AV? No thanks!

A couple of pieces I saw this week piqued my interest in advance of next week’s vote. Firstly, Compass‘s Joe Cox and Tom Griffin argue that a yes vote is the best means of frustrating the policies of the coalition government (Martin Kettle has also argued similarly); while Hilary Wainwright argues in The Guardian that AV will not only improve the quality of political debate but will symbolise a vote for change.

I start from an interest in, and support for, electoral reform, but I just can’t bring myself to vote for AV. I’m not convinced that short-term political interests are worthy reasons to bring in this famously ‘miserable compromise’ as a new voting system, although I can of course see the tactical reasons for that; and neither am I at all convinced that AV is a much-needed ‘baby step‘ towards a better electoral system than the one we have already. This is a mature democracy and one in which, furthermore, we already have proportional representation voting systems in place, both for elections to the European Parliament and, up here in Scotland, to the Scottish Parliament – so it’s not as though we’re actually in need of something which helps us dip our toes in the water of electoral reform. And neither are we in need of being patronised, either.

We’re not being asked to vote for electoral reform based on proportional representation, we’re only being asked to vote for one, and one only, variant of electoral reform. It’s not a starting point for a wider debate about electoral reform; it’s an end point – not the end, obviously, but an end. People who argue that electoral reform might evolve into a better voting system if only we first took the opportunity to implement AV are surely deluding themselves: I can’t see the electorate having much of an appetite for repeating this embarrassing slanging-match-passing-as-political-debate in the forseeable future. This is not a situation of ‘vote yes to AV – get electoral reform’: voting yes to AV means the alternative vote is exactly what we get. And neither do I want to imagine that what was offered to the LibDems as a price of getting them to support the Tories in government is, in this area and for the foreseeable future, debate-defining.

For all its faults, first past the post is based on the principle of one person one vote. Every vote counts, and counts once (pace Tammany Hall). That’s the crux of my opposition to AV – some electors, but not all of them, get a second bite at the cherry when their candidate falls. That doesn’t strike me as at all in line with democratic principles – and neither does it strike me as at all rational: the people whose alternative votes are deployed are the ones who have voted, in order, for the weakest (and not only the wackiest), fringe-like candidate(s). That’s simply not credible. It’s not about candidates ‘pandering to extremists‘ but it does give a potentially determining power to those who vote for small parties and, in the first place, only to the voters of such parties. I can fully envisage some unholy scenarios of how that might pan out in practice and I can’t understand why I’d want to vote for that.

Abstentionism has never been my tradition, so I’ll be putting my ‘x’ firmly in the ‘no’ box next Thursday. Given who I will then be allying myself with, though, I will be washing my hands very thoroughly afterwards…

And then, once AV is dead and buried, the campaign for proper electoral reform goes on.

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21

With Adele looking set to continue her reign as queen of the album charts, this is as good a time as any for me finally to get around to knocking up a review of 21, her second album.

21 has already helped Adele set a number of records – the first living artist since the Beatles to have two singles and two albums in the chart at the same time, taking Madonna’s record of topping the album charts for the longest consecutive number of weeks by a female artist, and one of the fastest selling albums of all time, taking just 87 days to reach the 2m mark. Clearly albums don’t sell as many as they used to, but in a falling market, when it’s easier for new albums to come along and take top slot, to sell more copies of one album than anyone else for 13 of the last 14 weeks (including 11 in a row) is a remarkable achievement. And remember that Madonna’s Immaculate Conception was a greatest hits collection put out by an artist at the height of her power and after some years of making huge hits worldwide. Adele’s current European (and shortly US) tour promoting the album is a complete sell out, with venues being hastily upgraded everywhere to take account of the demand of tickets. Adele is thus currently unstoppable – not bad for an absolutely down to earth kid from the Brits School and on only her second album, too. Good exposure via the Brits 2011 has no doubt helped – but the talent is absolutely there to support the hype.

I have to say I wasn’t really that taken with Chasing Pavements, the big hit from 19, her first album – it struck me as a little too self-consciously contrived. But the new album has me hooked. Despite the deployment of some unfortunately rather insipid backing vocals, not least on ‘Rolling In The Deep’, which do poor justice to Adele’s strident, confident vocal, this is a thumping and cohesive production – some effort given the number of recording locations and different producers that have had a hand in it. Add on top of that a set of strong, original and self-penned songs dealing with love and relationships (‘heartbroken soul’, as Adele describes it), a collection of very capable musicians including the great Pino Palladino on bass and, bestriding it all, Adele’s hugely confident, bluesy, soulful voice, capable of soaring high yet also as apparently cracked with cigarettes and alcohol as that of blues singers twice her age, this is a terrifically put together work. Her diction is occasionally idiosyncratic, but the emotions on display are gravel raw, exposed and painful. At its best, this is a collection of great torch songs, most notably the singles which bookend the album but also ‘Set Fire to the Rain’ (actually the first song I heard from it), and one or two others which are capable of putting you utterly through the emotional wringer. Even so, there is also a shrewd pop sensibility here, rooted in a contemporary musical approach which make her out stand out from the rest of the crowd, and which mark Adele Adkins out as no one trick pony as well as a fine, rapidly maturing talent.

As close as I’ve yet come to a five-star review. It’s really that good.

Destination: a big hill

I’ve been in Poland for the last week for, firstly, the annual meeting of the Editorial Board of the SEER Journal for Labour and Social Affairs in Eastern Europe, a journal which I help edit; and then secondly in attendance at the 12th international conference of the Otto-Brenner-Stiftung, a German research trust attached to the metalworking union IG Metall.

