Book Blogger Challenge!

I think this is supposed to be done over 15 days but I don’t want to spam my blog full of rather dull posts individually, so I’m gonna collect these together!

Make 15 book related confessions.
Oh, this is actually rather hard.  Um.

  1. I kind of enjoyed Twilight.  Morally abhorrent and dull at times yet felt kind of fresh.  Don’t get me wrong – I still hated the rest of the ‘saga’.
  2. I must have read the Harry Potter books around 8 times.  They’re the reason it took me so long to expand my reading tastes!
  3. I’m not actually that great a fan of Shakespeare.  His language is unparalleled, but some stories – like Othello or Romeo and Juliet – I just find absolutely ridiculous.
  4. Though both are preferable, if forced to choose I would favour plot and characters over a skilled writing style.  Hence why I love The Hunger Games so much.
  5. Adding to this, I really hate a kind of ‘literary elitism’ you can get.  “Oh, I thoroughly enjoyed the book… But I wouldn’t say it’s a great piece of literature.”  Isn’t enjoying a book all it needs to be good literature?  Well, that and being thought-provoking, I guess.
  6. I own a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey.  It was a dubious birthday present!  And has since been on permanent loan to whoever will take it…
  7. When I was 11 I once cursed at a book and got angry at school for making me read it.  I still blush at the memory.
  8. Since 2011 I have been trying to read more books each year than I managed in the preceding year.  My 2013 target is currently 4o books, and I’m on track – having tallied 21 thus far!
  9. I find much Victorian literature extremely difficult to get through.  There’s just something in the writing style that dulls my imagination.  Though I’ve yet to try Dickens.
  10. I talk about books way too much.  I generally mention one or another in every conversation I have!  It must get so irritating.
  11. The longest story I’ve ever written is 36,000 words, when I was 14 – almost a novel!  Of course I read it now and regret everything.  Now I struggle to even reach 1,000 words – though I’ve recently begun a writing régime that will hopefully rectify that.
  12. I sometimes wonder whether I like the idea of reading books more than the actual reading.  This is usually shattered when I find a truly engrossing book, but that doesn’t happen as often as I would like.
  13. My limitations bother me.  Reading 40 books a year may seem like a lot but it’s barely a fraction of those published in one month, let alone all of human history.  It saddens me that I’ll never get close to reading everything out species has produced.
  14. 9 times out of 10 I would rather read a good book than go to a party or attend most social gatherings.  Of course, a social gathering where you read or discuss books is best of all!

What’s your bedtime reading ritual?
I usually try to read a bit as I lay down in bed, but sometimes I’m too tired and skip the reading bit.  I used to use this as my sole time for reading but I’ve since tried to find time throughout the day, as some texts are just too difficult to read when that tired.

Who are your blogging BFFs?
I’m afraid I’m too reclusive to have made any blogging friends yet!  Though there are a number of blogs I regularly look at and enjoy reading.

What’s the last book you flung across the room?
The last book I *wanted* to fling across the room was Fight Club, but unfortunately it was a borrowed copy.

Recommend a tear jerker
I’ve never cried a book, however I once witnessed a friend cry at the ending of The Road so I guess that’s a proven facilitator of tears!

Describe how you shop for books.
I’m a bit of a scrooge so I tend to mainly go for second-hand bookshops or borrow form libraries.  When I’m older and [hopefully] wealthier I intend to buy lots of books to keep the industry going!

Talk about your blogging quirks.
Do I have any blogging quirks?  My blogs are pretty simply, actually – I really just write down my thoughts and ideas on various topics and leave it at that.  I suppose you could say I sometimes have a thing for unnecessary figures and details, especially when it comes to elections.  And there are select topics I like to rant about given even the vaguest opportunity *cough* First Past the Post *cough*.

Write 15 bullet points of things that appeal to you on blogs.
You’re obsessed with the number 15!

