Friday, 24 May 2019

So, goodbye Mrs May

So, the inevitable has happened - and, when it did, few of us felt the slightest surprise or even sympathy for the Prime Minister.

Finally running out of road, Mrs May could no longer kick the can further down it.

For all the talk of "drama", this saga has followed a rather predictable pattern. The PM has consistently used double-dealing stalling tactics to avoid taking decisions until as late as possible, to catastrophic effect. Her MPs have, true to form, backstabbed yet another leader. Take note - it was not the heaviest government defeat in history or Labour's vote of no-confidence in the MP that brought about the end of May. No. It was cowardly Conservative backbenchers, and the 1922 committee considering re-writing their own rules simply to oust her.

Her statement this morning was dignified by the current standards of political discourse, but it was too defensive to be effective in its apparent aim of reaching out to her potential successors, and too selective in its hailing of "government achievements". There was no mention of the "hostile environment" policy, no recollections of the failures surrounding Grenfell, no acceptance that Mrs May's own approach to Brexit has resulted in an even more divided country. The suggestion that the PM has given "a voice to the voiceless" was not only laughably inaccurate but also rather insensitive given the situation that many EU nationals experienced only yesterday when attempting to exercise their democratic rights.

Mrs May also had the nerve to talk about the "family of four nations" and the union which she, more than anyone else in living memory, has helped to undermine. But the most ironic things about her resignation speech was her insistence that "compromise is not a dirty word" and her urging her successor to "find consensus". That the person who coined the divisive phrase "Brexit is Brexit" - who sought Henry VIII powers to override Parliament, who insulted opponents and labelled them "citizens of nowhere" - should eel the need to lecture others on the need for flexibility and consensus is more than hypocritical. Perhaps she realises, somewhat belatedly, that her approach was entirely wrong from the outset.

And this is why I, like many others, have little sympathy for the Prime Minister. She inherited an unenviable situation, but her entire attitude towards it has only worsened that situation. The decision to opt for a hard Brexit was her own; the arbitrary red lines were again her own. Her refusal to gain parliamentary consensus in regards preferred outcomes prior to invoking Article 50 was, again, her own. The toxic, dismissive and arrogant speeches were hers.

So too was the decision to deal with the Democratic Unionist Party in order to impose her will upon Parliament rather than, as a minority government, seek cross-party agreement. So much for the "consensus" instincts she is urging her successors to adopt.

So today when political colleagues (often hypocrtically) praise Theresa May's dedication to public service and when political commentators paint a portrait of her as the unfortunate victim of circumstances outwith her control, I respectfully disagree. I do not accept either of those narratives. It did not have to end like this. The PM could have found alternative ways forward but, having alienated so many people in the early part of her brief tenure, it was always going to prove difficult to bring them on board once the ERG began to make life difficult. It was Mrs May who backed herself into a corner, simultaneously dependant on the likes of the ERG while finding it impossible to appease them. She did not have to cling to her party's right wing; that she did so rather than seek consensus and multi-party collaboration was her decision. She has reaped what she has sown.

BBC News this morning described Mrs May as "The Brexit Prime Minister who didn't deliver Brexit". She deserves to be remembered as such, but let us not forget too she was the Prime Minister of the "hostile environment", of the Universal Credit disaster and of widening social divisions - who used EU citizens as a bargaining chip and failed to respond adequately to the humanitarian disaster that was Grenfell.

So, goodbye Mrs May - the Prime Minister who was always out of her depth. Can there have been many worse PMs? Even Lord North had the courage to admit to his mistakes and take responsibility for the outcome. For all her faults, however, the unfortunate reality is that all of those jostling to succeed her (Johnson, Leadsom, McVey, Raab) are even less appealing.

I feel little sympathy for Theresa May, but I feel a great deal of it for the country that now looks set to have one of the individuals named above imposed upon it as Prime Minister. And that too is a legacy of the outgoing incumbent: her own party, whose interests she always put ahead of the country's, is now so right-wing that the likes of Justine Greening or Dominic Grieve look like Socialist softies by comparison. Their once mainstream voices have become unelectable in the eyes of the party membership.

