stat

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The Scottish Parliament Under Sainte-Laguë

I have often looked at Scottish election results, and to cut a long story short the Scottish Parliament is elected on a form of Additional Members System, with the constituency Members of the Scottish Parliament being elected by the First Past The Post that we all know and 13,013,123 of us love, and the regional MSPs being elected on party lists using the d'Hondt system.

There are possible variations, and one method of allocating list seats is the Sainte-Laguë method.

In the d'Hondt system, a quotient is calculated by dividing the number of votes a party has by one more than the number of seats it has at that point, and the party with the highest quotient gets the next seat - and its quotient is recalculated as a result.

In the Sainte-Laguë system, the quotient is calculated by dividing the number of votes by one more than twice the number of seats a party has. So if a party has one seat, its quotient is one-third the number of votes, if it has two seats, the quotient is one-fifth etc.

D'Hondt has a reputation for a bias towards the larger parties, and when used at the upper-tier in a constituency-based system, we end up with a form of AMS which favours parties that are larger and/or who are successful at winning constituencies. Both these effects detract from proportionality.

One way to compare is to take an election with 1,000 voters - 501 vote for party A, 299 for party B and 200 for party C. We can then look at how many seats each party would win depending on how many seats there are to be filled:

System Sainte-Laguë D'Hondt
Party A B C A B C
1 seat 1 0 0 1 0 0
2 seats 1 1 0 1 1 0
3 seats 1 1 1 2 1 0
4 seats 2 1 1 2 1 1
5 seats 3 1 1 3 1 1
6 seats 3 2 1 3 2 1
7 seats 4 2 1 4 2 1
8 seats 4 2 2 5 2 1
9 seats 4 3 2 5 2 2
10 seats 5 3 2 5 3 2
11 seats 6 3 2 6 3 2
12 seats 6 4 2 6 4 2
13 seats 6 4 3 7 4 2
14 seats 7 4 3 7 4 3
15 seats 8 4 3 8 4 3
16 seats 8 5 3 8 5 3
17 seats 9 5 3 9 5 3
18 seats 9 5 4 10 5 3
19 seats 9 6 4 10 5 4
20 seats 10 6 4 10 6 4

One thing to note is that when there are 3, 9, 13 or 19 seats to be filled in this scenario, the results for Sainte-Laguë are in hold. If d'Hondt has the feature that it is disproportionate by favouring larger parties, then Sainte-Laguë overcorrects this, as there are cases where A - with more votes than B and C combined - has fewer seats than the combined total of B and C. Hence despite having a majority of the votes, A could end up being out-voted by B and C co-operating.

However, if B and C had run a joint list or had been allowed to link lists, then at no point would they have between them more seats than A. From this, does it mean that parties should not co-operate this way under Sainte-Laguë?

The hard and fast rule is - it depends.

Now consider a situation where there are 4 parties - A gets 501 votes (as before), while B gets 399, C 60 and D 40. In one scenario, C and D run separately, while in the second, they run a joint list (or link lists):

Scenario No pact between C and D Pact between C and D
Party A B C D A B C/D
1 seat 1 0 0 0 1 0 0
2 seats 1 1 0 0 1 1 0
3 seats 2 1 0 0 2 1 0
4 seats 2 2 0 0 2 2 0
5 seats 3 2 0 0 3 2 0
6 seats 3 3 0 0 3 3 0
7 seats 4 3 0 0 3 3 1
8 seats 4 3 1 0 4 3 1
9 seats 4 4 1 0 4 4 1
10 seats 5 4 1 0 5 4 1
11 seats 6 4 1 0 6 4 1
12 seats 6 5 1 0 6 5 1
13 seats 6 5 1 1 7 5 1
14 seats 7 5 1 1 7 6 1
15 seats 7 6 1 1 8 6 1
16 seats 8 6 1 1 8 6 2
17 seats 8 7 1 1 8 7 2
18 seats 9 7 1 1 9 7 2
19 seats 9 8 1 1 9 8 2
20 seats 10 8 1 1 10 8 2

What we see here is that by co-operating formally, C and D ensure that the first seat is won at an earlier stage (the seventh available seat rather than the eighth) but the second seat is won at a later stage (the sixteenth seat rather than the thirteenth).

It appears that if - based on the number of seats available and the predicted level of support - neither of two parties would win a seat on their own, then it is sensible to co-operate. On the other hand, if it is clear both parties would win a seat on their own, then co-operation can become counter-productive.

With that out the way, let's have a look at the May 2011 election. Under d'Hondt, we get the result:

Party Constituency MSPs Regional MSPs Total MSPs
Scottish National Party 53 16 69
Labour 15 22 37
Conservatives 3 12 15
Liberal Democrats 2 3 5
Greens 0 2 2
Independent 0 1 1

However, if Sainte-Laguë had been used instead, we would get:

Party Constituency MSPs Regional MSPs Total MSPs
Scottish National Party 53 11 64
Labour 15 19 34
Conservatives 3 12 15
Liberal Democrats 2 5 7
Greens 0 7 7
Independent 0 1 1
Respect - The Unity Coalition 0 1 1

Instead of an overall majority, the SNP would be running an administration that was just short of an overall majority, against a heavily divided opposition.

The changes in individual MSPs would be:

Region Elected under d'Hondt Would have been elected under Sainte-Laguë
Glasgow Anne McTaggart (Lab) George Galloway (Respect)
Highlands & Islands Mike Mackenzie (SNP) Eleanor Scott (Green)**
Lothian Neil Findlay (Lab) Margaret Smith (LD)*
Scotland Central Unchanged
Scotland Mid & Fife Annabelle Ewing (SNP) Mark Ruskell (Green)**
Scotland North East Mark McDonald (SNP) Martin Ford (Green)
Scotland South Charles Brodie (SNP) Alis Ballance (Green)
Scotland West Margaret McDougall (Lab) Ross Finnie (LD)*
Stuart McMillan (SNP)* Steen Parish (Green)

An asterisk indicates someone who was a sitting MSP at the time of the election. A double asterisk indicates a "retread" - in this case Scott and Ruskell return to represent regions they represented between the May 2003 and May 2007 elections.

There are some things to note. Currently, the SNP has regional MSPs for every region apart from Lothian. Under Sainte-Laguë this would extend to Scotland Mid & Fife and Scotland North East.

The Liberal Democrats would also have retained 2 MSPs - Smith and Finnie - who have served since the first election.

In Glasgow, there would have been the return of former MP Galloway to this city. He had decamped to Bethnal Green & Bow for the May 2005 general election, but was defeated in Poplar & Limehouse at the May 2010 general election. In March 2012 he returned to the House of Commons by winning the by-election in Bradford West. Interesting whether he would have gone down that route if he were an MSP at the time.

Next, we can look at the 2007 election, which under d'Hondt produced the result:

Party Constituency MSPs Regional MSPs Total MSPs
Scottish National Party 21 26 47
Labour 37 9 46
Conservatives 4 13 17
Liberal Democrats 11 5 16
Greens 0 2 2
Independent 0 1 1

As we know, with a narrow lead in votes and seats, the SNP eschewed any deal with the Liberal Democrats and/or the Greens, and formed a minority administration. Under Sainte-Laguë, the story would have been different:

Party Constituency MSPs Regional MSPs Total MSPs
Labour 37 8 45
Scottish National Party 21 21 42
Conservatives 4 14 18
Liberal Democrats 11 5 16
Greens 0 6 6
Independent 0 1 1
Solidarity - Scotland's Socialist Movement 0 1 1

Despite coming top in terms of votes, this sees the SNP take second place. The outgoing Labour/Liberal Democrat administration finds itself 4 seats short of an overall majority, opening up the prospect of a "traffic light" coalition with the Greens.

