Tasty, nutritious democracy

vote-counts

“People who say their heart is with Corbyn, get a transplant.” Tony Blair

“The moronic MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn to ‘have a debate’ need their heads felt. They should be ashamed of themselves. They’re morons.” John McTernan

When I sat myself down a week or so ago to start making notes for this blog I decided that this would be a good moment to write something positive. After laying into the press and the chancellor in previous blogs various former friends suggested that I should try to be more constructive. It’s easy to throw bricks they said, harder to build a house.

My intention, therefore, was to write about the Labour leadership contest. It seemed like a good place to start. After much tooing and froing, MPs decided to nominate four candidates who, while broadly uninspiring, cover most of the perceived spectrum of views within the party. In fact, they’d gone out of their way to ensure that Jeremy Corbyn was on the list to specifically ‘broaden the debate’.

This seemed like a laudable action by MPs – allowing grassroots members to weigh up the candidates differing views across a full range of policies and help to provide a future direction for the party from the bottom up – and I was all set to start researching when YouGov released the shock results of their first poll: Corbyn was winning, and relatively comfortable as well. Even with second preferences taken into account he held a healthy-looking 6 point lead over his nearest rival – the likable but dreary Andy Burnham.

Faced with the startling reality of what their members wanted, the Labour Party duly went bonkers and, like Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket [spoiler alert], they couldn’t cope and proceeded to blow their brains out in the bathroom. Except that it wasn’t a bathroom it was Newsnight. Damn you democracy for getting in the way of what our sensible, right-minded leaders tell us is good for us.

It started with John McTernan (a man who’s Wikipedia page has been hit hard in the last seven days) calling those who nominated Corbyn morons; was followed by Tony Blair suggesting that those who say their heart is with Corbyn need a transplant; and finished with two of the other candidates saying they’d never work for Corbyn, a major funder telling us that the labour party would breakup if Corbyn won; and a prominent backbench MP saying the whole leadership election should be rerun because it’s undemocratic. Finally, on Monday, it was suggested that should Corbyn win a group of unnamed senior Labour MPs will attempt a coup. If this were suggested somewhere in Africa we’d be rolling our eyes and threatening economic sanctions. Here we prefer to pretend it’s just politics.

Anyway, let’s start at the top. The list of ‘morons’ who nominated Corbyn includes Frank Field (former Secretary of State for Social Security, the coalition government’s Poverty Tsar and current Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee), John Cruddas (former Labour Party Policy Co-ordinator) and two London Mayoral candidates, David Lammy and Sadiq Khan, the latter of whom who ran Ed’s leadership campaign in 2010. Put simply, if these people are morons then the party is completely screwed.

Turning to the most discussed aspect of this whole issue, that the leadership election is undemocratic, I could argue that never stopped the House of Lords, or even the House of Parliament – though that’s a little too like opening Pandora’s Box. Instead, let’s look at what’s been said: 140,000 people will have joined the Labour party as members or registered supporters before the vote; and what’s been implied: that this is a leftist plot (aided by some mischievous right-wingers) to infiltrate the leadership race.

I started by trying to work out where the figure of 140,000 came from. Labour had some 200,000 party members before the general election so this sort of influx could have a dramatic effect on the outcome. As far as I can tell the figures tally up like this:

New Registerd Voters for Labour Party Leadership Election 2015 (approx)

Full Party Members 68,000
Registered Supporters 21,000
Union Affiliated Supporters 25,000
Union Affiliated Supporters still in process 30,000
Total 144,000

 

These numbers are rough – they were the best I could do at short notice – and come courtesy of a couple of sources. [i] [ii]

So, is this a calculated ploy to fix the result? Well some of those full members could be hard leftists. While standard membership of the party is about £45 a year, full-time students can join for a £1 and the unemployed for a much reduced rate, so I guess it’s possible. However, it’s worth noting that less than a third of new members have joined since the leadership nominations were closed so can’t have joined to specifically vote for Corbyn and – even presuming they’re all communists – they still make up less than 10% of the potential pool of voters.

What about the registered supporters and affiliate members, then? While the party has been quick to defend itself against charges of interference it is undeniably difficult to check the political affiliation of all these people. Thankfully, when YouGov did their survey they also separated out voting preference by membership type. What they found was that while 57% of affiliate members and registered supporters support Corbyn, only 40% of full members did. When you follow this through a members-only vote would be a dead heat between Corbyn and Burnham. However, it’s worth noting though that even among full members Corbyn has a lead of 13 points for first preference votes and that he’s been nominated by more constituency labour parties than any other candidate.

