Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The Joy of Having Written

It's just over 24 hours since I completed the first draft of the Black Archive for Rose and I sent it to the editor.  That's my first solo book off to the editor I have a little indie champagne* to celebrate and... back to that there writing today, a ghostly short story for a friend.

That's how proper writers roll isn't it?

* Jack 'n' coke

Monday, 9 November 2015

More Me...

Not only is there upcoming work but there are also a couple of other things that I've written that have come out over the past month.

Firstly the very fine Two Unfotunates website asked me back to contribute an entry to their Football Cities series - my entry on Liverpool can be found here.  It's very much worth your while to investigate the full Football Cities series and peruse a lot of very good football writing on the rest of the site, including some chancer contributing a review of David Peace's Red Or Dead. 

Also recently released, I've contributed to a new anthology from the Cygnus Alpha collective, Secret Invasion.  It's the brainchild of the talented Tony Eccles, and the high-concept essence is 'Lovecraft in South West England'.  Tony asked us to find a suitable location in which to set our story and build from there.  Mine's set in the bleak, beautiful wilds of Bodmin Moor and takes in the ideas of holiday homes, what happens after a career in the City which might burn you out young and what sort of creature might not like to be disturbed by foreign interlopers. You can get an eBook for your e-reader of choice by donating to the fine charity MIND here or you can procure a hard copy in one of three versions ranging from a standard softcover to luxurious hardcover here.

(Art by John Swogger, not to be reproduced without artist's permission)

The Black Archive is opening...

So this is an upcoming thing...

Phil Purser-Hallard, one of the smartest people I have the pleasure of knowing, came up with a simple but brilliant idea for a range of books; in-depth studies of single Doctor Who stories by a bunch of talented writers with interesting things to say. I've got the pleasure of being included in the first batch of books with a piece on the episode that launched Doctor Who back to the heart of popular culture.  Think the Doctor Who equivalent of the excellent 33 1/3 books.

These are going to be magnificent.  Further details here and whilst you're there you really should open your virtual wallet for a few of Obverse's other fine books.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

There are poppies

I’m sitting on a bench, just behind a garden I used to play in.  Technically it belongs to the neighbours, but they’re fine with this.  It’s a small garden space, with a sheep pen to one side.  The sheep are docile, and will happily let you scratch behind their ears for hours if you’re prepared to.  They belong to the couple who’re about to move in to this property.  But it’s an open expanse of green; it’s a nice space which isn’t enclosed with a high fence but a large enough fence to delineate the property.  This is a house in a rural village, not particularly worried about blackguards and rapscallions jumping over fences in the night to commit vile or mischievous misdeeds.  And it’s a lovely sunny day, summer turning into autumn with an occasional cool breeze rudely interrupting the lazy warmth.  It’s one of my perfect times of the year.  And there, in the middle of this open, green space three poppies catch my eye, almost rudely intruding on the meditative powers of this space and almost demanding attention with their vivid redness despite their relatively small size. And with it I feel hope, poppies being a symbol of memory and life growing even from death.

I’ve come here to gather my thoughts after my gran’s funeral.  It’s been a fitting send off and celebration of her life as it should have been.  There’s been little sadness; she lived a good long life of just under 95 years and was active and independent right up to the end and her death was a merciful end after a stroke led to bleeding deep in her brain.  Each of us who mattered to her – both her daughters and their husbands, we four grandchildren and a few other friends and family – got to say our goodbyes, even if she could barely speak.  The end, when it came, was a mercy and, by bizarre coincidence, on my other gran’s hundredth birthday.  A day or celebration and mourning, though the birthday party was a definite tonic after ten days of waiting for an inevitable end.  The funeral has gone as magnificently as it can; we four bearers (three grandchildren and one of her neighbours) have supported her into the church, we grandchildren have managed to deliver our tributes without cracking and we’ve all been able to remember the joy of her life and pay tribute by singing her favourite hymns.  And afterwards we retired to the British Legion clubhouse over the road where a splendid spread awaited.  With gran you’d get nothing else, Welsh grannies would never knowingly see you underfed ever from the afterlife.