The changes in individual MSPs would be:

Region Elected under d'Hondt Would have been elected under Sainte-Laguë
Glasgow Bill Kidd (SNP) Tommy Sheridan (SSSM)*
Highlands & Islands David Thompson (SNP) Eleanor Scott (Green)*
Lothians Unchanged
Scotland Central John Wilson (SNP) Graham Simpson (C)
Scotland Mid & Fife Richard Simpson (Lab)** Mark Ruskell (Green)*
Scotland North East Nigel Don (SNP) Shiona Baird (Green)*
Scotland South Aileen Campbell (SNP) Chris Ballance (Green)*
Scotland West Unchanged

As before an asterisk indicates someone who was a sitting MSP at the time of the election, and a double asterisk a retread or potential retread. In this case, Richard Simpson had been elected as the constituency MSP for Ochil at the May 1999 election, being defeated by the SNP's George Reid at the 2003 election.

Now we move on to the most interesting Scottish election - that of 2003. Under d'Hondt, the result was:

Party Constituency MSPs Regional MSPs Total MSPs
Labour 46 4 50
Scottish National Party 9 18 27
Conservatives 3 15 18
Liberal Democrats 13 4 17
Greens 0 7 7
Scottish Socialist Party 0 6 6
Independents 2 1 3
Scottish Senior Citizens' Unity Party 0 1 1

If the election had been held using Sainte-Laguë, then the result, again, would have been different:

Party Constituency MSPs Regional MSPs Total MSPs
Labour 46 3 49
Scottish National Party 9 13 22
Conservatives 3 15 18
Liberal Democrats 13 4 17
Greens 0 9 9
Scottish Socialist Party 0 9 9
Independents 2 1 3
Scottish Senior Citizens' Unity Party 0 1 1
Pensioners' Party 0 1 1

Hence, under Sainte-Laguë, there would still have been a Labour/Liberal Democrat minority administration, albeit with a smaller majority.

The changes in individual MSPs would be:

Region Elected under d'Hondt Would have been elected under Sainte-Laguë
Glasgow Unchanged
Highlands & Islands Rob Gibson (SNP) Steve Arnott (SSP)
Lothians Unchanged
Scotland Central Linda Fabiani (SNP)* Stan Blackley (Green)
Scotland Mid & Fife Bruce Crawford (SNP)* Linda Graham (SSP)
Tricia Marwick (SNP)* George Rodger (PP)
Scotland North East Richard Baker (Lab) John Sangster (SSP)
Scotland South Unchanged
Scotland West Stewart Maxwell (SNP) Steve Burgess (Green)

As previously, an asterisk indicates someone who was a sitting MSP at the time of the election.

Out of the additional SSP politicians, one thing to speculate on is how they would have responded in September 2006 to the split leading to the formation of Solidarity by Sheridan and Rosemary Byrne, MSP for Scotland South. It seems that Arnott would have become Solidarity's third MSP. The last information I have concerning Graham has her listed as SSP in 2007, and in May 2007, Sangster - who went on to become Chair of Inverurie Community Council - contested the Inverurie & District ward of Aberdeenshire Council, with no party label.

Rodger was the leader of the Pensioners' Party.

It is interesting to note that under Sainte-Laguë, both the Greens and SSP would have MSPs from every region.

And this brings me on to the inaugural election of 1999:

Party Constituency MSPs Regional MSPs Total MSPs
Labour 53 3 56
Scottish National Party 7 28 35
Conservatives 0 18 18
Liberal Democrats 12 5 17
Greens 0 1 1
Scottish Socialist Party 0 1 1
Independent 1 0 1

Under Sainte-Laguë, it would have been:

Party Constituency MSPs Regional MSPs Total MSPs
Labour 53 2 55
Scottish National Party 7 25 32
Conservatives 0 17 17
Liberal Democrats 12 5 17
Greens 0 4 4
Socialist Labour 0 2 2
Scottish Socialist Party 0 1 1
Independent 1 0 1

One thing to note is that Socialist Labour - formed by Arthur Scargill in protest at the move to the centre Labour was following under the then Prime Minister Tony Blair - did better than the SSP in terms of votes, and really it was only the SSP's strong support in Glasgow that gave it an MSP, while Socialist Labour didn't - I will return to this later.

The changes in individual MSPs would be:

Region Elected under d'Hondt Would have been elected under Sainte-Laguë
Glasgow Sandra White (SNP) Kay Allan (Green)
Highlands & Islands Rhoda Grant (Lab) Eleanor Scott (Green)
Lothians Unchanged
Scotland Central Linda Fabiani (SNP) Raymond Stead (Soc Lab)
Scotland Mid & Fife Bruce Crawford (SNP) Graeme Farmer (Green)
Scotland North East Unchanged
Scotland South David Mundell (C) Louise McDaid (Soc Lab)

We can look at how the parties fare from election-to-election under the two systems, by looking at the number of seats they would have gained or lost if the elections were held under Sainte-Laguë:

Party 1999 2003 2007 2011
Labour -1 -1 -1 -3
Scottish National Party -3 -5 -5 -5
Conservatives -1 0 +1 0
Liberal Democrats 0 0 0 +2
Greens +3 +2 +4 +5
Scottish Socialist Party 0 +3 N/A N/A
Socialist Labour** +2 N/A N/A N/A
Independent (Margo MacDonald)* N/A* 0 0 0
Scottish Senior Citizens' Unity Party N/A 0 N/A N/A
Pensioners' Party** N/A +1 N/A N/A
Solidarity - Scotland's Socialist Movement** N/A N/A +1 N/A
Respect - The Unity Coalition** N/A N/A N/A +1

[* In 1999, MacDonald was elected as an SNP MSP for Lothians, but by the 2003 election had left the SNP and stood for re-election as an Independent on a "party list" comprising of solely her name. The other Independent MSPs elected have both been from constituencies - Dennis Canavan in Falkirk West in 1999 and 2003; and Jean Turner in Strathkelvin & Bearsden in 2003.]

An "N/A" indicates that the party in question neither won any regional seats under d'Hondt, not would it have won any regional seats under Sainte-Laguë.

Parties with a double asterisk are ones that have never had any elected MSPs - although Solidarity ended up with a couple of MSPs via divisions in the SSP.

As we can see, it's smaller parties like the Greens who do better under Sainte-Laguë. Most countries that use proportionalish representation subdivide the country, and what we see here is the Greens doing just well enough to get over the hurdle in most - and sometimes all - regions, which is lower for Sainte-Laguë than d'Hondt.

The SNP seems to be hit badly by Sainte-Laguë. They were (until 2011) in an interesting position. They were the second party which found it hard to win constituencies and so relied heavily on regional seats. In 2011 they not only won most constituencies, but often did well enough to pick up extra regional seats. But under Sainte-Laguë it becomes harder for a constituency-rich party to win regional seats, due to the lower quotient. Labour didn't really have this problem as they tended to win only a few regional seats, which would be in areas where they were low on constituencies.

For all their support for proportional representation, the Liberal Democrats were in the strange position in Scotland that they benefitted from FPTP, and so only win a few regional seats. In 2011 they are reduced to being another minor party a la the Greens, and so would benefit from Sainte-Laguë.

The big story of 2003 was the breakthrough for the Greens and the SSP. Under Sainte-Laguë, the Greens would already have been more established. But, if Socialist Labour already had a couple of MSPs, compared to the SSP being a parliamentary one-man band, would it be Socialist Labour that disaffected Labour voters turned to in 2003, rather than the SSP? Running the 1999 election on Sainte-Laguë alters the political landscape and this would have been reflected in how people voted in later elections.

For ecample. take the June 1999 election to the European Parliament, and how, under d'Hondt, the UK Independence Party and the Greens gain Members of the European Parliament. The June 2004 election saw UKIP rise past the Liberal Democrats into third place. There are various reasons, but one of them has to be that voters now saw that under a proportional system UKIP could win - the political equivalent of "nothing succeeds like success".

What is interesting about the 2003 results is how, under Sainte-Laguë, fractured the opposition to a Labour/Liberal Democrat administration would be. The SNP and Conservatives would only be 4 seats apart.

If we consider the results of the June 2001 general election in Wales, then we see the Conservatives being the second largest party in terms of votes but stuck on 0 seats, as they were at the May 1997 general election. In Scotland, however, winning Galloway & Upper Nithsdale from the SNP brings them up to 1 seat.

At the 2005 general election, the Conservatives start doing better in Wales with 3 MPs, than Scotland with just 1 MP again.

