#Usepens is ridiculous

We’ve been using pencils in the UK to vote since the secret ballot was introduced in 1874. Originally, this was because the alternative was a fountain pen, which would need to be blotted, and you could tell how people voted from the blotting paper.

Curiously enough, someone asked the question “what’s to stop them rubbing out the votes and changing it?” before the law was passed. The answer is that we use copying pencils, which have a dye in the graphite so they can’t be erased. You can tell, because the writing isn’t shiny like a normal pencil.

Obviously, we’ve invented ball-point pens since 1874, and we could use them instead. But they do have disadvantages – they dry out, they can run out of ink, and cheap pens (the pencils cost 19p each) have a tendency to occasionally dump all their ink on the ballot paper in one go, ruining a ballot paper (obviously, you can issue a spare, but it’s still a nuisance). All of which means you need a few spare pens.  The pencils, you can tell how long they have left at a glance – and the only maintenance you need is a sharpener.

So, no, you don’t need to bring a pen to vote securely – just check that the pencil has “SHAW’S” printed on the side and that the writing is matt, rather than glossy like a normal pencil.

ETA: The other advantage of pencils is that they don’t run if the paper gets wet. You can bring your own pen and use it if you are determined to do so – but make sure the ink is dry before it goes in the ballot box, that you haven’t used a distinctive colour that would allow your vote to be picked out, and that the ink won’t run if the ballot paper were to get wet – which doesn’t happen often, but I’ve seen ballot papers dried with a hairdryer after a clumsy voter spilled a bottle of water into the ballot box.

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Astronauts and other British people in space

There’s been some fuss about various British people who’ve been into space, as people try to claim Tim Peake as the first British astronaut.  He’s the person to be put into space as a result of British taxes, which has the great advantage of being a repeatable approach, unlike the six other British citizens who have been in space before.

There are three basic categories of people on space missions: flight crew, scientific crew, and passengers.

Flight crew are the people who actually run the spacecraft. Scientific crew, while they have to be highly trained to be able to cope in space at all, are primarily there to run scientific experiments in space. Both of these groups are definitely astronauts. The third group are passengers, or space tourists. They’re giving enough training to cope, and then sent up and back down again; they pay a lot of money for their flight, but it’s arguable whether they are astronauts.

So the question is, who, other than Tim Peake, is a British astronaut.

Well, there are six people who had a British passport and went to space. In order of their first flight: Helen Sharman, Michael Foale, Mark Shuttleworth, Piers Sellers, Nicholas Patrick and Richard Garriott.

Flight crew form the majority of people who’ve been in space, and the three Brits (Foale, Sellers and Patrick) who flew on the Space Shuttle were all flight crew.  All three of them were dual national British-Americans, and all three of them were only able to fly because of their American citizenship, which makes it rather difficult to claim them as British – it’s like claiming a gold medal for Britain at the Olympics, even though it’s an American flag flying and Star Spangled Banner being played.

Shuttleworth and Garriott are space tourists, which calls into question their status as “astronauts” – they’ve unquestionably gone to space, of course. They’re also both dual nationals, and both identify more strongly with their other nationality (South African and American respectively) than British. Garriott may have the nickname “British” (or “Lord British”, or “General British”), but he’s still really an American.

And finally, we get to Helen Sharman, who was scientific crew. Project Juno was a privately funded scientific programme, which paid for her to fly. For funding reasons, a lot of the scientific experiments were ditched, which might have left her experience somewhat underutilized on Mir, but she was certainly there as an astronaut.  She was also the only single-national Brit in space before Tim Peake, and the only person to have the Union Jack on her spacesuit, ie to fly as a Brit, and not as an American or South African.

Tim Peake is important because, as long as the UK keeps contributing to ESA’s human spaceflight programme, British citizens can apply to the European Astronaut Corps and be selected to go into space. He’s not a one-off, but the first of a process that will bring more for as long as we keep funding it.

But he wasn’t the first British astronaut. Helen Sharman was.  She was first.  Really first, unarguably first, and she was definitely an astronaut.  The other five are all dual nationals, all flew for their other nation, and two of them were tourists and arguably not really astronauts (they were still “people in space”, but that’s not the same thing).

Tim, you can argue in some ways, was (is) second – but the fact he’s the first to go up as part of a British space programme is far more important than whether he’s second or seventh.

Electrifying Britain’s Railways

With the “pause” of the Midland Main Line and TransPennine Main Line electrification projects, I’ve already posted once about what went wrong, so now I’m going to write about what we need to do going forward to fix things.

