Notes From a Small Planet... Election Special!

3 Conversations

Up the poll

Typical. I'm away from the "Post" for three weeks, and it appears that the British Government simply couldn't carry on any longer without me. The long-awaited UK General Election is finally upon us.

The campaign, which seems to have been running unofficially since the start of the year, was officially set in motion on Tuesday, and we'll go to the polls on June 7. Many Britons seem to have greeted the news with a yawn. Opinion surveys have suggested that a sizeable proportion of the electorate plan to ignore the whole thing.

This alarms all the political parties. They point out that democracy depends upon the people's participation, and that the right to votes for all was won at the cost of many lives. While all of this is true, I suspect that much of their anxiety comes from the fact that most politicians would rather be hated than ignored.

Anyway, personally, I'm delighted that it's all under way at last. I love elections. Party politics comes second only to soccer as my favourite spectator sport. It fascinates me: the sly tactics, the manoeuvring, the low cunning, the brilliant manipulation of language and the media. A perfect illustration of the latter dark art surfaced in the first hours of the campaign. Prime Minister Tony Blair boasted that the British crime rate was falling. His Conservative rival William Hague said that it was rising. Both were telling the truth: they were just using different definitions of the word "crime".

I will use my vote. I was once an activist for one of the major parties, but was disappointed by the amount of clique-building and back-stabbing that went on between people who were meant to be ideological allies. However, though I take a more detached view of it all now, I still believe that there is enough of a difference between the options on offer to make a walk down to the polling station and the effort of marking a cross on a piece of paper worthwhile. (Thankfully, we don't go in for hole punches and chads in Britain).

I'll vote despite the fact that it's pretty obvious that much of the real power in the western world lies in the hands of corporate directors who don't even have to pretend to have the public interest at heart. As one case in the British mobile phone industry recently proved, when companies decide to ditch the jobs of thousands of workers, the Government can plead and protest but cannot force a change of policy.

However, though their control over the economy may be limited, the politicians do have real power over social policy, and their rhetoric helps to set the tone of the country. Britain was a harsher, more abrasive place when it was governed by the harsh, abrasive Margaret Thatcher. The election does matter.

Therefore, I am much relieved that here on h2g2, we are after all going to be permitted to discuss the issues raised by the campaign, where once it appeared that any mention of the election would be forbidden.

That privilege will continue just so long as the discussion doesn't turn into partisan campaigning. It's up to all of us to do all we can to ensure that nothing of that kind happens.

Chad to worse

Meanwhile, over in Florida, Governor Jeb Bush has taken drastic action to try to prevent any repetition of the catastrophe that struck last year, when the most hotly-disputed election in history somehow led to his brother becoming President of the United States.

The infamous punch-ballots are to be scrapped. Counties will henceforth use more advanced technology, such as an optical scanner that will scan the ballots to see which of a series of "bubbles" the voter has filled in with a pencil.

'My hope is that people will see that we have resolved the problem,'

Governor Bush has said.
'Other states ought to look at this as a model because if there is another close election in another state, I guarantee you that they will not be able to withstand the incredible scrutiny that occurred in Florida.'

Which, if I understand it correctly, roughly means:
'Sure, my brother wasn't convincingly elected. But I bet another state could have messed up the election even worse than we did here in Florida.'

However, looking forward, one aspect of the Florida proposals strikes me as alarming. One method of voting under consideration would involve voters touching a computer screen in order to register their vote.

Anyone who regularly plays quiz machines will immediately appreciate why that sounds like a very, very bad idea. "Touch-screen technology" is maddeningly unreliable. Time and again, when trying to play machines based on that system, I've seethed as the machine has either refused to respond to repeated jabs on its screen from my forefinger, or registered an answer that I'm quite sure I wasn't pointing to. I know just what you mean Ormy!... ed

It really wouldn't seem much like progress if, in 2004, Floridans found that hanging chads had been replaced by smeared greasy fingermarks on screens!

The last "last orders"?

I have seen the future of British drinking - and it works!

One of the last announcements from the UK Government before the election concerned Britain's antiquated licencing laws - a constant source of amazement for foreign visitors and frustration for drinkers of all nationalities. At present, most British bars are obliged to close at 11pm (10:30 on Sundays). In order to get a drink later than that, you're normally obliged to go to a club and be charged both admission and inflated bar prices.

However, all this is finally set to change. The Government have announced plans to abolish the 11pm curfew, and allow licencees (bar managers) to set their own closing times, in consultation with local authorities and the police. This move looks likely to happen regardless of the election result, as there is cross-party support for the proposal.

And a good thing too. The 11pm deadline tends to cause drinkers to rush their booze consumption as closing time approaches; and when a lot of drunken people are thrown out on the streets simulataneously, it's hardly surprising that it often leads to trouble.

However, in my home city of Bradford, there has already been some limited experimentation with what are, in a peculiarly apt phrase, described as "staggered" closing times. In the West End, the city's liveliest area for nightlife, some bars have been allowed to stay open until midnight or 2am - and the result has been a reduction in rowdy behaviour. Similar experiments elewhere in the country have reached the same conclusion.

It seems that when people are treated as adults, as opposed to being packed off to bed like naughty children, then they're more inclined to behave like adults.

I'll drink to that.


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