Moving on to the 2010 general election, the Conservatives, with 8 MPs, become the second-largest party in Wales, but in Scotland remain in fourth-place with still just 1 MP.

If we look at the May 1999 election to the Welsh Assembly, we see the Conservatives down in third place, with 9 Assembly Members to Plaid Cymru's 17. The May 2003 election sees this gap narrow as Plaid Cymru are down to 12 AMs and the Conservatives are up to 11.

Moving on to May 2007, and the gap has widened slightly, with Plaid Cyrmu up to 15 AMs and the Conservatives up to 12 - but Labour and Plaid Cymru forming a coalition administration in July that year ensures the Conservatives become the Opposition.

If we then look at the May 2011 election, then we see the Conservatives - with 14 AMs - have overtaken Plaid Cymru - with 11 AMs - to become Wales' second party.

Bearing in mind that even as late as the April 1992 general election, the Conservatives were Scotland's second party in terms of votes and MPs, it is interesting to reflect whether an election result which put them and the SNP nearly neck-and-neck could have led to a Welsh-style revival of fortunes.

If the Scottish Parliament had used Sainte-Laguë from the beginning, then the way people cast their regional votes could have been very different to how they were actually cast.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Linking Lists And Uniting Unionism

In the United Kingdom, we have grown used to the d'Hondt system being part of the electoral process. Within Great Britain, this will be used for next May's elections to the European Parliament - the fourth using this system.

D'Hondt uses a formula to allocate list seats. In each electoral area, you divide the number of votes a party got with one more than the number of seats it already has (so if a party has one seat, the vote is halved; if it has two seats, the vote is divided by three etc.), and then allocate the next list seat to the party with the highest value of this.

One of the beauties of d'Hondt is that you don't need to start it from zero seats. In elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Greater London Assembly (which all use the Additional Members System), then there are already constituency members elected, and so we just start the d'Hondt process from that - so if a party has 3 constituencies in the region under consideration, then we divide the number of regional votes by 4 and begin from there.

Sometimes, parties might want to form pacts, and under list systems there are three ways this can be done.

The first method involves a simple division of resources. If we look at the May 2003 election to the Scottish Parliament, then we see this with the Scottish Senior Citizens' Unity Party running regional lists in Glasgow, Scotland Central (where they won their sole seat) and Scotland South, while the Pensioners' Party ran regional lists in Lothians, Scotland Mid & Fife, Scotland North East and Scotland South (neither party contested Highlands & Islands).

The second method is to run a combined list - the Electoral Administration Act 2006 changed the law so that two or more parties could use a joint name and symnol (this is not the same as allowing two symbols representing different parties). The most obvious example of this is the Christian Party and the Christian People's Alliance at the June 2009 elections to the European Parliament.

There is a third method. In March 1981, several Labour MPs broke away to form the Social Democratic Party, which entered an electoral pact with the Liberals - culminating in the bulk of the Liberals and Social Democrats uniting in March 1988 to form a single party, the Liberal Democrats. But if they had not merged, then AMS allows one form of electoral pact, where in each region one party contests the constituencies and the other runs a party list.

If we look at the real 2003 result, we have:

Party Constituency MSPs Regional MSPs Total MSPs
Labour 46 4 50
Scottish National Party 9 18 27
Conservatives 3 15 18
Liberal Democrats 13 4 17
Greens 0 7 7
Scottish Socialist Party 0 6 6
Independents 2 1 3
Scottish Senior Citizens' Unity Party 0 1 1

Now consider the situation where the Liberals and Social Democrats had not merged but had an electoral pact as above. So, suppose that the Social Democrats contested the constituencies in Highlands & Islands, and the Liberals ran a regional list there. In reality the Liberal Democrats won 5 constituencies there - Argyll & Bute; Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross; Ross, Skye & Inverness West; Orkney and Shetland - so when the d'Hondt process is triggered to allocate the number of regional seats, the Liberal Democrat vote (31,655) is divided by 6 (one more than the number of constituencies).

If the Liberal/Social Democrat Alliance had still existed, then the calculation would begin with the Social Democrats having 5 constituencies in Highlands & Islands, and the Liberals having 31,655 votes and no constituencies.

This would give a different result:

Party Constituency MSPs Regional MSPs Total MSPs
Labour 46 2 48
Liberal/Social Democrat Alliance 13 12 25
Scottish National Party 9 15 24
Conservatives 3 15 18
Greens 0 6 6
Scottish Socialist Party 0 4 4
Independents 2 1 3
Scottish Senior Citizens' Unity Party 0 1 1

The number of constituency MSPs for each party has not changed, but the number of regional ones has, as the Liberal/Social Democrat Alliance picks up regional seats which went elsewhere:

  • Highlands & Islands - 1 from each of Labour and the Scottish National Party
  • Lothians - 1 from the Scottish Socialist Party
  • Scotland Mid & Fife - 1 from the Scottish National Party
  • Scotland North East - 1 from each of Labour, the Scottish National Party and the Greens
  • Scotland South - 1 from the Scottish Socialist Party

Of course, other parties could do something similar - for example, Labour could do a similar deal with the Co-operative Party. Or a party could run some of its constituency candidates in safe seats as Independents.

The Jenkins Commission, when suggesting an alternative voting system for the House of Commons, makes the recommendation that:

The Commission recommends that the right to put forward candidates for Top-up member seats should be limited to those parties which have candidates standing for election in at least half of the constituencies within the the Top-up area.

So, in our scenario, with Highlands & Islands having 8 constituencies (the others were Inverness East, Nairn & Lochaber; Moray and Western Isles), then if the Jenkins proposals had applied to the Scottish Parliament, then the Liberals would have needed to contest 4 constituencies (including one of those won by the Social Democrats) to run a regional list there.

With the three legitimate methods of two parties having an election deal covered, there is a way that is not allowed here - but is valid in many European countries, which are more experienced with things like proportional representation and hung parliaments than we are, and take it all in their stride.

And this method is that of linking lists, which allows two (or more) parties to co-operate, while (and this is the important thing), remaining totally distinct. In the second method, the parties would set up a joint list, and you could vote for that or not, with the order determined by negotiation between the parties.

With linking lists, the parties run separate lists, and you can vote for one of these (or none if you want to vote for another party) and the votes for these are added together, and treated as a single list for allocation of seats, and then separately when it comes to which members are elected.

If we go back to the 2003 Scottish election, and assume that before the election, the Greens and Scottish Socialist Party had decided to link lists. The result is:

Party Constituency MSPs Regional MSPs Total MSPs
Labour 46 4 50
Scottish National Party 9 16 25
Conservatives 3 15 18
Liberal Democrats 13 3 16
Greens/Scottish Socialist Party 0 16 16
Independents 2 1 3
Scottish Senior Citizens' Unity Party 0 1 1

This is, of course, what the result would have been if the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party had run a joint list. It would have seen the Scottish National Party lose 2 regional seats (in Highlands & Islands and in Scotland Mid & Fife) and the Liberal Democrats 1 (in Scotland Central).

Now, under a joint list system, all that would happen in Highlands & Islands is that the top two candidates on the Green/Scottish Socialist Party list would find themselves elected to Holyrood - and these two parties would have sorted out the order of the list beforehand.

Under a linked list system, something different happens. In Highlands & Islands, the Greens got 13,935 votes and the Scottish Socialist Party 9,000. The combined 22,935 votes entitles them to two MSPs between them. Once that is determined, the Returning Officer will look at the number of votes they got separately, and decide that they are each entitled to one MSP.

What we find then is that the Scottish Socialist Party would pick up an extra seat in Highlands & Islands and in Scotland Mid & Fife, while the Greens would pick up an extra seat in Scotland Central:

Party Constituency MSPs Regional MSPs Total MSPs
Labour 46 4 50
Scottish National Party 9 16 25
Conservatives 3 15 18
Liberal Democrats 13 3 16
Greens 0 8 8
Scottish Socialist Party 0 8 8
Independents 2 1 3
Scottish Senior Citizens' Unity Party 0 1 1

There is one area where d'Hondt is used - and that is in Northern Ireland. Now, elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly are conducted using the Single Transferable Vote, but there is a later stage where d'Hondt comes into play, and that is in the formation of the Northern Ireland Executive, which works on a "mandatory coalition" principle.

