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    Those most likely to be affected will be the very young, the very poor and the very recently arrived – those, in other words, who are least likely to have alternative options.

    I'm not altogether sure that Transport for London (TfL) has entirely thought through its plans to ban cash fares on its 7,500-odd buses. For most of us, most of the time, they’ll be marvellous. Just occasionally, though, it’s going to cause a bloody big headache. This would be bad enough, except that those most likely to be affected will be the very young, the very poor and the very recently arrived – those, in other words, who are least likely to have alternative options.

    Once upon a time, pretty much all bus fares were bought on board the vehicle from a cheery sort in a hat. Today, though, except for the bored-looking cost-centres whose job it is to stop you falling out of the back of Boris buses, we don't bother with conductors any more. Most people use Oyster, TfL's automated ticketing system, either to show they've got a Travelcard or to pay as they go. There are other cards you can use to pay for your bus fares, too: bank cards fitted with the newfangled contactless payment systems. Today, TfL reckons, there are around 60,000 cash journeys made each day on its buses. That sounds like a lot, but it's only 1% of the total.

    Forcing these stragglers to go cashless would have a number of advantages. It'd speed up boarding times (no more fiddling for small change). It'd cut crime (no point holding up a bus that doesn't carry money). It'd allow "operational flexibility" (no chance of working out what that even means).

    It'd save TfL £24 million a year by 2019-20, it reckons, but it'd save passengers money too, because single fares are cheaper on Oyster than by cash. This is a bit of a cheat – TfL, after all, is the one that sets the bloody fares – but nonetheless, as things stand, you're better off paying for your bus through a medium that doesn’t have the Queen’s face on it.

    Alongside all these advantages, though, the plan brings with it two obvious problems. One is relatively minor. The other isn’t.

    One problem is that going cashless will confuse the hell out of anyone who doesn't live in London. Bus drivers will be lumbered with the unenviable task of explaining to tourists why they're not allowed on a large chunk of London's transport network without a strange lump of blue plastic. It’s a bit like hanging up a big sign reading, "London – open for business as soon as you've filled in the requisite form".

    That, though, is the smaller problem. The bigger one concerns those who do use Oyster, but pay for their travel as they go. At some point, they’re going to run out of credit and need to top up, only to find they can't because it's the middle of the night and they're in Barking. TfL claims to have thought of this, and says it's considering letting you make one extra journey after you run out of credit. This is sweet of them, but ignores the fact you might have inadvertently used that journey to get you to Barking in the first place.

    At that point, you’re dependent on one last safety net. TfL doesn’t tend to publicise this, but its drivers have discretionary powers to allow vulnerable people to travel for free. Exactly who this covers, though, is not entirely clear. A raucously drunk teenage girl is, by any sensible definition, vulnerable. They’re also exactly the kind of person you probably don’t want on your bus.

    The upshot of all somebody, some time, is going to find themselves drunk, in the middle of nowhere, and unexpectedly unable to get home. A TfL spokesman told me this situation was “hypothetical”, which is fair comment, but given that there are 6 million bus journeys made every day in London, it’s nonetheless likely to happen quite a lot. Not all of the people thus affected will be burly men.

    For most of us, none of this should be a problem. There are contactless payment cards. There's automatic top-up. Either of these will make it damned near impossible to get into this mess. But what both these solutions have in common is that they require you to have a bank account. Certain groups of people don’t generally have bank accounts. These include children, bankrupts and asylum seekers. These, of course, are exactly the people you want to leave dependent on the good will of a night bus driver.

    No final decision has yet been made on this plan – TfL is consulting until 11 October – but it's hard to escape the feeling that this is one of those consultations that's softening us up for the inevitable, rather than genuinely asking what we think. The chair of TfL, after all, is one Boris Johnson, and since he became mayor single bus fares, most likely to be paid by the poor, have shot up by 50%. He’s also made it clear, through his expensive pseudo-Routemasters, that he sees buses less as a means of conveyance than as set decoration for a Richard Curtis movie. Another policy in which TfL privileges its own administrative convenience over the needs of those at the bottom of the pile would be rather in keeping.

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    In the New Statesman this week, the Pet Shop Boys talk age, political apathy and lobbying David Cameron.

    The culture pages of the New Statesman this week feature an exclusive interview with synth-pop duo the Pet Shop Boys. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe spoke to Jude Rogers in the wake of their most recent album, Electric, which debuted at number one in the album charts earlier this year.

    There is a subtle, political strain to the album’s “upbeat mix of disco, house and pop”, Rogers writes, though the pair have consciously avoided letting their opinions bleed into the music, as Neil Tennant reflects: “We never wanted to preach or anything like that, because politics in pop music is a very tricky thing.”

    In 1988 the Pet Shop Boys played a gig to protest Section 28. Now, the band, “which has always supported gay rights, albeit sometimes subtly”, are increasingly concerned by Vladimir Putin and Russia’s new anti-gay “propaganda” laws. Tennant believes the Russian Orthodox Church is behind the legislation:

    It’s regained its position in Soviet society and Putin has schmoozed them as a result. He schmoozes everyone, actually, doesn’t he?

    Tennant adds that he finds our modern apathy towards political matters worrying. On digital privacy, for example, he says:

    The public couldn’t care less about being snooped on and that’s very odd. Imagine a politician saying they were going to open your post before they delivered it to you, photostat it, then deliver it. On the internet, it doesn’t feel like crime because you can’t feel the crime happening. It’s the same way that people think of stealing music, to turn to that hoary old argument.

    Chris Lowe, who arrived to the interview wearing a mirrorball hat, finds the modern pop industry frustrating, too:

    I’ve realised recently just how ring-fenced pop music is. Pop music wasn’t like that before. It’s now a very closed world.

    Tennant agrees the system is “unbelievably conservative and enclosed … radio people actually say to us now, ‘Oh, we won’t ever play your records, because you’re too old.’”

    But the pair, who are working on a song cycle about the life of celebrated cryptographer Alan Turing, still retain some influence. They recount how, having done David Cameron a favour by performing at the Olympics winners’ parade on the Mall, they lobbied the Prime Minister by text message to get Turing – who was prosecuted for homosexual acts in the 1950s – pardoned:

    Tennant texted David Cameron’s assistant to say so. His message read as follows:

    “Thanks for asking us – actually it was really worth doing. And sorry to bug you, but could you pass on to the Prime Minister that in Alan Turing’s centenary year it would be an amazing, inspirational thing to do to pardon him?”

    The same week that Electric was released, the government announced that the third reading of the bill pardoning Turing had been tabled for October. Sometimes pop and politics do shimmer together, after all.

    Elsewhere in the magazine’s back half, John Gray writes at length about Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), whose Notebooks are being published in English for the first time. Areté assistant editor Claire Lowdon reviews the new Booker-shortlisted novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. “The Lowland is satellite prose,” she writes, “placidly panning from Calcutta in the 1950s to Rhode Island in the early part of this century.” NS arts editor Kate Mossman reflects on the evolution of Elton John, who recently presented his new album, The Diving Board, at London’s Roundhouse, and Amanda Levete, principal of the architectural studio AL_A, discusses the structural changes at the V&A.

    The latest issue of the New Statesman is out on Thursday 19 September.

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    If Labour doesn’t think it has earned its electoral advantages, it will surrender them.

    Labour’s confidence – what is left of it – rests on a technicality. Britain chooses parliaments, not presidents. Ed Miliband may be fluffing his audition to be prime minister but electoral arithmetic keeps his party within reach of power. The Conservatives can win more votes and still end up with fewer seats. A Ukip surge on polling day would finish David Cameron.

    Maybe Miliband will look like a stronger candidate as the obstacles to a Tory victory loom larger. Alternatively, those obstacles will shrink as Miliband’s dwindling authority becomes a crisis of Labour’s self-belief. Judging by the bleak mood in the party ranks on the eve of the annual conference, the latter scenario is likelier.

    On the conference fringe, delegates will heap blame for Miliband’s woes on the press. Activists will pray for Ed the martyr, the victim of a tabloid hate campaign more aggressive than those that tormented Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot. Miliband’s allies don’t relish the comparisons but they are exasperated at the caustic coverage.

    Their modest consolation is that a summer of punishing headlines has not eliminated Labour’s lead in the opinion polls and the advantage is strongest in marginal constituencies. “A bucket of shit has been thrown at us,” says one Miliband adviser, “and we’re still where we were in May.”

    It is true that some newspapers are relentlessly unkind to the Labour leader but newspapers aren’t where most people get their opinions. Complaining about biased reporting is a sign that the party has run out of other excuses. When opinion polls show that voters are unimpressed with Miliband, it is because he has been unimpressive, not because editors have dripped poison in the nation’s ears.

    The annual conference is historically when a struggling leader can take back control of the agenda, fire up grass-roots enthusiasm and sell a message to the country that leaves everyone feeling they had rather underestimated him. Except Miliband did all of that last September and then frittered away the goodwill. His “one nation” speech was acclaimed as a game-changer. It was a bit lofty but aides promised the rhetoric would soon be fashioned into an agenda for government. It hasn’t happened. The game changed back.

    Miliband’s speech this year is described by friends as “meaty”, meaning it will contain policies. Crucially, they will be things Labour will definitely do if elected, signalling an end to the phase of talking about things the party fantasises about doing today but can’t promise to do tomorrow. That will come as a relief to MPs and activists who complain that cagey holding positions – condemning cuts without pledging to reverse them, for example – are useless on the doorstep.

    But Miliband’s task is not to enthuse an auditorium for one afternoon. He needs a plan for capturing voters’ attention and winning their trust over a sustained period. Senior Labour figures know they can get through conference without calamity. It’s the weeks afterwards they worry about. “The test is: are we now going to shift from tactics to strategy?” says a shadow cabinet minister. “The mood is very downbeat, very anxious. But it’s not fatal.”

    Signs of economic recovery are ramping up the sense of urgency. The Tories claim their austerity strategy is vindicated and that the opposition has spent three years doom mongering on the wrong side of history. Labour’s rebuttal is that the recovery is late and weak and benefits the wrong people. The focus in Brighton will be on families living precariously on low wages, with no job security and no faith that things are getting better.

    Miliband sees the Tories’ declarations of victory over the downturn as economic triumphalism that will alienate the voters. “It’s a mistake we want them to continue to make,” says a senior strategist.

