Weather 1, UK 0

It snowed a bit here today. And I do mean just a bit – three or four inches on high ground, maybe half that lower down. That’s a light snowfall, as far as I’m concerned. Judging by the news here, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s Armageddon. More fool me, I went out in it… and it took me pushing three hours to travel about ten miles to get home.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised. This was the scene in Manchester city centre at about 6pm:

That’s a light dusting of snow, nothing more (to be fair, there is more here, ten miles to the north-east). Note the complete absence of salt or grit on either the road or the pavement. This was far from the most treacherous place in the city centre – the pavements in front of Debenhams in Market Street were slick with ice and very slippery (and no, neither Debenhams nor Manchester City Council had put any salt down). The Market Street Metrolink platform was just as bad – there had been no attempt to clear the lying snow, which had been compacted to ice under passengers’ feet, and nobody had put grit down.

Where I live is fairly high up, a few hundred feet higher than the city centre, and it’s not all that unusual for the public transport system here to experience some disruption when snow falls. I grew up here, I know what the weather can do, and I have the bus and train company websites bookmarked on my BlackBerry so that I can check for service updates if I go out when there’s snow on the ground (it slightly irritates me to do this, given that I’ve spent a big chunk of my adult life living in Toronto, a city that deals with far larger snowfalls every winter, usually without anything like the level of disruption snow causes here). I checked First Manchester‘s service updates page regularly; for most of the day (until some point after I got home, in fact) it showed only a bland message saying that there may be some weather-related delays. In the past, when there have been problems, this page has carried a fairly extensive list of specific services that are cancelled or diverted due to the weather. Since no such list was displayed, I assumed I was OK, and didn’t rush to come home.

The fun started when I went to catch a bus out of Manchester. There were no departing buses to be seen at my stop. Inbound buses (it’s the terminus) were dropping off passengers then going out of service, which isn’t a good sign (there’s supposed to be a bus between Manchester and Oldham town centre every ten minutes at that time of day). Rather than wait, I went to catch a train. The train departed exactly on time, and arrived at my station exactly on time. The station, however, was a mess:

That’s the platform, stairs and footbridge at Greenfield station. Nobody had made any attempt to clear the snow. No salt had been put down anywhere, even on the stairs. The station is staffed on Saturdays until 3.30pm, and sees one train an hour in each direction, timetabled to leave at more or less the same time. Aside from a window of about 15 minutes before both trains depart, it’s never that busy, so the lack of any salt anywhere on the platforms, staircases and footbridge basically comes down to laziness. It’s not as if this snowfall was unexpected. It was forecast 72 hours in advance, and arrived more or less exactly on schedule – and yet, obviously, the station’s staff (and their managers) didn’t bother to take even the simplest steps to mitigate the effect of the snowfall. I don’t know why this surprised me – I use Northern Rail regularly, and they’re committed to excellence in customer service in roughly the same way as the Communist Party of China is committed to promoting democracy – but it did. They usually make at least some effort, but they didn’t today.

The fun, for me, was only just beginning. The road outside Greenfield station is on a steep hill; it’s treacherous in ice, buses are often diverted away from there when there’s snow or ice on the ground, so I walked up to the main road (by now it was about 9pm, and the snow had long since stopped falling in any quantity). There was perhaps three inches of snow on the ground; usually, OMBC does a reasonably efficient job of clearing snow from the main roads, and you’d expect one of the borough’s major routes to be reasonably clear nine hours after the beginning of a snowfall that left an accumulation of only three or four inches. Not tonight:

It had probably been gritted, but not for several hours, and it hadn’t been ploughed. First Manchester’s mobile website still – again, nine hours after snow had begun to fall – showed only a bland message about possible snow-related delays, so I waited. Half an hour after my bus was due to arrive, I caught another service into the next village (easier place to pick up a taxi, and the bus shelter there has a seat). I asked the driver whether the service I was waiting for was running or not, and he didn’t know; he couldn’t be bothered to use his radio to try and find out. It wasn’t that cold, and the road was clearly open, so I waited… for three quarters of an hour, at which point a bus came along that would deposit me within a mile or so of home. Rather than ring a taxi, I caught it and walked. This bus ran more or less exactly on time; there was no sign at all of the service I’d been waiting for. The driver of the bus I caught thought it probably wasn’t running, but didn’t know for sure (and, again, couldn’t be bothered to get on the radio and find out); First finally got around to updating their website with a list of services that weren’t running at some point after 11pm, and the service I waited for for over an hour and a half is not listed there.