There are 13 members of the Executive. The senior are the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and their method of appointment is currently as per the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006.

One principle of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 is of consensus, with the Standing Orders of the Asssmbly allowing Members of the Legislative Assembly to designate as "Unionist", "Nationalist" or "Other".

The current rules for choosing the First Minister and Deputy First Minister seem simple at first. It seems that the largest party of the largest designation gets the First Minister, e.g. at the moment there are more Unionist MLAs than Nationalist MLAs, and the largest Unionist party, in terms of MLAs (which is all that matters here) is the Democratic Unionist Party - hence on these rules it appears that as long an election returned more Unionist MLAs than Nationalist, then there would be a Unionist First Minister.

The rules then go on to say that the Deputy First Minister would be appointed from the largest party of the second-largest designation - in this case Sinn Féin, the largest Nationalist party.

Now, there is one thing to note here. The 2006 Act actually only mentions the Nominating Officers of the relevant parties, and the only restriction placed on them is that they have to choose an MLA for the relevant post. So, technically, the DUP Nominating Officer could appoint any MLA - whether from the DUP or not - as First Minister, and the Sinn Féin Nominating Officer could do the same for the role of Deputy First Minister.

There is also a little caveat hidden away, which is that the situation could arise where the largest party is actually the largest party of the second-largest designation. In which case it's this party which appoints the First Minister and the largest party of the largest designation which appoints the Deputy First Minister.

Before the 2011 election, the DUP were raising the prospect that votes for other Unionist parties could create the situation where the Unionists were divided enough that Sinn Féin could slip through and end up the largest party, and hence there would be a Sinn Féin First Minister and a DUP Deputy First Minister.

It is true that Unionism has got divided, which Nationalism/Republicanism is quite united, with the only Nationalist MLAs from Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic & Labour Party. It might seem odd at first that the traditional big Dublin-based parties - Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil - don't put their views on Irish unity into practic by contesting Assembly elections. After all, Nationalist/Republican voters could be attracted by the idea of voting for a Dublin-based party. I wonder whether the mandatory coalition rules put them off. After all, it might seem good for Fine Gael to have their ministers in both the Irish Cabinet and the Northern Ireland Executive, but it means dealing with all other large enough parties. To have to work with Belfast-based DUP ministers is one thing, but to have to work with Belfast-based Fianna Fáil ministers....

What is interesting in the rules is that when it comes to party size for allocating the First Minister, Deputy First Minister and 10 of the other Ministers (I'll come onto that in a bit), all that matters is the number of MLAs a party has the day that the Assembly meets after the election.

If you follow European Parliament politics, you will be aware that the groups in the European Parliament can be different from the relevant European political party, as Members of the European Parliament from more than one European political party unite to form a single group, or MEPs who are not from a European political party attach themselves to a group rather than sit as a non-iscrit.

What is there to prevent the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party doing the same? Announce before an election that although they will contest as two distinct parties, when the Assembly meets they will form a single grouping. Then the scenario of a Sinn Féin First Minister taking office due to a split in unionism doesn't happen.

I haven't mentioned d'Hondt yet - this comes into play for appointing these 10 Ministers (the Minister for Justice is elected by a cross-community vote under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 2009).

And here, as a single Assembly grouping, the DUP and UUP can effectively link lists. The current Executive has 4 DUP ministers (excluding the First Minister Peter Robinson, MLA for Belfast East), Sinn Féin has 3 (excluding the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, MLA for Ulster Mid), the UUP has 1, the SDLP has 1, and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland has 1 (excluding the Minister for Justice, its leader David Ford, MLA for Antrim South).

However, if the DUP and UUP chose to form a single group on the day the Assembly first met, then between them they would have 6 ministers (excluding Robinson), by taking the APNI's post.

The Sun In Virgo

This morning was quite sunny, and something had happened between midnight and sunrise. The Sun had moved from Leo (all images from Heavens Above:

And into Virgo:

Notice the presence of the two inner planets - Mercury and Venus - in Virgo. These are going to be hard to see from northern temperate latitudes.

One thing we can consider is how long the Sun spends in the 13 constellations it passes through:

Constellation From To Days
Virgo 16 September 2013 31 October 2013 45
Libra 31 October 2013 23 November 2013 23
Scorpius 23 November 2013 29 November 2013 6
Ophiuchus 29 November 2013 18 December 2013 19
Sagittarius 18 December 2013 20 January 2014 33
Capricornus 20 January 2014 16 February 2014 27
Aquarius 16 February 2014 12 March 2014 24
Pisces 12 March 2014 19 April 2014 38
Aries 19 April 2014 14 May 2014 25
Taurus 14 May 2014 21 June 2014 38
Gemini 21 June 2014 21 July 2014 30
Cancer 21 July 2014 10 August 2014 20
Leo 10 August 2014 17 September 2014 38

You'll notice that this adds up to 366 days - the precise times will vary by about 6 hours from year-to-year.

What is obvious is that the Sun spends longer in Virgo than any other constellation. The constellations differ in size, and the only one bigger than Virgo is Hydra:

This is quite a long, straggling constellation - just look at the number of constellations surrounding it.

In terms of how long the Sun spends in a constellation, the joint runners-up to Virgo are Leo, Pisces:

and Taurus:

This doesn't automatically mean they are large constellations - Leo is the twelfth largest, Pisces the fourteenth and Taurus the seventeenth. However, they are smaller than the tenth largest, Aquarius:

and the eleventh largest, Ophiuchus:

The constellation the Sun spends the shortest amount of time in (and considering the British weather, it is possible some years we never see it when it's there), is Scorpius, the thirty-third largest:

Scorpius is actually larger than two other zodiacal constellations - the thirty-ninth largest, Aries:

and the fortieth largest, Capricornus:

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Alex In The Image Of God

I was hurrying out yesterday afternoon to do some shopping, and then I noticed him - a young man, lying slumped against a wall. Going up to him, I shook him gently by the shoulder and asked him if he were OK. No reply, but I could see he was breathing.

One lady passing by asked me if I knew him - and when I said I didn't, she suggested I just leave him as he was clearly drunk. Now, I get dizzy spells, and if I'm out walking it probably looks like I've had a bit too much to drink (I am actually teetotal). And, just because a young man has keeled over, it can be due to many things beside drunkenness.

I did walk on, feeling uneasy. Just beyond him was a market stall, and the stallslady had seen me looking at him, and before that she hadn't noticed him. She said she'll keep an eye on him.

The traffic was going slowly, and as I walked back to Shirley precinct, saw a police car. I indicated to it to stop, and the policeman inside it rolled down the window. I explained about the man and he said he would have a look.

The policeman couldn't wake him up, so put on latex gloves and tried to find that man's wallet. This identified him as Alex. The stallslady came over and said that she had been keeping an eye on him but hadn't seen him collapse. A hoodie was walking along and then he told us that he had seen Alex about an hour earlier walking up from the Freemantle direction.

ALso passing was a young girl, who looked at the scene, tugged her mum's hand and asked what had happened. I didn't want to expose her to the adult world, so told her that the man was not well and had fallen over, the policeman was checking he was OK, and if he wasn't, an ambulance would come and take him to hospital where he would be looked after till he got better.

A few minutes later an ambulance did indeed arrive, and the two paramedics and the policeman got Alex - still unconscious - onto a stretcher and put him in the recovery position, before strapping him in and taking him into the ambulance. After another few minutes the policeman got out of the ambulance and it went on its way. I thanked him for his help, and said that once I'd seen the man, he had become my responsibility - and the reply was that he had become the policeman's responsibility and then the paramedics', He thanked me for doing the right thing, and said that Alex was indeed drunk, and like that he could have choked to death on his own vomit.

What was it that compelled me to stop and act? I have to say that emotional blackmail isn't something that moves me, to be honest. If I get one of these envelopes through the post (with a free pen) with an image of an old lady and something along the lines of "Mavis is scared and lonely. She needs your help" on it (rather than in a letter inside), then, sorry, my heartstrings don't get manipulated. Especially when you reflect that it's probably from a charity run by someone claiming a six-figure salary and driving a top-of-the-range company car.

