Monthly Archives: February 2010

A hung parliament

In recent months the main pollsters have recorded a reduction in the Conservative Party’s lead ahead of the general election. As a result, most observers are predicting a hung parliament. But what exactly does this mean?

A hung parliament occurs when each of the parties fails to win a majority of seats in the House of Commons. In simple terms, a hung parliament will occur if the Labour Party lose 24 seats and the Conservatives fail to gain 116 seats.

When a hung parliament occurs in the UK, the Party with the most votes will usually be asked by the Queen to try and form a government. At this point, they have two options.

Coalition government

A coalition government is formed when the largest party (that with the most votes) forges an alliance with another to achieve an overall majority. They can engage in a formal coalition by granting a certain number of cabinet positions to members of other parties, usually proportional to that of votes won by that party.

Coalition governments are not uncommon. Countries such as New Zealand, Isreal, Switzerland and Germany all have extensive experience in coalition rule. The devolved powers in both Scotland and Wales have also been successfully run by coalitions in recent years.

In many ways, coalitions encourage parties to co-operate and their bipartisan cabinets are argued to more fairly reflect the feelings of the electorate.

However, the demand for co-operation is not always viewed as a positive. Coalitions can be prone to infighting as parties with distinctly different ideologies battle for influence. Sometimes the constant level of compromise and discussions leads to a slowing of the legislative process. On the other hand the smaller party may be ignored, leading to potential factions.

Minority government

The largest party may also try and form a government without making any alliances or policy concessions to smaller parties. Instead, they attempt to win support from other parties on each individual bill as and when it reaches the floor of the house.

Mike Thomas from pressure group Charter 2010 thinks it would be a mistake for the largest party after the next election to try and rule in a minority government.

He told me: “A coalition would be more stable than a minority government. An issue by issue basis doesn’t really work if you’re after stability and continuity.”

In fact, minority governments are inherently less stable than formal coalitions. The opposition’s majority can easily bring down the government and force another election by way of a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister.

Further election

Whatever the resulting government of a hung parliament, it is always likely that another election will be imminent. In systems where hung parliament’s are rare, the ruling party will usually call an election as soon as it feels it is able to win an overall majority.

This was the case the last time the UK had a hung parliament in 1974. Then, a minority government led by Harold Wilson called an election after just eight months. They won the election with a majority of only three.

What’s going to happen in the UK?

Despite a hung parliament being a real possibility, Mike Thomas thinks political parties are unlikely to talk publically about it before the general election.

“Although the parties are talking internally, none of them are likely to talk aloud because it’s in their nature to believe and think they can win the next election. They don’t want to be seen as consigning themselves to a hung parliament already.”

If a hung parliament were to occur, the balance of power is likely to be held by the Liberal Democrats. Their leader Nick Clegg has been mooted as saying that his party are not interested in cabinet jobs and would prefer policy concessions.

Clegg has set out four key themes upon which his party will fight the election. These themes have been dubbed the ‘Lib Dem shopping list’, indicating that the Party will support a coalition if it their policies on these key areas are included in a mandate.

The fact that the Liberal Democrats have signalled their intent to negotiate suggests that, in the event of a hung parliament, we are more likely to have a coalition government than a minority one. This will however depend on potentially fragile negotiations and the potential for another election later in the year is always present.

By Nick Higgins

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Top five: sports stars behaving badly

In an age when we hear more about sports stars’ sordid sexual deviances than their performances on the pitch, the fact that our heroes’ misbehaviour is not always linked to their married lives can be easily overlooked.

John Terry's recent affair was pasted all over the media - photograph Paul Blank

Prevalence of such stories in the media is at an all-time high. It can be demonstrated by the fact that the recent scandal enveloping John Terry appears to have subsided this week, just in time for fresh allegations to be directed at his club team mate Ashley Cole.

Last weekend we were reminded that exposing misbehaving sports stars does not necessarily require delving into their sex lives. Wales’ flanker Andy Powell was arrested for drink driving just hours after his team’s thrilling six nations victory against Scotland at the millennium stadium.

It later emerged that the 28 year-old had stolen a golf buggy from the team hotel and taken it for a spin on the M4. Powell has since been charged by police and dropped from the Wales squad.

In light of this incident I have compiled a list of the top five sport stars behaving badly, and there is not an affair in sight.

1. Barry Ferguson and Alan McGregor

Glasgow Rangers duo Barry Ferguson and Alan McGregor were banned from playing for Scotland for life in April last year, after engaging in an all night drinking session with fans whilst on international duty.

