Category Archives: Blog

GroenLinks: a big win against a bleak backdrop

The Dutch Greens should celebrate their win, but not the overall result

Left-leaning media in the UK and elsewhere have been teeming with jubilant headlines hailing the success of GroenLinks in the Dutch parliamentary elections on 15 March. Without doubt, their progress was remarkable and well-deserved. However, it would be wishful thinking to see in the Green gains, and in the smaller-than-projected increase of the right-wing populist vote, a definitive turn from bigotry to progressive politics in The Netherlands.

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Jesse Klaver led GroenLinks to its best ever parliamentary election result.

Green success

The story of GroenLinks, the Dutch Green Party, certainly is an optimism-inspiring one: under the leadership of 30-year-old Jesse Klaver, they went from four seats to 14 in the 150-seat national parliament, making them the largest party on the left, a position they share with the Socialists.

The renaissance of green politics in the Netherlands was further emboldened by gains for the Partij voor de Dieren, a party originally dedicated to animal rights but today campaigning on a broader environmental justice platform, and for other – centrist – parties embracing climate action. It also appears that GroenLinks’ pitch to younger voters was successful, which will have contributed to the unusually high turnout of 80 percent.

Obama-style campaign

GroenLinks ran a near-flawless campaign, making the most of the charisma of its young leader in a style heavily inspired by the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012. The campaign was bold in its mission, billing GroenLinks as a party for everyone, not just the traditional niche of well-off environmentally conscious city dwellers.

For the first time (as this is not a common campaign instrument in The Netherlands), large numbers of members and supporters went out to knock on doors, even where support was likely to be modest. Meanwhile, leader Jesse Klaver was omnipresent in the media, and held slick rallies, the final one in the country’s biggest concert hall. It was sold out.

During the final weeks of the campaign, some polls had GroenLinks on 20 seats, which would have made it the second-largest party. In the end, they had to settle for shared fifth place, but could still boast having the biggest net gain of all. The mood at GroenLinks’ election results gathering in Amsterdam was euphoric, while national media indulged in speculation about Green participation in a new coalition government.

Right rhetorics and left losses

Yet, as Jesse Klaver was making his ‘victory’ speech to Green campaigners, he must have known that GroenLinks’ result was a double-edged sword. Two miles away, the Social Democrats of the PvdA were reflecting on their biggest-ever defeat, losing three-quarters of their vote share, and 29 of their 38 seats. Yet again, the Dutch left finds itself weakened overall. Some polls suggest that of GroenLinks’ ten new seats, as many as six were gained at the PvdA’s expense.

The election result will pave the way for a centre-right coalition, which may or may not include GroenLinks. Two of the parties almost certain to govern, VVD and CDA, are portrayed in international media as part of the response to rising populism, while Dutch analysts rightly point out that these traditional right-wing parties have in effect espoused much of the anti-immigration rhetoric of the extreme right. They do not make natural coalition partners for the Dutch Greens, whose narrative was the very opposite.

What on the surface may seem a clear rejection of right-wing populism and a boost for green and progressive politics, hides the reality of a divided nation, where the agenda of the likes of Trump and Le Pen has made gradual progress for more than 15 years, leaving the left perpetually on the back foot.

Whether as junior coalition partners or as opposition leaders, GroenLinks must continue to present an appealing alternative to nationalist bigotry. They have never been in a better position to do so.

This piece was first published on Bright Green, 21 March 2017. 

 

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Hull City, unlikely writers of Premier League history

No more than once a year do I write about football. I consider myself fully unqualified to make insightful comments about the game itself, so I leave that to those who at the start of the season were certain that Chelsea would be champions and Leicester City relegated. The 2015-2016 Premier League left them with lots to write about, but we need to talk about a match that is being played today, in Hull.

In this evening’s Championship play-off semi-final, Hull City defends a 3-0 lead over Derby County. People who regularly write about football have assured me that Derby are unlikely to overturn this, in which case Hull would proceed to the play-off final – a match that sees the winner grab the last ticket to the 2016-2017 Premier League. Sheffield Wednesday will be the other team in that final; they qualified yesterday.

Should things go as widely expected – not much of a guarantee these days – then the play-off final will be a kind of derby, as both teams are based in the Yorkshire and the Humber region. This circumstance is unlikely to trouble any of the fans supporting their teams at Wembley on the 28th of May, but whoever wins will be the sole team representing their region at the top flight of English football.