  1. Simply discussing things which interest me: generally books, politics, astronomy or traveling.
  2. A clear, coherent writing style.
  3. Also a semi-sensible writing style.  Humour can really aid a blog but one which drives in too many jokes or forces an ‘attitude’ leave me cold.
  4. Updating regularly – don’t create the appearance of being dead.
  5. Not too regular updating, though – blogs which post more than perhaps twice a day get tiring quickly.
  6. Trying to encourage debate.  Either through polls or questions, ones which make the viewer feel welcome to comment.
  7. A nice design – not too cluttered.
  8. A detailed ‘about me’ page.  Perhaps this is my nosy nature coming out but I like to know a bit about the person behind the blog.  Though it doesn’t matter all that much – I also respect the right to privacy.
  9. Writing from a fascinating country like Iran or Egypt.
  10. Conversely, writing from my own country – either Scotland or the UK.
  11. I naturally tend to veer towards bloggers of my own age – I feel intimidated and inadequate around older, more experienced people – though if the quality is good enough I certainly won’t ignore blogs not written by my peers.
  12. Charitable or humanitarian support – from groups like Amnesty International or projects such as, I enjoy seeing humanity working as one for the benefit of us all.
  13. This sounds terrible, but blogs which have the same opinions as I do.  Like everyone, I like to read things which confirm my pre-existing biases.  That said, it’s fascinating when a particular blogger who I know has similar views to me posts something I completely disagree with, because then I can’t just dismiss the idea as being propaganda for an alternative ideology and am forced to reconsider my views.
  14. Blogs which don’t try to find more things to say than they can think of.  Like this current question is making me do.
  15. Blogs which end segments well.  Also unlike this.

Why do you blog about books?
Because I love books!  And I love talking/writing about books!  And as an attempt to reduce my raving towards Real People, I guess.

How do you choose what book to read next?
I actually have a quite complex system for this.  It goes: “home fiction, library fiction, home non-fiction, very old book; library fiction, home fiction, library non-fiction.”  This way, over a cycle of 7 books I’ll read a mixture of books from both my home shelf and the library but also a rough 2:1 ratio of fiction:non-fiction.  The actual book itself: I try to choose a different genre than the one I read before and I informally alternate between authors I know and those I do not.

Show off!  5 of your best blog posts.

  1. Democracies in the World by far is the most popular post I’ve made (it’s been a bit butchered by my recent attempts to remove copyrighted images; I’ll need to fix that).
  2. I’m really pleased with my literary analysis in Cloud Atlas [Novel] Analysis.
  3. Death on Mars is also quite ‘popular’ and one of my better cosmology posts.
  4. Syria: Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War is one of my better posts on international relations, back before I became too exasperated with the situation in Syria to keep updated with it.
  5. Problems with First Past the Post – see above…

How do you fight blogger fatigue?
What is blogger fatigue?  My own?  I generally enjoy writing and blogging – and it’s a less scary distraction from writing fiction – so don’t experience it all that much.  Unless you mean the fatigue of my readers?  In which case, I fail miserably.

Describe one under-appreciated book EVERYONE should read.
There’s many books that fit this category but my decision is easily J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy.  I awarded it the position of being my 5th favourite book of 2012 and it really is more special than most critics would have you believe.

Tell us your deal breakers.
Uh… I don’t understand this question!  If someone says they don’t read then I tend to break all deals I’d previously made with them… ?

Who are your book blogging mentors.
I wouldn’t say I have mentors, but there’s a few book bloggers I enjoy following – The Bookshelf of Emily J, to name one.

Well, that was 40 minutes I’ll never get back!


My Issues with Westminster Politics

I’ve noticed that, other than to discuss opinion polling (a post on which is overdue), I don’t tend to speak about British politics very much on this blog.  This isn’t because it doesn’t interest me, nor because I don’t follow it.  I just don’t tend to have much to say, for some reason or another.  I think this may partly be due to the fact that, regarding Westminster at any rate, I tend to feel a general antipathy towards the entire system.  I dislike our monarchical system, I blame the electoral system for a large number of problems our country faces – or, at least, for limiting our solutions – and I don’t feel inspired by any of the major parties:

The Conservative Party
My views tend to veer to the left so, clearly, the UK’s main right-wing party does nothing for me.  I oppose our current Conservative-led government’s obsessive drive to enforce austerity upon us, thereby punishing the weakest of our society for a crisis they didn’t cause.  While recognising the private sector has its place I oppose the relentless agenda of privatisation they’re enforcing upon us.  Ridiculous assaults on people in need of benefits with policies such as the ‘bedroom tax’ are disgraceful.  While I am thankful for David Cameron’s somewhat moderate leadership, trying to reign in the Eurosceptic backbenches and pushing through gay marriage, I still think he is a poor prime minister.

Same as the Conservatives, but worse.  As someone who is pro-Europe, pro-immigration, pro-renewable energy but not particularly fond of pubs, I don’t think I have a single thing in common with this party.