Theresa May's tenure has been one of failure. Fortunately for her, the distinction of being the most inept person every to occupy 10 Downing Street looks set to last only a few more days...

Friday, 17 May 2019

Today is IDAHOBIT. But what about tomorrow?

Today is IDAHOBIT: the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexism and Transphobia.

It's a day in which we make a stand against intolerance and prejudice. It's also a day in which we raise awareness of the ongoing violence and repression LGBT+ communities experience worldwide

My friend Mathew Hulbert has written this for the occasion, which for me perfectly outlines why we need to mark the day - and why resisting homophobia, biphobia, intersexism and transphobia cannot be something that happens once a year.

A day.

A single day.

24 hours where we take a stand.

Against Homophobia. Against Biphobia. Against Transphobia.

Against hate.

A day where we say ‘enough is enough.’

This ends now.

No more bullying, no more name-calling, no more discrimination.

Not this day.

But what about tomorrow?

Will we allow it then?

Is it somehow ‘OK’ if it’s just not today?

Will we turn a blind eye, with a warm glow that we’ve ‘done our bit’?

Because, after all, there’s equality now...isn’t there?

Equality, under the law.

But laws don’t change hearts and minds.

They can still beat with intolerance, fear and hate.

So, we march on.

We speak out.

We raise our rainbow banner high.

We take to the streets, to the corridors of power, and to the airwaves.

With our message of inclusion, of diversity, and of hope.

We just want to be us.

To be free to be who are.

And to love who we love.

Is that so much to ask?

Is that really so hard to accept?

So, thank you.

For being here.

On this day.

It means a lot.

But what about tomorrow?

Thursday, 9 May 2019

A tribute to a friend...RIP Sam

Social media has its uses, and it seems one of those uses is the quick communication of bad news.

This morning, via facebook, I discovered a good friend of mine had died.

Some of you will know her and will be as saddened and shocked by this news as I am.

I only got to know Sam (Samantha Stretch) relatively recently. I was adopted as the Lib Dem candidate for Bury South for the 2017 General Election. Having only tenuous links with the constituency, I was appreciative to have a local party whose expectations were realistic and who were very much focused on local issues. Sam was a member - and I think a relatively new one. She struck me as the kind of person who had come into politics for all the right reasons - to make a difference for her community, because she had a strong sense of social justice, because she wanted action on health services (especially mental health). She knew what she believed in and felt she was better getting involved in the struggle to change things rather than snipe from the sidelines. 

What I liked about Sam as soon as I met her was that she was obviously unconventional. She was hardly your usual Lib Dem, or usual anything really. She was very much her own person, and a real straight-talker. She didn't suffer fools or nonsense. I immediately liked her authenticity, her honesty and her positivity.

Sam had served in the Army for many years, and while she had an inescapable respect for her former employer she could also be highly critical and advocated radical changes in the way UK military forces operate - especially in relation to the mental health of service people. She had also worked in frontline NHS mental health services, and was an advocate for suicide prevention charities 

I thought Sam was exactly the kind of person the Liberal Democrats needed at a time when we were thinking of how to regenerate. She was unashamedly working class, very down-to-earth, optimistic while realistic, compassionate, people-focused and outrageously funny. I encouraged her to apply to be approved as a candidate. I'm not sure she did, but that didn't matter. My time as a candidate in Bury South might not have won me a huge number of votes, but I did gain a few friends.

Since that election myself and Sam kept in touch - she even travelled to my place once and we spent the afternoon admiring architecture while talking about (and laughing about) politics, religion, books, the military, history, music, LGBT issues (she was very supportive) and - inevitably - her experiences of how NHS mental health services work (and sometimes don't). There's little we haven't talked about to be honest - she was even a support when I was dealing with some historic abuse issues. She was a kindred spirit, and will be sadly missed.

I'm not going to write about Sam's fascinating life here, as that's best left to others who know her better. But I will pay tribute by saying what a fantastic, wonderful and caring person she was. I am privileged to have been able to call her my friend. 

