Corbyn must go

Jeremy Corbyn, April 2016

Corbyn: Students’ Union politics

When Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader last year, it seemed rather like a sideshow to the “real” politics in the country. It was mildly amusing to see him politely ask questions e-mailed by the public at Prime Minister’s Questions, with David Cameron politely answering. More recently, the weekly sparring session returned more to its usual format, but Corbyn’s performance has been at best mediocre.

Our political system needs an effective opposition in order to function. Someone has to hold the government to account, challenge them, and provide a viable alternative administration. Amusing as Corbyn’s incumbency may have seemed at first, even back then it simply wasn’t healthy for our democracy to have him as Leader of the Opposition. Even the most ardent Tory must surely see that it isn’t in the best interests of the country to have such a poorly functioning Labour party.

Now, however, the country is facing one if its gravest challenges after the referendum vote to leave the European Union. The Conservative government is now likely to be taken over by right wingers who will further damage the country by taking us as far from Europe as possible. We need an opposition to challenge that, and to offer an alternative vision at any future election.

Jeremy Corbyn is not the right person to lead such an opposition. Not only is he a weak leader out of his depth; it’s no secret that his heart has never been in remaining in the EU either. Like all traditional left wingers, Corbyn would rather we left the EU, hence his lacklustre performance during the referendum campaign, which certainly had an impact on the final result.

Yesterday, Corbyn’s right hand man, John McDonnell, said that we must accept the result of the referendum, and appeared to imply that freedom of movement should end as a result of the vote. He later backtracked slightly, stressing this wasn’t Labour party policy, but he had already shown his true colours. On Europe, Corbyn and McDonnell could be singing from the same hymn sheet as the most right-wing anti-EU Tories.

Corbyn and his team have never really been interested in leading a serious, national political party, or at least have never realised that is what they are supposed to be doing. Instead, they pursue their own minority, left-wing policies. Corbyn might be suited to the post of a Students’ Union president, but not for Prime Minister of the country.

As someone who has never joined any political party or been a firm voter or supporter one way or the other, I’m sure many people across the country will agree with me when I say Jeremy Corbyn has to go. We need an effective opposition for the sake of our country at this difficult time.

Why give some people more democracy than others?

Oxford with EU flagThe UK’s vote narrowly to leave the EU was not uniform across the country. For example, in London, nearly 60% of people voted to remain in the EU. In Scotland, 62% voted to remain. And in Oxfordshire, nearly 57% of people wanted to stay.

However, in the post-referendum fall-out, it seems only one of these areas may be given a chance to remain part of the EU. It is likely that the Scottish government will now seek to hold yet another referendum on Scottish independence, sold as a way for Scotland to remain in the EU. The question is, why should people in Scotland be given this choice, while those of us who live in other pro-EU parts of the country are denied the same opportunity?

How can anyone who claims to support democracy, and who believes in not being isolationist, think that the answer is to go it alone, to abandon the rest of the people in the UK who share the same view? It’s “I’m all right, Jack” mentality. Surely democracy is universal? Everyone should be given the same chances to vote on the same issues.

The referendum question was whether the UK should remain a member of the EU. There is no mention of Scotland or any other part of the UK. Even if Scotland were to become independent and to be allowed to join the EU (which is far from certain), the 62% of Scottish voters still would not be getting what they voted for. They voted to the UK to remain in the EU. As over two thirds of Scottish exports are to the rest of the UK, but only about 15% to the EU, leaving the UK in favour of the EU would appear to be a rash decision. It is actually in Scotland’s best interest for the whole of the UK to remain in the EU, or at least the single market. It’s therefore slightly heartening to see this morning that Nicola Sturgeon has suggested the Scottish Parliament could block the UK’s exit from the EU. The people of London and Oxfordshire would be grateful for that.

The irony is that Scottish nationalists were always traditionally in favour of leaving the EU. Today, at least a third of those who support independence actually would like to leave the EU. Yet it is hard to imagine them voting against independence in a future referendum on the grounds that they don’t want to be in the EU. Calls for a second Scottish referendum are therefore pure opportunism.

Please, let’s have the best possible outcome for the sake of all of us across the UK who do not agree with isolationism and selfishness, whether that’s by blocking exit from the EU, or by negotiating to retain as many of the benefits of Europe as possible. Otherwise, the people of Oxfordshire want their independence referendum, too.