I really want to like Labour.  In theory the mainstream party of social democracy, my amateur opinion is that it abandoned this title long ago.  New Labour did some great things – most of which were before I became politically aware – my favourite of which is introducing the minimum wage, but it seemed to bow to the concept of privatised, unadulterated individualism which Thatcher imposed upon the country.   More shockingly, I’ve read a few criticisms from Labour supporters at the flimsiness of Labour’s policies which, after a whole 13 years of being implemented, are easily being torn away in a fraction of the time by our current coalition government.  If Labour were to promise some real, left-wing progressive policies – nationalisation of the railways,  ambitious cuts to carbon emissions, the scrapping of Trident and a proper, growth-focused alternative to austerity, to name a few – I might change my mind.  As it is, we have a shadow cabinet which has stated it will more or less continue the coalition’s austerity drive and is currently tearing itself apart over the role of unions in the party.  I’m not well informed enough about this issue to make a detailed comment but, without the unions, what would be the point of Labour?  They’d simply be a less scary version of the Conservatives.

Liberal Democrats
I think people have been too harsh to the Liberal Democrats at times.  As a junior partner in a coalition, with less than 1/5 of the seats the Conservative party have (they should have three times as many but, you know, our electoral system…) they really can’t be expected to live up to all of their promises.  That said, Liberal Democrat policies have taken such a beating in this government – tuition fees, changing the electoral system, reforming the House of Lords, etc – that I’m amazed any of their MPs see the coalition as still being worthwhile.  I suspect they’re staying in only in the hope that their abysmal poll performance improves.  The last three years has been proof that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is in reality a vote for either Labour or Conservative, depending whichever performs better.  That said, of the four they would still probably be my preferred option, if only because they are the only party seeking to reform the electoral system and end this straitjacket upon British politics.

It’s not the only reason, but an electoral system which only lets our vote count for two almost identical parties is why I largely feel disillusioned with Westminster politics and why I have far more confidence in the Scottish system.  I’m sure I can’t be the only person being pushed by this charade towards viewing Scottish independence as a positive thing.

Nevertheless, I will try to pay greater attention to developments in both UK and Scottish politics, and I’ll make an effort to blog about them a little more.  I doubt that will do much for my lack of faith but it might make it more justified.  If you disagree with any of this, please let me know why!

Problems with First Past The Post

I’m really not fond of the First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system, used in many elections around the world.  I’ve just found an excellent video which details the severe flaws of this broken system.  The video explains it far better than I can, but to summarise its points:

  1. It often results in single-party governments without majority support
    Usually opinion will be divided between a number of candidates and parties, meaning that the party which forms a government often lacks support from a majority of the population.  This is how the UK generally ends up with a government the majority don’t want, an extreme example being the Labour Government from 2005-2010 which was only elected with 35.2% of the vote but won 55.2% of seats in parliament.  In more complex systems you can get candidates elected who actually won less votes then their rival – George Bush in 2000, for instance.
  2. Creates a two-party system.
    Due to the ‘winner takes all’ nature of FPTP, many parties or candidates who regularly poll in 3rd or 4th place have virtually no chance of winning an election, despite having a modest level of popularity (perhaps 20% or so).  Over time the voters for these parties will realise this and shift their votes to more popular parties, leaving only the very faithful continuing to vote for these parties.  This results in the growth of two parties- usually one left-wing party and one right-wing party.  Why is this a bad thing?  Well, it polarises political debate and suggests that there are only two options for governance, when in reality there may be many different opinions going unrepresented.  It makes it more difficult for individuals or ideas to gain representation and, in some cases (such as the USA… again), allows businesses and corporations which support the parties to have disproportionate influence.
  3. Can result in gerrymandering.
    I would hope this isn’t that great an issue in democracies which use FPTP today, but it does recur every time plans are made to create new electoral boundaries – which must happen regularly to keep up with demographic changes so that all constituencies or voting areas have the same population to ensure no areas have greater influence than others.  For more corrupt and authoritarian governments it provides an easy means of rigging elections but even in healthy democracies, creating boundaries all parties can accept is an added complexity which can be costly and time consuming.
  4. Voting third party is always a bad idea.
    Unless you dislike both major parties or candidates equally, this is a huge problem.  In the UK most people have a preference towards either Labour or Conservative (despite often blurring lines between them), even if they wouldn’t like either party to be elected.  It’s the same with Republicans and Democrats in the USA.  Say you’re a left-leaning liberal in Fictionland and decide to vote for the Liberal Party.  Most people who vote Liberal are also left-leaning.  Unfortunately this splits the left-leaning vote and allows the right-wing Free Market Party to form a government with less than 50% of the vote.  Therefore, by voting for the Liberal Party instead of the Socialist Party, these voters – who make up a majority of Fictionland’s electorate – allowed a government to be formed which they didn’t want.  This is, in my opinion, the main reason Margaret Thatcher got elected so many times in the 80s, because the left-wing vote was split between Labour and the Liberal-Social Democrats.  On the other hand, it is speculated that the rise of UKIP will benefit Labour because many Conservative voters will shift to them.