Sam died in a road traffic accident, I am led to believe. Only last week she was sharing photographs of St Andrew's, the Cairngorms and Caithness as she toured Scotland - Sam loved the outdoors and especially remote places. It's hard to believe she's no longer with us.

How can you sum up such a warm, beautiful person in one word? Well, it's difficult but I'll let Sam do that for herself. I'm taking it a little out of context, but the final word on Sam's facebook timeline is "justice". That for me sums up Sam's worldview. It's what she cared about.

It's a tragedy that Sam died so young. But for those of us who knew her, the memories will last forever.

RIP Sam - thank you for everything, and especially for being you.

Friday, 3 May 2019

Cheers and Jeers #9 (local elections special)

What a sensational set of results for the Liberal Democrats!
Here's my latest news roundup, in which I cheer or jeer the week's events (sorry it's been a while since the last instalment...)

Cheers to everyone – and I mean everyone – behind the fantastic local election results...indeed, the best ever local election results for the Liberal Democrats. Cheers to every candidate, every campaigner, every volunteer, every agent – and, lest we forget, every voter. Thanks to you all!

Cheers for all those new councillors – 700 of them! – who will now bring their liberal values to directly serving their local communities. Cheers for many of my personal friends, some of whom were hopeful but not confident of being elected, who I know will make fantastic councillors. Cheers for those who will now be leading councils for the first time, and for those making breakthroughs in areas which haven’t had a Liberal councillor in decades.

Cheers to the tireless optimists, the relentless door-knockers, the encouragers, the positive thinkers and those who simply refuse to give up hope. Because of them we’ve won in some of the most unlikely of places. Cheers for all the positivity, and for giving us something to be positive about!

Cheers also to those who weren’t successful in being elected – thank you for taking the liberal message, our values, our aspirations and our positive, inclusive outlook to the voters. Cheers for standing up and being counted.

Cheers for the Green Party, who also has a spectacularly good night and – alongside solid performances from various local independent groups and the Yorkshire Party – are helping to make the case for electoral reform. These local elections tell us a great deal, but one thing many commentators seem to be missing is that they point to the inescapable reality that the public want something other than the usual two-party dominance. Let’s hear it for STV – are you listening, Jeremy Corbyn?

Cheers to the voters of Peterborough – or at least 27% of them – who signed a recall petition, meaning a by-election will be held. It’s not so much the ousting of Fiona Onasanya that I’m cheering, even if I have very little sympathy for her, but the first successful use of a recall petition in the UK. Accountability should be at the heart of politics but, as Ms Onasanya’s defiant statements have shown in recent months, too often we find arrogance and entitlement instead. This is a historic moment for democracy and hopefully one other MPs will learn from.

Cheers to Theresa May for finally giving me the opportunity to congratulate her for doing the right thing – in sacking Gavin Williamson she has dismissed arguably the most inept defence secretary in British political history. I hope that’s not the end, however – the allegation that he leaked secrets merits a criminal investigation. Well done Mrs May in appointing Penny Mordaunt as his replacement – she’s an obvious improvement and the UK no longer has the unenviable and unwelcome record of never having appointed a female defence secretary.

Jeers to those in the media who seem only to consider the local election results in relation to Brexit, or focus on what they believe it means for the two largest parties – playing down the phenomenal Lib Dem/Green surge because it doesn’t fit their pre-conceived narrative. The public have told us what they think of the two largest parties by abandoning them (the Tories’ disastrous night was worse than even the most pessimistic of opinion polls), but unfortunately we had endless perspectives from Labour and Conservative parliamentarians and even the Brexit Party (who didn’t actually contest these elections) about what this means for Mrs May and Jeremy Corbyn. Sorry, it’s pitiful – local elections are just that: local. They’re not a backdrop to the theatre that is Brexit, and ”smaller” parties’ success can be due to their own messaging and targeting rather than failures of others...

On which point, jeers also to those making the bizarre "observation" that these elections prove that the public want the government to deliver Brexit. Anti-Brexit parties gained in excess of 900 seats, with combined Conservative and Labour losses around the 1,500 mark. How can that possibly interpreted as support for Brexit?