In truth I did nearly well up a few times before the service whilst we waited at her old house.  Wandering through a place filled with the happy, secure memories of childhood, ornaments and artefacts imbued with memories and reading cards and tributes from everyone who’d known her.  You know what she meant to you, but you can’t know what she meant to others. And all the memories spoke of joy, even if derived from a tough life.  By the age of 21 she had a premature child to look after and a senile father to cope with and all without the presence of her husband who’d been called away to the war efforts in India, Iran, Iraq and eventually up through Italy.  In the week leading up to the funeral we’ve been going through his old photos of exotic, long gone places, experiences we could have never known.  Those photos range from boy kings to executions of criminals, though of the most significant event he was present at there is no record (the stringing up of Mussolini).  We never heard from our grandpa about these events and even those closest to him were only ever told tales of the camaraderie of army life, such as him ending up being the designated driver for those of his colleagues visiting Baghdad’s brothels (and his subsequent amusement at their having to confess to where they’d caught the clap from).  And later, in 1966, when they moved from Ebbw Vale to Offenham, how she cried to be leaving her home.  I could never imagine my gran crying, she and grandpa were never that type.  They were old-fashioned in that way, dealing with life as it came with the handy aid of humour and a sense of the absurd and providing happiness and security.   And always there was a sense of pride in our achievements.  She didn’t need to say anything (though she always did).  You’d done something that pleased her and that was all the reward you’d need.  This sense of happiness that I associated with the house, of security and strength that I still felt there despite her absence… this was the sadness.  That I might not come to the house again, that part of childhood was passing forever.

We’ve been asked if we’d like any of her possessions as souvenirs. For me this is easy and perhaps a touch bizarre; it’s her old whisk.  For some reason as a toddler I loved that whisk and took it off to bed with me. It still has my toothmarks on it from that age.  I vaguely remember that the shape of the whisk made me think it was some robot – it has two legs and an arm and I used to pretend that was what it was.  I was once told it would be written into my gran’s will that I’d have it.  In the end she didn’t as she thought it a touch silly, but I know she’d kept it for me.  It’s something I’ve always wanted to have but, with the circumstances of how I got it, never wanted.  I can’t think of anything else I’d want on the day bar an artist’s portrait of my grandpa at Totterdown, the old farmhouse where he worked.  And a picture of my gran and grandpa as I knew them, but that could wait to be chosen.

So I’m sat there, considering life and death.  And the poppies catch my eye, symbolising remembrance and life going on as they did in the French fields after the world wars. And these insignificant flowers bring a tear to my eye, reminding me that life continues and that the dead are never truly gone as long as we remember them.

It’s a beautiful day.

Monday, 1 June 2015

What I've Caught Up On in May

Usual drill, the state of May's cultural landscape...

Forever Changes - Love
Original Pirate Material - The Streets
69 Love Songs - The Magnetic Fields
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
Made In Dagenham
Top of the Pops 1980
General Election coverage
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Doctor Who - Series 8
Revolt Into Style: Pop Arts in Britain - George Melly
Deadpool: Wade Wilson's War - Duane Swierczynski/Jason Pearson
Spider Man: Spider-Man No More! - Stan Lee/John Romita Snr
I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Thoughts on American Dread, American Dreams - Mark Dery
Feersum Endjinn - Iain M Banks
Life On Air: Memoirs of a Broadcaster - David Attenborough

Saturday, 23 May 2015

He's Big and He's Fookin' Hard...

The great lie Sky sold the British public in the 1990s was that they love football just like us.  We got Sean Bean adverts and Soccer AM to prove that their love was just like ours. And in the world their love like ours created we now have a game dominated by financial behemoths and the glamour of the Premier and Champions League, the only silverware that matters. The FA Cup, League Cup and lower leagues are mere sideshows to the main events now, whatever nostalgic journalists of a certain age say. For those clubs with the resources to contest the league title the FA Cup is a mere bauble, something to aim for to give a league title an extra resonance. The preponderance of doubles in the 1990s (four) took some of the lustre from the competition, what became a predictable dominance by the top clubs (Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea) meant he competition lacked the surprise element for which it had been renowned. A series of finals either turgid, one-sided or both didn’t help.  And the rotten cherry on the stale, rancid cake was the ever growing quantity of top division matches Sky were showing from the top division -  no longer were FA Cup games the special occasions they once had been (it’s a similar case for international matches). Amidst all this only the biennial tournament routine retained status, and even then arguably only the World Cup was truly glamorous.

Yes, my wife's *always* had strange taste in men.

