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The UK's EU Referendum Will Help You Lose Your Faith In Politics

simon gray - 2016-06-14, 19:00:01

Back in May 2014 after the results of the elections to the European Parliament, I speculated that I didn't believe  that the whole of the 17% of people who voted for UKIP were actually the xenophobic bigots my fellow left-liberal friends were painting them as; I speculated that most of them were probably simply ignorant (in the unaware sense) of what the EU is, and ignorant of the true nature of immigration into the UK, and simply wanting to give the Tories a bit of a kicking. This was a year before the General Election, when all the polls were expecting a year later to see a win for Labour (a tight one if not a comfortable one), and there was no serious expectation at the time that a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union would be happening any time soon. My response was rather than complaining about so many people voting UKIP, wouldn't it be nice instead if we could spend the forthcoming year  actually explaining properly what the EU is and isn't, how it works, emphasising the real benefits of its existence and our membership of it, and indeed acknowledging the downsides as well.

Two years on and approaching the end of a referendum campaign about whether or not to stay in the EU, rather than there having been any real attempts to explain the EU properly, rather than either side having any interest in engaging in an actual debate on the matter (the national broadcasters hosted TV sort-of debates, but for the most part the representatives of the campaigns refused to debate together, rather mostly getting whole programmes to themselves in Q&A, I created a website in order to facilitate online debate and discussion which went mostly ignored by people), instead we've seen mostly shouting into echo chambers of self-selecting groups of people who mostly agree with what's being shouted anyway, we've seen both sides mostly paint supporters of the other side as being stupid idiots for holding the opinions they do, we've seen campaigning based on lists of famous people who support both sides with the captions 'who do you trust more - these people or those people?', we've seen a Leave campaigner saying the UK's curry house scene is under threat because of the difficulty of bringing enough trained chefs from Bangladesh into the country and we've seen David Cameron, the leading Remain campaigner say that if we do leave one possible consequence could be World War Three its very self.

We've seen perhaps the most important decision the country has had the opportunity to make in two generations, for the next two generations, reduced to Facebook and Twitter memes of pictures of rum folk with dodgy hair pitted against pictures of nice folk posing for the camera with suitable gravitas.

Both sides have produced their various tame experts to express their points of view on the consequences of either result to jobs and the economy; the problem is, all these points of view can be nothing but speculation - economists are very good at explaining current circumstances and analysing past circumstances, but when it comes to forecasting the future, they're no more accurate at it than weather forecasters. Since nobody knows what kind of deals we'd be able to negotiate on a Leave, and nobody knows whether there are any further gotchas lurking around the corner which could bring the Eurozone to its knees, nobody can know with any useful degree of certainty what the comparative economic risks and benefits might be of either result. Both sides have produced business leaders to support them, but, being frank, I care little for the fact that remaining is good for Richard Branson's business or leaving is good for James Dyson's business - the fact of one result or the other being good for one or the other's business has no bearing on whether one result or the other is good for everybody or not.

There are some facts to be had - there's the fact that no matter what Remain say, the EU is fundamentally an undemocratic organisation. It's undemocratic by design, partly because that's the whole point of it - a realisation that some areas of shared human endeavour are not best left to the whims of whoever can be bothered to turn up to vote that day, because you'll never see turkeys voting for Christmas, and it's undemocratic by nature - there is no pan-European demos for a democracy to function in because the sad fact is, democracy doesn't scale well anyway - it just about works at a local council level (or it would do if people bothered to participate), and it just about works at a national level, but barely does it work at a continental level. And if you're main objection to the EU is the level of control which is in the hands of the unelected bureaucrats, how much control do you think the unelected bureaucrats of your local council or the nation have compared with the elected representatives?

And there's the fact that no matter what Leave say, the EU is not interfering with every minute aspect of your life or of UK legislation; sure, there are EU regulations which affect all of us, but those are regulations - on food quality, on workplace safety, on product safety, on human rights - which any decent human being agrees are good regulations to have, and the existence of those regulations across the single market are what ensures product and service providers get to compete on a level playing field without rogue traders claiming to be selling something they're not. But there's no EU law which forced the UK to privatise the Post Office, contrary to what Leave campaigners claimed several years ago. And the aspect of EU law which comes to us in the form of Directives - they're basically points of principle which national legislatures are left to implement as they see fit anyway. And guess what - most EU Directives which have been implemented into UK law, the UK government has tended to what's known as Gold Plate (add a whole load of other stuff whilst they're at it) on the implementation, so for example a fictitious example of an EU Directive saying bananas must be sold no longer than 10cm long, UKGov historically would always implement by saying bananas should be sold no longer than 8cm long, and show have between 27 and 42 brown spots on the skin at the point of sale.