And if you walk along Shirley Road (aka "The Mutant Mile") you get used to people who think they are entitled to a passer-by's money. And so you learn to be a bit cynical of the elaborate sob story.

For example, a couple of years ago I was approached by a young man. He had, he said, been mugged the evening before so had no money. And he needed money for medicine, but his benefits had run out that week - so it sounded like an unfortunate week. Something sounded fishy, especially when he said if I gave him my name and address, he would ensure that when he did get money, he would pay me back. A few days later I overheard him talking to another passer-by - sounded very tragic as yet again he had been mugged the evening before and needed money for medicine.

Or one woman who was staggering around one evening not wearing much. She had, apparently, just been released from hospital and needed money. I said I didn't have any, so got a mouthful from her, ending with her hoping that when I have a "f**king heart attack" no-one comes to my help.

A third case was a woman who had just left the police station and came up to me to tell me her purse had gone missing and she needed money to get a bus home. After talking for a bit, I gave her some money and she went and waited at the right bus stop.

When I lived in Brighton there was some impressive begging. Call me a heartless bastard, but I lost sympathy for one of them after the death of a third grandmother in the space of a few months - and just like the last two, he loved her a lot, and needed money to go to the funeral.

The in-yer-face begging doesn't move me. Seeing someone who is clearly in need does.

After all, we are made in the image of God - that is what separates us from the animals, and this is what makes us human.

Someone carried Alex in her womb for 9 months. People must have cooed over him as a baby and he must have brought joy to people's lives. And then something happened. I have no idea what.

That image of God gets distorted and violated by sin - our own and other people's. We all hurt others - we all have our lives damaged to some extent by our own actions and other people's.

Was Alex my responsibility? Yes - his path and mine crossed and he was in need. Christianity is centred on Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd who went out of His way to find the one lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7).

Alex will not remember me. I will at best be a footnote in his story - but it is possible that without me, his story would have ended yesterday. Afterwards, I made sure I was praying for him, that there will be other Christians he meets who will fill up chapters of his story.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

What A Load Of Rubbish

You might have picked up that last Tuesday, before going to A&E, I had a chat with the refuse collectors. This was because it was the fortnightly recycling collection, and they had been attaching notes to several of them saying that they were not being emptied due to having non-recyclables in them.

And I mentioned one of my pet hates. We have a block of flats (one of these modern, 3 storeys ones). I am on the ground floor, so I have a separate front door that opens onto the pavement. Next to that is my recycling bin.

Bow, I am reasonably green-minded. I am not "preachy" - few things annoy me more than those who moralise about saving the planet while hopping into their cars for very short journeys. I make sure I recycle. Some things we can - glass is one we can't, so I wash glass bottles and give them to my parents as they are near a bottle bank.

And everything else - plastic bottles, cans, paper, magazines - goes into the recycling bin. It's not too difficult. I don't have a garden, but do remember my dad often putting food waste into the compost.

And earlier this week, as I went to put some recycling out, opened the bin and yep - you've guessed it.

The normal household waste bins are round the back. And some people are too lazy at times to walk that far - much simpler to chuck it and take the approach "somebody else will do it".

I recall days in my final year of my PhD and one housemate who would cook dinner, get a coffee, things like that, and just leave the washing up. His attitude - somebody else will need to use them, so they can wash them up before they do.

Or a lady with a child in a pushchair. The child eating a chocolate bar, and when he'd finished, his mum just took the wrapper and dropped it on the pavement. Things are caught not taught.

When I travel by train, it never ceases to amaze me at the food rubbish left behind - and it's often worse right next to the bins. Even with bins positioned where the person would not even have to stand up - just reaching over would be enough. I recall travelling from Southampton Central to Basingstoke, and one of these businessmen having coffee and then, as he got up to disembark at Winchester, he just left his cup on his seat and wandered off. I picked it up, rushed after him, and handed it to him telling him he seemed to have forgotten it. After he got off, there was a tap on the window and I looked up to see him gesture at me. I was horrified - in this country we use two fingers and I simply cannot bear the Americanisation of society.

Back to the main story, so yet again, I have to take other people's household waste out of my bin (legally I'm liable if there's non-recyclables in there) and put it where it should be.

The Jobcentre Plus's Little Difficulty With Truth

Yesterday I went into thw Jocentre Plus in Southampton for my initial claim interview. Had to wait over half an hour - seemed to be a delay due to office staff yacking to each other while people were waiting.

Note to staff - Yes, you may fall behind for various reasons, and therefore you need to take steps to catch up. In which case talking to each other about irrelevant matters is wrong. It is treating jobseekers with contempt.

But that isn't want really shocked me.

You might recall that I had been falsely told that one could only apply online. Was this a mistake? I asked one of the staff at a welcome desk yesterday. She agreed that yes, you can apply by telephone. But, and this was the real shocker - they are required to tell people that you can only apply online.

So, civil servants in Jobcentres Plus (or is that Jobcenrre Pluses) are required to provide jobseekers with false information.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

An Unelected Euro-President?

This week has seen a bit of a bit of a spat between Jose Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, and Martin Callanan, Conservative Member of the European Parliament, who is leader of the European Conservative & Reformist MEPs.

It is interesting that Callanan comments:

a bit rich for the unelected head of the European Commission to give electoral advice… but I suppose that's typical of him

But is Barroso unelected?

If we look at the current rules, we come across the current Article 17 of the Treaty on European Union, and section 7 of that Article states:

Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission. This candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members. If he does not obtain the required majority, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall within one month propose a new candidate who shall be elected by the European Parliament following the same procedure.

The Council, by common accord with the President-elect, shall adopt the list of the other persons whom it proposes for appointment as members of the Commission. They shall be selected, on the basis of the suggestions made by Member States, in accordance with the criteria set out in paragraph 3, second subparagraph, and paragraph 5, second subparagraph.

The President, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the other members of the Commission shall be subject as a body to a vote of consent by the European Parliament. On the basis of this consent.

And the next section states:

The Commission, as a body, shall be responsible to the European Parliament. In accordance with Article 234 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the European Parliament may vote on a motion of censure of the Commission. If such a motion is carried, the members of the Commission shall resign as a body and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy shall resign from the duties that he carries out in the Commission.

So, what is this telling us:

  • A candidate for President is chosen by the European Council - comprised of the Heads of Government (in parliamentary systems) or the Heads of State (in presidential or semi-presidential systems)
  • The European Parliament - elected by the people of the European Union - can elect the candidate by an absolute majority or they can reject the candidate, in which case the Council has to restart the process
  • The Parliament votes a second time, this time on the whole Commission
  • And the Parliament may, if it wishes to, dismiss the entire Commission en masse

One criticism from the left is that the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition Government is "unelected". Up to a point, but this overlooks the fact that in the United Kingdom we do not elect a Prime Minister nor a Government. We elect a House of Commons - and a Goverment needs to be formed that has the confidence of the Commons.

If there is a mid-term change of Prime Minister then there is no election - just one person who has majority support is replaced by another. If from the same party then there is no parliamentary vote. If from a different party then no doubt the procedures under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 will be followed (a vote of no confidence in the Government, followed by a vote of confidence in the incoming Government).

So, the Commission President has to jump through a hoop British Prime Ministers don't have to - the formal approval of Parliament. And a Prime Minister can bring new members into the Cabinet without a parliamentary vote.

But if Callanan still feels Barroso is unelected, then there is one thing he can call for - a Commission President elected by the people. This has been proposed by former Prime Minister Tony Blair and by German Minister for Finance Wolfgang Schäuble.

But somehow I doubt some of those complaining that Barroso is unelected would actually welcome that.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Diana And 9/11

It was a Sunday morning in August 1997. I had woken up early, and turned on the TV and went straight to ITV (or ITV1 as it is now) and went to Teletext (remember that?). That week there had been its poll about who had had the best year since their divorce - the Prince of Wales or Diana, Princess of Wales.

That morning the poll had been removed. Maybe because the headline was "Diana, Dodi Killed In Car Crash".