Such is the case when the forces of commerce drive the game’s development. Their love is, of course, nothing like a fan’s love.  Fan love is, by and large, an irrational thing unattached directly to a club’s wealth (though ease of transport and far wider media exposure of modern times means it can to some degree be related to success).  It can originate in many ways, from being a local club, through family connections or through chance events at an impressionable age – for instance, my wife’s support of Ipswich is entirely down to a strange crush on Paul Mariner, developed when finding a discarded Panini sticker in the street.  You can make a case that with wealth increasingly being a factor in picking up top players, trophies and therefore wider exposure that it is some factor in the tribal fan love of big clubs, but I’ve yet to hear of anyone whose head was turned directly due to their club’s bank balance or stock exchange value.  Sky’s love of football is almost entirely down to its ability to make money for them, be it from paying their monthly subscription fee or selling advertising space (that it makes money both ways renders their critiques of the funding of the BBC amusing).  For their purposes glamour sells, the glamour of the world’s best players and trophies rolling in.  It would be wrong to suggest that they’ve been entirely bad for the sport – their large and repeated injections of cash has created the conditions to bring top quality players to the Premier League in a way repeated deals with the BBC or ITV just couldn’t have – but it’s created a small, wealthy elite who carve up the glamorous trophies while reducing the rest to essentially a sporting cast, all while calling it the most unpredictable league in the world. In truth, within the parameters of wealth allowing large, top quality squads to be maintained it’s almost entirely predictable. All the Premier League champions come from clubs who’ve made a large and sustained investment in playing staff over time (not even Arsenal’s triumphs come close to disproving this – their initial success under Wenger was fuelled by a well-timed injection of funds from Danny Fiszman). There’s little variety in the clubs who get sent to the Champions League each year – one appearance each by Spurs and Everton aside the only variety to clubs appearing in the Champions League over the last decade was Liverpool dropping out for the newly rich Man City due to financial problems and Liverpool returning for United due to the latter’s post –Ferguson issues.  And even there Everton’s appearance is arguably largely due to Liverpool sustaining two long cup runs with a relatively small squad where Everton lost both cup games they played. It’s a club of wealth that’s tough to break into, and with the current structure the title looks beyond two, possibly three clubs for the foreseeable future.

The first obvious signs of this were the initial dominance of the Premier League by United.  For all the talk of Fergie’s Fledglings and the Class of ’92 the sides which won United their initial dominance of the league were expensively (though shrewdly) assembled for the time – Roy Keane, Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Gary Pallister didn’t come cheaply, though the subsequent rapid inflation of the value of footballers won’t tell you this at a glance (Paul Tomkins Pay As You Play and his Transfer Price Index are invaluable here).  Blackburn’s largesse was well documented at the time and the only new names engraved on the trophy this century are the teams that received sudden, massive foreign investment.  Chelsea were a club hanging around the top four at a cost which was within a few weeks of bankrupting them before Roman Abramovich’s billions pushed them upwards to a title within two seasons and City were a perennial sleeping giant before being banked by a sovereign wealth fund that granted them practically matchless resources. The long term effects of UEFA’s much touted Financial Fair Play (FFP) policy here remain to be seen, though immediate thoughts indicate that these regulations will merely prevent more of these takeovers at a later date rather than restricting clubs already there.  We’ve therefore reached a point where the title is harder than ever (near impossible in fact) to win for clubs not already having billionaire backers and long term sustained success.  Even previous windfalls which led to the rise of clubs now thought of as giants – United in the early 1900s, Liverpool and Everton with the Littlewoods pools money in the late 1950s and early 1960s – did not allow such dominance to happen. Clubs could rise from the second tier and challenge or even win titles (Ipswich in the 1960s and Forest in the late 1970s being the obvious examples).  In the Premier League era only Keegan’s Newcastle came close to that.  But with more money being in the game, the differences in club incomes, previously relatively minor in terms of prize money, has grown exponentially. Whereas in previous decades the relatively low incomes meant the differences were correspondingly less significant, now the incomes from league wins and Champions League participation made the difference between regular first and second place finishers and fourth or fifth place finishers huge (of course, fourth place now earns a Champions League spot).  

In such circumstances Liverpool find themselves in an awkward position.  When the Premier League began they, like United, were in an ideal position to secure their position in the top four.  But whereas United sensed the opportunities the new era offered, expanding their stadium, floating on the stock exchange and supplementing that extraordinary Class of 92 with judiciously chosen big purchases, Liverpool under chairman David Moores became stuck in a perceived ‘Liverpool Way’, an admirable commitment to remaining a local club. After Shankly had shaken up the club in 1959, modernising the training ground, training methods and ultimately Anfield itself the club had maintained a forward thinking ethos, particularly under chief executive Peter Robinson. They were, for instance, the first club to accept a shirt sponsorship deal.  In that light the jibes directed down the East Lancs Road look a touch ill-founded – Liverpool had done what they needed to do to consolidate success; in the 90s United had taken the baton and sprinted into the distance in terms of both financial potential and on-field success.  Liverpool could remain relatively competitive whilst their rivals were United, Arsenal and Ken Bates’ overdraft, but the turning point in the modern era for them remains Roman Abramovich’s arrival at Chelsea in 2003 coupled with a disastrous couple of summers in the transfer market.  Chelsea’s extravagant summers underlined that a club funded by the Moores family, gate receipts and TV money would ultimately struggle to compete for the biggest trophies in the new era of largesse. They now needed three clubs to slip, not two and regular European football meant they couldn’t take advantage of extra games tiring the other squads out.  The odds against a long awaited title lengthened further. 

