Monday, 12 October 2015

AIPL: the mysterious world of weaning

For obvious technical reasons, the natural way to share a year of leave is for mum to take the first half and dad the second half. This meant I was able to benefit from Mrs Tomsk's hard-won experience in many areas, but weaning would be a daddy-managed activity. Little did I realise how it would dominate proceedings.

The advice from on high these days is not to start weaning until your baby is six months old, a good couple of months later than used to be the case, and exactly the time I was due to take over. Elspedoodle had tried a few things before this time, most notably in the notorious Magnum chocolate accident, but also broccoli and a chip she reached out and grabbed when we weren't looking. So she was aware of the most important food groups, but making a concerted effort on her weaning fell to me. I am rather proud of navigating her from an essentially milk-only diet at the start of my leave to three meals a day by the end while somehow miraculously maintaining her growth percentile line throughout. I can't claim any special insight into how this was achieved and credit must also go to E for the small matter of learning how to eat, but I do feel the satisfaction of a job well done (perhaps because of all the time I spent cleaning up after her).

Anyone who has not had to come up with a weaning strategy may be terrified to learn that there are two competing ideologies to choose from: spoon-fed and baby-led weaning. Spoon feeding is considered more traditional and involves making up lots of purees in ice cube trays, which are delivered into baby by means of a spoon. Baby-led weaning is considered a bit trendy and involves making up lots of finger food, which is offered to baby to play with and then delivered by baby over a wide radius around their highchair.

Elspedoodle forced the issue by looking expectantly at our food and grabbing it whenever given a chance, so plunging us down the baby-led route. The concept was also appealing, the idea being that babies should discover food at their own pace and have fun with it so they don't feel that eating is a terrible way to be spending their time. E was started off on typical finger food like pears, cucumbers, well-boiled carrots and the like which she very much enjoyed throwing about and occasionally gummily chewing.We avoided mush as a rule but weren't zealots about it: the spoons came out for porridge, yoghurt, mash and so on. Like with most ideological clashes there is a happy medium somewhere between the two extremes.

E quickly developed some favourites, including a very Chorltonish pitta and hummus combo which I became adept at cleaning up on the move (it's surprising which things are easy and which are hard to clean up: hummus is straightforward, while broccoli is an absolute nightmare). We also benefitted from Mrs Tomsk's heroic baking efforts leading to plentiful reserves of quiche and mushroom rolls in the freezer.

E rarely refused to try new things but did have some unusual dislikes, bananas and strawberries surprisingly chief among them. These aversions were cured by Mrs Tomsk baking them into muffins, and Elspedoodle now loves strawberries so much she has stripped the garden bare of them. The muffin-disguise ploy could conceivably be used for any foodstuff up to and including sprouts. We've stocked up on muffin cases in preparation for the next bout of fussiness.

The hardest period was what I recall shudderingly as "peak weaning" when E was trying out 3 meals a day while still having all her bottled milk as well. I was effectively full-time chef, waiter, potwash, floor mopper and formula milk barista over that time. Thankfully her milk intake started to decline soon after, particularly after she got teeth. After that everything became a lot easier to eat, not to mention prepare. Her joy at being able to strip a cucumber down to the skin in mere seconds was something to behold.

The weaning experience has changed our diet too thanks to an obsession with minimising salt along with an increased commitment to cooking with fresh ingredients, which has kinda sorta lasted into the post-leave era. Now that E is past her first birthday the rules are a little relaxed and she's easier to cater for when we're out and about, but we still have interesting puzzles to work through in the evenings like how to make a curry that's suitable for all of us (usual answer: two pans). She's also less messy while eating, at least until she's had enough and decides to throw everything left over the side of her chair as a reminder of the early days, all the while smiling cheekily at us.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Adventures in Paternity Leave

I've been back at work now for almost as long as I was away on paternity leave, and excuses for not writing a blog about it are wearing thin. My memories are starting to get distinctly rose-tinted too: as we battle through nursery virus season juggling work commitments it feels like a lost era of tranquillity and cake. Not that there wasn't cake, of course, but I'm pretty sure I'm imagining the tranquillity. Time to publish before it turns entirely fictional.

It's only recently that fathers have been given a right to paternity leave in the UK. The standard leave of one or two weeks after birth was introduced only in 2003, and it wasn't until 2011 that it became possible to transfer a portion of maternity leave from the mother to the father (aka "additional paternity leave"). These were the rules under which I took my time off work, but things move fast in the paternity leave game and since 2015 the more flexible "shared parental leave" has been introduced where mum and dad can swap in and out of work more frequently.

