Sunday, 5 March 2017

Hey, Maybe Neoliberalism Wasn't So Bad After All

Yes really. But don't worry, this blog has not renounced its political values. Let me explain...

It's only been a few months since the EU referendum, but already it's clear that it has catalysed a fundamental realignment of English politics (just as Scotland was realigned by the independence referendum). First consider how voters of different parties divided on referendum day:

One thing that leaps out immediately from this breakdown is that the major reason for Leave's victory was David Cameron's failure to bring his own voters with him. Labour voters on the other hand broke for Remain in much the same proportion as the resolutely pro-EU SNP, belying the idea that Corbyn's half-hearted campaigning was to blame for the result. The figures for the smaller parties were no surprise, although with the notable exception of UKIP there were substantial minorities opposed to the party line in each case.

Now compare with a YouGov poll from last month asking whether the result was the right one:

While Remain and Leave are still almost evenly matched overall, the differences when split by party are remarkable. Support for staying in the EU among Conservative voters has collapsed, while for both Labour and the Lib Dems pro-Remain sentiment has hardened significantly. The Lib Dems in particular are now approaching UKIP levels of unity on the topic. To what extent this is a hardening of views among existing voters vs. movement of voters between parties cannot be judged from this, but either way something important has happened.

How have these changes manifested at the ballot box? A number of surveys showed that Remain voters had become far more motivated after the referendum than they ever had been during the campaign, and this started to show almost straight away in a steady drip of council by-election wins by the Liberal Democrats, often on astonishing swings:

Their performance has been all the more impressive for them still languishing at around 10% in national polls. Clearly Remain voters are looking for a way to give Brexit a kicking where they get a chance, and the Lib Dems are more often than not in the right place to deliver it. This showed most obviously when the parliamentary by-elections came round, first with their remarkable vote share increase in true blue Witney and then triumphing over pseudo-independent Zac Goldsmith in Richmond Park. But other parties have had unexpected results too: notably the Conservatives incredible win in Copeland and the complete flop of UKIP's leader in Stoke Central. Meanwhile, Labour hang on as best they can.

So what factors underlie these shocks? It's obvious first of all that this is not a systematic shift along the traditional left/right spectrum. But there is a shift of some kind. Hints of what this might be can be seen as far back as 2005 in this fascinating analysis of "axes of belief" (no doubt the beliefs themselves go back further in time). This study found that there were two statistically significant political axes: one an economic one, broadly speaking left vs right in the free market sense, and then a much more significant cultural one, dubbed "the axis of UKIP". At one end of this axis lies isolationism and authoritarianism, while the other end is internationalist and pro-immigration, with a liberal view of criminal justice. You could label this axis internationalist/isolationist, liberal/authoritarian, inclusive/exclusive, Guardian/Daily Mail or any number of other names, but I will defer to Nick Clegg and use his terminology of open vs. closed, as here:

Of course the idea that there is more than one "axis of belief" in politics is an established and fairly well-known one. The point is that the cultural axis was very much of secondary importance as far as election results were concerned until the referendum, but now it is dominant. (Note that the Leave campaign's arguments aligned with the cultural axis, while Remain's arguments were economic. It remains to be seen whether public opinion will change when the economic reality of Brexit hits home, but we can certainly predict how Brexiters will react when it does: they'll blame foreigners.)

Now consider where each party stood on this chart at the time of the referendum. On the economic left/right axis there has been a shift since the 2005 analysis, when Charles Kennedy had adroitly placed the Lib Dems to the left of New Labour. While Tim Farron, unlike Nick Clegg, is very much on the Kennedy wing of the party, Corbyn's Labour is undoubtedly considerably further left than that. So the parties can now be safely ordered in the traditional way from left to right: Labour, Lib Dem, Conservative, UKIP. For the open/closed axis on the other hand we can confidently order them Lib Dem, Labour, Conservative, UKIP, which fits with the distribution for Remain and Leave. This give us the following plot:

(You can argue about the exact positions of the parties and the "political centre", but you get the idea)

Note that I have put the Conservatives on the Open, aka Remain, side of the fence, in line with Cameron's position in the referendum, though at odds with their own voters. Which brings us neatly to the topic of this post.

