Thursday 30 November 2017

Brexitwatch: let's try democracy!

One thing the Brexit referendum and its aftermath has surely illustrated is that even if we finally defeat Brexit, we cannot afford to just go back to things as they were. The UK needs a whole host of reforms - e.g. an elected Second Parliamentary Chamber, a fair and honest press, and a democratically elected House of Commons.

Because of our antiquated first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, UK governments are virtually always elected by a minority of the voters. That's right. The governments who wield almost absolute power over us are governments most people voted against. 

Below is an exchange of emails I have had with my MP, Sir Keir Starmer, on the need to switch to a proportional system in which if you get, say, 40 per cent of the vote, you get 40 per cent of the seats in Parliament. Feel free to use any of my arguments if you wish to pursue this important cause.

Dear Sir Keir, 
Thank you for your reply. I am encouraged that you do not oppose a fairer electoral system as many Labour and Conservative politicians unfortunately do, but, respectfully, I think the problem of a government and parliament that fails to reflect the way people voted is a bigger problem than you realise.
You say FPTP has 'a history of generally returning stable, single-party governments', but when such government enjoy the support of less than half the electorate, this is a weakness and not a strength. For it means that governments are constantly imposing things the majority of voters were against.
Often such policies are extremely damaging - the poll tax, the Iraq War, an extreme Brexit. No wonder people are disillusioned with politics!
If the constituency link is something you value, this can, of course, be preserved in proportional systems. However, it is easy to overstate the value of this supposed link. A survey in 2013 showed that barely a fifth of the people in the UK even knew who there MP was. And at the 2015 election, more than half of MPs failed to win an overall majority in their constituency. In other words, in the UK system, most MPs spend most of their time voting for things most people in their constituencies are against.
Of course, it is a good thing to ensure that people register to vote, and I do what I can on social media to encourage this. However, it is not an alternative to having a fair electoral system, and without a fair electoral system, it will not solve the disconnect between what people vote for and the government they end up getting.
As the EU referendum and its aftermath demonstrated, we cannot go on as we have been doing. Sir Keir, I urge you to get on the right side of history and become part of the solution, not part of the problem. We need a fair voting system NOW.
Yours sincerely,
John Withington
On 01 November 2017 at 12:06 STARMER, Keir wrote:
Thank you for contacting me recently regarding electoral reform.

I agree that Parliament needs to be representative of communities across Britain and to reflect different views and concerns. I also believe that we must start by making it easier for people to register to vote and to engage more regularly in politics and local decisions.

There are, of course, strengths and weaknesses to all voting systems. The First Past the Post system does have a history of generally returning stable, single-party governments and of retaining the constituency link, both of which I think are important benefits to our electoral system. I appreciate, however, that there is a case to look in detail at our electoral system and that forms of proportional representation are already used in the devolved administrations across the UK, as well as in many local authority elections.

I hope the parliamentary petition debate will allow an opportunity to consider these issues. I also believe more widely that we need to look at ways to ensure our politics connects and engages with the public. Thank you once again for writing to me and for sharing your views.

Best wishes,

Dear Sir Keir,
I trust you will be lending your support tomorrow to the introduction of democracy to elections to the House of Commons.
It is indefensible that UK governments are able to exercise virtually absolute power for five years having often won the support of little more than a third of voters and perhaps a quarter of the electorate.
No wonder the kind of disillusionment that produced the Brexit vote is rife. 
Our voting system was designed for a barely literate electorate. It is not fit for the 21st century. We need proportional representation NOW.
We have seen the imposition of too many divisive policies that most people oppose - the poll tax, the Iraq War, Brexit. We cannot afford another.
I appreciate that the Labour Party may be disadvantaged (though, of course, if it promotes policies that command majority support this will not happen). But this is a time when the interests of the country must come first.
I am counting on you.
Yours sincerely,
John Withington

Wednesday 29 November 2017

Brexit; quadruple (or more) whammy

Another bad week for Brexit. Here are a few of the lowlights.

The UK lost the EU medicines agency and banking authority in spite of rather bizarre assurances from Brexit secretary David Davis that in this instance, Brexit would not mean Brexit and they would stay in London. So up in smoke went more than 1,000 high quality jobs the UK had fought very hard to get, and our international prestige received a huge dent.

It was revealed that since the Brexit vote, European banks had dumped £350bn of UK-linked assets. That’s more than twice the entire NHS budget.

Brexit will cut government tax revenues by £42bn between 2019 and 2021. That’s about half the entire education budget. And because of the higher prices it has caused, Brexit has produced an effective £448 pay cut for every worker.

And one thing we can be sure of, until Theresa May changes course, there will be plenty more bad news.

Monday 20 November 2017

Prince Philip's rumoured affairs

Just as the Queen and Prince Philip prepare to celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary, rumours about Philip's alleged affairs have resurfaced. 

