Thursday, September 16, 2010

Up, up and away

To Stansted yesterday for a meeting, flying Ryanair from Belfast City while I still can, and pondering on their withdrawal of services from the end of October. At first it seemed very bad news for travellers although apparently a bonanza for residents. Justifiably, it prompted debate about the inability of our Ministers to make decisions, yet again, and probably made people outside Belfast wonder why it’s so easy to get a runway extension in Eglinton but not in the more politically powerful East and South Belfast. My packed flight (apart from the seats they are not allowed to fill at the moment) was evidence that Ryanair are unlikely to be pulling out for financial reasons.

However, the last couple of weeks have seen announcements of new services. Flybe will expand their operations to include Gatwick, Bristol, East Midlands and Liverpool: all except the first fill Ryanair gaps, leaving only Stansted and Prestwick without replacements. Stansted will be a loss to some, but I’m sure another airline will be interested; and Prestwick travellers can take a Glasgow flight and end up nearer to where they actually want to be. In addition, we have a new service to Cork from Manx2. Yes, we’ll all have to pay a bit more, but that’s as it should be because we should be flying less often anyway.

This quick reaction from two other airlines prompts the question whether both Ryanair and the runway extension are surplus to requirements. Anyone who has ever made the long journey into the centre of a number of other UK cities from an outlying airport will understand the value of Belfast City’s location. But that location quite rightly also restricts the scale of its activities. In my opinion the airport works best as a business-oriented operation, with smaller aircraft flying to mainly UK and Irish destinations, leaving Aldergrove - and Dublin - to pick up the majority of the holiday traffic.

Such an airport will not need the expensive and controversial runway extension. However, conflict with residents will not entirely vanish. The one thing a business traveller wants from their day in London, Manchester or Glasgow is a full day. That means early departures, as at present, and later arrivals, perhaps to 11pm. It’s possible that a combination of the economic situation and environmental awareness may lead to a decrease in the number of flights, but the timing will probably get no better. My own experience of living under the flight path in Stranmillis, and then close by but not on the direct approach in Belmont, has been that the noise is by no means intolerable. Cities need airports and they are noisy, as are many other aspects of city life. The question of degree should continue to debated between the airport operators, residents, business interests and the state.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Time to vote

My Labour leadership ballot paper arrived this morning, so finally, after all the hoopla, it’s decision time. And very difficult it has been too. There’s the tough one, the working class one, the older brother, the younger brother and the black woman. Of course my one little vote isn’t going to make much difference, but I’ve always believed in taking voting seriously. So what to do?

I thought about choosing on policy grounds. Here, I am overwhelmingly in agreement with Diane Abbott on issues such as the economy, Trident, higher taxes and Afghanistan. Above all, I agree with her on immigration, and my suspicion of Ed Balls on that issue means he goes to the bottom of my list, even though I suspect he is actually the best candidate on the economy. Ed Miliband comes over well on the environment, and Andy Burnham on health and social care. I find David Miliband to be the vaguest on specific policy promises, and that may be because, to his credit, he understands that policy isn’t entirely in the hands of a party leader. With the exception of Abbott, who does have a different world view, the other candidates’ policy statements are merely symbolic, to show us what they think Labour is for.

But if policy is really about fighting it out with the Shadow Cabinet, PLP, and way behind that the NEC and Conference, what about capacity for leadership? The new leader has to take on the Coalition, win the next election, and become a credible Prime Minister. Which candidate connects best with people and can communicate a message to the general public as well as retaining members’ support? It’s been interesting to see how well Abbott does here. Audiences appear to love her, but is this because they agree with her or because she’s on the telly? David Miliband is the only candidate who can make a decent speech. Ed Miliband comes over as sincere, Burnham as passionate, and Balls as a bit of a bruiser, a John Reid for his generation. All qualities a good leader needs, but unfortunately they do not all appear in the same candidate.

