My Letter to Lisa Nandy MP: May I Count on Your Support for the Kyle-Wilson Amendment?

official_portrait_of_lisa_nandy_crop_2Lisa Nandy is the Labour Member of Parliament for Wigan and former Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.  

If you agree with the points I have raised in this letter, I encourage you to copy the text and use it as the basis for a letter to your own MP.

Dear Lisa,

I write as a concerned constituent, having read your recent piece in the Guardian: ‘A flawed second referendum could break our democracy’ and the arguments it puts forward to support the position.

I understand your discomfort at dealing with the legacy of divisive, binary choices and your concerns of holding Yes/No referenda on deeply nuanced matters.  These are uncomfortable times which seem to be filled with binary choices to navigate a way safely onwards.

The piece suggests you have accepted that the moral rather than the ideological imperative renders the ‘No Deal’ outcome unsupportable, particularly with regard to protecting the peace process in Northern Ireland.  For this reason and all the concerns about protecting health and prosperity that you have cited, it would indeed be an act of gross negligence to facilitate our withdrawal from the EU without an agreed structure.  There’s nothing wrong with removing an unacceptable outcome – but it does have the effect of increasing the probability of a further binary choice to come.

By your own admission, this morally unacceptable outcome is one which polls suggest around a quarter of the public would support – logically, around half those who wish the UK to Leave.  Unfortunately, this presents you with another binary choice: simply ‘respect’ the most recent democratically-expressed view of the electorate or explain the consequences of blindly following a potentially self-destructive path before we all have to follow it, knowing the proportion who favour an unworkable solution.

Given the unhealthy closeness of the June 2016 vote, the changes in the demography of the UK in the two and a half years since then, the huge gulf between what was promised by Leave and what we now know may be possible to negotiate (and the fact that some promises were demonstrably untrue), it’s impossible to claim there is insufficient evidence to re-evaluate the whole issue.

Consider also the fact that the last major poll that indicated a Leave majority was conducted a year ago and in recent weeks, the continuing impasse in the Commons has led to a slew of polls showing mounting concern for the current trajectory of the country and growing support for another referendum.  As you can see, I’m using the same source for these polls that you used in your article.

The argument against a second referendum cannot, in any sense, be that it is “anti-democratic”.  Disobeying a referendum would be anti-democratic.  By definition, asking people to vote again is the very essence of trust in democracy.  Those who would have you believe otherwise must be viewed suspiciously in only asserting so because they feel they have something to lose.

Obviously, such opponents of a 2nd Referendum are likely to be the evangelical Brexiteers, those who believe they “won” and have now been granted a mandate to pursue EU withdrawal with barely-limited gusto, based on a tiny majority, zealously guarding the interests of “17.4 million” by seemingly seeing fit to ignore completely the expressed view of 16.1 million fellow citizens.

There are other opponents: Remain-leaning MPs of all hues who sit in strongly pro-Leave seats, whose vacillation may potentially be influenced by the fact that publicly disagreeing with a majority of their constituents may not be the most advantageous career move.  Such a description may or may not apply to a number of Tory back-benchers who can find comfort in diligently obeying the whip and conveniently avoiding a confrontation with their own voters.  On the Labour benches, the Member for Don Valley seems to be the most notable example for such a potential conflict of interest.

Finally, of course, there are the stealth Brexiteers, those who secretly always wanted out but who sit back and allow events to take their course with a suitable amount of shoulder-shrugging and token opposition around the margins of the debate to be seen to have done just enough not to have exposed their own duplicity.  I speak, of course, of your own Leader and much of his inner coterie.

This week, following the 230-vote defeat of ‘The Meaningful Vote’ and the 149-vote defeat of ‘Meaningful Vote II’, there is, we are informed, likely to be a third attempt for the Prime Minister to scrape her ill-conceived, ill-begotten, ill-starred deal into UK policy – I’d like this one to be called ‘Meaningful Vote – With A Vengeance’.  Among the amendments it will face, we expect the Kyle-Wilson Amendment to be debated, in which May’s faltering, diluted position, if passed, must be put to the people as a “confirmatory referendum” and against which the option to Remain must feature.