As such, the sensible conclusion to draw from this farrago – it seems to me – is that whether the leadership of the party like it or not, Corbyn is not some kind of figurehead for a leftist plot to take over the Labour party. Rather than a party being dragged to the left by its more extreme supporters this is a group of voters who have been dragged to the right by their leadership and no longer want to stay there.

They’re fed up of a schizoid, directionless party that seems to offer little or no alternative to an incumbent government who – let’s be honest – are seen to be more responsible and reliable by the public at large and particularly by the business sector. They’re fed up of having no choice but to vote for a party who can only say we’re a bit nicer than that lot so you should support us. They’re fed up of not having an alternative – whatever that means for the future electability of the Labour Party. The only thing Corbyn is the figurehead of is Team ‘Please, for fuck’s sake, there must be another way, a better way of running a country’. Frankly – what with the rise of anti-austerity parties across Europe and the SNP’s utter domination of Scottish politics – it feels like this has been coming for while.

The sadness of this story is that it seems that the people in charge really aren’t ready to face that. Instead they sink as far as suggesting that the only way to deal with people utilising their democratic right reprehensibly – as they see it – is to have another election; or to go on strike; or to have a coup, should it come to that. Here stands the Labour Party, refusing to listen to itself, preferring instead to blow its own brains out on national TV – that should make them more electable.

[i] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jul/28/harriet-harman-we-are-weeding-out-bogus-labour-leadership-voters

[ii] http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/Politics/article1585822.ece

When not getting pointlessly angry about politics I get pointlessly happy about music. You can access my latest mix here.

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Bloke by the oak

oak tree

A brief post as I’m suffering the consequences of my own alcoholic folly. Yesterday, I went to my first folk festival. Part of me ticked off another item on my bottomless bucket list. Part of me wondered when I got old enough to be excited by the prospect of going to a folk festival.

Frankly, I shouldn’t have worried. I had an absolutely glorious time at Folk By The Oak and heartily recommend that you put the date in your diary for next year. The sun shone sublimely on me and seven thousand other intrepid adventurers in a field somewhere in Hertfordshire. In between shooting arrows at dinosaurs and risking life and limb by climbing trees – at a stage of drunkness that should, but never does, know better – I saw some amazing music and thought I’d best post a couple of bits straight away.

First up we have a very pretty little Blair Dunlop tune. Blair is one of those rare musicians who only needs a guitar and his voice to capture a room. My friend mentioned him the same breath as Gregory Alan Isakov and, while I’m not willing to go that far yet, I’m looking forward to listening to more of him. There’s nothing showy about either the man or his music but his understated brilliance shines through. :

By the by, he also seemed like a very nice bloke when we had a chat with him afterwards. Next up, we have The Young ‘Uns. Now these guys are are truly exceptional live band. Beautiful three parts harmonies and wit and wisdom in equal measure. A couple of slices for you:

More later in the week. In the meantime you can listen to loads of monthly mixes over here, including the first part of my recent barbecue playlist.

Doctor Love

dr love

“It was sad music. But it waved its sadness like a battle flag. It said the universe had done all it could, but you were still alive.” Terry Pratchett

I was lucky enough to grow up in a household dominated by Motown: Smokey and Stevie, Marvin and Martha, Levi and Leonard. By the time I was a teenager I was on first name terms with half of the back catalogue. When I turned thirteen Alan Parker’s excellent movie The Commitments had hit these fair shores and I discovered the other half of my soul family: Aretha, Otis, Wilson, Percy and Solomon – to name but a few – tore me apart.

The thrill of this music is the emotion. Heartbreak and lust twirl in ceaseless abandon. It’s all jam today and screw tomorrow. Life should be lived, not procrastinated over. These artists implore you to give yourself over to desire. For me, listening to soul music is like being refuelled. It’s the timber for my flames. The deep, abiding joy that I feel every time I hear a nailed on horn section never fails to catch me when I fall.

The abiding power of soul music is clear from the number of cover versions that have appeared. While everyone listens to the classics our modern artists just can’t resist dipping into their pool of creativity. For example, a quick google of my favourite song – the Tracks of my Tears by Smokey Robinson, fact fans –finds more than fifty different versions from the pretty good, to the slightly bizarre, to the screaming at the TV horrific.

Despite this, I’ve found original new soul music pretty hard to come by until fairly recently. However Leon Bridge’s popularity seems to have arrived on the crest of a wave featuring a bunch of pretty excellent musicians and – as my girlfriend is now officially bored of my soul soliloquising – I thought I’d throw a few out here instead.