    The coalition parties know they are vulnerable on that front. They will start pumping out measures to palliate the squeeze on living standards. The Liberal Democrats’ offer of free school meals to all schoolchildren under seven is just the beginning. George Osborne has already let his deficit- and debt-reduction targets slip beyond 2015 and spelled out cuts to departmental budgets running into the next parliament. In other words, he has probably dished out as much bad news as he needs to share this side of an election. If growth picks up and money flows into the exchequer, the Chancellor can start doling out tax cuts and other vote-wangling goodies.

    It still might not be enough to overcome cultural and geographical barriers to a Tory victory. Labour campaigners say Osborne’s cut to the 50p top rate of tax continues to resonate as proof that the Conservatives help their rich friends first. Labour MPs and candidates campaigning in the north, Scotland and the Midlands say hatred of the Tories is enough to overcome reservations about Miliband. “The level of anger is like the 1980s,” says one. “The tribal Labour vote is stronger than the tribal Tory vote.” Meanwhile, the core Labour vote is bolstered by angry ex-Lib Dems who feel betrayed by Nick Clegg, while the core Tory vote flirts with Nigel Farage.

    That is an account of how Miliband could be prime minister, not a reason why he should be. There has been little transfer of allegiance between the two big parties. One recent opinion poll found that in a sample of 1,000 people who backed the Tories in 2010, only four said they would now vote Labour. Those numbers describe a failure to win arguments in the country, which has demoralised the opposition. “We’re in with a chance,” says one frontbencher. “I can’t put it more strongly than that.”

    The gloom is contagious. If Labour doesn’t think it has earned its electoral advantages, it will surrender them. Miliband desperately needs to persuade his party it can win on more than a technicality because, in most other ways, Labour looks ready to lose.

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    Lorenzo Simonelli will succeed Dan Heintzelman.

    General Electric Company (GE) has appointed Lorenzo Simonelli, currently head of GE Transportation, as new president and CEO of GE Oil & Gas to improve the unit’s business prospects.

    GE Oil & Gas, which generated revenues of $15.2bn in 2012, was built through a series of acquisitions.

    Apart from Simonelli, GE has appointed Dan Heintzelman as its new vice chairman, and Russell Stokes as new president and CEO of GE Transportation.

    Sources close to GE’s thinking told the Wall Street Journal that the latest leadership changes are part of the company’s succession planning.

    The position moves are directed towards enabling executives to gather required experience prior to moving ahead to accept senior roles.

    Simonelli, who joined the company in 1994, served as CFO Americas for consumer and industrial unit, and has held leadership positions for appliances, lighting, electrical distribution and motors. His appointment will be effective 1 October 2013.

    Jeff Immelt, chairman and CEO of GE, said: “Lorenzo transformed GE Transportation from a North American rail business to a global transportation equipment and solutions provider. His passion for technology, his global mindset and customer focus will help GE Oil & Gas continue to grow.”

    Simonelli will succeed Dan Heintzelman, who has been appointed a vice chairman of GE.

    Heintzelman, who joined GE in 1979, will work across GE’s industrial business to further strengthen its services, advanced manufacturing and product development capabilities.

    Heintzelman, who has been president and CEO of GE Oil & Gas since 2011, also served as president and CEO of GE Energy Services. Previously, he led services at GE Energy and GE Aircraft Engines.

    The company has also appointed Russell Stokes as new president and CEO of GE Transportation.

    Stokes, who will succeed Simonelli as president and CEO of GE Transportation, most recently was vice president of global services at GE Transportation.

    Previously, he was general manager for GE Aviation’s Global Sourcing Organization and has held finance, risk and business development roles in aviation and lighting.

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    The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

    1. Ed Miliband is proving himself to be a brave and adroit leader (Daily Telegraph)

    If the Labour leader is remembered for nothing else, his stand on Syria changed the course of history, says Peter Oborne. 

    2. Your bank really isn't a venerable institution, is it? So ditch it (Guardian)

    The banks' malpractice has become normalised, but if we still remain loyal to them it's no surprise they don't clean up their act, writes Zoe Williams.

    3. Everyone benefits from free school meals (Daily Telegraph)

    Pilot projects of Nick Clegg's scheme showed improved academic performance and better behaviour, writes Jemima Lewis.

    4. Beijing’s net crackdown will be tested (Financial Times)

    Chinese cyberspace has become a Wild West of discussion, mockery and information-sharing, writes David Pilling. 

    5. Nick Clegg speech: powered up (Guardian)

    A newly authoritative and assured Lib Dem leader laid out an unapologetic account of the past and a bold plan for the future, says a Guardian editorial.

    6. Tilting at windmills: Even Tory supporters want Mr Osborne to go green (Independent)

    Britain is unusually well-placed to build a booming wind power industry, writes Tom Bawden. 

    7. Why Labour must rule out an EU referendum now (Guardian)

    Committing to an in/out referendum would de disastrous for Labour's election prospects – and the country's economic ones, says Julian Priestley.

    8. Nick Clegg’s quip he’ll fight up to four more elections sounds more threat than promise (Daily Mirror)

    Clegg taking credit for anything good the coalition does, while refusing to share blame for bad, isn’t persuading voters, says Kevin Maguire. 

    9. How a sex change made me less of a bigot (Times)

    When Bradley became Chelsea Manning I laughed — until the transgender truth shut me up for good, writes David Aaronovitch.

    10. And still Andrew Mitchell waits for justice (Daily Telegraph)

    If only the Met could act with the efficiency displayed by officers on the Downing St gates, writes Dan Hodges. 

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  • 09/18/13--23:35: Air France to cut 2,800 jobs
  • The latest job cuts are in addition to the 5,100 revealed in June 2012.

    Air France, a subsidiary of the Air France-KLM Group, is planning to cut 2,800 jobs, or 5 per cent of its work force, by the end of 2014 as part of its turnaround plan to reduce costs and return to profits.

    The passenger and cargo services operator said it will begin discussions with staff representatives and unions from 4 October 2013. In addition, the airline will continue its policy of wage moderation in 2014.

    The latest job cuts are in addition to 5,100 jobs revealed by the airline in June 2012 as part of its Transform 2015 plan.

    Air France, which merged with Dutch carrier KLM in 2004, said that its recovery has begun and Transform 2015 plan is taking effect and confirmed that the implementation of measures led operating income to increase by €100m in the first half of 2013.

    Frederic Gagey, CEO of Air France, told at a news conference: “We are in a period of weak demand. We have felt the full brunt of the cyclicality of air transport.”

    The Air France Group, which admitted of not achieving its objective of returning to equilibrium in 2013, has decided to develop the activity of its low-cost carrier Transavia France on departure from Paris-Orly, to adjust its domestic point-to-point network and provincial bases.

    Going forward Transavia France will operate five additional aircraft from the summer 2014 season. In addition, the seasonal adjustment of the schedule implemented in 2013 at the provincial bases will be continued next year.

    The airline, which is also considering changes in production methods at all French stations, said it will disclose the station by station objectives at the Central Works Council meeting on 4 October 2013.

    In context of cargo operations, the airline has decided to refocus its cargo fleet on its two Boeing 777F aircraft.

    The group is expected to post a net loss in 2013, marking its sixth consecutive annual loss.

    Meanwhile, the airline shares fell by more than 3 per cent following the jobs cut news.

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    Party morale is low, but there is a way to recovery.

    Labour enters its penultimate conference before the next general election with party morale lower than at almost any other point since the resounding defeat of 2010. The return of economic growth, coinciding with a sharper and more confident Conservative performance, has narrowed its poll lead to the extent that it can no longer be confident of winning a majority. The party unity that had characterised Ed Miliband’s leadership was fractured by the Falkirk selection debacle, which pitted senior figures such as Labour’s former campaign co-ordinator Tom Watson and the shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, against each other, and has yet to return.

    Mr Miliband’s trade union reforms, which will require union members to “opt in” to joining the party, are likely to cost Labour roughly £8m in lost affiliation fees but there is little enthusiasm for his ambition to build a mass membership party. Union leaders complain, with some justification, that the party has failed to outline a policy agenda capable of persuading their members to sign up.

    Among the electorate, Labour is increasingly regarded with a mixture of indifference and hostility. Much of the press despises the party and does not respect its leader. Even those instinctively loyal to the party complain that they no longer know what it stands for. Having failed to define itself, Labour is in danger of being defined by its opponents – as fiscally profligate, anti-business, opposed to all and any welfare reform and impervious to anxiety over immigration. Mr Miliband continues to trail behind David Cameron as a preferred prime minister, with personal ratings only marginally better than those of Nick Clegg. The Tories enjoy a convincing lead as the most economically competent party. The danger for Labour is that just as it finally unveils its policies, voters will have lost faith in its capacity to deliver them.

    If many in Labour appear morose, it is partly because their hopes were raised last year. Mr Miliband’s appropriation of Benjamin Disraeli and his rhetoric of the “one nation” provided Labour with a powerful frame with which to set itself against a socially and economically divisive Conservative Party that has been defeated decisively in Scotland and much of the north of England. But in the months since, Labour has failed to develop the emblematic policies required to make the concept relevant to voters. Instead, “one nation” has become a mere rhetorical appendage, lazily attached to every shadow ministerial brief. It has stood for everything, so it has stood for nothing.

    Mr Miliband’s good fortune is that, for reasons largely beyond his control, he retains a better-than-even chance of becoming prime minister after the next election. Because of the vagaries of the British electoral system, Labour needs a lead of just 1 per cent on a uniform swing to win a majority, while the Conservatives require a lead of 7 per cent.

    Owing to the defection of left-leaning Liberal Democrats to Labour and of right-leaning Conservatives to the UK Independence Party, Labour’s lead in the polls, although slight, remains consistent. Yet Mr Miliband’s project was supposed to be about much more than scraping over the line with the aid of voters who are resentful of the coalition. It promised an economic and social transformation.

    In an interview with the New Statesman last year, the Labour leader spoke ambitiously of his plan to remake British capitalism and to end the pursuit of short-term profit over long-term investment. Twelve months later, he is no closer to explaining how this will be achieved in a globalised era in which capital transcends national boundaries and companies relentlessly seek out low-wage, low-tax locations.

    More promising is his preoccupation with declining living standards and the struggles of the so-called squeezed middle. Just as wages fell before the recession, so they continue to fall during the recovery. Earnings are unlikely to outstrip inflation until 2015 at the earliest, leaving the average adult £6,660 worse off. Yet if Mr Miliband is to secure power, it will not be enough to convince voters they are poorer under the coalition. He will need to convince them that they would be better off under Labour. In the 2012 US election, Mitt Romney resurrected Ronald Reagan’s well-known line – “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” –but the electorate sided with Barack Obama because the numbers were at least moving in the right direction.

