bascule (lifting span) was one of the first of its type in Britain and when built, was the largest in Europe. Designed by James Ball and C A Rowlandson and built by contractors Sir William Arrol & Co. it has three main spans and two approach spans. The western main span was the one that lifted. The Scherzer bascule rolled and rotated on counterbalance. It was electrically powered, originally by a large storage battery fed by petrol-driven generators housed in the engine room beneath the east approach span. This was later modified to mains electricity.

The bridge has not been lifted since 1956. It was widened and the headroom increased in 1960 and the bascule was fixed in position.

Tories bundle Sky News journalist out of PM's campaign launch

What with Sunak's announcement in the rain and this, the Tories have played a blinder today.

The Joy of Six 1231

"I was 20 the first time I was prescribed antidepressants. I had gone to the doctors during January in rainy, miserable Manchester complaining of flu. Somehow, I came out of the appointment having been diagnosed with depression and prescribed a course of SSRIs. But in fact I didn’t have a mood disorder, and I didn’t need to go on medication." Lucy Kenningham on why almost one in four adults are being prescribed antidepressants.

Simon Nixon asks how long it will be before Britons wake up to the national disaster that is unfolding in the stock market. "Around the world, stock market indices are being drive to new highs by what the Financial Times recently described as a global investor “risk reset” reflecting growing confidence in the global recovery. ... The exception is Britain, where the FTSE 100 is up just 2.4 per cent."

"Britain is home to hundreds of apple varieties, at least 30 in Sussex alone. Yet even in peak apple season, you are more likely to find apples imported from Europe, New Zealand and South Africa in your local supermarket." Ali Ghanimi looks for ways be can do better.

Oliver Keens says technological change means children are losing their independent access to music.

Adam Scovell watches Hidden City, Stephen Poliakoff's directorial debut: "As a thriller shot through with an interest in the forgotten parts of the capital, in many ways Hidden City taps into the unfolding trends of the period for psychogeography – the wandering fascination with urban environments first defined by Guy Debord."

"Only once, on the eve of the Old Trafford Ashes Test in 1977, did Brearley successfully twist Underwood’s arm by showing him hand-drawn diagrams of field placings that the England skipper insisted would be in play should he consider changing his angle of attack. By game time, after some convincing, Deadly was on board. He took 6-66, the old devil." Phil Walker pays his tribute to Derek Underwood.

Labour is reinforcing the Lib Dem claim that they "can't win here!"

From LabourList today

Labour has approximately 100 general election candidates left to publicly announce ... despite the party twice accelerating its selection process.

The fact around one in six Constituency Labour Parties has no candidate, dozens more have only been recently announced and some CLPs have felt left in the dark have all sparked controversy.

Many members have voiced their frustration, given the lack of a focal point for campaigning and attacks by the Lib Dems in what Labour has called its “non-battleground” seats.

Given that convincing voters that "Labour Can't Win Here" is central to our campaign in target seats, this does seem a remarkably generous approach by Labour, whatever their reason for taking it.

And, thinking of today's speculation, they will be poorly placed if a snap election is called.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Podcast: Big cats on the loose in Britain

Rick Minter, with his customary calm reasonableness, takes us through the evidence that there are big cats living wild in the British countryside.

Minter runs the Big Cat Conversations podcast, which I recommend to those with an interest in this rabbit hole, but here he's appearing on The Bearded Tit's Podcast.

You may scoff, but remember this Liberal England post from a few days ago.

Stiperstones post office to close this month

BBC News reports:

Four outreach post offices in south Shropshire are set to close this month.

Marton, Longden, Stiperstones and Wentnor only open for a few hours each week.

But the Post Office has said the services will cease due to "very low customer usage".

The report quotes the Lib Dem councillor Heather Kidd, whose ward includes Marton:

"The pub's gone, the village shop's gone, there's nowhere else to gather.

"It's a focal point for everyone to come together and have a coffee and touch base once a week." 

It's does make you wonder how the rural poor and elderly manage to live these days.