Selfish parents’ term-time holidays

This week, the High Court ruled that a father didn’t have to pay a fine for taking his daughter out of school for a holiday. He won due to a technicality. The law as it stands says children must attend school “regularly”. The man argued that taking his daughter out of school for a week’s holiday, when she had otherwise attended school with few absences, did not constitute regular non-attendance. It’s hard to argue with that. Hopefully, the government will now change the law to put their guidance – that no holidays should be taken during term-time – on sounder legal footing.

Whether it’s legal or not, it’s hugely selfish and irresponsible for parents to take their children out of school just to go on holiday. Parents complain that it can cost “four times as much” to go on holiday out of term-time. If they can’t afford a particular holiday at that price, why not go for a holiday that costs a quarter as much? People seem to be under the impression that a holiday has to involve jetting off to a foreign country. When I was at school, still not that long ago, holidays were spent in a caravan at various places in the UK. And thinking back, we were the lucky ones. I suspect many of my peers didn’t go away at all, or if they did, few went abroad. When did an expensive foreign holiday become a necessity?

Proponents of term-time holidays try to claim that their holidays are educational, a worthy experience for the child, which will do them more good than the week of school they missed. The father in this week’s case took his child to Disney World. It doesn’t sound that educational to me, and I find it hard to believe the educational value was the reason for choosing that particular destination. Certainly, a small number of parents might wish to take their children on an educational trip – a visit to the First World War battlefields in northern France, for example – but the vast majority of holidays are not educational trips at all, and this is just an argument that campaigners have retro-fitted to their cause.

What sort of message does it send out to children if they are taught that it is OK to take time off school whenever it suits them? Apart from giving the impression that schoolwork isn’t important, they are likely to grow up thinking it is OK to pull a “sickie” when they don’t feel like going to work.

Finally, it is the height of naivety to think that if everyone with children could go on holiday whenever they wanted, prices would drop to the level that they are during term-time. Travel companies make their money from the school holidays, and lower the prices off-season. The prices would be equalised largely by increasing them all year round.

Thankfully, the majority of parents are still responsible, and would not take their children out of school even if it were not technically illegal. It doesn’t seem fair to allow the selfish minority to profit and enjoy cheap holidays, while responsible parents have to take more modest breaks.

The campaign to allow term-time holidays is about about one thing: parents who want to go on an exotic holiday, for their own benefit, for the lowest price possible. It is about people who fail to realise that their life changed when they chose to have children, and that they can no longer live in the same way as before. It has nothing to do with it being the only way for the family to be together, or a special, educational travel experience for their child. It is another example of how people fail to live within their means. Five days off school might not seem a lot (although the 90% target for attendance to be “regular” seems rather low – does missing 10% of lessons sounds OK?) It sends out completely the wrong message to kids that it is OK to not take education seriously, and to skive. Parents who put their holiday before a child’s education are selfish, and the sooner the law is tightened up to send an unambiguous message to them, the better.

Freedom of Information: a refreshingly sensible decision

Many commentators have expressed surprise that the government’s Freedom of Information Commission has proposed no significant changes to the Freedom of Information Act, the law that allows any member of the public to request information from the government or a public body, thereby ensuring openness and transparency. Also a surprise is that the government have accepted the Commission’s report, so there will be no big changes, and no charges introduced for FOI requests.

When the Commission was announced, many people thought it was a stitch-up, a typical cynical government attempt to make unpopular changes, but to lay the blame on an independent panel of advisors. How wrong they were. In fact, the Commission appears to have been a model of how this sort of thing should work. A report that a law is working well, with just a few minor suggestions, and the government accepting the report’s findings.

Tony Blair; Müller / MSC, used under CC licence

Blair: “nutter”

Tony Blair has described himself as a “naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop” for introducing the law, saying: “There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.” Mr Blair is widely regarded to have made quite a few bad decisions during his time in office; however, Freedom of Information has to be one of his best achievements. The fact that he now fails to recognise that only goes to show that he has indeed turned into something of a nutter since leaving office, and in this instance it has nothing to do with his religious views.

Let’s give credit where it’s due. The government could have changed the FOI Act to allow them to hide uncomfortable truths, but has instead chosen to abide by the findings of an independent commission. For once, this is the way government should work.

New digital radio stations and the introduction of DAB+

Digital Radio; photo by Stephen Martin, used under terms of a Creative Commons licenceReaders could be excused for not knowing that a new digital radio multiplex launched in the UK today, containing 18 new stations. There has been little in the way of fanfare; in fact, there has been virtually no media coverage at all. Take-up of DAB radio continues to be poor, thanks mainly to two factors. One is that people don’t see the need for, and are not interested in, the additional stations available. The other is that the sound quality fails to live up to what was promised: better than FM quality.

