Month: August 2007

Currently listening to…

I haven’t posted for a while about the songs I am listening to a the moment, but here’s a quick run down of the main ones as I’ve been listening to music a lot recently:

Overkill by Kosheen: this is their new single that came out on Monday, although I have been listening to it on YouTube for the last couple of weeks. A brilliant track and more in the style of Resist than Kokopelli. I now can’t wait for their new album Damage and their gig at Plug in Sheffield, which I have already booked my ticket for. I love Kosheen because they really stand out as dance tracks with a good strong tune, but are also fairly simple songs. In fact, I recently found the following quote from Sian Evans of Kosheen where she actually says something that is very similar in sentiment:

“I love songs!” Sian states simply. “Songs that start, have a middle, and end. People were expecting little loops and quirky vocals and they got full songs. You can put too much in a track. You can have a busy vocal, or you can have a busy track, but if you put two together it’s just noise to me.”

This Is The Life by Amy MacDonald: I’m still obsessed with this album and have been listening to it almost continually. A brilliant singer with some interesting and catchy tunes.

Suburban Knights by Hard-Fi: another new single from a band that I already like. With their last album I kept buying song after song as each new single came out. In the end I wished I’d bought their whole album in the first place – indy but with a Streets style message. I hope their new album also turns out to be as good as their last.

The Freest Man by Tilly and the Wall: which I heard on Mark Radcliffe’s show from last week and downloaded instantly. Quite a light song but with another catchy little tune.

Sleepy Maggie by Ashley MacIsaac: which is completely random and like nothing else on this list. I heard this track by accident and loved the mix of traditional fiddle playing, the beautiful voice of Mary Jane Lamond singing in Gaelic and the modern beat in the background. A sort of odd mix of The Corrs, Vanessa-Mae and your traditional Gaelic folk band. Yes I know, I do sometimes have a weird taste in music.

Is more bank holidays what we need?

There was a good article in yesterday’s Independent by Mary Dejevsky about bank holidays.  She points out how the campaign for an extra bank holiday seems completely at odds with with the idea of flexible working and the 24-hour economy.

I happen to think she is right, but like her it isn’t because I don’t want an extra day’s holiday.  Britain does have far fewer public holidays than other countries, and after Monday we now have a very long wait for the next one – Christmas.  But as Mary Dejevsky advocates, would it not be better to scrap bank holidays and instead give everyone a legal right (which apparently does not exist for Bank Holidays at the moment anyway) for an extra eight days holiday every year.  This would mean that you still get the same amount of time off work, but you could take it when you want it and not when your employer does.

The thing is though, this is not that innovative for some companies.  When I worked for Midland Mainline, everyone’s bank holiday was added on to their annual leave total and so you cold take it when you liked.  This allowed the Sikhs who worked in my department to take their own religious holidays without losing annual leave.  It allowed head office staff to come in on a bank holiday when it was quieter and the phones didn’t ring continually and so you got more work done than on a normal working day.  It also allowed you to take time off when everyone else was working, rather than every person in the country trying to make a mad dash to the seaside at the same time.  If it was the case for everyone, it would also mean that you wouldn’t have those annoying days when you have a free day, but nothing that you would want to do is open because they are all on holiday too.

I suppose the downside is that you would probably lose the extra pay that you currently get if you have to work a bank holiday, but then not every company offers than anyway.  Plus of course, many companies will still limit when you can take your holidays.  But it seems to me that it would still offer far more benefits than negatives.

THE INDEPENDENT: Bank holidays: let’s get rid of this 19th century notion

What the Welsh Lib Dems are for

A lengthy response to Peter Black’s “This is what the Welsh Liberal Democrats are for” pamphlet that has been posted on his own website and Liberal Democrat Voice.

Shortly after May’s Welsh Assembly Elections I started writing an essay on how the party had done, where it was going wrong and what needed to change. After some time trying to find the right words though, I gave up as I increasingly had a sense that after being out of the country for four years I was probably somewhat out of touch with what was going on there. However, after reading today’s interesting pamphlet by Peter Black, I realised that some of my instincts were correct and many of the problems that the Welsh Liberal Democrats had back in 2003 were still just as valid, if not more so, in 2007.

One of the marked changes in the last four years has been the general improvement in campaigning across Wales. But when I say, “across Wales” what I mean is that there are pockets of success in more places now than previously. It is this improvement in campaigning ability that has seen our success in places such as Cardiff, Swansea, Newport, Wrexham, and was the key change in Ceredigion that saw us win the seat back from Plaid at the last General Election. But the situation is far from universal. Indeed one of my favourite quotes on campaigning comes from my time working in Wales in the 2003 Assembly Elections. This is the time when in a discussion on how the candidate could raise his profile someone said “He could always wear a hat…or a brooch”. I accept that this cluelessness about campaigning is also often the case in other parts of the UK, but there does appear to be a stronger campaigning base in more of England than in Wales.