So by now I am in despair. Who should have my first preference? I really do not want to vote for David Miliband as the heir to Blair, but I think he’ll make the best Prime Minister of the five. I want Abbott to make a good showing but not to win, as I don’t feel confident that she can lead but her views need to be taken seriously. I want to vote for nice Ed but I think nasty Ed might do a better job. And then there’s the overlooked Burnham, who is the only candidate who seems to realise that most Party members don’t live in London, and some don’t even live in England.

And there’s the key. Andy Burnham was the only candidate who bothered to come to Northern Ireland. He spent hours answering our questions, and most importantly he supported Labour members’ wish to stand in elections here, subject of course to NEC approval. After all, what good is it to us here if the new leader introduces lots of fab policies, increases membership, strengthens organisation and finances, and makes decision-making more democratic, if in NI we continue to depend on other parties in the devolved policy areas such as education, health and housing? Yes, if Labour win the next election there will be fewer cuts, but we won’t have a say on how the block grant is spent. Grass roots change in NI requires Labour to be involved, and that’s why my first choice will be Andy Burnham. Followed by Diane Abbott, Ed Miliband, David Miliband and Ed Balls.

Now I just need to start on the NEC........

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Technology gone mad

Last Monday I finally cracked and signed up for Twitter. All this technology is slightly doing my head in. I am trying to sort out what each aspect of it is actually for, and this is as far as I’ve got:

Twitter: this is the new public face of the internet. Great for news, the witty aperçus of Stephen Fry and Chris Addison, the biting wit of Alistair Campbell and the sour grapes of John Prescott. Not so great for attempts at any of these from people you may actually know. You ‘follow’ organisations and individuals, and in turn they follow you. You may also contact them directly by putting @ in front of their Twitter name and there’s also something to be done with the hash key but I haven’t worked it out yet. You can link your tweets to Facebook, where they become your status updates, all in 140 characters. After working all this out, you are paralysed by the speed and openness of it all, and find you have nothing to say.

Key lesson: Following in real life is bad. Following on Twitter is good.

Facebook: this is for communicating with your 400 carefully selected ‘friends’, at least 100 of whom you have never met. Facebook has become increasingly interactive and now it’s possible to let your friends know how you feel, share items such as news pieces from elsewhere on the internet, join a multitude of groups, and waste a lot of time on quizzes and on tending your virtual farm. It also, famously, allows you to ‘tag’ your friends in photos of your nights out. All these activities may be commented on by others. Therefore most people wisely choose a privacy setting which doesn’t allow their Facebook page to be seen by the general public - whilst forgetting they are ‘friends’ with their parents and their boss.

Key lesson: Facebook friends are not the same as real friends.

A blog: this is for expressing your opinions in as many or as few characters as you wish. Many people blog under assumed names because they want to slag their employer, friends, partner and/ or neighbourhood. As with Twitter but more so, bloggers who choose to identify themselves by their real names in open access blogs (i.e. without registration) should always remember that anyone can read their posts and comments. New blog posts can be linked to Facebook and Twitter, and visits to your blog can be monitored with Statcounter.

Key lesson: Just because anyone can read your blog, it doesn’t mean that they will.

e-mail: this used to be how we all communicated in the old days before we could message each other, comment and give thumbs ups on Facebook, do the @person thing on Twitter, and comment on each others’ blogs (and Skype each other, but I’m not going there). Now your personal e-mail account is the centre of operations for receiving information about who is doing all these things, who wants to be your Facebook friend and who is following you on Twitter, plus the occasional real e-mail from your aunt who thinks Facebook is for child molesters.

Key lesson: Do not put all this crap through your work e-mail or you’ll never get any work done ever again.

Google: our modern portal to the internet. Incredibly useful. Anything you want to know, someone else has already asked about it on a forum somewhere. Anyone you have met has done something which appears on Google and probably also on YouTube. Anywhere you want to go, someone has already been there and told TripAdvisor about it. Just type it in.

Key lesson: Not everything you read on the internet is true.