I didn't really follow the earlier developments at the time, babies not being top of the agenda for us until recently, and so it took some research and a fair amount of digging through my conditions of employment to understand exactly what leave I was entitled to take. But one thing that both I and Mrs Tomsk were keen on from the start was sharing the main period of leave. From a practical point of view it made sense as we both wanted to keep working and there were no major financial implications to transferring the leave, but apart from that it just felt like the natural thing to do. I wanted to take a step back from life's multitude of other concerns for a while and spend my time getting to know our baby's crazy ways - and that's exactly what's on offer now to dads as well as mums. I'm really glad I took up the opportunity. Every couple needs to decide what works for them, but I would urge anyone who is in a position to do so to consider sharing their leave.

I don't think at the time I quite appreciated how rare it still is for the father to be the primary carer, at least until I realised I was the only one at our antenatal classes who would be doing it. My colleagues at work were completely accepting of the idea, if occasionally bemused by it, while HR were supportive and excited because I was one of the first to take additional paternity leave in the organisation and it gave them something new and interesting to administer. It helped that some of the projects I work on can be put on hold without causing the world to end, and what with "Keeping in Touch" days and the ever-present temptation to check emails (usually suppressed by having 1001 other things to get done during naptime), you never really lose track of what's going on.

We should be grateful that paternity leave is one of the few areas of the welfare state where provision is getting more generous and flexible rather than less. But it remains to be seen whether the new rules will result in more fathers taking up the opportunity. The evidence from Sweden (a mere 40 years ahead of Britain when it comes to childcare arrangements) suggests that it won't make a whole lot of difference and only a "use it or lose it" right to paternity leave will get a significant number of dads taking time more off. Let's hope we continue to follow in the footsteps of the Scandinavians.

Next time: weaning!

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Corbynmania, or How Scotland Changed Everything And Will Do Again

On 7th September last year, YouGov published a poll putting Yes in the lead in the Scottish independence referendum, and so kicked off a year of political wackiness that will almost certainly end in Jeremy Corbyn being elected Labour leader this 12th September. Hands up who predicted that?

While the eventual referendum result went the other way, the poll was enough to provoke the panicked "vow", followed by the notorious tone-deaf Cameron speech in the wake of victory that did so much to cement the SNP's support. Then Labour wipeout in Scotland and a Tory majority, each a bigger surprise than the last. We should have guessed that Labour's leadership election would not be the dispiriting snoozefest it initially promised to be.

In the wake of Miliband's defeat, all 3 mainstream candidates vied to cosy up as much as possible to business, declare their undying love of "aspiration", and drop as many leftish policies as they could get away with. The contest has changed so much amid furious backtracking that it's easy to forget what a counsel of despair was being offered at the beginning, but it was that which left the door wide open for Corbyn to offer a more positive vision.

Labour stalwarts are flabbergasted by Corbyn's success, as well they might be. In many respects he is Labour's Iain Duncan Smith, only more so. Hard left, no experience of government and a perpetual rebel, with enough historical baggage to keep the champagne corks popping at Number 10 from now until the next election. It's possible the Tories will be so overjoyed at his victory that they go Full Bullingdon and trash a couple of restaurants in delight.

Some of the MPs who nominated Corbyn to "broaden the debate" are now kicking themselves. After all, they undermined the whole open primary concept by removing the safeguards on the nomination process. They only have themselves to blame if they aren't comfortable with the result. The reliably contrary Frank Field is one who has stuck to his guns, pointing out that Corbyn's success does Labour a favour by demonstrating what "thin gruel" the other three candidates were offering. And he is right. Without Corbyn to shake things up, it's possible the entire party would have imploded with boredom before even reaching the vote. 

Corbyn's success, where previous left candidates have failed, is due firstly to the mainstream candidates vacating the centre ground (ironic given how Blairites love to lecture about elections only being won from the centre). Why was no mainstream candidate willing to advocate an overtly anti-austerity position? After all, austerity advocates lost the debate within mainstream economics years ago. But none was willing, so the job fell by default to Corbyn. Most of what he has proposed during the campaign is moderate and reasonable, and sounds as much to new supporters who are unlikely to have heard of him before the election, let alone be familiar with his record.

Second, Corbyn's campaign has followed where the SNP lead. The left are desperate for something to inspire them the way the independence dream inspired Scots. The exhausted Blairite ideology is completely unable to provide this. Yet compare how Blair himself came to lead the party, when his message was about hope and belief first and electoral calculation a firm second. Blair admitted as much himself when he recently said "I wouldn't want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn't take it". Blair acted according to his beliefs. Corbyn is the only candidate you feel is doing the same.

Third, it undoubtedly helps that beards are in fashion.