But this lack of focus on real campaigning is not only found in constituencies, but also prevalent in the Assembly as well. When Peter Black says that “we have spent too long mistaking our activity in the hallowed corridors of the Assembly for campaigning” he is spot on. During my time in Wales, I always felt that policy and research was held in far higher esteem than actual grassroots campaigning, and that was highlighted by the ratio of campaign staff to policy staff within the party. When your rebuttal of the other parties’ manifestos is longer than the manifestos themselves, you know that someone isn’t doing anything useful. But Peter Black’s comment on “a detailed manifesto containing hundreds of radical policies” is far from a uniquely Welsh problem. It can be found with the federal party too. Far from the Liberal Democrats having no polices, as is often said by our opponents, the Liberal Democrats have far too many policies on far too many issues, which then holds us back from having a more punchy and clearly defined, or to use the latest buzzword, narrative.

But the issue that I think will have to be confronted is that many of our members, (I hesitate to use the word activist), do not see the value in campaigning, do not believe it works and when they do go along with it, they find fault with what we stand for. Whereas Plaid is split between a strongly Welsh Nationalist agenda in the North and West of Wales, and a more socialist party in the South, the Welsh Liberal Democrats tend to be split between an old-fashioned establishment party in North, Mid and West Wales, and a more radical liberal party in the South. I still remember a Liberal Democrat councillor, who shall remain nameless, saying that he didn’t want to promote recycling in leaflets or on the council as he didn’t believe in it. Something that goes completely against the party’s general philosophy. I am not saying that Lib Dem councillors disagreeing with parts of party policy is unusual, indeed I am in no doubt that the other parties also have a similar issue. But I found that in some local parties, their whole motivation for getting elected appeared to be to maintain the status quo and to retain their status as part of the local establishment. So instead of being a genuinely radical liberal party that wanted to improve the area in line with our party’s principles, we were instead content to simply be a party that was a coalition of those who opposed change and liked things the way they were. During my time working for the Welsh Liberal Democrats I had to contend with one local party who wanted to work with Plaid to keep out Labour, another that wanted to work with Labour, Plaid and the Tories to keep out the Independent group on the council, another area wanted to work with Independents to keep out Plaid, another that just tried to reach a backroom deal to ensure that their councillors were elected unopposed regardless of who the other parties were, and then another one that promised they would fight hard to elect enough Lib Dems to be able to run the council, but then didn’t even put up candidates in half of the wards. This was all about who the party hated, and maintaining their own position, rather than advancing Liberal Democracy. It is hardly suprising then that our own internal discussions about whether to join a coalition as a part of the Welsh Assembly Government were so shambolic.

Reading Peter Black’s pamphlet however, I felt somewhat more positive about where the Welsh Liberal Democrats should be going. Peter brings out a whole host of issues where the Welsh Liberal Democrats could be saying something distinctive.

One of Peter’s ongoing themes is that of strengthening communities, and that I agree would really strike a chord throughout Wales. The Liberal Democrats have always been a party that believes in working with and as a part of the community, and that is why its campaigning has become so successful. Indeed we sometimes seem to forget that our campaigning is as a result of that belief, rather than simply because it is an effective way of winning elections. Whilst many communities in England have lost their unique identity and now struggle to keep alive many of its traditions and institutions due to the pressure of the market economy or apathy, the traditional image of every Welsh town and village having its own choir, band and rugby team is surprisingly often still true. It always surprises me how many small villages can enter a choir in the various eisteddfodau, when in England you would struggle to get two people even vaguely interested. My reason for mentioning this though is not to indulge in some stereotypical Welsh idyll, but to demonstrate how strong the community spirit still is in so much of the country. Nurturing stronger communites could therefore not only fit well with our own principles, but it would also undoubtedly resonate with people throughout Wales.

Linking in strongly with communities, there is another thing that Liberal Democrats could fight for within Wales. Plaid Cymru have sold themselves as the only truly Welsh party, and invoked people’s patriotism to gain support for their separatist agenda. Whilst I think it would be impossible for the Welsh Liberal Democrats to out-Welsh Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Liberal Democrats could instead sell themselves as being the “Positive about Wales and what it can achieve Party”. The Lib Dems could take the lead in promoting small businesses in local communities, perhaps taking the best of Wales and its traditions and using this as an opportunity to be world leaders in the creative industries, food and the environment. Instead of being a party that blames Wales’s failures on England as Plaid Cymru does, it could instead be a party that takes a positive view of what Wales can achieve and works with communities to achieve it. When it comes to business, research and technology, Wales already has a core part of the infrastructure that would make this happen, with the University of Wales that reaches most parts of Wales, and covers both urban Cardiff and rural Lampeter as some of its locations.

