The 650

Featured, The 650 | 13th April 2015

Glasgow: Welcome to the land of the SNP

‘Bells’, one of the great episodes in the second season of Blackadder, begins with Kate taking notice of her father not being in his altogether best sorts: “Father, I must speak. I can be silent no longer. All day long you mutter to yourself, gibber, dribble, moan and bash your head against the wall yelling: ‘I want to die’. Now you may say I’m leaping to conclusions, but you’re not completely happy, are you?”

Something similar is happening in British politics in general, and in Scotland in particular, as you may have noticed unless you’ve spent most of the last year with your head ensconced in gaffer tape and cotton wool in your ears.

And nowhere are Labour and other unionist parties more vulnerable than in Glasgow. Once the ‘Second City of the Empire’ (a title it contested with Liverpool), it is now the foremost city of the Scottish independence movement. Labour are hanging on by their fingernails here, with Willie Bain likely to be their sole Glasgow MP come May. They won all seven seats here in 2010.

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The Victorian splendour of Bangor pier.
Featured, The 650 | 29th March 2015

Arfon: Where Plaid Cymru are trying to keep Welsh nationalism alive and Labour out

To take the train from Chester along the north Wales coast is to enter into a world that feels about as remote from Westminster as is possible.

Hulking cargo ships chug, apparently motionlessly, down the River Dee with the Wirral in the background; the station names begin a gradual shift from similarity between their Welsh and English versions (“Fflint” versus “Flint”; “Bae Colwyn” versus “Colwyn Bay”) to being unrecognisable to an English monoglot like myself (“Caergybi” versus “Holyhead”); in due course, Edward I’s castles, built to remind the medieval Welsh of England’s supposed dominace, start to pockmark the landscape.

In Caernarfon, poet and Plaid Cymru activist Iwan Rhys agrees: “You write mainly to perform – there’s a strong oral tradition in Wales. I took part in a poetry competition on BBC Cymru recently… How many other cultures in the world would you have 32 teams of poets competing against each other on the radio?

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Nigel Farage is far more popular among men.
The 650 | 26th March 2015

Heywood and Middleton: Why is Labour’s safe northern seat now a Ukip target?

The events that led to the current situation in Heywood and Middleton could be a case study for a GCSE history essay.

There are the long term causes: rising unemployment in the North West; an increasingly loud anti-immigration lobby; the growing estrangement from a Westminster whose demographics are moving ever further away from local residents. Then there are the short term reasons – an abuse scandal in Haywood; the murder of Middleton-born Lee Rigby by two men citing Islam as their motivation. And then there is the trigger: the death of the well-liked, long-serving MP Jim Dobbin.

Of course, historical rationalising of this sort is always a little reductive, and doesn’t capture the more nebulous aspects of local feeling. But the story makes sense. It’s difficult to otherwise account for what happened here last October, when Dobbin’s death sparked a by-election which Labour only survived against Ukip by 612 votes.

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Skegness is the coastal constituency partner of the traditional market town Boston.
Featured, The 650 | 23rd March 2015

Boston & Skegness: Can a 22 year old win one of the most Ukippy seats in the country?

“You’re going to wish you didn’t catch this train, darling,” chuckles the conductor as I sprint for the hourly service from the market town of Boston to Skegness, its coastal constituency partner.

And standing awkwardly in a sticky vestibule for the 40-minute journey, I understand what he means. It’s a party train. This dazzlingly sunny Friday afternoon is the ideal time for revellers on stag weekends and hen parties, group holidays and birthday getaways, to hop on the train to Skeggy.

Bursts of hysterical singing and yelling twinned with a beery gust of cheer waft through the two-carriage train, as excitable passengers hailing all the way from Essex to Newcastle anticipate the weekend ahead. I hear rumours that someone has relieved themselves in the toilet sink. The conductor merely grins and shakes his head: “It isn’t always like this.”

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