These are the crucial differences between IDS and Corbyn (especially the beard). Corbyn's campaign has enthused vast numbers of people who were previously turned off by the Labour party and Labour's highest priority now should be to maintain and build on that enthusiasm. The only way to do that now is to give Corbyn his chance. While Burnham (with reservations) and Cooper (with different reservations) are far more credible leaders, selecting one of them after Corbynmania would be such an anticlimax that Labour may be left in the doldrums for the forseeable future. And that's not to mention what a field day it would be for conspiracy theorists if the result were close.

Corbyn's rise reminds me very much of Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, in its rapid growth, brilliant campaigning and ability to enthuse new young activists. Eventually of course the Democrats got serious, chose Kerry and lost anyway. It was up to Obama to build on that enthusiasm and internet techniques to become president. And perhaps the same will happen to Corbyn. Ever the political optimist, I see two potential good outcomes:

1. Corbyn rides his wave of popularity all the way to No. 10, with any and all criticisms bouncing off his Labour party much like they did the SNP.

2. Corbynmania crashes and burns, but leaves behind a re-energised and greatly enlarged party that inherits his more robust approach to opposition while picking a leader who looks more like a potential PM.

I find option 1 hard to imagine, but in this age of surprises I wouldn't dream of ruling it out, still less predicting the odds of either option coming true versus it all ending in disaster and eternal Tory rule. But the outcome of the campaign we were originally anticipating would have been all too easy to predict: a gradual but unstoppable withering away.

One of the first tests of Corbyn's leadership will be the Scottish parliament elections in 2016. There could hardly be a more elegant natural experiment for Scottish lefties, vast numbers of whom claim they voted SNP not because swept up in nationalist fever but because they're a properly left wing party unlike those horrible "Red Tories". It doesn't matter that the notion the SNP were more anti-austerity than Labour was a fantasy: their fiscal plans were all but identical to Labour's and both were miles from the Tories. The difference was that the SNP chose to present themselves as the anti-austerity option while Labour declared themselves to be paragons of deficit-reducing rectitude. Perception is everything. Under Corbyn there will be a crystal clear anti-austerity message coming from Labour and the Scottish left will have to decide whether to put their votes where their mouths are. Their decision could make or break Corbyn's leadership.

It's no exaggeration to say the fate of the UK will lie in the hands of Scottish voters once again next year.

Sunday, 12 July 2015


Just when you thought it was safe to check the mail...

Yes, the Lib Dems are back in the game! And there's a proper old-fashioned dodgy bar chart on the back to prove it:

I'm impressed that Leech and co are still up for a fight, but the chances of them overturning Labour here are  zero for as long as Labour remain in opposition. I do think the Lib Dems will recover, particularly if Tim Farron leads them back to a Kennedy-style position on the political spectrum, but their recovery won't start here. So this will definitely absolutely be the last piece of political literature I post up.

PS: Slightly embarrassed that Leech has got back in touch before I got round to writing my very important reflections on being a stay-at-home Dad. I blame the pressure of no longer being a stay-at-home Dad.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Life no longer in a marginal

Withington was a very comfortable win for Jeff Smith:

Labour: 54%
Lib Dem: 24%
Conservative: 10%
Green: 8%
UKIP: 4%
Mysterious Independent: 0.1%

The outcome was remarkably close to Ashcroft's poll from almost a year ago. If that was a true snapshot then the Lib Dems' impressive campaign was worth all of 2% extra on their vote. It appears their famous incumbency bonus vanished this time, in line with the many other Lib Dem losses around the country. The Predict-o-Matic 5000 clearly requires some adjustment.

The local results are also out, more or less mirroring the parliamentary vote, although locally the Greens were almost level with the Lib Dems (this is actually an improvement in the Lib Dem position from last year).

So with a Labour majority of almost 15,000, it's fair to say we no longer live in a marginal. The only question left is where to move to in time for 2020?

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Life in a marginal: endgame

Lest we forget that it's polling day today, the Lib Dems got up early to remind us:

The scan cannot adequately convey the sheer size and weight of this greeting. It was impossible to see the hallway beneath it. If the election were decided purely on last day polling reminder card area, the Lib Dems would be odds on for a landslide.

The Labour effort looked a bit feeble in comparison:

Still, the same quality card stock. The boat is being pushed out by both teams. And Labour even came to my door to ask how I'd voted.

So what was the result of all these months of persuasion?

I went for Jeff Smith. John Leech was a good MP with a great voting record and I wouldn't be unhappy if he were returned to parliament, but I was put off by his attacks on Labour's economic record and plans. Ultimately I voted for those plans.

In the local elections I voted Lib Dem, as a kind of oblique protest against first past the post. It is unhealthy for all of Manchester's councillors to be Labour, and the Lib Dems are best placed to offer some scrutiny. See? All that propaganda does have an effect in the end...

