The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Labour searches for wheels, cart

The Conservative Party have apparently obliterated Labour in yesterday's local U.K. elections:

Although most of the county councils have yet to declare, early results show the Conservatives taking dozens of seats from Labour and seizing control of two county councils in the Liberal Democrats’ stronghold in the South West.

In Staffordshire, Labour, which has controlled the county for over 20 years, has already lost half its seats and the Tories are on course for an easy victory.

The Conservatives also took control of Devon and Somerset from the Liberal Democrats. The Tories have not been in power in Somerset for 16 years.

... Party officials hinted yesterday that Labour was likely to lose more than half its county council seats and all the four county councils that it still held. Results so far will have done nothing to lift their spirits. Pundits suggested the Tories will gain at least 200 seats although it is questionable whether they will get the 43 per cent share of the vote they gained in local elections last year.

It's sad, really. Gordon Brown actually has done well on paper, keeping the UK from suffering as much as other countries in the current recession, and generally doing the right things economically. But the man just can't manage the politics. Neither can David Cameron or Nick Clegg, by the way, which makes the situation even worse.

Any bets on when Brown will resign? It could happen this month.

May 25th has some history

As we wake up today to news that North Korea has reportedly detonated a 20-kiloton atom bomb (first reported, actually, by the United States Geological Survey), it's worth remembering two other major news events from previous May 25ths.

In 1977, Star Wars came out. (I saw it about a week later, in Torrance, Calif. My dad had to read the opening crawl to me.)

In 1979, American 191 crashed on takeoff from O'Hare, at the time the worst air disaster in U.S. history.

And now we add to that a truly scary development in Asia. And it's not yet 8:30 in Chicago...

More on Martin

I found today's Prime Minister's Questions more entertaining than watching Parker go after geese in the park, and for similar reasons. Every member seemed itching for a fight, and the leaders of both opposition parties called for elections. Well, we'll see; it seems unlikely the government will resign until it has to a year from now.

Anyway, this exchange started the fun:

[Conservative party leader] Mr. David Cameron: This morning the Prime Minister said that a general election would cause “chaos”. What on earth did he mean?

The Prime Minister: What would cause chaos would be the election of a Conservative Government, and public spending cuts.

Mr. Cameron: So there we have it: the first admission that the Prime Minister thinks he is going to lose!

I know that the Prime Minister is frightened of elections, but how can he possibly believe that in the fourth year of a Parliament, in one of the oldest democracies in the world, a general election could somehow bring chaos? Have another go at a better answer.

...

The Prime Minister: I notice that at no point does the right hon. Gentleman enter into the policy issues that are at stake here. At no point does he want to talk about what would be the effect of a Conservative Government in this country cutting public spending in schools, hospitals and public services generally, or about what they would do in leaving people on their own in this recession. Our duty is not only to clean up the system in the House of Commons—and every Member has a responsibility to work on that now—but to take this country through the difficulties of the recession, and not say to people that unemployment is a price worth paying.

They're both right. I naturally would prefer the Labour Party over the Tories, of course, but the fact is, Labour isn't doing a very good job. The other fact is, changing governments would be disastrous right now, and Cameron knows it.

The Economist has a good summary of Martin's resignation and the lurch towards premature elections.

Michael Martin resigns

Most Americans probably don't know about the scandal that has ripped through the UK House of Commons. It seems members in all parties stretched their Parliamentary expense reports quite a lot, including in one case a Conservative member, Douglas Hogg, who claimed reimbursement for having his moat cleaned. Hogg subsequently announced he would not stand for re-election.

The Daily Telegraph broke the worst of the story a few weeks ago, and yesterday, just after the Metropolitan Police decided that the newspaper will not face an enquiry for revealing MPs' expense records, the Speaker of Parliament announced his resignation:

Speaker Martin's position became untenable after he lost the support of MPs over his handling of their expenses system.

The disclosure in The Daily Telegraph that his staff had encouraged members to claims for "phantom" mortgages provoked fierce criticism.

This morning a motion calling for his immediate resignation appeared on the Commons order paper signed by 23 MPs from across the political spectrum.

Douglas Carswell, the Tory MP who tabled the motion, said he hoped Mr Martin's successor would have the moral authority to push through reforms that would "restore dignity to politics".

This is the first time in 300 years that the Speaker of Parliament has been forced out of office. And with respect to Mr Carswell, I think it will take slightly more than a new Speaker to restore dignity, but that has more to do with politics in general than the House of Commons in specific.