The pair were originally dropped to the bench for the next game but were filmed putting two fingers up to the camera during the match.

Their actions ultimately led to lifetime bans and to Ferguson being dropped as Ranger’s captain.

2. Stephen Ireland

In 2007, the Manchester City midfielder asked to leave international duty with the Republic of Ireland  because his grandmother had died.

After flying the player home on a private jet, the Irish FA discovered his grandmother was still alive. Ireland told them it was his other grandmother, which was also found to be a lie.

The player eventually came clean and admitted that his wife had recently had a miscarriage and wanted him to come home from international duty to keep her company.

The 23 year-old has not appeared for his national team since.

3. Andrew Flintoff

Flintoff had been warned about his behaviour before

After an opening match defeat against New Zealand at the 2007 cricket world cup, the England team and coaches went out to a night club.

All-rounder Andrew (Freddie) Flintoff was one player who ended up going slightly ‘overboard’ as he required being rescued from the sea in the early hours of the morning. He had strayed the beach in a pedalo.

Freddie was fined and banned from England’s next match against Canada after it was revealed this was not the first time he had been warned about his behaviour.

4. Michael Vick

In 2007, popular American football player, Michael Vick was arrested for his involvement in an inter-state dog fighting ring.

The former Atlanta Falcons quarterback had not only be financing the operation, but had also taken part in the execution of underperforming dogs by hanging or drowning them.

Whilst he was bailed to await trial, Vick tested positive for marijuana in a random drugs test.

In December 2007 he was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison. Upon his release, Vick returned to the NFL on a two year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles.

5. Gilbert Arenas

Gilbert Arenas is a three time NBA all-star and currently plays for Washington Wizards. On Christmas Eve last year, a changing room argument revealed that Arenas was storing firearms in his locker. He was arrested for breaching Washington’s gun control laws.

A few weeks later a pre-game stunt in which 28 year-old Arenas pretended to shoot down his teammates on the court resulted in an indefinite suspension.

He is due to be sentenced next month.

By Nick Higgins

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EastEnders goes live but ‘whodunnit’?

EastEnders is one of Britain’s most popular soaps. It has graced our television screens almost every weeknight since 1985 and now, after nearly 4000 shows, the crew and cast are preparing to broadcast live for the very first time.

EastEnders is set in Albert Square in the fictional London borough of Walford - photo http://www.longpier.com

In celebration of the show’s 25th anniversary, Friday’s live episode will be the culmination of the most talked about storyline of the year. After weeks of speculation, the identity of Archie Mitchell’s murderer will finally be revealed.

The live episode will require intense preparation and organisation. Five camera crews equipped with 20 cameras will film both outdoors in Albert Square, and indoors at the BBC’s Elstree studios.

Viewers have been reassured that a rehearsal has been recorded and will be aired if there are any last-minute technical hitches. However, if the cast have trouble remembering their lines, they will be responsible for improvising their way out of a tricky situation.

Acting live will be a challenge for some of the EastEnders cast. Whilst many of the older cast members have considerable experience in theatre, for some of the younger members this will be the first experience of a live performance.

Bill Lyons is one of the original writers on EastEnders and now writes for rival soap Emmerdale. He said:

“Live television is very different, it’s absolutely terrifying. The cast are used to being able to put things right but that is simply not an option when you are going live.”

‘Genius stroke’

A live broadcast is not without precedent. In 1997 the American drama series ER was filmed live in a real hospital ward. Whilst in 2000, Eastenders most fierce rival, Coronation Street aired a one-off live episode to celebrate it’s 40th anniversary.

Despite this, the integration of a live broadcast with a big reveal and a ‘who dunnit’ storyline has never been attempted before. EastEnders’ ambition has been described as a ‘genius stroke’ by the editor of ‘All About Soap’ magazine, Jonathon Hughes. He said:

“When Corrie [Coronation Street] did it’s live episode there was no big reveal. EastEnders has always been more rebellious and this Friday will undoubtably be the biggest moment of the year for soaps. In this sense it is breaking new ground and that is something which is incredibly hard to do in this field.”

The plot

The storyline for the 25th anniversary special was masterminded by executive producer Diederick Santer last spring. Since then only he, and a select group of executives have known the identity of Archie’s killer, which has been kept top secret to avoid a leak to the press.