And oddly, when both sides have left open goals in their position, the other side has done little to exploit them. The fact is, the deal David Cameron came back with after his reform negotiations was so inconsequential few people can even remember it having occurred, never mind what was in it. If the Leave team had any degree of competence, they'd have been all over this the whole campaign as the perfect demonstrator of just how closed to reform the EU actually is - if that was the best reform DC could get when he was in the room saying 'look, lads, my arse is on the line here - if you don't give me something good to go back to the country with, the country's going to quit', then it shows just how little influence we actually have when the stakes for the Union as a whole aren't so high. And when the Leave camp have kept banging on about immigration and how terrible it is and how we need to Take Back Control (repeating those three words ad nauseumlike they were a topic on Just A Minute), the Remain team have done little to counter it by explaining how the level of net immigration is not remotely what Leave claim it to be, that immigrants are not actually driving down wages (because we have minimum wage legislation which most Leave campaigners would abolish at a stroke), and that by and large immigrants are net contributors both to the economy itself and to the organisations they're working for. Instead, the official Remain campaign has basically agreed with Leave about needing to do something about All These Bad Foreigners, and bizarrely their counter argument is to say that the so-called Australian Style Points System which most Leavers refer to will let in more immigrants than we currently get.

Apart from the German-born MP Gisela Stuart (who with no sense of irony is the chair of the official Leave campaign), Labour has broadly stayed out of the ding donging, point scoring, and petty mud slinging that has characterised most of the campaign; for once under their current leadership, Labour MPs have realised that since most of the campaign has been characterised by Tories flinging used cat litter at each other, their own interests are better served by watching them get on with it, taking a temporary break from the business as usual practice of flinging mud at Jeremy Corbyn. The Tories have almost certainly been seriously damaged by the referendum splits, but don't get complacent, Labour folks, the Labour Party is just as split and needs to make a bit more of an effort to get it together by 2020 if it wants to win.

And now as the stakes start to get higher, as the polling is showing the result is less and less predictable, the campaigning has been getting dirtier - as somebody has pointed out that the referendum isn't legally binding anyway, claiming that since there's a parliamentary majority of MPs for Remain, then they'll block a Leave result regardless. This has been bandied around as if some kind of conspiracy in the legislation which created the referendum in the first place, missing the point of how laws are actually made in this country - legislation happens when the government (or very occasionally an individual MP) brings forth proposals to parliament which is then voted on, amended, and voted on again. That's how the British constitution works - laws are made by MPs and Lords, not by popular vote in a referendum. But that said, it would be political suicide for any government to ignore the clear result of a referendum, just as it would be political suicide for most MPs, unless there's a local context otherwise, to vote against legislation resulting from a referendum. The nightmare scenario could be if the result is close - a majority less that 52%/48% - especially if turnout is lower than 60%. If this happens the recriminations from both sides will be orders of magnitude greater than they're currently being.

But whichever side wins, the one thing I can say with 99% certainty is the main blame for the losing side will not because the odds were stacked against them or the other side cheated, it'll be because they failed to make a convincing case; their campaign was poor and shallow.

You Won't Believe What Happens Next.


Smoked mackerel sushish

simon gray - 2016-05-11, 13:31:51

A recipe for what I am going to call Sushish:


  • Sushi rice
  • Smoked mackerel
  • Mayonnaise
  • Wasabi paste
  • Yuzu sauce (or lemon juice)
  • Fish paste
  • Green beans
  • Carrots
  • Mushrooms
  • Spring onions
  • Ginger (pickled if you can get it)
  • Soya sauce


Start your sushi rice cooking by your favourite method of cooking rice - mine is to steam it in a steamer, with a slight dash of sesame oil mixed into it. Chop your carrots to the size you like them and include them in the rice bowl / pan - leave them at the top, because you'll want to lift them out separate from the rice.

Prepare your mayonnaise sauces - take three small bowls, putting a dollop of mayonnaise in each, and mix in to one of each to your preferred taste a squirt of wasabi paste, a splash of yuzu sauce (or lemon juice if you can't get yuzu), and a blob of fish paste. If you want to try different mayonnaise sauces, or a different number of sauces, do accordingly according to how you feel.

Chop your green beans, mushrooms, spring onions, and ginger to the size and shape you like them to be, and stir fry them - test the carrots, and when they're nearly done fish them out of the rice pan and add to the stir fry pan.

If you're having your smoked mackerel hot, you'll be wanting to start heating it up sufficiently long before everything else is done that it's nice and hot, but not so long before that you're going to end up overcooking it; if you're having it cold anyway it doesn't matter, and if the fish is raw you'll have to cook it anyway, unless you like raw fish.

When it's all done, serve in a poncey manner on a poncey plate.