    To persuade a risk-averse electorate to return Labour to office after just one term in opposition, the party needs to produce transformative policies on wages, jobs, education, housing and childcare that clearly distinguish it from the coalition. It needs a vision of the kind of country it wants Britain to become. How would it reform public services? On the issue of welfare, it needs to recapture the old spirit of William Beveridge and the contributory principle. It ought to think seriously about the EU and Britain’s place within it. It needs to say how it would, in the aftermath of the referendum on Scottish independence, set about reconfiguring the Union. What of the English question, about which Anthony Barnett writes so energetically on page 46?

    Once he has established a positive policy agenda, Mr Miliband needs to assemble a team capable of explaining it to a sceptical electorate. The performance of the shadow cabinet has been lacklustre. Mr Miliband urgently needs to shake it up; he needs both new talent and more experience. Before the next election we would like to see the return of Alistair Darling and Alan Johnson to the front bench, if they can be persuaded. Andrew Adonis, the former schools minister and architect of the academies programme, should return with immediate effect to the shadow cabinet. He speaks and writes with power and conviction; his personal story is inspiring. He has been a forceful and persuasive critic of the failures of the coalition. He believes in big projects and is a committed social reformer.

    Mr Miliband should also look to a popular and experienced backbench figure such as Margaret Hodge (interviewed by Caroline Crampton on page 15). As chair of the public accounts select committee, Ms Hodge, at the age of 69, has remade herself as an indomitable foe of avarice and waste. Alongside this, he should promote the most promising MPs from the 2010 intake, including Stella Creasy (who outlines her optimistic vision of the future on page 39) and others such as Liz Kendall and Rushanara Ali.

    Labour’s charge that recovery has come too late and risks enriching the few at the expense of the many is a potent one. Yet as the excellent plan to extend free school meals to all five-to-seven-year-olds demonstrates, the coalition is already working to blunt the opposition’s claim that it is presiding over a “cost-of-living crisis”. While Mr Miliband can only talk, the government can act. The next week is one of the last opportunities he will have to persuade voters that Labour can answer the questions it first posed.

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    As she faces re-election, the signs are that Angela Merkel’s commitment to the euro stretches only so far as the maths continue to work for Germany. Andrew Gimson on the roots of a genial but ruthlessly pragmatic politician.

    On Saturday morning, I caught a train from Berlin into the land of forests and lakes that stretches north all the way to the Baltic Sea. As soon as one gets out of the city, it feels like one is stepping back in time to an older and more modest Germany. This is a country of birch and pine, sandy tracks, cobbled roads, abundant meadows, dilapidated orchards, and unassuming houses and churches.
    Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, was brought up here in Templin, in the Uckermark district, the daughter of a Protestant clergyman. A great part of her appeal to German voters springs from her provincial origins and the way she has remained true to them. There is nothing moneyed about Merkel: one cannot imagine her wishing to ingratiate herself with the super-rich. At the weekend she retreats with her husband to their house near Templin, reached by a cobbled road through the forest.
    I had decided to go further north, through Brandenburg and a wonderful profusion of lakes, into Mecklenburg and Western Pomerania. Otto von Bismarck is supposed to have said that when the end of the world comes, one should go to Mecklenburg, as everything there happens a hundred years later.
    I changed trains in Neustrelitz and proceeded through a series of tiny wayside halts – Gnevkow, Sternfeld, Utzedel, Demmin, Rakow – before alighting, at the end of a threehour journey, in front of the derelict station building in the small town of Grimmen, about a dozen miles short of the Baltic.
    Until 1990 this whole tract of territory was in East Germany. In December that year, in the first elections held after reunification, Merkel stood, at the age of 36, as the Christian Democrat candidate for the district of which Grimmen is the administrative capital, and won. She has represented this bit of Pomerania ever since and I hoped during my visit to gain some insight into her politics.
    My friend Leon Mangasarian, who works for Bloomberg News in Berlin, told me that Grimmen has a dynamic Christian Democratic mayor, Benno Rüster, who has prevented local youth from falling into the hands of the neo-Nazis by setting up a successful stock car racing club. Rüster is also anxious to develop the oil that has been discovered beneath the town: “Grimmen is swimming on a huge sea of oil. It could produce a flood of tax revenue for us. Look, we’re not going to get a Mercedes factory here.”
    Merkel, with typical caution, declines to say whether she wants the oil to be exploited: she fears upsetting environmentalists, who in turn insist that oil wells would wreck the region’s tourism industry.
    On the day I visited, Rüster was ill, so I was unable to ask him if he felt let down by Merkel. But I agree with him that Grimmen needs all the help it can get. Since reunification, the town’s population has shrunk from 15,000 to 10,000. The unemployment rate is 14.7 per cent and many people complain that wages are very low.
    The first sight that greets the visitor walking into town along Bahnhofstrasse is a monument to Karl Marx; his genial countenance is portrayed in bas-relief on a gold medallion attached to a small boulder. A few yards further on, one comes to a small Soviet war cemetery containing 16 graves. Such memorials placed in prominent spots reminded the East Germans who was in charge.
    Grimmen’s old town contains five brick Gothic structures from the 14th century: the church, three gateways and the two-storey town hall. But although it is evident that large sums of money have been spent since 1990 on restoring the fabric of the place, it still has a stunned feel. The first woman who I asked about Merkel said: “She was here last week. She was received with enthusiasm. She can make great speeches but whether she can do things is not so sure. Here, everything is closed.” 
    On Saturday afternoon almost everything in Grimmen is, indeed, closed. The one lively event I stumbled upon was a flea market held in a primary school. A hundred customers or so, almost all of them women, were looking through piles of second-hand clothes in order to buy things for their children – a T-shirt for 50 cents, a small pair of wellington boots for €3, a padded coat for €5.
    Many people I spoke to complained at the way prices have risen since the introduction of the euro but no one seemed to think it practical to return to the German mark. Quite a few said they have given up voting. They smiled at the visitor but, like Merkel, managed in a warm, firm and non-aggressive manner to say next to nothing. They feel a certain pride in having Merkel, “the most powerful woman in the world”, as their local MP but are not inclined to expect that she will achieve very much for Grimmen.
    Although people expect Merkel to win the German election on 22 September, no one supposes she will get enough votes to rule without forming a coalition. She could well find herself back in harness with the Social Democrats, with whom she governed during her first four-year term of office from 2005 onwards.
    Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democrats’ candidate for the chancellorship, served as finance minister in that government. In the only televised debate between him and Merkel during the campaign, he angrily rejected the idea of going back into government with her, while she, with lethal amiability, pointed out that the voters might indicate they wanted such an arrangement.
    Steinbrück is a decent man but he has no idea how to cope with Merkel, a woman of imperturbable friendliness who regards him with a gleam of amusement and has no compunction about nicking any of his policies that looks popular.
    At Grimmen’s recently restored water tower, a wedding party was posing for photographs. Women wearing green shirts and carrying balloons had formed a guard of honour: I was told they were the bride’s colleagues from the Arbeiterwohlfahrt, or workers’ welfare association. Inside the tower there was a small representation of a woman publicly burned as a witch in Grimmen in 1697, one of at least seven women to suffer that fate. This was during the period of more than 150 years, from the Thirty Years War (during which Grimmen was looted) to the Congress of Vienna, when the town, along with rest of the Duchy of Pomerania, belonged to Sweden.
    Nowadays, one might add, the greater part of Pomerania is in Poland, and in 1945 the population of Mecklenburg and Western Pomerania was swollen by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of German refugees who had been driven, amid great suffering, from their homes further east. Outside one of the gates of Grimmen, a modern monument commemorates the entry of French troops into the town on 4 November 1806. They kidnapped the mayor and released him only on payment within the hour of the enormous sum of 1,400 Reichsthalers. I couldn’t help wondering whether, before the euro crisis is over, the French government will attempt some similar act of extortion.
    We have grown so used to thinking of Germany as a mighty economic power that we overlook the ways in which that country is weak or at least has good reason to feel weak. The history of Grimmen is not one of steady success, although in the 1960s the East German government did invest in new industries in the town, including oil. This region is Germany’s domestic version of Greece: an area with a weak economy that was wrecked by a currency union pushed through by Chancellor Helmut Kohl – in this case the currency union carried out during reunification between West and East Germany in 1990, at the politically expedient but economically illiterate rate of one to one.
    By having vast sums of money spent on it, the former East Germany has been saved from bankruptcy and given a modern infrastructure and has even begun to prosper in parts. But many of its most energetic workers moved to find work in the former West Germany. In Grimmen, I met a man who had gone to Hamburg some years ago to find work and was returning to visit relatives. One should bear in mind that, as most of us would do, he wished to justify what he had done. But these were his harsh comments on Grimmen: “These are all old people here. If you look at people’s faces, there’s no Lebensfreude, no zest for life in them. Their faces seem all grey and hollow. There aren’t enough jobs where a man can live from his own labour.”
    This dismal testimony (which one can easily imagine being given in parts of Greece, Portugal or Spain) was balanced to some extent by that of another man who had moved from Berlin to Grimmen in search of a quieter life and was delighted to have found it.
    What does all this tell us about Merkel? First, it serves as a reminder that she grew up in a state, East Germany, that was not sovereign. Angela Kasner was born on 17 July 1954 in Hamburg, where her father had studied theology and her mother, who was from Danzig, taught English and Latin. In the autumn of that year her parents took her to East Germany, where her father began work as a clergyman but her mother was barred from teaching. Angela excelled at mathematics and Russian, studied physics at Leipzig University and did her doctoral thesis, on quantum chemistry, in Berlin. Her first marriage, to Ulrich Merkel, lasted from 1977 to 1982. She met her second husband, Joachim Sauer, a professor of chemistry who keeps out of the public eye, in 1981 and married him in 1998. She has no children.
    Until Merkel was in her mid-thirties, power resided in Moscow, to which she contrived, as a gifted young scientist, to make several visits. She was not a Communist but she and her family made the accommodation with the authorities that was needed for her to get an education. She learned from a young age something about power and about the art of pragmatic compromise, and she also learned how to conceal whatever her own opinions might be. The young Merkel had no training or, indeed, interest in politics. When some of her scientific friends suggested she might like to protest with them against the regime, she laughed at the seeming futility of their proposed course of action.
    Going to Grimmen reminded me of something that first struck me when I lived in the former East Berlin during the 1990s. There were many individual variations but overall the former East Germans I knew were more relaxed, and in many cases freer, than former West Germans.
    The easterners had suffered severe deprivation after the Second World War, which made them less liable to feel guilty. One could make jokes with them about, say, the Nazis, which to uptight West Germans would have seemed in intolerably bad taste. The easterners had experienced living under such a ludicrous regime that many of them had acquired a deep scorn for authority and for the ideological pretensions of their rulers.
    Merkel approaches politics with an easterner’s freedom. She is not a Christian Democrat by birth and in her formative years she was not imbued with the European pieties of the politicians and officials in Bonn. When reunification came she seized the opportunity, joined the party and was very soon promoted by Kohl, for whom she possessed three attractions – she was a woman, an easterner and highly competent.
    In due course, she saw her chance and assassinated Kohl, at a time when Christian Democrats from the west still possessed too much residual respect for him and were too enmeshed in his system of control. A wellplaced observer told me that the Christian Democrats feel bitter at their “emasculation”. It is not just that they find themselves being led by a woman, some of whose closest collaborators are also women, it is also that as Catholic Rhinelanders they have no real idea what this woman brought up in the wild east, in a Lutheran household and a communist state, is thinking.
    She wins elections, so they have to accept her leadership, but she is certainly not one of them, and every so often she shocks them by doing something they could not imagine doing. Her decision in 2011, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, to shut down Germany’s nuclear programme, astonished everyone: she had abandoned the platform on which she was re-elected in 2009 and stolen the Greens’ main policy.
    What is Merkel’s attitude to the European project? I see no evidence that she is a true believer. During the current election campaign, she has blamed her Social Democrat predecessor Gerhard Schröder for ever allowing Greece to join the euro, an accusation which confirms that practical considerations are more important to her than any general right to belong to the new currency. She has propped up the euro because it seems the pragmatic thing to do; the risks of getting rid of it have so far seemed worse than the bargaining that has been needed to save it. Merkel is a brilliant negotiator, calm under pressure, who keeps her cards hidden even from her own side. Her performance throughout the euro crisis has greatly contributed to her authority.
    Although this pilot who has weathered the storm is not the prisoner of a European ideology of ever closer union, there is nevertheless a moral element in her policy. Merkel promulgates the virtue of thrift, expressed as the balanced budgets that she commends to all members of the euro, even those that have shown no sense of balance for decades.
    Mario Monti, the former Italian prime minister, likes to remark that for the Germans, economics is a branch of moral philosophy. Merkel has become Europe’s moral tutor. Even the least promising pupils are expected to attain German standards of conduct. This strikes me as impossible. As David Heathcoat-Amory, a British Euro sceptic, observed when serving as a Foreign Office minister in the early 1990s, the Germans have “a weakness for rules, however unrealistic and unenforceable”.
    If and when the cost of saving the euro starts to become too high, Merkel will refuse to go on paying it. Her attitude will be that of a cold-blooded pragmatist. The interests of Pomerania will be placed ahead of those of the Peloponnese.
    On walking out of Grimmen, I spotted another war memorial, in a somewhat less prominent spot – a modest black obelisk, raised to Kaiser Wilhelm I and his warriors. It names the 80 men from the district of Grimmen who died in the wars of 1864, 1866 and 1870-71, when Bismarck unified Germany. Five years later, you may recall, he said that Germany had no interest in the Balkans “that was worth the healthy bones of a Pomeranian musketeer”. There are sacrifices one is prepared to make for one’s own country but not for others.
    The Germans are not yet ready for precipitate measures. They are still in a phase when they prefer to think as little as possible about the intolerable cost of the fiscal transfers that will be needed to save the euro, given the accelerating divergence between its northern and southern halves. Merkel’s reticence suits them at present. The only group that is trying to change the terms of the debate is Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, or AfD), a new party crammed with professors that has a good chance of breaking through the 5 per cent barrier needed to get seats in the Bundestag.
    Although the opinion polls put the party below that level, it is generally accepted, even by the pollsters, that a considerable number of Germans who might vote for AfD are refusing to say what they will actually do. AfD wants an orderly dissolution of the euro and a return to national currencies, or else to smaller and more stable currency unions.
    Bernd Lucke, who leads AfD, maintains a studiously moderate tone and has indicated that he prefers David Cameron to Nigel Farage. But the party’s opponents accuse it of fomenting extremism and Lucke was attacked and pushed to the ground by far-left activists at a rally in Bremen on 24 August.
    It is only fair to say that members of the German establishment do not expect AfD to win seats in parliament. They could be correct in this prediction or they could be out of touch. From time to time Merkel makes Eurosceptic noises, such as when she said on 14 August that after the general election there could be a discussion about whether Brussels should sometimes return powers to the member states: a non-committal remark about which British Eurosceptics got overexcited, given that its evident purpose was to damage German Eurosceptics.
    Merkel is on track to win the election by declining to answer questions about the future of the euro that most Germans are not yet ready to ask. But if the markets pose those questions in an acute way after the election, I do not expect her or her successors to die in the last ditch for a currency that threatens to bleed German taxpayers dry.