Any one of these reasons alone is enough to make FPTP a terrible system, but together it is shocking that we still use it.  There are many alternative systems to FPTP but my favourite of these is the Additional Member System which, happily for me, is used in Scotland.

Once a FPTP system is in place it is very difficult to remove because, obviously, it works in favour of all the major parties.  In such a strict two-party system as the USA it’s unlikely that the electoral system will change for a very long time.  In the UK things are a bit more optimistic: the pro-reform Liberal Democrat Party, for instance, became a part of a coalition government in 2010 and managed to push through a referendum on the electoral system.  This was defeated for a number of reasons – the most significant being that the alternative system was pretty poor – and electoral reform seems to have gone off the agenda since.

I’ll admit that there are also benefits of FPTP system: the most convincing of which being that it provides stability and limits the influence of extremist parties.  This would be particularly useful for new democracies which often collapse due to weak governments (this is a major reason Hitler was able to take power in Germany in 1933).  There are also a few occasions where I think it would benefit a long-lasting democracy, such as Israel which produces such inconclusive results that political and religious extremists nearly always play the role of ‘Kingmaker’ and are often included in coalition governments.  But in nearly every other case, FPTP is an inherently flawed system.

2013 UK Local Elections Analysis

A day or so late with this, but here are the results of Thursday’s local elections:
[PNS = Predicted National Share]

2013 local elections

The news has been reporting these elections as the final breakthrough of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) into British politics; BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson described it as “The day UKIP emerged as a real political force in the land.”  And when you look at the results, there is no denying how well the party has performed.  If every party had stood candidates in every council ward and the votes spread across the country evenly, UKIP is projected to have won 23% of the total vote.  That’s about the same the Liberal Democrats won in the 2010 General Election.  There is no denying Nigel Farage’s claims that UKIP “is here to stay.”  However, lets get these results into perspective.

There is always a party which wins a spectacularly large amount of votes during midterm elections for a government – often referred to as the “protest vote”.  This would normally be the Liberal Democrats, who in 2009 [the last time these seats were up for election] won 28% of the vote.  This went down by 5 percentage points for the following year’s general election, indicating that voting for council seats and voting for the next government are two very different things.  With the Liberal Democrats in coalition with the Conservatives, and Labour still generally quite unpopular, UKIP have begun to vacuum up these disillusioned votes.

Secondly, there seats are generally recognised to be in very right-wing areas.  This is generally to the benefit of the Conservatives, but now have begun aiding UKIP.  Labour traditionally perform poorly in these seats, so the fact they are leading in the votes, even with only 29%, should not be played down.  These UKIP results, considering this and the protest factor, should be seen as the party’s maximum potential under its current level of popularity.  It’s looking very likely that UKIP will elect its first MPs in 2015, but how many?  Even if it does manage to attain a respectable percentage of the vote, it’s going to suffer from the same problem which has blighted the Liberals for decades: our First Past the Post electoral system.  Even for the local elections, despite UKIP achieving 9 percentage points more of the vote than the Liberal Democrats, they won 200 fewer seats.

Reactions to this result within the Conservative Party have ranged from Cameron’s calm resolve of winning back voters to blind panic and demands to hold an EU referendum before the next election.  My fear is that politicians of all parties will begin tripping over themselves to declare harsher and harsher immigration policies i an attempt to stem to flow of voters to UKIP – not something I would like to see.  However Labour, at least, has little to fear from UKIP.  I read a statistic earlier suggesting that Labour didn’t lose a single seat to UKIP, whereas the Conservatives must have lost at least a few good dozen.  Indeed, with Labour retaining David Miliband’s South Shields seat in the by-election and replacing the incumbent mayors in Doncaster and North Tyneside with Labour candidates, this has been a good week for Ed Miliband.  At first glance UKIP would appear to be the true winners of these elections, but upon further inspection I would argue that this title goes to Labour.

(I am a little bit sad the Greens didn’t perform very well, but at least they managed to win a few more seats).