Election results

simon gray - 2016-05-06, 08:44:06

So to summarise yesterday’s election results: all the parties did as well as could be expected, all the other parties underperformed considering where we are in the electoral cycle, and the UK will probably vote to leave on 23 June.

#politics #localgov

Local election 2016 - who to vote for in Bournville ward?

simon gray - 2016-05-02, 16:38:01

Although Cotteridge and Stirchley (or as I call it, Stirchleyridge) is what the estate agents call an Up and Coming Area, we're still not hip enough to have our own local election hustings - we still have to leave that prestige to Moseley. Unlike some parts of the city, we do at least get campaign literature - from some of the candidates, at any rate.

I've read what they're promising, so you don't have to.

Mary Locke - Labour

Mary is not a sitting councillor, but she's representing the sitting administration, the Labour Party, for a ward which has one of its three councillors as Labour; depending on what issue it is which is most offending voters by this Thursday, she's in with a reasonable chance of being returned elected. What's she pledging to do, then?

  • Well paid jobs and training,
  • Improved rubbish and recycling collections; tackling litter,
  • Action on road safety and congestion, and
  • Regeneration of Cotteridge and Stirchley.

She says she'll help local businesses to create new jobs - unfortunately she doesn't say how she'll help local businesses to create new jobs. Myself, I would have thought that the existing local businesses in the ward have pretty much created the correct number of jobs they have the ability to support at the present time - in order to create new jobs, what's desperately needed here is more local businesses; anybody who walks through Stirchleyridge along Pershore Road and Watford Road past the large number of dilapidated and near-derelict premises can see that.

She says she'll improve the rubbish and recycling collections. For those who live in Birmingham, the bins is the issue, next to the Central Library Library of Birmingham's opening hours. Apparently our waste collection service is quite rubbish, with the depot which serves us in Stirchleyridge being exceptionally rubbish - though I have to admit I've not actually experienced this myself, as our bins are always collected on the day they're supposed to be, and the streets around the area look reasonably cleaned to me. I didn't support the introduction of wheeliebins myself, but they don't offend me so greatly I could be bothered opposing them. Where there is a problem with rubbish and recycling collections she's in a bit of a spot given her party have been running the council since 2012.

Apparently throughout the ward people are telling her about concerns re road safety and traffic congestion - so she'll work with communities and police to make our streets safer. The main congestion i see out and about is at the Cotteridge double roundabout, to a significant extent caused by people who don't know how box junctions work; I'm no transport planner, but I'd have thought the best way to solve that would be replacing the double roundabout with a single big roundabout - maybe even with traffic lights. I don't know why her colleague the sitting Labour councillor hasn't already done something to solve this.

And of course, there's the regeneration of Cotteridge and Stirchley; she says she'll work to build on the arrival of Tesco (vigourously opposed by many living here, who seem to think the Co-Op should have the monopoly supermarket provision), so our high streets thrive like they used to. So that's alright then. Sorted.

Ian Jamieson - Green

The local Green Party think, I think, Ian has a real chance of being returned here. So what's he promising?

  • Build a real cycle network with bike routes separate from cars, with priority at junctions,
  • Make use of legal means to bring empty properties back into use as accomodation,
  • Follow Scotland in banning waste food an other organic material being sent to landfill, and
  • Promote the renewable energy technology sector, to create jobs within the city.

I think Ian might have missed a memo here - he seems to have confused standing as a ward councillor with standing as the city mayor. Whilst it's obviously important to know what a party's platform for the city might be, what I really want to know is what the particular candidate's platform for my local area is in a local election. Perhaps these are indeed his pledges for Cotteridge, Stirchley, and Bournville?

I'm not sure where he might build a real cycle network separate from cars with priority at junctions in the ward; along Pershore Road pretty much all of the properties face directly on to six feet of pavement which is then on to the two-by-two lane road (with the pavement-side lane being mostly used as parking). Along the other (one-by-one) roads in the ward where the building isn't straight on to the pavement it's broken up with somebody's front garden - so Ian is either pledging to build cycleways through peoples' front gardens, or he's pledging to knock buildings down, or he's pledging to turn a two-by-two road into an even narrower one-by-one road and remove all those parked cars to somewhere else. Though presumably not the front gardens. There's no denying there is a cycling safety problem along Pershore Road in Stirchley, but I'm not sure I've seen any sensible solutions to it.

Making use of legal means to bring empty properties back in to use as accomodation seems reasonable enough - I'm sure there must be some empty properties in the ward which could provide some homes to people, as does following Scotland in banning waste food being sent to landfill. Although I'm sure the easiest way of doing that in Birmingham without introducing a bye-law would be to simply introduce food waste collections, which the Labour administration are already contemplating doing by allowing people to put food waste into their garden waste bins anyway. Though I don't know what either party are suggesting doing with those chicken remains.