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    The latest YouGov poll shows the two parties tied for the first time since March 2012 but the figures would still leave Labour just three seats short of a majority on a uniform swing.

    Just in time to create some more pre-conference jitters for Labour, today's YouGov poll shows the party tied with the Tories for the first time since George Osborne's kamikaze Budget in March 2012. The Conservatives and Labour are on 36%, with UKIP on 12% and the Lib Dems on 10% (no sign of a conference bounce there).

    Time will tell whether it's an outlier (YouGov has recently shown a Labour lead of around four points) but a year ago, when they trailed Labour by margins as great as 14 points, few Conservatives would ever have expected that they'd draw level just 12 months later.

    On a uniform swing, the poll would still leave Labour just three seats short of a majority. This apparent bias has less to do with the unreformed constituency boundaries than it does with differential turnout (fewer people tend to vote in Labour constituencies) than it does to unequal constituencies. As a report by the University of Plymouth concluded: "The geography of each party's support base is much more important, so changes in the redistribution procedure are unlikely to have a substantial impact and remove the significant disadvantage currently suffered by the Conservative Party."

    It's important to remember that uniform swing calculations are an unreliable guide to election outcomes since they don't take into account factors such as the incumbency bonus and above-average swings in marginal seats. Had there been a uniform swing in 2010, the Conservatives would have won 14 fewer seats, Labour eight more and the Lib Dems five more. But even if, as seems likely, the Tories perform disproportionately well in their existing seats, they will still need a lead of around three points over Labour to remain the largest party.

    It does raise the possibility that the Tories could win the most votes with Labour winning the most seats (the reverse of the 1951 election). When I recently asked Lib Dem president Tim Farron how his party would act under this scenario, he said that while "morally" it should ally with the party with the most votes, "the arithmetic" meant it would have to favour the largest in parliament. But this rather ignores the fact that, unlike in 2010, both parties could conceivably win enough seats to form stable majority governments with Lib Dem support. As Andrew Adonis notes in his book 5 Days in May, Willy Brandt’s SPD administration in Germany and the current Swedish government are proof that second placed parties can legitimately assume power. The danger for the Lib Dems is that a dead heat in 2015 will cause a damaging schism between the party's Labour-leaning left and its Tory-leaning right. 

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    W H Auden, who died 40 years ago this month, is one of the most humane, loving, direct and affecting poets of all time, writes Alexander McCall Smith.

    That unmistakable voice: grey, shambling and covered in ash, Auden the man found it was the effect of his words that mattered.
    Photo: Jerry Cooke/Corbis
    He wrote a poem in praise of limestone. He wrote a poem about Sigmund Freud. He wrote poems about cats and opera, about the minute organisms that live on human skin. He wrote an achingly beautiful love poem, a lullaby that stands among the gentlest and most forgiving poetry of the 20th century. Years after his death, when the World Trade Center towers were brought to the ground, traumatised New Yorkers faxed each other copies of a poem he had written for an earlier and greater crisis, “September 1, 1939”. They took comfort in his words even if many of those who received them must have had no idea who he was.
    My own discovery of W H Auden came in the early 1970s, when I was living in Belfast and working at Queen’s University. I picked up an edition of his collected shorter poems – many of which are, in fact, rather long. It was done on impulse, as many of our personal literary discoveries are, but I immediately felt that the voice I heard in the poems was speaking directly to me. That may sound like solipsism, but it is just what a great poet often does: he or she is there in the room with you, at your elbow, addressing you in particular. You can hear the voice. For me, some of the attraction of Auden was the hint of the political in the backdrop to his earlier work; to read him in the midst of the Northern Irish Troubles seemed somehow right.
    A few months later, when I was back in Edinburgh, Auden arrived to give a public reading in George Square. I was in the second row and watched as the great poet shambled in, flanked by committee members of the Scottish Association for the Speaking of Verse. He was a terrible mess: a shapeless grey suit, stained and covered, as far as I could work out, in cigarette ash, complemented by a pair of ancient carpet slippers and that face, famously lined with what he called its geological catastrophe. The same face has been described as looking like a wedding cake left out in the rain. But there he was, and he mounted the platform to read – or rather to recite, as he needed no notes. And at that moment there was an involuntary intake of breath from the audience. His flies were undone.
    Not that it mattered. Auden’s words, particularly when we hear them delivered in that curious mid-Atlantic accent that he developed after he left England for the United States, have an electrifying beauty and, in the case of so much of his work, profundity. It is this combination of lyricism and intellectual depth that makes him, I think, the most engaging of 20th-century poets.
    From that early encounter with his work, I developed an increasingly strong interest in his writing. I began to travel with a collection of his poems in my suitcase; lines of his verse came back to me at odd moments; I started, I suppose, to look at the world through what might be described as an Audenesque set of spectacles. I taught our daughter, then aged four, to recite his ballad “As I Walked Out One Evening”. She enjoyed it. We are all pushy parents in one way or another, and may as well admit it.
    When I started to write novels set in Edinburgh, the characters in these books – unsurprisingly, perhaps – began to show an interest in Auden. In particular, Isabel Dalhousie, the central character in my Sunday Philosophy Club series, thought about Auden rather a lot – and quoted him, too. A couple of years after the first of these novels was published, I received a letter from his literary executor, Edward Mendelson, who is a professor of English at Columbia University in New York. Unlike those writers who appoint coevals to look after their work, with the result that their executors either predecease them or do not last much longer, Auden made the wise move of appointing a young man to watch over his literary legacy.
    Mendelson was then a junior academic at Yale – and this gave him the opportunity to devote much of a long and distinguished career to producing commentary on Auden’s writing. It transpired that he was a reader of my Botswana novels and he wrote to me to tell me that, in his opinion, Auden and Mma Ramotswe would have agreed on practically every subject. However, what particularly pleased him, he said, was the attachment my other fictional characters had to the poet.
    The letter led to a friendship. I then wrote Professor Mendelson into an Isabel Dalhousie novel, creating a scene in which he comes to Edinburgh to deliver a public lecture on the sense of neurotic guilt in Auden’s verse. A year later, we translated fiction into reality by bringing Mendelson to Edinburgh to deliver before a real audience the lecture that he had previously given to a group of fictional characters. Such is the interest in Auden that almost 400 people came to hear him speak.
    That is not bad for a poet who died 40 years ago this month. What explains the continuing appeal of his work? The language he used probably goes some way towards it. Auden had an ear for the rhythmic possibilities of English – at one time or another he used virtually every metre available to a poet writing in English. It is the syllabic verse, though, that he consistently used for so many of his later poems that has the strongest and most consistent appeal. It appears effortless – rather like the steady flow of a clever lecture – but it is really very skilfully constructed and has an extraordinary capacity to resonate with the reader. Yes, we think. This is exactly how it is. This is true.
    There is also an intense humanity about Auden’s poetry. He comes across as a man of great sympathy, kindness and understanding. He is forgiving; he knows that we are rather weak, frightened creatures, afraid of the dark, but we need not be frightened, he says, because we can create for ourselves the just city for which we yearn. In his earlier work, he believed that this could be done by political engagement. He travelled to wars, to Spain and to China, witnessing the unfolding tragedies of fascism and militaristic aggression. Later, though, he eschewed politics and became something of a Horatian poet, celebrating the importance of the local, the domestic, the personal domain of culture. In that sense, there are several different Audens and one can take one’s pick according to one’s mood and needs.
    For me, his most affecting poems are those in which he is talking, in one way or another, about love, even if he may not use the word directly. “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” is about freedom and the ability to be ourselves, yet it is also about the corrosive and limiting effects of repression and hate. Even when he writes about water, as he does in the bucolic “Streams”, he ends up talking about how we all need something to cherish and love. That can be anything, he explains in another poem called “Heavy Date”. “When I was a child”, he writes in that poem, 
    . . . I Loved a pumping-engine, Thought it every bit as Beautiful as you. 
     There may be a sexual joke here. It does not matter: the point is that we can love anybody and anything – what counts is that we open ourselves to love.
    It may be that the love is not returned. Most of us have experienced unrequited love – a bitter pill to swallow. But Auden has advice there, too. If equal affection cannot be, he writes, let the more loving one be me. Like just about everything he wrote, that helps.
    Alexander McCall Smith’s “What W H Auden Can Do For You” will be published by Princeton University Press on 22 September 