For a Malcolm Saville reader, it's tempting to identify Stiperstones post office with Jenny Harman's home in the Lone Pine Club stories, Barton Beach post office.

But I remember Saville's younger son, the Revd Jeremy Saville, telling a meeting of the Malcolm Saville Society that he did not think his father had visited the Stiperstones when he wrote the first book he set there (Seven White Gates, 1944). The book's eerie atmosphere owed a lot to his reading of Mary Webb.

In any case, I suspect Stiperstones was less a village in those days than a scattered hillside township of former miners' smallholdings.

Let's end with a picture of me at Stiperstones post office 30 years ago almost to the day.

Monday, May 20, 2024

"Russophobia": When PM Boris Johnson used a favourite Putin propaganda trope

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Putin’s regime does not tolerate dissent. It has responded by increasingly repressive measures to prevent criticism (or even reporting the truth about the war) in the media or on the streets.

Unable to use draconian Russian laws to muzzle critics abroad they have a different approach.

Kremlin spin doctors resurrected the word ‘russophobia’ to create a myth that anyone criticising Putin’s actions must be prejudiced against Russia and Russians.  It is used to denigrate anyone who points out violations of international agreements, criticises violations of human rights and freedoms or, condemns the brutal assault on Ukraine.

When the Kremlin has no better argument to use it shouts ‘russophobia’ like a term of playground abuse.

That was Sian MacLeod, Britain's ambassador to Serbia, writing on the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development website a couple of years ago.

When I read her article The Myth of Russophobia the other day, I was struck by it. Not because I had seen the world 'russophobia' in many suspicious tweets, but because I had heard it used by a British prime minister.

It was Boris Johnson speaking in the House of Commons the month before MacLeod wrote her article.

Adam Bienkov takes up the tale:

Boris Johnson on Tuesday announced limited sanctions against Russian banks and individuals, saying that he was determined to “clamp down on Russian money in the UK”.

However, when repeatedly pushed in the House of Commons to extend this new “clampdown” to donors to the Conservative Party, Johnson refused.

Asked why his party had accepted hundreds of thousands of pounds from the wife of one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s former ministers, Johnson insisted that all donors to the party were born in the UK. He then suggested that those attempting to raise the issue were guilty of “Russophobia”.

“What I don’t think we should see… listening to some of the contributions this morning, we should not allow our indignation, our rage at what is happening in Ukraine to spill over into casual Russophobia, Mr Speaker”, the Prime Minister said.

I wonder who briefed him before this debate? It doesn't sound like it was the Foreign Office.

Bradgate Park named as a new National Nature Reserve

Good news from the Leicester Mercury:

Leicestershire’s Bradgate Park, which inspired a young Sir David Attenborough and his love of all things nature, has been named a new National Nature Reserve. The beloved beauty spot, near Newtown Linford, was granted the coveted status as part of ongoing celebrations to mark King Charles III’s coronation.

The site, which spans 439 hectares, is home to rare fossils of early marine life forms from the Precambrian Period more than half a billion years ago. The fossils, known as the Ediacaran biota, can only be found in Bradgate Park. Their discovery helped revolutionise people’s understanding of how life evolved on Earth.

Alongside its rich history spanning the ages, Bradgate Park is also known for its wildlife, including deer. important grassland habitats and some of the only remaining heath in the area. The park also includes the remains of the childhood home of Lady Jane Grey.

Bradgate Park’s new National Nature Reserve status also extends to the nearby Swithland Wood reserve, which includes the former Swithland Slate quarries. The site is home to the rare ‘Charnwood spider’ as well as other important wildlife including Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers.

Bradgate Park belonged to the Grey family until the 19th century. In 1928 it was bought by bought by a local businessman and Charles Bennion who gave it "in perpetuity to the people of Leicestershire". It is now administered by a charitable trust, whose trustees are nominated by Leicestershire County Council, Leicester City Council and the National Trust.