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Life in a marginal: polling eve news

Good old South Manchester News has hit the printing presses again just in time for the election.

Well, it's sympathies are less obvious than the national newspapers I suppose.

The Leech campaign is really not doing any favours with me by attacking Labour's entirely sensible if not timid spending plans as "reckless". But never fear, because the man himself has sent us a handwritten note in a final plea for our votes:

Having noted the "P.S."s at the bottom of all his letters, I'm not sure Leech has got the hang of them. They always reiterate what he's already written, when they should say something in passing like:

P.S. I've heard there's free ice cream at the polling station today


P.S. Would you stop your dog barking at our canvassers?

Labour go for a more conventional leaflet:

Nothing new to report here. I'm running out of things to say about these leaflets, so just as well it's polling day tomorrow...

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Life in a marginal: the dark arts

Hmm. An anonymous brown envelope arrives containing all kinds of terrible revelations about Labour. Who could it be from?

I'm guessing it's not from Labour...

I see it's very positive about the Lib Dems' record in government on the back. Could this be a clue as to the senders? Ah yes! They admit all in the very small print at the bottom. I should have guessed from the paper.

Quite why they think this will convince me to vote Lib Dem is beyond me. At least the previous Ferrero Rocher letter was upfront about being from the John Leech campaign. This one is a new low, not only repeating the same old twaddle about Labour causing the financial crisis, but also heavily implying without openly stating that Labour plan to cut more than the Lib Dems in the next parliament, when of course the opposite is true.

Still, if the Lib Dems want to spend good money making it less likely I'll vote Lib Dem, that's their call.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Life in a marginal: canvassing and a revised prediction

Labour continue to step up their leaflet game, sending me a personal communication addressed personally to me in person, a variation on the one received by Mrs Tomsk a while back:

In addition they've sent me my very own personalised polling day information card:

I like the reminder to put an X next to Labour. Also, remember to put some shoes on before leaving the house.

Unfortunately for Labour, the Lib Dems have gone one better again by sending a canvasser to Tomsk79 HQ at last! I learnt an interesting piece of information: that John Leech had not voted for the coalition in the first place.

Naturally being canvassed affects the delicate calculus at the heart of the Predict-o-Matic 5000. Its revised and final prediction is therefore as follows:

(beep beep boop boop boop etc.)

Con: 8%
Lab: 45%
LD: 37%
UKIP: 3%
Green: 7%
Mysterious independent: 1%

(nb: result adds up to 101% in light of the model's continued awesomeness)

Attack of the Also-Rans, Episode 3: the Greens

Finally in our round-up (as I've yet to receive anything from the Mysterious Independent), the Green Party. Again it comes in compact A5 format, no doubt because more eco-friendly. It is of course printed on FSC-approved paper.

No-one does hopey/changey quite like the Greens. Bannister's photo is curiously back-lit, like an angelic character from a Sofia Coppola film, leading us to a Green utopia with a list of the promises you wish Labour would make if only they didn't have to worry about actually winning an election.

On the reverse we learn Bannister is another proud graduate of the University of Manchester, only this time writing with impeccable English. I'd expect no less from someone who studied the king of subjects.

Surprisingly even on the back there is no mention of the environment at all. I suppose this is what they mean by "politics for real people". As a Real Person who occasionally attempts to get to Sheffield using a car, I curse the Greens every time I get stuck in poor un-bypassed Mottram. But I digress...

Attack of the Also-Rans, Episode 2: UKIP

Perhaps the best that can be said about UKIP's election leaflet is that it comes in a handy A5 format. Whether the size symbolises their little England worldview or their chances of winning here, I cannot judge.

The front is essentially a transcript of Davies' opening statement at the hustings:

Many things are said to be the definition of madness. Seriously wayward punctuation. Standing for UKIP in Withington.

Still, I'm intrigued by his wide experience of business AND organization. What is this non-business organization he has wide experience of? UKIP purple always vaguely recalls Wimbledon for me, so I can't shake the notion that it was the Wombles.

Being oop north we get the version of UKIP that is intended to appeal to disgruntled Labour voters, with promises on the NHS and bedroom tax nestled in amongst the foreigner bashing:

I do hope the Australian-style points-based system will allow Madame Cholet to stay.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Attack of the Also-Rans, Episode 1: the Conservatives

At last the Lib Dem/Labour leaflet duopoly has been broken, with all three of the other parties' free communications arriving on the same day.

First the Tories. Receiving a leaflet with hues from the other side of the rainbow is a refreshing change for the eyes, even while the content makes them burn.