A lot of nonsense is spouted about the concept of neoliberalism, not least the pretence from some of its own supporters that it doesn't even exist. In fact it is one of the more sharply defined political concepts (certainly far more sharply defined than liberalism itself). We can even define a Neoliberal Era lasting from the 1980's to the financial crisis of 2007/8. There is no mystery about what it involved: shrinking of the state wherever possible, tax cuts, privatisation, deregulation, and constraints on organised labour. In some ways it is a return to a 19th century classical liberal view of the world, hence the name, which is particularly apt in the light of the era ending in true 19th century fashion with financial panic and severe recession.

Fundamentally, neoliberalism is a concept of the economic axis. In the UK neoliberal government began under Thatcher, was effectively accepted by Blair and more recently pushed further by Cameron. These governments could be placed at various points on the cultural axis, but all operated in the context of a neoliberal consensus that pushed all parties rightwards economically.

If neoliberalism has a bias on the cultural axis, it is towards the open or liberal end, as the name suggests. In fact the neoliberal era has seen a rapid increase of globalisation, free trade and immigration, all indicators of open-ness. Neoliberalism is certainly not a closed philosophy. The coalition government for example was a particularly open one, characterised by the "global race" the Tories were so fond of to justify cuts in workers' rights and welfare, but also relatively culturally open as symbolised by Cameron's sincere support for gay marriage. No wonder that many closed-minded Tories left to join the comforting bigotry of UKIP.

Post-referendum this has all changed. Through pursuing a "hard Brexit" with no prospect of staying in the European single market, Theresa May has taken the Conservatives in a substantially more closed direction. Meanwhile Labour too have adopted a more closed position through the panicked desire of seemingly all factions of the party to give up on the principle of freedom of movement within Europe. So the chart has changed:

We now have three parties chasing after Leave voters, while only one is unquestionably looking after the interests of Remain voters. It's not rocket science why the Lib Dems are pulling huge victories out of nowhere. Perhaps the real surprise is that they continue to languish in national polls, though maybe a change here requires a national election campaign, as has often been the case for them in the past. Adapting to the new politics is straightforward for the Lib Dems, as the quintessentially Open party. While they may have a ceiling of perhaps 20-25%, representing the hardcore Remain-or-die vote, that would still be a huge improvement on their position as of the 2015 election.

For the Conservatives, the task is trickier, as they are a party that is only firmly defined on the economic axis while fuzzy on the cultural one. But this does give them a certain ideological flexibility, as their hard Brexit policy demonstrates. As a result they have encroached firmly on UKIP territory, netting them their victory in Copeland by squeezing the UKIP vote, but at the cost of losing many other by-elections to targeted Lib Dem assaults, culminating in Richmond Park.

And here is where the title can be justified: yes, neoliberalism is terribly right-wing. Yes, the rightward economic shift that took place between 1980 to the present day is regressive for society and should be reversed. But it truly wasn't as bad as the new dominant ideology, which is both right-wing and closed. This is far more obvious on the other side of the Atlantic, but here too, in a considerably less terrifying, thankfully conventional, yet still tangible way, we are losing the good aspects of the neoliberal era while doubling down on the bad.

Labour may be the only party which can chart a course out of this unsettling period. For the Lib Dems, the new politics is essentially defensive. It's about defending the open, liberal parts of the neoliberal settlement against those who are trying to take us in a closed direction. Farron, as a "social liberal", will also pursue a social justice agenda somewhat to the left of Clegg's Lib Dems, but this is secondary to the defence of open-ness.

Defending what we've got is an important task, but not one that will reverse the tide when the true driver towards closed-ness is the huge rise in inequality during the neoliberal era and the redirection of the resentment that generates towards outgroups. As a party of the economic axis, the mirror image of the Conservatives, it is Labour that is best placed to take us in the direction necessary to undo the damage done by neoliberalism. Easier said than done, of course. Labour's task is the trickiest of all, as it involves changing the terms of debate 90 degress from the now dominant cultural axis back to the now secondary economic one.