Just as Market Harborough people's first instinct on a sunny Saturday is to head for Foxton Locks, so in Leicester they go to Bradgate Park.

The Stiperstones, incidentally, were proposed as another of these new national reserves earlier this year.

The real reason for the Tories assault on universities? Educated people are less likely to vote for them

They dress it up in concerns about immigration and academic quality, but I suspect there's a more fundamental reason for the Conservatives' current war on the universities.

You can find it in a research paper published by the Social Market Foundation:

The education divide has played a decisive role in recent votes in the UK. Education is one of the strongest predictors of Brexit preferences, with school leavers and graduates overwhelmingly backing Leave and Remain respectively. The Conservatives’ increased vote share in 2017 and 2019 was also driven by a near doubling of support among school leavers between 2015 and 2019.
This is a new development - before 2016, school leavers were more likely to vote Labour in every election since 1979, while graduates have tended to vote Conservative.

Education is the strongest predictor of voters’ social values - graduates tend to hold more liberal values while school leavers tend to have more authoritarian views. It also predicts social identities, as graduates are more likely to identify as middle class and European, whereas school leavers tend to identify as working class and with local and national identities.

That's right: people who study at university are less likely to vote Conservative.

If this seems too simplistic - almost a conspiracy theory - then look at this 2016 Independent article where Nick Clegg talks about the politics of the Coalition cabinet:
The Conservatives refused to build more social housing because they worried it would create more Labour voters, Nick Clegg has said. 
Speaking ahead of the release of his new book, Politics Between the Extremes, the former Deputy Prime Minister said top figures on David Cameron’s team viewed housing as a “petri dish”. 
“It would have been in a Quad meeting, so either Cameron or Osborne. One of them – I honestly can’t remember whom – looked genuinely nonplussed and said, ‘I don’t understand why you keep going on about the need for more social housing – it just creates Labour voters.’ They genuinely saw housing as a petri dish for voters. It was unbelievable,” he said.
If party advantage dictated Tory housing policy, then it can dictate their education policy too. And the Social Market Foundation paper forecast that, if current trends continue, graduates will outnumber school leavers by 2031.

That paper, incidentally, may also give a rationale for current Liberal Democrat strategy:
Steeply rising graduate vote shares in ‘blue wall’ seats in the London commuter belt present new opportunities for the Liberal Democrats to build a geographically and demographically coherent heartland.
The blue wall is a flexible concept indeed if it can encompass London suburbs, but I'd rather bet on education than ignorance.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Hear Josh Babarinde and Roz Savage talk about becoming a parliamentary candidate on The Rundown podcast

The latest edition of The Rundown podcast from Politics Home looks at candidate selection and features two Liberal Democrats.

They are Josh Babarinde, who will fight Eastbourne for us at the next election, and Roz Savage, who will fight South Cotswolds.

Also taking part are a Conservative candidate and the veteran political journalist Michael Crick, who keeps a close eye on the subject.

The Joy of Six 1230

"These British-induced uprootings - the emigration from India, the three million African slaves transported on British ships across the Atlantic, the millions who left Ireland after the 1840s Famine - permanently changed the world’s human geography. The empire changed global ecology too." Neal Ascherson reviews Empireworld: How British Imperialism Has Shaped the Globe by Sathnam Sanghera.

Laleh Ispahani and Jennifer Weiss-Wolf argue that: "Reproductive rights do not exist in a vacuum. Bodily autonomy is inextricably linked to the integrity and durability of the body politic - with threats to one reinforcing threats to the other."

"Next Monday [that's tomorrow] the Infected Blood Inquiry will release its report on the failures that led to more than 30,000 people being infected with deadly viruses, between 1970 and 1991, due to contaminated blood products. Attention will focus on how much NHS leaders and government officials knew about the risks being taken, as well as attempts to prevent families raising awareness of the issue." Sam Freedman tries to identify the injustices ITV will be making dramas about in 2030.

Frances Coppola looks into the shadowy offshore conglomerate that owns LBC.