Manning's cover letter (as ever, click to enlarge) is undermined by some terrible grammatical howlers. "investment ever more in our NHS"? "Liberal Democrats set to loose many of their seats"? I expect better from proud graduates of the University of Manchester! With all the gazillions of pounds being poured in to the party by hedge funds you'd think they'd be able to hire someone to proof-read their sales pitches.

On the other hand I quite enjoyed his subtle trolling of the yellow team: "It is not clear that the Lib Dems will be able to support a Conservative government again". Heh.

The Northern Powerhouse gets name-checked in a small paragraph on the reverse. I'm surprised he doesn't make more of it given that it's a genuinely Good Thing and very much associated with George Osborne and the Tories rather than their coalition partners.

Finally a dodgy bar chart of the Conservative variety. Quite apart from the current economic recovery being the slowest since dinosaurs ruled the earth, I'm not at all sure that the G7 covers every "major economy" these days...

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Life in a marginal: my poster's bigger than yours

An increasing focus on local elections as Labour send me a leaflet advertising the Jeff Smith/Matt Strong two candidate combo deal:

Good stat work there with the claim that the Lib Dem candidate (who he?) has voted with the Tories 93% of the time in the last parliament. Just guessing but I imagine it's the other 7% of votes that are the important ones.

More exciting is the other side of the leaflet which doubles up as a poor man's window poster:

Even if I was in a poster-displaying mood I think I'd be too embarrassed to put one up featuring text-speak, but I have seen them go up in a few windows so clearly it's a worthwhile use of leaflet space.

The Lib Dems, however, have trumped these puny A4 signs with a supersized hashtag in the middle of Chorlton:

I thought political hoardings died out sometime in the mid-90s and spotting one this time round would be as likely as ever hearing a new Blur album. We live and learn.

Friday, 1 May 2015

The Manchester Withington Predict-o-Matic 5000

The 2015 election has been notable for the many new models attempting to predict the result, mostly created by academics trying to avoid doing any proper work. In that spirit we at Tomsk79 have created our own model for predicting the result of the Manchester Withington constituency, which is detailed in full here.

The starting point for my model is the constituency poll carried out in June 2014 by Lord Ashcroft (blessed be his name). This poll suggests a decisive swing from the Lib Dems to Labour since the election:

The next stage is to correct the Ashcroft poll by movements in the national polls since June 2014. For this we use the BBC Poll of Polls, which reports changes as follows:

Con: 31 to 34 (+3)
Lab: 34 to 33 (-1)
LD: 10 to 9 (-1)
UKIP: 15 to 13 (-2)
Green: 5 to 5 (0)

We assume that the national changes apply uniformly to the Withington constituency.

Next, we apply a sub-seat correction using local election results from Withington wards. By analysing trends in council results from 2010-2015, we can divide the Ashcroft results up by ward and apply corrections that can be projected to polling day. This results in a single party state correction (SPSC) which we calculate to be +1.4% LD to Lab for next week's election.

Another important data input is the normalised voter contact ratio (NVCR), which we estimate based on leafleting frequency. Assuming the Tomsk79 HQ is typical of Withington households, each voter receives 11 Lib Dem communications and 5 from Labour, giving an NVCR of 1 / (2.2^2) = 0.21, which corresponds to a 5.2% Lab to LD swing.

Once the SPSC and NVCR have been applied to the whole seat prediction, we can then take into account historical trends in polling time series, including reversion to the mean or 'swingback' and marginal-indicated protest vote propensity (MIPVP). According to our tailored swingback model we expect a 2.3% Lab to LD switch over the period of the short campaign, and a time-static boost of 2.7% for the Greens and 0.8% for UKIP overall from MIPVP.

The last macrocorrection we make is to compensate for electorodynamic effects (rather than kinetic effects as in the previous corrections). As electorodynamic data is not readily available from polling or ground observation, we estimate it using a Frequentist-uprated Dynamic General Equilibrium model. This suggests a 0.06% LD to Lab swing and a "Green squeeze" of -0.4% which is shared 0.3% to Lab and 0.1% to LD.

We now turn to local environmental and geographical issues. First, we correct for the weather forecast next Thursday. It is well known that Labour voters cannot be bothered to turn up at the first sign of drizzle, and at the time of writing the BBC weather forecast for Withington is reporting light rain showers for polling day. Using the Fitzroy-Shannon model developed by the Met Office we calculate a weather-related voter intention depression (WRVID) of 0.3% to Labour's vote and renormalise the other parties accordingly. Naturally WRVID can be refined as we get to closer to the 7th, but we do not expect it to change significantly given that the constituency is in Manchester.

So far in our model the calculations have been computationally trivial, but with modern levels of parallel compute resource we can go beyond simple seat- and ward-level predictions. We can in fact model individual voters using our own purpose-built agent-based simulation, which combines the Mosaic voter profiling system with Hawk-Eye trajectory analysis technology. Through this we can predict individual voter trajectories right up and into the polling booth with unprecedented accuracy.