A little over a year ago, Hull City seemed well-placed to prolong their stay in the Premier League, but an unexpected (there’s a theme here) renaissance of Leicester City and a typical narrow escape by Sunderland saw them relegated on the final day of the season, ruining the scenario I had so carefully devised. My wish for the Premier League to include teams from all English regions plus Wales had almost been realised, but then Yorkshire and the Humber failed to play ball.

Despite the Yorkshire fiasco, the total number of regions represented in this year’s competition was a record-breaking nine, up one from the year before and more than double the 2010-2011 region count. Somehow, all nine regions managed to keep at least one of their teams up – hats off to Bournemouth – and with Burnley and Middlesbrough taking the automatic promotion spots, Yorkshire and the Humber looked at risk of being the only absentee for a second consecutive season.

Now, however, their teams appear to dominate the play-offs, and in some 45 minutes the prospect of an all-region Premier League may have materialised. For the first time since its establishment in 1992! How very fitting that it would be Hull City delivering it, after their very unfortunate relegation last year. And still it may not be them getting promoted. I’m easy about that though, as long as they win tonight to write football geography history.

Live update: as I was writing, the match got underway and currently Hull City are 0-2 down, Derby County needing only one more goal to take the match to extra time. Come on Hull, don’t do this to me and my regionalist dream again!

Post-match update: Derby County didn’t manage a third and Hull City are through! There will be teams from all regions in the 2016-2017 Premier League.

 

National Cycle Route 81: Welshpool to Aberystwyth

Route 81 of the National Cycle Network runs between Wolverhampton and Aberystwyth. I was touring in Mid Wales when I happened upon a Route 81 sign in Welshpool. Since I had no precise plan of where to go next, I decided to follow the route and see where it would take me. It turned out I wouldn’t regret it.Route 81 map

The route on a map

0 miles From Welshpool rail station, the route briefly follows the Montgomery Canal in a southerly direction. In the absence of a towpath, there is a short section on the A458 ending in a slightly tricky right turn towards Powis Castle. Leaving the canal behind, it’s immediately uphill; a taste of what’s to come.

1 mile Throughout the 15 miles between Welshpool and Newtown the route is impeccably signposted, following quiet roads that dip in and out of the valleys of various Severn tributaries, before eventually joining the river itself. The traverse of Newtown is virtually car-free with the route leaving the B4389 just after Aberbechan to follow towpaths and footpaths for several miles, staying close to the river Severn. Needless to say that this section is slow, as paths are shared with pedestrians most of the way through Newtown.

17 miles As the route exits the riverside park, there is scope for confusion as the signposting here isn’t watertight. I ended up missing a left turn, off the A489, and turned to Google Maps when I got to a big roundabout with no familiar signs. Leaving Newtown behIMG_2358ind, the route continues on narrow, quiet roads, climbing out of the Severn valley to the oddly named hamlet of Stepaside. From here, the scenic quality is a step up, as is the effort required to cycle up a long and rather steep hill. In the absence of Route 81 signs, I occasionally wondered if I was still on course, which was only confirmed two miles and seven side roads later. The long climb is followed by an exhilarating descent that features an actual hairpin bend. Caution required throughout, as one cannot see very far ahead on this narrow road.

24 miles At Caersws the route briefly checks in with the populated world – an A-road, a shop and a pub, IMG_2368a railway station – before heading off into tranquil countryside again. The narrow road leads over a series of short, steep hills before re-joining the Severn river in the pretty town of Llanidloes. It’s easy to miss some of the signs here – cyclists should make a sharp right turn in the town centre and aim for the old bridge over the Severn, not continue straight on as I did.

34 miles After crossing the Severn one final time, the road goes up and up again to the highest point so far, then down abruptly into the village of Llangurig. Here, it crosses the busy A44 to then team up with the River Wye, which it accompanies for ten very scenic miles. The road does not stay level IMG_2376with the river, but gently rises and falls, offering fantastic views over the deep valley. A few miles into this road, it seems to end in a private farmyard, with a gate blocking the way and no Route 81 signage to help out. Luckily for me, there was a lady at the first farm who clarified that the cycle route passes through their property, and that cyclists are welcome to operate the gates to continue their way. There are another four or five gates over the next few miles, then the route brushes the town of Rhayader, before dramatically changing character.

45 miles From Rhayader, the route coincides with the Elan Valley Trail for about nine miles, and for much of that distance it runs on the disused Elan Valley Railway track. The track is sharIMG_2379ed with pedestrians rather than cars and the surface varies: some sections are unpaved. The change of landscape past Elan Village is sudden: the track now finds itself between a steep rock face and a deep valley, while it continues to climb at a gentle rate. Soon enough, the first of the victorian dams appears and the valley abruptly turns into a lake – the Caban-coch Reservoir. Two more dams and two more reservoirs lie ahead and the track continues to climb ever so slightly, lined with wildflowers for some of the way.