As a concerned constituent, someone who has met you, has always found you to act very impressively and who has always been proud to say that you are my MP, I implore you to abandon the position in your Guardian piece, of hand-wringing deference to a single vote on a once-in-a-lifetime issue, in the name of ‘protecting democracy’.

This decision must be guided by the most fundamental principles of parliamentary representation – with which I trust you will be more than familiar.  I won’t insult you by quoting Edmund Burke and Winston Churchill at you but I think it’s fair to ask that, given the clear distinction between ‘representative’ and ‘delegate’, your vote for Kyle-Wilson demonstrates your willingness to provide representation for all the constituents of Wigan, not simply act in delegation of its (suspected) majority.

I trust you to put clearly-delineated national interest above those even of most of your voters.  I trust you to disobey your party whips if the country’s future depends on it and, just as Jess Phillips has already stated, I trust you to have the integrity to accept that in doing so, you accept all consequences that your most noble actions may invite, should the majority of the people of Wigan then disagree.

Yes, it’s a binary choice but leadership often requires the conviction to make a choice and argue for it – and it’s disingenuous in the extreme to ignore that inconvenient truth and continue to act as a leader of the constituency you represent.

I wish you well this week and I hope you can be part of the change that sees this whole ghastly mess turned around, allowing the whole country to concentrate once again on the real problems it faces.  I also believe that, in due course, the failure of both front benches over the last three dismal years will be corrected and younger, more reasonable, more resonant voices such as yours may be heard, from positions of greater seniority.  I’d very much like one day to claim that I’m proud of you not just as my MP, but as the holder as one of the Great Offices of State.

Please seize this opportunity to better define the future for us all.

Yours faithfully,

Paul Bentham

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics?

As a Wiganer, I don’t mind admitting I’m still getting over our 18-14 defeat to Hull in last weekend’s Challenge Cup Final.  I feel I probably shouldn’t be so affected by it, these days – I’ve been here enough times before: in 1984 (crushingly), in 1998 (inexplicably) and in 2004 (rather drunkenly).  I’d like to think that those experiences, plus of course the very many Cup-winning years (including the famous eight-in-a-row) would give me sufficient perspective to absorb the disappointment a little more adroitly.

Sadly, just like Tony Clubb’s doomed attempt for the line, it was not to be.  Now, four days on, the anguish at the outcome has dissipated slightly.  I know this because I’ve now come to believe that the scoreline was not, for once, the most significant statistic of the day.

Before I explain what I believe is, I should move to deny any stirring suspicions you may have that I’m displaying sour grapes or even revisionism.  Of course I wish we’d won but the day highlighted an issue much more concerning than merely the non-adornment of yet another trophy in cherry and white – it’s an issue that has implications on the future of the sport of rugby league itself.

You may or may not have picked up on the story that the attendance of 68,525 was the lowest at a Challenge Cup final since its return to the re-built Wembley in 2007.  There are a number of facets to this simple stat, together with a fair degree of context, to increase or reduce the level of alarm it elicits, depending upon your viewpoint.  If nothing else, this is very much a matter of interpretation and opinion, which rather thickens the plot but also fuels the conspiracy theories.  It all brings to mind the phrase, often attributed to Mark Twain who believed himself to be quoting Benjamin Disraeli (although no record of Disraeli saying it exists): “There are lies, damned lies and statistics”.