Naturally the resulting trajectories are classical and do not take into account any quantum fluctuations that may influence the result at a causational level. We therefore apply a quantum correction to the Mosaic/Hawk-Eye trajectories via a quasi-classical approach, using Ehrenfest's theorem under the constraint of Duverger's law.

Finally, we use a statistical technique called Tea-Leaf Analysis (TLA) to apply a low-pass filter over all the previous corrections, thereby deconvoluting most sources of noise.

So, after all that number crunching, what is the predicted result? For no extra charge I've converted the punchcard output into human-digestible numbergrams:

Con: 8%
Lab: 47%
LD: 35%
UKIP: 3%
Green: 7%
Mysterious independent: 1% 
(nb: result adds up to 101% due to the excellence of the model)

In conclusion, we believe the Predict-o-Matic 5000 to be the most accurate constituency prediction system ever devised. Indeed our analysis indicates an 80% chance of the model being more accurate than reality itself. Any error in the final result is therefore likely to be a fault in the universe rather than a problem with the calculations.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Life in a marginal: still uncanvassed

If the election result was decided solely on how many times people have knocked on my door, there would be no doubt about the winner: the Jehovah's Witnesses. Oxfam and "Hello Fresh" would also retain their deposits. No political party has bothered yet, and there's barely a week left for them to get their acts together. Honestly, what is the point of living in a marginal if you're not going to be given the opportunity to rant on your own doorstep? Plus I'm a stay-at-home Dad so I'm in all day and can even offer a traditional baby-kissing opportunity. Roll up!

"But her face is covered in porridge!"
"Do you want my vote or not?"

The leaflets keep on coming of course. Mrs Tomsk has received a personal letter addressed personally to her from John Leech. It's all but identical to the one I was sent except that the controversial opening paragraph has been replaced with something much more anodyne. Either this blog is much more widely read than I imagined, or Mrs Tomsk is considered to be a more sophisticated voter who is put off by mudslinging (by virtue of being a woman?), or maybe it's just a sign of the randomness that underlies all of nature. The Lib Dems do move in mysterious ways.

Aside from that, another Focus. The print quality continues to decline at the Focus presses, now resembling the monthly newsletter of an impecunious bridge club.

As ever with Focus it's all about local action, not least the campaign to save Chorlton Baths, which is being closed because the Labour council is evil and not because of anything to do with the massive cuts the coalition have forced on local government.

Meanwhile Jeff counterpunches with a neat little cheat sheet of Lib Dem betrayals:

That's 5 ticks for Smith versus 5 crosses for the Lib Dems. A walkover!

In window poster news, a Green Party poster has joined the two Labour ones on our (very long) street. That's the first Green activity I've seen besides the hustings. Will their budget stretch to a leaflet? Watch this space...

Thursday, 23 April 2015

At the hustings

I was kindly allowed off fatherly duties for an evening to attend the election hustings at St Clements Church in Chorlton. A few things I learnt about the candidates:

  • John Leech (unsurprisingly) and Jeff Smith (reassuringly) are both good at this game. Rob Manning (Conservative) and Mark Davies (UKIP) also put up a good front against a mainly hostile audience. Lucy Bannister (Green) was the youngest and least assured candidate but to her credit was the most willing to take on the UKIP arguments directly. Mysterious independent candidate Marcus Farmer was not on the panel. Perhaps he was gazing down malevolently from the bell tower.
  • Jeff Smith was happy to go on record saying that he would vote against his own party in order to ban fracking and cancel a Trident replacement. I don't actually agree with him on either of those issues but still I'm impressed with his independence of thought and it has addressed some of my previous doubts. Of course it was also a canny pitch that pre-neutralised John Leech's closing statement claim to be the one true rebel of the panel.
  • The Tory guy had a good command of government policy and an endless supply of facts and figures. He wisely drew our attention to policies that we might actually approve of, e.g. HS2 and Devo Manc.
  • The UKIP candidate, by contrast, was never going to get anywhere with the room and his anti-politics schtick didn't sell. When he did make pertinent points - such as that the EU single market enables the likes of Amazon to minimise their tax exposure in relation to a question about corporate tax dodging - they were ignored. I'd rather they were challenged properly as only the Green candidate really attempted (on immigration).
  • The audience were more than a touch self-righteous en masse, loudly applauding the question about corporate tax then taking offence when John Leech rather bravely (in the Sir Humphrey sense) pointed out that individual action was important and we were essentially hypocrites for continuing to shop at Amazon and drinking coffee at Starbucks, unlike him. I'm tempted to vote for him solely for that bit of crowd-baiting.
  • On the other hand the best zinger came from the audience when Davies asserted that we needed to raise defence spending to deal with Putin, and when his aircraft were buzzing the North Sea we were reduced to relying on French and Dutch radar to detect them at all. "Just as well we're in the EU then," someone shouted.
  • Having more or less convinced me to vote Labour, Smith went down in my estimation at the final question by declaring his support for the first past the post voting system. Dammit, why can't you reserve your principled stands for the nerdier issues of the day? Leech went on the attack over Manchester's one party state - now where have I heard that line before - which does certainly illustrate how undemocratic FPTP is.
  • Overall Leech played a straight bat on a sticky wicket, but if the hustings crowd is in any way representative of the electorate, he's unlikely to #makeit15.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Life in a marginal: when communications backfire