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55 miles At the third and final dam, Route 81 becomes a tarmac road again, going across the dam, then northbound, a sign indicating ‘Aberystwyth – via mountain road’. It has climbed its way out of the Elan Valley and now a broad panorama of bare green hills opens itself. There is a very steep descent followed by a short steep climb where the road crosses the river Elan again – only a modest mountain stream here. Then, the route enters what must be one of Wales’ emptiest valleys.

60 miles Over the next six miles, there are perhaps three dwellings that can be seen from the road – otherwise there are just hills and sheep, with the rugged stream giving the shallow valley a Nordic feel. The persistent absence of Route 81 signs further exacerbates the feeling that I have come to the end of the world. But only temporarily, as I find out when rounding the pass between the Elan Valley and the Ystwyth Valley, which tops at 406 metres, the highest point on the route.

IMG_241064 miles It is a long and beautiful descent into the valley of the River Ystwyth, a much deeper and narrower valley than the one I have just left behind. The road stays level with the river for a couple of miles, then climbs again. At a fork in the road, shortly after Cwmystwyth, the route departs from the main road and descends into woodland, using a gravel track. Signage is lacking in much of the wood section, although the various paths seem to all eventually lead to the same road, which if taken in the right (westerly) direction becomes Route 81 again.

73 miles Pont-rhyd-y-groes is the first village with amenities since Rhayader 25 miles ago. Exiting the village, the route continues to follow the River Ystwysth, crossing some dense forest with hillsides covered in ferns and tiny streams channeling the day’s rain towards the river below. This must be close to what a non-tropical rainforest looks like. After about three miles, the route very briefly joins the B4340. While the B-road departs from the riIMG_2421ver and disappears uphill, the route takes a right turn onto a path that ends at a stream. The route goes over a small wooden bridge into a wood, which is home to the trickiest off-road section.

79 miles Immediately after crossing the stream, the route follows an extremely narrow unpaved path, which climbs at a decent rate. The path can be muddy, somewhat overgrown with bramble, with no firm ground on either side of it. While it may be great for mountain biking, other cyclists may struggle, like I did, to stay on their bike as they negotiate this track. I am pleased that my struggle is uphill, as riding my packed touring bike down this path would have been asking for trouble. Anyway, it’s only a short interruption, as this path leads to the disused Great Western Railway track, a broad and straight path through the woods – unpaved though.

IMG_242680 miles For the next few miles, the route alternates between the old railway track and quiet local roads. Occasionally there are gates to be negotiated, including one at the bottom of an off-road downhill. The last section of the route is very well signposted (it coincides with the EU-funded Ystwyth Trail here) and only intersects an A-road at Llanfarian. The final miles, between Llanfarian and Aberystwyth, take the route over beautifully paved car-free paths, to the end of the Ystwyth Valley, then briefly along the sea. When this privilege finally ends, Aberystwyth rail station is already in sight.

I cycled from Welshpool to Aberystwyth between 17 and 19 August 2015 on a Koga Randonneur touring bike with two sets of panniers and a lightweight tent. I camped in Caersws and in Cwmystwyth. Weather was sunny and warm on 17 and 18 August; heavy rain on 19 August. 

The total distance of this section of Route 81 is 90 miles (144km). The total elevation gain is approximately 6,500 feet (2,000 meters). The route uses unpaved roads and tracks on numerous occasions, sometimes for a considerable distance.

While there are frequent opportunities for eating, drinking and camping between Welshpool and Rhayader, facilities along the route between Rhayader and Pont-rhyd-y-groes are scarce. There is a campsite in Cwmystwyth but it has no shop or cafe.Cwmystwyth campsite

Leaders’ debate bingo (advanced)

Here are ten words that I predict will receive very few mentions in this evening’s leaders’ debate on ITV – the only scheduled televised confrontation in the run-up to the UK general elections on 7 May.

Not random words of course, but things that you might reasonably expect the parties represented to care and differ about. Things that voters ought to know in order to make up their mind.

I suggest using them for election debate bingo this evening. In some circles this has become a popular game: listing words or terms that participants are likely to use, and crossing them off as they are said. I thought we could make that game a little bit more interesting for this evening by suggesting ten words that, despite their political relevance, are likely to remain in the margins. Write them onto your bingo form and there will be suspense until the end of the debate – can one of them please mention…?