It seems clear that, first, we need to be realistic about the capabilities of Network Rail and only try one major electrification project at a time, currently the Great Western Main Line – we can also do a major new line (Crossrail at present, HS2 in the near future), some smaller electrification projects (North-West Triangle at present, Cardiff Valleys in the near future), some small new lines (e.g. East-West Rail, Todmorden Chord, Halton Chord, Ordsall Chord) and general maintenance and modernisation (e.g. Watford Junction remodelling, London Bridge remodelling, Manchester Victoria reconstruction, Northern Hub works at Manchester Oxford Road and Manchester Piccadilly).  This seems to be a realistic upper limit of the capacity of the rail industry.

Second, the TransPennine Main Line disaster came from proposing to electrify a Victorian railway without a major modernisation. The Great Western involved the complete rebuilding of Reading station (the main interchange along the route) and a number of other smaller projects before the wires went up. TransPennine will need major works at Huddersfield and Leeds stations to make any use of the additional capacity that an electric main line can offer and has the Standedge Tunnel problem (the tunnel can’t be closed for electrification, but can’t be electrified while it’s open).  Planning a major modernisation – which means resignalling, grade-separating level crossings, loosening and/or adding cant (banking) on tight curves, improving stations so through trains don’t slow down, rearranging junctions so more trains can run through them, adding passing loops so fast trains can overtake slower ones, and possibly four-tracking parts of the route – requires time.

My proposal is that we decide to do a full route modernisation, including electrification, of each of the non-electric main lines on the network, but we only do one at a time.  We start planning well ahead, consulting with TOCs and FOCs, prioritising improvement works, doing detailed surveys so we can be sure we know where all the signalling wires, track-side structures, and everything else is. Then, we start on much of the improvement works (the “civils” in railway terminology) on one mainline will the electrification teams are still on the previous route.  Then the electrification and signalling teams come in and work on those two elements at the last stage in the process.

This would mean that the next mainline after GWML would be getting civils works now, and the one after would be getting detailed planning.

We have six Main Lines that are not electrified (not counting the Great Western / South Wales Main Line that is under construction at present):

Midland Main Line. From London St Pancras to Sheffield. Electric from London as far as Bedford, but Bedford-Leicester-Derby-Nottingham-Sheffield has no wires at all. Sheffield is the busiest non-electric station other than London Marylebone and two stations (Bristol and Cardiff) being electrified as part of the GWML project.  This route is largely planned already and civils works have already started. Continuing with civils, but intending to start electrification only when GWML is completed, seems like the sensible approach here, so this would become the first line in the process.

Transpennine Main Line. From Manchester, through Huddersfield to Leeds and an extension to connect to the East Coast Main Line and the Selby-Hull Line near York. This is being electrified from Manchester (both Victoria and Piccadilly) to Stalybridge as part of the North West Triangle and Northern Hub projects, so the section from Stalybridge to York is the main work here. The planning process has been reset, but the consultation on details has started and this should definitely be the next line on the list.

Cross Country Main Line. From Derby (connecting to the Midland Main Line) through Birmingham (connecting to both the West Coast Main Line and the Chiltern Main Line) to Bristol (connecting to the Great Western Main Line). This would be the most complex remaining project, likely asking for major works on Birmingham. For planning reasons, it might make sense to defer this until after an easier project has been completed – in particular because HS2 could be used to relieve quite a bit of this in Birmingham, making the construction easier.

Devon/Cornwall Main Line. From Bristol and Newbury to Penzance, connecting to the Great Western Main Line. This is the other really big project. Track layout in both Exeter and Plymouth is a mess; a fast alternative to Dawlish that wouldn’t get washed away next time there’s a big storm is an imperative; much of the line through Somerset is on the flood plain; the Tamar Bridge is single-track; too much of the line sees 125 mph trains running at speeds under 90mph, and often more like 70mph.  We have just ordered some new diesel long-distance trains for this route, so it might make sense to put this one towards the end of the queue.

North Wales Main Line. From Crewe (connecting to the West Coast Main Line) through Chester to Llandudno Junction, Bangor and Holyhead. By contrast, this is one of the simplest mainlines. It may make sense to do this after the transpennine, as a simpler project, and also it provides a useful connection to HS2.

Chiltern Main Line. From London Marylebone to Birmingham Snow Hill. This has some complex connections at Birmingham, but is otherwise a relatively straightforward project. It would make sense to do this either just before or just after the Cross Country Main Line, which it connects into, so the two projects can work together in Birmingham

I’d obviously take expert advice, but a guess would be to do them in this order:

Midland Main Line, TransPennine Main Line, North Wales Main Line, Cross Country Main Line, Chiltern Main Line, Devon/Cornwall Main Line.