All that was concealed by the appointment of Rafa Benitez and the subsequent extraordinary European Cup victory.  Football history records it as one of the most extraordinary major Cup finals of any era; given the state of the club behind the scenes, the events along the way and calibre of opposition mean it might well be the most extraordinary triumph in the competition’s history.
They clearly remain one of the nation’s richest and best supported clubs but the odds are against them winning trophies.  Even though they retain their place in the world’s ten clubs they struggle to win trophies as four of the other richest clubs also play in the same league. Against this backdrop Liverpool may well have struggled to attract the players that made them so great in previous decades. They would certainly have found it tough to maintain a dominance in the Premier League, a feat only really achieved briefly this century, once when Mourinho first combined with Abramovich’s billions and once when Cristiano Ronaldo reached his extraordinary prime. It’s the great misfortune of Steven George Gerrard to have his career coincide with the periods at which Liverpool have been least likely to win the league.  

Today he plays his final game in a Liverpool shirt, away from the home turf that seemed to add an extra few inches in stature, an extra few pounds in muscle and an extra few yards of speed. He’s already departed the sacred land of Anfield for the last time, unable to raise his beloved team from mediocrity while they lost 3-1 to an energetic Crystal Palace side who merited their win (whilst benefitting from arguable decisions on all three goals). With Liverpool having little to play for bar league positioning the occasion was all about him, welcomed to the pitch by an extra powerful rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone and eventually serenaded off with the chants sung by the Kop for so long. In a long career of odds defying feats he even managed not to shed a tear as he left. But then this perhaps sums up Gerrard’s career, a potent mix of emotion and noble battling against seemingly predetermined fate.  Of all the great players of the Premier League era – the likes of Lampard, Terry, Henry, Vieira, Cantona Scholes, Giggs, Keane even Shearer – Gerrard was the only one who revelled in underdog status.  Only Matt Le Tissier, Southampton’s indolent genius, came close in terms of loyalty and battling to maintain a club’s status and at The Dell he never had the intense focus that always seemed to be on Gerrard.  The rest of the greats, congregated at the biggest clubs, gathered trophies, accolades and titles as if they were fallen leaves. Gerrard preferred the struggle.  Gerrard, more than any of the others, wanted and needed to be the heart and soul of his club. 

From the start his story seemed too good to be true.  He broke into the Liverpool team in the wake of Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher; along with Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman the club had perhaps the finest collection of Scouse talent in its history. Gerrard making it had extra resonance; his cousin was one of the youngest victims of the Hillsborough tragedy.  Even if he’d made that one appearance, a stoppage time replacement for Vegard Heggem at the end of a comfortable 2-0 home win over Blackburn, that would have been a magnificent story. But there would be more.  There would be 17 seasons of more. 

The details and games are well documented, etched on to the memory.  A 35 yard piledriver against United.  A key role and a goal in England’s 5-1 win in Germany.  Driving Liverpool to Champions League qualification in 2003/04 with the club falling apart around him.  Olympiakos.  Istanbul.  West Ham vanquished in Cardiff.  Disappointment in a second European Cup Final.  Pushing a Ronaldo inspired United all the way in 2009, captaining the team that put four goals past Real Madrid and United inside five days.  The free kicks, the hat-trick against Everton, dropping deeper to help inspire a title challenge before that slip.  That last red card against United, seconds after coming on, a late winner against QPR… and then, in his final game at Anfield a party spoiled by an energetic Crystal Palace side. For all the acclaim and great moments those moments of fallibility, the slips, the careless backpasses and rushed of blood were also a hallmark of Gerrard’s career.  Gerrard was a footballer of world class ability; power, pace, a wide range of passing, a fierce tackle and a hammer of a right foot. His energy and unpredictability meant he could pull a team completely out of shape.  But all the mistakes reminded us he was human in the way Messi and Ronaldo never appear to be.  He could seize a game in an instant if given an opportunity but he could also lose it with a daft mistake.  Superman and Clark Kent rolled into one, but with no costume change it could be either one of them out there.  Mostly the former, obviously, but the latter could turn up without warning.

I had the privilege of being there for his most crucial goal, sat on The Kop for the first time.  Back row, just to the right of the posts with two good friends. We took our seats early, quietly confident given Olympiakos’ appalling record away to English sides.  Rivaldo soon shattered our confidence.  After a half where the crowd had castigated him for his tendency to fall over easily he stepped up to score one of the free kicks.  Halftime 0-1. Liverpool had managed three goals in five and a half games and now they needed to score three more in 45 minutes.