I'm highlighting this story because it demonstrates why we need newspapers. It took actual reporting and actual publication to bring this story to light, and I think the people of Britain—most of them, anyway—are glad the Telegraph did it.

How not to hold secret documents

Via Bruce Schneier, a demonstrably incompetent police chief in the UK has resigned after mishandling a secret document:

Police were forced to carry out raids on addresses in the north-west of England in broad daylight yesterday, earlier than planned, after [Bob] Quick, the Metropolitan police's assistant commissioner [and senior-most counter-terrorism official], was photographed carrying sensitive documents as he arrived for a meeting in Downing Street.

A white document marked "secret", which carried details of the operation being planned by MI5 and several police forces, was clearly visible to press photographers equipped with telephoto lenses.

Yesterday, realising the existence of the ­photographs of the ­document – which included the names of several senior officers, sensitive locations and details about the nature of the overseas threat – the government imposed a "D notice" to restrict the media from revealing the contents of the picture.

The Guardian article has a photo of the document, taken as Quick got out of his car.

Police also revealed that Quick's Windows password was "bob1" and that he routinely leaves his keys in his car "so [he'll know] where to find them."

Metra: Party like it's 1979

Metra, which runs Chicago's heavy-rail commuter lines, hasn't changed much at all since the 1970s, as today's Chicago Tribune describes in sad detail:

Metra runs on paper, as in paper tickets. Although the majority of riders use monthly passes, passengers in January still bought more than 666,000 one-way tickets or used 10-ride tickets, which conductors have to punch individually.

... Other open rail systems have done away with punching and checking individual tickets. For example, conductors on Boston's Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority check tickets with hand-held electronic devices. ... On Caltrain, a commuter rail line operating between San Francisco and San Jose, passengers buy tickets from vending machines and conductors make random checks. Anyone without a ticket faces a $250 fine.

[And] it's cash or checks only on Metra. The line doesn't take plastic because of the processing fees that credit-card companies impose, Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet said.

The article also mentions a lack of information about train whereabouts that even our CTA buses provide.

I think the article makes Metra sound better than it really is, simply by comparing it only to its American analogues. The authors ignore, presumably out of pity for Metra, the Shanghai Maglev at one extreme, or even more typical European rail systems like Berlin's S-Bahn and the UK's Oyster Card scheme as examples of how to modernize at the very least how people pay for transit.

All right, maybe Transport for London isn't the best example. Still, when Boston has free Wi-Fi and we can't even pay with credit cards, something is wrong. At least TfL has a dedicated express train running from Heathrow to central London (on which you can use your Oyster Card), and we have...the Blue Line. Sad, really.

Canada's Czech issue

After posing my question about why Canadians need a visa to go to one more country than Americans do, several commenters on the original Gulliver post chimed in about a squabble Canada had with the Czech Republic at the end of the last decade.

It seems, however, that the commenters, and quite possibly the report Gulliver quoted, were out of date. According to the Canadian Embassy in Prague, the countries ironed out their differences in 2004:

The Government of the Czech Republic has decided to lift its visitor visa regime for citizens of Canada. As of May 1, 2004, holders of valid Canadian passports no longer require visas to enter the Czech Republic for visits up to 90 days - such visitors are prohibited from engaging in gainful employment during this time.

Canada lifted their requirement that Czechs have visas in 2007.

So, either is there yet another country that prefers Americans to Canadians (I mean, officially), or is the report out of date? I will endeavor to find out with all the passion and zeal required by such a question.

Update: Of course, the report could well be up to date, but the lists might simply not be orthogonal. It has occurred to me that there might be many countries that have different visa regimes for the U.S. and Canada. I'm still curious, as the Czech Republic hypothesis actually had some evidence behind it.

Visa restrictions worldwide

I had a conversation with a Ukrainian friend over the weekend about visas. As an American, I blithely travel all over the place and rarely think about entry requirements. In Europe, for example, I think I need a visa to visit Russia, but I can go to any other country from the Bosporus to Greenland just by showing my little blue passport. She, on the other hand, needs a visa even to visit next-door Hungary.

It turns out, via The Economist's Gulliver blog, only Danish, Irish, Portuguese, and Finnish passport-holders can travel to more places without a visa than we Americans (156 for Danes, 155 for the other three, 154 for us.) Ukrainians can only go to 50; woe to the bottom-ranked Afgnanis who get 22. (I wonder what the 22 are, too.)

Oddest, to me anyway, is that Americans can travel to one more country than Canadians can. What country, in all the world, requires a visa from Canadians but not Americans? Now that's odd.