Last and least, UKIP. Perhaps the only silver lining of the referendum result is they are a significantly diminished force, albeit largely because the Conservatives have stolen their clothes. They will also lose their only electoral powerbase, in the European parliament, when we leave, and their only MP, Douglas Carswell, is under threat of being kicked out. The underlying reason for this is instructive: Carswell is a so-called "liberal Leaver". This is one of two tribes we haven't yet considered, the other being "Lexit" campaigners:

On this plot the official Vote Leave campaign and the UKIP-aligned represent the bulk of Leave voters. Both were closed campaigns (think of the ugly rhetoric against Turkey joining the EU and Syrian refugees respectively), while Vote Leave was cannily fuzzy on the economic axis, even featuring arguably leftish arguments such as the notorious NHS funding promise.

The "Liberal Leave" argument, however, is quite different. Liberal Leavers such as Carswell do not really care about immigration, in fact are quite open about the need for it to remain high. Their argument is economic: what they really object to is the EU as a closed shop that prevents Britain becoming the buccaneering right-wing tax haven of Thatcherite dreams. Watch the truly astonishing Brexit: The Movie if you want to understand this mindset. In fact a lot of senior Vote Leave figures feel this way (e.g. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove) and it has even made it into Theresa May's speeches in the form of "Global Britain". The fact that all of these arguments lie at 90 degrees to Vote Leave's actual xenophobic campaign may yet be swept under the carpet at the cost of an obvious betrayal of their own voters. It is clear at least that a Global Britain is completely incompatible with reducing immigration - imagine trying to sign a trade deal with, say, India, which doesn't include relaxation of visa rules for example. It is telling that it takes Tories from a previous generation such as Ken Clarke and John Major to point out the disaster that lies ahead.

The mirror image of the Liberal Leavers is the "Lexit" position (= left-wing Brexit), once a mainstream school of thought in the Labour party at the time of the 1975 European referendum, but now relegated to a fringe on the left of Labour, 50% of the Green party in parliament, and some of the minor parties further left (notably TUSC, the third of the three organisations which applied to become the official Leave campaign). Lexit, like Liberal Leave, is not a closed position: in general it is pro-immigration for example. The Lexiteers' objection is on the economic axis: that the EU, far from a brake on neoliberal aspirations, is in reality a capitalist plot to prevent the UK from enacting socialist policies. Once we divorce, we'll be heading for socialism faster than you can say "Up yours Delors". The fact that Britain is one of the most free-market oriented of all the EU nations might seem to militate against the Lexiteers' strategy, but we will find out whether they were right soon enough.

While both Liberal Leave and Lexit might charitably be called niche positions in the public at large, combining as they do the doubly unpopular proposition of retaining high immigration while losing membership of the single market, politically speaking they are both very important, and not just because in a tight vote they may have swung the result to Leave. Liberal Leave is important for their advocacy of a Global Britain described above, while Lexit is important because it informs the thinking of Labour's current leader, who comes from the left-wing anti-European tradition of Tony Benn and his followers.

Now while Jeremy Corbyn does have a long track record of voting against European integration consistent with this background, he did apparently sincerely convert to the Remain cause on becoming leader. And if we are to attach any blame for the result to Labour, as much if not more should go to Alan Johnson's all but invisible Labour In campaign as to Corbyn. Regardless, this is an academic debate given that it was Tory voters who delivered Brexit.

The reason Corbyn's Lexit roots are important is not because his pre-referendum campaigning was half-hearted, but because of the way he and John McDonnell have positioned Labour after the referendum. Both a large majority of Labour voters and especially Labour members were pro-Remain, and yet Labour have fallen into line with the Tories' principle that "access" to the single market is all that is required, not membership of it. This is a strategically nonsensical position.

The reason that Corbyn doesn't want a soft Brexit is not to restrict freedom of movement (although he has starting making noises in that direction), but because single market rules prevent, for example, any industrial strategy which counts as state aid. Unfortunately the supposedly "moderate" wing of Labour have reached the same position as Corbyn, in their case in order to chase Leave voters who want immigration reduced at all cost. In fact, in an irony of gargantuan proportions, virtually the only prominent Labour figure to argue for the pro-European strategy that the membership overwhelmingly wants is Tony Blair.