I have still never experienced a night like it in 28 years of matchgoing. From halftime the singing was relentless; choruses of You’ll Never Walk Alone mixed with the almost metallic harshness of the chant of ‘Attack! Attack! Attack Attack Attack!’.  No-one sat down on the Kop that entire second half.  The team needed lifting or they risked drifting out of Europe’s premier club competition, with financial issues it might even have ended up a long term absence. Florent Sinama Pongolle came on, his pace and energy resulting in an almost immediate equaliser. For 35 minutes or so afterwards Liverpool toiled manfully, as so often that season unable to penetrate a stubborn defence. Gerrard saw a goal ruled out, could easily have been sent off for a daft kick at an opponent.  But he wasn’t. And then, after 80 minutes another substitute, Neil Mellor, scrambled home after Nikopolidis had saved from Nunez.  Was it on? Did we have one more push left?  Penalty appeals came and went; the crowd remained as relentless as the team.  Five minutes left. A throw in, some scrappy play out on the left wing. The ball falls to Carragher. Carragher floats up a high cross, Mellor wins an unchallenged header, knocking it down diagonally for a player on the edge of the box.  I remember craning my neck, looking to see who it was dropping to, the contact of boot and ball and…

Bedlam. The crowd surging towards the huddle of players, everyone seeming to go six rows forward. Hugging the guys next to you you’ve never met before and never will again, whose names you don’t know. An eternally beautiful moment, a stadium exploding in joy and relief. This team may not be the finest it has known but it’s got fight and willpower.  And if there’s one thing Scousers can respect it’s cussedness. And at the heart of it, the man who’s just delivered another dream to the fans, the Scouser whose gone from good to great with one flick of his right leg.   Not only had he rescued the club, he’d rescued the club in incredible style.  He was very good before, but that night made him iconic. It was a moment that even caused staunch Evertonian Andy Gray to go wild in the commentary box, such was the purity of the strike and emotion.  At the time we thought no further ahead than perhaps another glamour tie or two, much needed cash swelling the club’s coffers… in all my time as a Liverpool fan I don’t think there’s ever been a more unlikely or wonderful run in a competition (though the 2014-15 season was close) and, unless that elusive Premier League title comes home, doubt there will be again.

What a hit son! What. A. Hit.

In the end all our times pass, and all we have are memories. Other players have more medals or scored more goals.  But few have contributed so much to one club, particularly a club that’s always been their club from childhood.  Steven Gerrard gave his all for Liverpool Football Club from the start to the end, gave us League Cups, FA Cups, a UEFA Cup and, of course, Istanbul.  He clearly cared so much for the club he was the focus of opposition songs even when they weren’t playing Liverpool.  Is the lack of a Premier League winners medal a blemish on his career? Perhaps, but given the circumstances it’s hardly one he can personally be held responsible for.  Is he Liverpool’s greatest ever player? It’s an unanswerable pub debate but that he’s even in contention tells you much about how good he’s been for so long. So, even in his footballing dotage, I’m going to relish the chance to see him in Liverpool’s colours one more time. We will find new heroes to give us new memories, but will always cherish the indelible ones provided by the old soldiers.  Gerrard, like Shankly, deserves to be remembered as a man who made the people happy.

Thanks Stevie.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Friday Morning Prime Ministering (UK General Election 2015 musings)

With the typical inventiveness of the land of hucksterism and hustling the Americans have a pithy phrase for those who are wise after the event.  ‘Monday morning quarterbacks’ are the guys (and it’s generally the more loudmouthed guys) who can tell you exactly where everything went wrong and what should’ve been done so that their team won.  They’re the greatest coaches, they know more about the sport than anyone who plays it for a living.  It’s all so easy according to them, in the heat of the moment they’d have made the right decisions so why didn’t the players and coaches?
We really need an equivalent phrase for political geeks over here – perhaps Friday Morning Prime Ministers might work.  Over the past week and a half much bandwidth, airtime and many words have been devoted as to why Labour failed so catastrophically and how the Tories managed to gain a majority. All sorts of explanations have been proffered, ranging from Ed Miliband’s incompetence, why the British electorate hates socialism, through to ‘shy Tories’ and just which specific policies held most appeal. The election’s been sliced, diced and dissected, we’ve learned that really Labour weren’t that confident and the Tories always thought they’d get a majority and that this is what they did wrong and this is what should have happened. 

None of this may be total nonsense (except the bit about socialism – anyone who read the Labour manifesto and thought it socialist is either a US Republican or doesn’t remotely understand the concept of socialism).  There are probably grains of truth in many of these explanations.  But the analyses are being written and narratives formed at precisely the wrong point, in the aftermath of victory.  Narratives are fitted to outcome rather than properly examined.  Everyone’s racing to get their point of view across – as a rule, Labour’s  is self-flagellating and related to the post-election balance of power in the party, the Tories and SNP is triumphalist, UKIP’s and the Greens’ is frustrated and the LibDems is mournful and elegiac, a five year lament. We now have the narrative of an inevitable Tory victory and, history being written by the winners in the immediate aftermath, that’s how it’ll be written up with David Cameron the agent of his own destiny. Anyone saying Cameron would be back in Downing Street is now a savant, even if their analysis has largely been assertions and swivel-eyed ranting based on their party political stance (or personal dislikes).  England loves the Tories, and all is well in the southern sea of blue.  We always knew you’d vote the Right Way.