And 16 years later the conspiracy theorists keep on. Watergate has a lot to answer for - the smugness of the conspiracy theorists as they giggle at the "sheeple" who are "gullible" enough to believe the official report. The constant Daily Express headlines.

The way the Daily Mail does its "forensic study" - hey, let's ignore the testimony from the witnesses at the hotel or the hospital. Who needs that when you have an unsigned page torn from an exercise book? Or the classic "my mate overheard a bloke down the pub who said he knew that..."?

If Diana was "clearly pregnant" just 4 weeks after meeting Dodi Fayed, then either she was not pregnant by him (I guess conspiracy theorists never had sex education lessons at school) or else babies developed in her womb very quickly.

And of course, the conclusion is that the security forces killed Diana because she was pregnant with a child who would be the half-sibling of the future "Head of the Church of England" and she was the mother of "the future King of England."

Sorry, but firstly, Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church of England, and secondly the last King of England was William III.

One of the most overworked phrases in the media is the shock-horror "constitutional crisis". No, a Scotsman becoming "Prime Minister of England" (a post that has never existed) is not a "constitutional crisis". Two Presidential candidates gaining 269 electoral college votes might be a political crisis, but is not a "constitutional crisis" (the American constitution is clear what happens then). And the mother of a future monarch having a child by a Muslim man is a constitutional crisis how, exactly?

One day in September 2001 I was based at Southampton University - I had submitted my PhD thesis for St Andrews University, had had my viva and was then back at my parents' to live while I jobhunted. But I had to make amendments to my thesis, and the agreement was that I would have a desk and computer at Southampton to do this. And that day I received an invitation for a two-day assessment (in Bournemouth) for a job in Andover. I had popped out to buy a street map for North Hampshire, and when I got back someone mentioned that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.

I went back to my desk, assuming that this was one of these hobby pilots in a small plane who had lost control and hit the Center. Sad for the pilot, pessengers and their families, but nothing major.

Early afternoon I took a break and noticed that people were crowding round a TV. Then I realised that what I thought had happened was wrong.

And of course, you get the conspiracy theorists with 9/11 - in the fog of news, some details wlll be got wrong, and these get corrected by news media as they got them wrong, not because of pressure from the White House or Pentagon to back an "official" version.

There is one thing that I have thought about. Consider the susceptible-to-radicalisation young Muslim man. From late 1997 he is hearing - and having Western conspiracy theorists "confirm" - that security forces from the United Kingdom and the USA bumped off a British princess for the "crime" of falling in love with a Muslim. What view will he develop of the West from those sort of conspiracy theories? How will they radicalise him?

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Jobsworth Plus

I have been unemployed now for about 10 weeks, and have been living off the redundancy I got from my previous job (the one I was in from May 2005 to September 2012). Now that we know what is going on with my health, it is now time to turn to jobhunting.

Now, one place that is useless for jobhunting is the Johcentre - or as they have been rebranded, Jobcentre Plus.

This is an aside, but becomes relevant in a bit. One of my pet hates are those who discourage you and when it doesn't work out take a "Told you so, if only you'd listen to common sense" approach. Yes, there is a place for considering problems - but also what steps will be taken to overcome them. It's the whole "Know your place", "Don't give it a go as you'll fail and be disappointed" attitude.

And it annoys me when this is the message from Jobcentre Plus staff. I remember the last time I was unemployed for a few weeks in 2005 and going to Woolston Jobcentre Plus, in Southampton. And, oh, the negative attitude from staff. It seemed that if your lifetime ambition was not stacking shelves in a supermarket till you're 65, then you were a bit above yourself, a bit lah-di-dah.

My favourite (OK, least favourite) was the time I came across 5 jobs which were office based, in the financial sector. Just office work, but a foot in the door.

The problem was that for the staff, the best guide of what jobs you are suited for is not what your qualifications and experiences are, but whether you have a dangly thing between your legs or not. So the man I saw at the desk put the printouts of the jobs to one side and on his computer got details of 3 "men's jobs" (factory, building site) which I was then required to apply for or lose my Jobseekers' Allowance.

I guess a woman who approached the desk with the same jobs would have been given details of 3 cooking or cleaning jobs she would have to apply for.

And today, when I went to the Southampton Jobcentre Plus, had to deal with an oik at welcome desk, who explained the rules are that you are only allowed to apply online and cannot even apply by telephone so I would have to complete the online form. My problem with that is that as I have paid National Insurance contributions, I wish to apply for the Contribution Based JSA. The thing with this is that assets etc. are totally irrelevant in deciding whether one is entitled and, if so, how much one gets.

The problem is that on the form you have to put these in. In previous jobs, every year I had to sit tests on data protection. And I am aware that the third Data Protection principle in the Data Protection Act 1998 is that:

Personal data shall be adequate, relevant and not excessive in relation to the purpose or purposes for which they are processed.

Hence, the Department for Work & Pensions is breaching the Act if it asks for information which is irrelevant. The penpusher explained to me that there are no Data Protection issues with this - which is incorrect.

Jobcentre Pluses are funny when it comes to Data Protection - there is this approach that there is no need to deal with jobseekers' personal information in line with the Act. I remember when I had a brief period of unemployment while living in Andover, and used the Jobcentre Plus there. Those were the days when you had a little booklet (JS40, I think it was called) which was in a little plastic wallet. On the back was name, National Insurance number and when you had to sign on.

One rule was that when you turned up, you had to show your JS40 to the security guard from Group 4 Security and then she say you could go through and sign. And one day I asked to speak to the manager.

I asked whether the security guard was a DWP employee. No, I was told. And then I noted that only a few people have the right to see my National Insurance number - the DWP, employers and Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs. And hence, to sign on, I had to provide my National Insurance number to a lady who had no right to see it.

The manager agreed that this was a breach of the Data Protection rules, and after that when I signed on I would simply walk past the security guard. She never tried to stop me.

There are a couple of reasons why I am going for contribution-based JSA. The first of these is a practical one. In the good old days, you stayed with your employer for the whole of your working life. And now it's messier. One job was for 4 employers (as you ger merged, demerged, taken over, broken up, restructured etc.) - and from that I have free shares in two of the companies and pension schemes from 3 of them. And I simply don't have all the details to hand.

The second is philosophical. I have paid National Insurance contributions - but the JSA I would get is the same as someone who hasn't paid enough and who hence gets income-based JSA. This is something that needs reforming, so that contribution-based JSA should depend on how much you have paid in National Insurance contributions (which depends on your salary), rather than simply on the fact you have.

In some ways, the system is anti-contributory. Going back to Andover, and this was over 10 years ago, and I didn't have any noticeable heart issues and my high blood pressure had not yet been diagnosed, so the only thing I needed regular medicine for was the asthma. But even so I would still need help with NHS costs. And it states that you get help automatically if you get income-based JSA. For contribution-based JSA you have to then fill out forms and wait for a decision. So, if you have actually worked and paid your National Insurance contributions, you have to jump through more hoops to get help with NHS costs, which come automatically to those who haven't paid.

So, I decided to phone a DWP helpline and the lady I spoke to said that when I apply I should say that I have assets of over £16,000 and explain when I have my interview that I had to put that to ensure I just had to answer the questions for contribution-based JSA.

My Doctor Who Wish List

I have had a bit of a debate on Twitter about the current Doctor Who, and what do I want to see from it.

A couple of evenings ago I was watching The Face of Evil, and the introduction of Leela made me realise that we were approaching the stage of it going downhill, with the (better) first half of the Tom Baker era coming to an end. Yes, I know there were calls for more humour, but to be honest, humour and horror can co-exist, and there is no need to go down the path of becoming a poor man's Galloping Galaxies.

And I have to say that Season 33 was another nadir. I felt like turning off during The Rings of Akhaten and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (which promised so much), and delivered so little) - and Nightmare in Silver was big let down. Don't get me started on The Power of Three.

I have been watching the earlier (20th century) episodes, and the 25 minute format is too short, so I can see the logic of 45 minutes. But Steven Moffat's other work, Sherlock, manages to show a complete adventure in a 90 minute episode - ample time to have a story with action and develop the characters.