The general point, though, would be to plan to do all six, in turn, taking probably five years each, so we’d expect to see the last one completed around 2050.

There would also be a large number of smaller electrification projects taking place, like the Cardiff Valleys project (about to start) intended to connect up to the Great Western project. A set of Yorkshire projects, connecting Leeds and Doncaster to Sheffield, and on the Caldervale route between Leeds/Bradford and Manchester would provide a useful complement to the Transpennine and Midland projects. A host of electrification in the Midlands would be sensible alongside the Chilterns and Cross Country Main Line works. Marshlink, being one of the very few local lines South of London that isn’t electric, could be done as infill at almost any time.

There are a small number of rural lines (e.g. Settle-Carlisle and Heart of Wales) that would be unlikely to ever justify electrification.

Scotland has already developed a long-term electrification programme in a series of phases for the next several decades which will eventually electrify their whole country excepting three rural lines: Far North, Kyle of Lochalsh, and West Highland. England and Wales should accept a similar model, but running two parallel programmes, one on main lines which require route modernisation, and the other on commuter / secondary lines, which can largely be electrified on an as-is basis.

A quick note on new lines. This has very little impact on new-line construction, whether that be Crossrail, Crossrail 2, or HS2. The human resources (planning, engineering and site labour) come from an almost completely separate pool, as is largely true for the plant.  It’s only really where new lines interconnect to the existing network that we require railway engineering resource – and those connections are very modest projects.  Obviously, there’s a financial question about doing new lines and upgrades at the same time. We certainly seem to be able to afford that at present, so I’m going to assume that £7bn a year on upgrades and £5bn a year on new lines is affordable.

I would want to ask whether HS2 and Crossrail 2 would put too much of a burden on the construction industry to do both at once, though.

So electrification: What went wrong?

Network Rail have just admitted that they completely screwed up the (multiple) electrification programmes they were doing and that the two that haven’t started yet – transpennine and Midland mainline are to be “paused”.  Great Western is being continued (but will be late) and the North West electrification (which is half-finished) will be completed.  I’m not sure about Great Western Phase Two (Bristol-Swansea) and the Cardiff Valley Lines.

So what’s gone wrong?

Electrifying a working railway is immensely complicated. Just to give you an idea, here’s a video from Network Rail on electrifying one tunnel – Farnworth in Bolton:

It seems that they’ve had several problems.

First, there aren’t enough experienced electrification workers in the UK, and work wasn’t being completed because contractors couldn’t find enough people.  This can be solved by training people, but that takes time.  Working on 25kV exposed wires is not something you can just grab an construction day-labourer for, nor is working on gantries anything up to five metres off the ground, nor is tunnelling. They might find that workers released from Crossrail can help with the tunnelling, but Crossrail is still being wired up, so they will be sucking in electrical labourers for a couple of years yet.

Second, British Rail didn’t keep proper diagrams of the signalling on the Great Western, so the piles being driven for the foundations (for the gantries that the wires hang off) kept cutting through signalling wires.  GWML is going to be resignalled anyway, which makes this a particular nightmare, as they’re repairing an old signal system that is held together by bits of string anyway.

Third, no-one has any experience in managing an electrification project of any scale in the UK. We haven’t done one since the East Coast Main Line (1984-1991), and all the senior engineers involved in that are long-retired.

In typical engineering style, there were lots of underestimates, and no-one with the experience to add enough to the time and cost estimates, nor to add up the skilled manpower requirements and decide to build an engineering college. On top, Network Rail bit off more than it can chew, trying to electrify too many lines at once (and Network Rail Scotland is also running a massive simultaneous electrification programme, including most of the Central Belt).

So… we get a massive announcement of huge cuts to the programme.

So why does Great Western survive and not the others? Two reasons: One is Crossrail – if they don’t have wires up from London to Reading, then Crossrail trains will get stuck when they come out of the tunnels. The second is that the new long-distance trains (class 800s for the nerds) are already under construction (in Japan and at the new factory in Newton Aycliffe) – in fact, the first one was delivered a few weeks ago – and it would be very embarrassing to have trains and no track to run them on. Trains for TPE and MML haven’t been ordered yet, so the existing diesels (and TPE’s class 185s and MML’s class 222s are pretty good trains, just over-crowded) will keep running for a few more years until the work gets done.