It's always good to receive a personal letter addressed personally to me from candidate John Leech. Not least when it comes on rather nice parchment-like paper. It's the Ferrero Rocher of personal letters.

However, this particular letter seems almost purposely-crafted to drive me towards voting Labour.

The first two paragraphs contain so much piffle that they actually broke my piffleometer. I understand the need to trash talk Labour in their leaflets, but "Britain nearly bankrupted"? I expect that kind of mendacity from Clegg, but I thought Leech would have more scruples.

If you're going to make up recent history for your own benefit, at least be creative:

"In 2010, the tyrant Brown ruled the Kingdom with a great clunking fist, and all the peasants did whimper as their first borns were sacrificed to appease the mighty Banker Barons. And yet there was still hope, in a fresh faced young hero named Nick Clegge from the South Riding of York-Shire. And lo, the populace did Agree With Nick and ushered in were five years of joy and harmony..."

Monday, 13 April 2015

Undecided of Manchester Withington

A confession: I haven't made up my mind how to vote yet.

If it were simply a matter of choosing a party I would have settled long ago on Labour. I've never voted for them before at a general election but picking Ed Miliband as leader showed they were ready to stand for something again and I'm pleased with the direction he has taken the party. While some of the policies they have already proposed may be a bit gimmicky (stupid NHS targets), and some I'll believe when they happen (200,000 new homes a year), others look both doable and will tangibly improve the country: doubling paid paternity leave, reducing tuition fees, giving 16 year olds the vote, abolishing non-dom status, giving football fans a voice in the boardroom, reinstating the 50p top rate of tax, scrapping the bedroom tax, and giving renters more rights to name just a few. Small policies that will make a big difference without breaking the bank.

I could hardly be less persuaded by the endless attacks on Miliband from the Tories and Tory press, all too often promulgated by leftier papers that should know better. The bottom line is he has both the opportunity and, it seems, the desire to be a transformative prime minister in the mode of Attlee or Thatcher. No doubt I will be disillusioned should he get into Number 10. But better to hope and be disillusioned than never to be illusioned at all.

The Lib Dems, conversely, have been on their own ideological journey, one that has taken them a long way from my own views. I didn't and still don't object to them forming a coalition in the first place; the electoral maths made it inevitable. What worried me then, and even more now, is that the current leadership prefers to be in government with the Tories than with Labour. That's why they tripled tuition fees, screwed up the NHS and waved through excessive austerity - not as a result of necessary compromise, but because they actually believe in these policies. And every time Clegg claims that Labour caused the global financial crisis by borrowing too much, I wish that bit more strongly for a Portillo moment in Sheffield Hallam.

And yet ... the Lib Dem candidate here, John Leech, is not of the same mould as Clegg, Laws, or Alexander. He's clearly a bit of a leftie, rebelling against tuition fees, the NHS reorganisation and the bedroom tax. He's clearly an MP who works hard for his local community. In my view his record in Westminster is pretty good and I would have no problem with him continuing to represent me for another five years.

If only he wasn't a Lib Dem!

From what little I know of Jeff Smith gleaned from his campaign literature, he would make a perfectly good MP too. He has Real Life Experience and is just as locally-focused as Leech. But can I count on him to vote with his conscience when it matters? And does his conscience even resemble mine? No idea. If it was simply a matter of choosing an individual representative, I would choose Leech.

So there's the dilemma. Go with an experienced, independently-minded MP who undoubtedly shares my values but will nevertheless be counted as one in the column for Tory-loving Clegg when the coalitions are negotiated? Or the unknown quantity who will unquestionably help Labour into power?

Party or person?

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Life in a marginal: a tale of two Jeffs

After the blizzard of Lib Dem leaflets, Labour strikes back. It's all about Jeff this time, both in boring old A4 format:

And in a personal communication adressed personally to Mrs Tomsk in person, an intriguing origami-like construction yielding much the same information:

His handwriting looks a bit childish. Should have stuck to the typewriter. Plus he's blown the personal effect by addressing himself to "Dear Resident". Still, it's an impressive roster of ordinary definitely-not-Labour-activists backing Jeff there.