This is all very well but barely anyone expected a Tory majority until the David Dimbleby announced the exit poll at 10pm.  Labour and LibDem grandees scrambled to deal with the imminent yawning catastrophe, Paddy Ashdown’s millinery munching declaration being the night’s great Canute-like act of futility (though of course Canute’s act was deliberate), whilst the Tories didn’t deviate from the tactics of their last election night of declaring victory whatever the final numbers said. Much of this may be down to innate caution, but David Cameron’s words the next morning, that he didn’t expect to be returning to Downing Street that quickly, indicated no-one was confident enough of the majority.  Whatever the claims being bandied about, the words of William Goldman about Hollywood were perfectly repurposed about this election by David Hepworth on Twitter: no-one knows anything.

George Osborne, heading for Europe, of course claimed that he now had a strong mandate for his party’s European policy, that the result vindicated his austerity rhetoric (not always matched in policy, but that’s a different debate).  Much was made of Cameron being the first party leader in power to increase his vote share since 1900 and that uplift, even a tiny one of 0.8% is no mean feat. Both of these are true on at least a technical level – the Tories now command a majority in the House of Commons by democratic means and their vote share also went up. What both ignore (quite deliberately) is the crucial factor in the election, our ‘first past the post’ electoral system.  I’m not going to attempt to directly analyse the party politics and why voters in key areas voted the way they did (there will be elements of that, but it’s not the main point).

In brief, our electoral system currently divides England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland into 650 constituencies with each one of those constituencies returning a Member of Parliament to represent them. All this is done by a simple method of which candidate polls the most votes in the constituency (so a seat such as Knowsley where George Howarth recorded 78.1% of the vote counts for the same as South Belfast where Alasdair McDonnell won with a record lowest share of the vote for an MP of 24.5%.  The former result argues that in certain circumstances the electoral system still functions well – where a party is dominant or where it’s a straight choice between two parties. By and large it’s representative of the viewpoint of the majority of the constituency.  The latter shows the weaknesses of the system – when there’s a genuine split across the constituency it’s a ‘best loser’ scenario which doesn’t reflect that the constituency’s electors haven’t overwhelmingly endorsed one candidate.  The strength of first past the post is that it’s a relatively simple system which allows every person some form of representation (even if it’s by someone they disagree with politically) and in recent decades has tended to produce a decisive majority for either Tory or Labour parties. The weakness is that it doesn’t cope at all well if any sort of third element is introduced.
This is demonstrated at several points in UK history. First the Irish Nationalists, who allowed Gladstone to govern. Then with the rise of Labour in the early part of the twentieth century.  And finally in 2010 where the Liberal Democrats achieved 23% of the vote. Lynton Crosby, who ran the Tory campaign, was quick to damn his opponents and laud his own party (naturally). I’d agree that overall the Tory strategy was superior, even if their actual campaigning tended to be lacklustre and uninspired and seemed to emphasise a disconnection from the electorate.  The essential secret of the Tory election success lay in their understanding of the electoral system and how they exploited the collapse in LibDem support.

At this point it’s necessary to go back to the last General Election.  You can often understand the most recent election by looking back at what happened at the last one.  One of the key points of the election was Clegg’s pledge to oppose an increase in tuition fees for students. In terms of the campaign it was a brilliant move which, for obvious reasons, raised their popularity amongst students.  The problem came in negotiating the coalition agreement. Given the student fees pledge was such a high profile promise it really should have been one of the ‘red lines’ in any agreement. For whatever reason, it wasn’t.  The LibDem negotiating team were persuaded to accept a policy that would allow universities to raise their fees up to £9,000, a threefold rise.  Apparently there was much shock in the LibDem ranks when universities, funnily enough looking for more money to fund themselves, raised their fees to the full amount.  I’m not here to debate the merits or otherwise of that policy but from a LibDem perspective the politics of that were appalling. They had a potential source of younger voters who they could persuade to vote for them in the long term and, almost as soon as they had a hint of power, they sold those voters out. Former LibDem supporters turned on them, culminating in the National Union of Students organising a ‘payback time’campaign  which branded the party as liars.  That’s an awful lot of students saddled with a potential £40,000 of debt who wouldn’t be voting LibDem again for a long time, if ever. Apologies don’t tend to have any value when contemplating a scale of large long term debt. Clegg may have protested in response that his party was only 8% of the House of Commons so didn’t have much power but given his bloc of seats enabled the coalition government a Commons majority he seemed to lack an understanding of how crucial that was.  His negotiators allowed electoral reform to be watered down to a referendum on a compromise system and Clegg took the post of Deputy Prime Minister instead of one of the great offices of state where he or a colleague might make an impact (seriously, has anyone actually explained what a Deputy Prime Minister’s job entails?).  The LibDems comprehensively made all the mistakes a small party going into coalition could make, compromising on a lot of policies and not appearing to achieve much in return. They gambled on being able to demonstrate their ability to rein in a Tory government and appearing noble.  Let’s not beat around the bush on this, it was idiocy.  You need concrete achievement at elections, not hypotheticals about what you stopped. It’s also as if they were unfamiliar with the notion of confidence and supply (a means whereby they will generally vote with the government but aren’t tied to them on less pleasant policies).  Result?  A party that goes from 8% of the House of Commons to 8% of the country’s vote and 8 seats.  The biggest wipeout since the Fat Boys met the Beach Boys. Clegg and his party had become toxic; even those like Simon Hughes who’d deliberately distanced themselves from the Tories. What had been a genuine nationwide third party with just under a quarter of the vote collapsed completely, destroying the years of hard work put in by David Steel, Paddy Ashdown and the former Social Democratic Party. Merely a rump left, the scale of defeat emphasised by the quirk that to be nominated for the leadership a candidate needed endorsement by 0.8 MPs. Some of us rather hope that leads to each remaining MP standing to emphasise the absurdity of the situation.