Rob Baker on 1956, they year of the Suez Crisis, The Entertainer and the Angry Young Men.

"The English rapper and producer had heard a Reading Festival audience shouting his lyrics from his newly released debut album for the very first time. Where others might feel vindicated, Skinner was spooked. It was a warning to take his craft seriously." Fergal Kinney revisits The Streets’ A Grand Don’t Come For Free.

Frumious Bandersnatch: Hearts To Cry

OK so I chose this mostly for the band's name, but the song is enjoyable and, like the name, very late-Sixties California.

And Frumious Bandersnatch did have an interesting afterlife. After they split in 1969, having recorded just one EP, four members joined the Steve Miller Band. Later, in 1973, one of the four and the band's manager became founder members of Journey.

So they were far from shunned.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Major Healey and Captain Jenkins at the 1945 Labour Conference

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Major Denis Healey and Captain Roy Jenkins photographed on the seafront with fellow delegates during the Labour Party conference in Blackpool, May 1945. This photo was published in the 9 June 1945 issue of Picture Post.

A little on the wartime careers on their wartime careers from Wikipedia.

Denis Healey

After graduation, Healey served in the Second World War as a gunner in the Royal Artillery before being commissioned as a second lieutenant in April 1941. Serving with the Royal Engineers, he saw action in the North African campaign, the Allied invasion of Sicily (1943) and the Italian campaign (1943–1945) and was the military landing officer ("beach master") for the British assault brigade at Anzio in 1944. He was twice mentioned in dispatches during this campaign.

Healey became an MBE in 1945. He left the service with the rank of Major. He declined an offer to remain in the army, with the rank of Lieutenant colonel, as part of the team researching the history of the Italian campaign under Colonel David Hunt. He also decided against taking up a senior scholarship at Balliol, which might have led to an academic career.

Roy Jenkins

During the Second World War, Jenkins received his officer training at Alton Towers and was posted to the 55th West Somerset Yeomanry at West Lavington, Wiltshire. Through the influence of his father, in April 1944, Jenkins was sent to Bletchley Park to work as a codebreaker; while there he befriended the historian Asa Briggs.

Friday, May 17, 2024

Top Post Office lawyer refuses to appear before Horizon IT Inquiry

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One of the key legal figures in the later years of the Post Office scandal is refusing to appear at the public inquiry into it, reports Law Gazette.

Jane MacLeod, who was the organisation's chief in-house lawyer between 2015 and 2019, was due to appear as a witness next month to explain her role in the civil litigation that fully exposed the scandal.

But today the counsel to the inquiry, Jason Beer KC, told another witness before the inquiry: "We are not going to hear from her. She lives abroad and won’t co-operate."

The Law Gazette report tells us:

MacLeod was head of the Post Office legal team during the Bates v Post Office litigation and is believed to have advised chairman Tim Parker not to share the review authored by Treasury lawyer Jonathan Swift KC. This review had found ‘real issues’ for the Post Office.

MacLeod told the BBC earlier this year that she could not comment on papers showing the Post Office knew its defence in the Bates litigation was untrue. She said at the time that she supported the ongoing public inquiry and was assisting it. She added that while the inquiry was ongoing ‘I do not think it is appropriate to comment at this time’.

If you had asked MacLeod to justify her large salary while at the Post Office, she would have talked about the responsibility her job involved. But when she is actually asked to bear some responsibility, we don't see her cowardly arse for dust.

And this has been true of many senior Post Office executives who have appeared before the inquiry. "I don't recall" and "I don't remember" are the phrases that have been most often heard. One lawyer claimed not to know the standard of proof required in criminal cases,

Really it has been the modern business corporation, with its absurd difference in pay and status between those at the top and the rest of its employees and its secrecy, that has been in the dock at the inquiry. Why does it allow such awful people to prosper?

This is something to remember when Paul Vennells appears before the inquiry from Wednesday to Friday of next week. Sure, I'll be laying stocks of popcorn and rotten vegetables, but the issues at stake there go deeper than a few individuals, however unpleasant they are.