This is tragic. Labour should not go all out for Europe like the Lib Dems but they do need to be at least the soft Brexit party. The only time the Tories ever lose elections in government is when they lose economic credibility, and leaving the single market is an economic open goal for Labour so large it can be seen from outer space. For their part Labour need to regain economic credibility (leaving aside that they didn't deserve to lose it in the first place), and defending single market membership at every possible opportunity is the perfect way to do this. But the sad fact is no credible leadership candidate apparently wants to take this position.

One final thought: let's look forward to 2020, assuming there is no early election. While May is currently in the middle of a political honeymoon, it will not last as the economic realities of Brexit become clear. Assume too that Labour depose Corbyn and begin to recover up to the giddy vote share heights achieved by Brown and Miliband. Meanwhile the Lib Dems continue their resurgence and SNP hegemony in Scotland is unchallenged. This is a recipe for another hung parliament, and possibly a new Conservative/Lib Dem coalition. But there will be a big difference between 2020 and 2010, as shown here:

While a Cameron/Clegg coalition was a natural fit, a May/Farron coalition would be a considerably more distant relationship, both on the economic and especially the cultural axis. It's far more likely that coalition talks will fail on the pretext of, say, a Lib Dem demand for proportional representation, and May will end up leading a minority government reliant not only on the goodwill of other parties but also Cameron's old allies on the Tory backbenches...

I'm not saying this scenario is inevitable or even likely, but it is one plausible future. One thing is for sure, the interesting times will continue until our future relationship with Europe is fully settled, and there is zero chance of that happening before 2020.

PS: In case you doubt there's been a fundamental realignment in British politics, perhaps you didn't notice there are more favourable references to Nick Clegg, Tony Blair and John Major in this post than in the rest of this blog put together.

Monday, 9 January 2017

AIPL: tidy up time


With paternity leave now a distant memory it's time to wrap up this series, but not before my promised roundup of the social whirlwind that is the Manchester baby activity scene.

An important skill when on leave is coming up with good reasons to leave the house every day, without which you would both surely go mad. As with many aspects of leave I had Mrs Tomsk's wealth of experience to draw on here, including a number of classes she had tried out which then passed on to me.

The first of these was Baby Moves at the National Football Museum, a very laid back session for babies no older than one. It was friendly and tranquil with plinky plonky music and lots of gentle games that made it feel like a meditation class (at least for me). It was also one of the clearest ways to see her develop as she got more mobile and better able to explore the room on her own, and interact more with the bits and bobs they put out to play with, some of which nodded to the venue such as goalkeeping gloves. By the end of my leave we were practically doing goalkeeping training via rolling balls down little sloping cushions into her lap. The only drawback to the experience was the indescribably slow lift which tended to delay the start of the event by 10 minutes as the prams queued up.

A Baby Moves session was usually combined with some pottering around town trying to find baby-friendly places to have lunch. Generally speaking this was anywhere with decent baby-changing facilities. The football museum's own cafe was not to be sniffed at with its awesome sausage rolls, and the other museums and galleries were well set up as a rule too. Otherwise big shops such as M&S were the go-to option, where E liked to nap while grannies cooed over her.

Another early experience was "Cinebabies", aka "Newbies", where special baby-friendly showings of films are put on during the day at the Trafford Centre and Didsbury cinemas. The lighting is kept up and the volume turned down a little, and at Didsbury you can even take your pram straight into the theatre. Timing E's nap right ensured a peaceful final reel. It's a surprisingly secretive offering which requires digging deep in websites and Facebook pages to find, but well worth it to see such classics as The Imitation Game and The Shaun the Sheep Movie.

I only tried one traditional playgroup, at the local library, which was supposedly intended for dropping in as the fancy takes you although I appeared to be the only one who actually did drop in after the start time. I exchanged a few words with the mums there but they were standoffish in their already arranged little circles. This was the one time when I felt very conspicuously the only daddy present and although the leader of the group was quite welcoming I never felt inclined to go back again.