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    Vicky Pryce on UKIP's respectable friends and Prisonomics.

    Ukip’s respectable friends

    Debates on whether the UK should leave the European Union are a growth industry. Of course we shouldn’t – and there shouldn’t be a referendum either, unless other like-minded countries ask to have powers given back to them, too, so that a new treaty would then need to be voted on.
    Withdrawal makes no economic sense, given our trade and other ties with 500 million fellow Europeans and the EU’s £11trn market. That didn’t stop more than a thousand people meeting at the Guildhall for the in/out debate co-hosted by the Evening Standardand the Centre for London on 9 September. On the pro-Europe side were Vince Cable, Martin Sorrell of the advertising company WPP and me. The antis were the Labour MP Gisela Stuart, the businessman Luke Johnson and Jesse Norman, the last of these recently sacked as a government adviser by David Cameron for showing independence on the Syria vote.
    I was shocked at the number of people who declared they were pro-Ukip. Still, I think the majority wanted us to stay in.


    Choppy waters ahead

    On the subject of the eurozone, I recently attended a conference organised by Professors Richard Portes and Hélène Rey at the London Business School to discuss how sustainable current debt levels are. Yes, a number of the periphery countries of Europe have managed to improve their current account balances and to move to primary surpluses in their public finances. However, the reason is mainly that they have stopped spending. Growth is minimal and debts of 120 per centplus of GDP are unsustainable.
    The crisis has not gone away – many of the banks are in deep trouble and the latest data suggests that lending has been declining in most countries. There are some tentative signs of a pick-up but the debt overhang is bound to bring in more crises soon.
    Steering the eurozone through the continuing turbulence will require a master helmsman or helmswoman. 


    Ignoring our neighbours

    The most important political event of the year is coming later this month. Yet if you read most newspapers, you would not know that there will be an election in Germany. Compare this to the year-long, day-by-day coverage of any US election and our indifference to politics across the Channel seems almost 1930s-esque in its frivolousness.
    The only story here seems to be whether Angela Merkel will back the Prime Minister’s wish for a massive renegotiation and repatriation deal with the EU. My German friends say Keine Chance – “no way”. At the Guildhall debate, Cable said that the Lib Dems would support a referendum if it was warranted by a substantial change in our relationship with Europe. It didn’t sound like backing for a referendum come what may.


    Balancing act

    George Osborne has proclaimed that the UK’s cuts strategy was right after all and that he has been vindicated. In my view, the reason for any success is not austerity – the government has already implemented Plan B, as it has acknowledged some growth is better than none. Target dates for fiscal consolidation have been pushed back. The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, indicates interest rates will stay low as long as possible. A huge injection of cash into the banking system through what is known as “Funding for Lending” and the additional increase in taxpayer-funded mortgage availability are boosting demand and construction. Growth is sustained by consumers borrowing more and more government spending. Nothing wrong with that – but where’s the rebalancing?

    Greek encounter

    Great relief. My forthcoming book, Prisonomics, looking at the costs and benefits of the prison system in England and Wales, has just gone through the last of its many edits with my editors and will be out in a few weeks’ time. Iain Dale of Biteback has revolutionised political publishing by cutting the year-long delays between writing and publication. I have also been updating Greekonomics, my book from last year on the eurozone crisis.
    My research included a wonderful fish dinner near Athens recently with, among others, Mark Lowen, the BBC correspondent there. His lineage is amazing. One grandmother was a Jewish concert pianist in wartime Poland who played for Nazi brutes and lived for another day. His grandfather George Lowen was a young Jewish left-wing barrister in Berlin who worked in the defence team in the Reichstag trial in 1933. He fled to South Africa, where he had to learn English. He requalified and became a well-known QC and defended anti-apartheid militants at the Rivonia trial, in which Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. The Reichstag and Rivonia trials were two of the 20th century’s greatest court cases. The grandson is now reporting on extremist right-wingers in Athens.
    Greece remains weak, if resilient, and urgently needs more of its debt written off. Unemployment is at record levels and tensions are high. Yet we prefer to keep entire nations in a kind of debtors’ prison. It’s not so much 1930s politics but the return of 19thcentury economics that is worrying.

    Milk moustache

    Back from my parents’ home near Athens to chilly Clapham. I spent most of my holiday in front of a computer at the wonderfully named Everyday Café in Varkiza, a seaside suburb outside Athens. My chief writing aids were countless café frappés – a glamorous name given to Nescafé mixed with cold water from the fridge and ice cubes, shaken like a cocktail until a thick layer of froth comes out on top and then poured into a tall glass.
    It looks like a pint of Guinness but it’s spoiled by how you have to drink it through a straw – unless you don’t mind the ignominy of having a thick layer of froth settling around your mouth like a moustache.
    Vicky Pryce is a former joint head of the Government Economic Service. Her books “Prisonomics” (£16.99) and an updated edition of “Greekonomics” (£12.99) will be published by Biteback later this month 

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    Even the cleverest politicians make mistakes.