Liberal Democrats win Eastleigh By-election

Yesterday’s by-election in Eastleigh, while perhaps lacking great strategic importance, seems to have summarised the state of British politics, half way into our experimental coalition.  The results were as follows:

Mike Thornton (Liberal Democrat) 13,342 (32.06%, -14.48%)

Diane James (UKIP) 11,571 (27.80%, +24.20%)

Maria Hutchings (Conservative) 10,559 (25.37%, -13.96%)

John O’Farrell (Labour) 4,088 (9.82%, +0.22%)

Danny Stupple (Independent) 768 (1.85%, +1.56%)

Dr Iain Maclennan (National Health Action Party) 392 (0.94%)

Ray Hall (Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party) 235 (0.56%)

Kevin Milburn (Christian Party) 163 (0.39%)

Howling Laud Hope (Monster Raving Loony Party) 136 (0.33%)

Jim Duggan (Peace Party) 128 (0.31%)

David Bishop (Elvis Loves Pets) 72 (0.17%)

Michael Walters (English Democrats) 70 (0.17%, -0.30%)

Daz Procter (Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts) 62 (0.15%)

Colin Bex (Wessex Regionalist) 30 (0.07%)

I’d expected to be wrong in my prediction that the Conservatives would win for the last week or so; I had underestimated the local popularity the Liberal Democrats possessed, Eastleigh being one of the few councils where they have managed to cling on to power since entering government.   I also underestimated the importance of individual candidates.  Still, you live and learn.

This is certainly good news for Nick Clegg, who I imagine will sleep easier with the relief of these results.  This is the first piece of good news in a long list of blows for the Liberal Democrats.  Whether this will become a turning point in their fortunes remains to be seen, although I highly doubt it.  Eastleigh is something of a stronghold for the Liberal Democrats – their greatest threat was to be dislodged by the Conservatives, who performed around 7% behind the Lib Dems in 2010.  Clearly, this never happened, but the Liberal Democrats’ share of the vote has significantly decreased, all the way from 46.5% to 32.06%.  This drop of 14% is, in fact, slightly greater than their decline in national polls since 2010.  So while a victory for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, they must not be complacent.  They have shown that oblivion might not be on the cusp of their political horizon, but let there be no doubt that an incredible uphill struggle lies ahead if they seek any respectable result in 2015.

The real victors, in my opinion, have been UKIP, who won their greatest ever share of the vote in an election.  This will undoubtedly provide evidence to Nigel Farage’s narrative that UKIP are a rising political force and, I have to admit, I’m wondering whether he is right.  A large proportion of UKIP’s vote is due to the protest factor, with the Liberal Democrats no longer the traditional ‘protest party’.  This phenomenon was seen in last year’s Bradford by-election, in which Respect’s George Galloway won with a significant majority.  Nevertheless, UKIP has established itself as a party with wide support.  If it maintains its current popularity in 2015 there is a good chance is will win its first MPs in the House of Commons, although it will suffer the same vote/seat ratio difference which has plagued the Liberal Democrats as a result of our First Past the Post voting system.  Nigel Farage will be very happy just now.

The two losers of this election, it gives me some pleasure to type, are the UK’s largest political forces, Labour and the Conservatives.  The Conservatives did respectfully, but David Cameron could really have used a victory to help his ailing popularity levels within his own party.  He will also probably be despondent that his declaration to hold a European Union referendum if winning the 2015 General Election has done nothing to stem the growth of UKIP.  Labour likewise should not be too discouraged, due to having a lack of a base to build on.  I’ve read analyses stating that less popular parties often tend to be marginalised in by-elections, which I’d imagine to be the case here.

Most political commentators have stated that by-elections are not of great overall importance, which is true, but they’re still very exciting to examine and pore over.

Nick Clegg Pledges to Stand in 2015

Nick Clegg has announced that he intends to stand for election in the 2015 General Election and will remain the leader of the Liberal Democrats.  He has also confirmed that he will stand again in his constituency of Sheffield Hallam.

I have long thought that the only way the Liberal Democrats stand a chance of avoiding being wiped out in the 2015 election is to get rid of Nick Clegg as soon as possible.  Clegg, for right or for wrong, has become among the country’s most hated and least trusted politicians as a result of his decision to enter into a coalition government with the Conservative Party.  The government has broken many Liberal Democrat manifesto promises, most famously not to introduce tuition fees in England and Wales – which has severely depleted Lib Dem support from one of its largest bases: students.  His leadership has seen the party decline from a peak of over 20% in opinion polls down to an average of 10%, and dramatic losses in local council elections, as well as in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election.  The party has also failed in its other aims, such as to replace the First Past the Post electoral system and to reform the House of Lords.

I do not personally believe Clegg deserves this level of public anger – government policies would be far worse with a Conservative majority – but it is obvious that few will be willing to vote for a party he represents.  His image was even used in the ‘Vote no to AV’ campaign leaflets as a reason to vote ‘no’ in the referendum! (“Voting yes would make this man happy”)…  If the Liberal Democrats are to go forward and regain any of the trust they lost, as unfair as it is, Clegg will have to go.