Jeers to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, in rejecting Caster Semenya’s appeal.  To my mind, the idea of an athlete being required to take performance-suppressing drugs is as absurd as Sebastian Coe’s belief in “a level playing field”.  Genetic advantage has always been – and always will be – an inevitable part of competitive sport and the obsession with caster Semenya’s particular genetic “advantage” seems somewhat hypocritical.

Tears (well, crocodile tears) for Jacob Rees-Mogg, who now has a Liberal Democrat councillor. How sad!

Finally, on a completely different subject, cheers for Albion Rovers on pulling off one of the greatest escapes of all time. Stranded at the foot of League 2 on a mere 7 points after 26 games, they somehow had their best run of form for years to take 20 points from the next 9 games to secure safety with a game to go. Absolutely sensational!

Thursday, 11 April 2019

We could learn a few lessons from Switzerland

The Swiss Federal Assembly (Photo:
Some interesting news has today come out of Switzerland.

Switzerland is one of those modern democracies that likes to use referenda frequently. I'm not the biggest fan of referenda as democratic instruments, but if we're going to use them we could learn a few things from the Swiss model.

Switzerland's electorate can vote in referenda up to four times annually - and to think we complain about referendum fatigue! Indeed, Switzerland has witnessed over 550 referenda since 1848. They have rather complicated arrangements but essentially the Swiss model used two types of referenda in order to have an ongoing conversation between government and electorate on legislative and constitutional issues. These are legislative referenda, which are based on laws passed by Federal Assembly (parliament), and constitutional referenda which relate to proposed amendments to the constitution.

Both of these can be instigated by ordinary citizens, requiring the proposal gain in excess of 100,000 signatures to go forward, but cannot be used to create new legislation - only to consult on either existing or proposed law. Consequently, referenda are often used by Federal Assembly to effectively enter into dialogue with the electorate on various issues. Referenda are not used as a "once in a generation" opportunity to decide a question once and for all, but as a means of confirming approval for government plans or agreeing to revisit existing laws.  For the Swiss, referenda are about accountability through conversation.

One such referendum has been the centre of an interesting news story, as a court has decided the result must be voided.

The referendum in question was from February 2016 and focused on the relatively unexciting issue of taxation for married couples. The opposition CVP (Christian Democratic Party of Switzerland) challenged existing legislation, claiming that married people were unfairly penalised. Their proposal to change this existing legislation was narrowly defeated by 51% to 49%. But that is not the end of the story - because it was later discovered that the federal government's official statistics in relation to the number of married couples affected were shown to be incorrect. Indeed, the government conceded that it's figure of 80,000 couples was wrong and that the true number of people affected was over five times that estimate.

The federal government's admission and willingness to accept responsibility is somewhat refreshing given the current political climate in the UK. So too is its intention to "propose additional measures to ensure the quality of preparation for decisions made by citizens". But most striking is that a court has been able to render the entire exercise void on the basis of one piece of mistaken information. No-one has claimed that the information was deliberately falsified, simply that the estimate was later proved incorrect. There has been a legal recognition that there is no value in a vote that is based on misinformation.

Contrast that with the farcical situation in the UK - in which a similarly narrow but far more controversial vote (which saw campaigning based on what the UK Statistics Authority claimed was "a clear misuse of official statistics") is being - even now - cited as the expressed and sovereign "will of the people". There have inevitably been questions asked as to why the UK doesn't follow Switzerland's example and overturn the result - but the answer is obvious.

It's the inescapable fact that their democracy is superior to ours. Legally speaking, there would be nothing to overturn.

The problem with the UK is that we sell our referenda as "deciding an issue for a generation" while never actually giving them any legal or constitutional status. Switzerland, on the other hand, not only gives its votes such status, it also understands what referenda are - and what they are not. It understands that referenda are based on conversations between legislature and electorate that themselves must be based on trust. It also views referenda as a means through which government and electorate can enter into a dialogue in regards to specific legislation or detailed proposals that it wishes to enact. (If the electorate rejects the proposal, there is nothing to prevent the federal government tweaking the detail of its proposal and again requesting public approval). As a result, Swiss referenda can be legally annulled whereas ours, having no more legal standing than an opinion poll, cannot.