Before we go any further, is this story true and by how much is the figure lower than any before?  According the BBC match report, the figure was “by some distance the lowest” but what does the data say?  As ever, my friends at Wikipedia are a handy place to check:

2007  St. Helens 30–8  Catalans Dragons 84,241
2008  St. Helens 28–16  Hull 82,821
2009  Warrington 25–16  Huddersfield 76,560
2010  Warrington 30–6  Leeds 85,217
2011  Wigan 28–18  Leeds 78,482
2012  Warrington 35–18  Leeds 79,180
2013  Wigan 16–0  Hull 78,137
2014  Leeds 23-10  Castleford 77,914
2015  Leeds 50-0  Hull Kingston Rovers 80,140
2016  Hull 12–10  Warrington 76,235
2017  Hull 18–14  Wigan Warriors 68,525

So, there you have it: in headline terms, no different to last year (which was itself the lowest post-2007 figure) but almost eight thousand fewer again, quite a significant drop.

The chief reason for the sudden discrepancy appears to be the widely-quoted accounting change that for the first time this year, debenture-holders’ seats were not automatically counted as occupied, giving a more accurate figure.  This is basically a way of suggesting that every previous new Wembley figure was utterly fictitious and that in real terms, this year’s attendance figure was no different to any other year.  It all sounds incredibly convenient to spare any blushes the RFL may have – but can it be true?

At this point, most people would probably just shrug their shoulders and move on with their life but this requires a level of stadium geekery that I feel able to provide – and to some extent, corroborate.  When the current incarnation of Wembley Stadium was built, part of its funding came from a debenture scheme (“Club Wembley”) in which holders were given a middle-tier seat for use at any event held at the venue – a sort of super season ticket.  Inevitably, most of these were seen as justifiable investment by companies with an eye on the corporate hospitality opportunities they afforded and they signed up in their thousands.  I know someone who did, a print supplier with whom I used to spend a lot of money.  In 2011, as I was one of his biggest rugby league-following clients, he offered me his seats to watch that year’s Challenge Cup Final.

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“It’s who you know”: The 2011 Challenge Cup Final between Wigan Warriors and Leeds Rhinos, taken from the Club Wembley seating in the middle tier

You can most easily see the seats in question in the ten minutes after the re-start in any home England football match as the mostly corporate inhabitants struggle to down their half-time pints until about the 55th minute.  It was, I believe, at one such occasion that the seat-holders’ conspicuity by their absence provoked Adrian Chiles to give it its most scathing (and most apt) nickname: “the ring of indifference” – perhaps the most John Lennon thing he’s ever said.  Anyway, as their debenture holders were seen as ‘customers’, it seems every official attendance at the new Wembley has counted each and every one of them, whether or not they were represented on the day by anyone in person.

I can only presume that in 2017, ten years after the stadium’s opening, the debenture terms have elapsed and different rules now apply.  The good news is that 68-odd thousand is not really any lower than any other year so the “lowest attendance” story is (and I hasten to give this term the credence it ill-deserves) ‘fake news’.  The bad news, rugby fans, is that for a decade, we’ve been kind of kidding ourselves about the true numbers.  The case is perhaps most clearly made by this Getty Images picture, taken during the 2010 final between Warrington and Leeds.  The official attendance that day was 85,217, purportedly less than five thousand people shy of a 90,000 full house and yet, despite the tightly-packed crowds in the upper and lower tiers, the whole middle tier appears sparsely populated.

Does any of this bean-counting matter, then, if it’s all built on a farcically inaccurate trend?  Clearly, not as much as is being made of it – but it does beg the rather more fundamental question of why we’ve probably now had a decade of Challenge Cup final attendances that were ‘only’ c.70,000.  In the days before the old Wembley had its capacity reduced to 70-odd thousand, finals regularly attracted crowds in the 90,000s.

Looking at the pictures from this year’s final, it’s easy to see that this year, the RFL knew the problem was coming.  I’d already received increasingly urgent emails from them with various last-minute deals, including “£5 for under 16s”.  On the day, this tweet of Wigan legend Martin Offiah in the Royal Box clearly shows the upper tier opposite ‘blanked off’ by decorative red*-and-white/black-and-white sheeting over vast swathes of the seating area which were not expected to sell.

*by the way, RFL, Wigan’s colours are cherry and white, not red.

