Tuesday, 22 March 2011

One Wacky Solution To Our Rail Problem

Like many people, last night I sat down with interest to watch Dispatches with Richard Wilson. For those who didn't see it, it followed the actor as he travelled around the country encountering problems with ticket machines, fare prices and overloaded commuter trains along the way. It seems Wilson's irritation with our rail system was stoked by simply forgetting his wallet - and thus his rail card - which landed him with a £280 penalty fare for a £15 ticket. This kind of injustice is all too common and ticket inspectors I've seen relish the opportunity to catch someone out. Sometimes you have to wonder if they receive bonuses for attacking their customers.

My own train horror story comes, not from me, but from someone I was fortunate enough to be able to help. A woman with four children showed the conductor at Leeds her pre-booked tickets and asked him which train she was supposed to get on down to London. Whether he did it on purpose or whether it was stupidity, he directed her to the train which left half an hour earlier than hers, thus invalidating her tickets. I was standing in the vestibule ready to get off at Wakefield Westgate when the announcer gave their final warning about checking you were travelling on the right train - then the doors promptly slid shut. The woman I'd noted ushering her brood into the carriage rushed out ashen-faced but it was too late. Nobody else in the vestibule gave a damn about her panicking. Perhaps they'd seen it all before but it struck me as another example of how heartless we've become as a country. Knowing the train system as I did, I knew the Leeds to London trains always stopped at Wakefield Westgate. I advised her to get off there, showed her where to stand so she could get straight into her carriage, and even helped her get her pram off the train while other travellers sighed impatiently at us. Her son, probably about ten, thanked me sincerely. But what would've happened if I hadn't stepped in? Full price fares for one adult and four kids down to London? No wonder she looked petrified.

My solution for our train difficulties are bound to be dismissed. For starters, it involves getting rid of this ridiculous HS2 line which very few people want. I can't see that it'll help the North at all. In fact, I think it'll encourage businesses to move their headquarters towards London, safe in the knowledge that people can get there in under an hour from Birmingham. When you look at the timings, we're not making things much better and, even if you consider the time saved a cause for massive celebration, you have to admit that the people it will benefit are few and far between. Not your average traveller who just wants to get to London; not the people forced to watch as their landscape is ruined. What are the fares going to be on this thing? With prices rising to unaffordable levels at the moment, how is anybody going to be expected to travel on this thing? Will it become the privilege of the rich and famous, something I'm half-inclined to believe it's intended to be anyway?

So my solution: ditch HS2. Invest all those billions in easing congestion on current lines - add new carriages and expand stations in order to deal with these new carriages. Make sure that when you put in the order for these new carriages it goes to a British firm, thus giving our manufacturers a boost along the way. Politicians and high-class businessmen may not be able to travel quite as briskly as they would like from Birmingham to London but the rest of us would have a much more comfortable journey.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Freedom of Speech Works Both Ways

The furore over Muslim protesters burning poppies during a Armistice Day silence has been reignited by the news that one has been cleared while the other has been fined a mere £50 for a public order offence. As others have pointed out, the average parking ticket is £60. It doesn't say much for where we place our war dead in the grand scheme of things, does it?

Now, Jeremy Vine had a chat with Emdadur Choudhury on Radio 2 earlier. Throughout the interview I was impressed with Vine's professionalism. Faced with someone who wouldn't answer questions and refused to acknowledge the viewpoint of another Muslim, perhaps more proficient than Choudhury in knowledge of the Koran, Vine kept very calm. In fact, the interview did little apart from hold this man up to ridicule. But some important arguments did come out of it.

Most importantly was the idea that Choudhury had the right to burn the poppy as part of his freedom of speech. This was brought up by him and some (non-Muslim) callers. Surely, people said, it's a fact that our soldiers have died for such a thing as freedom of speech? To deny it even to Choudhury is a betrayal of our war dead.

I accept that with a few qualifications. The poppy is not a religious symbol in this country. However, as we are increasingly becoming a secular nation, it retains its power as a striking symbol of freedom, peace and human morality. Even people who don't necessarily agree with wars, either now or in the past, recognise that the poppy doesn't glorify their deaths but celebrates their existences. The people struck with horror at the sight of it being set alight were justified in feeling disgusted. I freely admit that I know little about Muslim heritage. However, I do know that if a British person had insulted Muslim dead in, say, Pakistan, they would have been not only condemned, but probably been subject to something much worse.

You can bang on about freedom of speech all you want, but the fact remains that it's one rule for Muslims and another for the rest of us. Is it any wonder that people become a little exasperated with this at times? All over the country Muslims hand out homophobic literature to incite hatred against their fellow man. Only a few cases are punished. Is this freedom of speech? No, it's an act designed to provoke and incite hatred. How is that at all different to the burning of a poppy on Armistice Day?