It was my first trip to Poland, hitherto a (rather large) hole in my visited map of central Europe, while the event provided major opportunities to catch up with old and new colleagues in the European trade union movement. The conference was held in Katowice, a town with perhaps all the tourist pull of Redcar, with which it shares a steel industry past if not the coal mining one that also defines Katowice, although I travelled to, and spent some time in, the rather more lovely/touristy city of Krakow some 77kms away.

It’s clear that Katowice has changed, radically. From a position of a reliance on heavy industry, and in a situation where a glimpse of sunsets was an apparently rare event as a result (as well as constituting a personal definition of hell), Katowice has become, well, a city of conference and business hotels and not obviously a lot else. Even if the jobs are not necessarily ‘McJobs’, the shift in the employment base is evident and that of course presents great challenges to trade unions.

Against a backdrop of dramatic and almost universal decline amongst central and eastern European trade unions, the conference theme of environment and growth – with discussions centring on green jobs, shifts in production away from car manufacturing and a consumption based on environmental values rather than consumerist ones – presented the stage for a tough series of debates. With employees and their trade unions having gone through one, hugely costly transition already in terms of the shift to market-based systems, and for whose impact the blame can clearly be laid at the door of capitalism, the prospect of going through another represents clear difficulties to trade union colleagues from the region. Here, when it is western trade unions that are propounding the need for such a transition represents a unique difficulty as regards their eastern counterparts. Examples of successful, and inspirational, organising initiatives can be found – and the transition to environmental values is clearly a very necessary one – but these need to be made clearer, more imaginative and more relevant if central and eastern European trade unionists are to be convinced that this next transition will not lead to them being totally wiped from the map.

For those of you looking at the title of this post for a less metaphorical hill, how about this: the Kopiec Kościuszko (Kościuszko Mound) – one of four such surrounding Krakow, this one being 326m above sea level affording magnificant views over the city and surrounding area. And yes, it is of course absolutely possible to get to the top even though the path might be serpentine.

Copper and fibre: the price relationship

An interesting report has been published on the relationship between the pricing of telecoms services over both old-style copper wiring and new-fangled, so-called next generation (glass)fibre.

Written for ETNO – the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association – the report was published initially last month by Plum Consulting, but I’ve seen it as a result of a news item concerning an ETNO workshop held this week and intended to raise awareness of the impact of the pricing of copper-based services on the case for investment in next generation networks.

Copper pricing, which refers to the bit that we pay for our residential telecoms services either to BT or, where the line is BT-owned but leased to another, to that retail provider, is a topical issue not least because Ofcom has recently launched a new consultation on the prices that Openreach – BT’s provider of wholesale network services – can charge its own customers (which then sell retail services to us). So, the timing of the workshop and the publication is highly important in the UK context.

Plum Consulting makes several points in its document, among them that the running of copper and fibre networks in parallel during the period of transition from old to new will present serious challenges as regards pricing – not least that falling copper prices may well discourage investment in next generation fibre since there would be less incentive for customers voluntarily to migrate to (more expensive) fibre. This would act in turn to reduce retail price levels for high-speed broadband, thus jeopardising the investment case. The prospect of fibre investment being treated in the same way as copper – by being subject to continuing price reductions – is also likely to provide room for second thoughts among investors.

In some ways, this might well be a ‘Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?’ scenario given the nature of the commissioning body, but Plum Consulting is right to point out that adoption of, and investment in, next generation fibre is not a given and that the policy framework must seek to ensure that incentives to operators are correctly aligned with the public policy goals for high-speed broadband. This means, not least, that copper prices should be maintained at levels which support efficient migration to next generation fibre, thus assisting operators with investment cases, and that – inevitably – fibre pricing must ensure cost recovery and deal with the long-term nature of investment and the uncertainty of demand. The latter is uncontroversial – but the former ought to provide some considerable food for thought for Ofcom, and other regulators across Europe.

We are one

Today this blog stands proudly shoulder-to-shoulder with the US trade union movement in its respect our rights campaign, defending the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers.

In Wisconsin, most notably, as well as Ohio, Indiana and in other states across the US, Republican legislators have passed laws curbing collective bargaining rights for public sector workers allowing public authorities to impose pay settlements and changes to terms and conditions, including pension rights, without reference to trade unions in negotiations. Inevitably, this opportunistic attack on collectivism in the workplace is being made in the name of austerity measures and the global economic crisis, and the US union movement has called today – the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis as he supported the organising efforts of sanitation workers – as a day of solidarity action.

The ideological nature of the assault is reason enough to oppose; but it also makes little sense strategically: what will get us out of the crisis is an expansion of demand and every attack on wages and living standards makes that a less likely scenario. We know also that – as today’s TUC letter to the US ambassador points out – the declining value of real wages and the declining share of national income being taken up by wages played a role in how the crisis evolved in the first place. Furthermore, here in the UK, right-wing politicians and think tanks are no doubt watching keenly to see how much could be replicated in this country; while we know that private sector employers tend to be keen followers of US practice and that what happens over there happens over here after a lag of a couple of years. The lessons of the long-term decline in private sector union density are clear, and need to be addressed.

The right to bargain collectively with an employer is an essential freedom of modern, advanced democratic societies and it’s no good fighting for democracy abroad while ignoring it at home. An injury to one is an injury to all.