A key part of the infrastructure for a more positive Wales though is the need to improve public transport throughout the country. Wales is a country that has to rely on cars because it is almost impossible to travel conveniently across the country without one. The Liberal Democrats have always had the dilemma of how to approach this, with some people advocating internal flights as the only fast and efficient way of getting people around the country. Whilst I understand the appeal of this, it is of course not an environmentally-friendly option. Transport has clearly been a concern of Liberals and Liberal Democrats in Wales for a long time. I remember seeing a pamphlet produced back in the 1970s by some Liberal activists who were convinced that the solution to the country’s infrastructure problems was a West coast motorway linking Aberystwyth with Carmarthen. Not something we would of course advocate now, but it highlights the long-standing need to tackle transport issues across the country. Rail is perhaps the only mode of transport that can be both fast but also meet the needs of local communities. Whilst not cheap, the Lib Dems really should be promoting the re-opening of lines that would connect the country together. This would not only make getting about the country more sustainable, it would help unite the country more, and could also be the saviour of many more rural communities, particularly those that are Welsh speaking, as it would allow people to remain living in these smaller and remoter communities, whilst travelling to the larger towns and cities for employment and on business.

This posting has gone on longer than I’d intended, and yet I have only touched on a few of the issues and some ideas on what could make the party move forward. It is also biased towards the more rural parts of Wales, but then that was where I lived. Peter Black has hit the nail on the head when he raises two key issues on how the Welsh Liberal Democrats moves forward: what it stands for that makes it distinctive, and how it campaigns. The former may well be easier to resolve than the latter, but they are both vital. There is no point in the Welsh Lib Dems developing the best ideas that anyone has had, if it campaigns so badly that no one knows about them. The challenge the party has ahead is immense, and for that reason I think it is good that the party did not enter any coalition in the Assembly. And yet next year it has council elections to fight across the whole of the country.

Some people may feel that it is a bit of a cheek for me, an Englishman who only lived in Wales for nine months during an election where we also failed to make much progress, to criticise the Welsh Liberal Democrats. But the time I spent in Wales was wonderful, and despite some frustrations I took the party and Wales as a whole to my heart. I want it to succeed and I hope that Peter Black can now generate a positive debate that is needed within the party to make it succeed.

PETER BLACK AM: What the Welsh Liberal Democrats are for

LIBERAL DEMOCRAT VOICE: This is what the Welsh Liberal Democrats are for

Tory Post

People in Sheffield can be pretty rude about the Yorkshire Post, (“Yorkshire’s National Newspaper”),  basically saying that it is all about Leeds and very pro-Conservative.  Unless you read the letters page which is full of pro-UKIP letter writers.

But even I was surprised by how blatantly pro-Tory today’s Yorkshire Post was, with two thirds of the front page devoted to them.  Under a big heading “Cameron’s Cure”, it then had two big articles about the Conservatives with the headlines “Support the family and tackle social breakdown” and “Heseltine review to put Supertram back on track”.

Inside was a two page special report (remember this is still a broadsheet, and so that’s a lot of space) about his ‘vision to heal a broken society’ and with features on what he says about the North, local elections, constitution, his shadow cabinet, transport, NHS, family, crime, tax, Europe and his prospects at the next general election.  Just in case you didn’t quite get Cameron’s own spin, the Yorkshire Post helpfully put in a table highlighting “Britain’s Crime Plague” and the crime rates for different types of crime in Yorkshire.

They then also give the main comment piece over to them, called “A sense of purpose: Cameron’s road map for Tories”.  This includes wonderful lines like “There is much to hearten Conservatives in this newspaper’s wide-ranging interview with David Cameron” and “A seam of common sense runs through Mr Cameron’s ideas” and finally “Now it is time for his party to embrace that sense of purpose and give Mr Cameron its unstinting support as he develops promising ideas into a credible manifesto.”

YORKSHIRE POST: Support the family and tackle social breakdown

The demise of Storyfix

For those who haven’t seen it, for the last year BBC News 24 have been running a programme called Storyfix available by “pressing the red button now”. The programme was basically a bizarre review of the week’s news programmes, where bits of programmes were cut together in a funny way. It is very difficult to describe, but was a sort of mildly satirical news of the news cut down to just a minute.

I only discovered the programme when I moved house and gained digital TV, and so its disappearance so quickly after I had started watching it is a big disappointment. I had been searching for it for weeks thinking it might just have disappeared temporarily, but I now realise it was simply a part of a trial of a new type of video podcasts that has now ended. Why does this always seem to happen to the best quirky programmes that the BBC has done. It reminds me of how when BBC Choice disappeared, so did some of the oddly compelling programmes that they did, like Diners.

If you miss Storyfix, or want to know what it is, then you can still see all of them on the BBC website and the last episode is on YouTube.

BBC: Storyfix

YOUTUBE: The last ever Storyfix

WIKIPEDIA: Storyfix