    The Blunders of Our Governments
    Anthony King and Ivor Crewe
    Oneworld, 488pp, £25
    It’s the summer of 1984. The Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher is once again discussing the issue of local authority rates. This form of local taxation was, like all taxes, deeply unpopular but the participants in this discussion also considered it to be profoundly unfair. It was levied on the value of the property, irrespective of the income of the resident. Although the money raised provided services to all local residents, many, such as those living in rented accommodation, made no contribution at all.
    As the shadow minister with jurisdiction in this area ten years earlier, Margaret Thatcher had promised to release people “from this rates rack”. Yet there had been no mention of abolishing the rates in the 1979 or 1983 Conservative manifestos. An insipid green paper in 1981 had made a dismissive reference to the idea of a per-capita tax on individuals to replace the current system. It was taken no further and a white paper two years later had committed the government to the status quo. Now the matter was being discussed against the backdrop of the miners’ strike and with militant (and Militant) councils such as Liverpool refusing to comply with government-imposed rate caps.
    The prime minister listened once again to the arguments about the inequitable nature of the rates: about the little old lady forced to pay the bills of her neighbours who lived in rented accommodation and had much higher incomes, on the basis of the theoretical value of a house that she could never sell. In another private house across the street lived a couple with three sons. All five were wage earners. Yet they paid exactly the same amount in rates as the little old lady living alone on a state pension.
    To this was added a further argument: all adults were entitled to vote in local elections but millions of those voters paid no rates and were able to vote for those rate-busting councils that were defying the government, without any fear of financial retribution.
    Mrs T’s scepticism evaporated. She was hooked and the poll tax was born. It wasn’t a measure developed in haste; neither was it shaped on an anvil of unquestioning cabinet support. The then chancellor of the exchequer, Nigel Lawson, thought it was “a colossal error of judgement” and voiced his criticism vociferously in a “memorandum of dissent” to fellow ministers.
    Anthony King’s and Ivor Crewe’s book is based on exhaustive research; they have talked to the foot soldiers in the civil service and the officers in the cabinet. The result is a fascinating account based on a false premise with a misleading title. The authors tell us that they would have described the poll tax as the blunder to end all blunders, “except that far from ending all blunders it has been followed by numerous others”. As Lawson said, this was an error of judgement and such errors occur in governments all over the world. They always have and they always will.
    To blunder is “to move blindly, flounder, stumble”. As the book dissects the corpse of the poll tax, we learn that the review team that formulated the policy was made up of ministers and civil servants of the highest quality: “the brightest selection of people ever gathered”, according to one insider. No stumbling or floundering here. The idea was certainly not developed blindly or in haste.
    And what was the impact of the collective genius assembled to solve the rates problem? Eight million people gained from what was officially called the “Community Charge”. There were 27 million losers. Some householders found themselves with an annual loss of around £1,500, while a small minority in London were £10,000 better off. Hundreds of thousands of people simply refused to pay and some 700,000 disappeared off the electoral register, believing it was a way of avoiding the hated tax. As one exasperated civil servant told the authors, “It needed exceptionally clever people to produce anything so stupid.”
    The poll tax marked the beginning of the end of Thatcher’s premiership. And in Scotland – where, believe it or not, the Scottish Conservative Party requested that it be implemented in its entirety before being introduced to the rest of Britain – it produced a quaint statistic: there are more pandas in Edinburgh Zoo than there are Tory MPs.
    There aren’t that many actual blunders in British politics (though two recent examples come to mind: William Hague’s inexplicable public pronouncement at the beginning of the Libyan uprising in 2011 that Muammar Gaddafi was on a plane out of the country and Theresa May getting her dates wrong when she was rearresting Abu Qatada) but there are many failed policies, and if King and Crewe want to call them blunders, so be it.
    I’ll dismount from my pedantic high horse.
    It is less easy to ignore their claim that British governments since 1979 have been more prone to such mishaps than their predecessors or than the governments of other countries. Despite making this the premise of the book, the authors endearingly admit that they cannot support their assertions. “Both questions are pertinent,” they confirm, “but alas, we are not in a position to answer either of them.”
    Mrs Thatcher spoke of Britain’s entry into the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), over which she presided, as a “folly”. I think that is a better description of the poll tax than “blunder”, but I’m not sure it applies to the ERM. Here, the arguments were so rational that they had the support of all three main political parties, the bulk of British business and most trade unions. Joining the ERM would prevent speculative attacks against the pound, help reduce Britain’s high inflation rate and maintain our influence inside the European Community and in the wider world.
    If there was a blunder inside the ERM folly, it was to join with sterling pegged at a rate of £1 to 2.95 Deutschmarks. The ever-prescient William Keegan said in his Observer column at the time: “I cannot for one moment believe that the current exchange rate will hold for more than two years.” It didn’t, ceasing to hold on 16 September 1992, almost exactly two years after British entry.
    The mistake wasn’t entering the ERM and certainly wasn’t withdrawal, which helped the country out of recession. It was the bit in the middle: the rate at which sterling was pegged and the absence of any contingency plans as what soon became known as Black Wednesday approached.
    This is a familiar pattern. Policy is adopted on the basis of rational arguments and hits the rocks for reasons other than the idea itself. Seeking to seize the proceeds of crime from criminals was an excellent idea. The problem was that the Blair government set up the Assets Recovery Agency by publishing the Proceeds of Crime Bill, grabbing the headlines and leaving the practicalities of how it would work until later. The result: the agency spent £65m to recover £23m, working on 700 cases and recovering assets in a mere 52.
    As for the Single Payment Scheme to simplify the operation of the Common Agricultural Policy and Metronet, the public-private partnership for maintaining the London Underground, Labour can be thankful that these disasters weren’t publicised more widely. King and Crewe do them justice, explaining the story in a way that credits the reader with the intelligence to draw his or her own conclusions. Believe me, despite the yawn-inducing subject headings, these are particularly interesting, if little-known, disasters.
    I suspect that readers will be unconcerned whether the book’s premise is questionable. It provides a hook on which to hang some meaty and absorbing tales (foreign policy is excluded, so if you’re looking for a blow-byblow account of how we became involved in Iraq, you’ll have to wait for Chilcott).
    It is domestic mishaps that entertain the reader through the large part of this book. It’s a shame that King and Crewe didn’t leave it at that, instead of feeling obliged to attempt to draw conclusions across the final 150 pages. Thus we encounter much-debated themes about Whitehall departments working in silos; how there are too many reshuffles (something that the coalition has rightly avoided); cultural disconnect (ministers leading more privileged lives than those they govern); operational disconnect (ministers’ reluctance to be involved in delivery as well as formulation of policy); and so on.
    I sympathise with many of their arguments and could add a few more. The virility test for secretaries of state is how many bills they can get into the Queen’s Speech. This can lead to unnecessary and ill-considered legislation. (At the old Department of Trade and Industry, I discussed with David Sainsbury a plan to reverse this process, offering no new bills and using the splendid bill teams – the civil servants drawn together to see through a piece of legislation – to remove legislation from the statute book, rather than add to it.)
    There is also the problem of Having Something to Say at Conference. I was as guilty as any of my colleagues in scouring whichever department I was in charge of for an initiative to announce in my ten minutes of airtime by the seaside every year.
    Even more pernicious was the prime minister’s demand for policy announcements in the leader’s speech. At least as secretary of state, I knew my patch and had to live with the consequences of my actions. The occupant of No 10 and his acolytes would appear like invading Vikings, pillaging policies and leaving us to clear up the mess.
    The authors don’t mention this phenomenon but they rightly highlight the dangers of moving ministers around too much, pointing out that in Germany there have been only half a dozen large-scale cabinet reshuffles in the entire history of the federal republic. In these rather tedious discussions, however, for every argument there is a powerful counterargument. For instance, Enoch Powell approved of moving ministers around constantly. “When a minister begins to think like his officials and understands before they explain, his work in that office is done: he is losing the power to see the issues in a political light from the outside, which alone is what he is there for.”
    None of these causes provides a narrative that links all the disparate effects described earlier in the book. They involved judgement calls made by human beings operating in a free society with a limited period to make an impact. A book about government successes would be very boring (and, a cynic would say, very short). Yet some of the factors used to explain these failures could apply equally to the successes. Gordon Brown’s predilection for acting on his instincts and excluding the input of others may well have been instrumental in keeping Britain out of the single currency.
    On the other hand, China has many of the attributes considered essential for the absence of political blunders and all the features that would, to take the premise of this book, make blunder-free government such an unattractive proposition.
    Alan Johnson is the MP for Hull West and Hessle and was a cabinet minister in the Blair and Brown governments

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    At the Royal Albert Hall on the Last Night, I resisted waving a flag yet easily forgave the excesses of those around me who were.

    When, late in the evening of Saturday 7 September, it was time for Marin Alsop to speak with her voice rather than through her hands, the first female conductor of the Last Night of the Proms did what every successful sports star knows is a sure-fire route to spontaneous applause – she praised her audience. You might even call them her fans.
    She also thanked her parents for creating an environment in which music was ever-present when she was growing up in the United States and reminded all those who’d doubted a woman should be conducting the Last Night that – and I paraphrase – it was absurd that we should be speaking about firsts for women in 2013.
    Her point was well made and her performance was first-rate, serious yet sympathetic to the occasion, both sombre and frivolous, and to the expectations of the 6,000-strong audience in the Royal Albert Hall, there to participate as well as listen (those standing had paid only £5 for their tickets and wanted to be entertained; many others who wanted tickets were turned away at the door).
    I’ve long felt ambivalent about the Last Night of the Proms. As a boy, when there were only three television channels, I resented how it clogged the Saturday evening BBC1 schedule and delayed the start of Match of the Day, invariably beyond my bedtime. Later, I was irritated by all the exaggerated pomp and circumstance – the flag-waving and the Union Jack hats and waistcoats, the jingoism and post-imperial hysteria.
    I’m more forgiving now and understand the Last Night for what it is, the culmination of a summer-long festival of live classical performance, which this year included the first ever complete performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Proms, with Daniel Barenboim conducting – one more of the cultural glories offered up by Mr Putin’s irrelevant small island.
    There were some thrilling performances on Saturday evening, notably from Joyce DiDonato, the radiantly blonde mezzo-soprano from Kansas. She mixed canonical works, such as the aria from Rossini’s La donna del lago, with the popular songs “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, the mournful anthem of Liverpool football club, which had the woman in front of me weeping.
    As much as I admired DiDonato’s vocal power and glamour, I most enjoyed the performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, with the counter-tenor Iestyn Davies as soloist. Alsop trained under Bernstein and spoke afterwards of her delight to have discovered that his son was in the audience for such a special performance.
    The Last Night crowd enjoys celebrity and the punk violinist Nigel Kennedy, less ubiquitous nowadays than he was in the 1990s, was on hand to provide it. He performed Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending” with diligence and feeling, his eyes closed, his neck strained and taut. He returned later, dressed in an Aston Villa shirt (Kennedy liked football long before it became obligatory to like football), to make mischief in a scattergun performance of Monti’s “Csárdás”. Alsop conducted Kennedy with amused tolerance, indulging his egoism and erratic reinterpretations without ever allowing him to slip completely free from her control.
    From here the audience of flag-wavers, the so-called Prommers, took over as Alsop led them – or should it be us? – through renditions of “Land of Hope and Glory”, “Jerusalem” and the national anthem. I resisted waving a flag yet easily forgave the excesses of those around me who were, especially as nearly as many foreign flags as Union Jacks were on display.
    Watch the Last Night on BBC iPlayer until 14 September 

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    The problem with Universal Credit, the return of the TSB and a memory lapse at the theatre.

     What nobody asks, in all the rows over funding, is whether political parties need such lavish finance. All sorts of campaigns and pressure groups – among them trade unions – publicise their views with little more funding than what they get from members’ subscriptions. The progressive online campaigning group 38 Degrees, which claims to have stopped the privatisation of forests, raises most of its annual £1.4m income from more than a million members. The view that, in the age of social media and Kickstarter, impecunious parties can’t fight election campaigns is outdated.
    The only alternative to raising money from big donors, whether they are unions or private companies, is state funding, it is said. But most people want to hear less from politicians; they certainly don’t want to pay so they can be bombarded with “messages”. Anyone interested can watch BBC Parliament or the weekly Question Time programme on BBC1. Everyone else would settle for a nice letter at election time.
    If the parties refocused a fraction of the energy they expend wooing rich donors on recruiting members, they would have armies of supporters ready to tramp the streets or hit the social media sites during campaigns. No doubt a reliance on subscriptions will compel economies. If the parties consult fewer focus groups, so much the better. If they are compelled to leave their expensive London headquarters and rent a couple of terraced houses in Doncaster or a disused factory in West Bromwich, better still.
    Flirting with disaster
    The highly critical report from the National Audit Office on Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit plans carries uncanny echoes of past government disasters. The programme has had five different people in charge since 2012. Duncan Smith’s department cannot “measure its progress effectively against what it is trying to achieve”. The financial controls are inadequate. The programme team has developed a “fortress” mentality and a “good news” reporting culture. The IT needed to implement the scheme isn’t up to the job. The department is unclear about how Universal Credit “will integrate with other programmes”. The timetable is ridiculously tight.
    Similar criticisms crop up again and again in The Blunders of Our Governments, a new book by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, which is reviewed on page 54. It explains what went wrong with, for example, the poll tax, the Child Support Agency and Labour’s tax credit scheme. I suppose it is too much to ask IDS to study the book. The authors, both professors of government, propose (surely with tongues in cheeks?) £50,000 prizes for ministers who implement successful policies. Yet IDS isn’t terribly bright and will probably think there’s a prize for incorporating, in a single programme, every cause of government disasters in the past 20 years.
    Person of interest
    “We’ll meet again,” Vera Lynn sang. In the case of the TSB bank, returning to our high streets following its demerger from Lloyds, so we do. The Trustee Savings Bank, as it used to be known, was where I held my first account. It did not issue chequebooks. If you needed money, you took a red passbook and queued for what seemed like hours to withdraw it. The upside was that it paid substantial interest. It was a bank (not technically a single one but dozens of regional ones in loose association) for the respectable working class. When I went to university in 1963, my friends, mostly educated at public schools, were amazed that I banked in such a cumbersome fashion. However, they discovered that, thanks to the steady flow of interest and prudent habits inculcated by the TSB, I always had cash to hand. I often lent money (interest-free) to people far better off than I was. I thus learned an early lesson in how the class system operates.
    Table service
    When I arrived at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, London, the other day, I realised that (as you may have calculated from the item above) I am no longer in the first flush of youth. I had tickets for the performance and a dinner beforehand. Unfortunately, it transpired, they were for the previous night. After much smiting of forehead and apologising to my wife, I prepared to leave. Without the smallest fuss, however, the staff promptly found us a dinner table and, in what looked like a nearly full house, replacement theatre tickets two rows away from those I booked.
    The explanation for such unusually flexible service is, I believe, that, because the theatre opens only in summer, the staff members are almost all students on vacation. They don’t expect to be serving on miserable wages for their whole lives. Nor do they, two weeks from the end of the season, fear being sacked for making the wrong decision.
    Toilet humour
    Arriving at his Timesoffice, my old friend and faithful Blairite columnist David Aaronovitch finds that he needs to master a new computer system called “Methode”. According to his column, his instructor misspeaks it as “commode” and: “Instead of . . . a clear, properly conceived system for getting my words . . . to the reader, I saw in my mind’s eye a receptacle for poo.”
    You sure she misspoke, David?