Officially, they’re delays to TPE and MML. And I think they actually are delays from Network Rail’s perspective. Not got a clue about the Government, of course – but they’ve announced they’re still spending £38bn over five years, so maybe they think it’s just a delay too?

TPE electrification will need a complete rethink.  It’s become increasingly obvious that it needs a complete route modernisation, not just stringing some wires up (and even just the wires are going to be a complete pain, given Standedge Tunnel). If HS3 ends up being something, it could be that the TPE modernisation gets rolled into a single project with whatever new lines get built.

MML is a much easier fix; I’d expect them to reorganise to just move the crews across when they’ve finished GWML.

So where do we go from here?

First, we need a commitment to train many more electrification crews.  There’s far too much unelectrified railway in England and Wales, and the rate at which we can currently get wires up would mean not being able to completely transition this century.  That’s farcical.

Second, we need a rolling programme. Instead of making a series of announcements, we should do what the Scots do – announce that we’re going to electrify everything except a few rural lines, announce that we’re going to do 100km a year once we’re geared up to do so (or whatever number we come up with), and then make announcements for where will get done over the next ten years, but make clear that the intention is to just keep going, shifting crews from one project to the next until the railway is mostly electric.

Delays are one thing; anyone who has used the UK rail network is accustomed to those. But if we don’t keep up the momentum on electrification, then we’ll lose all the skilled crews again, all the senior engineers who now actually have the experience not to cock it up and we’ll end up spending another fortune on an over-time, over-budget project.

Oh, and HS2? Electrified railway.  Might just need some people who know something about building those.

All-Women Shortlists and how to fix them.

As you, dear reader, may have noticed, there aren’t enough women MPs. Or, to be slightly more precise, there are too many white, cishet, male, fee-paying-school-and-Oxbridge MPs. But let’s just stick to the men for the rest of this blog post. We’ll get to the rest of the kyriarchy later.

Now, you’re not the only one that’s noticed the shortage of women MPs. Amazingly, the political parties took a look at themselves and noticed the problem too.  Labour, being the most centralised of our parties, came up with a solution. They called it All-Women Shortlists. Under this, the Organisation Sub-Committee of the National Executive Committee decides, for each constituency coming up for selection, whether it should be an open selection or an all-women shortlist. I believe (though I can’t find a copy of the actual selection rules – I assume because it’s a confidential document internal to the Labour Party) that 50% of seats have to be open and 50% all-women shortlists.

This has greatly increased the number of women MPs from the Labour party, but has done so at a price. The two other major parties, both Liberal Democrat and Conservative, have recoiled from those costs and have sought to achieve greater female representation by providing additional training and funding to women seeking to become MPs for their party, and also by operating systems that ensure that women are shortlisted. The Liberal Democrat process requires at least one women on a shortlist if any women apply (an all-male shortlist can go forward only if there are zero female applicants), while the Conservatives operate their “A-list” mechanism to also prevent all-male shortlists.

While these approaches have increased female representation in both of those parties, it seems to have stalled in the twenties per cent, while Labour continue to increase their fraction of female MPs.

The big prices paid in the way Labour operates all-women shortlists are these:

  • Increased centralisation. Labour’s Org Sub decides on an open shortlist vs an AWS in each seat. This is often done to manipulate the selection – a locally popular man whom Org Sub doesn’t like will see an AWS. Equally, a local woman that Org Sub does like will get an AWS to shut out external competition.
  • Late decisions. The decision between Open and AWS is made only when the constituency starts the selection process. Hopeful candidates may well have been working for months or years before the decision, only to find an AWS imposed and their efforts wasted.  More importantly, people within the constituency (sitting MPs, party officers, councillors, etc) could have been encouraging able local women to develop their skills to the point of being selectable. Instead, the local party often gets one of a small pool of middle-class women from professional politics (parliamentary staff, party staff, trades union officials, think-tanks, voluntary sector) with little or no local connection.
  • All-women shortlists put off non-binary candidates and trans women, both being groups that often face severe discrimination. Non-binary candidates aren’t women, so even if they are eligible (I believe that Labour’s rules say that they are), they’re not likely to feel very welcomed in an “all-women” space. And trans women are well aware of the reactions they have historically faced in all-women spaces – not very good ones.

For a party that, unlike Labour (or the Conservatives), does not have contested selections in every constituency in the country, there would be a fourth problem:

  • In the weakest seats, there are very few people that want to stand; generally, the problem is finding a candidate at all, not in selecting between multiple capable choices. Excluding people from standing will make running a full slate of candidates much harder.