And this is where the means the Tories used to secure a democratic mandate come in. Let’s go back to the Tory boast, that Cameron secured a rise in his party’s vote (from 36.1% to 36.9%). If he had been leading a solely Conservative government it’d be worth remarking on. But he wasn’t.  He led a coalition government where his partners immediately toxified themselves by reneging on a high profile pledge. The Coalition itself had a good claim to being the most legitimate government in decades, claiming 59.1% of the votes cast at the election and having a clear Commons majority.  By pretty much any definition that’s a democratic mandate satisfying both a definition by the popular vote and the legislature. The last UK government with an equivalent mandate? 1931 (though MacMillan and Eden were just shy).  The LibDems may have paid the price for their decision but isn’t democratic legitimacy like that an argument for co-operative government? Fast forward five years to Osborne’s declaration of having a strong mandate.  Cameron’s government (as opposed to party) saw its vote share dip from 59.1% to 44.8% (Conservative 36.9%, LibDem 7.9%). Granted, part of this was down to the issues peculiar to the LibDems but it’s hardly a ringing endorsement for your government to lose 24 seats overall and 14.3% of their vote. That’s not a popular endorsement of your policies, despite the Telegraph, Times and Sun rushing to shore up a narrative of mass endorsement.

What it is though is the key to the Tories winning.  The First Past the Post system took a hammering at the last election as it failed to fulfil its supposed virtue, providing a strong government with a clear mandate for its policies. Much of this, as I’ve said, was due to there being a national third force with a significant share of the national vote. The vote in seats splits, becomes messy. This election there wasn’t that true third force – the LibDems have a small but significant share, the SNP likewise and the biggest party in terms of votes, UKIP, merely scrambled to 12%.  For all the share of the main parties has retreated from their respective heydays under Blair and Thatcher that’s still a very distant third. With only two parties competitive nationwide First Past the Post now has a chance of determining a winner. It’s at this point that the genius of the Tory strategy kicks in.

One of the accusations the Tories threw at Ed Miliband during his time as Labour leader was that he stabbed his brother in the back when claiming the leadership.  You can take this as true or not depending on your viewpoint and how sympathetic you are to Miliband. This fades into insignificance when compared to the Tory ruthlessness in pursuing a successful election strategy. The Tories were in government with the LibDems for five years. You can dismiss the sniping during the election between the parties as simple electioneering, part of the showbiz for grey people that comes up once every five years or so. What the Tories realised was the LibDem vote was likely to collapse, partly due to the student vote and partly as their left wing credentials were almost completely undermined by their co-operation with the Tories. So, whilst shoring up their vote in marginal constituencies the Tories campaigned hard in the LibDem seats they were the main opposition in last time. They used social media to spread their word (apparently specifically targeting Facebook as the most popular medium and disdaining the ‘elitist’ Twitter. I certainly recall seeing a lot of Tory advertising on Facebook during the election, apparently tailored toward me.  How effective was that strategy?  Of the Conservative gains on the night 27 were former LibDem seats. 27 of 28 net gain. The crucial margin that took David Cameron from coalition Prime Minister to Conservative Prime Minister was essentially stabbing their coalition partners in the back.  That’s simply the ruthlessness of British politics, the willingness to do what it takes within an imperfect system to wear the crown. The Tories simply saw that they needed to marginally increase their vote share in the right seats and otherwise pursue their core vote – as you could see from the red meat they were tossing out to their right wing base during the campaign with lower taxes, smaller state, European Union referendum and repeal of the Human Rights Act. It’s simply playing the electoral system to your advantage, something Labour were either unwilling or unable to do.  It provided access to the levers of power for another five years.  That isn’t illegal, nor immoral, it’s simply what had to be done to win.