A quick glance through the list of stations shows that the stations are largely more of the same from the same big commercial broadcasters. More Absolute radio, More Kiss, more “chill” and “smooth” pop music stations. These are hardly going to have people rushing out to buy a DAB set. There are also stations aimed at particular religious or ethnic groups: Muslims, Christians, the Asian community. Surely these are only going to attract a small number of listeners? There is also a children’s station, plus Jazz FM makes a welcome appearance on national terrestrial radio (having only previously been available in London or online).

Sadly, when it comes to sound quality, it’s the same old story we have become familiar with on DAB. Most of the stations are in mono, and have bitrates or 80 kb/s for music, or 64 kb/s at a lower sampling frequency for speech stations. Once again, rock bottom sound quality in order to squeeze in the stations, and that fantastic improvement of stereo FM to mono DAB. There is, however, one interesting new development. Three of the stations are being broadcast in the newer DAB+ format, using the HE-AAC v2 codec (also known as aacPlus). What’s more, these stations are in stereo! Before we get too excited, though, the bad news is that the DAB+ stations are only being broadcast at 32 kb/s. Now, while HE-AAC is much more efficient than the MP2 codec used in old-fashioned DAB, is it really that much more efficient? The people who developed HE-AAC claim 48 kb/s gives similar performance to MP3 at 128 kb/s. But we only have 32 kb/s. Do these new DAB+ stations sound even as good as the few existing 128 kb/s DAB stations such as Classic FM?

A quick listening test immediately shows the answer to be no. Tuning to Jazz FM on its new DAB+ channel, the sound quality leaves a lot to be desired. There is that clear rasping sound, an immediate sign that the audio has been encoded using too low a bitrate. Switching to the 128 kb/s MP3 internet stream, the difference is stark. A much wider soundstage, clearer, deeper, smoother tones, none of the artefacts due to low bitrate. Even if anyone thought the DAB+ version was OK, I would challenge anyone to say they couldn’t hear the difference in the MP3 version.

Turning now to Classic FM on DAB, at 128 kb/s MP2, although the sound is always slightly harsh, it doesn’t have the same raspiness that belies a low bitrate. Switching to internet radio, 128 kb/s MP3, there is still an audible difference, but it is more subtle. The sound is more pleasing to the ear, but it’s harder to place quite why. The conclusion is that 32 kb/s DAB+ does not sound as good as 128 kb/s DAB. But then, it only takes up a quarter of the bandwidth.

It would be interesting to know why Jazz FM chose to go down this route. Were they desperate to broadcast in stereo? Their London broadcast is only mono. Or did they want to save money by going for DAB+, and stereo is just a by-product of that? The argument against switching to DAB+ in the UK is that many people have DAB sets that can not decode DAB+. However, I’ve long doubted that to be significant. Radios sold for a long time now have been DAB+ ready (although some Pure branded sets apparently didn’t actually include the HE-AAC codec to save on licensing fees, making a complicated download process necessary!) Surely only very early adopters, and then only those who have hung on to their by-now rather antiquated DAB sets, wouldn’t be able to pick up the new DAB+ stations? In any case, the naysayers have been proved wrong, and DAB+ has come to national digital radio.

Jazz FM and the other two DAB+ stations should be considered experiments. If they attract a significant number of listeners on DAB+, that should make the case for other stations to swtich to DAB+. The trouble with digital radio is always that these is commercial pressure to squeeze in the stations, and that means poor audio. By switching from DAB, to DAB+, you can have the best of both worlds. An 80 kb/s mono DAB station can become a DAB+ at 56 kb/s – the highest possible bitrate for HE-AAC – providing higher quality, stereo sound in 70% of the bandwidth. That way, it would be possible to improve the sound quality of all of the stations on the original national commercial DAB multiplex, while leaving room for four or five additional stations. Everyone wins except a few people with old DAB radios, and if they are early adopters, they will have enjoyed the original DAB transmissions at 320 kb/s, and will likely have thrown the radio in the cupboard in disgust at the degradation of the service many years ago.

The current choices made for the DAB+ broadcasts are a poor demonstration of the technology, just as squeezing the DAB bitrates have made those stations unpleasant to listen to. Yet if, despite this, DAB+ listener numbers are seen to be on par with DAB, and it results in an industry-wide switch to DAB, something good could yet come of it, and the UK may eventually have digital radio broadcasts that live up to their original promise.

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