Plants: easier to love than people

I am pleased that the coalition is about to announce that they’re shelving their plans to sell off the UK’s national forests. Of course I am. It’s good news that they will remain in public ownership, protected (one assumes) from the more unconstrained vagaries of the market, and hopefully allowed to continue quietly growing and peacefully sheltering what remains of our wildlife.

But, well, forests aren’t people, nor are they vital public services, and if I were to be given the choice I can’t help thinking that I’d rather save NHS jobs, education funding and, yes, libraries, over woodlands. It’s doubtful that the forests would have been immediately chopped down to make way for motorways had they been sold off: as I understand it this wasn’t a question of saving the trees themselves, but of preserving the woodlands’ status as public property. It’s absolutely worth doing and I’m glad the proposal has been reversed, but I’d still prefer to divert the money into, to take an example from this morning’s news, midwifery services in the West Midlands, which are so underfunded that it’s been suggested that one third of perinatal deaths last year could have been prevented had community midwives not been working at 150% of their recommended caseload. By all means let’s look after the trees, but if we have to decide where to make cuts, it would be nice if we could look after the people first.

On the Today programme this morning it was announced that the proposal to sell off the forests had come under attack from public figures “including several actors and the Archbishop of Canterbury”. Forgive me, but if we ever reach the time when we take our political cues from actors and the Archbishop of Canterbury, we’ll be in straits so dire we may never make it back again.

(Incidentally, that Guardian piece contains an account of a debate on the subject between Ed Miliband and David Cameron which, if it’s accurate, suggests that not only are we all going to hell, we’re being led there by a cabal of schoolboy bullies:

Yesterday Miliband mocked Cameron over the plans. The Labour leader said: “Even he must appreciate the irony: the guy who made the tree the symbol of the Conservative party flogging them off round this country. He says they are consulting on this policy. They are actually consulting on how to flog off the forests, not whether to sell off the forests. Is the prime minister now saying that he might drop the policy completely?”

Cameron replied: “I would have thought the whole point about a consultation is that you put forward some proposals, you listen to the answer and then you make a decision. I know it is a totally alien concept but what is so complicated about that?”

Miliband said: “Everybody knows you have to drop this ludicrous policy. Let me give him the chance to do it. Nobody voted for this policy; 500,000 people have signed a petition against the policy. Why doesn’t he, when he gets up at the dispatch box, say not say he is postponing the sale but say he is cancelling it?”

Cameron replied: “Once again, he read the question before he listened to the answer. I think the bandwagon has just hit a bit of a tree.”

I mean, really. Heaven help us all.)

Post-election ramblings

After Labour and the Lib Dems failed to win enough seats between them to form a coalition government with an outright majority, which was what I was hoping for (because although I like Labour best, I was hoping that the Lib Dem influence would be brought to bear in areas in which they have policies I like, like electoral reform and immigration), I was reluctantly ready to accept a Tory-Lib Dem coalition or even a minority Tory government, in the hope that the Tories would get the blame for the cuts to public services which we’re assured are inevitably coming over the next few months, whilst Labour would remain relatively unsullied and hopefully in a stronger position from which to fight another election in the autumn or winter.

(The problem with this scenario is that neither Labour or the Lib Dems have any money left with which to fight another election, whilst the Tories can readily command millions at any minute, on account of – do you see? – rich people vote Conservative. A few weeks ago, just as it all started to go wrong for Call Me Dave, a group of “business leaders” wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph condemning Labour’s plans to increase National Insurance. This was reported as a blow to the Labour party, but really: is anyone surprised that some of the richest men (yes, they were all men) in the country, whose interests have always been served at the expense of the less well-off by Conservative policies, should publicly endorse those policies? Admittedly, I don’t believe they really think George Osborne would make a plausible chancellor, but that aside there was nothing unexpected in what they said. Anyway, despite the lack of funds faced by the other parties I was hoping that whatever faltering Tory administration we ended up with would shortly be succeeded by a centre-left coalition with a stronger mandate to govern.)

And then Gordon resigned, and everything changed. I like Gordon Brown and I always have done. I think he is a man of integrity and principle who has tried to do what he thought was right. He hasn’t always got that right, but who does? I’d rather an honest politician who admits mistakes than one who doesn’t think he’s capable of getting it wrong, just as I’d rather have a serious one who means what he says than one who smiles and lies his way through everything. Yes, Tony, I’m looking at you.

The sad truth, though, is that whatever I think of him, there are lots of people who don’t like Gordon. And before the election, while Nick Clegg was riding high on the surge in the polls that the televised leadership debates had brought him, he very explicitly said that he would not be willing to do any kind of a deal with a Labour party that retained Gordon Brown as its leader. So if what the Labour party wants now is a Lib-Lab pact (which would still need to be propped up by some of the smaller parties in order to pass any legislation), then Gordon did the right thing. His stepping down last night opened a door to negotiations that weren’t possible before, and the buzz in the (almost exclusively Tory-supporting) papers and online this morning suggests that the most likely outcome might now be a coalition government of the left, rather than of the right.

I’m not sure this is a good thing in the long term. The coalition would be weak, and would also be responsible for introducing whatever cuts are necessary to tackle the nation’s debts, which is something we must apparently do immediately (don’t ask me; the economy is not my strong point). So it would be weak and unpopular, and the path would be paved for another election within a year, which the Tories would almost certainly win outright.

I am also slightly squeamish about the idea of an administration which excludes the party that won the most votes, however much I might dislike them. It’s all very well to say that Labour and the Lib Dems have more in common than either does with the Tories, but you can’t extrapolate from that to say that everyone who voted for one party would be happy with the other. Whereas you can say that everyone who voted Tory would be happy with a Conservative administration. So it doesn’t feel quite right, somehow.

On the other hand, if the Tories don’t take power now, someone will demand scalps. Six months ago, they were a dead cert to win this election. Hilariously, the rumour is that party grandees are furious with Cameron for agreeing to the televised debates, which they see as the point at which the campaign began to lose momentum. That’s right: it all went wrong for the Tories when they had to actually talk about their policies. Poor old that.

Anyway, the likely public victims of this screw-up are either Cameron, whose appeal evidently eluded voters when it came down to it, or George Osborne, who is wildly unpopular and who was officially the campaign manager, so can be forced to take the blame if necessary. If Osborne goes now, he will never be chancellor, and that can only be a good thing. But it would be even funnier if Cameron goes and the Tories’ Eton and Oxbridge great white hope ends up never being prime minister at all. Is that mean? It probably is, a bit, but although Cameron seems perfectly pleasant as a person, he represents a party who are all about being mean, when it comes down to it. So I shan’t feel too bad about it.

Anyway, I think Gordon has played a blinder since Friday, and along with the rest of the country, I await developments with bated breath. It’s nice to see politics be interesting, isn’t it?