One concerns British actress Pat Kirkwood, whose legs in her heyday were said to have been 'the eighth wonder of the world'. Kirkwood, who died in 2007, always denied there was an affair.

I interviewed her about the story in 1999 for a programme entitled Prince Philip - one step behind the Queen for the American television series Biography made by A&E Network.

She told me the rumours arose because she danced with Philip in a London night club in the late 1940s. As they were gliding across the floor, some people came in, spotted them, and looked rather cross. She continued:

'I said to Prince Philip: "Who are those people that have come in just now? They seem to be awfully disgusted with something." He said: "Oh them. They're the courtiers." Whereupon he started to imitate them, pulling his face into disgusted positions. It was so funny. So I said: "don't you think we'd better sit down now?" He said: "No. And that's an order."'

Thursday 16 November 2017

Brexitwatch. Parliament: We demand to be irrelevant!

When Theresa May had to hastily cobble together a White Paper to pretend she had some kind of ‘plan’ for Brexit, even she had to admit that while the UK has been in the EU, Parliament has remained ‘sovereign’, contradicting one of the major lies of the Leave campaign.

But now MPs are busily voting that after Brexit, they should no longer be sovereign. Do they want a say on workers’ rights? No, thank you. Animal rights, then? Certainly not!

And remember the 58 Brexit impact studies that Parliament is supposedly forcing the government to publish? Shouldn't MPs make sure they have a look at them before pushing Brexit through? Oh, no need for that, old chap.

Winston Churchill once remarked that the House of Commons would not be a truly representative body if it did not have its proportion of fools. Well, now the fools are in the majority. More than three hundred of them have been found to vote themselves into irrelevance.

You can understand why. I suspect most MPs realise Brexit will be a disaster, but if we complain to them, they will have the perfect excuse: ‘You voted for it!’ So why speak out and go through all the heartache of being abused by the extreme right and the newspapers they control? Better to just nod it through.

The trouble is: if our MPs keep voting that they should be irrelevant, that is what they will become. And the ‘people’ are likely to start asking what is the point of Parliament.

Sunday 12 November 2017

'Secrets of the Centenarians': BBC Radio Essex interview and Lancashire Evening Post article

Interviewed by Tony Fisher of BBC Radio Essex on my new book: 'Secrets of the Centenarians' - how do you live to 100, what is it like if you get there, longevity myths, why do women survive better than men etc. The interview is here:

And a piece on the book from the Lancashire Evening Post: Britain's oldest killer, debut author and the last surviving member of the merchant navy from World War One:

Monday 6 November 2017

Brexitwatch: a bad week for the Brexiters

As I forecast in my post of June 21 (Brexit; a game of two halves), things were always going to get tough for the Brexiters once the negotiations began and the wild promises they had made started to hit the rocks of reality. But this has been a particularly bad week.

Theresa May’s Tory government has been desperate to keep hidden 58 studies it has done on how Brexit will affect the UK’s economy. Now Labour has successfully demanded they be published. No doubt May will keep wriggling, but if pro-democracy MPs keep fighting, the reports will surely be revealed.

And after a fair bit of foot-dragging, the Electoral Commission has finally agreed to investigate how the Leave Campaign was financed, just as investigative journalists begin to probe the involvement of Russia in securing the Brexit vote.

Brexit fanatic (and disgraced former defence secretary) Liam Fox had to admit that if we leave the EU, we will have to rip up trade deals with many other countries, leaving about 750 new agreements to be reached according to some estimates.

Then there was what Harold Macmillan used to call: ‘Events, dear boy’. A new disgraced former defence secretary, Michael Fallon, had to quit the government over his inappropriate treatment of women. And question marks have appeared over other MPs. At the moment, a minority Tory government needs by-elections, like a hole in the head or, say, a Leave vote in an EU referendum. 

Saturday 4 November 2017

Secrets of living to 100 and the world's oldest author

Interviewed this week by Debbie McCrory of BBC Radio Cornwall about my book Secrets of the Centenarians: what is it like to live for a century and which of us will survive to find out? and about the world's oldest working author. Here it is:-

Ida Pollock from Lanreath, near Looe, was reckoned to hold the title when she died aged 105 in 2013, just before the publication of her 125th book. She used ten different pseudonyms to write romantic novels, of which she sold over a million, with titles such as Hotel Stardust and The Bay of Moonlight.

She wrote her first book at the age of fourteen, and became a full-time writer in her twenties. Over one five-year period, she produced 40 titles, and said she could finish a book in six weeks.

Many of her romantic heroes were said to be based on her husband Lt-Col. Hugh Pollock, who had previously been married to Enid Blyton. He died aged 82 in 1971.

Secrets of the Centenarians is published by Reaktion Books.