Screen shot 2015-04-02 at 16.47.441. Food. The horse meat scandal was only a short while ago and that is just one of many aspects of food security and regulation that need to be addressed.

2. Drugs. Past governments have wilfully ignored evidence that the UK policy on drugs is ineffective.

3. Ukraine. Escalation of this conflict will have repercussions all over Europe and the UK cannot afford to remain a bystander.

4. TTIP. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – this deal between the US and the EU would see corporations getting much greater power to get around national legislation.

5. Gender pay gap. The most prominent of a range of gender equality issues that have the UK trailing other European countries.

6. Mental health. The achilles heel of the NHS.

7. Palestine. The re-election of Netanyahu in Israel implies that the road to peace remains long, while the wounds of the latest Gaza war haven’t healed at all.

8. Cycling. Prevention is the easiest way to reduce the cost of the NHS and the public health benefits of cycling are uncontested.

9. Flooding. A constant risk to many areas of the UK with far-reaching economic (as well as human) consequences.

10. Airport expansion. The grotesque PR war between Heathrow and Gatwick distracts from greater strategic questions about the north-south divide and climate change.

Crossed them all? Tweet BINGO to @DialoguebyRemco to claim your prize.

Come on Bournemouth! And Derby. Or Leicester.

When in 2010 Hull City and Portsmouth were relegated from the FA Premier League it meant that two English regions lost their only team in the top flight.

Clubs in the English Premier League 2010-11 (Wikipedia)

Clubs in the English Premier League 2010-11 (Wikipedia)

Since a similar fate had struck other regions in the previous years, the season 2010-11 became a contest between teams from four regions only: two from the North East, five from both the West Midlands and Greater London and a whopping eight from the North West. It must have been a cheap and easy season for some supporters – those of Wigan Athletic had seven away matches within cycling distance.

During its first decade, the Premier League (formed in 1992) consistently included clubs from seven or eight regions. The number fell to six in 2002, fluctuated between seven and five in subsequent seasons, until the 2010 dip that marked the first and only time in the league’s history that the majority of regions were unrepresented.

Number of regions represented in Premier League by season

Number of regions represented in Premier League by season

Then, Norwich City and Swansea City came to the rescue and got themselves promoted from the Championship. This was remarkable, as the East of England had been deprived of Premier League football for four years, and no team from Wales had ever achieved the ultimate promotion.

Teams of the 2014-15 Premier League on a map (Wikipedia)

Teams of the 2014-15 Premier League on a map (Wikipedia)

Sure enough, in the next few years clubs from other regions followed their example and currently the number of regions with Premier League football is back where it once started, at eight.

Yet, that is still eight out of a possible ten – Wales plus the nine English regions. Interestingly and unexpectedly, a scenario for full regional representation is currently presenting itself. Here’s what it looks like.

The two regions currently without a club competing in the Premier League are the East of England (Norwich City sadly went down last year) and the South West. The latter has been without a top level contender since 1994, when Swindon Town were relegated. Amazingly, with seven rounds to go, Bournemouth, the only team from the South West in the Championship, top the table, a position that would grant them their first ever promotion to the Premier League. With Norwich City, Watford, and Ipswich Town all in the top six, the East of England has three clubs well-placed for promotion.

In a way, the promotion of sides from the South West and the East of England is the easy part of the scenario. The difficult bit is getting the East Midlands to cooperate. Their only Premier League team, Leicester City, are hopelessly glued to the bottom of the table and have nine matches left to close a seven-point gap to safe 17th. In the likely case of a Leicester City relegation, the Championship would need to provide a regional replacement to secure a ten-region Premier League season in 2015-16.

Nottingham Forest have failed to keep promotion spots within reach, but Derby County are still hanging on, currently occupying 5th, which would qualify them for promotion play-offs.

So there’s the scenario in full: Bournemouth and one of the Eastern clubs to take the two top spots in this season’s Championship, then either Leicester to stay up or Derby to win the play-offs. Oh, and we can’t have Hull City go down, that would spoil everything. If, like me, you would quite like to see an all-region Premier League for the first time in its history, now you know what to do. Cheer for Bournemouth, and for Derby (or Leicester), and for Norwich (or Ipswich or Watford, but not for all of them), and a little bit for Hull. Easy!

A most curious election result

Something extraordinary happened in yesterday’s provincial elections in the Netherlands. It wasn’t a landslide of any sort; in fact the right-wing liberals of the VVD held on to their lead. Neither was there a new populist movement – and the Netherlands have seen rather a few over the past 15 years – that took the provincial parliaments by storm. What was remarkable, and I believe unprecedented, is that none of the parties secured more than one-sixth of the vote.