Rumour has it that Season 34 will be 12 episodes of 45 minutes. Hmm, why not 6 episodes of 90 minutes to give more time for depth and story-telling? And fewer stories means less chance of a turkey making it to production in order to make up numbers.

When Doctor Who returned in 2005, one reason I saw for the format of mainly single-episode adventures (and the return to the practice of individual episode titles for multi-episode ones) was that seeing "Episode Two" on-screen is a turn-off. But we see other dramas that carry a story over a week of evenings, or over several weeks. Take the spin-off, Torchwood which managed to do its third season as a set of 5 episodes over one week (Children of Earth) and its fourth as a 10-week story (Miracle Day).

People therefore can pay attention over a lengthy period - and indeed, in Doctor Who we have seen story arcs.

So, why not have Season 34 as a strong story arc, or even a continuous adventure? I watched Merlin when that was on, and one of its features was by having the episodes set in the same time and place, it enabled minor characters, such as the Knights, to become familiar to viewers. A Season 34 like this would create some modern day Sara Kingdoms - people who are heavily involved without being bona fide companions.

And that brings me to death. In the intro to Arny of Ghosts/Doomsday, Rose Tyler states:

This is the story of how I died.

And so you expect, in that battle between the Daleks and Cybermen (which I'll come to later), Rose would get deaded somehow. But she is sent off to a parallel universe - for ever.

For ever n. A period of time ending when the scriptwriter feels like it.

Her return in Partners in Crime is understandable, with the growing mystery of what is actually happening - and note that the Doctor isn't aware of her being there then (it's Donna Noble whom she meets), and nor does he see her in The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky and Midnight. That was well handled, but we learn Rose makes another return in the anniversary special.

Astrid Peth in Voyage of the Damned? Nope, converted into stardust.

And Dalek Caan's prophesy that death will come to the most faithful companion in The Stolen Earth/Journey's End? OK, Donna is reduced to a shadow of herself and that is a tragic end. But hey, let's give her a happy-ever-after story towards the end of The End of Time.

Although in The God Complex the Doctor leaves Amy Pond and Rory Williams, telling Amy that the alternative would be him standing over her grave, in The Angels Take Manhattan he is doing just that. But this is an old Amy, and at that level is no different to the Doctor going to Edinburgh for George IV's visit, wander round Greyfriars Kirkyard and seeing a grave with "James Robert McCrimmon" on it. As Clara Oswald noted in Hide, ultimately we are all ghosts for this time traveller.

The companions need to return to being normalish companions - the eyes we see the Doctor and the adventures through - rather than becoming special in their own right. I am sure if The Aztecs were made today, the big twist would be that Barbara Wright really is the reincarnation of Yetaxa, and that she followed Susan Foreman into the TARDIS in the hope the Doctor would take her to that time and place.

One criticism of Season 27 was that the Doctor didn't do much to conclude things. Whether it was Gwymeth in The Unquiet Dead, Cathica in The Long Game, Pete Tyler in Father's Day or Nancy in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, it was the ordinary person who is inspired by being with the Doctor to be more than they thought they could be. As Rose said to Jackie Tyler and Mickey Smith in Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways, it was a better way of life, showing that you stood up for what was right and you did things.

But the emergence of super-companions negates all this. This new breed of companion does great things because they are special, not because they are ordinary.

I also want to consider the "epics". Now, there are two sorts of epics. The first is where there is a great adventure that really stands out - Genesis of the Daleks or Pyramids of Mars - where everything comes together. Then there is the "epic" which tries to be epic - The End of Time springs to mind - and just tries to tick the bozes. Like the old Star Trek: The Next Generation "big novels" which tried to please the fans (hey look - that starship the USS Enterprise is meeting has Katherine Pulaski as its Chief Medical Officer, Give us a minute and we'll have a Wesley Crusher cameo and a Tasha Yar flashback), it is about pleasing fans. Yes, a Dalek v. Cybermen battle is every fan's fantasy, and the idea of the Doctor's enemies ganging up in The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang is an intriguing one, try not to go overboard.

So, if I were planning a season, what would be my stories and big arcs and conclusions?

Here goes.

River Song has unearthed something interesting - archaeological evidence across several planets which show a wipe-out of the dominant intelligent species close together, and a mystery of why this happened on several planets in the space of a few years, about a million or so years ago. Using her vortex manipulator to visit a couple of these planets around that era, she sees them dying of the same plague. And she also sees the same aliens there - who would become the season's main enemy.

Something along these lines could become a Doctor-lite episode, or be worked into a parallel story within one adventure.

Meanwhile, one of the Doctor's companions has become a Typhoid Mary, and is infecting people (and aliens) wherever they go. Subtly at first - the occasional minor character drops dead from the same symptoms River observed. But occasionally a major figure at a pivotal point (e.g. Henry VIII dies in the summer of 1533 with Anne Boleyn heavily pregnant and this sees a 17-year-old Mary Tudor take the throne with Catherine of Aragon as the powerful Regent of England....). Among these trips is one to ancient South America.

Towards the end of the season, a visit to the Draconians in one of their skirmishes with Earth. Why not? It would be good to see them back. While taking a break from scandalising Draconian society, River encounters the TARDIS crew (who have just left Victorian London with Vastra in the TARDIS as it dematerialised, Strax and Jenny having died as the plague hits London town and thus showing that this has become a species-crossing illness - when fans see the name Neve McIntosh appear in the opening credits for a Victorian London adventure, but not Catlin Stewart or Dan Starkey, then this could be a clue that something is going to happen here) and they meet the President of Earth - visiting Draconia to seek peace - who is Incan or Mayan. And we learn from the President that when Hernán Cortés and his men arrived, they had no immunity against the disease in question and most of them died - the survivots took it back to Europe, leading to something which caused death on a larger scale than the Black Death and totally changed history. By accident. one of the Doctor's companions has achieved what Barbara couldn't do by design - saved the Aztec civilisation. While this is happening, the companion in question is starting to show the first symptoms, and realises that they are the cause of all this and that their disease is incurable, with there being loads of deaths on Draconia as a result - including the human President and the Draconian Emperor.

Vastra's presence would lead to interesting issues of how the Draconians relate to an intelligent Terran reptile, and it could give her the chance to deal with who would she, as a Silurian, deep down wish to win a battle between humans and Draconians. I have never seen anything on the show to indicate that the Draconians were aware of "homo reptilia", and what would happen if they learned of the events of Doctor Who and the Silurians, The Sea Devils and Warriors of the Deep? Would they continue to see humans as Earth's rulers, or attack to "liberate" the Silurians and Sea Devils? In The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood the Doctor said the planet had to be shared - I doubt he meant that Earth had to be shared down the barrel of a Draconian blaster.

In the final adventure, an Earth expedition team (who curiously recognise the Doctor, River, Vastra and companions) is exploring a planet in the future, to find something that exists in the myths and legends of several planets. Whatever it is, it cannot fall into anyone's hands due to devastation it will cause, and the Doctor realises that if it is found and known about, every time-travelling species will aim to arrive there before the humans.

However, it is a trap set by the aliens mentioned above. Any race capable of cracking the activation codes is going to be advanced. The aliens assume any race that wants to do this is going to be hostile. Cracking the activation codes sends a message back in time - to the era of the interplanetary plague that River found out about. And the alien approach is to wipe out any potential rival before it has the chance to become a threat - so all the planets that River investigated were ones which had done this. Cue the moral issues about punishing the ancestors for the "crimes" the descendants have not yet committed.

The humans' cracking the code means that the Earth will join the list of planets attacked in the path with the aliens' biological warfare and humanity will never have developed. Hence the chance for the Doctor to do a speech to these aliens about their values and defending humanity's right to exist. Hopefully a speech that fans will remember for years for the right reasons.

No season of Doctor Who is complete without the Daleks, and the human discovery of whatever that thing is leads to the Daleks arriving earlier, and the Doctor et. al. travelling back to this. The thing is then that if the Daleks crack the activation code, Skaro will be attacked in its past - the Kaleds will be wiped out (which is one stage beyond the Doctor's dilemma in Genesis of the Daleks concerning the Dalek creatures in the incubation room - "Do I have the right?") and the Thals develop on a Skaro they don't share with the Kaleds.