What’s most interesting about this development is where the empty seats where.  If you know Wembley, you’ll know the Royal Box is directly opposite the TV camera gantry.  To the viewers at home, it would, for most of the time, seem as though Wembley was full.  Depending upon your viewpoint, this is either a case of good PR or managed decline.  It’s also something in which the RFL have a fair degree of form.  Remember the 2013 World Cup?  The opening fixtures were a double-header in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff.  My son Charlie happened to be a mascot that day and I took as many pictures as I could of him with the England and Australia teams as they lined up before the game.  The attendance was 45,052, the capacity in Cardiff is 73,000, leaving around 28,000 empty seats for the organisers to hope no-one sees.  From the picture below, would you care to take a wild guess which side the TV gantry is at the Millennium Stadium?

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England v Australia, the opening fixture of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

To be fair to the RFL, there are exceptions.  For six of the last ten years, the Grand Final has attracted a 70 thousand-plus crowd to Old Trafford (nominally with a 75,000 capacity but slightly reduced for such occasions to allow a stage to be built on the South West quadrant for the pre-show live act).  As a percentage of capacity, the Grand Final is now almost always in the upper 90s.

2007  Leeds 33–6  St. Helens  71,352
2008  Leeds 24–16  St. Helens  68,810
2009  Leeds 18–10  St. Helens  63,259
2010  Wigan 22–10  St. Helens  71,526
2011  Leeds 32–16  St. Helens  69,107
2012  Leeds 26–18  Warrington  70,676
2013  Wigan 30–16  Warrington  66,281
2014  St. Helens 14–6  Wigan  70,102
2015  Leeds 22–20  Wigan  73,512
2016  Wigan 12–6  Warrington  70,202

And then there was the success story that was the 2013 World Cup Final – a crowd of 74,468 which is still, I believe, the world record attendance for an international rugby league match.  Much as I’d prefer to gloss over the fact that this game didn’t include England (thanks to both a piece of sublime magic and a last-minute try from New Zealand in the semi-final), the absence of the home nation makes the subsequent sell-out for the final even more worthy of praise for the organisers.

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Not the best picture of the crowd at the 2013 World Cup Final but the filled stand to the left is where you’ll find the TV camera gantry at Old Trafford

The common denominator to both these successes is, it’s safe to argue, the fact that they both took place at Old Trafford, Manchester, set almost perfectly within the very heartland of rugby league.  Wembley and Cardiff, on the other hand, are not.

The point is, I would contend, strengthened further by the somewhat chequered achievements of the ‘Magic Weekend‘, the newest kid on the block of annual rugby league showpiece occasions in the UK.  The reliance on compound attendance figures for these two-day festivals has more than a whiff of an initiative seeking attention via the biggest number it can lay its hands on, which is why I prefer to look at average attendances over the two days.  Over the last ten years, the numbers have barely edged beyond plus-or-minus 10% of 30,000 per day.  That sounds great, compared to a regular fixture (in 2016, Super League fixtures averaged 9,134) but for three fixtures in a day (and sometimes, it’s four), 30k seems like a case of negligible uplift.  Add to that the fact that the fixtures for these events tend to be ‘marquee’ games like Wigan v Leeds or derbies like Hull v Hull KR which tend not to struggle for numbers when left to be played in their normal surroundings and the whole thing feels like it might just about be ‘washing its face’ and no more.

Of course, all of the above is not the be-all and end-all: the Magic Weekend adds a marvellous sense of occasion to those there, it helps to generate extra national press from a largely union-centric media and it ‘spreads the gospel’ further afield and all that but after all that effort, it’s difficult to claim that, empirically, it’s added even a single extra bum on a seat.  Throw in the fact that the venues (Millennium Stadium, Cardiff; Murrayfield, Edinburgh; Etihad Stadium, Manchester and, latterly, St. James’ Park, Newcastle) are all much larger than 30k and you’re back to the same game of ‘hide the empty seats from the cameras’ – average daily occupancy has ranged from 40% at Cardiff to 67% in Manchester.  Just how commercially successful is the whole enterprise, really?