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    Hugh Loebner is offering researchers $100,000 to develop a computer that thinks like a human. But is that really the best use of artificial intelligence?

    Take a moment to salute the majesty of human conversation. When we talk to each other, whether it’s about last night’s TV or the wisdom of a military strike on Syria, we are doing something far harder than sending a rocket to the moon. We did the moonshot decades ago but we still can’t make a machine that will hold a decent conversation.
    On 14 September, researchers will gathered in Derry, Northern Ireland, to demonstrate their latest efforts. If any of them has created a machine that successfully mimics a human, they will leave $100,000 richer.
    The money is being put up by Hugh Loebner, a New York based philanthropist. His goal, he says, is total unemployment for all human beings throughout the world. He wants robots to do all the work. And the first step towards that is apparently to develop computers that seem human when you chat to them.
    It’s not a new idea. Alan Turing is credited with the first explicit outline of what is now called the Turing test. A human judge sits down at a computer and has a typed conversation with an entity that responds to whatever the judge types. If that entity is a computer, but the judge thinks it’s a person, the conversational computer program passes the test.
    At the Derry event, the programs won’t compete directly. Instead, the judges will enter a conversation at two terminals, one of which conveys the thoughts of a human being, the other one being controlled by a program. The judge will decide which seems more human; if it’s the computer, that program goes through to the next round, where the challenges get harder.
    So far, no one has won the big prize but every year the most convincing program wins a smaller amount. The creator of the last program to be rumbled this year will walk away with 4,000 of Loebner’s dollars.
    Many people in this research field think the competition is a waste of time. The founder of MIT’s artificial intelligence (AI) laboratory, Marvin Minsky, once offered to pay $100 to anyone who can convince Loebner to withdraw his prize fund. Minsky’s problem is that the Loebner Prize gives AI a bad name. The programs are not convincing for long – steer the conversation the right way and you can unseat them fairly easily (you can see last year’s conversations here). Yet AI is in fact becoming rather useful.
    Computers may not be able to hold a conversation with human beings, but algorithms that adapt “intelligently” to circumstances are starting to hit the streets: Google’s self-driving cars run on AI. The way phone calls are routed through a network relies on other autonomous, flexible programs. Email spam filters, speech-recognition software, stock-market trades and even some medical diagnoses routinely employ machines that seem to think for themselves.
    Where the Loebner Prize is most useful is probably in providing a check on our enthusiasm. Researchers have created AI programs designed to look at CCTV footage and decide whether a crime is about to be committed. A rapidly moving limb suggests an assault taking place. Spotting a gait associated with fast running can be interpreted as someone fleeing a crime scene.
    Similar innovations have been tried on the London Underground – a program looks for “suspicious” patterns of movement which indicate that someone might be preparing a terrorist attack or be about to jump under a train. Once the program has decided there is a risk, it will alert the authorities.
    Though AI programs remain as flawed as those attempting to hold a conversation, let’s hope we won’t be tempted to cede all our liberties to them.

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    Will Self's "Real Meal" column.

    It’s Tuesday afternoon and I feel like going to synagogue. I’m not sure what I’ll do when I get there – I mean, I can’t see myself praying, let alone acclaiming the scrolls – but it just seems like the right thing to do. Why? Because I’m fasting today and the last time I can remember going without food for 24 hours was when, in a sad little effort to fit in at school, I observed Yom Kippur.

    You’ll forgive me if I wander digressively in this week’s column, won’t you? Lack of nourishment can do things to your head . . . Anyway, I always hated going to synagogue – almost as much as I loathed church. As a demi-Jew, I didn’t really fit in at my north London grammar, where roughly a third of the boys in my class were recent Hindu or Muslim immigrants, a third Jewish and a third Anglo-Catholic flotsam. My dad took us to church on the high days – and occasionally Sundays – but my Jewish mother wasn’t about to oblige; her Semitism extended as far as a salt-beef sandwich from Bloom’s in Golders Green and no further.

    It was left to my Jewish friends to chivvy me along to shul. I was amused by the way the men talked right through the service and in such a toothsomely stereotypical fashion about the price of smoked salmon or property but I hated having to wear the paper kippa given to visiting males, the heft of which was undetectable on my bouffant early-Seventies hairdo. I kept having to reach up to check it was still there – although whether I feared social censure or the judgement of He who must not be named eludes me now.

    It hadn’t occurred to me from that day to this to go wilfully without food. Why starve voluntarily when so many people – and increasing numbers right here in Blighty – simply don’t have any choice?

    Then, last week, I was visiting my friend Farouk, whom I’ve known since school (he was part of the recent immigrant fraction, obviously) and who was recovering from a painful and traumatic back operation. He was fasting and started telling me all about how it promotes longevity by limiting the production of IGF1 (“insulin-like growth factor 1”), which is manufactured in excess quantities by older livers. Apparently there’s some tribe in Ecuador whose members have congenitally low levels of IGF1; they cane it all they want – drinking viciously strong aguardiente and smoking hand-rolled cigars the size of babies’ forearms – and still live to be 100. There’s a way to manufacture this desirable state of affairs: simply fast intermittently. Farouk recommended 24 hours a week or 72 in a month (in a single block) but the interweb seems to think five days’ normal eating and two of under 500 calories will do the trick.

    I would have dismissed Farouk as a crank, were it not that he’s a consultant-level doctor and he’d read a heap of papers on the subject. Besides, he spoke to my condition: I’ve long maintained that the middle-aged don’t need to eat anything much at all, which is why most of the older people you see are wandering around wearing whole-body fat suits and why 12 per cent of the population of the People’s Republic of China has that popular disease, type 2 diabetes. I’m not about to advocate fasting as a way of “getting in touch” with sufferers of “innutrition” (see Real Meals passim for an explanation of this nauseating WHO euphemism). I tend to Thomas Hobbes’s view that charity exists almost solely to relieve its donors of the burden of their compassion.

    However, I can heartily recommend not eating for this reason: it’s a brilliant tactical strike against the multinational fast-food racketeers and the monopolistic supermarkets. Just reflect on this – for every meal you don’t eat, you’ve taken a healthy bite out of their profits. Then there’s the rebellion against vapid conformity to the go-round of meals imposed on you by late capitalism; as Raoul Vaneigem so percipiently writes in The Revolution of Everyday Life: “The organisation of work and the organisation of leisure are the blades of the castrating shears whose job is to improve the race of fawning dogs.”

    And what are mealtimes, if not the very organised intervals between those organisations? Yes, the eater is perforce a clockwatcher, always with an eye on the next time he can chow down; while the faster – paradoxically – is free from all earthly accounts of this nature. Maybe that’s why I feel like going to synagogue, even though, technically speaking, it’s only a couple of hours since I’ve been without my normal diet.

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    There are clear conflicts of interest over the sources of the government’s advice on fracking. In 2012, Cameron was committed to renewable energy - what changed?

    I found David Cameron’s recent endorsement of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, disturbing. Writing in the Daily Telegraph in August, he described it as a solution to Britain’s energy needs. Yet if the Prime Minister had truly given us “the greenest government ever”, as he claimed in April last year, he would have written an entirely different article.
    Britain should be committing to renewable energy. Instead of shale gas extracted by fracking, the Prime Minister should endorse solar panels, wind turbines, tidal energy and hydropower – sources that do not threaten our communities, our safety and our environment.
    Cameron has some important questions to answer. Why did he change his policy? In 2012, he was promoting a coming of age for renewable energy in the UK. Who advised him to abandon renewable energy for fracking?
    There are clear conflicts of interest over the sources of the government’s advice on fracking. For instance, Lord Browne, the former chief executive of BP and chairman of the fracking company Cuadrilla – the very firm that’s operating in Balcombe, West Sussex – is also a UK government adviser. What’s more, the government has hired the PR giant Bell Pottinger in an attempt to greenwash fracking and persuade the British public to come over to the dark side. Cameron’s endorsement is starting to look like a corporate takeover, not democracy at work.
    He is not the first world leader to try to soft-pedal on the risks of fracking. A report by the US Environmental Protection Agency on methane contamination of the water supply was suppressed by the Obama administration during 2012, then whistleblowers leaked it to the Los Angeles Times on 27 July this year. Roughly 40 “seismic events” were recorded in British Columbia, Canada, between 2009 and 2012 – earthquakes that were caused by fracking, according to a 2012 report by the British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission. France, which has some of the largest reserves of shale gas in Europe, has banned the practice, as has New York State.
    In his article for the Telegraph, the PM promised money to communities: £100,000 up front for those living near drill sites, and “1 per cent of the revenue – perhaps as much as £10m” –which, he claims, “will go straight back to residents”. His words sound ominously like those guarantees made by multinational corporations in the developing world. Usually all that results is irreversible environmental destruction. Communities rarely benefit.
    At Balcombe, there has been little sign of the “dialogue” that Cameron also promised. The protests in August, during which the Green MP Caroline Lucas was arrested for joining a human chain barring access to Cuadrilla’s operations site, are a litmus test of the British public’s attitude: it seems that people want the countryside frack-free. Cuadrilla subsequently suspended drilling for six days.
    The Prime Minister promised to give the UK a green government and to stop “short-term political calculation” getting in the way of environmental protection. He has let us down miserably.
    Yet I still hope Cameron will not be remembered as the Prime Minister who sold us down the river. The climate, energy and financial crises are looming. It is not yet too late for a rethink. The UK can and indeed must do without shale gas.
    Bianca Jagger is the chair of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation

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    Eating the last of the Sunday roast with fried rice on Thursday or freezing cheap berries as a winter treat feels, in a small way, like beating the system.