No one wants a "them and us" culture. I strongly salute the Imam who tried arguing with Choudhury on Radio 2, saying the act was disrespectful and quoting the Koran back at the extremist. I know that the majority of Muslims in this country hold his view. The problem is the minority who are compelled to seek division within our society. We can't let them win. And, in my view, that means taking a much tougher line on people like Emdadur Choudhury. Remove his £792 benefits every month. If he wishes to push himself onto the fringes of our society then so be it.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Striking Things About Barnsley

I became rather fascinated by the by-election in Barnsley last night, as it became clear the order wasn't going to be as clear cut as usual. I decided to stay up and see it through, only to find the Lib Dems sliding down to 6th and UKIP taking 2nd place. It was astonishing really, especially to be following the excitement as I was on Twitter. Social media might have a lot to answer for, but it could definitely be used as a tool to reignite interest in politics.

Anyway, Labour took a vast majority of votes and Dan Jarvis is now the MP for Barnsley Central. I have great respect for the man. I read an interview with him the other day and he seems to be one of the most down to earth, no-nonsense people in politics. As an ex-soldier he has first hand experience of our military operations, something which could be very valuable should Labour return to power. However, although he was the favourite, there are some interesting points to make about the Barnsley by-election.

  1. The seat was certainly a safe Labour seat to start with. However, Eric Illsley has been imprisoned for his expenses. You would expect this to put a dent in the majority but, percentage wise, Dan Javis dramatically increased Labour's vote share from 47% to 60%. However, lower turnout has to take some responsibility for this.
  2. The turnout was 'abysmal' as Nick Clegg said in an interview earlier. Yes, it was. At 36.5% it was down by 20% on the General Election. Now, the very fact that Clegg drew attention to the turnout suggests that he doesn't believe the Lib Dem's demolition in the by-election was significant. However, I would then wonder, if he places so little stock in turnouts of around 36%, why did he fight so hard against a threshold of 40% on the upcoming AV Referendum?
  3. UKIP took second. I don't think it should be underestimated how significant this is for the party. All right, the vote share was only 12%, but that's still well above the 8% the Tories got. Forget the implications for the Coalition, this is an excellent result for a fringe party with excellent credentials.
  4. The Tories and Lib Dems came in third and sixth respectively. Of course, this could be taken as the natural reaction to the cuts, and probably will be by most people within Downing Street. It's also one small area, which was always going to stay Labour. However, it's the vote share that's concerning. Both the Tories and Lib Dems scored 17.3% at the General Election. In the case of the Lib Dems, this has dropped to 4.1%. They lost their deposit for that terrible performance. Evidently, Labour have increased their share by taking votes, primarily from the Lib Dems I would think. And it's a sure bet that some Tories decided to vote UKIP, probably exercising their right to a worthy vote in a race they knew they couldn't expect to win. However, what about all those people that stayed home? It seems to me, on looking at the figures, that only a core of people fell compelled to go out and defend the Coalition. If this trend is repeated at the next General Election it could be that we've helped create even more of an apathy towards the British political system than we had only a year ago.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Why Ofcom is Ineffectual

It's probably best not to delve into my deep feelings on Rupert Murdoch's News Corp getting the go-ahead to buy the shares in BSkyB which it doesn't already own. It would be messy, loud, and probably scare anyone reading this. Needless to say, I'm furious about it. But my anger centres on one man. Yes, Mr Hunt, I mean you.

Ofcom, who have a history of upholding rather stupid complaints while ignoring more serious ones, took one of their rare positive actions when they suggested that the News Corp bid be referred to the Competition Commission. Had Vince Cable still been in control of this, no doubt it would have been. Cable, at best, looks uncomfortable when encouraged to suck up to Tories. He is one of the only major Lib Dems to have retained some semblance of individuality, and he almost lost that in the student fees fiasco. However, Cable's 'war' on Murdoch was enough to get him dragged away from making the decision.

And we all know what happened next.

Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary, took over from Cable. Yes, the decision for whether to allow Murdoch to take over BSkyB was given to the man reported last year to have said that he didn't really see the problem with it. Now, that may not be terrible, but it certainly doesn't inspire any confidence about him going into this role with a clear head. Then he sat on his decision for a few months, ostensibly to allow Murdoch time to reassure him that the move would be acceptable. This has apparently been remedied by Murdoch agreeing to spin off Sky News into another company, which most reports suggest barely bothers Murdoch at all in the grand scheme of his interests.

The fact of the matter for me remains clear: Murdoch has been eager to keep his machinations away from the Competition Commission. That alone is the reason why they should be involved. I find it astounding that a media regulator can make one recommendation, only to be overruled by a minister with a preconceived idea of what the case entailed.

I wonder what Vince Cable thinks of all this. This isn't 'war' on Murdoch. This is pandering to him. And we won't be better off for it.