I much preferred groups with structured activities, many of which are provided by the city museum system and listed on the invaluable Culturekidsmanchester page. The best of the bunch was Baby Explorers at the Manchester Museum which had a fun storytelling session in one of the galleries with loads of props handed round followed by a little playtime on the theme of the story. Incidentally: great cafe. Baby Art Club at the art gallery was also good fun with the guide describing the scene in one of the paintings and then a whole sensory playground set up on the same theme, where E memorably once decided to eat a big handful of soil. These sessions were always really popular, not least because free of charge, and you had to get in fast to book them. This was particularly true of Music Makers at the Bridgewater Hall which would sell out in nanoseconds as if it were Glastonbury, so much so that I never actually managed to get to take E there while I was on leave. I finally got tickets just as I was going back to work, and took a day off specially to get there. To be honest it turned out to be a little underwhelming compared to the offerings at the other venues, although E did greatly enjoy getting seriously hands-on with a cello.

Fortunately for her musical development there was another option in Jo Jingles, held at the Didsbury Park Sure Start centre among many other places around the country. We had great fun singing and playing music with the other babies and it had a really friendly atmosphere. Also surprisingly good exercise for me as it did involve quite a lot of picking up E and dancing her around to the music. As a commercial operation it was pricier than the other sessions but well worth it and besides the swimming was the activity I missed most when I went back to work. Its greatest legacies are the spin-off Jo Jingles CD and half-remembered special Easter song "Mrs Bunny" which has forever after had a magical calming effect on the Elspedoodle.

Sure Start centres were also a good place to meet up with the mums from NCT, who Mrs Tomsk had formed a social group with and I was welcomed into the fold on taking over. Old Moat in particular had a sensory room which E and friends really loved. I'm ashamed to say I didn't have much of a clue what Sure Start centres were before E came in to the world but they are undoubtedly a Good Thing (indeed I'd say the Blair/Brown era's most underrated achievement). Besides Old Moat, the soft play centre Head over Heels was the NCT meet up place of choice which again the babies increasingly enjoyed as they got more mobile. Incidentally: great cafe. Unfortunately everyone had to go back to work eventually, me last of all as E was the youngest in the group.

Overall I don't think I had a hugely different experience as a dad at the various activities we went to, except that E and I were sought after for publicity photographs (I assume to highlight diversity although obviously also because E was such a cute baby). It was a little daunting walking in to a new room for the first time, but I imagine it's much the same feeling for mums if they don't know anyone there, as would have been the case for the ticketed events at the museums and often at classes like Jo Jingles where people joined and left all the time. A baby of course is a great help as an instant and endless topic of discussion, particularly after E got into the habit of swapping her socks with other babies. She and I had a lot of fun together and I like to think I've set her on the road to a lifetime interest in music, art, exploration and goalkeeping.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Thoughts on the Referendum

These are tough times to be a supporter of the European Union. For decades the EU and its predecessors were rightly held up as a guardian of peace and prosperity of Europe. Then came the global financial crisis, and the Euro currency, the totemic symbol of European integration, became a "machine from hell" (in the words of one German official), ripping apart the fabric of Europe that the EU had previously done so much to stitch together.

The Eurozone crisis remains unresolved to this day, stuck between the very reasonable desire of creditor countries not to risk their own finances in bailing out the debtor countries, and the very reasonable desire of debtor countries not to have their people ground into the dust by the lunatic austerity regimes imposed by the creditors. Why then should we stay in an institution that has pursued such a reckless experiment?

For starters, obviously, we are not in the Eurozone and its tribulations will affect us no more or less if we vote to leave. As a result the economic argument is conclusively in favour of Remain. No reasonable observer can argue that we will not suffer a serious hit to our economy as a result of leaving, particularly if we forgo the "Norway option" and lose our access to the European single market.

There are other solid, pragmatic reasons for voting Remain if you are of a left-wing persuasion, as my esteemed friend Squid points out. Curious to test my own views against the Leave side's supposedly killer arguments, I watched Brexit - The Movie with gradually increasing astonishment at how overtly right-wing its agenda is. It certainly gave me a fascinating insight into the world of UKIP, from the ultra-Thatcherite spin on Britain's history in the 20th century to the genuinely jaw-dropping whinge about EU steel tariffs in the immediate wake of the Port Talbot debacle. This from a film which professes to inspire "as many people as possible" to vote Leave.