    Although – I realise with a shock – it is almost a decade since I lived my life by the academic calendar, September still feels like an occasion for new beginnings. This autumn, my resolutions revolve primarily around saving money and I’m starting with a little book by Claire Leavey entitled How to Run a Thrifty Kitchen, which promises “advice from the ancestors . . . updated for modern living”.

    Much contemporary wisdom on the subject involves cutting back but not here, as is clear from the first paragraph: “Cutting down what one spends upon food is not necessarily economy. Getting the same food value at less cost is.” Advice from 1932 that rings true today: Ireland is the only European nation that spends a smaller percentage of income on food than the UK. Leavey believes that instead of slashing budgets further, Britons should work on getting more for our money.

    To this end, she counsels readers to switch to cooking with solid fuel, build a haybox oven, start a wormery to use up food scraps and make their own nettle wine – all of which (with the possible exception of the last, which I’ve always found to occupy the cat’s pee end of the flavour spectrum) are no doubt eminently sensible suggestions. But if you can’t run to an airy, north-facing larder, her smaller changes may be just as effective.

    I don’t need to tell you to look out for special offers when you go shopping or that apples will be cheaper in October than in June – but do you need to buy anything in the first place?

    Any thrift drive should start with a thorough kitchen inventory. If you’re like me, you will have several weeks’ worth of potential meals growing old at the back of the freezer or cupboard. Working out how to turn the dregs of several bags of pasta, some peas and a cheese rind into a decent dinner can be a surprisingly satisfying culinary challenge.

    When shopping’s back on the agenda, remember the premium placed on convenience. Buying everything at the same shop will save you time but rarely money. Shop around. Rice, cooking oil, herbs and spices (always whole –more versatile than ground, they’ll also last longer), dried pulses and frozen seafood are usually better value at Asian grocers.

    The same goes for seasonal fruit and vegetables at street markets. It’s also easier to purchase fresh meat, cheese and fish in exactly the quantity you need from a butcher, deli counter or fishmonger, rather than overbuying the pre-packed versions in the supermarket.

    If you don’t have the luxury of choice locally, go online. You may need to buy in bulk but it doesn’t take much imagination to get through a bag of basmati.

    Similarly, try to avoid processed foods that can be made at home more cheaply. For the price of a couple of jars of fancy pasta sauce, you could get a huge drum of tinned tomatoes, some garlic and a bay leaf and cook enough in half an hour to see you through the winter. Use your leftovers to make stocks and soups and rediscover the joys of classics such as breadand- butter pudding and bubble and squeak.

    Think about fuel use, too. Invest in a tiered steamer so that you can cook several things at once. And if you’ve got the oven on for dinner, bake a loaf of bread or some vegetables for lunch at the same time.

    My favourite new pennypinching gadget, however, is the pressure cooker: no longer prone to exploding, it cooks tough cuts of meat and pulses in a fraction of the time.

    I’ve found such small measures not only economical but a source of profound satisfaction. Eating the last of the Sunday roast with fried rice on Thursday or freezing cheap berries as a winter treat feels, in a small way, like beating the system.

    As Leavey writes, “It’s time for us to rediscover and reclaim the power to feed ourselves.” Drink, however, I’ll leave to the professionals.


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  • 09/19/13--00:55: What Nokia should do next
  • Rather than mimicking Apple or Samsung smartphones in North America and Europe, Nokia should look through its archives - and to its success in Africa - for inspiration.

    In the end, I decommissioned my £10 Nokia 1100 out of vanity three years ago. It had survived countless mishaps, including one memorable death-defying dive into a cup of hot tea. Unlike my iPhone, its battery could trundle along for at least a week and no app could be more useful than its built-in torch during a power cut.
    After Microsoft announced its purchase of Nokia’s mobile phone business for £4.7bn on 3 September, analysts made much of the Finnish firm’s struggles to compete with Samsung and Apple in the smartphone market. But what if, rather than focusing on its weaknesses, the phone giant had the confidence to play to its strengths? Nokia is still the market leader in emerging economies, especially across Africa. The Nokia 1100 was one of the world’s bestselling phones, with a quarter of a billion sold globally, and these cheap, reliable handsets continue to transform the way some of the world’s poorest people live and work.
    There are now more mobile phone users in Africa than in North America or Europe, the World Bank reported in 2012, but unlike in developed economies there’s still plenty of room for growth. World Bank figures also show that market saturation varies from 28, 38 and 48 mobile phone subscribers per 1,000 people in Eritrea, the Central African Republic and Ethiopia, respectively, to 1,049.2 per 1,000 in the Seychelles. Phone-makers may have to expect low margins when selling to some of the poorest, but there is money to be made in low-cost, highvolume goods.
    Nokia’s sturdy feature phones don’t attract the same hype as the latest Apple product but African consumers make considerable sacrifices for their mobile phones. According to research conducted by iHub, a Nairobi-based tech community, phone users in Kenya are willing to forgo meals, or walk home instead of taking the bus, to save for phone credit. Phones such as the Nokia 1100 are comparatively low-tech but across emerging economies they have proved arguably more valuable, and certainly more transformative, than any other modern tech gadget.
    For millions of Africans without bank accounts, mobile money transfer companies such as Kenya’s M-Pesa are overhauling the way many do business and are plugging gaps in the continent’s weak financial infrastructure. The research firm Gartner predicts that mobile payments will rise to $235.4bn by 2013 – and even my old Nokia can be used to transfer funds. Volatile currencies, repressive financial regulation and low bank penetration have led to mobile phone minutes being used as currency in African countries as diverse as Egypt, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.
    Mobile phones are being used in all sorts of innovative ways, whether by offering crop insurance to Kenyan farmers via M-Pesa, or linking health workers in rural Mali to health-care experts to assist in proper diagnosis.
    Even in Africa, demand for the Nokia 1100 won’t last. The company’s sales across the continent are declining. Nokia’s challenge now is to use its market clout to lead the way in low-cost smartphones designed for the African market, and its competitors aren’t just Apple and Samsung, but home-grown African companies such as Mi-Fone, headquartered in Mauritius.
    Perhaps, rather than mimicking Apple or Samsung smartphones, Nokia should look through its archives for inspiration – a long battery life and sturdy design will be essential to a bestselling, lowcost smartphone, and a built-in torch would be wonderful.

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    If there is any consolation for Nick Clegg and his party, it is that they are increasingly likely to hold the balance of power again after the next general election.

    The Liberal Democrats gather in Glasgow between 14 and 18 September for their annual conference with seemingly few reasons to be cheerful. Having aspired to replace Labour as the second party of British politics in 2010, they now trail the UK Independence Party in most polls. Since the general election, the Lib Dems have lost more than 1,000 councillors and a third of their members. The party ran a deficit of £411,000 last year and is struggling to finance its campaigning activities. Along the way, Britain has been isolated in Europe, the Alternative Vote has been rejected and House of Lords reform has been abandoned.
    If there is any consolation for Nick Clegg and his party, it is that they are increasingly likely to hold the balance of power again after the next general election. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives are attracting sufficient support to be confident of winning a majority. If the Lib Dems continue to perform well in their heartlands, as they did in the Eastleigh by-election in February, they could yet retain many of their 57 parliamentary seats, even on a vastly reduced share of the vote (benefiting from the first-past-the-post system they have long opposed), and enable the formation of a stable coalition government.
    As such, it is unsurprising that senior figures in the party are already eyeing their potential suitors. In an interview with George Eaton on page 28, Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat president and the standard-bearer of the party’s left, distances himself from those coalition ministers who are dismissive of Ed Miliband (“I don’t want to diss him. I don’t want to join in with the Tories who compare him to [Neil] Kinnock”) and praises the Labour leader as a model progressive. “He is somebody who is genuinely of the Robin Cook wing of the Labour Party – from their perspective, what you’d call the ‘soft left’,” Mr Farron says. “Somebody who is not a Luddite on environmental issues, somebody who’s open-minded about modernising our democracy, somebody who’s instinctively a bit more pluralistic than most Labour leaders and a bit more internationalist as well.”
    Mr Farron’s admiration for Mr Miliband is not shared by the Home Office minister Jeremy Browne, a close ally of Mr Clegg, who tells Rafael Behr on page 30 that Labour is “intellectually lazy, running on empty” and suffering from “a leadership void”. He praises David Cameron for identifying “the big issue of our time” in the form of “the global race”.
    With their interventions, Mr Farron and Mr Browne are offering diametrically opposed visions of their party’s future. According to the former, the Liberal Democrats should unambiguously remain a party of the centre left, committed to the restoration of the 50p rate of income tax and the eventual abolition of tuition fees and seeking common ground with Labour. In the view of the latter, the party’s best hope lies in transforming itself into a British version of the German Free Democratic Party: economically liberal, fiscally conservative and instinctively closer to the Conservatives than to Labour.
    If both are intellectually respectable positions, it is Mr Farron’s that is the more politically astute. Polling by YouGov shows that 43 per cent of the remaining Lib Dem voters place themselves on the left, while just 8 per cent place themselves on the right. To avoid electoral collapse, the party needs to attract tactical votes from Labour supporters in Lib Dem-Tory marginals. Loose talk of a possible second coalition with the Conservatives risks repelling those whose priority remains to keep Mr Cameron’s party from power.
    It is to those who stand in the more collectivist, social liberal tradition exemplified by Hobhouse, Beveridge, Keynes and Lloyd George that the party should look to restore support. There is room in British politics for a party that combines social democratic economics with a stronger commitment to constitutional reform, to reform of the state and to civil liberties than Labour. If the party remembers as much, it could yet challenge Mr Miliband’s claim to speak for a progressive majority. 

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