Noticeably afterwards there were a surfeit of commentators proclaiming this a democratic decision that couldn’t be complained about (particularly Dominic Lawson who dismissed any need for electoral reform). They’re correct in it being a democratic decision under our current system but it’s one that leaves a bad taste in the mouth, much as it did when Tony Blair took his last majority on a 35.2% share of the vote. Nearly two thirds of the electorate didn’t vote for these policies and their voice is effectively denied. UKIP and Green voters are essentially almost locked out of politics with one MP each. Similarly the SNP are comparatively overrepresented by virtue of dominating one area of the UK.  In all honesty it’s something of a mess. And despite Labour upping their vote share they lost a huge chunk of seats (in truth the SNP surge wasn’t a cause of their defeat, it merely made it look worse and took Miliband’s position from shaky to untenable). However you disagree with these parties it’s unrepresentative. It’s not unreasonable for the Tories to have the largest number of seats, but it’s difficult to justify them having an absolute majority on their vote share.

It’s at this point that I’ll divert briefly to point out the sheer idiocy of defending First Past the Post on the basis it produces strong governments. That’s an absolute nonsense unless you’re fortunate enough to be a partisan of the winning side.  In theory a government can have carte blanche for five years. That’s a fair amount of time to put agendas in place or, indeed, your version of electoral reform. The Tory version of electoral reform is to make things ‘fairer’ by levelling population differences. Quite coincidentally this notionally provides 20 extra seats for the Tories and stacks the chips in the Tory favour for the next election. It *was* originally meant to streamline Parliament to 600 or so MPs but strangely, with MPs nervous about voting themselves into non-existence that’s gone by the wayside.  It’s gaming a system which is already stacked toward the Tories even further. And fairer? The system may have favoured Labour before, primarily due to the Tory vote being concentrated and Labour being strong in Scotland which requires less votes per MP to gain seats, but that rationale becomes a nonsense now – in terms of votes per seat the Tories were comfortably ahead of all but the SNP.  If this was a football game the Tories would have tilted the pitch thirty degrees or so and be playing downhill.  Whatever the merits or otherwise of the current Government First Past the Post is clearly open to being gamed by either of the major parties.  An electoral system should defend against selfishness, stupidity and madness from any of the major parties and, on current evidence it would be incapable of doing that if either were at the height of the political cycle and inclined to go on some Caligula style orgy of repressive legislation (well, theoretically there’s the House of Lords…). And, for all the fears of coalition government (something the Tories tried to exploit in the election) didn’t the actual coalition we’ve just had function perfectly well? In past decades Italy was always raised as a monster that proved proportional representation didn’t work, proven by the number of governments since World War 2 (currently: 64).  Thing is, that’s a simple selection of the worst possible example.  Germany, arguably the most successful country in Europe, has long had an element of proportional representation to its elections and only one government in recent history has had an absolute majority.  And they’re doing quite well…

In short then I think in a modern world where there’s a lot of emphasis on participation and having your say then the most important lesson of the election is that change is needed to address the deep flaws in our system.  The trouble is that our current system leaves the major parties with no real motivation to change a system that ultimately favours a rotating power structure. We’ve got a binary political debate with two loud voices shouting at each other.  That leaves fertile ground for populist dissatisfaction with modern politics, something UKIP and (to a lesser extent) the SNP have exploited.
So what does it need to change to? The Alternative Vote, a shoddy cobbled together compromise, was rejected in 2011 after the Tories campaigned against it. I’m not sure how total reform on the legislature would work – the House of Commons (or whatever replaces it) needs an Upper House with checks and balances on it.  If we retain First Past the Post then perhaps this chamber at least could be subject to PR rather than the result of an often shabby honours system.  But does that also leave that chamber vulnerable to the whims of populism?  Whilst I’ve criticised First Past the Post here it should be recalled that studies have shown there to be no perfect voting system when trying to deal with more than two parties.  Some form of proportional representation seems to be a solid basis to start with, but then we need to hammer out questions of how these representatives would be allocated to constituencies, or if the constituency system would continue.  D’Hondt? Plurality voting system? Cop out as it is I’m not going to offer answers as they’d be woefully underinformed against anyone who’s properly studied the subject. I’m merely taking the view that if we exclude a viewpoint from being represented we to store up trouble from people who feel unrepresented. Equally though, there needs to be checks and balances against extremism, corruption, selfishness and groupthink madness.  Theoretically a PR system would make it harder for any of those to affect the governance of a country than one which tends to produce absolute majorities.  But then the UK’s hardly been a hotbed of extremism in its history… 

One thing’s for sure, it’s not a decision currently best made by politicians.