The walk home – mostly uphill through uncleared streets – was lovely.

And all of this for three or four inches of snow! It’s pathetic. More than that, it shows the management of a mostly privatised transport system on which the bottom line is corporate profit holding their paying customers in absolute, unyielding contempt. This was a minor snowfall, forecast days in advance – but the snow was forecast to fall at the weekend, which means that deploying additional personnel to clear platforms and bus stops of snow, put grit down, and keep passenger information systems properly updated with details of service disruptions would have meant paying overtime, which would eat into profits (never mind that we’ve had above-inflation fare increases on both the buses and the trains within the last month, in both cases without even the hint of a promise of any improvement in services in return). The snow falling at the weekend probably accounts for the state of the main roads as well – to be fair to the council here, on weekdays, with this amount of snow, they usually do a better job than they did today. Presumably they too wanted to avoid paying out too much overtime.

Beyond that, the prevailing mentality here does seem to be that clearing snow is somebody else’s problem. Toronto has a fairly strict bylaw outlining when and how snow must be removed from sidewalks, pathways etc following a snowfall, and this level of snow clearance is the responsibility of the owner or occupant of each building. We don’t have any such law here, so nobody bothers – including city centre businesses (and, really, it’s not as if putting salt down on the pavement in front of, say, Debenhams would have eaten up more than about 20 minutes of someone’s time – I repeat, we did not have a major snowfall today, and there was far less snow in the city centre than there is here). The snow on the pavements either piles up to the point where it gets into your shoes, or it compacts into ice, because nobody takes responsibility for clearing the pavement in front of their own property. Indeed, there’s an obnoxious perception that clearing snow and gritting in front of your home or business can get you sued if someone slips and falls on the section you cleared. And no, don’t worry, I’m not going to list every single revolting thing this says about British society.

And then there’s the private cars. When snow falls here, it’s as if parking regulations suddenly no longer apply. People bring their cars down from side roads (which, admittedly, are often steep, quickly become impassable, and are never the first to be cleared) and park them on the main road – anywhere on the main road, including on double yellow lines, around blind bends, and in front of bus stops, reducing two-lane roads to a single car-width of carriageway. Since that’s too narrow for two buses to pass, the result is severe disruption – like I experienced this evening – for anyone trying to get around by bus, even after a relatively minor snowfall. These cars, of course, are never ticketed or towed, despite being parked illegally. If we put in place a system of designated snow routes that became absolute no-parking zones after a snowfall in order to facilitate snow clearance and enable traffic to move freely in both directions, and enforced it, an awful lot of this disruption would be avoided.

Unfortunately, that would require planning, and common sense, and when snow falls in this country both of those things magically disappear. We had three or four inches of snow, and it was forecast days in advance. Some delays are understandable; letting chaos result from such a minor snowfall is not.

And the Northern Rail and Metrolink managing directors – I’m looking at YOU, Ian Bevan and Chris Coleman  – who failed to put protocols in place to ensure that station platforms would be gritted ahead of a snowfall should be fired. Even given the generally pathetic way we deal with snowfalls in the UK, that takes a special kind of incompetence.

Election II: The Misguided Revenge of Elwyn Watkins

This time it’s personal.

Oh, wait. It was personal the first time too, and that’s the problem.

It’s been all over the news all day. My MP, Phil Woolas, is apparently no longer my MP. I have no MP. Oldham East and Saddleworth is rudderless. My sakes, how on earth will we cope?

A specially-convened election court has found Mr. Woolas guilty of breaching the Representation of the People Act 1983. He’s been suspended from the Labour Party; there will apparently be a statement on Monday about his status as MP, but in the meantime his election has been declared void. He’s seeking a judicial review of the ruling, but the likelihood is that we’ll have to suffer another election. Apparently, one wasn’t enough. In the meantime, he’s barred from standing for parliament for three years. The odds are that his political career is effectively over.

He’s been found guilty of making false statements about the character and conduct of his Lib-Dem opponent, Elwyn Watkins. The charges were brought by Mr. Watkins, who was beaten in May by a margin of just 103. And, for all sorts of reasons, it’s troubling.