Starting in Birmingham, Alabama we have St. Paul and The Broken Bones. This is a bunch of people who love classic soul so much it hurts. You can see it in Paul’s eyes, as he wails like Wilson and looks like Alan Carr. I caught them twice last year and while their recordings really don’t do them justice, Half The City is one of the best things I heard in 2014:

Nathaniel Rateliff has made a name for himself in indie folk circles for his heartfelt, melancholy tunage (check out the marvellous Three Fingers In) but splits his time between that and fronting the 7 piece band Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, who have a record due later this year. They make some old-school Sam Cooke style stomps which deserve your attention:

Finally, well almost finally, Alabama Shakes have just released a brilliant record – Sound and Color- which takes a classic soul sound and throws it at some early 70’s style experimentation. Gimme All You Love has already taken over my in car listening, which has resulted in some funny looks as I scream along at traffic lights:

A quick mention, as well, for the excellent Mike Clark and The Sugar Sounds. I discovered him through one of my favourite music blogs (I am fuel, you are friends) and you absolutely check out Burn You Up, which you can get at from Blank Tape Records.

Skewed Quiff has been sitting around on its arse doing very little of late so while you wait for some new tunes here’s the first half of my barbeque playlist.

Americana

americana

Average annual cost of study in the US including tuition fees and living expenses: US$36,564 [i]

Just up the road from where I live there’s an Americana festival on this weekend. There’ll be cars, cover bands and – most intriguingly – a live history encampment with shoot-out re-enactments. I may just get to fulfil my childhood dream of being a cowboy.

It seems weird to me to have a festival celebrating all things American when it feels like modern life has been eaten whole by the behemoth that is the US’s cultural output. Our food, language, music, books, films, TV, theatre and art – all invariably altered by Uncle Sam. We are life buoys on the cultural tide of America. It’s also arguable that our economic approach has spent most of the last forty odd years slowly but surely becoming a highly detailed 1:5 scale-model of theirs. We have embraced borrow and spend as our very own.

As such I don’t so much look forward to new budgets as brace myself for impact. This week was no different  – other than the fact that I think George Osborne has a more punchable face than many of his predecessors. Don’t worry, I’m not going to spend the next however many minutes of your live breaking down the budget. I’m not an economist and there are many, many places where you can pour over the intricacies whilst being guided by far more qualified by people than I. Instead, I’m going to focus on one particular aspect that caused me consternation (in fact, consternation is a serious fricking understatement but I’m trying to be family friendly so let’s stick to that).

Coming in at number 21 on the list of key points from the budget: Student Maintenance Grants will be replaced with loans. To quote precisely:

“From the 2016-17 academic year, cash support for new students will increase by £766 to £8,200 a year, the highest level ever for students from low-income households. New maintenance loan support will replace student grants. Loans will be paid back only when graduates earn above £21,000 a year.” [ii]

Okay, so first off – I’m bias. Without going into my personal history, when I went to university I received the full maintenance grant and the maximum entitlement of student loan. I wouldn’t have gone to university under the post 2012 system, let alone this new system. I’m just not the sort of person who would want to saddle themselves with £40,000 of debt whatever the repayment structure.

With that in mind, let’s run through a few figures. Under the current system you are in line to pay up to £9,000 a year in tuition fees. While some universities or individual courses do charge less in 2014 three-quarters asked for the full amount [iii]. On top of this, should you require financial support you can claim student loans up to £5740, if you live outside of London, or £8,009 if you don’t.

At least, for now, you can also get a maintenance grant of up to £3,387 if your household income is below £42,620. Under the new system this will also disappear. So, let’s put this in simple terms. For a typical student coming from a low income household the price of going to university just went up by approximately £10,000. Awesome!

If I were going to university next year – with the same financial circumstance as I had when I originally went – I would be borrowing £51,000 for my higher education. And that’s not even the worst bit. With interest rates set at RPI + up to 3%, I would stand to repay around £134,000 [iv] during my working life or about the same as a three bedroom semi in my local area. Ah, fuck it, I’m not feeling family friendly anymore.  Fuck, fuck, fuck ,fuck, FUCK!

Okay, so on the bright side, I only have thirty years to repay, and with payments at 9% of any income above £21,000, at some point I’d have to get my salary up into the £100,000 bracket in order to repay the whole thing. Which also makes me wonder how this whole thing will work.

