Monday, 30 November 2009

The new Chartists

Despite the best efforts of campaigners, the last time that electoral reform really fired up the British public was when the Suffragettes were strutting their stuff. So while I’m a longstanding supporter of proportional representation and most of the other constitutional changes that reformers have been seeking, under one banner or another, at least since Margaret Thatcher showed what could be done with a minority of votes under an ‘elective dictatorship’, I’m not convinced that the vast majority of voters give a spoilt ballot about it. You certainly don’t hear many people down the pub saying, ‘You know, I’d give Gordon Brown another chance if he promised us a referendum on the single transferrable vote system.’

Campaigners need to ‘reach people where they are’, as the focus-group philosophers like to put it, if they are to get them interested in reform. And since on Saturday and Sunday evenings for the past few months, a large chunk of the nation has been slumped in front of its flatscreens arguing the toss over which X Factor contestant will provide this year’s Christmas Number One Single, where better to advance the case for reform?

The X Factor has courted its share of electoral controversy this time around with arch autocrat Simon Cowell declining to use his judge’s vote to dump the ‘vile creatures’ (his description, in case you were watching Strictly) John and Edward. So, with public trust and confidence in light entertainment entrepreneurs at an all-time low (more than 3,000 viewers complained to ITV about the Jedward farrago), it’s clearly time to put reform high on the Saturday-night agenda. Let’s call it Charter 09 and start collecting the signatures now.

1. Elect the judges Who voted for Simon Cowell anyway? Let’s put the judges through the performing-monkey hoops of a knockout vote each week as well as the performers.

2. One viewer one vote Anyone with a mobile phone and plenty of money can spend their weekend voting over and again for their preferred contestant. ‘Vote early, vote often’ might have been good enough for Mayor Daley but there should be no place for multiple voting in our model TV democracy.

3. Single transferrable vote Every year contestants go out of The X Factor as a result of viewers not voting for them because they think they are too talented to be voted out. A single transferrable vote system would ensure that the least popular act would go out each week.

4. No property qualifications So no charge for mobile phone votes and an alternative means of voting for those who don’t own (that’s you, dad) or use (and you, mum) a mobile.

5. Right of recall Just because someone wins The X Factor doesn’t mean we should be stuck with them forever. A right of recall if they incur our disfavour should be accompanied with the ability to force them to do £20-a-head gigs (as much as you can eat thrown in free) at Maidstone’s Pizza Express, which is where we last heard of the first X Factor winner Steve Brookstein.

6. Public hangings Only one judge and two contestants per series (this isn’t Fox News after all) but if you want to be popular ...

Friday, 20 November 2009

The real value of art

In the same week that some of the brightest and best of Bristol’s urban artists came to north London to showcase their talent this autumn, BT contractors painted over one of the brightest and best pieces of urban art in the neighbourhood.

Crowds gathered on Upper Street, Islington, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the elusive artist Banksy when Bristol’s Crazy Fools Gallery took over the Library (a bar, not a library) for a weekend exhibition. Neither Banksy nor his rumoured self-portrait, valued unviewed at £250,000, turned up. Instead we got ‘Portrait of an Artist’, which had a very fine old-fashioned, gold-plated frame enclosing a portrait of an artist (from behind and not very good) at his easel painting what looks like an alien escapee from a lava lamp. The price tag was still a quarter of a million.

Not far from Upper Street, but in a less salubrious part of town where art investors fear to tread, BT was responding to a ‘complaint about graffitti’ by painting over a portrait on one of its cable boxes of teenager Ben Kinsella, who was murdered at the spot in June 2008. The portrait (from the front and really rather good, even without a gold frame) was the tribute of an anonymous street artist and was much appreciated by Ben’s family and friends. They at least have a sense of the real value of art.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Roll call of irrelevance

Put away the excuses and spare us the extenuating circumstances: if ever there was a measure of left-wing failure in current British politics, it was the abysmal showing of every variety of left-green alternative to Labour and the SNP in the Glasgow North East by election. For the British National Party to fall just 63 votes short of beating the Tories into third place in what should be the Scottish left’s heartland shows just how far we have fallen from the heady days of the 2003 Scottish Parliament election, which saw the election of seven Scottish Green MSPs and six Scottish Socialist Party MSPs.

‘The Labour-SNP conflict was fought with a complete obliviousness to the big issues voters face both locally and nationally,’ wrote Gerry Hassan in the Guardian. ‘Glasgow North East has the highest unemployment claimant count in Scotland, the second-highest incapacity levels and is rated the second unhealthiest place in the UK. Neither party touched on these issues in the campaign.’

Despite this, the voting returns for the various left candidates read like a roll call of irrelevance. David Doherty, for the Scottish Greens, did better than most with a paltry 332 (1.61 per cent). Louise McDaid, for the Socialist Labour Party, managed less than a coachload (47 votes, 0.23 per cent). The Scottish Socialist Party’s Kevin McVey got 152 (0.74 per cent), a long way short of the 798 (3.86 per cent) obtained by the agent of the SSP’s acrimonious collapse, Tommy Sheridan, now fighting under the Solidarity banner.

The BNP’s 1,013 votes (4.92 per cent) is a long way short of seeing stormtroopers on Sauchiehall Street. But the fact that left-greens can’t put together a deposit-saving campaign under these most favourable of by-election circumstances is yet further proof, if it is needed, of the need to get our electoral act together if the anti-establishment tide is not to be harnessed even more effectively by the far right.