Crucially, to my mind, the Swiss model means that in this unusual case the conversation simply continues. The judgement today has not created a political or constitutional crisis. It has simply recognised that a mistake was made and that the referendum result therefore cannot be accepted as a reliable indicator of informed public opinion. I suspect the vote will now be re-run.

We could learn a great deal from Switzerland - or other mature democracies, such as Ireland, who use referenda frequently and for whom failing to convince the electorate at the first time of asking isn't something to be feared, but an opportunity to revisit the detail of what is being proposed. Such mature democracies would never ask a vague, binary question without putting forward a coherent proposal for what would happen in the eventuality of the government's preferred outcome being defeated. Indeed, under Swiss law the Brexit referendum question would not even have been allowed to have been asked: it would have required a detailed proposal for leaving to be put to the voters.

There has been much talk on social media about today's development, especially in relation to the flawed Brexit referendum. I wouldn't read so much into it - it's simply a case of a more developed democracy than our own recognising the need to revisit a question that hasn't adequately been answered. But it does tell us one thing: the 2016 EU referendum was a prime example of how not to do democracy. Where is the accountability in advisory referenda, overseen by a toothless Electoral Commission, whose outcomes can be neither upheld nor challenged through legal channels?

If we're going to use referenda in the future, we would be well-advised to consider the tried and tested models from elsewhere. At the very least, a shift towards a more accountable system and the use of referenda to cultivate a democratic culture of dialogue rather than divisiveness would be welcome.

I think we've reached the stage where talk of political reform has to go beyond the usual issues of votes at 16, the House of Lords and electoral systems. For better or for worse referenda have become central to our democracy and, if they are not to further undermine it, our democratic systems have to embrace this reality. To say the status quo is unsatisfactory is a gross understatement.

What chance a codified written constitution?

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Cheers and Jeers #8

Here's my latest news roundup, in which I cheer or jeer the week's events.

Cheers for Zuzana Čaputová, the anti-corruption activist who has been elected the first female president of Slovakia. She also happens to be liberal and pro-EU – so much for the narrative that Europe is turning rightwards.

Cheers for the Victoria & Albert Museum in Dundee, which has welcomed half a million visitors since opening in September last year – far more than it had expected.  

Jeers for the breathtaking hypocrisy behind Boris Johnson’s cynical support for the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement. Fortunately, Boris has overreached himself in his self-aggrandising manoeuvrings, and looks to have actually damaged his chances of succeeding Theresa May.

Jeers for the Beaconsfield Conservative Association for its no-confidence vote in Dominic Grieve. I’ve often had my issues with Mr Grieve but, when fewer than 200 party members have the power to effectively deselect a parliamentarian for grappling with constitutional complexities and advocating democratic routes out of a stalemate, it’s a sad day for representative democracy.

Jeers for the Prime Minister, for her pitiful attempts to force through her Withdrawal Agreement. “Back me and I’ll resign” was a rather strange tactic, but this PM is so inept she wasn’t even able to quit in a competent fashion.

Jeers to the BBC Question Time for asking “is it morally right for children to learn about LGBT issues in school?” Playing into the hands of those who seek to misrepresent inclusive education, the BBC made no attempt to explain what those “LGBT issues” are – such as the need to treat LGBT people with the same dignity and respect as anyone else...or understanding some kids have two mums, or two dads. Accepting that love happens between people of the same sex as well as opposite sexes. It's basic stuff. To question the morality of inclusion undermines so much of the positive work that has been – and continues to be – done.

Tears for the LGBT community in Brunei, following the decision to make sex between same-sex couples punishable by death. Draconian laws such as this have no place in the modern world.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Kids TV? It's like the Lib Dems without the Focus newsletters

I don't know if I speak for the rest of you, but I need something of a break from the relentless discussion on Brexit. It has taken over the political discourse to the degree that politics now is Brexit, with party affiliations and well-thought-out political standpoints no longer defining us in the way that the Remainer-Brexiter binary does. It's all so depressing. But that's for another post.