Believe it or not the leaflet folds open again to reveal yet more Jeff knowledge, like a more boring version of those folded paper number choosing thingummies you made at school.

In response Leech has sent us his own innovation: a square leaflet.

Could do better, frankly. But I have learnt something new: Manchester is a one-party state...

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Life in a marginal: a brief guide to Manchester Withington

As the distribution of leaflets I've received so far may have hinted at, Manchester Withington is a Lib Dem-Labour fight. Historically Withington was a Conservative seat, but turned Labour in 1987 after all the Tory voters moved to little villages in Cheshire. It stayed that way until 2005 when John Leech took it for the Lib Dems with a swing of 17.3%, benefitting from both the student vote and a steady influx of Guardian readers into the consituency. Leech held it in 2010 with an increased majority of 1,894.

The constituency is made up of seven wards: Chorlton, Chorlton Park, Didsbury West, Didsbury East, Old Moat, Withington and Burnage. In the local elections of 2010 (held on the same day as the general election), six of the wards voted Lib Dem, with only Old Moat going Labour. By contrast in the local elections of 2014, all seven wards voted Labour. Indeed, all of Manchester voted Labour; as the Lib Dems like to point out (*), we have a one-party council. So far this has not resulted in tanks rolling down Barlow Moor Road and dissenters found floating in the Mersey, but it's only a matter of time.

It's therefore going to take more than a gazillion leaflets for Leech to hold on to the seat, and I wouldn't put any money on him doing so, but the party is clearly putting in significant resources here, so the local results may not be as predictive as you might expect.

(*) When I say like, I mean really really like. We received yet another Lib Dem Focus today, the first from plain un-suffixed John Leech (TMFKAOMIW):

And this, typically, was inside it:

I'm sure Manchester will get an opposition again one day. From the Greens perhaps.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Life in a marginal: job application edition

The last act as an MP of The Man Formally Known as Our Man in Westminster (TMFKAOMIW as I shall be referring to him in future) was to send us his CV and covering letter for an MP vacancy now being advertised in the Withington area. Full marks for promptness - where are your CVs and covering letters, other candidates? Don't you know The Campaign Has Begun in Earnest (TCHBIE)?

Yes, yes, schools, hospitals, blah blah blah. The key point here is that TMFKAOMIW is a City fan and therefore a gentleman of taste and discernment when you consider the possible alternative.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Life in a marginal: mysterious orange buildings revisited

All is revealed! It is of course the local Lib Dem campaign office.

I particularly like the eclectic list of things delivered: Metrolink, New Jobs, New School, Safer Roads, Alan Turing, The Christie, Environment. Who knew Our Man had both the midwifery skills and command of time travel required to deliver Alan Turing?

You can follow his further adventures in time and space with hastag #makeit15 ...

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Life in a marginal: a Libdemalanche of leaflets

Not one, not two, but three items have arrived from Our Man in Westminster.

First up it's the welcome return of South Manchester Life, now in spacious A4 for its Spring 2015 collection. Is this really the last we'll see of South Manchester Life until the summer? I am saddened.

Following on from absolutely non-partisan South Manchester Life, here comes an actual Lib Dem leaflet complete with an actual Lib Dem logo and actual Lib Dem dodgy bar chart on the front cover. Still no sign of Clegg inside though. Our Man's not that foolish.

Finally there's a proper old-fashioned Lib Dem Focus copied on someone's dodgy old Xerox just like Lloyd George would have done. Respect to the bar chart in the top right corner which actually over-represents the 'can't win here' candidates. Now there's confidence.

Using the power of Lib Dem Maths, I extrapolate from today's figures that we will be receiving upwards of 2,500 Lib Dem leaflets a week by the end of the campaign.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Life in a marginal: The Voice strikes back

Just when I was wondering where my next fix of Labour Voice was coming from, it turns up, this time tailored to our very own Chorlton ward:

I've previously applauded LV for not pretending to be anything other than party propaganda and this remains the case. The front page is nothing to write blogs about, holding close to the national party line. Inside gets more punchy, with the distinctly dubious "Never trust a Liberal Democrat":

OK, it's a very reasonable attack on the Lib Dems as a party, but of course it fails to note that Our Man in Westminster's voting record is quite different to the Lib Dems in general, rebelling on both tuition fees and the bedroom tax.

There follows a list of things Labour have done to make Manchester "the most successful city in the UK":

Yep, Manchester Labour are claiming credit for the discovery of graphene. With such scientific prowess how could I vote for anybody else?