DNA from big cat found on sheep's carcass in Cumbria

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Well now.

BBC Countryfile reports:

An undisclosed Cumbrian hill farm is the location for the first ever positive identification of big cat DNA taken from a carcass.

In October last year, Cumbrian resident Sharon Larkin-Snowden came across the carcass and disturbed the animal that had been feeding on it.

Larkin-Snowden told big cat expert Rick Minter’s Big Cat Conversations podcast that the carcass was clearly still fresh and that only some of the internal organs had been consumed.

“To my right, I saw something black running, and assumed it was a sheepdog,” she said. “Then I did a double take and realised it was a black cat. It ran towards a stone wall, stopped and then jumped the wall. It was big – the size of a German shepherd dog.”

Larkin-Snowden took swabs from the sheep’s nose and back and front legs, and they were sent to a laboratory at the University of Warwick which specialises in testing for big cat DNA run by Prof Robin Allaby.

Allaby told BBC Countryfile Magazine they were able to make a positive identification of DNA belonging to a cat from the Panthera genus. This includes five species – lion, leopard, tiger, jaguar and snow leopard, but only two – leopard and jaguar – that have melanistic (black) forms as seen by Larkin-Snowden. 

You can hear Sharon Larkin-Snowden interviewed in the latest edition of Rick Minter's Big Cat Conversations podcast.

This is not the first time big cat DNA has been found in the English countryside. As the Countryfile report says, in 2022 black hair found snagged on a barbed-wire fence after a sheep attack on a Gloucestershire farm was identified as belonging to a big cat. The BBC's Discover Wildlife site says it was found to be a 99.9 per cent match to the leopard Panthera Pardus.

The picture that Big Cat Conversations has painted over the years is that farmers know the big cats are out there but they don't make a fuss about it. 

This is because the cats generally take deer, the sort of species they evolved to predate, which can be a nuisance to farmers if there are too many of them. It's also because farmers don't want nutters turning up to shoot the cats or officialdom snooping round their farms.

If too much firm evidence like this Cumbrian DNA is discovered, this happy picture could be put at risk.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Lydd on Sea and Dungeness station - with a note on the origins of the Jack Straw Memorial Reform School

Atmospheric photographs and atmospheric music. The blurb on YouTube explains what we are looking at:

Although the trackbed from Romney Junction towards New Romney is easily traceable, nothing remains of Lydd-on-Sea Halt today except for a gated concrete approach road from Kerton Road. 

Promoted  by holiday camp development in the area, the Southern Railway decided in 1937 to realign its branch line to New Romney (which had been opened in 1884) closer to the sea and to open two intermediate stations - Lydd-on-Sea and Greatstone-on-Sea. 

The opening of Lydd-on-Sea on 4 July 1937 coincided with the closure of Dungeness station to passengers; it was intended that Lydd-on-Sea, ½-mile from Dungeness, would serve both locations and its running in board read "Lydd-on-Sea (for Dungeness)".

To handle the expected flow of holiday traffic, the station was equipped with a long curved island platform with a passing loop on which was perched a small wooden shed. The traffic never materialised and the station was downgraded to an unstaffed halt on 20 September 1954 when its passing loop was also lifted. 

As passenger traffic dwindled and freight became insignificant, the New Romney branch fell into decline and was listed for closure in the Beeching Report. In 1966 the Minister of Transport Barbara Castle announced her intention of closing the Appledore to New Romney Branch and passenger services ceased on 6 March 1967.

Trains still run from Appledore to Dungeness to collect nuclear waster for reprocessing at Sellafield. There's more about that and the history of the line on Kent Rail, and Derek Hayward has photographs of the old Dungeness station and its site today.