On the one hand, yes, the election campaign in this constituency was brutally negative. This was a Lib-Dem target seat and Mr. Watkins and his team pulled out all the stops to claw it from Mr. Woolas. Indeed, the Lib-Dem pamphlets and mailings were the first to get personal in their attacks on their opponents (God help me, I read all this stuff when it came through the letterbox). The Lib-Dem campaign, in fact, went negative less than 24 hours after the election was called. Among other things, they more than implied that Mr. Woolas’s parliamentary expenses claims were fraudulent, and that he was, therefore, a criminal; there were certainly a couple of claims made in error, but they were more or less certainly genuine mistakes. As the campaign went on, the accusations from both sides became wilder and wilder (since the Tory candidate was never going to win this seat – he finished trailing a fairly distant third – he managed to remain mostly above the fray.)  Mr. Woolas – and this is inexcusable – cynically played the race card in a constituency in which there is a very real racial divide, and tried to play on white fear of Muslim extremism by presenting Mr. Watkins as a candidate who had allegedly tried to woo the extremist vote, whatever that is. Disgusting and distasteful, yes – and I didn’t vote for Mr. Woolas – but also no less vicious than the crap printed by Mr. Watkins’ own team.

Beyond that, I have a bigger issue with the way all of this has played out. We had an election campaign, and it got very nasty indeed. Both sides sailed too close to the wind. We cast our votes, the votes were counted and then recounted twice, and there was a result. And then the loser – who had, himself, behaved appallingly badly during the campaign – lodged £5000 with the court himself to trigger the challenge. If anybody else had put up the money, I’d have less of a problem with it. As it is, whatever the rights and wrongs of who said what about whom, more than anything else this smacks of a bad loser throwing a fit because he didn’t win the prize.

And, in the end, it’s hard not to feel at least a little sorry for Phil Woolas. He fought a dirty campaign – but he did so against an opponent who also played fast and loose with the rules. He sometimes seemed to be out of his depth as a minister – Joanna Lumley wiped the floor with him over the Ghurka issue (justifiably, the government’s position was wrong, and insupportable – if we’re prepared to send people into battle on our behalf, we should be prepared to let them live here afterwards) – but he’s been a good, committed and genuinely caring constituency MP, and it shouldn’t give anyone any pleasure to see his career end in humiliation. It’s been particularly nauseating to watch the Labour Party drop him like a hot potato, and it’s been just as nauseating to watch Simon Hughes, the deputy leader of the Lib-Dems, effectively gloating on national television, as if his party’s candidate’s behaviour during the campaign was above reproach.

The big question now, of course, is what’s going to happen next. Mr. Woolas is seeking a judicial review, yes, but it’s more or less certain that we’re going to have another election, a prospect which I’m sure absolutely nobody, apart from Mr. Watkins, views with anything even slightly resembling joy. The Tories will have to pay for another campaign they’ve no hope of winning. Labour will have to find another candidate, who will have to run in a seat where the last Labour MP’s personal reputation has been shot down in flames in the national press. The Lib-Dems will have to run a by-election campaign when they’re rating far, far lower in opinion polls than they were in April, and try and sell their platform to an electorate that, in the centre and on the left, is increasingly mistrustful of the coalition that they themselves engineered. Mr. Watkins lost in May, and it’s by no means certain that he’ll win the rematch, whenever it’s called. He certainly won’t be getting my vote – and, yes, this time it *is* personal. There’s a certain delicious irony in Mr. Watkins using his own money to lodge a complaint that will lead to a by-election in which it’s very likely that he’ll be far more roundly defeated than he was the first time. Whoever Labour puts in to stand in Mr. Woolas’s place is quite likely to be returned to Parliament with a substantially increased majority. Sometimes, in politics, it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie.

103. Or, Elwyn Watkins: Big Girl’s Blouse

Just when you thought the election was finally over, and it was safe to look at the news again without keeping a barf bag next to the television, along comes this gem:

Losing candidate challenges Oldham election result

“Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins came second in Oldham East and Saddleworth on 7 May following two recounts. But he claims Labour leaflets contained misleading claims about his reputation and campaign and has begun a High Court bid to have the result quashed.”

Unfortunately, some of the story is missing from the BBC piece above. There’s a word for Mr. Watkins, and it isn’t “dignified”.