Archie Mitchell was murdered in the Queen Vic on Christmas Day - photo http://www.longpier.com

Mr Hughes said: “They have played this very well. It’s a great way of pulling characters together before an anniversary episode and the decision to film live means the secret is kept until the very last minute.”

he went on: “I am very excited because usually I know everything that is going to happen weeks in advance. This week I am just as in-the-dark as everyone else.”

Mystery

In the dark is exactly what viewers and cast members have been since Archie’s murder on Christmas Day. In a poll on the EastEnders website asking ‘who dunnit?’, there are no less than 23 characters to choose from including, the rank outsider – Archie himself.

Meanwhile reports have suggested that anywhere between six and nine separate endings have been scripted for the live episode, and distributed only to those who are real suspects. The actor or actress who plays the killer will only find out a short time before the live episode begins filming.

In an interview for the show’s website, Diederick Santer revealed there have been ‘three big clues’ as to the identity of the killer, but goes on to confirm that there have been many red herrings designed to throw viewers off the scent.

The amount of speculation since Archie’s death has left viewers in a daze. With half the square being linked to the murder, the guesswork is set to continue as the week drags on.

At this point the only thing that is certain is that the climax to Friday’s anniversary episode is going to be gripping and more than likely, very explosive.

By Nick Higgins

The live episode of EastEnders can be seen on BBC One this Friday at 20:00 GMT

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The right to die…

The recent case of Kay Gilderdale, the mother who helped her daughter die after she had suffered for 17 years with Myalgic Encephalopathy (ME), has reignited a complex ethical debate which has been bubbling below the surface for some years.

Last night the annual Richard Dimbleby Lecture saw fantasy author and Alzheimers suferrer Terry Pratchett support the case for assisted death in a very emotionally charged speech entitled ‘Shaking hands with death’.

Terry Pratchett on a visit to Poland in 2004 - Artur Machlowski

Due to Terry Pratchett’s condition, his speech was read by Tony Robinson, better known as Baldric from the historical sitcom Blackadder. It was a speech which reached out of the screen and pulled me in. It was captivating, it was balanced, it was convincing and it was inspirational.

The speech detailed how Pratchett’s particularly rare form of Alzhimer’s disease has taken hold since he was diagnosed in 2007, aged 59. The words coveyed real meaning and struck a nerve with me as i’m sure they did with many of the 2.1 million others who tuned in to watch it.

Terry Pratchett’s desire was to put forward a case for a Euthanasia tribunal, which would give people with severe or terminal illnesses the right to choose exactly when they die. He did this by referring to his own disease and making public the circumstances in which he himself wishes to die.

His desire to die at his own request ‘before the disease took him over’ was detailed. It was poignantly stated that Terry Pratchett wishes to die sitting in his own armchair, or in his own garden with a glass of brandy, whilst listening to English composer Thomas Tallis on his iPod.

‘Complex ethical debate’

This simple wish conjoured up strong images in my mind and left me convinced that assisted death was not only wholly acceptable, but left me questioning why this issue has not been addressed before now.

Naturally I began thinking about my own death and the particular artist I would want to listen to on my iPod should that time come. I came to no solid conclusions before also beginning to think about the situations in which my relatives may meet their end and what circumstances they might wish for.

I must stress I do not wish to oversimplify this very complex ethical debate and there are still many questions which must be considered. For example, the distinction between severely ill and terminally ill is one which deserves particular attention if a change in the law is to be discussed.

With that said, on a basic level, I don’t see any reason why people who have been in considerable pain for a  number of years, sometimes the majority of their lives, cannot have the right to decide when they want to die. Perhaps more important is the conscious decision of the circumstances under which they wish to die.

Personalising death

Terry Pratchett’s detailed description of how he envisages his own death seems, on a personal level, to make perfect sense. In essence that personal level is what this debate boils down to. It is about giving people the right to personalize their own death. It’s about giving people, who are in constant pain, the right to avoid spending their last remaining days in an alien and uncomfortable environment such as a hospital ward. An environment where they are surrounded by men and women in white coats who insist on keeping them alive and in the process prolong their pain.

I don’t proclaim to know how it feels to have a terminal illness. However, I do know that if I did, I would at least like to have the option of choosing to apply for assisted death if I so desired.

The possibility of this debate being addressed by Parliament before this year’s General Election is  very unlikely due to it being of an ethical nature and not a party political one. However, do not be surprised if it crops up in the new term of Parliament this summer.

‘The Richard Dimbleby Lecture’ can be seen on BBC iPlayer until 8th February 2010

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