Dungeness still has a station on the narrow-gauge Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, and Jon and David get off a train there in The Elusive Grasshopper, the sixth of Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine stories:

When they got out at the station the wind was so strong that for a moment they held on to each other. It howled and roared over the flat wastes and round the lighthouse towering above them. It whipped the smoke and steam from the engine's little smoke-stack into nothing and flattened the sea poppies growing in the shingle at the side of the track, and as they stumbled up the old full-gauge railway lines towards the school it whistled and sang strange songs among the telegraph wires.

It was not very pleasant exploring the school because the wind played odd tricks in those empty rooms and corridors and the house was full of mysterious groans and whisperings and thuds. But there was nobody there and no sign that anybody had been there since they had found Wilson stunned on the floor. Jon showed David the loose floorboard with a sketch of the grasshopper and they even searched for cigarette ends or pipe ash, without success.

I assume there really was a ruined school beside the old standard-gauge branch at Dungeness when Saville knew it. And it's also the inspiration for the Jack Straw Memorial Reform School, Dungeness, which Lord Bonkers mentions from time to time.

No, Nimbys can't stop all housing development with just a petition

Listeners to the latest Private Eye podcast risk coming away from it believing it's possible to stop new houses being built on a local open space simply by getting up a petition.

I suppose it's London's domination of political media that leads to such odd beliefs being held by intelligent people,

The left is convinced that Nimbys stop all development. The right believes it's the planning laws that have that effect. Both are mistaken.

Come away from the capital to Middle England and you will find small towns surrounded by successive rings of new development and local council that are wary of turning down planning applications because of the costs they will pay if the developers win an appeal.

But holding simplistic beliefs means you needn't get to grips with deeper, harder questions. One example: is the security that people need when it comes to their home compatible with private landlordism?

And there are more such questions to be answered if you want to go in for a new building spree.

First, where will the skilled labour come from? The British building industry has long been complaining about shortages.

Second, how will you force developers to bring houses on to the market at a rate that reduces prices and thus their profits? Oliver Letwin is good on this.

These questions do sound difficult, so let's just mock Nimbys instead.

The Joy of Six 1229

"Over the past decade the Conservative Party has taken millions of pounds from individuals and businesses with ties to Russia. Just this week it was revealed that JCB, which is owned by a major Conservative donor, continued to send equipment to Russia for months after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, despite publicly saying that they wouldn’t. This is not a one off. Over the past decade, Russia-linked donors have repeatedly been given access to senior Conservative ministers after donating to the party. This culminated in the absurd spectacle of former Prime Ministers David Cameron and Boris Johnson." Adam Bienkov reminds us how the Tories emboldened Vladimir Putin.

Giorgia Tolfo on Chiswick Women's Aid, who opened the world’s first safe house for women and children in 1971: "In the first month of opening the centre, a woman suffering violence at home arrived asking for shelter. Erin Pizzey, CWA's coordinator and spokesperson, didn't think twice. She quickly made arrangements to host the woman at the centre until her situation improved. Word spread and soon more women arrived seeking shelter."

Amid rising rents and closing businesses and venues, locals in South London are increasingly forming cooperatives to take charge of spaces and reinvigorate their communities, reports Kemi Alemoru.

"He discovered ... the fine perspectivist and occasional architect Raymond Myerscough Walker living in a vagabond caravan in a wood near Chichester, his archive stored in his car, a near sunken Rover. Such persons are much more than also-rans. They are the substance of a parallel history of Stamp’s creation that abjures inflated reputations, vapid self-promoters and the slimy gibberish of PRs and journalists who pump them up to this day." Jonathan Meades reviews Interwar: British Architecture 1919-39 by Gavin Stamp.

John Boughton has been to Thamesmead, where tenants are trying to fight off unwanted redevelopment.

Jonathan Denby discusses the importance of gardening to Victorian politicians: "Their involvement in gardening went much further than being responsible for a large estate. At Hawarden, it was a fixture of Gladstone’s calendar to host the annual horticultural society show in his garden, giving an address on horticulture, which was later published as a pamphlet."

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Tony Greig: England's greatest allrounder of my lifetime?

Who's been England's greatest allrounder in the years I have been following test cricket?