I imagine the number of jobs which it is possible to create in the ward in windmill and solar panel factories would be quite minimal, but hey, every job helps.

Nigel Dawkins - Conservative

Nigel is a previous councillor for the ward who is standing for re-election, hoping to be returned again as the incumbent Labour councillor who defeated him isn't standing again; like Mary's campaign, this can be both a blessing and a curse. And of course, as a previous councillor he thinks he stands a real chance of being returned on Thursday. Here are his six pledges:

  • Create a local street cleaning team to tackle rubbish in the area,
  • Ensure local people are first to be offered new jobs at the new Tesco,
  • Reduce the traffic chaos in Cotteridge,
  • Find the funds to bring back hanging baskets to our shopping centres,
  • Create a third micro-park along the Pershore Road, and
  • Protect the children's play areas in the local parks from being dismantled.

It's a creditable platform to create a local street cleaning team - but as a previous councillor, I do have to ask him why him and his other two Conservative colleagues havn't done so already? The street cleaning team was cut as part of a city-wide funding cut, as Birmingham itself is having to tackle major budget reductions in the money it receives from central government. What Nigel doesn't say is what he'd cut elsewhere to pay for it.

It's a nice idea that he'd ensure local people are first to be offered the new jobs at the new Tesco - but unfortunately the law doesn't really permit that. The best he could do would be to ensure that Tesco puts its first tranche of recruitment effort in to places that only local people will see, with maybe also advertising its jobs in the Selly Oak Jobcentre (do they still advertise jobs in Jobcentres?) - which of course would also open the first jobs up to the unemployed of Selly Oak. And I'm sure Tesco themselves would rather they employ the best people they can get rather than just the most local people they're permitted to get.

Reducing traffic chaos in Cotteridge is another campaign pledge he shares with Mary - with the response being if it's something he can do, why hasn't he done it already? Especially since his ward colleague Timothy Huxtable already has a reputation and history of influence in matters of transport.

It's true that hanging baskets make a shopping centre look nice - but frankly, the visual problems of Pershore Road through Stirchley go a bit further than can be solved by having a few flowers hanging from lampposts. I've no idea how much these things cost when the council provides them, but again he doesn't say how he'd pay for them; I'd have thought a better bet would be walking from shop to shop asking the local businesses to club together to do something to make the place look nicer than cutting council funding from something else to do it.

I didn't know there were two micro-parks in the area; I've been in the one behind the Co-Op in Stirchley - it's nice enough, if a little plain. To my mind, if he's got money to splash around (from whatever unspecified thing it is he'll cut from elsewhere), spending that on making the existing two of them to be nicer would be better than building a third one. I imagine even a micro-park doesn't come cheap.

Children's play areas in the main parks has become a hot issue elsewhere in the city, with one of the candidates starting a petition to not have one removed which already isn't slated for removal anyway. I don't know whether any of the play areas in this ward's parks have been slated for removal; if Nigel is going to prevent it then it would have been nice if his campaign literature had said what he'd cut elsewhere in order keep them.

Other candidates

As well as the three candidates above, there's a Liberal Democrat candidate and a UKIP candidate standing but they evidently don't rate their chances much, because I don't remember seeing any of their election material come through the letterbox; as they always say on the news, a full list of candidates can be found on the Birmingham City Council website.

So to sum up, the three candidates are all pledging to spend money the council doesn't have to fix problems they or their colleagues haven't fixed yet. That makes the decision of who to vote for on Thursday much easier to make, I'm sure.

#politics #localgov

iOS updates

simon gray - 2016-04-04, 18:00:51

Minor iOS updates seem to be coming along with the same tedious regularity of iTunes updates these days. 

Potatoes fondante

simon gray - 2016-04-03, 14:53:36

If you want the best potatoes you've ever had, try these:

Take a load of waxy potatoes (eg Charlotte), peel them, and cut them in half lengthways. 

Put them in a pan just big enough to hold them all as one layer, together with a massive blob of ghee (or butter if you live somewhere that doesn't know what ghee is). Heat the pan to melt the ghee, then add enough water to cover the potatoes - and crumble in a vegetable stock cube. Reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are cooked, adding some Herbes de Provence towards the end. The water will boil off, leaving them continuing to cook in the ghee.

Optionally, after cooking and before serving, put them in an oven at 220°C for a few minutes to crisp up the surfaces. 


Antisocial pedestrians

simon gray - 2016-03-22, 08:57:46

Standing by the button on a busy pedestrian crossing and not pressing it - there really should be a law against it. 

Brought to you by simon gray.

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