We all need escapism and, I have just realised, I find mine in children's TV. As I have a 3 year old, I shouldn't perhaps find this surprising but I don't think I recognised how much I was immersing myself in the world of CBeebies. The penny finally dropped when I turned on the 1 o'clock News and my daughter moaned "not that rubbish"; to my surprise I found myself in complete agreement. Sarah and Duck is much more appealing. That's an undeniable statement of fact.

The thing is, the world of pre-school TV is rather intimidating for the uninitiated. And quite rightly too. Some of the shows are downright scary. Don't believe me? Take a look at these:

Sarah and Duck have little time for adults.
But they do find time to go out shopping with the moon.
(Photo: BBC)
Sarah and Duck. Sarah and Duck is a whimsical take of a little girl (Sarah) who lives alone with her pet duck (imaginatively named Duck). They go an all kinds of adventures together, like walks to the park, planting shallots and flying kites. They have a friend called John, who also seems to live in a parentless house; he has a pet too - a flamingo named, equally imaginatively, Flamingo. Their world is, rather worryingly, an adult-free zone with the exception of Scarf Lady, an elderly woman clearly suffering from Alzheimer's whose life is organised by her talking handbag in the absence of community care. Oh, and they talk to cakes. And are quite pally with the Moon, too.

In the Night Garden. Sarah and Duck at least has charm in its eccentricities. There is no excuse for In the Night Garden. Every episode is basically the same - yet somehow it managed to spawn 100 episodes and is still airing after 12 years. The main characters are the cleaning obsessed Makka Pakka, a blue insomniac named Igglepiggle who seems to treat the psychedelic garden as his personal fiefdom, and Upsy Daisy who sings quite frankly hideous music and is followed everywhere by her apparently possessed bed. Minor characters include the Pontipines, who have eight children and really shouldn't have because they're dreadful parents who never know where their kids are. Oh, and there are birds called tittifers too.

Twirlywoos: Tellytubbies on acid
(Photo: BBC)
The Night Garden also has a rather odd public transport system. The Ninky Nonk is a kind of train that, instead of running on rails, somehow manages to defy the laws of physics and careers up trees and through hedges. You never see the gardeners, but I'd guess they're not too happy with the mess and devastation the Ninky Nonk leaves in its wake. There's also the Pinky Ponk, which seems to be based on the ill-fated airships of the 1930s.

On the plus side, everyone seems to have an abundant supply of funny tobacco and hallucinogenics - it's like a really long advert for legalising drugs. Which probably makes it sound like more fun than it is.

Twirlywoos. This really is awful. A colourful family of what appear to be beakless, wingless birds, sail around in a boat, get off, and look for humans. When they get the opportunity for contact with people, they generally use it  to play unpleasant tricks on them. It's Teletubbies on acid.

Topsy and Tim: Too perfect? (Photo: BBC)
Topsy and Tim. This is not the Topsy and Tim of my childhood. No, this is a new Topsy and Tim. A ridiculously smug, cosy and middle-class Topsy and Tim. It's a show of gender stereotypes, impossibly perfect children and even more impossibly perfect parents - no real-life parents could live up to those standards. The neighbours are all impossibly wonderful too. Everyone in the entire neighbourhood thinks Topsy and Tim are the bee's knees - what message does that send to children?

It really should be renamed Twins' middle class adventures in suburbia. 

Personally, I really want know what Topsy and Tim's mum does when the kids aren't around. Is she allowed to have her own life? Or do all her energies focus on being the perfect housewife?

Are they in this together? Flop and Ama, that is...
(Photo: BBC)
Bing. Now, here's another perfect parent - Flop. Or is he?

Bing is a rabbit. A rather naughty and irritating rabbit, with little empathy for anyone else. But Flop has infinite patience for him, even when he kills butterflies. He teaches Bing good moral lessons and looks after all his irritating friends. I don't know how Flop deals with it all - perhaps when the "kids" are in bed he drowns his sorrows in the wine cellar. Maybe. But it's also hard to avoid the feeling that there's something strange going on here.