It’s an important point to make because one theory I’ve read is that the existence of the Magic Weekend is the most likely cause of the trimming of Challenge Cup final crowds.  An alternative away-day at which your team is guaranteed to play does seem like a slightly more appealing alternative to the more traditional, relatively vicarious pursuit of turning up at Wembley in your team’s colours “for the day out” even though two other teams are actually contesting the final.  Having been part of the convivial, ‘rugby league family’ atmosphere, it would be a shame to see it lessened but equally, it takes a bit of fortitude to walk proudly down Wembley Way in a Saints shirt, for example, knowing you’re going to suffer a few hours of (mostly) light-hearted ribbing from the assembled hoards of Wigan and Leeds fans milling around outside the stadium when your team isn’t even there.  As someone who must admit to being part of that ‘friendly fire’, I can confirm I’d think twice about taking the time and expense of going all that way not to see my team, knowing I’d be on the receiving end of it.

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Spot the Saints fans, if you can.  And then mock them!

I think there are other factors.  Bank Holidays are divisive things: enabling grand days out for many but also providing prohibitive alternative attractions which aren’t always easy to avoid, like weddings, long weekends away or, in my case, family holidays (I was driving home, trying to avoid being drawn onto the Péripherique in Paris, last Saturday, while asking for regular updates from Wembley on the BBC Sport app).  Bank Holidays also seem to promise extra travel problems too.  A terrible crash on the M1 and the closure of Euston station, last Saturday seem to be further invitations not to bother again, in future.  I appreciate there were many finals held on the Saturday of the May Day weekend, years ago but was the Challenge Cup not equally well served by holding its final in the last weekend in April?  It seems so: 94,273 Wigan and Halifax fans attended the 1988 final on April 30th, that year.

The mood music is not great, wherever you point your ear, though.  Earlier this year, the RFL caused some consternation by raising the possibility that future Challenge Cup finals may not be played at Wembley, surely a red line-crosser for most fans of the sport.  Even in Australia, the home of the dominant Kangaroos and the all-conquering NRL, all is not rosy in the garden.  As in England, parochial imbalances afflict the sport there, with comparable constraints and similar initiatives to counter them.  In particular, the go-to remedy to address the suburban Sydney clubs’ willingness to exceed their local confines is to play selected regular season games at the 83,000-seat ANZ Stadium, the cavernous-when-empty home of the 2000 Olympics.  If you think the hastily-decorated bank of empty seats at Wembley signify problems in our game, wait ’til you’ve seen a round of NRL played before barely 10% occupancy and a veritable Southern ocean of blue seating blocks.

I’ll soon get over Wigan’s loss at Wembley, I’m sure – possibly as soon as Friday if we can bounce back and put one over on our bitter rivals from St. Helens.  I’m also sure that this year’s Grand Final will attract around 70,000 or more again this year (hopefully with around half of them wearing cherry and white, again).  The real litmus test will come the next time the game holds a showpiece away from the M62 corridor.  The location of the 2018 Magic Weekend is, as yet, unconfirmed.  The three most-attended incarnations have all come at Newcastle – albeit no single day there has ever left fewer than 12,000 empty seats – so it’s the most obvious choice.  An outside bet may be the Ricoh Arena in Coventry: desperate for the money, tried successfully for home internationals in recent years and offering an achievable capacity of over 32,000.  It would be a venue less likely to visually advertise any shortfall in ticket sales but its very selection could be seen as a tacit admission of the RFL’s desire to play safe and not over-extend.

As a fan, I wouldn’t be terribly concerned, either way, about the choice of venue for a round of Super League fixtures in late May.   I would however worry what the implications would be of anything that could be construed to be ‘damage-limitation thinking’ on the future of the game’s oldest and noblest occasion.  Wembley is a non-negotiable part of the Challenge Cup and more must be done to ensure it is filled on the one day a year our sport has it.