In addition, of course, there are principled arguments against AWS – either that men and women should compete on an equal basis, that women selected through AWS are seen as second-class, or that local parties should choose whoever they want. I’m quite deliberately not addressing these questions here.  My experience is that very few people are persuadable on this, so it’s a waste of time to write on the topic.

So, turning now to my own party, in the Liberal Democrats, what do I propose, and how does it resolve these practical issues?

My proposal is simple.

“After each General Election, a determination shall be made by the Federal Executive of the gender of membership of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons. In the event that there are 10 or more MPs and 60% or more of them are of a single gender (the ‘overrepresented gender’) then the following rule shall be imposed until the next General Election:

In any selection for a constituency where 50% or more of the electorate was represented by a Liberal Democrat MP at the last General Election, and any by-election selection where the former MP was elected as a Liberal Democrat at the last General Election, then members of the overrepresented gender may not seek selection, be shortlisted, or be selected, except that current Liberal Democrat MPs may be selected regardless of their gender.”

This rule makes the selection not subject to manipulation by some committee; everyone knows which constituencies are subject to this rule years in advance. MPs know their successor will have to be a woman, so they can start looking for one; psychologically, men will not be seen as potential successors. By excluding men, rather than making selections all-women, it makes it clear and unequivocal that non-binary people and trans women are included.

The 50% language is related to boundary changes – a seat that has one ward transferred in from a held seat doesn’t become a held seat as a result, and a held seat that has one ward transferred in from the neighbouring black hole doesn’t stop being held.

It only affects constituencies where an MP is stepping down – the existing MP is allowed to continue for as long as they wish, but once they step down, their replacement cannot be a man until we get men under 60% of MPs.

The other problem – a problem much worse for a locally campaigning party like the Lib Dems than for Labour – is that applying AWSs in so-called “target” or “key” seats (those seats where the party lost narrowly in the previous election) can be very unfair to candidates who were narrowly defeated last time; often, their efforts over many years are the reason that the seat became winnable for the party in the first place, and few will be inclined to pass on the baton this close to the finishing line.

So, men who want to be MPs will have to concentrate on (a) encouraging good women to push forward to get the male percentage below 60% to open up some slots for themselves or (b) on campaigning in seats that we don’t currently hold and getting more Lib Dem MPs elected. Either of those is a positive result.

Finally, the clause automatically suspends itself once it’s succeeded enough. If we get men down under 60%, then the rule is disabled for a parliament. If they bounce back, then it comes back on again; if not, then selections are open permanently.  Labour’s AWS doesn’t have a finishing line; there’s no way of ever knowing if it’s succeeded.

Rebellious Scots to Crush

Lord grant that Marshal Wade,
May by Thy mighty aid,
Victory bring.
May he sedition hush,
and like a torrent rush,
Rebellious Scots to crush,
God save The King.

The anthem, “God Save the King” was originally published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1745 as a rallying cry for the pro-Hanoverians in England, and a large number of verses were written at the time, of which one is located above.  The song would settle down as the three verses of the modern anthem, and had done so long before it was adopted as the national anthem.  Only the first verse is usually sung, but the third verse is also sung at the Last Night of the Proms. The second verse is very rarely sung these days, given the anti-Catholic and Imperial sentiments in it.

There was no standard version of the anthem beyond the first verse in 1745, and Marshal Wade was replaced by the Duke of Cumberland in November 1745.  “God save the King” was not adopted as the National Anthem until after the American War of Independence, by which time Marshal Wade had been long-forgotten, never mind the verse of the national anthem relating to him.  It is entirely untrue to say that this verse ever was part of the national anthem.  It was part of a song titled “God save the King”, but then the following verse was part of a song titled “God Save the Queen”:

God save the queen
She ain’t no human being
There is no future
In England’s dreaming

The standardised version, which has been the National Anthem for more than two centuries (give or take the variations from King to Queen to King to Queen and the consequent changes to personal pronouns) is below.  The only variant text with any reasonable claim to be the National Anthem is “knavish tricks” rather than “Popish tricks”.  Other verses are no more part of the National Anthem than the Sex Pistols’ version.:

God save our gracious Queen!
Long live our noble Queen!
God save The Queen!
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us:
God save The Queen!

O Lord our God arise,
Scatter her enemies,
And make them fall:
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their Popish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix:
God save us all.

Thy choicest gifts in store,
On her be pleased to pour;
Long may she reign:
May she defend our laws,
And ever give us cause,
To sing with heart and voice,
God save The Queen