Since this is happening on my doorstep, I saw the campaign material that’s the bone of contention here – it came through my letterbox, along with leaflets from the Conservatives, UKIP, and a bunch of lobotomised baboons the BNP. In terms of demographics, this is an unusual constituency – a mixture of inner-city deprivation and wealthy rural villages/commuter belt, with a narrow strip of middle-class suburbia separating the two. The Conservatives, since the boundaries were redrawn 15 years or so ago, are never going to win this seat because the staunchly left-wing inner area core more than counterbalances the pockets of Tory loyalists further out in the villages. UKIP’s role in the election was essentially to inject levity by enabling us all to laugh at their touchingly delusional party leaders, and the BNP are a group of offensive, racist thugs whose party literature, when it dropped through my letterbox, went straight into the recycling bin (unfortunately their leaflets were printed on glossy paper, so I couldn’t flush them down the toilet where they belonged). So the contest, here, is between Labour and the Lib Dems, who hold a significant number of seats on the borough council, with the Tories placing a distant third.

This was not, in fact, one of the top thirty Lib Dem target seats this time around, but the campaign here, nevertheless, got very nasty. In the end, it was one of the ten closest election races in the UK, with Labour incumbent Phil Woolas holding on to the seat by just 103 votes. There were two recounts because the numbers were so close; this seat usually calls a winner at around 3.30am the morning after the election, but the results were not called until around 11.30am. At that point, one would have hoped that Mr. Watkins would at least have known how to lose gracefully – and indeed it seemed he did, for about ten minutes. But apparently the honeymoon period of his defeat is now over, and he’s suffered the hideous torment of not seeing his name printed in the Oldham Evening Chronicle (a newspaper so dire that they probably couldn’t get a camera to the Second Coming if it happened on Union Street outside their office building at lunchtime on a quiet Wednesday) for four whole days in a row. For as loudly mediocre a publicity whore as Mr. Watkins, that’s like crack withdrawal. Imagine what he’d be like if his name started appearing regularly in papers people actually read, that contain actual news. We’d have to build a new planet to house his head. If he succeeds in getting the result thrown out (unlikely, I would have thought), we’ll have to have a by-election. Whoopee.

I know, I know. I sound angry about this. I am angry about this. You see, I voted for Elwyn Watkins, holding my nose as I did so, and after having sworn, in the first week of the campaign, that I would not. I voted, for once, for a party far more than a person, as a deliberate statement, because I am convinced that this country needs major electoral reform, and I hoped, since it looked as if we would be heading for a hung parliament, that the Lib Dems would be in a position to force a referendum. And the reason why I held my nose as I voted for Mr. Watkins is, well, Mr. Watkins himself – he’s basically a gob on legs – and the election materials sent out by Mr. Watkins’ own campaign, which were downright obnoxious. As I said, the campaign here between Labour and the Lib Dems was nasty. Mr Watkins’ own campaign leaflets made some very unpleasant insinuations about Phil Woolas, particularly regarding Woolas’s parliamentary expenses claims, making a great deal out of minor irregularities in Woolas’s claims that were almost certainly the result of Woolas simply forgetting to highlight specific items on a couple of supermarket receipts. Not necessarily admirable, but it’s not as if Woolas claimed for a floating duck island, or mortgage interest on a loan that had already been repaid. The sums involved were minor, and Woolas’s claims were essentially within the rules that were in place at the time, with a (very) few minor aberrations which were probably genuine mistakes. And yet I got three separate Lib Dem campaign leaflets through my letterbox, each of which stopped just short of calling Mr. Woolas a criminal, and each of which was a masterpiece of half-truth, negative spin and innuendo.

And now Mr. Watkins – who, evidently, has approximately the same level of self-awareness as, say, Jeffrey Archer or Zsa Zsa Gabor – is loudly whining to anybody who will listen that Woolas’s win was unfair because Labour’s election materials in this constituency “contained numerous misleading and erroneous claims regarding my personal character and reputation, and that of my campaign”, which would be in contravention of the Representation of the People Act (1983). The righteous anger is impressive. Prick him with a needle, and you’ll get enough hot air to heat most of Lancashire for a couple of years. The act might even be convincing if he hadn’t shown us on the campaign trail that he’s all mouth and trousers.

Because hot air is all it is. I read all of the campaign material that came through the letterbox. Masochistic of me, I know, but I did. Labour’s leaflets pulled no punches, particularly regarding Mr. Watkins (they paid little attention to Kashif Ali, the Tory candidate, because the chance of his ever winning was similar to the chance that Simon Cowell might be human), but the most borderline-defamatory, vituperatively negative materials, bar none, that I received came from Elwyn Watkins and the local Lib Dems. And now he’s crying foul and trying to force a by-election, because he lost. There’s a word for that. There are lots of words for that, most of them quite short.

I suppose it’s too much to hope that the Lib Dem central office will step in and squash this idiot like a bug. He got my vote once. He won’t get it again.