That’s right. Overall the VVD secured the biggest number of seats in these elections with just shy of 16 percent of the vote. Five other parties each polled between 10 and 15 percent nationally. The combined vote share of the three most successful parties in these elections fails to even hit 45 percent. Indeed in ten of the Netherlands’ 12 provinces, a minimum of four parties are needed to form a majority government.

The fragmentation of the political landscape in the Netherlands has been a gradual process, punctured by various shock results. The country’s undiluted proportional representation system has accommodated a tradition of political diversity, with new parties finding few obstacles on their way into parliaments. Often the political lifespan of such new parties has been short, particularly if they ran on a single-issue ticket. Having said that, some parties that made their entry into politics in my lifetime have become part of the fabric of Dutch politics with representation at all levels.

While the rise of new political parties is one aspect of a two-sided story, the decimation of formerly dominant parties is the other. In the general election of 1989, the christian-democrats (CDA) and social-democrats (PvdA) together obtained more than two-thirds of the vote. Yesterday’s result puts them on less than 25 percent combined. Oddly, this has not forced these former giants into the political margins. It would still only take a minor swing one way or the other for CDA or PvdA to be the Dutch voters’ top choice again – for what that is worth of course.

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The 75 seats in the Dutch senate, which will be allocated on the basis of yesterday’s election results, will be divided between 12 political parties. Progressive liberals (D66), socialists (SP) and anti-immigration populists (PVV) will be present in similar numbers to VVD, CDA and PvdA. Other groups will include the animal rights party, the 50-plus party for senior citizens and two religiously-guided parties of protestant signature.

It will be worth keeping an eye on Dutch politics in the next few years. While the Netherlands have a long history of multi-party democracy, the balance of power has never been as delicate as it is now. Could this fragmentation be a blessing in disguise and result in greater representation of the electorate’s diverse priorities in decision-making, or will it expose the limitations of proportional representation?

Should the political parties fail to devise a credible way of working together constructively, how will voters respond: what would a vote against fragmentation look like?

The thought that opened the gate

What is common does not necessarily make sense. But the more common something is, the less inclined we are to question its good sense. We are programmed to wonder about the extraordinary, whilst blindly accepting the ordinary.

Yet, sometimes, you suddenly stop to wonder about something that until then had been too ordinary to incite a thought. Next, you wonder how on earth you never wondered about it before. At this point it is already too late: you will not be able to put the thought to rest again, and its subject will never return to the zone of your mind where things too common to think about live.

This happened to me last Sunday, when I was out leafleting in my local area. Street, pavement, gate, steps, door, letterbox, steps, gate, pavement, gate… Gate. Gate? So wonder struck. No longer was my focus on the ‘how’ – how do I open this gate without losing my momentum and without causing inconvenience to residents – it was suddenly firmly on the ‘why’ – why is this gate here?

In London, virtually every house that doesn’t open directly to the street has a gate at the bottom of its entry path, usually integrated into a wall or fence that makes up the property boundary. They tend to be made of metal or timber, open inwards, and have a simple closing mechanism.

Garden gate in PeckhamDespite their commonness, there is great variety to be found. Gates that creak (most of them) and gates that don’t. Gates that run aground halfway in. Gates one needs to lift in order for the closing mechanism to work. Gates with a polite note that says ‘Please close the gate’. Gates with a polite note that says ‘Don’t slam the gate’. Gates with a polite note that says ‘Wet paint’. Gates at the bottom of a long and winding garden path. Gates that are no further than three feet from the front door.

So let’s spend a moment thinking about the practical use of the gate. True, the sound of it opening, if it’s one of those creaky ones, can alert the resident to the imminent arrival of a visitor, delivery person or intruder. And the sound of it slamming shut may signal the departure of said individual. Furthermore, we could take into account gates’ significance to employment, not only for the fencing and gating industry, but also for the Royal Mail, who in the absence of gates would not be able to justify their current numbers of delivery staff.

Beyond that, I am at a loss for pro-gate arguments. They are not terribly effective at preventing anything from entering or leaving, nor do they often represent a distinct embellishment to the property. I’m not aware of them being a haven for wildlife in any way, shape or form, or of their contribution to pedestrian traffic regulation.

Would it be unthinkable to do away with them? De-gate London? Reuse and recycle all the metal and timber currently occupied to maintain a practice that is common but makes no sense? Not only could it save everyone a little bit of time (all the time), who knows it could also reset our minds as to how ordinary ‘closed, fenced and gated’ are in our living environment.

Just a thought.