And this becomes the Doctor's dilemma:

  • Stop the Daleks - which means that it's humanity that gets wiped out in the distant past and Vastra's kin can have a planet which they don't have to share with "the apes". What would she advise?
  • Let the Daleks achieve their goal and ensure that generations grow up in a universe where they never have to hear the word "Dalek"

That would be the choice - humanity or Daleks. No deus ex machina. No Bad Wolf appearing.

Add into the mix another problem - the reason why the Earth expedition team recognised the Doctor and his friends was because the team met the TARDIS crew in the team's past and the TARDIS crew's future. And in that encounter, the ill companion was delirious and while rambling let them know what was on the planet in question. Hence, if the companion dies before that encounter, then the Earth expedition team never come to the planet, and nor do the Daleks, and the Doctor's moral dilemma is resolved - but the companion would need to die before the disease takes them.

What is needed are tough moral issues with no easy solution appearing, but where the Doctor has to question whether he took the right actions. Someone has to die - not a "death" which isn't really a death, but the Doctor has to stand over a companion's grave (and let's up the ante a little by the Doctor having to return the companion's body to their parents for a funeral) and question whether his actions caused it. One companion's life against humanity's existence.

Something along these lines gives the return to classic-era aliens like tbe Daleks and Draconians and gives a few moral dilemmas - and enables us to have Vastra really develop as a character as she takes an equal and opposite view to the Doctor's. Vastra isn't going to be running down corridors saying "What do we do now, Doctor?". She doesn't strike me as the sort of reptile who thinks "Oh, it's time for a cliffhanger. I know, I'll fall over and twist my ankle". It enables us to see how River relates to a Doctor who physically appears older. And gives us a companion whom we shall end up mourning.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The Nightmare Ends

Friday was another odd day for me. In the morning I had popped down to the city centre, and decidec that - as I needed to defrost my fridge - had lunch in BHS, but was already feeling a bit dizzy. I went downstairs, and one of the staff got me a drink of water and said it was very hot there, and then directed me to a seat outside.

About half an hour later, I felt better and carried on, but then felt dizzy again and sat down in Waterstones, where one of the staff got me a drink of water. I was there about an hour and then went home.

In the afternoon I started the defrosting, and was doing some washing up when I got a sharp pain across my chest. It was worse than any I've had before. It did subside (and spread to my lower back), and I got a marker pen and highlighted the parts of my chest that the pain was worse in.

I left it about an hour, and then felt that I really ought to go to Southampton General Hospital to have this looked at. So I set out and after about 5 minutes I knew I was about to collapse. So I sat down on a wall, and did the one thing I thought I wouldn't do - dial 999.

Now, I don't like drama. I don't like fuss, or people fretting, so it has to be something major for me to call 999 - this was the first time I've done this for myself (when I worked in Basingstoke I did call 999 when I saw a man collapsed in the road).

ABout 10 minutes later, a rapid response car arrived. The paramedic was aware that A&E was very busy and that there weren't enough ambulances, so drove me to A&E. As I got out of the car, banged my right shoulder on the door, and so I said I might go to A&E to have that looked at!

I had to sit down while waiting for a trolley, and so the pin-prick blood sugar test was done, and then a spare trolley was found and I was wheeled into the triage room for an ECG.

Then it was wheeled into a side room and hooked up to another ECG machine, have one of those things attached to my finger to measure blood oxygen, and then waiting. As I was nowhere near any sensitive equipment, I got out my mobile and texted 3 friends to tell them, and got encouraging replies. With hindsight I should have asked for them to mention it on Twitter and Facebook to get others praying for me - up till now, the first friends have heard of it has been when I'm out and back home. I might give my parents a list of people they must contact if I'm ill like this, but I didn't contact them as I knew they would be fretting and fussing, and I simply cannot stand people fussing and fretting. The modern world just seems to be fuss, fuss, fuss.

If you want a fret, buy a guitar.

One of the doctors came to speak to me and I went through what had happened. I explained the green highlighter markings on my chest, and he agreed that was a sensible thing to do. He said it didn't seem that I'd had a heart attack, but I would need a blood test at 4 on the Saturday morning - but first I would need one done there and then.

I am better with these, but they still make me feel light-headed. To make things worse, a cannula was put in my arm where the blood had been taken, in case I needed to be given anything.

I was waiting for the results when two men came in and started taking the sticky electrode pads from my chest, wrists and ankles. When I asked they told me that I couldn't have the chest X-ray with them on, and I walked with them through to the X-ray room, had that done and then went back to the side room. By this stage I knew I was going to recover.

Then the nurse turned up and told me the blood test was negative, but the second one would confirm (or deny) that I had not suffered a heart attack. I was wheeled through to the Clinical Diagnosis Unit and given a bed there.

It was difficult to sleep, as I can only sleep comfortably on my right side, and this is where the cannula was, and the cannula was getting painful. No-one likes having needles in them for hours - except acupuncture fans. And, of course, there is the general noise - of the tannoy, of vehicles, of other patients.

So, I didn't sleep well, and at 4 I was still awake for the second blood test - the results came back quite quickly (about 30 minutes) and showed that I had not had a heart attack. I then had to wait for a doctor to see me, and abour 1/2 past 6 the cannula was taken out and I was free to leave.

I walked home across St James' Park, seeing the Sun rising over clouds, and realising that the previous evening I was not sure if I would ever see the Sun again.

Having had a bad night, I went to bed, and in the afternoon went to a friend's birthday & engagement party up in Bassett. And the walk there and back was amazing. Yes, it was the Southampton I know, but it wasn't just the good weather - every tree and flower just seemed clearer and brighter. When you have momeents when you know that a few hours earlier you didn't know if you would be in those places, seeing those things, again.

And then it was Sunday. I had this thought running through my head that some point this week I really must make a trip to Oxford as it's been a while since I've seen one friend there. And when I got to church, there he was - having moved back to Southampton very recently. We had a chat about how things were going, and he offered to pray for me. Now, there are things to note. One of my pet hates is the self-appointed and self-anointed wannabe prophet who believes they have a right to give you on-the-spot counselling for whatever personal problem exists in their imagination (and then send you a passive-aggressive email when you make clear you have better things to do than to discuss things about you that are only in their mind), or think that praying for someone means praying at them. This was different, as it was him:

  • Asking if he could pray with me - not forcing it on me
  • Praying for the things I had shared - not someone else

Prayer can be answered in different ways - and a key part of the prayer was that doctors would find out what was happening with my heart.

The thing about praying for something is that often something haa to happen. You can't pray for patience and expect it to be just given to you - you will probably be put through experiences where you have to learn patience.

Yesterday my heart was going erratic again, throughout most of the day. And I did think of going to A&E. After a bad night - not helped by a lot of stomping around in the flat upstairs from about 4 this morning onwards - I had decided it was time I got to the bottom of this.

So about 1/2 past 7 I set out, having collected my hypertension and asthma medicines (as I knew I would be asked what I take), my heart still going erratic. Had a chat with the refuse collectors outside and then made my way to A&E.

Unsure whether it was worth bothering them with, but saw there weren't many people there waiting to be seen, so I went in and gave my details and was prioritised when I said what it was. Once in, there was a bit of sitting around and then the ECG.

And they got it - once the results were analysed, it showed an atrial ectopic heartbeat. After 7 months, there was a name for the monster, and it was an OKish name. The nurse had a chat with me - and he noted that the 24-hour Holter monitoring, such as I had in April, often seems to coincide with a symptomless period. The failure to catch it in the act does not mean there is nothing wrong.

Yhen there was a blood test - while this was being done the nurse who had spoken to was on the phone to my GP's surgery to ask them to arrange a 72-hour Holter monitor, which will enable a more detailed study of the atrial ectopic heartbeat. And the blood test results came back - a bit of a potassium deficiency, which isn't something to worry about at the moment but worth keeping an eye on. I could then go.

This is now a huge relief. I have felt life has been on hold as we tried to find out what it was. I have had to learn patience, and trust in God - in addition, having moments when I'm not sure if I'd live or not made me realise what is important to me and what isn't.

I am glad I went through the past few months.

Now life is no longer on hold.