It would be wrong to characterise Leaving as a purely right-wing obsession, however, as is obvious from the last time we had a referendum on this issue. In 1975 the debate was the precise mirror image of the one we have today, with the Labour party split down the middle while the Conservatives were solidly for staying in. The case for leaving, advanced most notably by Tony Benn, centred around lack of democratic accountability of the EEC. In Benn's view it was wrong for parliament to give the power to write laws to Europe regardless of whether Europe is benign or not, because we cannot get rid of the people who make European laws. Better a bad parliament than a good king.

It is a shame Benn is not still around to lend some dignity to the contemptible Leave campaign. His critique is far more robust than anything advanced this time round, and all Remain supporters ought to consider his arguments carefully, particularly his fear of Britain becoming an island province in an anti-democratic European empire. We live in a hugely over-centralised country with a far too dominant role played by London, and I can understand completely why Scotland in particular is so keen on the EU as a counterweight to Westminster. But nothing is achieved if an even more remote and out-of-touch capital is established in Brussels.

I do not however think his argument is grounds to leave now, and in some ways it holds less force now than it did back then. As the largest EU country not in the Euro, Britain is now the standard-bearer for a looser community of nations than the one envisaged by the union's founding fathers. I think there is something more innovative and even noble about Britain's stubbornly different vision for the EU, one where the states of Europe work closely together where it makes sense but are at the same time free to pursue their own national destinies to the greatest feasible extent; a polycentric continent that can nevertheless hold its own beside the giant countries of the world. By staying inside the EU, we have the opportunity to shape its future to that template, if we're willing to take a lead. And there are many signs that the EU as a whole, chastened by the Euro experience, is heading tentatively in this direction. Besides, if Britain's position become unsustainable somewhere down the line, there will be nothing to stop us leaving then. It is madness to take the economic hit now when there is absolutely no pressing reason to do so, purely to settle an internal Tory row.

Oh, but what about immigration? As if we could possibly forget. Again, these are tough times to be a supporter of the EU. The evidence may show that immigrants contribute more to the UK economy than they take out, but plenty of people feel otherwise and the Leave campaign has been shamelessly stoking their fears. It's no use pointing out that it was the UK that pressed for enlargement to eastern Europe after the end of the cold war (and bringing the ex-communist countries into the fold was one of the EU's greatest triumphs), or that the EU has perfectly sensible transitional controls on migration for new entrants which the UK chose not to use in 2004. Or that pressure on schools and hospitals has nothing to do with immigration and everything to do with our own excessive self-imposed austerity. None of that matters. It's all Europe's fault.

This is a sad state of affairs. I have personally benefited from the chance to live and work in another EU country, just as my European colleagues have benefited from coming to work here. That, for me, is the European Dream. Clearly it is not a vote winner in the current political climate - indeed, it's a vote loser - but I will be voting Remain to keep that dream alive, in the hope that there will come a time when everybody believes in it.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

AIPL: Aquababy

If you have not had the privilege of looking after a baby on a full time basis, you may wonder how you fill the endless hours of leisure between wakey-wakey and beddy-byes. I too fondly imagined time stretching to infinity between little strolls around the park and long naps as I perfected my guitar technique or wrote the great American novel.

The awful truth is that there is time to achieve perhaps one goal during the day that is not directly related to your baby's survival, and only then if you're quick about it. Not only that but there is no time to think about what the goal should be. Thankfully there are a staggering number of pre-organised activities to build your day around, and the only thought required is how to get to them taking into account naps, meals, badly-timed nappy disasters, &c.

Baby activities can be divided into two broad groups, namely swimming and not swimming. I was thrown straight into the shallow end on day one of my leave as it happened to coincide with swimming day. E had already been swimming for some time with Mrs Tomsk, who had left us detailed instructions for how to get to the special baby pool somewhere in the depths of Sale and what to do when we got there, involving complex door codes, clothes baskets, special swim nappies and post-swim milk. Somehow I managed to navigate all of these requirements while maintaining an unshakeable air of knowing what I was doing (I don't think E fell for it).

The other mums in the class had been warned that I would be taking over and were very welcoming, as was the friendly teacher who quickly brought me up to speed with what they were doing (a feat as we were almost at the end of the term). E of course was a veteran and took it all in her stride, except for changing which she is never too keen on.