Not that this will help when the government are taking £1,000 of your money away every year. Let’s face it: This is basically a tax in everything but name. A tax on learning that disproportionately affects poor people.  After all it’s those who need the grant who will end up paying more for their university education. It is – in modern parlance – regressive rather than progressive. Or shit rather than sensible.

So where does this leave us? Apparently it leaves us frightening young people away from university; shackling them with a lifelong tax without ever calling it that; and praying that the fall in income doesn’t have a negative effect on how people spend their money on, say, consumer goods or housing since those are the two things that our economy seems to pretty much rely on these days.

The big surprise of the budget is how easily something this toxic seems to have escaped greater public anger. The chancellor told this was a budget for working people – though it’s not clear to me who the budget was really for. The one thing we can be sure of is that it wasn’t a budget for young people. Good thing they don’t vote (and especially don’t vote Conservative), eh George:

2015 General Election (Ipsos Mori Estimates)[v]

Age Turnout

Conservative lead over Labour

18 – 24 43%

-16

25 – 34

54%

-3

35 – 44

64%

0

45 – 54

72%

3

55 – 64

77%

6

65+

78%

24

I’ll be talking about music again next week, honest. In the meantime, Skewed Quiff’s latest mix can be found here

[i] http://www.topuniversities.com/student-info/student-finance/how-much-does-it-cost-study-us

[ii] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/summer-budget-2015-key-announcements

[iii] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/11051519/More-students-charged-maximum-9000-tuition-fees.html

[iv] http://www.studentloanrepayment.co.uk/scheme/rep/repayment-calculator/sfe/

[v] https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3575/How-Britain-voted-in-2015.aspx?view=wide

I’m not dead yet

I believe in first love in the same way that I believe in gravity. I know it’s there.  I’ve seen it, twice. While I admit that it’s not possible to experience something for the first time twice I’m sticking to my guns. The times were not far – a year perhaps – but both were life-changing, though I can’t tell you whether for better or worse. When I work it out, I’ll tell you all about them.

The first, first time was in a now defunct record store some time in 1998. I picked up a CD, drawn perhaps by the swallow on the cover, by intuition or more likely cold, hard luck. I knew I was blessed within a few minutes of the stereo’s twitch. I was converted within an hour and confirmed within the day. I’d found what I’d been looking for. That weird, barely noticeable itch that had seen me spend a year’s worth of educational support on a music collection had been sated. I fell in love with Sparklehorse, and why wouldn’t you, really? They were like nothing I’d heard before. Music opened up like a flower brought out of the shade.

And so, five years ago, when Mark Linkous (the man who for the most part was Sparklehorse) took his own life in such tragic fashion, I was bereft. Obviously, such an event is not on the same scale as losing a friend or a relative but I’m not ashamed to admit that it took the wind out of my sails. Looking back, the worst part is that it was my own selfishness that took centre stage. While, for various understandable reasons, Linkous was never the most productive of musicians (five albums in some fifteen years) he was out there, grafting, and there was bound to be something stunning coming at some point. Now there would be no more and I was sad. Sometimes – during odd moments of all too bright clarity – I realise I’m not a very nice human being.

So why the universe would be so nice to me I’m not sure. The other week I sat down to listen to the Happyness album, Weird Little Birthday. First point of order – it’s great, really great. Though I would say that, because somewhere in its beating heart it is Sparklehorse. Other great stuff as well, but mainly Sparklehorse.They’re not covering his music directly but the essence of so much of their output is coloured sadly and beautiful by Linkous.

And with that the stunning obvious hit me, as it usually does, right in the face, right from the direction I was looking in, without somehow seeing it there. Like a band called Happyness making me happy. Art resounds through times. It may or may not last forever but it lasts – at least as long as other people are influenced by it or influenced by people who were influenced by it. The past is a carefully constructed house of cards. You can’t remove one piece and expect it to remain standing. I’ll always hear Sparklehorse in music, new and old. He’s not dead yet.

Linkous is not alone in dying too young, too soon. The magnificent Jason Molina – he of Songs: Ohio and Magnolia Electric Company – was another troubled soul who made trembling, intemperate, transformative records.

Glen Hansard’s recent cover of Being In love (he’s did an EP of Molina covers) is easily one of my favourite tunes of the year. He’s not dead yet, either, I guess:

Finally, it would utterly remiss of me to finish this week’s entry without giving a few minutes to another we lost. Vic Chesnutt –humble and heart-breaking , resentful and rye – was a master of his art form.

If you fancy more, Skewed Quiff’s brand new monthly mix is here

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