They say a true allrounder has a batting average higher than his bowling average. So here are the four obvious candidates ranked with that in mind. The second column is batting average, the third is bowling average and the fourth is the former minus the latter.

Tony Greig           40.43    32.20   +8.23

Ian Botham          33.54    28.40   +5.14

Ben Stokes          35.48    31.99   +3.49

Andrew Flintoff     31.77    32.78   -1.01

I'm not that surprised by this outcome, because we seem to have forgotten just how good Greig was. As the video above shows, he was afraid of no one and could take the attack to the very best bowlers, yet he also once spent seven hours in India scoring a century that set up a test win.

Greig could swing the ball and, though his pace wasn't express, his height meant he could get awkward bounce. He could also bowl off spin, once taking 13 wickets to win a test and draw a series in the West Indies.

He was a fine fielder anywhere and formed part of what I think is the best England slip cordon I've seen - Brearley, Greig, Hendrick - in the 1977 Ashes series.

And he was an inspirational captain - I've heard Mike Brearley say that he made you want to play well for him.

I saw the first day of England last game before Greig took over the captaincy from Mike Denness. This was the Edgbaston test of 1975, which was Graham Gooch's first. My memory is that Gooch spent all day at long leg and no one spoke to him.

Contrast that with the video of Phil Edmonds's debut later in the same series that I posted recently. Encouraging and celebrating, Greig is everywhere.

England's greatest allrounder of my lifetime? Quite possibly.

How the Lib Dems will stand in the Commons after the election is not in our hands

It would mean a lot to the Liberal Democrats to be the third party in the Commons. again. Our leader would get two questions at every PMQs: our spokespeople would get called more and earlier in debates. And all that would mean more media coverage and more clips on social media.

But there's no likely Lib Dem performance at the next election which would leave the reclaiming of this status entirely in our hands.

Have a look at this opinion poll and the resultant forecast of how many seats each party will win by Stats for Lefties.

I enjoy these forecasts of a Tory wipe out, but I don't take them too seriously. Besides, what interests me here are the Lib Dem and SNP totals.

A total of 38 Lib Dem MPs feels like a realistic idea of what a good election will look like for the Lib Dems. But note that we would only be the third party in the Commons because Labour had taken seats of the SNP in Scotland.

So just how things will stand for us at Westminster after the election is, to a significant degree, our of our comtrol.

Right-wing Tories want to see fewer British students too

Conservatives who want to see fewer foreign students won't be put off by telling them this could put some universities out of business, because they want to see fewer British students too.

Robert Jenrick has been making the running on the Tory right's agitation against foreign students, and his new sidekick is my own MP, Neil O'Brien.

So let's turn to an article O'Brien wrote for Conservative Home in 2020:
The most recent Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis found that, viewed from the point of view of the student, their degree isn’t worth it for around 10 per cent of women, and a quarter of men. This is extraordinary, given they are receiving big taxpayer subsidies. 
Viewed from the point of view of the taxpayer, the taxpayer makes “a loss on the degrees of around 40 per cent of men and half of women.” Summing together the effect for society as a whole (the gains to students and taxpayers) “total returns will be negative for around 30 per cent of both men and women.”  In other words, nearly a third of students degrees are not worth it economically. 
The variation by degree and institution is even more dramatic. The taxpayer makes huge losses subsidising creative arts courses – only four and a half percent represent a positive investment. 
Only 30 per cent of English students earn enough to justify taxpayers’ investment. The taxpayer makes a loss on the majority of students in sociology, psychology, communications, and languages. Many would be better off doing something else.
And there's more:
For a country like Britain, deep in debt, lofty thoughts are not enough to justify such huge numbers of students doing things that don’t help them economically, given that’s what many themselves want. 
O'Brien goes on to call for more money for technical education. Tories have been doing this for as long as I can remember - it's an excellent idea for other people's children.

So bear this in mind when you hear right-wing Tories shrugging off the threat their ideas pose to British universities: it's an added attraction for them.