One perk of being a dad is having a whole changing room to yourself, though this is a double-edged sword as it also means having no-one to hand over E to at any of the ten thousand awkward points in the changing process. This makes showering a bit like one of those logic puzzles involving transporting a load of animals and vegetables across a body of water intact. Acknowledging this there's a recommended order of showering pinned to wall to help you out, with best practice guidelines for the adjacent playpen and the use of many towels. All of this in a searing heat which at least E appreciated.

In fact there were two periods when I was not the only dad in the place. In the first lesson of the following term another guy with an older daughter turned up, but he switched soon after as she was better suited to a beginner's class. The first time he showed up was a little disconcerting as his wife followed him in to the male changing room to help out; I guess I was not the only one expecting to have the changing room to myself. Dad Three came a few times during our last term and like me had taken over from his wife, who was going back to work. He owned his own business which meant he was able to nip out for a couple of hours to go swimming on a regular basis. His daughter and Elspedoodle were going through a clingy phase at the same time so we could commiserate with each other about our traumatic changing and swimming experiences.

I wasn't sure how I would get on with the swimming lessons as I barely tolerate being in an a pool myself, but I soon learnt that I could stand around enjoying the pleasantly warm water while E did all the hard work. It became a firm favourite before long as it felt like a proper expedition out, so much so that I was really disappointed when E was too ill to go, or the car refused to start, or on one memorable occasion she decided to eat and choke on a small piece of silvered paper just before we were meant to leave.

When we did manage to get there E was happy to try most things providing she was in the mood. She already knew how to swim underwater from earlier lessons and was usually tolerant of me dunking her in.  Most of the time I guided her standing up although occasionally we would swim together holding a float, which ended badly the first time when my back cramped up and I inadvertently submerged  both of us.She didn't care much for being pushed off a float face-first by the teacher either (we were assured this was essential safety training). On one occasion we were invited to put on goggles and go underwater together with her, but not only do I have no clue how to stay underwater but she was really scared of me wearing goggles for some reason. Thankfully we didn't do it again. We always rounded off the lessons with singing which we all enjoyed especially the Little Green Frog and jumping off the side to Humpty Dumpty.

By the end of my leave E was doing all sorts of advanced stuff like turns under the water and swimming on her own. She did go through phases of not enjoying it, especially after missing a lesson, and in the final term we were put together with a more experienced class which was not ideal. So it was a good time to take a break. We finally got our act together recently to go swimming in the new public pool down the road and after a hesitant start she is enjoying it a lot (especially with her wet suit to make up for the non-baby friendly temperature). So much so that the mere mention of the word 'swimming' has her dancing round the house in excitement demanding to get changed. It'll be a while before we're brave enough to do more than a quick dunk underwater though.

Next time: not swimming.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

The Scottish experiment

Before Corbyn was elected I noted that the results of the Scottish election would be a fascinating natural test of his leadership and some assumptions often made about the Scottish electorate, namely:

1. Scotland is more left-wing than the rest of the UK (look how they don't vote for Tories!)
2. Labour is losing support because it isn't left wing enough (unlike those lovable lefty nationalists)

The alternative hypothesis - that since the referendum Scottish voting preferences have been determined mainly by attitude towards independence - was fiercely disputed by some people, predominantly ex-Labour voters north of the border, safe in the knowledge that there was no easy way of determining which explanation was correct.

With Corbyn at the helm, however, there is no longer any ambiguity. Labour could hardly have chosen a more left-wing leader, and this year Scottish Labour ran on an overtly more left-wing platform than the SNP. For their pains they have been reduced to third place in the Scottish parliament, for the first time behind the Tories who gained 11% in the list vote and are now the main opposition to the SNP.

The results of the experiment could not be clearer. 46% voted SNP in constituencies, almost exactly the same as voted for independence. In the regional vote 48% voted for the SNP and pro-independence Greens. The remainder voted Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem in similar proportions to the projected vote share in England. There can be no doubt that Scottish elections are divided along nationalist lines and will be for years to come.

This election was in the end not a test on Corbyn; we now know that no other Labour leader could have made a significant difference, because Labour's stance in the independence referendum will not be forgotten or forgiven by a huge proportion of its electorate. It was a test of Scotland, and it has forever killed the myth of Scotland's left-wing exceptionalism.