Bing and his baby brother are the only rabbits in this neighbourhood. His friend, Pando, is the only panda. Another friend, Sula, is an elephant. There are no "adults" aside from Flop, Ama (who works in a playgroup and is Sula's "parent") and Padget (who runs a shop and is Pando's "parent"). All of the adults are strange little creatures apparently made out of sacks and they're all a lot smaller than their "children". The beanbags certainly look like they're related. Are they up to something sinister, maybe even criminal? And are they in it together?

On the plus side, it's great that Bing challenges gender stereotypes.

Duggee hugs. Pretty scary stuff. (Photo: BBC)
Hey Duggee. Duggee is a dog. And a scout leader. He runs the "Squirrel Club" and teaches his "squirrels" all sorts of useful skills. Which isn't easy given they all speak perfect English and he can only say "woof". Worryingly, he is the only adult ever present and all his sessions end up with "Duggee hugs" - just as, mercifully, parents arrive to take their children home.

Abney and Teal. Abney and Teal isn't on so often these days, which is a shame because - like Sarah and Duck - it is full of eccentric charm. It tells of two ragdolls, named Abney and Teal, who live on an island in the middle of a lake. They have a "pet" - a talking turnip called Neep. Their best friends are the Pock-Pocks (a family of small pieces of wood which look as if they've been swept off a factory floor), a water monster named Bop who is proud of his ability to blow large bubbles, and Toby Dog. Toby appears to be homeless, sitting in the same place on the riverbank whatever the weather, occasionally playing his battered old accordion for the enjoyment of his friends. He has an entire repertoire of one tune.

What's great about Abney and Teal is the way that it elevates rejects and misfits to the status of social luminaries. What's more worrying is that there's no-one out there to help, or even notice, this poor community of deprived innocents. Where is a social worker when you need one?

Mr Tumble: definitely not funny. (Photo: BBC)
Something Special. "Mr Tumble is funny!" we're encouraged to shout watching some of the worst slapstick ever shown on a TV screen. No. Whatever Mr Tumble is, he's not remotely funny.

Now, I don't mind a man with a bag obsession, even if the said bag happens to be spotty. I'm not averse to learning Makaton sign language either (I now know the signs for "monkey" and "telephone", which might come in handy if somehow I get locked in the ape house at Edinburgh Zoo). But the appalling songs and dreadful excuses for humour - I'd prefer the clown from Stephen King's IT any day...

Sure, Something Special gets bonus points for including children with disabilities. But it's not funny. Or maybe it's just Justin Fletcher who isn't funny...

You see, Fletcher has another show called Gigglebiz. It's a series of short sketches, mainly set in TV newsrooms reminiscent of the 1970s, and is a bit hit and miss. What's concerning is that both Fletcher and the BBC think that a man dressing up in women's clothing is funny in and of itself. This might be just about acceptable if the women he played were not all stupid, nasty, liars, thieves - or a combination of all four. Sure, his male characters are also fools but they're at least decent people who just happen to be stupid...

Appletree House:
Like Lib Dems without the Focus newsletters
(Photo: BBC)
Don't read too much into this - it is all great fun (well, aside from anything with Justin Fletcher in it) and, I hate to admit it, highly addictive!

On which note I'd definitely recommend tuning into CBeebies sometime. It certainly makes a welcome break from political developments, or the frustrating lack of them. I'd specifically suggest watching Appletree House - the very antithesis of Topsy and Tim smugness, it's set on a London council estate and introduces us to the lives of a richly diverse community. There's Kobi, the caretaker from Ghana, who also seems to be a single dad. Along with Grandma Zainab, who looks after Mali (the principal character) they go out to make the estate a better place. Among the stories of everyday life there's a bit of social commentary and quite a lot of community activism. It's like the Liberal Democrats without Focus newsletters and pointing at potholes.

If you're in any doubt about how good Appletree House is, just check out the reviews for it. They're full of people complaining about "left wing liberals" and "rainbow cakes". WON'T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN???????

Oh, I've gone all political again. Well, that was indeed a short break...