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2015 Election Pt I: Suffering for Suffrage’s Sake

Here we go again…

It’s General Election time and once again, a bunch of people I’d normally cross the street to avoid are all suddenly intent on ‘engaging’ with me and ‘gaining’ my vote. To be honest, I’d rather they all leave me alone and let me find out for myself what I do and don’t like about what they stand for – but then I do have to accept that if they did, it wouldn’t be much of a demonstration of willing from anyone looking to achieve a mandate to run the country.

Portillo loses to Twigg
For many, the best part of the whole process: watching the mighty fall

And so, the whole dreary process rolls inevitably down the hillside of the next six or seven weeks, promising only a modicum of voyeuristic entertainment when the debris lands as it finally crashes to a halt.  Who can forget such classics as Portillo v Twigg (pictured) and Hamilton v Bell?

Having been through this rather ludicrous affair five times before, I am tempted to wonder why I’m doing this again? Not the voting bit itself – I’m not that cynical that I don’t believe the right to vote, paid for with millions of lives, should be relinquished or squandered lightly. What I’m questioning is my complete immersion in the canvassing and pre-election process, as a responsible voter.

From a pragmatic point of view, there’s really no need to bother: I could agonise over every line of every manifesto, I could flip a coin or I could just ‘vote with my conscience’ and it would make no difference to the outcome. Cue horrified cries of “every vote counts” and “well, if everyone thought like that..” so let me clarify things a little. I live in the Wigan constituency, a dyed-in-the-wool Labour stronghold since 1918. It has for almost a century been the very definition of a seat where the proverbial ‘pig in a red rosette’ would expect to win – and in all probability, a couple have, over the years.

Lisa Nandy
Lisa Nandy: Whatever happens, she’s going to be the MP for Wigan after May 7th

The current incumbent, Lisa Nandy, most recently the shadow Junior Education Minister, is a highly-rated young parliamentarian and is certainly no proverbial ‘pig’.  The combination of her capability and her seat’s geography means that she must be one of the Labour candidates most likely to be working in Westminster for at least the next five years. In fact, for her not to be returned as the member for Wigan during the next parliament, Jeremy Vine’s swing-o-meter would probably have to point almost due east. In short, she really doesn’t need my vote, whether she gets it or not.

This is the situation, then: I’ve decided that I’m definitely going to vote for someone, that I shouldn’t disrespect the process so much that I’m not just going to vote for anyone, but also in the realisation that after doing all that and then casting my vote, not one iota of difference will have been made. So the question ‘why am I doing all this?’ is, I think, a reasonable one.

The best answer I can muster is that, if nothing else, I feel I need to cast my vote and be accountable to myself. Will I be able to look my future self in the eye (if that’s possible to imagine) and say that, whoever wins and whatever happens in the next four or five years, I contributed my voice responsibly? If the country is well served by the next Government, I accept I’ll have either the satisfaction for having backed them or the nagging guilt of overlooking their potential? Conversely, if the next lot cock things up, for four or five years, I know I’ll either inhabit the moral high ground for having tried to stop them or a kind of ‘naughty step’ for being partly responsible.  I want to feel I can always assure myself that I made the right choice – and that doesn’t change whether you live in a marginal constituency or a ‘shoo-in’, like Wigan.

That, to me, is the essence of democracy and the value of the franchise.  In lots of ways, the whole ridiculous charade is flawed, often seriously (I could go on, and I probably will at some point) but it’s important in the same rather old-fashioned way that might compel you to drive slowly past a funeral cortège: you know you don’t have to, but it’s a standard to which one holds oneself for no other reason than one’s own sense of propriety.

I accept it’s not the same for everyone – elections often bring into the spotlight a very strange ensemble of ‘characters’ with a wide variety of contributions to the process – but I think mine is probably not far from the same position that most people have.  The phrase about of one’s voting preference being ‘between me and the ballot box’ is not just an assertion of privacy, it’s a secret pact that each of us and the ‘box’ have, to do our bit to guide the country through the waters of the next few years, even though it’s just a tick in the box when all is said and done.